8-Bit Horror For Halloween
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You crazy kids with your modern horror games. Working though the latest Silent Hill or Left 4 Dead game really isn’t that far off from watching a horror movie.
During the best moments, you might even feel your palms sweet and your heart race. It’s actually possible to be frightened by a videogame now and during the Halloween season when it’s briefly socially acceptable to enjoy having the crap scared out of you, there are ways to do that without leaving the safety of your videogame console. You don’t know how good you youngins have it.
Back during the 8 and 16 bit era, we had to really stretch to pretend we were playing video games that were even remotely frightening. Horror was huge in the VHS days with massive sections in any and all video stores dedicated to boxes trying to entice viewers with latex gore. Plenty of videogame companies tried to get in on the action as well and you’d see creepy boxes for horror games that promised to plop you into your private horror movie. The gaming technology of the time couldn’t exactly handle that experience though and generally these things were massive disappointments. With Halloween barreling towards us, I thought that as your friendly neighborhood Nintendo Nerd I’d offer a quick flashback to another era of videogame horror, when a few pixels were all designers thought were necessary to freak out kids. That never happened of course, but there were certainly some fun and/or mind-numbingly frustrating attempts along the way. This is by no means a complete study of the horror games of the era, just the ones that stuck out for me because of the joy and/or rage they brought.
The Garbage: Nightmare On Elm/Friday The 13th
Back in the NES’ heyday, you couldn’t find bigger horror stars than Freddy and Jason. It was inevitable that the two horror icons would find their way onto the NES and unfortunately they were such rush jobs designed to capitalize on a brand name that they could be considered two of the worst games in the history of the system. In Friday The 13th you play as a camp counselor walking around throwing knives at zombies, wolves, and bats (you know, just like the movie) with the hope of at some point surviving long enough to fight Jason. The controls are so awkward and the maps so impossible to follow that you could spend hours before you even saw the big guy and when you did, it was in a weird punch off knock off and you’d just die instantly anyways. If you had played as Jason taking out twerpy teens (see more on that later) maybe this thing could have been passable, but nope. It’s a disaster and one barely even reminiscent of the movies (Jason’s mother’s head appears as a flying medusa head or something). It’s really one of the worst games out there. Given the low quality standards of The Friday The 13thmovie sequels, the people behind the game had to work hard to make something worse, but they pulled it off in a big bad way.
In the Nightmare On Elm Street game you play as some other generic guy going around punching snakes in the face and dodging bats n’ giant rats. It’s just as hard to navigate as Friday. If you hang around with the confusing nonsense long enough you’ll eventually get to fight parts of Freddy (his hand, his face, whatever) in the hopes of maybe surviving long enough to put Freddy back together again and possibly even fight the character who you bought the damn came for. Yep, another disaster. Both of these games were clearly made by people who barely even understood the appeal of the film franchises and probably just slapped the brand names onto generic horror-themed games at the last minute for a quick buck. Sadly as a kid during that time, everyone had to learn hard lessons about licensed games like a crappy rite of passage. The games seem like a dream come true, offering a chance to play as your favorite characters. Yet, if you bothered to rent either of those titles back in the day, it probably ruined your weekend. But that was what it was like to be a 80s/90s kid looking for horror games. More often than not, you got burned…sigh…
The Classics: Ghosts n’ Goblins/Castlevania
Alright, let’s go from worst to best, shall we? While those tie-in 80s slasher games may have been amongst the worst games of their era, there were two 8-bit horror franchises done right. Castlevania put a whip cracking assassin against Dracula and his army of darkness, while Ghosts n’ Goblins pitted a knight in a suit of armor (that could be knocked off to reveal his underoos pretty easily. Seriously, why wear it at that point?) against Satan and his gang of monsters. Both games had a pretty stellar design/music that actually created nice sense of atmosphere within the limitations of 8-bit technology. As a youngster looking for something, anything that combines the joys of horror with the joys of videogames, these cartridges offered nirvana. One catch though: these games (particularly Ghost n’ Goblins) are amongst the most painfully difficult of their time. They were made in a time when designer’s primary goal was to eat up as many quarters as possible and sure feel like it. So as exciting as it was to experience the design of these early horror game wonders, playing them normally ended with controllers being tossed across the room and good friends curled up on the floor in a lake of tears. But hey, back then we took what we could get. At least you’d get a solid 10-15minutes of horror game goodness before the uncontrollable rage set in. That’s something, I s’pose.
Goofy Goodness: Maniac Mansion
Ok, so the NES port of Maniac Mansion was missing a number of elements that made it special for all the early PC gaming brats, but we were desperate in those days and took what we could get. It’s a goofy adventure game about two kids stumbling into the mansion of a mad scientist to find a cheerleader. Yeah…so, it’s not exactly a deep story and could be pretty frustrating to play if you didn’t know what you were doing. It’s one of Lucasarts’ early point n’ click adventure games, which plays a little awkwardly on a two-button controller, but dammit, it’s still pretty fun to wander around a mansion as a generic teenage sterotype (the geek, the cool kid, etc) and solve puzzles to fight off various ghosts n’ monsters. Yeah, maybe it’s not particularly scary, but if you enjoy the charms of those old point n’ click adventures, there’s plenty of fun to be had. Yep, sadly old school horror games didn’t get much better than this.
The Gore The Better: Splatterhouse
Finally, even though this game never came out on a Nintendo console, there’s one horror game from the 16-bit era that simply can’t be ignored. Back when parents groups had started wetting their pants over Mortal Kombat fatalities, there was one other game they pointed to as the lowest low of gaming violence. That game was Splatterhouse and even though it is all but forgotten today, as a pint-sized gamer in search of horror, it was pretty excellent. You played as a hockey mask wearing psychopath (here’s that Jason game I was talking about!) who walks through a haunted house killing every monster in his way in the hopes of saving his girlfriend Jennifer. Ok, so it doesn’t make much sense. However, watching your hero brutalize zombies and other creatures with fists, bats, guns, and chainsaws had an undeniable 80s horror kick. It’s another hard-as-hell quarter eater that basically revolves around pattern recognition and split-second timing, but something about that 16-bit gore remains endlessly entertaining/disgusting to behold. I guess you could argue that the extreme difficulty was supposed to be frightening back in the day, with kids terrified of doing even one thing wrong and losing the game. Maybe or maybe it was just done to try and make a short game feel longer. Either way Splatterhouse was the closest thing to a gory 80s horror movie in a videogame and those of us desperate for that experience were grateful.
So, those are the highlights and low-lights of my time seeking out 8 and 16-bit horror. I’m sure there are plenty of titles that I missed at the time, but those ones stuck out for me. Can any of you fine readers think of other old school horror games worth revisiting this Halloween season? If so, why don’t you go ahead and mention them in the comments below? It don’t cost nothin’.