Halloween Special: Hidden Gems of the Horror Genre
A look at a few 80s horror video games that may have slipped through the cracks
I don’t even need to say it, but I will… Halloween is on the horizon. Creepy is the current flavor. You can even sort of smell the spooky in the air. Or is that hot wiring and burning plastic? It’s a magical time of year, and not just for adults who like to get drunk in costumes; this is a perfect time to explore the most precarious and mercurial of video gaming’s genres… horror.
There’s a spotty but colorful history inside the history… a scattering of games many of us have never seen or may only have read snippets about on some niche site. Games that never went past domestic in their home country, or were considered too strong in tone for Westerners (that’s a good one…). In any case, I’ve collected a small selection of horror games that may be new to some, but definitely play an often-overlooked role in the history of the hobby.
In ’81, a Taito contract worker named Akira Takiguchi wrote a program for the PET 2001 called Nostromo. As you may guess by the title, the game was strongly inspired by 1979’s Alien. The player must attempt to escape from a spacecraft that has been invaded by an alien monster… that’s completely undetectable unless it is directly in front of you. You must somehow avoid this alien even seeing you, AND rely on limited resources. In fact, in certain scenarios, you won’t have what you need to escape, and have no choice but to simply wait to be eaten. The program was ported to the PC-6001, and in fact the only image related to the game that I could find is that version’s box art. Sadly, I also could not find anything close to an English translation or a modern port.
Another endeavoring horror game that never made it west was Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead. Produced by Fun Factory in 1987, this game combines horror, RPG, and side-scrolling action elements. Shiryou Sensen features random encounters not unlike how Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest functions; these battles, however, are waged from a side-scrolling perspective similar to that of Zelda II. The management of limited resources (namely ammo) makes the game all the more tense as you attempt to rescue survivors in a town infested by demonic monsters. Released for the MSX, NEC PC-8801, and PC Engine, Shiryou Sensen became part of a successful trilogy – but never left Japan.
Much to my amusement, I also discovered that the 1981 film Evil Dead got the old pixel treatment for the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum in ’85. The overall effect can best be described as “laughable,” and it seems that both contemporary and modern critics elsewhere agree with me. It astounds me that there was any demand for this game four years after the film’s release… but hey, there really is no accounting for taste. One quick browse through prime time TV proves that.
1986 brought us Castlevania, while Splatterhouse came along (actual controversy and all) two years later. Plenty of people were impressed by the latter’s gore and monsters… but you ain’t played shit ’til you’ve gotten your hands on an English translation of 1989’s Sweet Home for the Famicom/NES. It’s hard to accept that Capcom, who produced the cute and friendly Megaman, could have a hand in something so gruesome. In this RPG (created by future Resident Evil maestro Tokuro Fujiwara), your team must try to unravel the mystery of a cursed house through puzzles and fifty-year-old diary entries… all while battling horrible monsters and risking permanent death. Unlike so many RPGs, there are no Phoenix Downs or shrines in Sweet Home… only monsters, melting, and unremitting horror. I’ve swiped a few gifs, since mere stills do this game no honor…
And I could go on from there, but I think we’ve seen enough. These are a few of the games that wait for us, lurking in forgotten corners dark and deep. We will, I hope, fall prey to countless more.