Top ten retro horror games
Update: I am sorry that most of you didn’t like this article that much and I’ll check out some of the games you recommended. Please be nice and constructive in your criticism though. Would it make it up to you all if I did a full review on Waxworks (which is apparently the crowd-favorite)?
So Halloween is rocking the world again: children are buying their costumes, people are stocking up on candy and pumpkins are been mutilated by the hundreds. Truly this is the most amazing celebration of the year… or it would be if we celebrated it in The Netherlands. I know I should be glad that I live in a country where there is little poverty, social rights exist, there are no shortages and we have no tornados, but damn, I’d love to go around houses dressed as Leon Kennedy. Luckily the internet is a whole new territory for celebrating, so today I offer you my personal “Top ten retro horror games”.
This list is completely personal and most certainly not a definitive answer to this topic, so I’d love to hear what my readers think as well. If you have additions of your own, then leave them in the comments below and I promise I will read them (Headcrabs were a cool idea for my previous list, but I dislike water, so that fish won. Thanks for the suggestion though!). To put a number on what qualifies as “retro” in this specific list, I think I’ll keep it pre-2000’ish. There will be one exception on this rule though, because it involves one of my all-time favorite games and I like to fanboy out for once. Enjoy the list!
#10: Super Metroid
When people think Nintendo, then they usually think about the studio that created Mario, Zelda and plenty of other cheerful kiddy games for the casual market. While that idea alone is wrong, I’ll save it for another article. The point is that back in the same year that Nintendo released Donkey Kong Country, they also released the stellar Super Metroid, which turned out to be a whole lot different from their standard line-up of quirky platformers. Right off the bat Super Metroid surprised me with some very eerie music playing on the main menu and the rest of the soundtrack is not bad either. Very few games openly displayed human corpses back in the ol’ days, but this game did, which was quite a shock back in 1994. While not really a horror game by default, the soundtrack and showing human corpses did make players at the time feel very uneasy.
In terms of gameplay Metroid shines as well, providing the players with hours of exploration-based adventuring. As Samus you are free to explore any part of the world at any time you please, however, you may run into hazards or blockades that require you to find a certain item. This means that finding an item always feels rewarding, since you realize that now you can overcome obstacles that gave you trouble before. There is overall a very good sense of progression, especially when you notice that enemies who gave you trouble four hours ago become trivial after you have obtained a few weapon upgrades. Normally I wouldn’t put a game on this list just because of amazing gameplay, but the aforementioned soundtrack and atmosphere allow this title to just barely make this particular top ten.
Did anybody NOT expect Illbleed to appear on my list? It was the very first game I reviewed on this website after I returned, so that should have probably given away that I like it a lot. I already gave this title a full review, so there is no real reason to go in-depth again, but let me just say the following:
Illbleed is unlike anything you’ll ever play. The gameplay that focuses more on disabling traps than on avoiding monsters is enjoyable and unique, the B-movie quality is humorous and it doesn’t play too bad either. It might be hard to get a copy of this, but if you have a Dreamcast, then you owe it to yourself to check out this game.
P.S.: I know this game was released in 2001, but rules are meant to be broken. It’s not the exception I mentioned earlier.
#8: One Unit Whole Blood
Doom clones were plenty back in my day, but quite often games were wrongly accused of mimicking Id Software’s magnum opus. One of those games was One Unit Whole Blood, a fast-paced first-person shooter about a man trying to save his girlfriend by throwing dynamite at cultists… I am getting ahead of myself again.
One Unit Wh- Let’s just call it Blood, is a game in which you take control of a gunslinger who got involved with a cult. He was eventually betrayed and killed by the evil god that the cult worships and his girlfriend was taken away from him. Resurrected years later, the anti-hero sets out for vengeance and tries to safe his girlfriend along the way. The gameplay is indeed reminiscent to Doom, having players navigate a series of mazes with key-puzzles and a variety of monsters hunting them down. The interface and some of the design-choices are also distinctively Doom-like, but that’s where the comparisons end. Blood is more of a parody than a replica and takes a lot more wacky and over-the-top take on the formula. Weapons are much more destructive and elaborate (such as the flare gun that fires twenty rounds per click), levels are more gory and ridiculous (such as a festival early on) and the occasional one-liners make sure that you chuckle every once in a while. Fans of the genre should definitely fire up a DOSbox sometime and try this one out. It’s quite a gem, to say the least.
#7: Thief: The Dark Project
Thief: The Dark Project is another title that isn’t exactly horror, but still manages to effectively scare the player throughout. This stealth-game has the player infiltrate mansions and other fancy locations to extract valuable items and then leg it again, a pretty compelling premise, if the game wasn’t absolute shit. The standard key-bindings are so uncomfortable that my hands started to literally hurt after ten minutes, but even when manually reassigning each function, I still had a hard time getting anywhere. Not that it mattered much, since the levels are a boring mesh of uninspired hallways and tunnels. The breaking-point came for me when I looked up a walkthrough after spending two hours in a crypt level, only to arrive at a door that wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the whole walkthrough.
So why am I still putting this game on my list? Well, because of those damn zombies, of course. It has been several years since a game actually made me scream, much less shutdown the entire game with a swift ALT+F4, but Thief genuinely managed it. You can’t even kill the zombies properly, because they only die when you use fire or Holy Water on them, neither of which is available to you the first time you encounter them. Anything else knocks the zombies down temporarily, but they’ll soon rise again to annoy you further. Ammo is scarce however, so getting rid of zombies remain tricky, even after you obtain the fire arrows and holy water. I played this game briefly while having a break at internship, only to surprise my co-workers with the aforementioned scream when a zombie I thought asleep decided to high-five me in the face. Thief gets this high on the list for managing what no other horror game has made me do in quite some years, even if the game itself is not as great.
#6: Aliens vs. Predator
Aliens vs Predator on the Atari Jaguar is by far the best game that system had to offer, which is kind of sad when you think about it. Abysmal system aside, this game did provide us with the sweetest graphics imaginable at the time and not one, not two, but three fleshed-out campaigns with different styles of gameplay! Nowadays there are a lot of games based on the Alien franchise, but I always find myself returning to this particular one, simply because it made a bigger contribution to the system it was released on and the evolution of video games as a whole. When you look at the Atari Jaguar library, you’ll see nothing but wasted potential and only two stand-out games. Tempest 2000 however had a very arcade-like feel to it, which is not what this 64-bit beast was supposed to be for, so that leaves just one game. That game is Aliens vs Predator.
Compare that to modern installments in the franchise, such as the upcoming Colonial Marines which will release for all major consoles. Whether or not the game will be good is yet to be seen, but it’s worth noting that it will be going up against Halo 4, probably a new Call of Duty (I stopped counting long ago), as well as the immense pile of other first-person shooters with modern visuals that both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 have garnered over the years. It can be a good game, but it will hardly push the systems forward any further. Sadly this game alone was not good enough to make a success out of the Jaguar and it was discontinued after only two years.
“Rise and shine… Mr. Freeman”… oh yeah, I love me some Half-Life and I am sure plenty of you do the same. My favorite of the bunch would be the original, since the later ones weren’t as memorable to me, or as revolutionary. At the start of the game we are treated to thirty minutes to one hour of nothing but atmospheric pacing and absorbing plot-points, which is a dedication to story that has become very rare in games nowadays. What was the last time you booted up a shooter and you had to spend more than ten minutes without seeing any enemies at all? This introduction, while been a bit obnoxious when you replay the game, allowed us to get a lot more invested in the situation before everything went to hell: we learned who Gordon Freeman is, what the company Black Mesa was doing and how the workers thought about the grand scheme of things.
The game borders more on Resident Evil-style action than actual horror, but the monsters have some interesting designs on them and some of the bosses are pretty dang frightening. This title also had a massive impact on shooters at the time and redefined how we expect them to work in a 3D-environment. Nowadays Valve is a monolith, having almost complete control of digital distribution and producing amazing games like Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2. That was all different back then and Gabe Newell personally financed the creation of the first Half-Life with his own savings. His love and care is apparent throughout the entire game. If you ask me, Valve deserves to be where they are today, since you’ll be hard-pressed to find a success story that is as grand, as that of Half-Life.
#4: American McGee’s Alice
American McGee seemed to have a story very similar to that of Gabe Newell, a member of a big team leaves his position to form a studio of his own and create a magnum opus to solidify his position in video game history. It’s sad that only one noteworthy franchise sprung from this endeavor, followed by a load of mediocre titles that barely anybody remembers or has even heard of. I still respect the man for his very first game though, which was (somewhat narcissistically) called American McGee’s Alice. This deranged and horrific take on the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland was pretty much perfect for me, since I am a huge fan of surrealism and the Disney movie based on the same property was among my favorites.
Alice might have been somewhat clunky in the control-department, but overall it told a very nice and engaging story with gameplay that manages to consistently entertain throughout the entire ride. McGee manages to balance the platforming and fighting excellently and both feel equally satisfying and challenging, especially nearing the end. I also like how the story references the original works constantly, but still makes sure everything fits with the overall plot and not a single scene is just for some throwaway joke. Who knew Wonderland could be realized so well, without anything particularly wonderful about it?
#3: Elvira II
Elvira II might not sound familiar too many people, but to me it’s one of the pinnacles of point&click adventure games and definitely one of the better horror games out there. Hell, the developer is called “Horror Soft”, that has to count for something right?! In this game you are rescuing your girlfriend, but to do so you need to cross a number of sets where horror movies have been shot. I know that sounds fuzzy, but I haven’t played this game since 2002, so I don’t remember the details very well. I recall been quite fond of this game, though, despite the fact that I was utterly crap at it. The visuals are pretty, the scares inventive and often effective and the gameplay challenging.
One feature that stands out in my opinion is that you can actually lose limbs in this game, but that doesn’t mean an automatic game-over for you. The game actually challenges you to play it without a hand, which I don’t think is actually possible. I’ll definitely revisit this title sometime soon, but until then, I’ll just leave it here on the number 3 spot.
#2: Doom II
Doom was an introduction to the world of PC-gaming for many people back when it first came out and it still stands as a milestone in video game history to this day. Everything about the first Doom game was amazing and innovative, but there was a game that topped it… Doom II, of course!
Doom II expanded on the classic in every way, making the game even more fun than before. This is however another case of a game I haven’t played in quite a while, so I am still waiting for Good Old Games to finally put it out. Really though, Do I need to elaborate on why Doom 2 is a great retro game? Do I need to tell you why it was scary? Of course not, it’s freaking Doom and everybody knows how great it was!
#1: F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon
This was the big exception I mentioned in the introduction, a title that, for me, is forever rooted into our culture as a classic. A game that was so great, that it topped Doom II for me, as well as any other entry in this list. This game is… F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon, the revolutionary shooter from 2005.
Half-Life redefined how shooters worked in 1998, but Fear did that again seven years ago and I think it has undeservingly fallen into obscurity since. At the time of release this game boasted the most amazing graphics imaginable, if you read old Metacritic reviews, then a lot of them complain about the insane system requirements (Pentium 4 with 1.7ghz or higher, about half of what even basic systems use nowadays). Even by today’s standards the graphics aren’t bad on the eye and it won’t need an HD-remake anytime soon. The story is neat as well, mostly because it’s only rarely interrupted and it allows you to choose how much you want to be immersed. If you just want to shoot things for ten hours, then that is possible, but you’ll miss out on all the information provided by recorded phone messages and on computers. Alma herself is an intriguing concept and while never outright scared, I did find myself feeling on-edge whenever the game had a silent moment.
Gameplay was downright brilliant and determined how many modern shooters function nowadays. Oddly enough though, we are still struggling to make combat as satisfying as Fear made it almost a decade ago. Enemies adapt to you in real-time and actually feel like trained killing-machines. If you shoot at them, then they will immediately take cover and attempt to flank you, but hide for a moment without shooting and they’ll start looking for you. In any lesser game, enemies would just pour themselves at you, even if you were hiding. This makes combat in Fear a tactical joy, which makes a single squad of Replica Soldiers a much bigger threat than an entire army of Locust from Gears of War. Later entries in the franchise might not have been up to par, but you can’t deny that the original did not change this world for the better.
And that concludes my list for this year. I hope you had fun and I’d like to once again ask you to share your own favorites in the comments (and help me find more material). I also hope you all have a wonderful Halloween and get loads of candy!