It’s coming up to that time of year again. The time when the dead walk the streets, hags roam the in the misty evening and pale, gaunt figures watch for victims from alleys and sidestreets… But less said about a Saturday night out in your nearest city and more about Hallowe’en!
Yes, its the perfect time to dust off some of the most feared titles in your gaming collection, to hunt the shelves of your local game shop for some shiny new survival horror and bring some evil to your residence (wink, wink). Clear the cobwebs from your ancient, musty consoles and dip into a dreadful past of some of the most terrifying games of the genre. I’ll be covering survival horror games galore in this feature about how best to spend All Hallows Eve, ignoring your doorbell, turning out the lights and eating all the sweets you’re supposed to hand over to the creepy, badly disguised local children.
We shall begin our journey by entering the crypt of gaming (thunder and lightning effects here), where few new gamers dare to go for fear of jaggy polygons and terrible controls and where many of us older relics still spend their time lamenting the past…
Dawn of the (gaming) Dead
Believe it or not, before the age of PlayStation, there was such a thing as horror gaming. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (Who put the BOO! into boobs), Darkseed and the original Alone in the Dark were all point and click adventures. They brought bloody imaging and unseen suspense that we’re over familiar with these days. Back in the late 80s and early 90s… Gaming was a little less visual and more about the gameplay and these three games sucked you right into the pit and spat you back out shivering and inconsolable.
The real star of the days of yore was a game called Ghosts and Goblins and it’s sequel/remake, Ghouls and Ghosts. They may be familiar to some young ‘uns, as it’s taken on quite a few forms since it first appeared in arcades and on home computers way back in the 1980s, the best example of the game comes in Super Ghouls and Ghosts (1991) for the SNES. These games may not be classed as survival horror but by god were they hardcore and surviving was near impossible. A 2D platforming fiasco, the G&G games dumped you in the heart of a graveyard as the shining knight, Arthur, fighting his way to rescue the strangely named, Princess Prin Prin. Castlevania can credit it’s secondary weapon switching to the series, as the games had similar mechanics to the famous vampire hunting series.
You start with a lance and can upgrade your weapon to an arcing axe, speedy daggers and the worst of all, the wildfire potion that missed everything you threw it at. You fought zombies, demons, wolves and of course ghouls and ghosts… The most frightening aspect of the game was that once you lost all your lives, you had to start all over again. Yes, from the very beginning with no power ups. Permadeath was a feature of just about every game up until onboard memory in cartridges were invented and save games became the norm and not just a helpful luxury. You played, you died, you restarted then tried again and if you think you’re a super l33t, noob-murdering gaming pro… I challenge you to go and finish Ghouls and Ghosts before you add that title on your CV.
Other festering classics to play: Splatterhouse 2 &3 (Sega Megadrive/Genesis) – An arcade slash-em-up with buckets of blood and entrails. Not exactly survival horror but fun all the same.
The Birth of the Anti-Game (Survival Horror)
Horror started to take it’s terrifying hold on the world of gaming when we were treated to 3D visuals, CD quality sound and an inspired group of scriptwriters who took every action to make you squirm like bags of rotting viscera in a bucket full of eels.
In 1996, Capcom released a groundbreaking new IP, one that still continues to this day and has a legacy that terrified a whole generation of gamers. Resident Evil is perhaps one of the most well known and lauded series to hit modern gaming machines. It took 3D exploration into pre-rendered backdrops with jaunty and terror-inducing angles, an RPG style inventory system where you could only carry limited items, injected some of the Hollywood tricks of frightening the bejesus out of you and had environments and enemies that would bleed every last bead of sweat from your brow as you carefully worked your way round Spencer Mansion, avoiding having to expend your rare ammunition and tiptoeing around corners… Just in case.
The Shinji Mikami masterpiece spawned a number of sequels and spin-offs, slowly adding more characters, new locations and eventually and inevitably, losing it’s way to the action genre and turning it’s survival horror into a monster mash of ammo-wasting gun battles, reused plotlines and ridiculous Matrix-esque boss fights. Capcom have mentioned that they will be going back to the foundations for the next outing to remedy the complaints of the latest in the bloodline. The best examples of the series are Resident Evil, RE2, RE4 and the Gamecube Remake of the Original. You can still pick these up as ports on this-gen consoles and are well worth a replay or introduction.
Not long after the appearance of Resident Evil, a contender fought it’s way out of the mist to the sound of a haunting siren in the shape of Silent Hill. An entirely more psychological take on the genre, Silent Hill added some Lovecraftian evil into the blender and tore your brain apart in long, drawn out episodes of audio and visual anxiety. Waking from unconciousness as the result of a car crash, protagonist Harry Mason realises he’s not in Kansas anymore and that his daughter, Cheryl is missing.
A meeting with a local police woman reveals strange events and after a brief encounter with a winged terror in the local café, it all gets nail biting from there on in the search for your little girl. Silent Hill uses a horror that digs it’s teeth deep into the marrow of your bones, with quiet scraping noises in the fog, the crackle of the radio growing to a crescendo as a hidden foe lurches closer, the wail of crying babies coming from the next room, the thud and crack of a heavy object repeatedly smashing something that sounds meaty. Lets not forget the siren… The siren that transforms the almost peaceful town into a rusty, fetid, flesh-bag ridden hell that you’ll want to escape after every save. Next to some recent PC horror games, Silent Hill is the only oldie that can still put dread in your very soul.
Silent Hill is another franchise that lost it’s way over the years too. That’s not to say the following games are bad, just too familiar to be anything better than the first three chapters. Luckily, you can buy the original from the PSN Store and it’s two equally impressive sequels were released for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2012 in the form of The Silent Hill HD Collection.
Other games worth the scare:
Haunting Grounds (PS2) – Similar fare to Resident Evil but no way to fight back. A beautiful old castle to explore and a faithful dog to guard you in tight spots, you better find somewhere to hide before Veritas, the resident hunchbacked henchman finds you for a ‘hug’.
Project Zero/Fatal Frame (PS2/Xbox/Wii) – Armed with a camera, you set off in search of ghosts in a huge mansion with only the flash on your Polaroid to ward off evil spirits.
Manhunt (PS2/Xbox/PC) – A shocking look into the seedy and brutal genre of snuff movies. Rockstar’s first horror outing drops you in the world of a twisted filmographer with your only hope of escape to murder his team of psychos who spend every moment hunting you down for the pleasure of some sick viewers.
The New Breed
In an amazing period of gaming, we have the luxury of semi-realistic high-definition graphics, surround sound headsets and slinky controls. We also have the benefit of independent developers who are not held back by publishers looking for the next big, bulletfest action game to beat the leading contenders in the sales market. We’re now all used to running around without a care, blasting demons in the face with rocket launchers and shotguns while shouting ‘F**k yeah! Take that ugly!’ at the screen. Gone are the children of the grave who revelled in despair, jumping three feet in the air when a window smashed and mutant dogs snapped at your throat. I still blame the rise of the multiplayer first person shooter for the demise of survival horror and all it stood for. So, without further ado, I introduce you to the new wave of disgustingly developed frightfests of our time…
In 2010, Frictional Games released a title that would bring the true meaning of survival horror back into the fold. Amnesia: The Dark Descent put you in the quaking boots of Daniel, a Londonian who wakes in Brennenburg castle in Prussia, with no memory of how he got there nor why. Set in 1839, you plod off on a pilgrimage into the bowels of the castle to find out what happened, whilst picking up the story through notes and diary entries. You have no guns, no lead pipe and absolutely no way of defending yourself if the worst should happen… And it will. Armed with a tinderbox and nothing else, you descent into the depths trying to keep your frayed sanity in check.
This is the clever part of the mechanics of Amnesia. In the light, you pretty much feel safe and can see what’s around you. You use tinderboxes to light torch sconces and candles to brighten the way through and will pick up lanterns later on to guide you. However, in the dark, you start hallucinating and hyperventilating, causing the screen to swirl around and shapes to form in your vision, adding to the fear that builds as you try to claw your way back to normality. Freak gusts of wind and bumps in the distance leave you spinning in circles and searching for the source so you can protect yourself. The controls are mouse sensitive and you can pick up, open or drag items by using the mouse’s full range to interact slowly and quietly or fast and noisy for more frenzied scenes where you must escape from the denizens of Brennenburg.
The visuals display your stress remarkably well and put you right in the castle with Daniel and his overactive imagination as it spreads into yours too. On occasion, you’ll be hounded by minions of the castle who, once spotted, will tear after you while you hunt for somewhere to hide. Wardrobes, dark corners and rooms that you can throw furniture behind the door to stop the passage of anything that wants to sunder you limb from limb will offer a little respite until the monster decides to move on. Sometimes they’ll rip the door apart and throw the furniture out of the way to get to you, adding the tension of not knowing if you’re truly safe or not. I had to play Amnesia in short sessions for fear of an actual panic attack, that the atmosphere is so thick, it’s got more substance than my Gran’s homemade soup.
Best played in a dark room with a surround sound headset and no company, not many can claim to have played through Amnesia: The Dark Descent nor it’s sequel, A Machine For Pigs in one sitting without being drawn into the action on a higher level than most games.
Outlast is a fairly recent PC game that followed in the floorboard-creaking footsteps of Amnesia. Bringing the same, non-action orientated style. You’re a journalist with a lead for a story at Mount Massive Asylum and on arrival, you find that the lunatics have indeed taken over. Outlast is a more bloody and visceral affair than Amnesia, drowning you in visual horror and shock tactics yet armed only with a camera with night vision capabilities. You pick your way through gore smeared corridors, staff areas, boiler rooms and the outer grounds, trying to uncover the truth behind what truly happened at the facility.
Meeting residents of Mount Massive, both indifferent and hostile, is a part of the game that you really have to use your judgement on. Who may be friendly, who will try and grab ass you pass and who may want to rip your guts out through your mouth is all a learning process. Again, running from the violent inmates is the only option, yet you have more leeway to outmaneuver the psychotics who decide that you will be their next work of art on a bathroom wall. You can sprint, slide, crawl into tight spaces and climb your way to freedom, but the tension is with you all the way til you lose your potential killer in the chase.
Other gory this gen games:
Demon’s Souls (PS3) Dark Souls (PS3/Xbox 360/PC) – An action RPG take on survival horror and possibly the closest you’ll get to Ghouls and Ghosts this generation. A terrifying and unforgiving ride through fantasy lands that have lost all hope of a saviour.
Left 4 Dead & Left 4 Dead 2 (PC/Xbox360) – A sometimes eerie, sometimes adrenaline fuelled journey to escape zombie infested locations. Realised in chapter based chunks for fantastic, frenzied co-op carnage. Don’t startle the witch!
Shadows of the Damned (PS3/Xbox 360) – A more comedic survival session in the style of the Evil Dead movies with plenty of frights and funnies. Garcia Hotspur reading fairy stories that forward the plot is one of the most hilarious moments in any period of gaming. Underrated and deserving of any action/horror fans’ time.
The Last of Us (PS3) – A truly amazing piece of storytelling in it’s own right. The story of Joel, a man with a mysterious past takes up a mission to cross a devastated USA to deliver teenage Ellie to safety, where mutant and human are depicted as monsters of equal abomination.
There are literally hundreds of horror games that will satisfy gamers of any genre. My opinions here are only my own and while some may hunger for something that hits a jarring chord with their psyche, others may just want to blast their way through hordes of demonic beasties with the most powerful weapon they can find. From Doom to Bioshock and Resident Evil to Silent Hill, all gamers are covered. Even sports if you can find a copy of Mutant League Football for your Megadrive. If I’ve missed out a favourite, feel free to add your contribution to the comment section below. The more the gruesomer, erm or something along those lines.
I hope you’ll be able to find some of your favourites to play in the dark nights ahead and look forward to the grizzly next generation collection of horror games as it seems there’s a good few beginning to crawl out of the cellar like a tentacled, slime covered beast to suck your face off and play conkers with your eyeballs.
Until next year fright fans! Muahahahahahahahaha! *Ahem* I’ll get my cloak…