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The History of Horror: A Video Game Retrospective

It's the genre that's come a long way in its scares. We look at the mutation of video game horror titles - from birth to its fearsome future.

  • Text: Jon Newcombe

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Horror and video games go hand-in-hand. Even if big publishers aren't showing the same love for the genre as they did a decade ago, there's an undeniable intrinsic link; as long as there's been video games, there's been horror.

Haunted House for the Magnavox Odyssey was the very first horror video game. How do we know it was the first? Because the Magnavox Odyssey was the world's first console (predating even Atari's Pong home gaming system). Haunted House - a far cry from the gut-wrenching terror we can experience today - was among the first games released with it.

Oddly given the penchant for the genre to hone in on solo experiences to heighten the frights, Haunted House was a two player experience. Visuals were simple, two blinking lights and a plastic overlay for the TV screen. One player took the role of 'detective', the other, a 'ghost'.

The person playing detective had to leave the room while the ghost-player 'hid' their blinking light. The private eye then had to explore to discover where the ghost was hiding. Hardly terrifying, but there was an element of cat and mouse here that could offer potential if revisited today.

Jump forward a generation to the Atari 2600 and horror took a decidedly sci-fi feel. Looking back today it's admittedly hard to feel unnerved by the steadily lowering waves of aliens in 1978's Space Invaders. Yet the inescapable slow descent of the killer foe, the gradually destroyed landscape that served as protection and that ominously building music had a sinister undertone at the time, that added to the player's panic as death loomed from above.

Moody sci-fi offerings littered the decade. 1982's Demon Attack saw players marooned on an ice planet, fending for survival by shooting lasers at demons that attack from above and from the side. 1986's Commodore 64 release Panther, had you roving desolate wastelands picking up any last survivors from an alien invasion (and came with a edgy soundtrack that dripped with menace).

A very late Atari release was the 1990 Xenophobe. Inspired by the Aliens franchise, players were tasked with clearing areas of nasty 'Xeno aliens'. The aliens had three distinct types, and as you progressed the visuals get gorier, the mood more intense.

Xenophobe wasn't pretty, but it still kept us glued to our televisions.

The third generation saw Sega and Nintendo duking it out in a console war between Master System and NES. This was the era of the licensed move tie-in that saw horror films like Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Bram Stoker's Dracula get video game makeovers.

The real standout was Konami's Castlevania. In it we explored a spooky castle, fought all manner of monsters and took on the dark lord himself. Sega even created their own version, Master of Darkness, a surprisingly enjoyable clone.

It's easy to look back and mock these simple 8-bit games when compared to the likes of Siren: Blood Curse. Yet at the time these were brilliantly realised horrors, and even with the limitations of the formats the developers came up with haunting music that got under the skin immediately.

The 8-Bit consoles gave way to superior 16-bit technology in the early 90s. Sega caused controversy with its uncensored releases of violent titles like Night Trap (a puzzle title with grainy FMV sequences depicting grade-Z horror scenes) and Mortal Kombat (the 2D fighter with blood splatters and sickening finishing moves) - games that weren't really scary, but depicted gore in a way consumers hadn't seen before.

Horrorwise, this was the Pointfear/Goosebumps generation and many titles, such as Decap Attack (a zombie platformer that was a reskinned take on an Arabian-style title released in Japan) and Zombies Ate My Neighbours (a tongue-in-cheek, top-down adventure through a horro-filled suburbia), reflected a trend for child-friendly horror. There were more movie tie-ins like Jurassic Park (that T-Rex is terrifying) and Alien 3. Elsewhere the Castlevania series was still going strong, building its own mythos with a multi-generation-spanning tale of the Belmont clan and their fight against Dracula.

Splatterhouse took strides into the macabre. An arcade-style beat em up that took inspiration from films such as Friday the 13th and Evil Dead 2, it gained notoriety because of its violent nature and some truly disturbing enemies - such as babies sans flesh. In an attempt to avoid some negative feedback, or maybe just as marketing ploy, publisher Namco put a warning on the box "the horrifying theme of this game may be inappropriate for young children... and cowards."

Castlevania - still going strong after all these years.

PlayStation emerged as the hot new machine of the next generation. Designed to appeal to a wider demographic than the typically young fans of Sega and Nintendo, Sony allowed many more mature titles on its system than its competitors. Clock Tower, Hellnight and OverBlood were all notable entries.

The most significant element of this era was the birth of the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, games which proved forerunners of the survival horror we know today.

The emphasis for both was on exploring and solving puzzles while trapped in scary surroundings. Resident Evil played on the traditional horror shocks (featuring a over the top and low budget live action opening, piss-poor voice acting and some genuine scares). Silent Hill took a more disturbing tangent, with sickening creature designs and a nightmare-like town that created something truly unique.

Both offered combat, but it was a secondary aspect of gameplay. In many situations the best bet was to run away. Each title proved that good narrative and scary set pieces could be as enjoyable as high scores or platform jumping. Proving hits Resident Evil and Silent Hill spawned many sequels, but both franchises lost their way, Resident Evil favouring action beats, while Silent Hill lost its edge through overexposure, as its formula was regurgitated in multiple sequels - but for a long time the best scares came from either series.

By the sixth generation of consoles, survival horror had established itself as a popular genre. PS2 saw some great scares from the likes of the Fatal Frame and Siren games - titles that drew from Japanese horror for inspiration, and pushed combat even further into the gameplay background.

The console also saw the release of Silent Hill 2, arguably one of the best horror games ever made. With the genre peaking in popularity, even Nintendo got in on the act, with the tense horror/thriller Eternal Darkness (which fans still cry out for a sequel today) and the highly regarded Resident Evil 4 (the pinnacle of the series, bleeding disturbing scenes with ace combat mechanics) were released on the Gamecube.

New to the console market, Microsoft's Xbox featured Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Manhunt games. Many consider this generation's console horrors the 'golden period'. Visuals and audio had developed to a point where developers could generate realistic scares. Fans couldn't get enough. Sadly, horror developers started creating less innovative content, and fans started to turn their attention elsewhere.

Dead Space was a highlight from this generation.

The most recent generation has seen some interesting shifts in horror games. There's some great horror-influenced titles like Dead Space and F.E.A.R, but many have moved to more action-heavy gameplay. The ongoing Resident Evil series epitomised this with its heavy emphasis on shooting in Resident Evil 5.

Fortunately all was not lost, titles like the Playstation Store downloadable re-imagining of the Siren franchise, Siren: Blood Curse, reminded us that Survival Horror was still an entertaining genre.

The best horror didn't happen on consoles though. The PC indie scene started to turn out some fantastic horror games. Emphasis on exploration, story and atmosphere gave indie developers the opportunity to showcase their skills without needing sizeable budgets to program complex mechanics. Of all the horror-indie developers, the company that really made their mark was Frictional Games. Using their in-house HPL engine, they created the memorable Penumbra series, and what's considered one of the scariest games ever, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

With PlayStation 4 and Xbox One just around the corner there's some interesting looking scary games on the horizon. Daylight takes place in an abandoned hospital where the protagonist doesn't have any access to weapons. Dying Light is a zombie survival game with emphasis on scavenging supplies and crafting weapons. The Evil Within, directed by Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, sees players fight through a mysterious world of death and madness. Hopefully these are just a few of some great next-gen horror titles to come. With any luck the coming years will see the rebirth of console horror.

Will The Evil Within usher in a new era of horror titles?