Deeply disturbing deaths from retro games

Tomb Raider – Multi

For the second time in this feature, I am making a reference to David Cronenberg. And not simply to flex my cinematic ego by showing off which respected left-field directors I like. No, I mention Cronenberg again because his horror work is highly relevant to what makes this particular death so unremittingly grim.

Above: And this is why Cronenberg was never allowed near the Tomb Raider movies

Cronenberg’s aptly-termed Body Horror, you see, is concerned primarily with fear of physical change; the idea of a person’s own body rebelling against them in an inescapable invasion on and by everything they are. Bad times, particularly when it all goes a bit Goldblum.

And that’s why Lara’s transformation into a gold statue in the first Tomb Raider is such a harrowing death, however brief it may be. In fact the speed at which it happens is part of what makes it effective.

Lara has just enough time to acknowledge each and every one of her limbs being stolen away from her and turned into cold, alien metal objects, but the speed with which it all happens (along with her rapidly stiffening animation and the uncompromising sound effects) turns the transformation into a visceral attack. And as in all good Body Horror, she becomes increasingly powerless to stop what’s happening precisely because of the nature of what’s happening. It’s a self-perpetuating horror that gets stronger with each and every second.

Also, the camera angle shows that early Lara was a bobble-headed freak with no eyes. Get thee to Silent Hill, woman!

Cannon Fodder – Multi

And while we’re talking about stolen humanity, there was some even bleaker death going around in the early ‘90s that didn’t even need polygons. Or in fact, more than about nine pixels per victim.

Where Lara’s Midas-induced death was a very personal and intimate horror, Cannon Fodder’s downright horrible treatment of character mortality was all about the wider context and bigger socio-political picture.

Above: Even when using only a handful of pixels, video game death can be poignant

An arcadey RTS which saw you controlling small groups of tiny pixel soldiers, Cannon Fodder sucked you in with cute, cartoony presentation and then bludgeoned you to death with the nightmare futility of war. It had a very clever (and quite literal) lives system, you see. If you failed a mission by having your whole squad wiped out, your next go would present you with a different set of soldiers, with different names. Every character you used in Cannon Fodder had a name, and repeated use of one would see him rank up. You got incredibly attached to those little fellas, but when they were gone, they were gone forever.

Most affecting of all though, was the pre-mission retry screen, which made absolutely sure you knew damn well where those replacements were coming from. A queue of civilians lead to the door of the army recruitment office, and stretched all the way to the horizon. The other thing that stretched all the way to the horizon? A hillside graveyard. Every time one man died, another gravestone appeared on it. And every time a gravestone appeared, another man walked in through the door to replace him. Suddenly the game’s title wasn’t such a flippant joke any more.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Nintendo 64

Sorry, got a bit serious over the last two entries. Here, let’s lighten the mood by looking at a small Elf boy getting pseudo-bummed by a zombie:

Redeads. Bloody horrible. Horrible physicality, horrible sound, horrible stillness as they stand there waiting for their next warm victim, and horrible, horrible, uncomfortably intimate attack animation that strikes out of absolutely nowhere.

Seriously. Kill them. Kill them with fire. Kill them with fire, then encase the ashes in a lead capsule, weld it shut, fire it light years through space to a dead planet, encase that planet in lead and then launch it into a black hole. Then burn the black hole.

Waxworks – Amiga/PC

And saving the most extravagant for last, we have Waxworks. The 1992 dungeon-crawling adventure game, spawned from a successful series of games based on the Elvira films and TV show revels in graphic gore like a basement-dwelling psycho revels in human-skin furnishings and poo-based décor.

Above: Some Waxwork museums have a chamber of horrors. Waxworks the game didn't have anything else

Created by Horrorsoft, an offshoot of Adventuresoft, the studio later responsible for the Simon the Sorcerer series, Waxworks did not, to put too fine a point on it, f*ck around. A time-travelling adventure that charged you with the task of ending a generations-long curse put on your family by a witch, it wouldn’t let a death go by without trying to horrify you onto a serious course of medication.

Every method of character demise – and there were many – came packing its own arrestingly detailed, partially animated close-up. Rendered with the gratuity of a ‘70s exploitation film and the anatomical correctness of a medical textbook, they’re cold and detatched yet gruesomely lurid all at the same time. It’s an unsettling combination, but mesmerising all the same, and as any gore hound will tell you, that’s a good thing.

Nov. 26, 2010

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  • slimjim441 - May 25, 2012 1:37 a.m.

    Redeads gave me nightmares when I was a kid... I think Super Metroid would also qualify as pretty gruesome. I mean, on death, your armor exploded, exposing Samus to the (apparently horribly) toxic atmosphere of Zebes where she immediately disintegrated. Hardcore. Just saiyan.
  • ObliqueZombie - May 25, 2012 1:26 a.m.

    I'm glad I got to return to this article, thanks to the your Facebook page. There are some fucked up games out there, namely Waxworks and Heart of Darkness. I seriously shuddered at some of them. The blank stares... those cold, lifeless stares...
  • Tasty_Pasta - November 29, 2010 7:04 p.m.

    This was a good list, but it could've used some Laura Bow.
  • FoxdenRacing - November 29, 2010 3:33 p.m.

    So glad to see Cannon Fodder on there; a clever old game that didn't get half the attention it deserved. I remember that hill getting full really fast; ambushes, traps, and plenty of ways to die that could only be avoided by repetition and memory...poor Jools.
  • kangaroocory - November 29, 2010 12:15 a.m.

    i was watchig the waxworks video and my freind walks in and goes, "What the hell are you watching!?" Right at the spikes part. Ouch.
  • SwampRock - November 28, 2010 11:20 p.m.

    Now I know some games I need to play...
  • Assassin297 - November 28, 2010 4:39 p.m.

    Those death animations from Heart of Darkness remind me a lot of Limbo. Weird that death animations like that, relatively free of blood and gore, are more disturbing to me than anything out of Gears of War.
  • guiarherodrummer1998 - November 28, 2010 4:18 p.m.

  • Nap1400 - November 28, 2010 2:17 a.m.

    Does this amount of spam always happen during the Christmas season?
  • slowdrum13 - November 28, 2010 12:03 a.m.

    hey, learn english you communist chinamen
  • slowdrum13 - November 28, 2010 12:02 a.m.

    super mario 64 is not retro, it was only 14 years ago. i have wines older than that.
  • PureSpirit - November 27, 2010 11:56 p.m.

    O_o The Kirby death was so creepy! I never knew that was possible in a retro video game...
  • Clovin64 - November 27, 2010 8:13 p.m.

    That Waxworks game is horrifying. And I watched the entire video. Scary stuff.
  • Smurftastic - November 27, 2010 6:09 p.m.

    I played through Mario 64 and never drowned, actually I didn't think that Mario would because that seemed graphic for a Mario game compared to the deaths in older versions.
  • MikeT - November 27, 2010 5:27 p.m.

    I really don't get the whole shoe spamming thing on video game websites. Who do they think they are fooling?
  • bloodyshadow - November 27, 2010 3:06 p.m.

    Holy shit... Adbots GALORE!
  • bloodyshadow - November 27, 2010 3:05 p.m.

    I think it's crazy that no one ever mentions the "Mustard gas" death in Mario 64. It's WAY worse than the drowning. I was actually shocked when I first saw it. The way he falls back, covers his mouth and then twitches until he dies is just.... HORRIBLE!
  • philipshaw - November 27, 2010 1:56 p.m.

    I do remember the Mario 64 drowning being a bit graphic. But how in the hell is heart of darkness a E for everyone game?
  • humpiedumpie - November 27, 2010 8:27 a.m.

    I hate the Zelda zombies, most of the time they are no problem to kill at all, but sometimes, when one is humping you the other zombies will be waiting to hump you afterwards. Like a humping train...wait what?
  • Overlord153 - November 27, 2010 5:46 a.m.

    I couldn't watch that whole Waxworks thing because i don't want nightmares when I go to sleep. @LIKEUCARE The article says retro games for a reason.

Showing 1-20 of 52 comments

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