The evolution of heaven and hell in gaming

The afterlife is a commonly held human belief. Many of the world’s major religions hold some concept of an eternal paradise for the virtuous and a lake of searing fire for society’s scum. Some belief systems even have a holding chamber for the guys that fit somewhere in-between. While certain concepts and particulars about Heaven and Hell vary between cultures and faiths, the basic ideas are universally understood, and we all have one thing in common: we love depicting Heaven and Hell in our entertainment media.

Gaming actually has a lengthy and interesting history of taking players to the realm of the afterlife – not just Hell, but Heaven and Purgatory – and giving us unique takes on both the appearance and purpose of these post-life locales.

For this feature, we’ve opted to focus on a mix of titles representing an interesting variety of interpretations of the afterlife. We opted to leave off a few more recent games featuring brief references to the hereafter (Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Bayonetta) to instead spend more time with more prominent displays of the afterlife and some lesser-known titles lost in gaming purgatory. So let Gamesradar act as Virgil to your (literary) Dante and guide you on a chronological trip through gaming’s historical hereafters…

Yokai Douchuuki (1987)

One of the first games to depict a journey through Hell was this Japanese arcade platformer from Namco. It’s also a portrayal of Hell that’s quite different from what we’d expect in the west – though its unfamiliar grotesqueries make it just as unsettling as the fire-and-brimstone imagery commonplace here.

Taromaru is a naughty little brat whose soul is sent to Jigoku (the Hell of Japanese Buddhism) as punishment for his misdeeds. He can attempt to escape Jigoku, traversing five different levels while fighting off the creepy yokai monsters out for his soul. The levels contain numerous branching paths leading to good and bad secrets like gambling mini-games and mystery boxes that can either reward or cripple you. Its then-unorthodox non-linear structure made Yokai Douchuuki a hit in Japanese arcades, and the game received ports to both the PC Engine and the Famicom.

Each version of the game also has a different set of possible endings depending on Taromaru’s in-game behavior. Taromaru meets with and throws himself upon the mercy of the Buddha after beating the last boss, and can meet five different fates: remain stuck in Hell, become a Hungry Ghost, reincarnate as an animal, return to the human world, or go to a Heaven full of sexy nymphs. Based on the version of the game being played, each ending gives a different cinematic sequence. (The Famicom version adds a sixth possibility, reincarnating in the “Game World.”)

Yokai Douchuuki is a very interesting title, but it’s easy to see why it didn’t get a North American release – besides all the Buddhist imagery that we are unfamiliar with, guiding a preteen hero through Hell only to have him wind up as an emaciated wretch at the end is the stuff youthful nightmares are made of.

The New Zealand Story (1988)

You’re going to see a lot of Hell in this list, but you’re not going to see much in the way of Heaven. There’s a good reason for this: dark fire pits and demonic threats tend to make for more interesting level design than a happy sing-song land of angels and clouds. But this common wisdom a group of developers at Taito went against the grain in The New Zealand Story, creating one very strange trip to the Pearly Gates.

The New Zealand Story is a game about a Kiwi named Tiki out to rescue his fuzz-feathered friends from a profiteering walrus. His friends are all trapped at the end of surreal maze-like levels filled with adorably lethal critters, strange levitation devices, water pits, and instant-kill spikes. Its adorable demeanor, as in many Taito arcade games of the era, lulls you into a false sense of complacency: The New Zealand Story is actually bash-your-head-against-the-control-panel HARD. And like many Taito games of the era, it’s full of unexpected, memorable little surprises. After you reach Level 3-1 – be it by going through the old-fashioned way or by making use of the game’s numerous warps – it’s possible to be taken to a Heaven level if you lose your last life to an enemy’s projectile weapon. But these Heavens aren’t cakewalks – they’re laborious vertical climbs laden with instant-death spikes and enemies that, in spite of the glowing halos over their heads, are tougher than their earthly counterparts. You have but a single chance to get back down to Earth and resume your game by finding the secret exit, which is far easier said than done.

You can also reach a secret ending by encountering a figure that looks very much like the Virgin Mary. Upon touching her, the game ends with the message: "Tiki has met the Goddess and now went into a long sleep in the warm sunlight. But the Heavens had got an exit to the underworld."Meanwhile, your friends are most likely sleeping in a walrus’s stomach. Way to be an asshole, Tiki.

DOOM (1993)

Out of all the games on this list, Doom is easily the most important from a historical perspective. It established the first-person shooter genre, developed a vibrant multiplayer and modding community, put id software on the map, made John Carmack a millionaire, and made John Romero a temporary millionaire. It’s one of the most influential games ever created, and it just happens to use Hell as its backdrop.

You, the prototypical FPS futuristic space marine, have been sent off to patrol the planet Mars, where teleportation experiments are taking place. It’s not long before things all go to Hell – literally – when the experiments go haywire and Satanic armies flood through the newly opened gate to Mars. You fight through episodes of nine levels each on both of Mars’s moons before heading straight into the burning lake of fire to stop the invasion at its source.

Doom’s now-iconic visuals and enemy designs were state of the art at its time and still make a lasting impression. Backgrounds and levels look more and more twisted as you play further into the game, giving you a genuine feeling of approaching the heart of Hell – to say nothing of the many ugly, ugly demons you’ll be blowing through along the way. Doom II was an even bigger improvement in the visuals, having the demonic hordes invade earth and sending your hero back to Hell for another grand finale.

Things didn’t end there, of course - 2004’s Doom 3 began an entirely different story based around the same concept as the original – fighting the escaped forces of Hell on Mars – including another short trip to the hot spot. With Doom 4 announced as being in development, we can expect another visit to our favorite demon spawning point in the near future.


  • zymn - October 2, 2010 11:54 p.m.

    i don't care if Grim Fandango isn't set in Heaven or Hell. he's a fucking grim reaper. that counts. i don't think a essay is required to explain the game. it's just good.
  • Grimmjow - October 1, 2010 1:35 a.m.

    um...where's God of War on this? i know he goes to Hades in those games, but its basically the same thing, just from the perspective of a different belief
  • madeline3173 - September 30, 2010 9:37 p.m.

    @redrum253 Good question! I think Oblivion is a good example of a recent interpretation. Oh well, still a great article!
  • metroid2099400 - September 30, 2010 2:37 p.m.

    When I saw this article, I was really hoping that Super Paper Mario would get a spot. Oh well, it's a good list anyway!
  • philipshaw - September 30, 2010 1:10 p.m.

    Great article, seems like a lot of effort went into it. Fight for Life does look like the worst fighting game ever
  • Darkhawk - September 30, 2010 12:47 p.m.

    @derrderr: You beat me to it. Jet Moto 2 FTW!
  • cj12297 - September 30, 2010 10:44 a.m.

    no god of war
  • KidKatana - September 30, 2010 9:45 a.m.

    I bigged up its water level last week, so it would be remiss of me not to mention Folklore on PS3 again - most of the game is set in some form of the afterlife, including one level based on purgatory and one on hell. Both were interesting and unorthodox depictions of their source material, and had fantastic art direction - much like the rest of the game, really. gets ignored by many, so it's no surprise that it didn't make the cut for this article.
  • papergoon - September 30, 2010 9:26 a.m.

    when i saw the title, i guessed dante's inferno. i mean, not all games get superbowl airtime
  • Zerochantista - September 30, 2010 7:21 a.m.

    @FauxFurry Oh rad, now we're talking about many kinds of interesting afterlife concepts in different belief systems/mythologies. I'm fascinated by that stuff, and that's actually part of the reason I was inspired to write this - I was researching traditional Japanese concepts of the afterlife to get a better understanding of Muramasa's endings and stumbled across info on Yokai Dochuuki, and things blossomed from there. Who says games don't motivate you to learn?
  • slimjim441 - September 30, 2010 4:04 a.m.

    Dr. Wily's castle is the first representation of Hell in any game.
  • redrum253 - September 30, 2010 3:11 a.m.

    what about oblivion?
  • GamesRadarMikelReparaz - September 30, 2010 1:16 a.m.

    Aw, I was kind of hoping to see Cosmology of Kyoto on here somewhere. It's the only game Roger Ebert ever liked!
  • FauxFurry - September 30, 2010 1:03 a.m.

    @rockstarsean-Grim Fandango not only isn't set in Heaven or Hell, it's an entirely separate religious concept that has no overlap with the Punishment versus Reward system. Things such as redemption and enlightenment have no place in either Paradise or "The Other Place", just eternal suffering or joy (in theory, as Heavens such as Celestia, show). The Hill of Elysium and Tartarus from Greek mythology and Greek Mythology themed games such as God of War or Rygar are a better fit. Obviously, an examination of Guilty Gear isn't necessary as it didn't go much deeper into these concepts other than the announcer shouting out "Heaven or Hell?! Fight!" before every match. A better Fighting Game example would be SNK versus Capcom:Chaos in the true final boss encounters between Athena in Heaven and Firebrand in Hell. The depictions of Takamagahara and Jigoku in Murumasa: the Demon Blade might count even if they are Shintoist/Japanese Buddhist equivalents of Heaven and Hell.
  • kyle94 - September 30, 2010 12:29 a.m.

    @Smeggs: Technically Purgatory is a part of Limbo.
  • madeline3173 - September 30, 2010 12:21 a.m.

    Interesting article.... haven't played Dante's Inferno. Looks cool, but is far too gruesome and grim for me :/ Dead Rising and Bioshock are about as creepy as I go, lol.
  • Smeggs - September 30, 2010 12:19 a.m.

    Purgatory is the place where the peopel who died mostly good are purified before going to heaven. It's Limbo where you're thrown in before Lucifer decides what circle of hell you belong in.
  • Cyberninja - September 29, 2010 11:01 p.m.

    both types of prinnes are the same the only difference is the ones from heaven get payed well
  • Vulneratus - September 29, 2010 9:57 p.m.

    What about current 3rd-party-developed games for the Wii or DS?? I think they're a pretty accurate representation of gaming hell...
  • oneshotfinch - September 29, 2010 9:53 p.m.

    I liked that level in The Simpsons 07 that was set in heaven. A nice last level.

Showing 1-20 of 29 comments

Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000