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From crude and childlike drawings of murdered stick men to a disgustingly detailed, fully three-dimensional monster that is programmed to leap into your face and chew on your neck from whatever bloody, dark corner you least expect – to say horror games have merely improved over the past few decades would be a gross understatement.
They've transformed. Better technology equaled more realism, more immersion, more creativity, more boundary-breaking… all crucial to the inducement of shock and fear. For this year's Halloween, we've put together a quick visual evolution to show you just how much scarier the videogame has truly become.
Not only one of the first horror games in history, but also one of the first games to include a feature we now take completely for granted. Graphics. While they consisted only of 70 hand-drawn sketches recreated using an Apple II computer, they were still much more convincing – and required less imagination from the player – than the dominant alternative of the day. Text.
An Atari console wasn't capable of rendering anything even approaching realism, so this early example of survival horror had to find very basic ways of instilling fear and anxiety. You're surrounded by a swarm of monster sprites, which can end your entire game after a scant eight hits, but you can't see where any of them are unless you light a match… which, of course, only reveals a small radius and then immediately snuffs out.
How does a classic horror film, directed by a master of the genre, translate into 8-bit? Shockingly well – again, by keeping things simple. You control heroine Laurie, and must drag five children to safety through 16 rooms to advance to the next level. Easy enough, until Michael Myers starts chasing you to the Halloween theme, which loses none of its chill factor in MIDI format.
Games got gratuitously gory and offensively violent way before Jack Thompson caught on. You shoot the usual zombies and ghosts in Chiller, a light-gun arcade machine later ported – unofficially – to the NES. You also shoot naked torture victims in an underground rack room as dismembered limbs and bloody flesh scraps are shown flying off their bodies. Oh, the innocence of 1986!
Not your ordinary side-scroller. The second Castlevania introduced some nonlinear exploration and RPG elements, but more relevantly to this topic, it introduced a night and day cycle that taught players to be afraid of the dark… even the pixelated dark. Enemies are more powerful – and numerous – during the night, and friendly townspeople are replaced by hungry zombies.
A Japanese Famicom game that never arrived on American shores for obvious reasons. Released within the same year as Duck Tales and Little Nemo, here was a story that focused on Lady Mamiya, a dead mother obsessed with gathering playmates for her equally dead child. By throwing kids into a furnace, naturally. Capcom clearly used Sweet Home as the blueprint for Resident Evil nearly a decade later – your team of investigators enters a mansion, solves puzzles, manages inventory and figures out what went wrong by reading notes that have been left behind.