The evolution of scary games

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.

Mystery House (1980)

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.

Haunted House (1981)

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.

Halloween (1983)

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.

Chiller (1986)

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!

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (1988)

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. 

Sweet Home (1989)

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.



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  • simplethunder - July 28, 2012 3:27 p.m.

    A game like Manhunt that is simply about gore and violence doesn't fit into this list. Why didn't you add Weird Dreams for Amiga instead? Also, Clock Tower first appeared on the SNES years before the Playstation version.
  • simplethunder - July 28, 2012 3:50 p.m.

    I, or rather you, also forgot to mention Waxworks, Personal Nightmare and other games by Horrorsoft.
  • link07 - November 2, 2010 11:24 p.m.

  • gilgamesh310 - November 2, 2010 8:47 p.m.

    @Pruman F.E.A.R was only ever scary to me in a cheap jack in the box kind of way, much like doom 3 although not quite that bad. The enemy soldiers had incredible ai, probably the best ever which as well as several other reasons regarding the guns is why I think the gunfights in it were the best there has ever been in a game. I don't see how you would think it makes the game scary though. If your after a real scary game check out Amnesia. It makes even silent hill look about as scary as spyro the dragon.
  • Pruman - November 2, 2010 7:04 p.m.

    I made a comment about F.E.A.R. over in this week's Top 7, but I'll bring it up again here. It was scary for two reasons. The more obvious one is Alma and her machinations. The second was the intelligence of the soldiers, which rivals the military guys in Half-Life 1 in terms of how smart they were. I'm surprised it was left off this list.
  • gilgamesh310 - November 2, 2010 1:37 p.m.

    @Spybreak8 I know that but like one person pointed out, RE 4 was not the first game to have an over the shoulder camera and the gameplay in gears of war is completely different to that in RE 4. It's much more fast paced and doens't have any pretences about trying to be scary. Anyway Amnesia:The Dark Descent is much scarier than any game on this list.
  • KidKatana - November 2, 2010 11:49 a.m.

    Just completed Bioshock again. I didn't think it was that scary first time through, but there were a few moments I'd forgotten about that did make me jump - the first encounter with a Houdini splicer comes to mind. I've now (finally) got round to playing Dead Space. That lab with the babies in bottles and nursery rhyme music...meep.
  • georgekalebi - November 2, 2010 11:47 a.m.

    ...That is not a blond hair on sally's dress lol!
  • michelkeepertje - November 1, 2010 9:14 p.m.

    Where's F.E.A.R./F.E.A.R.2? Just finished F.E.A.R.2, thats some creepy shit in the elementary school!
  • Spybreak8 - November 1, 2010 8:18 p.m.

    @gilgamesh310 The main element that Gears used off RE4 is the over the shoulder third person camera perspective.
  • ddk - October 31, 2010 9:21 p.m.

    Alien Trilogy for the PS1 should be on the list.
  • TheWebSwinger - October 31, 2010 5:57 p.m.

    I thought games couldn't be scary, Chaz?
  • nai1210 - October 31, 2010 9:55 a.m.

    Bio-shock,silent hill,fear and dead space deserve to be played alone in the dark with a good set of head phones on especially silent hill 2 just getting around to playing that through for the first time and it's one creepy game.
  • shjon - October 31, 2010 3:47 a.m.

    The first game that truly gave me the feeling of dread, and made me want to turn the game of and go to sleep was doom3, it is pretty resent but i come from the generation that thinks Friday the 13th was supposed to be a gory joke.
  • Corsair89 - October 31, 2010 2:22 a.m.

    I've been wanting to play System Shock 2 and Alice for a long time now. If Steam got them, I'd be very very happy.
  • EsotericFerret - October 30, 2010 9:16 p.m.

    I loved both the Alice game and Undying. I still play them every once in awhile for nostalgia alone. Reading through this article makes me what to go back and try to play some of the other games I missed out on. To bad I would either have to get an emulated copy of them or buy them used for way too much money. I would like to add that Doom 3 scared the crap out of me.
  • Syncmaster - October 30, 2010 2:49 p.m.

    pfff Gears of War shameless copying RE4? so I can say EVERY FPS out there is copying Wolfenstein right? and RE4 was not even the first to have over the shoulder view or even laser sights to aim..
  • boxmeizter - October 30, 2010 2:15 p.m.

    damn do I remember project zero. scary shiiit. but bioshock ftw fo evaah
  • CARDYKEV - October 30, 2010 1:51 p.m.

    System shock 2 was amazing, i remember playing the demo and really not wanting to have to get past through the airlock. More System Shock bitte
  • philipshaw - October 30, 2010 11:13 a.m.

    Good to see Deadly Premonition here, the endurance run on giant bomb was quality