There’s something about the horror genre that draws us in. It’s hard to define what it is, but the closest I can get is saying that it’s like a man with a sore tooth who can’t stop poking at it. We shouldn’t like horror. After all, it’s all scary, gory and violent — the things that are awful in real life. But with movies and TV and video games, when it’s done well, the horror genre provides fantastic experiences, stories that let us experience the intricacies of fear from a safe vantage, a sort of escapism from the hum-drudgery of normal life into something blah blah blah. Honestly though, who cares about all that. This article isn’t here to debate why we like the horror genre. We do, and that’s that. Here we look at some of the best retro horror video games from the 80s and 90s because, well, they were awesome.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1995)
A scary story based on a scary story, this game is inspired by the short story of the same name and written by science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison. A point-and-click adventure, this game takes you through the story of AM, an evil AI supercomputer that has wiped out humanity except for five survivors, only keeping them alive for torture. A dark, depressing story, it’s recognized as one of the best cyberpunk games out there.
Resident Evil (1996)
The original Resident Evil is the game that spawned countless sequels, along with a whole slew of well-produced B-movie thrillers with action heroine Milla Jovovich. Originally produced by Capcom in 1996, Resident Evil was the first survival-horror, meaning this was the game that coined the term. In the game, you must guide either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine around a creepy mansion filled with zombies and other horrors. Originally released on the PlayStation 1, there has been a few re-releases of this game: the first for PlayStation 3 as a PS classic and then as a port for the Nintendo DS. Finally, there is the remastered GameCube version, Resident Evil HD Remaster, for anyone who can’t handle the old blocky controls and low-rent graphics of the original. This game was highly influential in setting the bar for the horror genre in video games and led to probably the most successful horror franchise in gaming.
The Evil Dead (1984)
Most of you will remember the classic retro video games like Tetris, Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man as unlike other genres, the horror genre in any medium tends to have a more niche audience than others. How many remember The Evil Dead video game, released in 1984 for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum? Based on the cult favorite movie series, at the time of release, the game was well-received for its graphics, which is laughable looking back from today’s 3D realism, but understandable at the time. There was controversy on its release, with people questioning the morality of horror video games. However, Your Computer magazine allayed the controversy back in 1984 by saying, “You might have wondered if home computer graphics were capable of the sort of gory special effects video nasties trade in. The Evil Dead would confirm your doubts. There is nothing here to keep every the most unworldy 12-year-old awake at night.” So not much to gain for the fear factor playing this game, and the simplistic controls and graphics are well-dated. However, if you’re a retro enthusiast, it’s worth a play and still fun (for about five minutes anyway — according to a 2004 retrospective from Retro Gamer).
Silent Hill (1999)
Silent Hill sees the player take on the role of Harry Mason as he explores the creepy town of Silent Hill in search of his missing daughter. This game played much like a Resident Evil game, although with a stronger emphasis on psychological horror, and while Resident Evil games usually had you play as someone with combat training, Harry Mason was an everyman with no training, adding to the fear and helplessness. This game is noted as a defining title for the survival horror genre and considered by many to be one of the greatest video games ever made.
The Splatterhouse series began in 1988 with the release of the beat ‘em-up slasher arcade game coming from Namco. The game came with a parental advisory warning that read: “The horrifying theme of this game may be inappropriate for young children and cowards.” Splatterhouse was a side-scrolling game like many retros, and it had fantastic gameplay mechanics for its time. The game put the player in the shoes of Rick Taylor, a student trapped inside a mansion who becomes a good monster after being resurrected by the Terror Mask and proceeds to fight through hordes of evil minions to save his girlfriend Jennifer who is trapped in the mansion, too. Splatterhouse is considered obscure by mainstream standards while also being one of the defining games of the genre. If you’re interested in having a go as Rick Taylor, last year, Namco re-released the game exclusively for Nintendo Switch.
So that’s our look at some of the best retro horror genre games of the 80s and 90s. The list is by no means exhaustive as there are hundreds of horror games out there guaranteed to keep you up at night that are worth a mention. However, with the raft of new games and remakes of old games coming out these days, we know you aren’t short of macabre games to play or trouser-soiling frights to be had. It’s comforting to know that the horror-survival genre isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.