Monday, October 24, 2016

The Ten Scariest Video Games of All-Time!

Counting down the most blood-chilling, spine-tingling and nightmare-inducing old school video games ever, from the heyday of the NES all the way up to the reign of the Xbox360.

By: Jimbo X

As a constitutionally protected and SCOTUS-affirmed bona fide arts medium, video games certainly allow us to feel the gamut of human emotions. As in the case of high-speed offerings like Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Burnout 3, they allow us to feel the vicarious, simulated thrill of gravity-taunting, breakneck physical motion. Meanwhile, titles like Jet Grind Radio and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 give us a tremendous facsimile of depth and height, allowing us to fantastically traverse across towering architectures and spit directly in the face of the Grim Reaper with our nigh-impossible acrobatic feats. Games like NHL ‘94, Tecmo Super Bowl and Virtua Fighter 4 let us feel the intensity of full-contact athletics competition without breaking a sweat, while games like Gunstar Heroes, Metal Slug 3 and The Secret of Mana allow us to feel the warm, fuzzy glow of kicking ass as a communal, cooperative experience. And then, there are the ones with legitimately gripping storylines, like Shenmue and Final Fantasy III, that suck you in with their expertly-scripted narratives and make you feel pangs of genuine, human empathy over pixelated ones and zeroes.

But we’re not going to talk about any of those kinds of games today. Rather, we’re going to discuss the ones that strive to scare the living piss out of us and make us throw our controllers in the air out of sheer, unbridled terror. In the following, totally non-scientific countdown, I recount the ten video games that gave me the heebiest of jeebies, the interactive experiences that inspired a certain kind of virtual willies I'm still trying to shake out, sometimes 25 years after the fact. Of course, your list would surely differ, but from my personal perspective? When it comes to scary ass video games, none are as palm sweat and nightmare-inducing as the creepy classics below...

Number Ten:
Underwater Ayn Rand mind control blurs the line between passive and possessive entertainment

Bioshock (Xbox360, 2007)

The 2007-08 school year was the last year I could rightly proclaim myself a hardcore contemporary gamer. The proud owner of one of those super-duper-expensive "elite" 360 units and a Wii (back when they were still really, really hard to find) I was pretty much your stereotypical IGN-reading, Gamestop-prowling, Mountain Dew Game Fuel-chugging dude-bro, anxiously awaiting the next opportunity to skip math class so I could dominate like a motherfucker at NCAA Football 08 or Guitar Hero III. Next to No More Heroes, I'd consider Bioshock to be the last somewhat contemporary video game that I was utterly obsessed with. The graphics were astounding (I vividly recall waiting for the game to load and being blown away that the photorealistic ocean debris before me was actually in-game) and there was just so much to explore, I had to play it through about three or four times before I felt satisfied (I still never unlocked that bunny mask dude's riddle box, however.) Like Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid before it, Bioshock was a game meant to mess with your head a little, and needless to say, few games have ever done it so well. Even beyond the whole "would you kindly" meta-priming and death fights with drill-handed Jules Verne deep sea divers (not to mention an entire gameplay mechanic that revolves around abducting small children and sucking the life juice out of them), the little audio snippets you found throughout the game were far and away the creepiest thing about the Bioshock. While the recording of the plastic surgeon going insane in the middle of a procedure is a close second, nothing in Bioshock resounded with me as much as the recording you find of the kids being instructed to play with puppies ... and then being ordered to snap their necks on cue. Trust me - all the cannon fodder zombies in Deep Space and Left 4 Dead don't add up to one millisecond of the fright stemming from hearing that poor little pooch whimper its final whimper... 

Number Nine:
And with one fell swoop of a chainsaw, the entire existence of the Nintendo Gamecube is justified

Resident Evil 4 (Gamecube, 2005)

There were a lot of great games on the GameCube, including quite a few that were atmospheric as fuck. While spooky games like Eternal Darkness, Metroid Prime and the criminally underappreciated Geist were all fine little horror-tinged games, clearly the cream of the creepy crop on the console was RE4, the outstanding franchise reboot that more or less created the second-person shooter genre and completely changed the trajectory of action-adventure games for the next 10 years. While some games are remembered for maybe two or three high points, pretty much the entirety of Resident Evil 4 is memorable, from the moment you shot the dog out of the bear trap at the beginning of the game all the way up to the part where you Ski-doo out of an underwater cavern at its tail end. Alas, while the game had a litany of highlights - the giant trolls, having to fight a million billion druids with gigantic mucus Thing heads, finally getting your hands on the rocket launcher - for me, the ultimate holy shit moment came within the first half hour of gameplay. While running around a Spanish village (where nobody uses the vosotros form, for some reason), people attack you with pitchforks and sickles and all the usual agrarian accouterments. Then, just when you think you are in the clear, oh sweet hell, it's a giant retard with a burlap sack over his head like Jason in the second Friday the 13th movie, coming at you with a chainsaw. Granted, seeing that sumbitch lunging at you is in and of itself rather frightening, but quickly realizing how little effort he required to lop off your character's head like Leatherface? Yeah, ain't any of us ever going to be right after witnessing that shit...

Number Eight:
From the same people who brought you Mighty Bomb Jack, a whimsical PS1 offering about leading innocent people to their unexpected demises

Tecmo's Deception: Invitation to Darkness (PlayStation, 1996)

When most people think "Tecmo," they generally think one of two things: the best fucking video game football series ever (sorry, Madden) and, of course, Ninja goddamn motherfucking ass Gaiden. That said, Tecmo has actually delved into the "horror game" subgenre many times in the past, and their 1996 PS1 offering has to be one of the most ingenious - and unsettling - forays into the depths of virtual darkness in console gaming history. For starters, you play one of Satan's henchmen. No, I'm not talking about some oblique "demonic presence," I mean the manual literally tells you you're working for the devil himself. As far as gameplay is concerned, Deception employs a very unique action-RPG dynamic, at times coming off as a cross between Sweet Home on the Famicom and Night Trap on the Sega CD. You see, as the doorman to Hell, you watch over this spooky, ominous mansion out in the middle nowhere, which is frequently visited by people seeking sanctuary for one reason or another. The object of the game, essentially, is to lure them them to their deaths, doing them in with really wacky Mouse Trap like contraptions (my favorite has to be the giant foot that falls out of the ceiling.) But here, the game throws you a curveball. Not all of the people who enter the mansion or sinister con-men and hyper violent warriors who want to kill you on sight. Indeed, some - including the parents of a terminally ill child - are downright sympathetic characters, which means you've got to make a choice: do you mercilessly slaughter the innocent to appease your dark lord, or do you choose to let them go free and perhaps alert others to your demonic doings? Needless to say, Deception is a game that hits you with some very, very heavy themes, and on several occasions, it's going to have you questioning the inherent evilness of your own soul. And to think - this thing is a contemporary of PaRappa the Rapper!

Number Seven:
An entirely new reason why you should never run with scissors...

Clock Tower (PlayStation, 1996)

The year 1996 was definitely a banner year for survival horror, and Clock Tower is certainly one of the seminal games from that all-important 2D to 3D migration period. In many ways, this game completely outdoes Resident Evil in terms of cinematics. The plot is WAY more nuanced, the voice acting is much, much better and the scares - well certainly less vivid than in RE - are nonetheless more skillfully scattered throughout the game. Much like its Super Nintendo forerunner, this Clock Tower is sort of a hybrid adventure/platformer, with pretty much all of the action coming courtesy of a virtual cursor or a litany of drop-down menu options. Of course, it takes full advantage of the three-dimensional, polygonal dressings, and there is a LOT to explore while traipsing around the "haunted" (or is that hunted?) mansion. This being a survival horror game and all, naturally the emphasis is on the "catch as catch can" gameplay, and needless to say, this sumbitch will get your pulse pounding in a hurry. There's all sorts of things you can do to evade the iconic "Scissorman," and there are even a couple of items laying around you can use for defensive purposes. More so than just about any game I've ever played, this feels like a playable Dario Argento movie, and that's not just because the synthesizer score feels like it could've been yanked straight out of Tenebrae or something. The pace is terrific, the level design is phenomenal and the plot - which weaves in and out of two different character narratives - is very well structured. While the game tends to lay on the melodramatic cheese in the final act, it's still a dreadfully scary game, from start to finish. And the first time the game's primary protagonist wraps his sterling silver blades around your jugular - yes, you will probably pee a little

Number Six:
One of the worst consoles of all-time gives us one of the scariest first-person-shooters ever

Alien vs. Predator (Jaguar, 1994)

As one of the 20 or so people in North America who, at one point or another, actually owned an Atari Jaguar, even I can't boast of being a console apologist. That said, while a good 80 percent of the library was absolute dog shit, it did have about five or six high spots, including a very good version of International Sensible Soccer and a damn near arcade-perfect port of Tempest 2000. Chief among all official Jaguar releases, however, was Alien vs. Predator, a downright remarkable offering that, really, was the first truly great FPS on a home console. There were just so many cool things about the game, and since all three game play modes - you could play as a xenomorph, a yautja or a space marine - each handled differently, the replay mode on this sucker was off the chart. Alas, while it was definitely a blast running around French kissing acid into people's mouths as an alien and making everything all neon-colored in kill-everything-in-the-room Predator mode, the most memorable thing about the game had to have been the space marine mode, in which you grabbed some high-tech weaponry and slowly slinked your through tight, grimy corridors, anxiously awaiting the moment something particularly nasty crossed your way ... or snuck up behind you. Honestly, this was a way spookier experience than any version of Doom, and the photorealistic visuals (for the time) were absolutely jarring. Having gotten my hands on the game earlier this summer for the first time in ages, I can assure you this title hasn't lost any of its luster ... and yes, even 22 years, it's still a downright terrifying game to trudge through.

Number Five:
The series that taught an entire generation the joys of uxoricide 

Splatterhouse I-III (TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis, 1989-1993)

Yeah, I'm cheating a bit lumping all of the 2D Splatterhouse games (well, with one notable exception) into the countdown, but really, you can't just pick one out of the canonical trilogy and leave out the other two. Really, each game in the series manages to take a different approach to the same terrifying underlying theme - the idea of your spouse dying. Granted, this may seem like one of those things that gets buried in the back of your head when you are punching the heads off zombies and killing 80 pound tapeworms with baseball bats, but it is certainly the undergirding narrative adhesive of the series. Let's go all the way back to the first game, which, in hindsight, contains one of the most disturbing moments in any title released prior to the advent of three-dimensional gaming - the moment where Rick finally reaches his estranged girlfriend, only to have her get possessed by some sound of foul demon and turn into a hulking monster he has no choice but to kill. Needless to say, having to play virtual O.J. Simpson to the CPU's Nicole Brown was freaky when I was a kid, but as a grown-ass adult, it's a million times more unnerving. Granted, the thematic is toned down quite a bit in part two (they kinda' pulled and Evil Dead 2 on us there, basically "remaking" the original instead of carrying on with part uno's downer ending), but there are still plenty of discomforting scenes, especially when you free Jennifer from her transdimensional prison and you have to protect her from all of the brain monsters and S&M demons shambling all over the place. But it's part three that perhaps conveys the widower thematic the bluntest - and, naturally, the most unsettling. That's primarily because the game constantly bombards you with cut scenes informing you that your beloved is inching ever closer to death, and if you don't hurry your Jason Voorhees-wannabe ass on up, she's going to be deader than a door nail. And really putting Splatterhouse 3 over the top? They actually use a digitalized woman's visage for Jennifer's image, and not just a bunch of blonde and pink pixels. Oh, and making things even more fucked up? There's not only an alternate ending in which your wife has her internal organs eaten by parasites and transformed into a wildebeest demon(!?!), there's even one in which your elementary school aged son dies because you took too damn long to make it to the final boss! 

Number Four:
Tank controls, cheesy voice acting and enough jump scares to make you pee all over your controller

Resident Evil (PlayStation, 1996)

If any game can rightly be considered a watershed moment for horror games, Capcom's genre-defining Resident Evil is certainly it. By now, entire libraries have been written about the impact of the game on the interactive medium, so rather than regurgitate the standard hagiography that's already been stated a billion-jillion times, I'll just fill you in on my personal experiences with the game. Unlike most of you, I actually played the game for the first time on the Sega Saturn, and seeing just how much better the game looked and played on Sony's first console outing was more than enough than to get me to go out and buy a Playstation (trust me, the differences are like night and day.) Indeed, it took me a full year to finally beat the Director's Cut version of the game, and I can't tell you how many sleepless middle school nights I spent roaming around the halls of that damn mansion, desperately in pursuit of that commodity more precious than life itself ... ink ribbons. Really, everybody has their own personal favorite moment from the game, that one instance that made them go "oh shit, this game is for real." For some, it was walking in on that zombie in the dining area anteroom and having your neck chewed open for the first time. For others, perhaps it was getting trapped in that room with the crushing blocks closing on, and legitimately panicking at the thought of being turned into a "Jill sandwich." But for me, the "ah-ha" moment will always be entering that one locked hallway for the first time, slowly creeping my way down the corridor and having that motherfucking rabid dog jump right through the window. Granted, it's the cheapest of jump scares, but for a medium just then finding its legs in the 3D polygonal space, that shit was downright awe-inspiring. Muddy visuals, cheesy dialogue and unorthodox controls aside, this is a game that remains every bit as eerie, atmospheric and engrossing 20 years down the road as it was when it was brand new ... and yes, I still jump whenever those fucking dogs attack, even though I've played the game at least a thousand times by now. 

Number Three:
The interactive Jason Voorhees experience that was 100 times scarier than any of his movies

Friday the 13th (NES, 1989)

Until my dying day, I will defend this game as not only a good title, but really, one of the most memorable games ever released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. While there were a lot of games on the NES that conveyed a strong "horror" vibe (Castlevania, Ghosts N Goblins, etc.), Friday the 13th was the first (and perhaps, only) game on the console that made you feel anything that could be considered a worthy facsimile of mortal fear. In a game like Castlevania, you played a bad-ass vampire hunter who had the chops to go toe-to-toe with legions of the undead, but here? You played some shitty camp counselor with a bowl cut, whose only means of defense are a bunch of crappy pebbles that usually fly twenty feet over the heads of your intended target. Thankfully, you do get to upgrade your weapons to items that are actually capable of viable self-defense, but even then, there's just this pervasive dread marinating the experience. In true Friday the 13th tradition, you never really know when Jason is going to strike, and his totally unpredictable sneak attacks - accompanied by some of the most horrific electronic shrieking you'll ever hear in your life - are definitely the ultimate in 8-bit jump scares. While hated in some circles, I actually think LJN did a really good job with the property, turning the experience into something that more closely resembled a strategic board game than your dime-a-dozen platformer. And of course, who can ever forget the first time they ever got into a bare knuckle boxing match with the iconic slasher himself? Aye, if anybody lasted longer than Julius in Jason Takes Manhattan, I want to shake your hand. 

Number Two:
The original "survival horror" game takes us on a mind-bending journey inside the darkest recesses of the human mind

Pac-Man (Arcade, 1980)

Think, for a moment, just how horrific the core concept of Namco's iconic pellet muncher is. It's a game where you are stuck in a pitch black maze, with absolutely no way of defending yourself other than to run like hell whenever your totally unkillable spectral enemies get a whiff of you or chug down just enough white pills that you are granted a momentary reprieve from the incessant supernatural torment. And no matter how well you do - or how much temporary control you feel when you scarf down another power pellet - you are destined to keep playing the Jamie Lee Curtis "final girl" role, forever forced to run from your inner demons ... that is, until you get to the very end of your rope and encounter a totally "unbeatable" clusterfuck of a final level that, unfailingly and inevitably, will kill you dead as fuck. Don't let the cheery music and the dancing fruits and all the flashy colors fool you - deep down, this game has to be one of the greatest psychological thrillers in any medium, an absolute Dali/Bunuel nightmarish masterpiece of metaphorical madness. Is Pac-Man really a deranged artist, forever haunted by his inability to escape his past? Is Pac-Man actually a Vietnam veteran, eternally revisiting the most disturbing and soul-crushing moments of his tour of duty (intersected, of course, by all-too-brief reminders of his former, forever unobtainable "normal" life before war?) Or is the entire game sort of a secret Requiem for a Dream, a furtive analogy for the pain and misery felt by substance abusers? No matter how you interpret Pac-Man, there is really no way around it; for a game so universally adored, adulated and admired, it sure does have some extremely intriguing ... and unsettling ... subtext.

Number One:
When whimsical, childhood fun suddenly becomes the ultimate experience in grueling terror

Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1990)

At first glance, putting the iconic NES masterpiece up front as the scariest video game ever made may seem absurd. I mean, there's no blood, nobody gets decapitated and no freaky-ass mindfuck Eternal Darkness shit is going on with your control pad, right? Alas, if you dig a little bit deeper - and put yourself in the mindset of a five-year-old child, circa 1990 - the intrinsic terror of SMB 3 becomes glaringly obvious. Simply put, SMB 3 is about the loss of youthful innocence, basically an 8-bit adaptation of Stephen King's IT, only a hundred times more hardcore (and, uh, without all of the sixth grade sewer gangbanging ... thankfully, that never got the Nintendo treatment.) At heart, SMB 3 is essentially a survival horror game, in which the protagonist is thrown into a Gulliver's Travels type nightmarish ether. Hey, remember how much fun you had spitting fire at tortoises and hopping all over sentient bullets in the first Mario game? Well, NOW, the tables have turned, and it's the environs that is out to get you. Think Bowser's castles in the first game were spooky (and believe you me, they were)? Well, they ain't shit compared to the haunted houses in this game, which feature, among other creepy things, practically unkillable ghosts (unless you're armed with hammers, for some reason), these horrific pitbull-bear-goomba mutant monsters that do that thing with their arms the Bushwhackers used to do and jump all over the place and the skeletons of all the turtles Mario killed in the first game, who have risen from the grave, Pet Semetery-style, to exact their unholy vengeance. That alone would be enough to have the average kindergartner peeing up a storm, but that's literally just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the game, Mario is exposed to practically every worst case nightmare scenario you can think of, from getting chased by giant fish to being sucked down a series of never-ending pipes to getting stuck in the middle of an honest to goodness Satanic army marching parade (indeed, each "world" in the game seems to symbolize at least one common childhood fear, from the fear of heights to the fear of being trapped under ice to the fear of being literally deserted to the fear of being trampled underfoot by a menagerie of giant beasts.) And if that wasn't enough? The game even throws in what has to be the single greatest jump scare in the history of video gaming. Forget "would you kindly" or the dog jumping through the window in RE, NOTHING has ever topped the level where you are just hopping and bopping your way across the wastelands ... ONLY TO HAVE THE MOTHERFUCKING SUN ITSELF COME ALIVE AND START CHASING YOU. There are swerves, I know, but having the life giver to all things in the solar system turn into an omnicidal death bringer with an inexplicable personal vendetta against you is almost too much for the five-year-old, pre-World Wide Web mind to mull. Sure, some may continue to see SMB 3 as just another innocuous, infantile romp through Nintendo never-never-land, but try reading the game through the lens of a Chuckie Finster personality sometime: I mean, it's a video game about a dude who looks like the main character from Maniac running around, gobbling up drugs and dressing in the skin of dead animals and beating the living dog shit out of everything in his path, just because he can. If anybody's managed to come up with a freakier idea for a video game than that, I reckon I'm too chicken shit to put my hands on the control pad. 


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