Monday, October 3, 2016

Five Obscure Super Nintendo Horror Games

A handful of off-the-beaten path cartridges that'll definitely get you in a Halloween mood in a hurry.

By: Jimbo X

When it comes to 16-bit horror games, the group consensus is that the Sega Genesis beat the Super Nintendo silly. This is hardly debatable, seeing as how the Genny was absolutely inundated with console exclusive monster mashes like Splatterhouse 2 and 3, The Ooze and Haunting Starring Polterguy, plus iterations of Castlevania, Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Ghouls ‘N Ghosts that, in the eyes of many, totally eclipsed their analogues on the SNES.

That said, if you looked hard enough - and didn't mind finding ways to reverse engineer your North American unit to play PAL and Japan-only releases - you would have found quite a few decent to really, really good to almost great horror offerings on the console Super Metroid and Earthbound likewise called home. To help ring in the Halloween season, I decided to peruse the SNES and Super Famicom libraries for a couple of less discussed horror-themed video games - while the inherent quality of the five games below fluctuate, one thing is for sure: if you're looking to get into the All Hallows' Eve spirit, any of the offerings below ought to get you feeling the holy ghost of Samhain in no time at all...

Clock Tower
(Human Entertainment, 1995)

Yes, before the vaunted survival horror series made the great migration to the Playstation, it first appeared on the Super Famicom in 1995. In terms of sheer atmosphere, this has to be the best "pure" horror game on the system. This is a game tailor-made to scare the dog shit out of you, with an especially effective emphasis on strategically timed scares. For the most part an adventure game, you use your D-pad to steer the main character across a huge mansion. A mini-triumph of minimal game design, you really only have to use two face buttons - a context-sensitive "action" button that opens doors, turns on lights and opens boxes and another one that forces your character to run like hell (yeah, you'll be using this one, a lot.) While some may be put off by the deliberately slow pace, hardcore horror fans will absolutely LOVE the game mechanics, which allow you to hide, outsmart and outmaneuver the pinking shears-wielding antagonist by locking yourself in bathrooms, concealing yourself under beds and taking advantage of all sorts of impromptu weapons liberally sprinkled around the abode. There's a lot of backtracking, but since the game features randomly-generated room layouts, no two playthroughs of the game ought to unfurl the same way. The controls and tempo take a while to get used to, but if you've ever fancied yourself a fan of the oeuvre of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, this is a game you owe it to yourself to play.

Laplace no Ma
(Vic Tokai, 1995)

From the same fine folks who gave us Clock Tower (as well as the outstanding Fire Pro Wrestling series) comes Laplace no Ma, a traditional JRPG-dungeon crawler that, in some respects, is quite similar to the Famicom masterpiece Sweet Home. While I don't think Laplace is anywhere near is innovative or awesome as that 8-bit classic, I do think this is a fairly solid role playing game, if only noteworthy for its strong horror overtones. Set in a small New England community, you get to run around a sleepy hamlet, where in the 1920s, some really freaky shit went down at this one mansion. Of course, this being a video game and all, your avatar can't help but amble on in and try to solve the decades-old mystery, which - naturally - also entails killing the living shit out of all sorts of monsters and rabid monsters lurking all over the place. Granted, the combat system is pretty straight forward, the story isn't going to win any awards for creativity and the backdrops are practically interchangeable no matter where you go, but it's pretty hard to hate on any game that lets you stab werewolves and miniature Cthulus with silver daggers. And man, you have gots to love that strangely life-affirming, quasi-philosophical ending!

Musya: The Classic Japanese Tale of Horror
(Seta USA, 1992)

Musya is one of those games that has some pros, but ultimately, a lot more cons (you know, sort of like the constituency of the Minnesota Vikings ... zing!) First, the good: the visuals are really nice, there are a shit ton of monsters everywhere (and there's a pretty good mix of the undead, too, and not just three or four enemy types that keep getting recycled) and your protagonist has a downright awesome spinning javelin attack that is easily one of the 10 funnest "spam" moves in the history of 16-bit gaming. Furthermore, it's a pretty long game for its genre, and the bosses - for the most part - are fairly inventive. And as for the bad? Well, there's really no delicate way to put it: the controls in this game absolutely suck, with jumping mechanics so floaty it might as well be considered a totally broken component of the gameplay. And if that wasn't bad enough? The slowdown in this game is absolutely absurd, with some of the worst flickering I've seen in any game on any console ever. To be fair, there are certainly some neat things to be found in Musya, but to be frank, the amount of patience required to experience that handful of cool stuff clearly outweighs whatever short-lived fun you're likely to wrench out of the cartridge. Tis a pity, too: the whole Ghosts N Goblins meets Ninja Gaiden gameplay had plenty of promise - and had publisher Seta actually taken the time to polish the game and overhaul its controls, it probably could have been a miniature cult classic. 

(KSS, 1995)

Ahh, shit, this game rules. Imagine, if you will, what would happen if one evening, Castlevania and Contra got rip-roaring drunk and made sweet, Satanic love all night. Well, nine months later, I'd imagine the horrid abomination crawling forth from the womb to resemble something like Majyuo (the name roughly translates into "king of the demons"), a run and gun platformer that has so many awesome little touches that, at times, you almost want to pause the game so you can soak up all the kooky awesomeness. Initially playing a dude who looks like Rambo cosplaying as Hank Hill, eventually the side scrolling shooter takes an unexpected turn into Altered Beast territory, with your avatar turning into - among other things - a laser blasting insect warrior who can teleport underground and emerge in a blaze of enemy-destroying hellfire, a winged peacock dude who can shoot mind boomerangs and do capoeira rolls and, my personal favorite, a purple dragon with a beer bully whose fully charged special attack appears to be the ability to barf full-screen sized wolf ghost heads at people. This game has to have some of the most inspired backdrops of any SNES game (really, they are so trippy, they make Yoshi's Island look like an Excel spreadsheet) and the boss fights - while hard as fucking shit - are nonetheless a hoot to churn through. The steep difficulty curve may turn off most gamers, but if you have a thing for weird-ass (and hard-ass) action platformers, Majyuo is DEFINITELY a game you need to go out of your way to experience.

(SETA Corporation, 1995)

OK, so basically, Nosferatu is a blatant Prince of Persia clone. Still, it's a Prince of Persia clone that allows you to punch the heads off zombies and run face first into a solid stone surface and sell it like it was Three Stooges eye poke, and that's mighty fine with me. Taking a page out of the Out of This World/Flashback: The Quest For Identity playbook, the gameplay is largely anchored around single screen, labyrinthine puzzles, which - of course - are littered with all sorts of death traps. What makes Nosferatu stand out a little is its combat system, which, all things taken into consideration, really isn't that bad for an action-platformer (and trust me, you really can't say you've truly lived into you've spin kicked a virtual orangutan in this game.) While the controls are pretty solid and the animations are downright tremendous, the game does have its fair share of flaws. For one thing, the puzzling elements get real repetitive, real fast and really, there's not a whole lot of variation - structurally or aesthetically - from one castle to the next. On top of that, the boss fights are usually pretty unimpressive, and the final showdown with Nosferatu himself - whom, by the way, looks nothing like the iconic silent movie creation played by Max Shreck - is a big letdown. Still, there are more positives than negatives here (especially the music, which is a nearly perfect combination of creepy and corny) and if there's any time of year where trial and error gameplay is most tolerable, it's definitely at 3 a.m. during a rainy October morn. 


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