The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, IT–the ’80s and ’90s gave us iconic horror movies and franchises that continue to haunt our nightmares today. It was a seminal decade for horror, and the rich source material germinated a new genre in the then nascent video gaming industry.
Arcade cabinets may not seem like an immediate fit for horror games. Loud and blindingly colourful by nature, the machines seem like the antithesis of modern games like Silent Hill that use eerie silence and just-beyond-your-vision dread to create fear. There’s also the limitation from older graphics–gore is a lot less scary when it’s rendered in very pixelated form.
Yet the genre still found a way to incept genuine scares amidst an industry full of comical platformers and campy beat ‘em ups. Below are some of the best arcade games that gave players goosebumps even in the most neon-crazed amusement parlours (or the very least, a slight chill).
Ghost ‘n Goblins is a platformer game where you play as a knight clad in shining armour. Get hit by one of the titular ghost or goblin though and he is left in nothing but his bloomers. One more hit sees our knight reduced to a skeleton (ie die). As you proceed you’ll find armor and weapons you can equip and a difficulty curve that is pretty brutal. The story’s pretty standard fare–rescue several damsels-in-distress from demons, ghouls, ogres, and general monstrosities.
Fighting undead in the nude is quite horrific (Source: The Register)
The sprites are a far cry from what one would consider scary today, but Ghosts ‘n Goblins was a nightmare for players in an entirely different sense: it was notoriously difficult. You could only get hit twice before dying, and you had to replay the game to get the true ending. The game is constantly lumped together with the likes of Dark Souls. The game’s director, Tokuro Fujiwara, would go on to make Resident Evil, which only shows how much he liked either frustrating or scaring the living daylights out of gamers.
Splatterhouse is a dark little beat ‘em up from Namco that features Rick Taylor. Rick is ripping the annals of hell itself to rescue his girlfriend. It’s a recurring theme in the series–in Splatterhouse 3, it’s his son who is in the clutches of demons. The game was released in 1988 to a world that hadn’t met Mortal Kombat yet, and so it gained notoriety for its graphic violence.
It’s like Taken, if Taken was set in hell, and Liam Neeson was Jason Voorhees (Source: TV Tropes)
Unlike Ghosts ‘n Goblins, there is nothing cartoonish about Splatterhouse. Inspired by slasher flicks and the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the game doesn’t pull it’s grisly punches. Monsters look like quivering mounds of raw flesh or humans skinned inside out. When damaged, Rick’s skin literally starts sloughing off.
Released in 1986, Chiller drenched the arcade gaming world in gore previously unseen before. The game was operated through a light gun, and the premise was simple: torture people for points. The levels play out like a medieval torturer’s dream. Shoot the guillotine to hack off an immobile victim’s limbs, one by one. Wait long enough before shooting again and you may get lucky enough to get a crow swooping in for dinner.
Body horror as grotesquely as 1986 graphics could portray it. (Source: Hardcore Gaming 101)
There’s a deep, perverse sense of sadism in the game that would probably still elicit shock if it were released today if any game was made in the same vein as Chiller. Even with its notoriety, the game failed to gain any commercial traction because many arcade owners refused to carry it.
Space stations, when they’re not portrayed as symbols of progress, are downright creepy. The fear of facing unknown creatures, claustrophobic hallways, and the ever-present void outside make the locations prime real estate for horror.
Above: What happens when the aliens win in Space Invaders (Source: YouTube)
A departure from the masked serial killer frenzy of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Taito’s Space Gun took place inside a space station overrun with hostile aliens. The game took advantage of the era’s love of the Aliens movies, and piggybacked on the same dread of having to rescue people only to watch them mutate into Lovecraftian horrors.
Beast Busters is a good break if you’re tired of murderous aliens. A mix between horror and over-the-top American action movies of the ‘80s, the game saddles the line between odd and genuinely creepy. Enemies can range from a writhing mound of limbs and heads, to a zombie American football player borne aloft by an equally dead bald eagle.
On the way to liberate you...from life! (Source: VG Junk)
While not quite invoking the same feelings of dread and doom as Chiller or Splatterhouse, the game is still a fun romp, if only to see how absurd the creatures can get. It’s also the only 3-player game on the list, which makes fighting a large chunk of faeces with a face more fun.
You can’t talk about arcades and horror without paying tribute to House of the Dead. Released near the tail end of the arcade gaming era, Sega’s horror shooter injected some excitement back into arcades. Along with Resident Evil, it played a major role in giving rise to the zombie revival of the 90s, although director Takashi Oda prefers to call his monsters “creatures” instead.
Apocalypses can come and go but blue jeans are forever (Source: We Got This Covered)
House of the Dead’s combination of horror and action thriller made for an instant light rail gun classic. The game also ends in multiple ways depending on how well you did in-game, which only added to its quarter-devouring popularity.