Top 10 Retro Horror Games
Retro gaming has always been interesting to me as a player. I started gaming on the NES, at the young age of two or three, busting blocks as Mario and whipping ghosts as Simon Belmont. Those feelings of playing games that did everything they could with the limitations of the time always interested me, even today in the age of 4K graphics and VR headsets for anything and everything. As a journalist, I’m constantly dissecting the games I play as well, finding interesting design choices in some of my favorite games as I revisit them as an educated adult.
One of the most interesting genres to me here of late has been horror games, especially older ones as many newer titles follow in the footsteps of Amnesia, which I was never super fond of. I enjoy having some control over the horrible situation. While those sort of games provide some really tense moments, I never enjoyed looking at the inside of a closet for long periods of time in the most dangerous game of peekaboo.
No, my favorite horror games are the ones that paved the way for the genre. Since it is the season for these such title, let’s check out ten of my favorite Retro Horror games. As always this is a personal list, with a ton of opinion trickled in each entry. Be sure to find me somewhere online though to share titles I may not know about; I’m always on the lookout for obscure games.
Rules - “Retro” systems include any console that does not support an HDMI output, for example the Wii is retro, while the Xbox 360 is not. For handhelds anything before the DS and PSP will be considered retro. For PC games, nothing before 2006 will be considered retro. I’ve put the cap on PC games here because of the Wii’s release and due to PC titles already having a fairly significant tech advantage over the Wii by this time.
10) Alone in the Dark
Alone in the Dark arrived on PCs in the early days of 1992, inspired by the works of popular novelist H.P. Lovecraft. While the game itself isn’t anything truly worth playing these days, unlike many of the other titles we’ll be mentioning, Alone in the Dark was the founder of the classic survival horror genre that many amazing games built upon.
Alone in the Dark, at least the original as the franchise is rather shoddy as a whole, started that tradition of using fixed camera angles and tank controls. The player explored a haunted mansion, filled with all sorts of weird monsters that had a few different ways to deal with them. For example, one of the first monsters encountered, can be prevented by pushing a shelf in front of a window, so the beastie doesn’t break in. If anything, watch someone play Alone in the Dark, just to get a taste of the concepts at work, years before Resident Evil released on Playstation.
Doom redefined how gamers played on their home computers. Debuting in 1993, budding company iD Software was experimenting with new ways to map textures to create a pseudo-3D look. Through the brilliant work of John Carmack, pure gaming skills and marketing of John Romero, and the extreme talent from the rest of the crew, Doom was born. Receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, the game became an instant hit, creating a new genre that many called “Doom Clones” only to known later as first-person shooters. Even major businesses knew of the game, as many of their office networks had protocols that would prevent workers from launching Doom.
As tame as it may seem now, Doom at the time was a major entry in the horror-action genre. The source material alone of battling unholy monsters in hell and mars gave it an air of fright. However, the truly scary component of Doom is the game’s lighting engine and sound design. Games prior to Doom rarely had the lighting effects that made Doom special. Enemies could hide in darkness, while some were invisible. The level design complements this, putting monsters at the end of dark hallways, or just around corners.
Even playing today can lead to some intense moments. Later in the series, Doom 3 would try to fit the horror mold more snuggly, for better or worse. Either way, horror was definitely an aspect of Doom that helped define a classic.
8) Splatterhouse 3
One of the few Sega Genesis that fits into the horror category, Splatterhouse 3 is the more accessible game in the incredibly violent series. Releasing in 1993, players take control of Rick who is possessed by the Terror Mask once again to destroy the monsters plaguing the mansion he purchased after the events of the last two games. Splatterhouse 3 is interesting, due to its shift from a running down a single hallway of super challenging enemies to a more traditional beat-em-up game. There’s also the mansion itself to explore, which is filled with strange monsters. Taking on the mansion is no easy feat either, as the player is put against the clock to save Jennifer and Rick’s son before the monsters kill them.
To me, Splatterhouse 3 is the most interesting title in the series. The art style isn’t as detailed as it was in the second game, but the way the game plays is more approachable and a ton easier by comparison. Rick can become a beastier version of himself by channeling the power of the Terror Mask after collecting orbs left behind by other creatures. This hulking form lets the player turn the tables on these beings, giving them a slight edge while transformed, and also creating an interesting ebb and flow to combat that previous games in the series just didn’t have.
There is an interesting replay factor as well. While the game’s timers may seem incredibly unfair, a skilled player can actually save Jennifer from the monsters, creating a few different endings. Splatterhouse 3 is fairly hard to come by on the Genesis, but the PS3 reboot does have this game as an unlockable. Definitely worth tracking down for fans of the horror genre and the Sega Genesis. There aren’t a whole of scares, but the themes at work scream classic horror film.
7) Resident Evil
Probably one of the most recognizable game series in the horror genre, Resident Evil started life as a survival horror game on the Playstation. Coming to players in 1996, Resident Evil was created by the brilliant minds of Shinji Mikami and Tokuro Fujiwara. Originally, the game started as a remake to the Famicom exclusive Sweet Home, which is a title that’s now playable thanks to rom hacks. After a few years of unstable development, the project took life as something new.
Players take control of several characters, involving multiple playthroughs with different paths through the famous mansion. While initially, the game seems to be just a standard zombie game, players will uncover the secret organisation behind the viral outbreak Umbrella by reading documents scattered about and through a few cutscenes. Resident Evil is still incredibly playable today, as the game has been ported to multiple consoles and has been remade a few times. The most recent release was on PC, Xbox One, and PS4, creating the most beautiful way to the play the classic.
Resident Evil was one of the first games to make players truly afraid of challenges. Death was around every corner as the hallways were filled with zombies, vicious dogs, crows, and other vile creatures. Not only that, but the mansion is filled with complex puzzles and deadly traps. Due to the limited ammunition, the entire game feels more like a massive puzzle with tons of stressors throughout, creating an experience that was incredibly unique at the time. So much so, that even the company behind the game, Capcom, after coining the term “survival horror” would play around with that style to create a whole new genre. Even after finishing the game, there are multiple ways to play the story, as well as tons of cool unlockables.
Most of the classic Resident Evil games are worth revisiting. Most of them have been ported over or remade, but if not many are available on digital marketplaces. Truly, it's an amazing series that took what Alone of the Dark was going for and made it something new and frightening.
6) Parasite Eve
Probably one of the few RPGs that qualify as horror, Parasite Eve was created by Squaresoft and released in 1998. Parasite Eve took the Resident Evil framework and created an interesting, focused, action-RPG centered around Aya Brea, a strangely talented NYPD agent who can heal herself and create fireballs with her mitochondria. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, but the story is actually pretty awesome. Players explore the typical horror environments like a police station, sewers, and various other areas of New York, while also combating grotesque monsters in a unique battle system. Aya will have to dodge enemies, cast spells of sorts, and maintain her equipment to stay alive. This weird blend of game elements creates an experience that was unique to anything I had ever played, even if the game is shorter than most.
Where the horror truly lies is the game’s presentation. The monsters are fully realized in Square’s usual amazing cutscenes, showing off the power of the Playstation’s video hardware. Bosses take more of the typical RPG approach, as they’re huge monsters that offer unique challenge. Finishing the game also unlocks an optional area known as the Chrysler Building, which has seventy-seven floors, culminating in a tough boss fight. While there’s not a whole lot of replayability in Parasite Eve, the game has an incredibly satisfying arc in its plot and gameplay that’s definitely worth visiting. The franchise takes some strange turns from game to game, making the first one stand out even more.
5) Dino Crisis
Another game by Capcom, who quickly became masters of the survival horror genre they essentially created, Dino Crisis is similar to Resident Evil with the twist that instead of zombies being the main enemy, players now have to face dinosaurs. Releasing in 1999, Dino Crisis was a unique title for Capcom, as it was one of the first games in this style that used full 3D environments instead of the typical pre-rendered areas.
Recently, I played through Dino Crisis to find that it was an interesting mix of genuine puzzle solving and dinosaur blasting. The puzzles in this game take a lot of problem solving skills that took way more effort than the usual puzzle. Players will have to track down ID codes of employees of the scientific facility, as well as find their bodies to scan their fingerprints. It can get a little confusing to say the least. It’s also important to note that Dino Crisis is not nearly as horror oriented as Capcom’s other titles. By the end of the game, there is little fear, except for the T-Rex. The Rex is by far the most problematic enemy of the game, showing up at key moments with its signature instant-kill tactics. Keeping it at bay with a grenade launcher is a must.
Dino Crisis, while fun, is more interesting due to its shift in how the environments were crafted. Not only do these environments fit the theme of the game, but this allows the camera to sweep during areas in ways that weren’t possible in early Resident Evil games. Beating the game quickly also unlocks a challenge mode and finishing the game at various difficulties unlocks different costumes.
4) System Shock 2
System Shock 2 brought the unique terror that only cyberpunk could offer. Launching for PCs in 1999, the game is a first-person, role-playing game that is hard to define. Players create their character with tons of options, allowing them to tackle challenges in a multitude of different ways. The game features a story that is better left unsaid, tackling deep themes like the fear technological advancements and the unknown reaches of space.
While System Shock 2’s interface is fairly complex, the game was arguably way ahead of its time. Playing the game definitely feels like playing a classic era science fiction novel straight out the minds of Harlan Ellison, Mary Shelley, and the like. System Shock 2’s ideas would later be carried on by the successful Bioshock series that reduced the inventory management of the original in favor of more action. Fans of games like Bioshock should definitely check out System Shock 2, as once again it’s an experience best having without any prior knowledge. A prequel is in development currently as well, meaning we may once again experience the terror of cyberpunk.
3) Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill originally became a staple for Playstation players due to its unique foggy town and horrific monsters. At the time, the fog was a clever way to keep the game running smoothly, dealing with the Playstation’s limitations. In 2001, Silent Hill 2 released for the PS2, setting a gold standard for psychological horror. Silent Hill 2 lets players explore the uncanny, demented town of Silent Hill in search for James Sunderland’s wife. As simple of a plot as that sounds, things get incredibly dark the further Sunderland delves into this strange town. Staying alive also becomes a top priority, as Sunderland is constantly meeting the monstrous Pyramid Head.
The reveal of the main antagonist, Pyramid Head, is one of the most iconic monster reveals in all of video games. Not only is Pyramid Head a terrifying force for the player, taking out massive amounts of health with a single swing of his giant knife, but the character also reflects the tortured state of mind of the main character. This, coupled with the uncanny scenes between the various other characters wandering around Silent Hill, made for one of the most scary experiences in gaming history.
Silent Hill 2 also continued the trend of letting combat be less important, in favor of solving convoluted puzzles and exploring run down, claustrophobic areas. It’s an incredibly eerie experience that always makes the player feel uncomfortable. In other survival horror games, there is little moments of triumph. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t have that. Even some of the game’s multiple endings end in tragic ways.
2) Eternal Darkness
Eternal Darkness gave players scares through its use of fourthwall manipulation and illusion. Coming to the Gamecube of all things in 2002, Eternal Darkness has players take control of twelve different characters throughout multiple timelines to solve the mysteries surrounding a strange mansion in Rhode Island. Eternal Darkness, like System Shock 2 is full of clever surprises, making me wish I had bought this one prior to it becoming a cult classic as many of the game’s tricks have been shared throughout the years.
Basically, Eternal Darkness loves to mess with its player in tons of unique ways that were new to the genre. Fans of Metal Gear Solid will be familiar with some of this style of trickery, especially those who remember facing Psycho Mantis. Sometimes the main character’s head will fall off and roll around the floor, not really affecting the character’s health or killing them, just a weird occurrence.
Eternal Darkness is filled with clever moments like this, making it a must have for any fan of the Gamecube. The game’s use of sanity was even later used in games like Amnesia, giving it a lasting impression on those who played it. Strange that people like Shigeru Miyamoto worked on a dark horror title, even if his role was fairly minor compared to others working on it. The game’s writer and director, Denis Dyack has also been working a spiritual successor titled Shadow of the Eternals.
1) Resident Evil 4
Even though, Resident Evil 4 is a part of a series we’ve already discussed, the fourth entry of the series was such a phenomenal shift that it had to be included on its own. While Resident Evil’s early games established a solid formula for survival horror, the director wanted to include more action, while still keeping things tense. Thus Resident Evil 4 was born, first coming to the Gamecube in 2005 and later being ported to almost every major console since.
Resident Evil 4 shifted the action to behind the character’s shoulder, allowing the player to explore the environment with more freedom. This also let the player aim their weapon, which was needed to take down the infected inhabitants of Spain, who used their Las Plagas tainted bodies in various ways. This meant that enemies would react depending on where they were shot, allowing the player to disarm them, or stun them. Resident Evil 4 also utilized quick time events, which were arguably the only blemish on otherwise a perfect game, that gave the player a way to finish downed opponents or dodge an incoming attack.
Horror truly opened up with Resident Evil 4, as the environments and enemies could become more detailed since the player would constantly be looking where their character was. There is also a ton of exploration and secrets built into the game, like hidden treasure and items, as well as unlockable weapons. Not even a year after its exclusive release to the Gamecube, Resident Evil 4 came to the PS2 with additional content. This added the classic multiple character aspect to the game, allowing players to be Ada Wong, a fan favorite in the series.
If it wasn’t for Resident Evil 4, third person shooters may not be as prevalent in today’s gaming market. Not only did the game inspire countless game designers, but personally this is the game that got me engrossed in horror gaming. I never like horror films, finding them too grotesque and violent, with people maiming other people for little reason. Resident Evil 4 presented its dark world in an interesting, engaging way that truly had some terrifying moments that I will never forget, but I never became scared enough to stop playing, at least not for too long. I finished the game in about a week, absolutely starving for more games like it. I quickly found all of the game’s hidden content, as well as learning the best ways to deal with the game’s challenges. I’ve the game on practically every console it’s available for, as well as play it all the through about once every couple years. There is honestly nothing comparable to Resident Evil 4, it's almost a perfect game entirely, but it is definitely a must play for the retro horror gaming genre. Even if it's just now becoming retro.
Article by: Alex McCumbers