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Horror has had it tough in gaming. Until relatively recently, there hasn’t exactly been an outpouring of terrifying titles over the years aside from a few notable exceptions, like Chiller in the arcade and Sierra On-Line’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers and Phantasmagoria.
It definitely isn’t for want of trying. The horror genre has had a long, bloody history in video games even though it might not have as many bodies in its lineup compared to others. But it’s there, lurking in the shadows of first-person shooters, sports titles, massively multiplayer online games, and mobile, waiting — and every so often reaching out to wrap its cold fingers around players’ nerves.
To help celebrate this year’s Halloween, let’s indulge in a bit of retro-flavored grave-digging and walk past the stand-up tombstones and cardboard coffins to uncover a few missing gems … some of which continue to live on despite the ravages of time on their rotting, digital flesh.
And be sure to let the rest of the souls here know in the comments if there’s a vintage favorite from your past that you had a scary time with.
The Elvira series
“Just because I made my reputation as a ‘B’ movie queen, people think that my idea of haute cuisine is stale popcorn, flat cola, and rock-hard Jujubes. But I’m actually a pretty decent cook. Really. If you don’t believe me, just meet me in the kitchen and let’s see what we can conjure up together… .”
In 1990, an outfit called Horror Soft in the U.K. created an role-playing game-ish adventure called Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, based on the famous hostess of many a B-movie night.
It seems her Great Great Grandmama, Lady Emelda of Killbragant, lived in the same house she’s inherited — and turned it into a cesspool of evil 100 or so years ago. Fortunately (or unfortunately), she wasn’t immortal and died, but not before promising to her henchminions that she would return. And that is exactly what is happening when the game starts around Halloween, and you, the poor sap who answered Elvira’s ad for help, have to find a way to stop her before it’s too late.
The sequel from 1992, Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus, was even bigger than the first game, which only had 800 “locations” (which could be anything from a closet to a staircase). Now there were 4,000 places to get into trouble across a movie studio that Elvira owns and where, once again, evil has reared its ugly head (in this case, three of them).
Both games had manuals that explained things as if Elvira were writing them out herself (“What do you mean, ‘I don’t get it??’ The Adventurers’ Union said that you were an experienced castle-cleaner, a real fantasy-game stud. And now you want me to explain a simple computer interface. This does wonders for my confidence … .”). Far from helpless, Elvira often played a key role in both titles, such as being the only person around who could brew up new spells if you had the right ingredients.
Players explored everything in first-person using grid-based movement popular among a number of computer-RPGs at the time. Inventory kept the bits and bobs picked up along the way (ingredients for crafting spells with Elvira’s help), and the interface tried to keep things simple. Combat was in real-time and could be a real pain to work with. Fortunately, you could save anywhere at any time before losing your head to a well-placed sword swing.
The games weren’t of the “jump scare” variety. Most of the time, the real horror lay in the graphic and often morbid fates that the player could meet and which Horror Soft’s artists gleefully made the most of. Unfortunately, neither title is currently available on digital services such as Good Old Games, instead shambling on the ‘net as abandonware zombies.