The Top 15 Horror Icons of Gaming

As an unabashed fan of horror in all its forms, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for horror gaming. While not as prolific a genre as certain other game types, when a horror game comes along that gets it right, it manages to be more effective and plain scarier than horror films or books could hope to be. Play horror games long enough, and you’ll see some serious shit.

Much like the world of horror films, gaming’s forays into the demonic have left it with a plethora of iconic characters. While its debatable if gaming has produced a character as iconic as say Freddy or Jason, the overall quality and effectiveness of gaming’s horror icons can go toe to toe with those from any other medium, and as Halloween approaches I think its time they got some well deserved attention.

One quick note regarding these selections. A character can be scary and iconic even if it isn’t in a pure horror game, meaning that not every character on this list is from a game that is traditionally classified as horror! With that disclaimer, I present my top 15 horror icons of gaming.

15. Creeper (Minecraft)

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Now you see why I highlighted that disclaimer don’t you?

Minecraft is not a strict horror game, but it does rely heavily on its survival elements, which are also vital to good horror experiences. As such, the first night you find yourself out in the wild, or trapped in a deep cavern are among the scariest moments in gaming. That’s a feeling that’s due in large part to the presence of a creeper, whose silent approach and explosive death have been the end of just about ever “Minecraft” player at some point. The only time you fear the creeper more than when it’s directly behind you, is when you aren’t seeing it at all. That’s a pretty good indication you’re a horror icon.

14. The Yeti (Ski Free)

Yeti

So, it’s the early 90′s and you’re playing “Ski Free” on your fancy new Windows computer. There you are enjoying a leisure ski adventure, marveling at the game’s technical majesty, when all of a sudden a giant friggin Yeti beelines at your skier and straight up eats them.

The brilliance of The Yeti stems from the fact you’re not expecting it. It has absolutely no business existing in a casual game like Ski Free, and not only terrifies you the first time you play it, but makes you live in dread of his coming on subsequent tries. You may escape the Yeti, but you’ll never be truly rid of him

13. Wallmasters (Legend of Zelda)

WallMaster

I swear I’ll get to strict horror games at some point, but until then, I’ve got to give the Wallmaster its due.

Wallmaster…**** you. Not only are you the scariest creature in “Zelda” (giant dismembered hands are always scary) but you are the most frustrating as well. Whereas most servants of Ganon are satisfied merely murdering the young adventurer Link, you find your perverse pleasure in picking him up like a broken toy, and tossing him back to the beginning of a dungeon, making you something of an in-game troll as well as a giant hand. For being the cause of more high pitched screams and broken controllers than anything else in the Zelda series, I salute you.

12. Alma (F.E.A.R.)

Alma

You know what’s funny? “F.E.A.R.” isn’t really that scary of a series overall, and the whole “creepy little girl” thing was already getting kind of played out by the time Alma reared her freaky little head.

It’s the fact Alma managed to be so memorable in spite of those limitations, that gets her on this list. Remove Alma from “F.E.A.R.” and you’re left with a mostly generic shooter that would have been forgotten much sooner than it has been. With her though, you have a game that manages to keep you constantly on your toes in anticipation for the next moment that she will come and just scare the crap out of you. It’s her presence that manages to change the entire atmosphere and dynamics of the game, meaning whenever she is on screen “F.E.A.R.” goes from a semi-competent shooter, to pretty damn good horror game.

11. The Fog (Silent Hill)

Fog

You know those directors who say something along the lines of “We may have shot in New York, but the city was more like a character than a setting.”? The fog in “Silent Hill” is just like that.

Originally implemented to compensate for the Playsation’s lack of draw distance, the fog in “Silent Hill” makes the whole game about 90% scarier than it would have been otherwise. It not only conceals your enemies making you rely on vague radio signals that only loosely indicate where the danger is, but even makes moments of supposed calm uncomfortable, like the fog is slowly seeping in and strangling you. It might not actually be a monster (that’s actually debatable considering the plot) but it’s certainly an icon of horror gaming.

10. Scissorman (Clock Tower)

Scissorman

The “Clock Tower” series may never get the love it deserves in the world of horror gaming, but it’s high time that Scissorman was paid the proper respect.

Designed and modeled largely after the more famous creatures of film horror, Scissorman is a slasher in the pure sense of the term. He creeps, he stalks, he wields an iconic weapon, and he usually chooses the most cinematic moments to pop out and scare the living hell out of you. His design and actions make him often feel like some sort of missing character from the glory days of the 80′s slasher, and to this day seeing even a still image of him can inspire dread and a morbid curiosity regarding who he is, and where the hell he got those giant bloody scissors.

9. Necromorphs (Dead Space)

Necromorph

Aim for the head. If George Romero movies didn’t already get that simple message buried deep into your subconscious, the years of film and video games that preceded “Dead Space” and preached the same words probably did.

The Necromorph directly plays against that universal shooter rule, by making the limbs the weakspot. While that no doubt caused nearly every player to panic during the first few encounters, even when figuring out the trick to defeating them, their steady menacing pace and skills at playing dead never fail to cause you to shoot randomly in terror once in a while when one comes into sight. Also, unlike many horror creatures, discovering the origins and motivations of the necromorphs actually make them more terrifying. “Dead Space 1 & 2” (you heard me!) are the premiere horror games of this generation, and that’s due in large part to the terrifying contributions of the Necromorphs.

8. Deathclaw (Fallout)

Deathclaw

Despite not technically being a horror game, “Fallout” manages to be one of the most terrifying series ever made due to the unfiltered horrific vision of the nuclear apocalypse it portrays. There are atrocities in those games without equal, and the bleak and somber tones of the world they inhabit make them all the more intimidating.

Yet none of the horrors these games can throw at you compare to the Deathclaw. While their pants wetting visual design, incredible power, and simply unfair speed certainly help their iconic status, the biggest reason they’re so memorable is due to the design of the games themselves. Because of the open nature of “Fallout” the first time you encounter a Deathclaw, you are likely in no way prepared to defeat it, and can only watch in horror as it swarms on you with blinding speed, and an almost professional level of malice. Hell, even later in the game when you’re basically a destroyer of worlds, a pack of these bad boys can still make you pause in fear.

7. Poison Head Crabs (Half-Life)

Headcrab

Sure headcrabs are mostly derivative of the face huggers from “Alien,” but that did absolutely to suppress the terror they inspired when making there debut in 1998′s “Half-Life,” and they’ve since arguably surpassed their terrestrial spiritual brethren in terms of notoriety.

That being said, I give the slight nod to their poisonous offshoot from “Half-Life 2.” Even though the Ravenholm section of that game was basically a detour into the horror genre, the only sections I’d really consider scary involved these little bastards, and their ability to bring the player’s health down to 1 instantly. Much like the Wallmaster, the poisonous headcrab is memorable not just because of the way it initially sends a jolt of fear through the player, but because of the way it can wreck your gaming experience.

6. Evil Otto (Berzerk)

EvilOtto

When you’re first name is Evil, you’ve got some pretty big horror expectations to live up to.

Otto has done just that, though over a career dedicated to outmaneuvering the players of “Berzerk” and coming upon them like the specter of death itself, all while sporting a permanent grin that only goes away when its blood lust is satisfied. “Berzkerk” has claimed actual lives, and while that’s medically been attributed to heart attacks caused by the flashing lights of the game, anyone who’s ever cringed upon hearing the garbled “Intruder Alert, Intruder Alert” message that preceeds the arrival of Evil Otto know he was the more likely culprit.

5. The Cherub (Doom)

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In general, when designing an effective horror character, it’s appreciated if some level of subtlety is applied either in the origins or design. With few exceptions, obvious attempts to scare are not acceptable.

Meet one of those exceptions. Is it a bit cheap from a design standpoint to just throw a deformed monster baby out there and call it a day? Perhaps. However, it’s impossible to deny that when a gang of these things come screeching at you (of course they screech) you’re first reaction is to back away towards the last known safe point while screaming your head off and firing a shotgun in every direction. For the most part, the frights in the Doom series are muted somewhat by the sheer amount of firepower available to you, but there is no weapon in the game (not even the fabled BFG) that makes you feel comfortable when surrounded by these bundles of terror.

4. The Witch (Left 4 Dead)

Witch_2

Ah the Witch. What else is there to say about the Witch?

The Witch is like a landmine of pure terror. Even though you’re up against an army of some of the most horrifying creatures imaginable, it’s the one that can kill you before you can put up a fight that scares you the most. Landmines might not make a noise to alert you of their presence like the Witch does, but those lamentations actually make her more frightening as the moment you hear them, you’re suddenly seized with terror and the knowledge you might soon be dead. The Witch has gotten us all at some point, and the moment you fire a shot in the wrong direction, she’ll get you again.

3. Shodan (System Shock)

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Like many other horror gaming characters, Shodan borrows several characteristics from something in film (in this case “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” HAL 9000), but uses the interactive advantages of gaming to maker her own mark.

The antagonist of the “System Shock” series, Shodan’s defining moment would come in “System Shock 2” when after your character has survived an abandoned space ship full of horror, it is revealed that the lone survivor that was guiding you along is actually the evil A.I. Shodan, whose been using you for her own agenda. Long before “Bioshock” asked us “Would You Kindly,” “System Shock 2” showed us how a twist can be that much more effective when coupled with the feeling of betrayal. Only here it’s made even more effective by the presence of Shodan whose megalomaniac personality makes you feel appropriately small.

2. Nemesis (Resident Evil 3)

Nemesis

The argument that “Resident Evil” is the biggest franchise in horror gaming is not a hard one to make, and of all of the terrors the series has lent to our nightmares (lickers, giant spiders, those damn zombie dogs) none are more memorable than the Nemesis.

Essentially the Terminator of the franchise, the Nemesis was built for no other purpose than to hunt and kill S.T.A.R.S. members. Not bound by many of the series previously established rules (he can enter doors!), the Nemesis is like a boss character you fight the entire game, though you never know when he will appear, and as such are rarely prepared to stand up to him. With his strong aversion to dying, the only pang of regret you’ll feel when he finally goes down for good, is when you realize that the “RE” series, and horror gaming, may never see his demonic equal.

1. Pyramid Head (Silent Hill 2)

Pyramid_Head

In a way it was disappointingly easy to name Pyramid Head number one.

While his iconic looks are the very embodiment of terror, and certainly make him stand out amongst the crowd, it’s not until you start learning more about the characters origins do you realize just how depraved it is. One of the more disturbing elements of the character, which is rarely seen in video games otherwise, is its underlying sexual themes, which are highly reminiscent of the terrifying cenobite demons from “Hellaraiser.” It’s an example of the many ways this character assaults your emotions on a primal level, and gets under your skin in a very real way.

I think that may just be the clearest reason Pyramid Head gets the top spot. While just about every other character on this list largely only unsettles you when you’re actually up against them in the game you’re playing, Pyramid Head is the only one that really sticks with long after, and is as terrifying when you’re merely considering him, as he is when you’re facing him in the game.

The Best of Steam Green Light’s First Approvals

Steam Green Light finally approved its first 10 games to be featured on the site, and (for the most part) they’re proving why this program is such a great idea in the first place. From zombie games, to samurai simulators, to “Half-Life” mods, back to zombie games, just in the initial offering of titles we are seeing some really remarkable ideas that will soon become available for all. Ranking those initial 10 titles is no easy task, but if you want the best of the best of Green Light so far, here it is.

10. McPixel – Probably the type of game that looks fun to vote for, but won’t get that many buys, “McPixel” is an odd title to say the least. It’s made up of a series of 20 second levels where you have to achieve a goal (usually getting rid of a bomb) without many instructions on how to do so. It’s reminiscent of “Wario Ware,” and carries a very unique since of humor, but looks like it may wear its welcome faster than that classic ever did. Nothing to see here, move along.

9. No More Room In Hell – “No More Room In Hell” is a “Half-Life 2″ mod that more than favors “Left 4 Dead,” but this zombie squad based FPS gets some serious points for knowing its genre. I like the variety of zombie enemies, weapons, and appropriate environments, but what I love is the scarce ammunition, lack of crosshairs display, multiple game modes (including an awesome survival mode where you hold down a zombie fort) and overall fun factor. If you’re not tired of “Left 4 Dead,” but crave something new, keep your eye on this one.

8. Cry of Fear – A “Half-Life” mod, this is one of two horror games to make the final cut. “Cry of Fear” uses the old “you have amnesia” story to throw you into a world of fear and constant terror. The goal of “Cry of Fear” is to simply throw as many unexpected atrocities at you as possible and test your limits of composure. “Cry of Fear” reminds me of a really good carnival haunted house, and its use of sound, light, and atmosphere are top notch. Also, you have to see the above video of people playing it and losing their minds to the game’s scares.

7. Heroes and Generals – Maybe the most technically proficient of the initial Green Light games, “Heroes and Generals” looks to breathe a little life in to online FPS shooters. “Heroes and Generals” allows players to either take to the frontlines in a variety of combat situations FPS style, or take the role of a commander and manage the battle in more of an RTS format. This type of game has been tried before, but has never really produced a big hit. However, the media released so far is intriguing, and the team behind the game is some of the same people who worked on the “Hitman” series and “Freedom Fighters.” It’s got a lot of pedigree going for it, and could be a quick hit.

6. Project Zomboid – ANOTHER ZOMBIE GAME? Yes, but don’t hold that against it. This may be the most conceptually intriguing zombie game I’ve ever seen, as the emphasis is on survival and not shooting. Using a sandbox mode and isometric perspective, “Project Zomboid” allows players to scavenge supplies, build safehavens, maintain their hunger and boredom levels, and of course, fight the occasional zombie. It’s so in depth, you have to consider things like hanging sheets over your windows so zombies don’t spot your lights, and already features an active mod community who contribute to the game regularly. I’m a BIG fan of this one, and you should definitely consider it if you’re a fan of the first two “Fallout” games.

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Surprise Video Game Successes

We’re really starting to hit that horrible lull in the year when it comes to video game releases. I don’t know what the complete logic behind it is, but for some reason, game development companies do not see fit to release big titles during the summer months, and instead prefer to back up the holiday season with every title in their arsenals, Triple-A release or otherwise. It’s not fair for gamers who would like to stretch their funds and time instead of trying to invest everything they have into a two-month period at the end of the year.

It’s this time of year that you have to hope for a good surprise to come along and really blow you away. While everyone enjoys riding the hype wave of a major release, and enjoying the fruits of your patience on a game’s release date, there is no feeling that is comparable to that experience when you go into a title with zero expectations only for it to send chills down your spine with just how good it is.

To prove this theory, and maybe generate some positive vibes so a sleeper hit will come our way again, here’s a small sampling of some of the greatest surprise hits of all time.

“Minecraft”

It’s fitting that a game all about building also represents the typical building blocks of a surprise hit. It had no hype, no budget, a no-name developer, and no real precedent as far as its concept.

I don’t remember when “Minecraft” took the world by storm, but it wasn’t quite after its 2009 beta release. Instead, it was sometime after that when people’s creations started appearing online, and when every game site in the world ran a 200 word feature piece about some novelty game called “Minecraft” that was gaining steam. Slowly, as the unlimited potential the game’s engine possessed became more and more clear, gamers everywhere divided themselves into two groups. Those who “got” “Minecraft,” and those who didn’t.

Of course, going off sales figures, those who got it would seem to make up the majority. By 2011, “Minecraft” surpassed 10 million registered users on the PC, and its release on the Xbox 360 broke the XBLA sales record. Keep in mind that through all of that, the game has still never had any real commercial advertising. While many would say that should be impossible in this day and age, “Minecraft” appropriately continues to thrive in a world it’s built for itself.

“Katamari Damacy”

It’s usually fairly easy to tell when a game developed in Japan is going to make it to American store shelves. If it’s the new “Final Fantas,y” it’s probably a pretty good bet you’ll see it stateside. If it’s a mech-noir dating simulator, chances are slimmer.

So it’s still something of a mystery, then, how a game that features a deformed space prince rolling up a perpetually growing ball of objects to replace the various cosmos his father, the King of the Cosmos, accidentally destroyed would end up a smash hit. There’s little doubt that the concept of “Katamari Damacy” is what got gamers to give it a try, but from there it was the game’s simple controls and creative and addicting gameplay that really started moving titles off the shelves in earnest.

It’s odd that the very concept of “Katamari Damacy” both alienated it to start, and made it irresistible thereafter. It just goes to prove that the occasional chance against all odds, can result in a success story worth more than all the failures that led there.

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GAME REVIEW: Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition

I don’t think I need to waste much space explaining the basic premise of “Minecraft.” After all, with the astounding (and I mean just shocking), download numbers the game has posted, my general impression is that most of you fine readers have played, or at least heard of, this game that follows a blocky protagonist, isolated in a blocky world, whose sole mission in life is to harvest the resource blocks around him in order to build sturdier blocks, weapons, items of all kinds and, most importantly, a shelter from the creatures that roam the night.

“Minecraft” is a blank canvas that only the most patient artists will be able to make proper use of. Unlike other world building titles like, say, “SimCity,” the effort required to make that first brush stroke to build off of is much greater, but the works you can create after that are limited by almost nothing. I wish I could say the same for this 360 adaptation, which is unfortunately burdened by several limits. While the simple graphics and atmospheric music transition perfectly to the console, and the controller handles the very basic functions of the game admirably, as the game gets more and more complex (and it can in a hurry), the 360 finds itself ill equipped to smoothly handle the wealth of inventory you soon acquire in a manageable way. The various menus you have to navigate to perform even the most basic functions and creations are annoying enough without having to scroll via joystick and force yourself to try to organically manage everything with the face buttons as your main tool. This game could have greatly benefited from the use of more hotkey features (the D-pad, for instance, is completely unused).

The biggest problem? There’s just no real reason to own this game on the 360. While playing, I actually found myself with my PC nearby just to look up the finer points of the game and look for reasonable tips on how to proceed. I don’t think I’d be alone in this, and if it’s a case of having to have your computer by your side anyway, why not play it in its native format? The controls, community and everything else are greater there, and the system requirements are so absurdly low that they shouldn’t cause a problem for most anyone.

While I respect the effort that developer 4J Studios put forth on this adaptation, I just can’t recommend this port to anyone. I didn’t get to try the 360’s splitscreen multiplayer mode (due to confidentiality reasons, though the idea is a fantastic concept), but I imagine it would do little to alleviate the main problem with the game. Overall, “Minecraft” is still a great idea and a unique experience that the patient and creative will inevitably get the most out of. If that’s you, just make sure to start your adventure on the solid foundation that only the PC can give this game.

Mojang finally hiring more people to work on Minecraft

Mojang/bukkit.

In the nearly three years Notch has been developing Minecraft, hires what is now his development company, Mojang, have been few and far between. The lack of hires certainly wasn’t need-based (or lack-of-need-based). It’s pretty easy to make the case that Minecraft has been in need of more developers for at least the past year. There is still no modding API, despite the fact that Minecraft enjoys one of the most active modding communities in the world. The game still feels like a bit of a fragmented mess. All of this could be solved with more manpower. Yeah, I said it. All they needed were a couple warm bodies with a basic knowledge of java.

Well they finally picked some, and it just so happens to be the fine folks at Bukkit. For those that don’t know, the Bukkit team produced an alternate version of the Minecraft server code that was more stable than the original, had a modding API, and required fewer resources to run. Luckily for the four fellows who ran the project, the Bukkit team won’t be working for free any longer. They’ve officially joined the Mojang team.

Their first project will be to write a brand new API. Now, I don’t claim to be a programmer, but I can only imagine one good reason to do this: Mojang didn’t want to pay for Bukkit. I have nothing but respect for the Bukkit guys. They started on a project for fun, they kept it going after it grew into something huge, and now they’re reaping rewards. Without knowing the details of their employment agreement, I think they’re getting the short end of the stick, and unfortunately so are we.

Again, I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about here, but I would imagine there’s a legal case for Mojang to say hey, stop doing that to our code or we will sue you. There certainly would be if Bukkit tried to sell their server package. As such, Mojang doesn’t really owe the guys at Bukkit anything. Wouldn’t it suck, though, to be such an integral part of the Minecraft community–as in, so big that you’re essentially synonymous with multiplayer gameplay–and be compensated with just a job offer? I know, job offers are hard to come by right now, but the guys at Bukkit have done more for multiplayer than anyone else, including Mojang. All of the notable multiplayer Minecraft servers run Bukkit. Now they’ll be forced to migrate to the new API developed in-house with Mojang.

I’m hopeful that the new API will be pretty much the work of those four guys, because I stopped trusting Mojang to build one a long time ago. The Bukkit guys certainly know what they’re doing and, who knows, maybe starting from scratch will be nice for them. It won’t be nice for players, though. Certainly not in the short term. Yes, they’ve pledged support through 1.2, but the transition probably won’t be super slick, to say nothing of the additional wait time we now have for development of this new API. For being a “released game,” Minecraft is in critical flux an awful lot.

Seriously though, congrats to the guys at Bukkit. You deserve all of your success.

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