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Horror games: The complete history

From Haunted House to The Evil Within, CVG goes through a 30-year timeline of horror gaming

The interest in the recent reveal of Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within only goes to show that the love for horror video games remains as strong as ever.

It's little wonder, given that horror is a genre that, when done right, can evoke the strongest emotions from players and allow them to experience the extremes of sheer terror and bone-chilling fear while, crucially, remaining in complete safety.

In this feature we take trip down Memory Cemetery and have a look back at the landmark releases in the 30-year history of horror games, from the early efforts that put the willies up players while video games were still in thier infancy, through the point-and-click era of the early '90s, up to the birth and evolution of survival horror. Feel free to share your favourite (or least favourite) horror games in the comments below.


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February 1982

Atari releases Haunted House for the Atari 2600 system and in doing so creates what is believed to be the first horror-themed video game. The player (represented only by a pair of eyes) has to make their way through a haunted mansion to find three pieces of an urn. It was also notable for featuring a scrolling screen, something fairly novel back in these days of rudimentary visuals.


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January 1983

Minnesota-based developer Xonox publishes Ghost Manor for, among other consoles, the Commodore VIC-20. Players control a boy who had to rescue a girl from a haunted house (or vice versa). by gathering spears to shoot ghosts then defeating Dracula. Ghost Manor was later released on a double-ended cartridge along with Chuck Norris Superkicks. Seriously.


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Summer 1983

Horror film distributor Wizard Video decides that the since it owns the rights to the VHS versions of cult flicks, it could make some extra money by developing video games based on these too. The first, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sees players controlling the villain Leatherface as he tries to kill victims with his chainsaw. Since many retailers choose not to sell the game because of its graphic nature (and because of its appeal to horror film collectors), it goes on to become one of the rarest Atari 2600 games ever.


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Summer 1983

Wizard follows up with an Atari 2600 version of Halloween, which sees the player controlling Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie Strode character as she tries to rescue children from Michael Myers. It's surprisingly gory for its time, for example when Myers catches Laurie her head comes clean off with a fountain of blood pouring from her neck. Once again, many stores refuse to sell it and Wizard Video decides to liquidate the rest of its inventory to minimise costs. As a result, many copies of the game are sold simply as cartridges with "Halloween" written on them in black marker.


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July 1984

British developer Palace Software releases The Evil Dead, a Commodore 64 game based on the film of the same name. Set in the cabin from the movie, the player controls the hero Ash as he tries to bolt doors and lock windows to hold off a whole motley crew of monsters from breaking in. Once all have been killed, Ash then must destroy the Book Of The Dead to kill the evil. A ZX Spectrum version was later developed, but was never released on its own and instead provided on the second side of the cassette for one of Palace's other games, Cauldron, in an attempt to boost sales.


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Summer 1986

Arcade developer Exidy distributes the controversial Chiller, a light gun game notorious for its excessive gore. The player is a torturer who must mutilate helpless victims in various dungeons. The aim is to kill everyone as quickly as possible, ideally by figuring out how to activate the various torture devices they're attached to. Chiller ultimately wasn't as controversial as it could have been simply because so many arcades refused to operate it in the first place, but it's notable for being an early horror game in which the player stepped in as antagonist. A subsequent NES port turned the tables, transforming victims into monsters and erasing a lot of gore.


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October 1986

London-based developer CRL creates a text adventure version of Dracula and releases it on the ZX Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC. The game features static images, many of which are fairly disturbing, and as such the game is given a 15 rating by the BBFC. In response, CRL tells Spectrum magazine Sinclair User that it's disappointed with the decision - but only because it was hoping for an 18. CRL would go on to release text adventures based on Frankenstein, Jack The Ripper and Wolfman, all of which would receive BBFC 15 ratings.


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Winter 1986

Ubisoft publishes Zombi, a point-and-click adventure game for the Amstrad CPC based on the events of the movie Dawn Of The Dead. The aim is to enter a zombie-infested shopping mall in order to find fuel for your helicopter, which is parked on the roof. Released only in France at first, Zombi would eventually be stoacked at retailers across Europe in 1990, along with versions for the C64, Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST and PC. The brand would remain dormant until 2012.


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December 1986

Uninvited arrives on the Mac. It's a point-and-click adventure game that begins innocuously enough - after a car crash, you awaken to find that your younger brother is missing so you enter a nearby mansion to find him. It soon becomes evident that the mansion was owned to a sorcerer whose apprentice killed everyone in the house, and that it's now haunted and populated with zombies, ghosts and hellhounds. It would later be released on the NES with some of its more religious imagery censored.


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6 May 1987

Text adventure specialist Infocom brings The Lurking Horror to a variety of home computers. Set in an American university during a massive blizzard, the player has to confront demons, zombies and references to a recent campus suicide to recover their term paper. As was the Infocom way, the game came bundled with a number of 'feelies', extra content to add to the mood of the game. These included a student ID card and an 'official' booklet from the university that gave advice to freshmen.


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September 1987

Psycho is released on the Amiga, Atari ST, C64 and PC. It's a graphic adventure loosely based on the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. A detective drives to the Bates Motel to investigate the theft of a set of jewels (and their curator) from a nearby museum and see if Norman Bates is responsible. The game was panned due to its bug-riddled gameplay.


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Spring 1988

Splatterhouse comes to arcades. This side-scrolling horror action game is developed by Namco and puts players in the role of Rick, a parapsychology student whose girlfriend Jennifer has been kidnapped by demonic creatures. After being 'killed' by the demons, Rick is resurrected by the Terror Mask (doubtless based on Jason's hockey mask in Friday The 13th), giving him extra strength and the ability to destroy the demons and save Jennifer. The game was known for its extreme gore and was eventually ported to the TurboGrafx-16 with the warning: "The horrifying theme of this game may be inappropriate for young children... and cowards."

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