The nights are growing long. There’s an unholy chill in the air. The leaves are turning auburn (well, not here in Southern California). That must mean one thing: All Hallow’s Eve is coming around the bend. There’s nothing quite like strolling up to fully-ornamented haunted houses, decked out as some clever yet obscure reference, and coming home with a fully-loaded bag of loot that’s certain to give you a sugar-rush that will last until Sunday. You may not always know what sweets you’re going to get, but it’s better than purchasing a mediocre loot box. Since the advent of the home console, developers have been trying to capture the tone of the holiday in digital form, balancing both its creepy and cheerful elements. In the spirit of this pagan festival, here are some games which get the Halloween feeling just right.
Costume Quest (2010)
Nothing quite gets me in the mood for Halloween more than choosing the perfect costume. But what if wearing your costume granted you incredible powers? If that was the case, I’d be dressed as Darth Revan all year round. Double Fine’s Costume Quest has players trick-or-treating around their neighborhood, only to end up having your sibling kidnapped by some sugar-craving monsters. In order to save them, you need to solve puzzles and acquire powerful costumes. When you encounter the antagonistic foes, you’ll be thrown into a turn-based RPG battle and transformed based on whatever outfit you’re wearing. If you’re dressed as a robot, you’ll become a Jaeger from Pacific Rim, or if you’re wearing vampiric regalia, you’ll become a gigantic version of Dracula himself. Of course, though, there will be times when you can explore your suburban neighborhood and earn candy. While you can’t actually consume your collected confections, you can trade them amongst other kids for costume parts to augment your own abilities. It’s a quirky little romp, perfect for fans of Tim Schafer and his off-the-wall humor, and a perfect analogy for the Halloween season: in order to be the best kid on the block, you need the most sweets.
Luigi’s Mansion (2001)
When there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Luigi! This was the green plumber’s second time starred in his own game (the first being 1992’s Mario is Missing), as well as being a launch title for the GameCube. Launch titles are rarely, if ever, lauded but Luigi’s Mansion was an exception. In it, you explore a manor infested with ghosts and ghouls in order to find your missing brother. The ghosts themselves are all brightly colored, goofy-looking poltergeists that would feel at home in the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. Armed with the Poltergust 3000 and the GameBoy Horror, you capture the ghosts a la Ghostbusters and rid the mansion of its haunted occupants. All of the unique mini-boss specters feel different from one another, as they have individually designed mechanics, requiring you to come up with a new strategy with each encounter. There’s also gold in them walls. Sometimes literally. The estate is littered with hidden treasures, which ultimately determine your rank at the end of the game, so exploration is a must. By any means, it is not a traditional Mario game and there’s nothing quite like it. It’s a wacky little game and that’s really what makes Luigi’s Mansion stand out amidst the crowd. As a younger brother, I felt so vindicated when I finally had a great game featuring the Mario brother I most sympathize with.
Decap Attack (1991)
This one’s a bit of an odd egg. Originally released in Japan as Magical Hat no Buttobi Tabo! Daibōken, its Western release prompted a complete redesign of the graphics, music, levels, and story, essentially creating an entirely new game. Now you play as the mummy Chuck D. Head, tasked by mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Stein and assistant Igor to defeat the demon Max D. Cap and restore peace to the world. Umm…ok. You slip and slide through asymmetric, nonlinear levels, all while collecting powerups, fighting werewolves, ghosts, and penguins (because what horror-themed game doesn’t include penguins?), and defeating bosses. You literally attack things by launching a face out of your chest and throwing a skull like a boomerang. I wish I could be as original in my own creative writing as the people who made Decap Attack. This game is so bizarre and fun and terrible all at the same time. I really must give kudos to the developers for creating such an original title. Unable to license the anime series the initial game is based on outside of Japan, they set out to make something entirely different. Although the levels aren’t particularly well-designed and Chuck D. Head controls like he’s wearing banana peel slippers, this game gets the nod purely due to its strangeness.
Until Dawn (2015)
Sometimes the scariest thing you will see in a game is the phrase, “Your actions will shape how the story unfolds.” Of course, there are many cases of games making such a claim and having nothing more than the illusion of choice. However, knowing that any choice you make could have drastic, fatal consequences forces you to carefully consider your every movement. After all, you want everyone to survive, don’t you? Or perhaps you’re more in the mood for a slasher flick-like spree of violence? Regardless of your desire, Until Dawn can most likely satiate you. Playing out like a classic horror movie at first, you control a bunch of teenagers partying in a mountain cabin as, one by one, they are attacked by a maniac killer and unknown forces. It’s a really tense game to play through the first time, as any character you control could be killed at a moment’s notice. You have to carefully scan your surroundings and commit to your actions as you try to survive the night. As the game unfolds, the narrative becomes even deeper and darker, and if you’re able to find all of the collectibles, you’re rewarded with an in-depth understanding of the disturbing events at Blackwood Mountain. This game masquerades itself with its slasher film tone, hiding a psychologically creepy and tragic story within. For me, it was an unexpected hit on the PlayStation 4. Unlike it’s VR spin-off.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
What can really be said about the first Amnesia game apart from, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!” I mean, at the time of its release, it was definitely a genuinely terrifying game. Waking up with no memory, you find yourself in a massive Prussian castle being chased by some dark force. All you know is that you must find the castle’s baron and kill him. Monstrous abominations of flesh will hunt for you as you explore the palace’s depths and solve puzzles to further your progress, but as you hide from them in the dark, your character’s sanity will deplete, causing hallucinations and drawing the creatures even closer. What’s even worse is that you have no way to defend yourself, no weapons to wield, and no possibility of killing the monsters. You’re forced to run and hide, only adding to your feelings of helplessness. The only hope you have of surviving is reaching the Inner Sanctum, and as your memory returns, your past actions come back to haunt you. It’s a genuinely depressing game. The story is unnerving, the environments unsettling, the monsters unpleasant, and the frustration unbounded. You will die again and again in Amnesia as you try to beat it and it’s equally as frightening each and every time.
The Binding of Isaac (2011)
If you’ve ever wanted to have a mild existential crisis while you play a roguelike dungeon crawler, then I have the perfect game for you. Trying to escape from your overly-religious mother as she attempts to sacrifice you to God, you play as Isaac, finding your way through the cavernous basement below your house and encountering grotesque monsters. You literally attack things by crying on them. I don’t know if that’s an amazing mechanic or an intensely distressing one. Throughout the randomized rooms of each unique floor are upgrades, powers which augment your tears, charms with passive benefits, single-use power-ups, and more. There are literally hundreds items to find, meaning you’ll be playing for quite a while if you want to see everything the game has to offer. At the end of each floor, and sometimes hidden somewhere on the stage, are malformed bosses, each with exclusive attacks and each genuinely as upsetting as the last. Every playthrough of The Binding of Isaac is a new and fresh hell for you to investigate, and I can promise that, much like Isaac, the game will leave you weeping for mercy.
I don’t think I’ve ever been on edge more while playing a video game than than the first time I played P.T. Short for “Playable Teaser”, it appeared randomly on the PlayStation Store one day and gamers immediately set out to discover the truth behind it: that it was a teaser for a new Silent Hill game, directed by Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind the Metal Gear series, and Guillermo del Toro, the accomplished director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. Once you know that, it’s easy to see how this game earned its reputation as one of the most terrifying virtual experiences to date. In an interview, Kojima even said that the primary design philosophy was to make players “sh*t their pants”. That’s comforting. Between its haunting atmosphere, jumpscares, disturbing story, and meta-awareness of its design, this game just oozes everything horror. It’s a short-lived experience all things considered, lasting a half-hour long at most, but I promise that you’ve never played it before, it will keep you on the edge of your seat and screaming for more. But scream all you want, because unfortunately, the dream of Silent Hills is not to be fulfilled. That’s the scariest part of it all. Internal struggles at Konami eventually caused the cancellation of production on the game and Kojima shortly thereafter left the company to start his own studio. It’s currently impossible to download P.T. anymore, but if you know someone who has it stored on their PlayStation 4 hard drive and are in the mood to soil yourself, then give homage to the masters of fear.
Honorable Mention: Mr. Bones (1996)
Mr. Bones is this weird little remnant of gaming history. It was released on the short-lived Sega Saturn, so while not many people played it upon release, it has since gained a major cult following. Apart from it combining FMV footage with animated environments, this game received its niche fame through the extreme variance in its level designs. Sometimes you’ll be playing a standard platformer, other times you’ll be playing Breakout against a necromancer or defeating a giant skeleton with your witticisms. No, I’m really not exaggerating. My personal favorite part is this one scene shown in the video above. In order to stop an advancing horde of ossified enemies, Mr. Bones solicits the help of a blind blues guitarist and defeats the oncoming foes with the power of music. To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that the rest of the game isn’t one big musical adventure, with Mr. Bones using rock and roll to save the world. Nonetheless, it’s such a wild and weird adventure that describing it honestly doesn’t do this game justice.