Some video games are haunted. Like the disturbing urban legends that surround Hollywood films such as The Wizard of Oz’s dead munchkin, or the ghost of the little boy in Three Men and a Baby, there are titles in gaming history that contain a certain kind of dark energy.
We’re not talking about horror games like Resident Evil or Alien: Isolation. Sure, those games are sufficiently spooky. But they’re manufactured as such. You go into Silent Hill knowing that you’re going to get spooked. Scarier is the experience of being an 8-year-old kid, innocently enjoying a juicebox after school in your living room, then stumbling into Lavender Town in Pokémon Blue and finding yourself in whatever the waking equivalent of sleep paralysis is. The inexplicable high-pitched bells of the soundtrack. The soft grey and light purple shading of the primitive Game Boy graphics. The fact that everyone in the town feels quiet or adrift. Eight-bit ghosts. Such mysterious digital etchings are the ingredients of our childhood nightmares.
While not every game on this list is intended to be scary, all of these titles contain strange and disturbing details that give players the sense that there’s something wrong with the cartridge. Was there a poltergeist in the development studio? Did someone go mad in the manufacturing process and cast a curse on the game? Or, as in the case of the now-infamous Majora’s Mask creepy pasta, perhaps the former owner of the cartridge was a drowned little boy, burdened to forever walk the polygonal halls of the 3D-rendered castle contained in the cartridge. We don’t know what led to these eight games becoming so creepy. But they definitely still show up in our nightmares.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
Altered Beast (1988)
My memory of Altered Beast is hazy. I remember the image of a cat person screaming in a screen full of fire. I recall a distorted voice of an old man saying, “Rise from your grave.” The Greek myth-influenced game for Sega and Super Nintendo was clearly intended to be just another arcade beat-em-up starring two muscly dudes, but the experience of Altered Beast always felt, to me, just wrong. Something was off about this game, between the macho guys constantly tearing off their clothes, and their muscles hardening until they became full-on primal beasts. Not only was it kind of revolting to watch, but the idea of sprouting fur and fangs and gaining the ability to shoot fire out of your mouth once you reached full maturity definitely left quite an impression on my confused, pre-pubescent brain. —D.N.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988)
If any game had ghosts and ghouls living in it, it was Super Mario Bros. 2—the North American release, of course. Now we’ve all come to understand the story of why this game was and is so wildly different than Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2, but as kids we had no clue. Everything just felt a little off. It didn’t feature the Mario and Luigi we loved, plus it introduced Birdo and Toad, which makes it deserve a spot on this list by itself. While it did bring us some of Mario’s most recognizable characters to date, the whole thing felt like we were doing something wrong. —C.S.
Porky Pig’s Haunted Holiday (1995)
I found this game, as many of us from later generations have, through emulation (don’t ask me how or why). Going down a list of games from the era, I was struck by this one’s wild title. What the fuck is a Haunted Holiday? Turning on the 1995 game, it seemed clear almost right off the bat that this thing was fully, deeply demented. The opening titles read, “As Porky Pig is looking through Holiday brochures to plan his upcoming vacation, he drifts off to sleep and finds himself in a Haunted Haunted [sic] Holiday Nightmare.” What follows is as inexplicable as it is disturbing. You fight leprechauns in a black and white world where only you are in color. There are chains and spikes and you’re not wearing pants. You collect cupcakes. I need to know the creative process behind this game. What happened here, folks? —D.N.
Like Altered Beast, or the Woody’s Nightmare sequence in the Toy Story game for Genesis and Super Nintendo, Warlock inhabits a part of my brain that I rarely choose to think about—but it’s not something I am able to forget. The soundtrack is full of deep, low, meandering tones that bring to mind the Black Lodge sequences of Twin Peaks. You play as an unknown conjurer, running through a haunted Victorian town, chasing after a levitating old man. This game is by no means beloved, but that’s part of why it’s so scary to me. It almost feels like I was the only one who experienced it. Like it was a bit of trauma I had as a kid, but never discussed with anyone else. —D.N.
Pokemon Red & Blue (1996)
The ghost-laden stage of Lavender Town is by far not the only thing that scared me about Pokémon as a child. You have got to admit, there is just something deeply weird about those early Pokémon games. Like, part of the game has players interact with a lost Cubone who mourns the death of his mother (he wears her skull on his face). Nothing was scarier to me than the “MissingNo” cheat, where you completed a strange string of tasks that involved talking to an old man, buying rare candy, and surfing up and down a weird island to catch what may as well have been an actual ghost. An aberration in the code of the game, MissingNo stood for “Missing Number,” because the game would glitch and produce a character that was not actually programmed. That sounds like it makes sense enough, but weird things would happen when you caught MissingNo. Like, if you kept the Pokémon with you for a while, it would start to mess with your game. Misplaced soundtracks would play at odd spots. The names of your other Pokémon would get all fucked up. I’ve never seen an actual ghost in my life, but I imagine the feeling of holding onto MissingNo is pretty close. —D.N.
Big Fun in Furbyland (1999)
Furbys are the closest thing on earth to actual demons. They are nearly immortal and harness so much power that we are mere insects to them. Honestly, I don’t think we have to go any further than the title Big Fun in Furbyland to understand that it was a shitty PC game; the tag line on the box read “Dah doo-ay wah” and showed a close-up of a Furby complete with dead, soulless eyes. The big fun to be had in Furbyland was just a series of minigames where Furbys barked orders at you, maybe, or cast curses on you, who really knows. It was not fun, it was just scary, and we need to stop the Furby uprising, because it’s absolutely coming. —C.S.
Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
This is a cruel, evil video game. One time a film teacher told me that the simple act of watching The Exorcist could potentially invite dark spirits into your home. I feel similarly about Majora’s Mask. The world in the game is ending. Everyone in the town is going fucking nuts, but not in a fun way. They’re like, actually sad. Nihilistic. Becoming depraved. And the most evil part of the whole thing is, there’s a psychotic little boy torturing the townspeople with a mask from hell that is also summoning the end of times. Imagine playing this as a 10-year-old kid. It’s no wonder the game has inspired one of the most famous tales of internet folklore ever. —D.N.
Cat in the Hat (2003)
This possessed title followed the best horror movie of 2003, the live-action Cat in the Hat. Starring a polygonal humanoid Michael Meyers as the Cat, and turning the weird CG/live-action cast from the movie into full CG renderings for the game, the nightmares never stopped. Cat in the Hat was super busy, confusing, and dogged by Meyer’s quips throughout the whole thing, haunting even the toughest gamers. —C.S.
The Sims 2 (2004)
In The Sims 2, you could brick up a room and kill your Sim family. You could summon the Grim Reaper and have him haunt their every step. You could make your Sims live out their worst fears, and then you could neglect them entirely. And I did all of these things! But the scariest part of The Sims 2 was how quickly you could accumulate piles of cash (hello, cheat codes), build a glorious mansion full of richly ornamented rooms with obscenely luxurious accessories, and then become utterly bored with your Sims once it was completed. You’d stare at your boring dumb Sims and hate their boring dumb lives that you were tasked with protecting, even though it was so boring and dumb to do so. Capitalism is empty and isolating, friends. Good thing we learned that chilling lesson young. —Sarah Rense
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below