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  • 8:08 PM on 11.25.2013  

    Masters of Horror: Hell Night (Dark Messiah)



    Iíve been playing a few first-person horror games lately, and theyíve all been quite good at keeping me uneasy. Thereís something about that first-person perspective that makes immersing myself in the game very easy, allowing me to really feel like Iím there. The most recent one I played was Hell Night (Dark Messiah in Japan), a PS1 game that never managed to make it to North America. Luckily, the game made it to the PAL territories or I would have had to struggle my way through the Japanese language version of it (I tried. For a game with little in the way of writing or dialogue, itís just about impossible to play if you donít understand Japanese). Itís a neat little game that doesnít manage to be quite as effective as SCP-087, but itís still pretty terrifying when you have to turn your back on a monster and run for your life.

    Hell Night throws you into its story in a hurry, telling you almost nothing for a long time. After the opening cut scene youíre tossed into a series of meandering hallways without anything in the way of instructions. Youíll have someone with you to talk with, but she doesnít really have many interesting things to say so I didnít speak with her for long. Instead, I set about exploring the corridors trying to figure out where I could possibly be. I wasnít given a whole lot of time to look before the monster showed up.



    There are different variants on the creature youíll see, but they all bear a similar shape and build to the first one. Just the same, the only important detail you need to know about it is that it can kill you in one hit. Contact with the monster is lethal, so youíre going to want to stay out of its reach. That seems like it shouldnít be much of a problem, but Hell Night manages to strike up a very good balance of scripted appearances and random ones. The monster in the game is often scheduled to appear on paths that youíll need to take, so there arenít many times when youíll be able to do your business in a given area without him blocking an important path. At other times heíll just show up at random, but even then I found that the game would toss him at you when you were in a tight spot. Seeing him is always a good sign that youíre going the right way, but itíll still make your heart sink when he shows up.

    This may be sounding a bit like SCP-087, but there is a key difference. While the movement speed of the creature in both SCP-087 games is steady, it still moves at an almost lazy speed. The creature would advance on me like something out of an 80′s horror movie, slow but determined. I thought the creatures in Hell Night would be the same after sneaking up on one of them and watching it move for a while. I was almost smug the next time I ran into one, a feeling I only maintained until the creature ran toward me at a staggering speed.

    I want to tell you something about the creatureís movement speed, but I honestly have no idea how fast it can move compared to the player. Every single time I saw that thing coming for me I just turned and ran on instinct. I spent most of every encounter blundering down the tunnels at top speed, trying not to scream. Those moments gave me a feeling of powerful helplessness, and unlike the SCP-087 games, I couldnít actually see if the monster was still chasing me or if it had given up. All I had to go on was the occasional growl from the creature, something that told me nothing except that the creature was within a turn or two of my current position. Itís really scary to be running from the creature down the maze-like tunnels of the game, something thatís made infinitely worse by not being very sure about whatís going on behind you.



    You canít run for that long, either. Thereís no stamina meter to tell you when your character is getting tired, but eventually the screen will start to wobble back and forth while you slow to a jog. If you keep pushing yourself after this youíll eventually be moving slower than the most basic movement speed. It adds a lot of tension to many of these chases as you donít really know how close the monster is, but you do know that youíre starting to slow down. Hearing that growl when your character is limping just made my hands shake on the controller, and I was sweating as I pushed down on the run button and hoped that the monster was backing off. You donít dare turn around to see how close the monster is, though, for fear that itís as close as youíre imagining it is. I figure Iíve spent almost half the game running away from nothing while terrified out of my mind.

    Sometimes youíre not given much of a window to run, either. Iíve had the monster come tearing down the hallway in front of me, scaring me half to death. Youíre a little slow to turn which added another layer of trouble to a surprise chase, but not so slow that youíre screwed instantly. One lucky part of that is that the monster turns even slower than you do, so you can take some extremely risky maneuvers in tight hallways to get around him. This is a great way to make the game absolutely terrifying, as the monster is big enough to fill most of each hallway. If you can kite him to one side and then shoot right past him, though, heíll have a very hard time catching up to you. It was nice that the slow turning could be used both ways, but unless youíre really good at the game I donít recommend trying this. You only have a short window to get past the creature, and Iíve screwed this up far more times than Iíve succeeded.

    There is a semi-reliable way of knowing the monsterís location though, so you can be a bit more tactical rather than trying something as risky as weaving around the monster. You have an in-game map you can call up quickly to get your bearings, but it will also show where the monster is if itís somewhat close. It seems to work at random though, so there were times when I could see the monster on the map when it was a hallway or two away, but there were others when I could almost see the thing on my screen but the map wasnít showing anything. I still called the map up every time I heard a roar just in case it would find the monster, but donít expect it to always tell you what you want to know. Bringing up the map does pause the action, so itís handy if you want to catch your breath.



    If youíve played through the game for a while, you might be wondering why you donít have that ability. I wasnít entirely truthful when I said that you died in one hit in this game. You start the game off with an AI partner named Naomi and sheís the source of your ability to locate the monster. If you get hit once, she is killed by that first attackóyour character does not die first. This is permanent, so if you screw up the game even once, youíd better be prepared to reset the game or power on without being able to see the monster on the map. You can get a couple of different AI partners if you lose her, but none of them are anywhere near as useful. Just the same, playing the game with one of them changes the story, so that could make further playthroughs more interesting. You can also willfully make the game scarier by getting her killed off on purpose, so feel free to toss her to the wolves if you want to make the game harder and more frightening.

    One thing thatís almost scarier than the monsters are the other people that are living in the tunnels youíre exploring. You quickly find out that these tunnels are part of an underground system built by the Japanese military in case an evacuation was ever needed, but theyíre now populated by the homeless and insane. Youíll never see any of these people while youíre exploring tunnels in the first-person, likely a result of hardware limitations. Still, that limitation means that you could be walking along and then suddenly find your whole screen filled with a twisted human face. Regular NPCs scared me almost as much as the monster did, as they show up without warning and just fill your screen. Itís the kind of jump scare that I never expected, so it got me every single time. I doubt the developers intended it to scare people, so I guess they got a lucky freebie.

    One other unintentional thing that made the game more frightening was that it could be a little bit hard to get doors open. The only surefire way to get rid of the monster during the chases was to enter a room somewhere. This would reset the monsterís location, and while it might reappear on the same path again a moment later, it at least gave me a reliable escape route. Well, reliable until you try to fumble a door open. The game can be quite fussy about where you have to be standing in front of a door before it will acknowledge that youíre hitting the button to open it. I found I had to center myself on some doors, and in others it helped if I looked at the door from the side that was going to open. Sometimes holding the button in worked faster, in others a light tap helped. Itís something that should have annoyed me since itís really just bad programming that makes the doors unreliable, but it gave me this sense that my character was fumbling with the door. Instead of just making it to the door and tapping the button to go inside, it would take a moment while my character opened it and moved inside. It added a few seconds of tension every time I tried to escape through a door, always leaving me worried that I wouldnít get through in time.



    The music in this game does wonders for making it scarier, too. Itís all extremely simple, almost to the point where it could be considered droning, but these songs play on your nerves with very simplistic, eerie sounds. Itís similar to Silent Hill in that the songs have strange sounds sprinkled throughout them, leaving me wondering if the creature was somewhere close by. Even though I knew for a fact that the creature always emitted the same growl as it moved through the game, those sounds still tricked my mind into thinking that something had to be getting close. In other areas itís just really great at hammering home that sensation of loneliness and impending danger.

    The music is important because the graphics look really dated. Unlike the SNES era, I find PS1 games just look awful when I see them these days, and beyond a couple of places Hell Night just doesnít look that good. Its worst offense is that the monster just seems kind of goofy-looking up close. He looks like a robot out of an anime, and that took away some of the fear I might have felt otherwise. The locations also just look a lot like the hallways from every early first-person shooter. You probably know them well if youíve ever played Wolfenstein 3D or Doom. Thereís just lots of nonsense hallways that donít serve any purpose or have any reason to them. They work as a playground to dodge around a monster, but theyíre pretty uninspired and dull.

    It doesnít matter what the halls look like when that creature is dogging you, or when he appears in a heavily populated area that you thought was safe. Even when I was wandering alone, the game was still getting under my skin with its strange noises and unsettling music. When youíre worrying about whether your character is going to pass out from exhaustion or if youíre going to suddenly lose the most useful character in the game due to one wrong turn, the game still shines despite its age. Itís especially neat as an early entry in first-person horror for consoles and as a game that didnít have any kind of release in North America, so if youíre looking for a new old horror game this would be a good one to grab.

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    10:37 PM on 11.19.2013  

    Great Isn't Good Enough



    There are a lot of journalists and game developers out there trying to figure out how to keep the market profitable for everyone, especially in the triple A market. Games are selling millions of copies yet still showing losses; something that doesnít even seem to make sense yet still happens. Naturally, everyone wants to know why, and point to things like rampant spending by developers, the rise of smartphone games (and Facebook games, and the Wii, and Zynga, andÖ), the homogenizaton of games, lackluster DLC, and many other excuses. I know many of those things are affecting game sales, but Iím wondering if one of the biggest problems is also one of the most simple: Are there too many good games?

    I have had a serious problem with my backlog since the PS2 days. As I hit the job market, I was able to afford more games, and suddenly found myself in a position where I could get anything I had an interest in. So I did, buying up anything and everything I thought Iíd ever want to play, quickly building up a pile of games I didnít have the time to play. Considering I used to play every game I owned to utter completion, this was pretty weird for me, but the appeal of being able to get everything I wanted was too hard to pass up. It never stopped, eventually reaching the point where there wasnít anything else on last gen systems that I could conceivably want, as Iíd bought everything I had even a passing interest in. The shame is that there are games I bought back in 2003 that I still havenít found time to play by 2013. I simply have too many games.

    Still, I found the time to play the biggest stuff that I wanted to play. I picked up every new Mario game at launch, just the same as I did for Final Fantasy X and X-2. Most of the stuff I didnít get around to were things that I only wanted to play a little bit, though, so no big loss. Itís fine that Iím a bit of a gaming pack rat, although at times I feel guilty that Iím sitting on copies of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne just in case I ever find the time to play them. I like having it in my collection waiting for a time when I can give it the attention it deserves, even if that means itís just collecting dust now. Iíd get around to it some day when I wasnít already swamped with the hot new release that I needed to play.



    The time I have to play games seems to have dwindled more and more over the years, though, as every game in my backlog gets pushed back further and further by the new release schedule. It got much worse when I started doing game reviews for a few different places over the years, as it cut my available play time down to almost nothing other than what I could dedicate to the newest games. Still, every once in a while Iíd get an afternoon free that I could spend playing through whatever obscure PS1 horror game I happened to have been daydreaming about. Alone in the Dark: One Eyed Jackís Revenge doesnít exactly make for riveting gameplay, but still, that was one game from the backlog down, right? Progress. That required there to be a lull in the new release schedule, though, something that happened frequently during the summer or post-holiday season. There were times I could count on for a break.

    Those days donít seem too frequent any more since I got a gaming PC. Itís not that Iím even getting the newest games that push it to its limits, either, as I seem to be spending all day, every day, playing indie games. Iím new to gaming on PC, but the growth and prevalence Iíve seen in the indie gaming market has been staggering, and there is new stuff coming out almost every single day that I am dying to play. This isnít just stuff I kind of want to get to someday like most of my PS2 backlog, but games I feel like I NEED to play. Two Brothers, The Stanley Parable, and The Wolf Among Usall hit me just within the last few weeks, and this was during a time that I was determined to enjoy Batman: Arkham Origins. This was after I did my best to carve out a few minutes every day for Pokemon Y, which was what followed Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, but the two of them were shunted aside so I could play the next chapter of The Last Door, the incredible horror game Knock Knock, and the surreal Luxuria Superbia. Even now, as I swear Iíll find time for poor old Batman, I have a copy of Slender: The Arrival beckoning to me, and a huge update to Soda Drinker Pro just waiting for my input. It never, ever stops.

    These are just the games I manage to find time for, and the criteria for getting on my to-play list is getting stranger and more random by the day. Games I really want to play are getting shuffled aside so I can take a few minutes with other games I think Iíd love, and a lot of the time, I never get back to something once I walk away from it. If I donít take the time away from my initial game, something tends to come out just as itís finishing that I want to play, and whatever came out in between gets left aside forever. It seems to come down to whatever can grab my attention the hardest and fastest, and everything else just falls by the wayside. There is just so much good stuff thatís either coming out or about to come out that itís brutally hard to keep up with them all. Thereís just not enough time in my life, and even during a few months I spent unemployed there still wasnít enough time.



    Itís brought me to a strange place, as I have to acknowledge that there are just too many quality games coming out for me to give them all the attention I want to. Itís always been a problem, as my backlog will indicate, but itís one thatís been growing more and more out-of-control as Iíve gotten older. I used to be able to keep up with the current releases at least, but now there are too many of them to even try to play everything I want. I just have to reach out and grab onto the games that Iím dying to play the most, and then hope that I donít miss out on some hidden gem while my attentionís elsewhere.

    I typically do, though. Even while I talk about all of the new releases coming out through Triple A development and the indie space, there are even more little experimental titles coming out on sites like gamejolt.com, newgrounds.com, and dozens of other similar sites. Hundreds of new games are coming out each and every single day, games that explore crazy new themes and gameplay styles, but I still donít have any more time in my day to play them all. Not even close, especially considering Iíd want to write about the ones I liked, too. There is just too much stuff for me to keep up with it all, and I love far too many games to limit myself to any one particular gaming space. I might have to for my own sanityís sake at some point, but I wonít want to.

    I think this is actually becoming a larger issue for the industry and games as a whole. There are just too many games all fighting for the same finite amounts of time in peopleís lives. Take a look at any given day on the iOS game database and see how many new games pop up. Even if you were only to play most of them for a few minutes, I doubt you could even come close to playing every single new release. Thatís just on iOS, too, as thatís not counting the new games that pop up every hour on Game Jolt for free, or the ones hosted on private sites that somehow manage to glide across my path. The stream of new stuff is endless, a far cry from the days when Nintendo Power could cover almost every single licensed release with its monthly opinion sections.



    I hear a lot of talk every couple of years that a certain type of game platform is taking over, and that everyone should worry about it. It was Facebook games a while ago, and the Wii before that. Now phones are supposed to be the way of the future, but even there, thousands of good games get ignored and left to rot just because the most popular games bury everything else. A new game releasing on phones has a lousy chance of being able to penetrate a public awareness that seems content just to focus on the newest Angry Birds or Bejeweled clone, and this is where all the growth is supposed to be. Sorry guys, but phones are the definition of shaky ground right now.

    Even then, theyíre still contributing to the torrents of talented developers making good games that are having no luck finding success in a market where excellent games come out almost every hour. Iíd argue that weíre well beyond the point of saturation, reaching a point where thereís just no way that there are enough gamers on the planet to sustain every single game in the way it deserves to be supported. Thereís not enough time, not enough attention, and not enough money within the market to support all of the kind, brilliant people who are working in it, an issue far bigger than problems with DLC or next-gen graphics.

    Forget about whether phones will kill the console market or some such garbage. Forget about developers dropping millions into games that just donít see the returns. Forget about how hard it is for a new indie developer to gain the attention it needs. The main problem that everyone is having is the fight over the finite amount of spare time that the gaming public has to offer. It sounds crazy, doesnít it? With millions of people on the planet all playing games, youíd think there would be time for all of us to pick up and support the best and brightest games coming out. Despite that, everywhere I turn, friends talk about their growing backlogs of games, the things they bought on Steam sales but havenít played, and the list of games they want to play but just canít find time for. As insane as it sounds, one of the biggest threats to video games now is the amount of solid, quality games being released.



    You donít have to wait for the next quality game to roll around on your console any more. Even on PC, youíre not just picking up great mods for games you already own, but fully-realized unique experiences made by passionate people working out of their basements. You donít need to rely on a handful of companies and people for your great gaming experiences any more. I took a quick look at November to see if I wanted to play anything that was coming out and felt safe in saying there was nothing I wanted to play. I even felt safe during the week Batman: Arkham Origins came out, but sure enough, new games cropped up right under my feet. The next great game experience isnít a month out or even a day out. I really feel that Iím at a point where something good I want to play comes out two or three times a day, and it kills me not to be able to give these games and their developers the attention and funds they deserve.

    Itís sad, but this is a problem that will resolve itself over time. Many big companies have tried to take steps to rectify it through DLC, cracking down on game lending and trading, and any of several other myriad methods, but the problem still persists. I truly love the games that I enjoy and am willing to support them as much as I can, buying absurd collectorís editions and merchandise as fast as I can, but often, something else captures my imagination and time before that can happen. This has been especially hard on RPGs, as I donít feel comfortable picking up many of them just from knowing how much time Iíd have to dedicate to them.

    On the opposite spectrum, this seems to be where the big push for phone games has appeared. Concise and quick gameplay experiences seem to be all the rage since people can pick them up for next to nothing and play a few minutes for a few days before getting tired of them and moving on. For someone with limited to no gaming time, a few minutes on the toilet playing Angry Birds is a godsend, allowing for quick relaxation without having to worry too much about hours of cutscenes, cinematics, skill building, and personal involvement. Also, who cares if you only play them a few times? It only cost a dollar. You can drop them and grab them without feeling anything even close to guilt.



    I donít want those experiences, though. I want something I can immerse myself in, even if itís only for a little while. I want difficulty curves that make me feel good when I overcome them; I want stories that touch on humanity, and I want experiences that teach or show me something new about the world. I play games to escape and go on adventures, to feel things Iíve never felt before, and not just because I need to kill a few minutes while Iím trapped in the bathroom. Thereís nothing wrong with those kinds of games, but theyíre not what Iím looking for.

    Even if they were, even they are feeling the crunch. Again, how many games released on the iOS store actually show something even close to success? How many games show any kind of success at all these days? Itís not because everything is terrible like it was before the Atari crash (Although youíre screwed if you do release a bad game in this market. Itís not big on second chances these days), but rather a market where there is just so much good stuff every single day that there isnít enough time to play it all.

    But as I said, this will resolve itself. How many people are willing to stick with this industry given its current state? How many of the big boys can even afford to anymore? When companies like Capcom are so out-of-touch with the modern market, releasing heaps of junk, how can they even hope to continue when good games canít even hold my attention? When the game you slave away on for months releases to rave reviews but no sales due to scams, piracy, or customer indifference, how long before you give up and walk away? How many great minds will leave this industry just because thereís no room left?

    Itís not all as bad as I feel. My attention isnít the only way to grade how the industry is doing, but I do feel that this is an existing problem, albeit one that there might not be much anyone can do anything about. This is just one of those things that will sort itself out, although a lot of talented people might end up falling by the wayside before itís done. I feel that itís a shame that many great developers donít get the attention they deserve when I want to give it to them, and that people I want to supportgo without it.

    Iím sorry, guys and gals. I wish I could play everything, but Iím just one man.
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    6:58 PM on 11.04.2013  

    Masters of Fear: SCP-087 / The Stairwell



    I've found some neat horror games while talking to other fans of the genre. One of the more intriguing ones was a game that was simply called SCP-087, or sometimes The Stairwell. The name alone seemed cold yet evocative. What did it stand for? As it would turn out, it stood for the perfect distillation of everything that evoked fear; the 40-year-old Dalmore when you were used to drinking mouthwash and vanilla extract under an old bridge.

    SCP-087 gets right to the point, dropping you a short distance from a creepy old house. With some fiddling around in the foyer, youíll open a door down to a stairwell that seems to go on forever. The furthest Iíve gone down it was 82 floors, but there are reports of people whoíve gone down almost 300 flights. The point of the stairwell is that youíre trying to examine a creature that lives at the bottom of it, even though running into it is probably the last thing that will ever happen to you.

    This game is unrelenting in frightening you. Once youíre on the stairs, thereís nothing you can do besides walk closer and closer to a creature that is practically guaranteed to kill you. The floor it appears on is somewhat randomized too, so you can never be sure when the thing is going to show up. That information alone made my journey down the stairs into the most terrifying experience Iíve ever had with a game and quite possibly in my life.



    I had an archive of what happened during the three runs I made at this game, but have scrapped them so as not to spoil this for anyone. If you do want to play it, I suggest you donít read anything else on it beyond this article, and especially donít watch any videos. You only get one run at playing this game as intended, and you donít want it ruined for you forever. Seriously, go into this game as blind as you can.

    Once youíre on the stairs, youíll immediately notice just how dark it is. You have a limited light that wonít even reach all the way down the stairwell youíre on, which has the nice effect of always keeping you wondering what youíre walking into. There isnít a whole lot happening on each stairwell, but sometimes youíll catch sight of something strange on the wall or floor that will bring you to a complete halt. Just having that little something creep into your field of vision is really jarring when youíre not sure what it is youíre looking for in the dark. The smallest change in the normal environment is enough to give you the shakes.

    It happens because, realistically, you donít know what it is youíre looking for when you play SCP-087. The gameís name doesnít evoke any familiarity and doesnít call up any meaning you might understand. The only screenshot that I saw before playing it was a pair of eyes floating in the dark. I had no idea how they would appear, or if there would be any warning at all. Every single time something in my environment changed, I thought it was time to run for my life.



    Each time I tensed up, it was hard to come down from it. There is a pause function you can use to give yourself a little break (I had to stop for an hour at one point), but beyond that, thereís no down time. Most games have save rooms or little hidey holes where youíve killed all of the enemies. Even most horror games have places that just feel safe so that the player can calm down. This game is just one long run, and beyond pausing, thereís no break from the terror. Even on pause, you donít calm down all that much because you know the game is right where you left off, waiting for you.

    My chest was so tight from tension that I was actually in pain by the time Iíd only gone down about twenty flights. The music didnít help either. It plays in certain spots for whatever reason, and is so simplistic itís hard to actually call it music. It plays more like a sustained note, changing only slightly after long periods have passed, and it absolutely messes with the player. It made my run all the harder because it was eerie, but also because as gamers, we tend to associate music with specific occurrences in games. When the music starts, it means something is about to happen. I sat on the stairs for a long time when that music started up, believe me.

    There are a few other minor occurrences that will jar you right off your keyboard and mouse, like snippets of voice and graphical effects. Youíll hear some really strange things while going down the stairs, all of which add to the unsettling atmosphere. Again, these all hint that something has changed in the game, and that something new is going to happen. It might or might not, though, due to the random appearance of the ghost, which only makes everything that much creepier.



    Itís been accused of being a single, drawn-out jump scare, but thatís all that decent horror is anyway. Lazy horror tends to have things jumping out all the time, afraid that its audience will lose interest if things arenít happening every few minutes. The best horror games make you wait for something to appear. By the time the ghost decides to show up, youíll be begging for it to end the tension. Good horror keeps you even more afraid when nothing is happening Ė your own imagination filling every step and corner with terrible things the game couldnít hope to show.

    Every single step toward the ghost feels like that, as you never know what itís going to do when it appears.† You have no clue what triggers it or when itís going to be staring you in the face. Will it pop out of thin air? Will you catch it just out of sight at the bottom of the stairs? Will you look behind you with an accidental flick of the mouse and find it glaring down at you? You donít know, and so you load every single waking moment with grim possibility. Every step is taken with shaking hands because you only know that something horrible is going to happen during one of those steps. Itís going to happen, your only escape coming from shutting the game off and walking away.

    You wonít, though. Pride is a funny thing. I didnít want to have to tell anyone that Iíd played a horror game and had to walk away. That fact alone kept me at the keyboard more than anything else, and was all I was gripping to as I finished the game for the first time. I had to run down the stairs while screaming curses at the game, daring the ghost to come for me, but my pride wouldnít let me give up. I donít know if yours will, either.

    Now, if you havenít played it and still want to, you might want to go download it, since itís absolutely free.


    SPOILERS AHEAD


    GO AWAY


    STOP READING


    YOUíVE BEEN WARNED



    After playing through it a few times, I was disappointed to note that only the ghostís appearance is random, and even then, it can only show up after floor 50. This might not seem too bad, but predictability is the nemesis of horror. The things that show up, as well as the audio cues that are supposed to freak you out, appear at very specific times. It turned what had been a long, arduous trip the first time into a predictable jog. I was literally ticking items off a list as I made my way down, not feeling any kind of concern until I got past a certain point. It took away the gameís power on repeat play-throughs, turning it into something you can really only experience once in your life.

    Also, when the ghost appears, you get frozen in place. Instead of stumbling upon the thing and having its presence hit you like a ton of bricks, youíre basically forced into a cut-scene of sorts. Youíre locked in one spot until you manage to locate where the creature is around you, and then youíre told to run by some on-screen text. It was almost insulting, given how good the rest of the game was. Of course Iím going to run.

    Freezing the game in place let me get my bearings, situate myself, and have a few seconds to calm down and plot a course of action. It should have let me just run into the thing and find out myself what I should have done. It steals a lot of power from the random appearance when I canít just stumble across the thing while blundering around, since I can just run around until the gameís system decides to tell me the creature is nearby. It was still scary enough to shock my hands from the keyboard two out of my three tries, but it should have scared me all three times.



    Running from the ghost is pretty terrifying, though, as I have no idea how far you have to go to get away, or if you even can. I managed to keep away from it for about ten seconds in one run, during which it caused weird things to appear to frighten me further. I got caught on some of the background, though, and it killed me. Watching it pick up speed while a jarring sound played through my headphones was deliciously frightening.

    Off the topic of the ghost, I really wish the pause system had been removed. Itís my own fault for using it, but the thing shouldnít be in the game at all. It allows people to take breaks in a game that is built around ratcheting up tension as far as it can without offering any kind of release. The pause system allows sneaky cowards like me a way to steal some breathing room, thus making the game a whole lot more manageable. I donít know how long it would have taken me to get through it without that function, but it would have been even scarier without it, I know that much.

    It does have a few problems for further play-throughs, but for a single horror experience, there is nothing that Iíve ever played that comes close to scaring me more than SCP-087. If youíre willing to go into it blind, its ability to terrify is astounding. Itís true horror without all the bells and whistles, a streamlined experience that fans shouldnít miss out on. Itís short and itís free, so youíre officially out of excuses not to try it.

    Except for the whole Ďcausing chest pain from tensioní thing.

    SCP-087 /The Stairwell is free to download on indiedb.
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    6:52 AM on 10.30.2013  

    Masters of Fear: Decay Part 1-4



    How do you scare a player when they canít die? With no combat and only a handful of ways to earn an inconvenient reload, the episodic Decay series does all of its work through atmosphere and subtle music. Sure, there are a few jump scares to make you drop your controller, but itís the unbelievable tension of this game that makes it frightening. I only jumped at those scares because Decay had wound me so tight.

    You canít die, though, so why feel fear? Beyond a few spooky pictures, what can the game do to you? I struggled with this for a while, as I was nervous the entire time I played, but had a hard time pinpointing the reason. I knew for a fact that the game wasnít going to kill me or have any combat. It was point-and-click, so what could I even fight? Itís not like I was frantically trying to type in a command while an enemy was breathing down my neck like in one of the Kingís Quest games. I was in no danger at all in any conventional video game sense. Maybe a Game Over in some places, but not much else.

    Really, how scary is a Game Over? My on-screen avatar dies. Big deal. The criteria for failing in a video game is that my character dies, but does taking that out really make a game any scarier? When I turn the power off, Iím still alive whether my character died or just got stuck on a puzzle. Itís not all that important for a game to have some way of killing you in order to scare you. As long as itís able to make you feel uncomfortable with the environment youíre in, then the game can do its job just fine. Decay is more than capable of doing that, believe me.



    You start off the first game pulling yourself down from the rope you just hung yourself with (and if that doesnít pique your interest, well...), finding yourself very alone in an abandoned apartment building. Your character doesnít remember much about how he got there, but that doesnít matter. The building has boarded up doors, graffiti on the walls, and absolutely no one else around. No one you can see or find, at least. After stumbling around the place for a little bit youíll find a note about a serial killer and some more newspaper clippings about a dead family. Your character wonít know much at this point, but the person holding the controller probably has more than a few ideas on whatís going on. Theyíre probably not all that comfortable with them, either.

    Youíll push through several more locations as the game progresses, moving from your apartment to another office complex, then to an amalgam of strange rooms before finally shifting to a house in some strange, never-ending woods. Through all of it, you will be completely alone. More importantly, you will feel that loneliness. These places all bear a resemblance to places called Haikyo, or better known as modern ruins (Check out tokyotimes.org for an excellent source of eerie pictures). Theyíre places that people used to live in that have been abandoned, a lot of the times with all of their belongings left behind. It gives these places the sense that something terrible happened to the inhabitants, something that made them just vanish. You can see that life used to exist here, but that itís long gone now.

    I donít know if DecayĎs developers were consciously trying to pull this off, but they managed to create places that just felt unsafe to be in. You could feel that there was something wrong in the air when you walked around. Seeing the couches and strewn belongings on the floor touched on something primal in me when I played, setting off a sense that the place was dangerous even if I couldnít say why. Just seeing these signs of life left abandoned was enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

    The primitive graphics helped it a little bit here, too. The game looks like it was created during the dawn of the PS2 era, or was a throwback to the Full Motion Video craze that hit a few years before that. Everything has this grainy look to it that makes it feel unnatural. Character models and designs also have this plastic, lifeless look to them that just makes my stomach churn. It sounds like Iím voicing a complaint but Iím really not. If you play The Undead Syndrome and Decay back to back, youíll see what I mean. The characters in the former look plastic in that they look like ridiculous toys, but DecayĎs characters just make you feel unsettled to look at them.



    Thereís one sequence at the end of the third episode when you see a close-up of one of the characterís eyes and a bit of the face, and it just gave me chills. Seeing that unblinking eye and bits of pockmarked skin around it just set off a a feeling of revulsion in me. I felt the same thing again when I found another character in a closet. He would just stand there and knock on the door, doing nothing else. There was no way to interact with him at all beyond watching him watching you, and it was just really eerie. Thereís something about the unblinking stares on these faces that just triggered fear. These character models looked unnatural, and in a way that made me feel afraid instead of making me want to laugh at bad graphics. I donít know if it was on purpose or not, be the effect stayed with me, just like it did the first time I saw Count Orlokís blank, staring eyes in Nosferatu.

    There are a few more events that set off the same reaction, including a spot where I could see someone crying behind a curtain in the tub. The graphics could portray a human shape moving around behind the curtain, but once again it was vague and indistinct. It appeared to have a humanoid shape, but thatís all I could guess about it. I watched it move around behind the curtain for a few minutes, seeing that I could interact with it without really wanting to. The sound of the crying combined with the graphics just filled me with a desire to shut the game off and do anything else.

    They worked pretty hard on sound design, too. That crying was very simple, but coming ino a room with almost no other sounds made it feel like it was all around me. There was nothing else to focus on beyond the crying woman, and the meaning behind that crying ballooned in my consciousness. The subtle choice to have it play with no background music made it seem so important that my mind raced with what it could mean.



    The gameís melancholy and quiet soundtrack had the same effect, making every minute spent in DecayĎs world feel like it was full of dreadful possibilities. Unlike the discordant music from Silent Hill, a lot of these tracks were beautiful in their own way. They were sad and slow, and something that you could definitely listen to outside of the game. Itís all very depressing and creepy stuff, somehow fitting in with the environment while still being a little too perfect for it. Why is there this beautiful soundtrack in a world that seems consumed by ruin?

    The music is the playerís presence, though, that sign of hope even in the darkest places. No matter how scared you might be when playing a horror game, you know your one job is to alleviate the evil in that game world. You only exist to bring hope to the most vile corners of imagined reality, and the music is a way of representing that. It may seem to be oddly harmonic in an environment thatís chaotic and broke, but itís designed to reflect your presence in it. That sadness in the music is your reaction to it, and is built to influence your feelings there. While making you afraid, itís also designed to help you feel what the character is feeling, helping you join with his thoughts and emotions on this journey.

    Hardly rocket science when you think about it, but thatís something really important for a good horror game, especially when you canít die. To really get a good sense of fear from a digital medium, you need to feel like youíre in the characterís place. Anything and everything that works toward that goal will make the game that much better. They could have been satisfied with mediocre sound that communicated the gameís mood, but they managed to compose some tracks that really drag you into the characterís place. They make you feel what he is feeling, from terror to sadness to hope.



    But again, why be scared if you canít die? If Iím uncomfortable and feeling what the characterís feeling, it still wonít matter if I canít die, right? Well, that seemed to be where the game scored its greatest triumph. Despite knowing that I couldnít die, I never really felt completely confident in that assessment. Logically I knew I couldnít die, but I just couldnít convince my emotional side of the same fact. I still felt like there was some way of dying that I just hadnít discovered yet.

    Thatís the beauty of Decay and its character immersion. Everything it does is built to affect the player on an emotional level, with its graphics and music fusing into an atmosphere that is ripe with possibilities for dragging the player in. Itís very hard not to step into the shoes of the main character, and that means thereís lots of opportunity to make you feel just as scared as he should be. You share in his uncertainty and his fear, something that should have been really hard to do. They made it look easy, though, creating an atmosphere that felt like it was crawling out of your television and into the real world.

    Outside of Silent Hill, this game has one of the best atmospheres Iíve ever experienced in a horror game. It might not frighten you in a conventional sense, but it will help you feel the same dread as the main character does. Its immersion is absolutely top notch, so if you really want to get a feel for what something this terrible and sad would feel like, play it.

    Just have something nice and light to play afterwards.

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    8:33 PM on 10.21.2013  

    Wasted Horror Potential and LJN's A Nightmare on Elm Street



    A Nightmare on Elm Street for the NESisnít a very good horror game (or just regular kind of game, either). The stock, goofy enemies make the whole game play out like a childís Halloween coloring book, ruining any possibility that the game could be frightening. It doesnít even carry the same urgency as Castlevania II: Simonís QuestĎs day/night transitions despite using a similar mechanic to simulate falling asleep. It was enough to scare me when I rented it as a kid, but there really isnít a whole lot to be frightened of here these days. Itís only just barely interesting as a period horror game piece, but it does have a couple of things worth learning.

    Letís start right in with that transition. I actually liked it in Castlevania II: Simonís Quest, finding that it set up a nice contrast to life in the daytime. The enemies were a whole lot more dangerous at night, and while death was more a nuisance than anything else, it gave me reason not to want to be out once the sun went down. I still desperately didnít want night to fall in the game. I felt an even stronger aversion to the sleeping mechanic in A Nightmare on Elm Street when it happened for the first time, although that fear lessened the longer I played the game.

    You have a bar at the top of the screen in this game, one I thought was my health until I got hit and didnít see it go down. You can just take a flat four hits and the game doesnít indicate how many you have left, feeling that your wakefulness was far more important to keep track of. It creates a little nice tension in that youíre never quite sure when youíre going to die unless youíve been keeping it in mind, but itís not whatís important. Once that sleep meter drops all the way to the end, you fall asleep and the whole world changes in front of you. The enemies get a little weirder (hardly scarier, as theyíre still goofy), and they take more damage to kill.



    That transition should make things more tense since enemies are more difficult and the danger has increased, but when youíre in the sleeping world you can play as one of the dream warriors (as long as you picked up their respective icons). You just flick the select button and suddenly you have ranged attacks or can do jumping kicks. The transition in Simonís Quest made you weaker, but in this game your powers have been increased to the point where itís preferable to be asleep. You can only punch when youíre awake but have a plethora of powers once youíve dozed off, so youíll be looking for ways to stay asleep. The coffees and stereos strewn throughout the game to wake you up become things you want to avoid, since staying in the Ďbadí sleeping area makes the game a lot easier. If they were going for an increase in tension here, they really screwed up.

    They did take steps to fix it, though. You do get more powerful while asleep, but an invisible timer started to count down the moment you dozed off. After a few minutes have passed youíll start to hear a little jingle. As a kid not knowing what it was, it was pretty creepy and unsettling. As an adult it was a little worrisome as well, and tells you that something is going to go horribly wrong in a few minutes even if you never saw any of the movies. After that song goes through about two and a half loops or so (no idea how they came up with that amount), youíll be shown a black screen telling you that Freddyís coming. Itís pretty jarring when it shows up, and the music that suddenly begins to play is actually pretty intense for an NES game (although it is a very short loop). I actually jumped a bit when it happened, which is funny considering Iíd just spent ten minutes fighting spiders, snakes, bats, and everything else that isnít actually scary.

    Freddy is a complete pushover, which is terrible since this was the point the game hinged on. If the encounter with Freddy was brutally hard, bordering on certain death, then they could have had a great horror game on their hands. Yes, the gameís mechanics were pretty lame, but this one moment just had so much potential. It would have set up an intense risk/reward system, and it also would have set up a similar scare system to games that have the player dogged by a dangerous, nearly invincible enemy where avoiding it was the only way to stay alive.



    The risk/reward system would have made gameplay much more interesting. As is, there is no reason for you not to want to be asleep. The meter and the weirder enemies try to tell you that you donít want to be snoozing, but the fact that you become immensely more effective as a fighter undermines any possible fear. You get so much better than the enemies in the dream world that thereís just no way youíre not going to want to be asleep. Itís stupid to not be asleep against bosses too since it makes them much easier to beat, so it undermines all of the work it puts into making sleep scary by making it the preferable gameplay mode. If someone is seeking out the thing you put in your game to scare them, you messed up.

    If Freddy had been challenging, there would have been some risk involved in taking on the more powerful characters. They would help to get you through the tougher spots in the game, but once Freddyís music began youíd be desperate to find something to wake you up in a hurry. There would always be this hesitancy to use the stronger abilities since doing so would almost guarantee you a run-in with an unkillable enemy. It might not have been fair from a gameplay perspective (although no one accuses the NES of being fair), but it would have created an actual dilemma when you went to sleep. Do you stay asleep to keep the better powers even though youíre risking a guaranteed death, or do you wake yourself up and hope your basic powers are enough to beat the level?

    On top of that, knowing that there was an incredibly difficult enemy waiting for you when you fell asleep would have added some danger to things. Falling asleep would be something worth being afraid of since the creature waiting for you was something that would dog you until it saw you dead. Some modern horror games, like Haunting Ground or Amnesia, use a mechanic like this; one where youíre inevitably chased by an enemy you can only hope to ditch. You arenít capable of killing it, so your only hope comes from avoiding it or finding a place to hide.It may be hard to believe that an NES game could be capable of this, but if the optional Freddy boss had been made brutally hard to the point of impossibility, the game could have been scary.



    Just imagine what it would feel like to doze off at this point. You see the screen transition, and you immediately switch to one of your available powers. The game is nice enough to give you a new means to rush through the levels, so thatís what you do. You† charge through the stage, hoping you find something to wake you or the boss room so that you can put these powers to use. As you run, the stage doesnít seem to want to end, and thatís when that music starts to play. Youíve lost lives in games before, but the inevitability as well as the music make that prospect seem a lot more frightening than it has before. You come to the boss room, and are just steps away from it when the whole screen goes black, bright, pulsing red letters telling you that Freddyís here, and you watch as he just tears you to shreds when thereís nothing you can do about it. Itís horror that could have worked on the NES!

    Could have is the best it strove for, though. Itís funny, because LJN typically screwed their games up and made them too hard, but they somehow made Freddy into the easiest boss in the game. Basic enemies that respawn indefinitely over cliffs are harder than him, and almost every one of the bosses is tougher and has more erratic patterns than he does. Everything in the game is harder than Freddy, and it completely undermines his importance as the gameís main villain while also sabotaging any possibility that falling asleep will be scary. Why couldnít LJN have been their regular dumb selves and just made him way too hard? It would have been the one case where their typical screw ups actually made the game better. They actually had it all set up for themselves, too. They had some decently creepy music, they had the dream mechanic set up in a way that it could increase tension, and they had just enough of a benefit to being asleep that people would seek it out despite the risks.

    They botched it all by making Freddy too easy, which is insane considering they completely nailed it in Friday the 13th (Which is funny since Friday the 13th came first).In Friday the 13th, Jason slowly becomes an unstoppable juggernaut. Any of the unfortunate folks who made it to Jasonís third form will know exactly what Iím talking about. Heís fast and hits like a truck, and the only way youíre ever going to beat him is with constant practice. It is possible, but to someone whoís played the game even a few dozen times, heís going to be a death sentence. He is a great example of how you make a single villain into the central danger and focus of a game (even if the gameplay mechanics are terrible).



    They needed to do something like what they did with Jason to make A Nightmare on Elm Street a solid horror game, but they screwed up. Itís a similar screw-up to what many modern horror games do, which is the crazy part. Just take a look at the turn the modern Resident Evil games have taken. In them, the focus has shifted more to player empowerment ó giving them better weapons so that the combat becomes more effective and fun. Youíre being given better weapons as you move deeper into hostile enemy territory, a time when you should be more nervous. Those games try to balance your new powers out with more monstrous enemies that have different attack routines, but the whole thing isnít scary because youíre too well-equipped for the enemies to be any trouble.

    You can design the most frightening enemy ever created, animate it in such a way that just looking at it will give people nightmares, lead up to it with eerie atmosphere, and not manage to scare anyone because thereís no payoff. The enemyís power needs to at least match, but preferably overcome the playerís powers if itís going to be scary at all.† If you arenít practically guaranteed to die in an encounter with the enemy, what is there to be afraid of? Not only that, but making the player feel more powerful with a constant stream of better weapons is subtly making the player feel safer and more comfortable with the situation. You canít hand someone a stockpile of effective weaponry and still expect them to be afraid any more. Youíve effectively sabotaged your own attempt at scaring the player.

    A Nightmare on Elm St is guilty of many of those mistakes, but it came out in 1990. It undermines its own attempts to scare the player by making them stronger when it should be making them feel weaker, and fails by presenting players with a soft boss when itís trying its best to scare them. Itís doing everything wrong that companies are still getting wrong over twenty years later, and by now, thereís really no excuse for it any more. These mistakes were made a long time ago, and you can see all of them evidenced in the game within twenty minutes. I would never argue that it could have been a good game, but it could have been a decent horror game if its developers had taken a few more minutes to think about it. I think most modern horror games by big developers could stand to think about it, too.

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    10:07 PM on 10.14.2013  

    Masters of Fear: Clock Tower - The First Fear




    Clock Tower is one of a very select handful of games where you can actually say that it isnít the same twice. Through a series of neat tricks, the game just rolls with whatever you happen to want to do; building the plot based on how you explore the mansion youíve been trapped inside. Depending on what you look at and what rooms you explore, you can end up with an entirely new set of scares, plot points, friendly characters, and endings. I played the short game through enough times to see each ending, and yet there are still scares in the game that Iíve never witnessed. Clock Tower is one of the few games that will find a new way to get you every single time you play it.

    Even though it came out back on the Super Famicom, Clock Tower can still scare me quite a bit. It does this by randomizing where the main enemy will appear; basing it on variables I havenít figured out. I donít know if a certain amount of time needs to pass, what I have to interact with, or whether I just have to enter certain rooms in order to get the Scissorman to appear. There are times when Iíve had him appear out of a box or doorway and chase me halfway across the house; but if I were to reset my save to just prior to opening the door, he might not appear in that spot. I remember one play-though where I carefully set my character up, getting ready to run to safety, and he didnít even appear. Despite having popped out of a spot and killed me in the last run, he never appeared again despite me doing almost the exact same thing.

    This has the delightful effect of never allowing me to trust my surroundings. Every single search for items means Iím putting myself at risk, because I donít have any clue when or where Scissorman will appear. Sure I know there are a few high-risk places, but even in them his appearance isnít certain. Itís the sort of thing that always keeps me on edge, and makes for some great freak outs when the guy finally does appear.



    Iíve tried planning my route around some of the scares Iíve been caught by before as well, but all that happened was a whole new set of attacks. If I avoided the first floor bathroom because of something that happens there, I might have to go through another area and witness another horrific act and still end up getting chased around. Given that Iím in a different part of the house, I might not know of any good hiding places to get away from Scissorman as well, making for a different harried chase in a game Iíve played a few dozen times.

    You also canít avoid some rooms, because the game takes a couple of key rooms and puts them in different places on every new play. Not even the rooms themselves are static in the game, so if youíre trying to stay out of or find one particular place, youíll be out of luck. The game forces you to explore and make bad decisions on where you run to, making any previous knowledge from other play-throughs useless. It effectively makes the game different in subtle ways every time you play it, so you can never gain that confidence and foreknowledge that makes replaying a horror game so lame.

    It doesnít hurt that Scissormanís appearances are genuinely frightening. During my first scare, the scene was horrifying, but still quiet, so I thought it was just a buildup to show me the kind of cruel thing I was going to be fighting. The game maintained its focus on a dead body for just long enough that I didnít think anything was going to happen, and then Scissorman came surging out at me; his blades snapping in the air in front of my characterís face. It was terrifying; made even more so by the fact that I hadnít left the door open on the way in, so I was pretty much trapped. I died with my heart pounding and a smile on my face.



    Scissorman himself doesnít look all that bad, given the gameís age. The SNES isnít exactly the first place Iíd go to look for good horror, but Lone Survivor and Clock Tower have shown me the error of my ways. Thereís a weird kind of revulsion you feel when you look at Scissormanís face. Itís too long, and the mouth is too wide. He has black, sunken eyes and gray pall to his skin. Heís unsettling to look at, and at the same time is carrying a weapon big enough for a Square-Enix hero. Those giant shears snapping at your tail, even with those primitive graphics, are enough to scare you into a terrified flight.

    Those shears wouldnít be anywhere near as scary as they are without the excellent sound design. That snap when heís coming after you is really nice, and is always the first sound to indicate heís in the area. Iím not completely satisfied with that sound, as it sounds a little bit too much like plastic, but itís tied together so well with Scissormanís approach that it just works.

    The music that plays when you reveal him will stop your heart, too. Itís a really discordant track, filled with strange noises and a pulsing beat. It really makes the chases shine, starting on a high note to get you moving and turning into something well-suited to sustained terror. The music bleeds discomfort through your speakers, and you will feel genuine relief when the song ends and you can finally go back to exploring the house.

    Exploring that you will do at a snailís pace, that is.



    If thereís one problem this game has, itís that it moves far too slow. Despite probably watching most of her friends die, the main character moves around like an old lady trying to walk across a skating rink. The character just moves so slowly that it gets really aggravating trying to play the game during its exploring stages. It takes forever to get to each room, leaving you with these long stretches of just listening to your characterís pokey footsteps.

    You can run to move things along, something I did with glee as soon as I figured out how. You can only do it for so long before you run out of stamina, which is a much bigger problem than I thought it would be. If you get caught by one of the gameís dangers, be it Scissorman or something else, youíll have to mash buttons in order to get free. How hard these sequences are is dictated by your stamina, so if you do too much running around to speed up the game, youíre probably going to find yourself getting killed a few minutes later and have to do everything all over again.

    Since youíre moving so slowly, it also spreads the scares out pretty thin. There were some really long periods in this game where there just wasnít anything happening because it took forever to get anything accomplished. The moving rooms might also make the game scary, but when youíre looking for a specific one that could be anywhere in the house, it slows the game down to a crawl. This game is good when things start to come together, but there will be a few points where youíll be teetering on the edge of boredom.



    Even if you are getting bored, you can occupy your mind by wondering what sort of ending youíre going to get based on what youíve done. There is a very specific way to get each ending in the game, but it all plays out very organically. Itís all dictated by what happens to you. So if you see one character die during a certain part or in a specific way, that will change the way the game plays out a bit. If you pick up a certain item, something else will change on the course to your ending. If you just tackle the game in different ways, new endings will appear. You can even say screw it, run to the garage, hop in the car, and take off, if you like. The game just constructs an ending based on what youíve done, so itís hard not to stay invested in the game, even when itís moving slow. After all, that one thing you did differently could give you a brand new ending once the game's over.

    The gameís creepy vibe and unsettling story keep bringing me back for more. With new things popping up every time I play it, and seven endings to earn based on the slightest changed in how you play it, Clock Tower easily overcomes its flawed speed. The game is meant to be enjoyed at a slower pace, savored each time you try it, but if youíre not in the mood for atmospheric horror, itís going to annoy you. If you really feel like soaking in a creepy atmosphere where youíre in constant danger, go find a copy and give it a try. After all, there is a pretty good English patch for the game floating around out there.

    PS Ė Donít watch the video if you donít want Scissormanís most likely first appearance spoiled for you.

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    6:07 PM on 10.06.2013  

    Masters of Fear: Splatterhouse



    ďHelp Me!Ē

    Splatterhouse could have just been an excellent brawler if not for those words. Sure, it had horrific elements in its oozing, seeping enemy design and in its creepy atmosphere, but I wouldnít have called it a horror game until I heard that sentence. Iíve never been scared while playing the game, but I have had the rug pulled right out from under me during one sequence near the end of the game. That moment took this game from an action game with horror elements and made it into something that left me unsettled and shaken until the game had ended.

    Despite its focus on action, there arenít many horror games in existence that donít owe a little something to SplatterhouseĎs enemy design. Slimy, grotesque, and bloated donít even begin to describe the disgusting array of monsters that wander these levels. Each of these shambling creatures looks like itís rotting or half torn apart to begin with, and many of them burst with sickening fluid when theyíre hit. Just as many of them have exposed bones and muscle tissue sticking out from shredded skin or are visibly in agony as they head toward you. Itís really gross, and will instantly trigger feelings of revulsion for anyone playing it. You might not feel physically ill, but your natural instinct will be to get rid of these creatures as fast as you can.

    The monsters are all huge on the screen, too, so youíll get a nice, close look at the sores and wounds on their bodies. Instead of pulling far back, the game takes place on a single plane that takes up a lot of the screen. While the background takes up some of the space, for the most part itís just you and the monsters, letting you draw in every detail about them. I felt uncomfortably close to the creatures while fighting them, feeling like I was was always right on the verge of having one of these things touch me. Given the array of fluids and wounds on each of them, that was something I instinctively didnít want to happen. It was a neat effect, forcing me to approach these things while simultaneously making me want to get as far away from them as possible. Iíve been forced close to monsters in many games before, but this game made me really feel my proximity to these things.



    The combat has other ways to keep players uncomfortable. The huge enemies on the screen also meant that my character was a big target, too, so things could get bad in a hurry no matter how well Iíd been doing. These hulking things quickly get close to you as they donít have to close much distance, so even though they move slowly they can still be on you in seconds. Neither you nor the enemies have much in the way of health, either, so most fights feel like youíve only just crept by. Once you get good at the game that nervousness goes away, but youíre still only one slip-up away from dying at the hands of a headless, shambling mob.

    Iíve said that many of them burst open when theyíre hit, but that barely describes the smeared mess many of these things leave behind when you kill them. Thereís no blinking and disappearing here; only bleeding stumps and gore-filled stains. The game really cranks up the discomfort with the remains of these monsters, making each and every kill into a visual event. It drowns your eyes in bloody details, constantly reminding you how unnatural and sickening your enemies are. Killing these creatures only seems to make them more horrifying, and due to the gameís viewpoint you get to see every smear up close.

    Thatís not taking weapons into account, either. As big of a mess as most things make, itís nothing compared to what the weapons can do. Given the array of machetes, shotguns, and 2X4s, you will almost always have a weapon in your hand, and each one does something new and terrible to enemies. The gameís name has clearly come from the mess you leave behind once you hit something with these weapons, as itís always explosive and disgusting. Hitting one of the swamp creatures in any of the watery areas just sprays their bodies against the wall, and itís extremely satisfying while also off-putting. Itís the sort of stuff that keeps you playing the game while it slowly creeps into your nightmares that night.



    The sound of those remains hitting the wall really drive everything home, though. The sound effects in this game are excellent, and give every movement a weight and heft that Iíve rarely seen in games beyond Gears of War and Doom. Each weapon impact rings out with a wet crack, every body hitting the wall with the rotten crunch of flesh and bone. The sound gives the fighting a presence, adding another layer of disgust in your mind. You can hear how gross these creatures are when you hit them, and it just makes everything that much more real. I donít think I even want to know what the sound designers had to study to get this stuff down right. Special mention goes to the 2X4, which sounds so painful and bone-shattering that I think Iíd rather get hit with a chainsaw. If the fact that Splatterhouse displaced horrorís iconic chainsaw with a length of wood doesnít interest you, then I really donít know what to tell you.

    Theyíve done some great work with the music as well. There are reams of creepy music in this game, all of them menacing the player in different ways. There are some tracks that drone on with quickly repeating patterns that have a strong base to them, creating a sensation of creeping dread and discomfort. There are some that are higher pitched (without being shrill) that build up slowly, gaining speed to match the dangers in the room. Your own heartbeat is probably keeping pace with it too, as it is with the rest of the gameís fantastic music. There are many things that you could argue were the same between the TurboGrafix-16 and the original arcade version, but thereís no comparison in the music and sound. There are just many different layers to the creeping, eerie music that either drive up tension or make you want to hide from whatís coming next, and you donít hear as much of that in the TurboGrafix port. Given that the arcade version is easier to find since itís on the Splatterhouse rerelease for the 360 and PS3, youíre definitely better off with the easier-to-locate version. Crank the sound up when you play it.

    Now, if you donít want a key moment in the game spoiled for you, you should go try the game now. It isnít that long, and you should be able to get to what Iím talking about with a little bit of practice. Either way, leave now if you donít want to have the gameís definitive moment spoiled for you.





    Like I said, SplatterhouseĎs sound design is incredible, but itís the one track that is completely different that really stands out. When you make it to the end of level 5, youíll finally come across the reason youíve been working your way through the house. Itís at this point when a beautiful, sad song begins to play. Before youíve even made it to the other side of the screen, you instantly know whatís wrong. Whatís more important is that you feel it, though. This song, amidst all of the other creepy music, just stands out and carries a power thatís rare in game soundtracks. Yes, it sounds primitive by todayís standards, but the people who wrote this song managed to pour their life and soul into the music. Itís that music thatís stayed with me ever since I played it, and is always the first thing I remember when I think about the game.

    While this music plays, you are brought to one of the more heart-rending scenes in any game. You find your girlfriend lying on a couch, a horde of monsters running away as you approach. She stands up and looks at you, calling out with the words that, while a little unclear due to hardware limitations, carry a narrative power that video games rarely pull off.

    ďHelp me!Ē



    Itís the last thing she shouts before turning into a clawed beast (Skip to 4:10 in the video† at the bottom of this article to watch the Turbographx version. In the arcade she says ďHelp, Iím dying!Ē instead, but both are pretty unsettling), bits of her original flesh still hanging from its twisted body. The transformation looks horribly painful, pulsing against her skin until it eventually rips out of it. This happens a few times during the fight as the monster grows weaker, each time pulling back within the womanís body long enough for her to beg for your help again. Each time she reverts back you get a little twinge of hope that youíre doing the right thing, that this is how you help save your girlfriend.

    But you canít. Sheís already been destroyed by the forces in the house, and the only help you can give her is in freeing her from the thing inside of her. You can only help her by killing her.

    The horror in Splatterhouse may partially come from gore and scary music, but the main reason why it is so important is in the moments when itís the most human. Its awful message is that the most terrible thing you may have to do is wish death to a loved one in order to help them. The fear is in a loved one being in danger but arriving too late to save them. Itís in knowing that nothing you do from that point on can fix whatís already happened. The time when Splatterhouse is at its most effective is when the main characterís pain is something the player can imagine and even identify with. Itís in the terrible possibility that one day, a loved one might ask you to help them by ending their lives as well.



    You could argue that Iím reading a bit much into a gory video game, but I really donít think so. The developers went out of their way to make you hear the girl cry out for help. In a time when getting voice in games was troublesome and expensive (Just saying the word Sega out loud in Sonic the Hedgehog took up an eighth of the gameís storage space),they made sure that her cries for help were there and audible. Itís not something you read, but something you got to hear and endure. They also made sure you witnessed her transformation, watching how helpless she was against the thing that had ruined her body. It drives the terrible situation home, over and over again. This is what they want you to take away from the game. This is what these things want to do to people. This is why you should hate them.

    There are two more levels in the game, but you may find yourself floating through them in a daze. To me, everything ended right there when my girlfriend thanked me for killing her and turned into dust. Splatterhouse is a fun, great game filled with some sickening gore, but itís the points that fly in the face of the rest of the game that made it stick with me. Itís the point when you realize itís just two humans trying to escape this terrible place that the game really finds its staying power. Yes, it is mostly an action game with horrific elements, but it was that one point when it showed its human side that it gained a spot with the horror greats.

    Its contribution, as amazing as it sounds, is to being emotionally horrified, something I didnít really expect when I played it a few years ago. I also didnít expect it to hit me as hard as it did the second time, either, but the game hasnít lost any of its power with the age of its graphics and hardware. Yes, at its core itís an absurd situation, but what story doesnít use strange plot lines to explore complex human emotions? Despite being buried in a bloody brawler, SplatterhouseĎs emotional payload isnít any less significant. It stands out all the more due to being the one moment of touching humanity in this twisted world.

    I was horrified at the events of this game, shaken to the point where I will always remember that one helpless scream. If that isnít effective horror, then I donít know what is.

    Images courtesy of splatterhouse.kontek.net (Literally THE source for everything Splatterhouse. Definitely check these guys out), swankworld.com, greygelgoog.livejournal.com

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    6:35 PM on 09.30.2013  

    Masters of Fear: Sweet Home




    Sweet Home is one of the earliest and arguably most important entries in survival horror. If the fact that it was the inspiration for Resident Evil isnít enough (right down to the opening door loading screens), then thereís the chilling story, creepy atmosphere, and genuine danger to prove that this game helped cement many of the genreís most important aspects. If you thought that the idea of 16-bit horror was a joke, then you just might find yourself genuinely unsettled and surprised at what the 8-bit RPG Sweet Home can do.

    Sweet Home throws you into danger the moment you step into the house, but you might not realize it. Even after a few fights with some of the basic monsters, you wonít pick up on it. At some point, though, one of your characters will drop to 0 hit points. If youíve played any RPG over the past few decades, youíll probably feel inconvenienced. Given that this is a Famicom game, youíre probably dreading having to go back to some priest or healer thatís a good twenty minute walk away. As soon as you watch that character get chopped in half or fall to the floor in a bloody smear, youíll understand the stakes of fighting your way through this house. Character death is permanent.

    For an NES-era title, that death is pretty graphic, too. Watching the look on your male characterís face as an invisible force rips through his midsection is a little unnerving, if only because that kind of violence is rare from that era. Monster Party is the only point where I saw something that sickening happen in an NES game, and that gave the childhood version of me nightmares for some time. Just the same, itís interesting in its uniqueness but the death animation still looks a little on the silly side.



    When the female characters die, itís a different story. When they drop, they hit the ground face-first, and they hit it hard. Once on the ground, they start to slide back; leaving a long trail of blood before the game finally tells you that theyíve died. Without saying another word, the game is also telling you that the creature that killed that character is also dragging her body away. I donít know if itís just a product of being forced to use my imagination to fill in graphical gaps, but the idea of these creatures stealing the bodies after theyíve killed them left me feeling pretty unsettled.

    Donít get too bent out of shape about monsters stealing your dead friends, though, as their bodies will remain exactly where they died for the rest of the game. It was a nice gesture on the part of the developers since youíd want to be able to get any items youíd left in that characterís inventory, but itís still an uncomfortable act to have to rifle through a dead palís pockets. Itís extremely rare to be confronted with the consequences of death in a video game to any realistic degree since dying usually involves playing from an older save or checkpoint, but the player gets a close-up look here. You screwed up and someone died because of it; so now youíll have to remember that fact each time you need an item on that characterís inventory. Itís genuinely depressing to wonder where you left something important and realize itís on the corpse of one of your dead party members; the one you left lying on the floor like a piece of garbage.

    Since itís an RPG, youíd think Iíd just heal the buggers. Healing magic is prevalent in RPGs where your characters are in less danger than they would be in Sweet Home, and the developers realized that as well. Thatís why there are items in the game that heal your whole party to full hit points! Isnít that nice? There are exactly twenty-one tonics spread out over the ruined mansion, with emphasis placed on the fact that theyíre all over the place and, even worse, finite. You canít blow through your healing tonics as there is no other way to recover. You have to let characterís hit points dwindle rather than compulsively keep them healthy since it might be a very long time before you find your next tonic. Unless youíve been keeping careful track of how many youíve used, you might discover that youíre holding the last available one. Imagine how it would have felt to play this game without that knowledge and youíll start to realize just how devilish Sweet Home can be.



    Even if you did play carefully and stock up on items, youíd find that your inventory is a cruel enemy as well. You can carry two items on each character, and given the run of gloves, ropes, candles, boards, and other items you might need to move forward in the game, healing items wonít typically be a top priority. On top of that each character has a specific item they use that is necessary to progress in the game, and if they die youíll need to waste a precious inventory slot on its replacement. Thereís no carrying items to a box for easy transfer either, so youíll have to try to remember where everything is lying around in the mansion. It can be annoying, but the fact that it forces you to choose to put yourself in danger makes the game that much more frightening. Every mistake piles up on you, making your failure more and more likely by the second.

    Say youíve been careful for the whole game, keeping an eye on your health and items. Sweet Home is far from done with you, as there are also the traps. There are a few that just chip at your health a bit, but there are lots of others that will lead to character death. Most of these involve your character falling off something or into some hazard and needing to be retrieved. At the best of times theyíll take a ton of damage while you send someone to rescue them, but at the worst youíll need a specific item to get them free. If you donít have it, youíre out of luck. Even if you do have it, there are some traps that need specific timing in order to get your character free; so good luck with those too. Did I mention that you can fall in a trap just by walking through the wrong door?

    Another fun hazard is the ghosts that fly around certain areas. Most of them move in a straight line, but others circle your party in shrinking circles until they eventually make contact with someone. If you make the unfortunate mistake of letting one touch you, you can look forward to one character being dropped somewhere else in the house all alone. Hope you have a good knowledge of the houseís layout, because your poor, lonely character is probably a good walk away. As some advice, donít even take one step with that character. Getting in a fight alone is the last thing they will ever do.



    The game has one saving grace that keeps it from being hopelessly vicious, and itís that you can save anywhere. Being able to do that makes most of the gameís dangers a lot more manageable as you can just go back and undo a terrible mistake. It takes away some of the fear of dying, but you can still screw yourself pretty hard anyway. It makes the tension surrounding the fear of your inevitable death easier to tolerate, but it doesnít dissipate it entirely.

    The music in the game helps it maintain its atmosphere. Itís not the most spectacular musical score when listened to out of context as it has a lot of long, sustained notes that can make it kind of annoying for anyone else in the room, but it draws out tension. Itís all very melancholy and a little discordant. The music has a jarring and depressing effect where it doesnít sound quite right, and it gives you this feeling of discomfort while playing it. It is strangely haunting for someone whoís actually crawling through the gameís broken hallways and darkened corridors, though. Donít listen to it out of its context, but rather play the game or listen to it while watching some gameplay videos if you want to experience the effect. Like Silent Hill, the sound design is very good, but not in any kind of conventional way outside of the game itself.

    Sweet Home jumps through a lot of hoops to keep the gameplay scary, but what really holds it together is its story. Beyond the fact that your team is there to photograph paintings in a haunted old mansion, you know nothing. Thereís no one whoís going to hop in with any exposition as you progress through the game, either (well, very little). Youíre trapped in the haunted mansion for the whole game with almost no one to talk to. Beyond notes written in blood on walls and small hints you find in the paintings and tucked away in locked diaries, youíre given little background on whatís causing all of the trouble here. If you want to know what happened, you have to find out on your own.



    Itís not enough for Sweet Home to have one of the more disturbing stories in gamingís history, but it also makes you hunt it down. You hear everything in snippets and half-finished stories, leaving the player knowing that something is very wrong but rarely clear on the full story. That mixture of curiosity and horror drives the game forward, keeping you glued to it while giving a sense of revulsion at the events. Without even realizing, the player becomes that character from every horror movie that was overcome with curiosity and pushed deeper into trouble. You get to feel what itís like to be afraid of whatís going on while still needing to understand it. Itís an amazing feeling to be fully under the gameís spell and realize it.

    Finding out whatís going on is easily the most disturbing thing youíll ever see from a game of this era. Itís not shown in a tasteless or graphic way to illicit cheap scares either (although there are a lot of gross, disgusting things that the game DOES show. Huge spoilers in that link, by the way), choosing to let the player use their imagination to picture whatís happened. The events really are bone-chilling, but in a way that touches the player as a human being rather than trying to evoke biological horrors or ancient curses. If you look past the supernatural aspects of this game, you can see a terrible event that could happen in the real world. Looking at it in that way will make the gameís story stick with you. Despite the gameís age, it has one of the most mature, sad, and chilling stories ever told in a video game.

    Sweet Home is smart about its terror, manipulating gameplay and story into keeping the player drowning in tension. The steady drip of the story keeps the hooks in deep, forcing the player to continue contending with the houseís dangerous inhabitants and cruel traps. It leaves players afraid of what will be around the next corner while filling them with so much curiosity that theyíll need to see whatís around it. If you can really immerse yourself in the story and look past the dated (but still excellent for its time) graphics, this game will stay with you. Adding the fact that itís an excellent RPG only makes it that much more of a complete package. I canít recommend it enough for horror or RPG fans.

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    9:59 PM on 09.23.2013  

    Horror Darlings: Saturn 9




    Saturn 9 managed to do a lot of great stuff in a short amount of time. Seriously, if you want to have a couple of good scares and only have a half hour to play, it'll do the job. It's also got some really neat ideas that I haven't seen implemented in years, affecting the player with some meta game elements that no one's bothered with since Eternal Darkness. It hits a lot of ideas pretty fast, and its shifting nature kept me unsure what to ever expect next. It's really smart and interesting horror, and well worth the price of a cheeseburger.

    It starts off with some exploration, feeling like point and click style horror. You're dropped off on a derelict space ship (Are there ever any working space ships in these games any more?) and told to pick up some data that got left behind. You're given free reign to walk around the ship but you don't move very fast, something that made me uncomfortable right from the start. You can choose to run if you like, but the main character's got the cardio of one of those people you see in Wal-Mart riding the little motorized carts. He slows down really fast is what I'm saying. I was worried about running into anything in the game because of that, since I knew there was probably little chance I'd be getting away.

    Movement speed is an important consideration in horror games, something I didn't consider much until I played this game. It's strange, because it was a huge factor in Echo Night: Beyond, another horror game I liked in which you move pretty slow. You move and jump quite slowly, so you have to factor that into any encounter you have or even think you might have. It's the second one that I'm most interested in, as something as simple as movement speed can be scary before you've even seen a creature. As someone who's played a lot of games, I come to expect that I will encounter some kind of creature or monster when I'm playing through a game. It's very rare for a horror game to go without having some kind of encounter with the source of the bad events leading up to the game, whether through combat or just by running away. Games like Decay (with no controllable encounters) don't happen all that often, so more often than not you're going to be fighting or running from something. With an encounter as an inevitability, a slow movement speed is worrisome.





    It's cool, because Saturn 9 managed to start playing with my nerves as soon as I'd taken one step. Seeing how slow I moved had me stressed about whether I could run from a creature when it came for me. The game hadn't indicated whether there was something lurking around inside the ship, but as soon as I saw my first streaks of blood on the floor I started assuming there was. This put added stress on me about my movement speed, and again, you have me getting scared before I've done anything more than walk around for a bit and turned a corner. What was I going to do if I came upon a dangerous monster and couldn't even run from it? Was I dead as soon as I got caught? I love these moments at the start of horror games when you don't know what to expect. It's always so tense.

    This is in keeping with the kind of powerlessness I enjoy seeing in horror games, but taking it a step further. I've played a lot of good horror games where the protagonist is either poorly armed or completely defenseless, and both types can be really scary if they're set up well. In most of those games, like Clock Tower or SCP-087B, you're capable of moving at a rate that might not feel super speedy, but at least feels like enough to get away from the enemies. This game doesn't even give you that, instead providing you with a slow space walk instead. It's the kind of pokey movement you see in sci-fi movies all the time, where people in bulky space suits plod along. Again, I saw this used to great effect in Echo Night: Beyond, where you were given complex tasks to do but couldn't move especially quickly in your space suit. It made any encounter terrifying since you had to take this slow walk away from the enemies, hoping that you'd started moving away from them early enough that you'd get away. It's deliciously tense, and just about takes away the only way you have of getting away from enemies. Now, not only can you not fight back, but you can barely even run away.

    The difficulty with playing around with movement speed is that you run the danger of really aggravating the player. This happened to a lot of people who played Echo Night: Beyond, and required a certain patience in order to enjoy it (except zero gravity jumping, which annoyed %100 of the people who played it). Saturn 9 manages a movement speed that works during most of the gameplay, as the facility isn't especially large so you can still get to where you need to go in a short amount of time. Even when you do have an encounter with the enemy it still feels appropriate as the creature you meet moves at a similar pace as you do. Just the same, after repeated failures that slow pace really can get frustrating, diffusing my fear and making me angry with the game's mechanic. It does a solid job for the most part, but it does get pretty annoying by the time you're finishing the game. It's a hard thing to balance, though, so I'm still impressed for how long it worked well.





    Let's get back to the beginning. You had a flashlight that didn't illuminate all that much, one you could turn on and off (why you would ever turn it off is beyond me). It covered a decent visual range when it was on, just enough to make things uncomfortable since I couldn't see much of anything around me. There were also lots of tight corners, something that worked well in SCP-087B. There were all these little gaps and crevices even in the hallways, and since I was still expecting to be attacked it loaded each unseen corner with danger. I thought the creature could be hiding in any one of them, and the limits of my flashlight didn't help me feel any braver. It kept the area around me that I felt safe in very small, and since I had to keep sweeping my light around to see, I knew the creature could get the drop on me fast.

    This is the opposite of a lot of the areas in the later Dead Space games. Many of those places weren't especially well-lit, but I found the game did add more lights in areas where I was going to encounter enemies. The lights were put in so combat felt more fair, but they took away some of the sense of dread when you couldn't see your surroundings. Knowing that something is out there in the dark and fearing the moment you flick your light over the creature or turn a corner to see it howling at you adds a lot to horror games, and Dead Space stopped being able to manage that in later iterations. Saturn 9 did a really good job of it during my run through it, making me feel like I was one wrong turn from seeing the creature every time I moved.

    I was really impressed by the game's ability to drop a jump scare in, too. Jump scares tend to be really inelegant, dropped in whenever the developer wants a cheap scare. The difference between a good one and a bad one tends to revolve around how likely I felt like one was coming. For an idea on some really good jump scares, I actually recommend the movie This Is The End. It's not even a horror movie, which is the interesting part, so I just was not expecting the jump scares in it at all and they got me every time. They caught me by complete surprise several times in the movie, something that Saturn 9 did quite well. It would weave them into moments when I was in the middle of something and my mind was on a puzzle, taking me off guard when my mind wasn't on my surroundings. It would give me something to concentrate on before scaring me.





    Most horror games feel like they need to telegraph their jump scares a lot, placing them in long areas that are too quiet or lead up to them with some frightening music. Anyone who's played a lot of horror games or seen a lot of horror movies can feel when a jump scare is coming because of these things, and it makes them a little disappointing when they happen. You don't know when it is going to happen, but you can tell that it's coming and you are mentally prepared. This also makes every moment leading up to the scare filled with tension, but not the good kind. It's the kind of defensive tension where you clench various muscles and wait for something bad to happen. You've braced yourself for these scares by the time they happen, and they come more as a relief than a genuine jump. They feel more frustrating as a result, whereas a really good jump scare will catch you off guard, make you leap out of your seat, and then leave you shaking.

    Saturn 9 seamlessly wove a couple of really good scares right in the middle of some tasks it asked me to do. I would be right in the middle of solving a puzzle, my mind playing with some possibilities, and then the game would play a terrible musical note while the creature appeared. The game is short so it only caught me a few times, but they got me every single time it happened. The game went out of its way not to scare me during long, quiet points where I was expecting it, instead distracting me before jumping me. It was extremely well done.

    One of those tasks it got me in was when I started to run out of oxygen. The game warns you in a computer log (Can I just say here that I love the interface running across the mask of your space suit? It looked great) that running low on oxygen can cause hallucinations. I didn't pay it any mind until I actually started running low and the game started messing with me directly. A few seconds into my walk and the game brought up a system warning from the Xbox itself, something that made my jaw drop and instantly reminded me of my days with Eternal Darkness. It did a few other things that I don't really want to spoil, but suffice to say the game does some neat stuff.


    The game didn't have time to do a whole lot with it, but what it managed to do was scare me directly with some odd things. It wasn't the same as fearing for my digital avatar's life, but focused more on what a gamer might be frightened by. It didn't have a great deal of effect on me because I'd played Eternal Darkness before and knew what the game was up to, but I imagine some of what it did might get the jump on a new player. It's nothing mind bending, but seeing it implemented in a game that already had a pretty good handle on several different horror ideas was a real treat.





    It's not horror in any kind of classic sense, as I doubt most people are as afraid of getting their memory card wiped as they would be of someone trying to kill them. It does bring up an interesting point about horror games, though, as you really aren't going to die if you avatar is killed, are you? You're just trying your best to immerse yourself in the character's plight so that you can live through them for a while. That's really the only way that horror in these games work, but trying to scare the player directly with things that would frighten a gamer is a neat trick. It wasn't done as well in Saturn 9 as it was in Eternal Darkness, but the idea of it is a fun one. It breaks the fourth wall and is a little silly to do so, but it's a nice way to catch a player with a scare in an unexpected way.

    Saturn 9 ends with a sequence right out of the Slenderman games, and to be honest I felt this was its weakest point. Everything leading up to it had been playing with atmosphere, player expectation, and careful choice of scares, but this was where it just didn't hold together. Player movement felt really frustrating when it had to be used with something chasing you, but the monster didn't move any faster than you did. It unintentionally made the sequence kind of goofy. Also, rifling around a room for five items hidden in random spots just didn't feel all that scary, and was more like a chore I didn't want to do. The more time I spent poking around looking for the final item, the more annoyed I got that everything looked the same and I couldn't find my way. I should have been more frightened as time moved on since wasted seconds meant more opportunities for the monster to catch me, but all they did was give me more time to dwell on how the mechanics and lack of direction were bugging me. Slenderman style sequences can be done well, as they were in White Noise Online, but this one just lacked the same punch.

    Why? Probably due to how well the game had been setting up its scares previously. My expectations of what the monster could do were pretty high by the time I ran into him. I'd been expertly frightened by the thing a couple of times, but watching it hobble along while I slowly picked up data pads just sucked all the fear out of it. I just wasn't afraid of the thing, which was a shame. The game had so much going for it, so for it to end on this note was a bit of a drag.

    For its length and price, Saturn 9 was packed with excellent horror ideas and shows me that Raoghard (the developer) has a firm grasp on how to frighten people. Through careful jump scares, limited movement, and some neat fourth-wall breaking effects, the game just does a great job of constantly shifting how it frightens the player and keeps the scares coming. If anything, it's shown me to keep an eye on Raoghard for any more horror releases. They're bound to be worth my time and money.

    Saturn 9 is available for the dirt-cheap price of $1.00 from the Xbox Live Indie Marketplace.
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    9:04 PM on 09.17.2013  

    Masters of Fear: Resident Evil



    For console horror, Resident Evil is where it all began. It may not be the first, but itís the game that put the genre in peopleís minds. It was my first horror game, and it completely changed the way I looked at games. Having to count bullets while facing overwhelmingly strong enemies had my hands shaking. Wandering around empty hallways filled with dead ends and misleading paths kept me from ever feeling like I could get myself oriented. Returning to save points while limping and weak only to realize that I would soon have to step back into the fray quickly turned a game type Iíd never heard of into my favorite genre.

    This game does not screw around. You might think youíre starting to get a leg up on it, but itís just biding its time; waiting to hit you so hard youíll think youíre playing Ninja Gaiden. If you havenít played it, you really donít know what it means to count bullets. Scratch that, since you donít even get a gun for your first fight with a zombie. Instead, youíre stuck with just your knife; which is the gameís way of showing you how it works while making it clear that if you only have this weapon, youíre screwed. How many times have you been killed by the first enemy in a game since you started playing video games? Maybe just that first goomba in Super Mario Bros? Well, Resident Evil stopped me cold at this guy until I broke down and ran away.

    When you do get that gun, youíll probably feel like youíre powerful. Fifteen bullets per pick up? Youíre on top of the world; an unstoppable zombie-killing juggernaut. Once you realize it takes at least nine bullets to put a zombie down for good, that smile just crumbles. Once you see how many zombies there are between ammo pickups, your spirit will wither. Despite the cool firearms, this game is still about learning when itís best to run away; which is all the time. Your supply of shots is always dwindling, but I swear the enemies never stop showing up.



    Having zombies that were that strong meant even one of them showing up was cause for alarm. Iíd have to take aim, wait to make sure the gameís auto-aim had targeted the zombie, and start to pump bullets into it. Youíd have to be careful, as zombies tended to drop after a few hits, often resulting in a precious shot getting wasted on empty air. Once down, itís hard to be sure that theyíre dead, too. Downed zombies will sometimes just stay there for a long period of time as the game tries to fool you into coming close.
    Sure, a pool of blood would always form under zombies that were completely dead, but sometimes you couldnít be sure. Maybe you took your eyes off the downed zombie while fighting another? Maybe it happened just a little off-screen? Either way, youíd have to carefully make your way to the body to see if it got back up (hopefully not too close and giving the zombie a mouthful of your shin in the process), and then wait for it to get back up and shoot it again. Putting a second or third zombie in each room only added to the fun, creating some nerve-wracking moments that had you counting down the last of the bullets in your clip while the zombies kept methodically moving forward.

    Once you get that shotgun you can feel that power again, though. The gameís not so scary once you can pop a zombieís head off with one shot, is it? Donít get used to it, because the gameís got even more tricks up its sleeve, and Iím not just talking about hunters. Through carefully crafting the mansion and by exercising complete control over your saving as well, the game manages to tighten the noose around your neck even harder once you think youíre getting stronger.

    I was getting pretty confident while playing it a while ago. I was beating bosses, I had a stockpile of ammo and healing items, and the hunters werenít that much of a threat if I kept calm. I looked down at a hole that the game wanted me to go down, and I knew it was going to be a while before I got back to my item box to get at my stockpile. I figured it was no big deal. I could handle whatever the game threw at me.



    The next section was long. Really long. It was full of softball monsters that I hadnít had much trouble with. I wasnít afraid of anything anymore, as Iíd forgotten the ways that Resident Evil had been built to break its player base. Every shot I spent gleefully killing zombies was one less that I had to deal with other monsters. Due to my own overconfidence in my abilities, I also hadnít saved after beating a boss; meaning I had no healing items when I went in. I felt like I couldnít be beaten, and thatís when all of the gameís tactics came together.

    Saving in games tends to be a bothersome subject for me. I want to be able to save anywhere since I am typically pretty busy, and I hate holding out for checkpoints. Horror games are the exception, because being able to save is my safety net, my one balm against the terrible things that are happening. I only beat Fatal Frame because I could compulsively save my game after every enemy. Resident Evil is another story, because not only are the save points few and far between, but you need an ink ribbon to use them. That means having a finite amount of saves in the game, and while the game is fairly liberal with them, thereís this constant fear that Iíll run out of them before the game is over. If I saved like I usually would, I would be out of them within an hour. Having the system set up like that encouraged me to look at my inventory and take risks I probably shouldnít have.

    Inventory control was another key part of the problem. Like I said, limiting the amount of ink ribbons made me reluctant to save. Giving me only six inventory spots (eight if youíre Jill, you WIMP) meant that I had to carefully pick what I brought with me. I could have brought the pistol and shotgun with their ammo, but that was four of my slots. Bringing a health item for the boss brought that up to five, plus I needed the key to get into his room. I would have been full going in, and with the gameís item storage room being a long walk away I didnít really want to go all the way back to fiddle with my inventory. I brought the shotgun and ammo, a healing item, and the key. That way, I could collect anything important I found along the way. That was especially important when I knew I was going down that hole. I didnít want to have to backtrack a few hundred times to collect everything I needed.



    So, poorly armed but full of confidence, I hopped in; and only by the greatest series of lucky movements did I return. By controlling my ammo and saves, the game forced me to undergo a grueling endurance run against the hunters that had filled the mansion. Every fight chipped away at the health I couldnít recover, soon leaving me in a dangerous state with many rooms to go. My confidence shriveled up as I tried to press on, hunters dogging my every step. Even when I hit familiar halls, I was still being chased by two hunters in almost every corridor. I was one hit from death for five unbearable minutes before I slammed the door of the safe room shut.

    Short on everything from my run, I knew that I would soon have to go right back out there. I couldnít handle it, and had to shut the game off for a few hours while I collected myself.

    I hate a lot of these design choices most of the time. I canít stand having to roam back and forth across the same hallways while I collect handfuls of items and bring them to their specific destinations, all while knowing I havenít got quite enough inventory space for all of them. It drives me crazy to be unable to get to a save point without a five minute walk, and even then, that Iím going to be down one more ink ribbon because a friend showed up unexpectedly. I hate debating whether I want to waste a ribbon when I think I can survive an area, only to have aiming trouble with three enemies and then die; losing hours of progress.



    These were conscious decisions that, when they all come together, can set the player up for some harrowing experiences. Even today, or perhaps especially today, itís amazing to see the grand effects of a few small choices. Sure, they bother me as a player and Iím sure theyíd bug many modern gamers, but they are extremely important for the gameís pacing and scares. Itís really nice to be able to go back to a time when games didnít hold your hand to make sure you could beat the game. For Resident Evil, it was more important that the game be made frightening and stressful than palatable to a broad audience. Funny thing is, Resident Evil moved on to become a giant of a franchise because it worried more about creating a terrifying experience rather than a crowd-pleasing one.

    This is how you do horror with guns. This has that helplessness I love. It has that constant danger that you never escape no matter how much power you feel you have. It plays on human arrogance, toying with you just before it gets really hard. Itís also not afraid to just throw something at you, making you jump right out of your seat even if youíre staring right at your enemy. I still got startled the first time an enemy grabbed me, and I still almost dropped my controller when the dogs came through the window. The gameís ugly as sin these days, but everything that made it so groundbreaking when it came out is still valid and functional today.

    Every horror game owes something to Resident Evil Ė Every last one of them. If you havenít played it, go do it right now. Get the Gamecube remake if you have to. Whatever you do, make sure you experience the dawn of console horror for yourself.
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    7:16 AM on 06.26.2013  

    Horror Darlings: I Can't Escape



    In my first run playing I Can't Escape, I didn't make it out. There is a way out of the dungeon, and I felt like I was getting pretty close for a while, but then I started to fall down. And down. And down. It should have been easy to dodge around the pitfalls in this game once I knew how to look for them, but something about the overwhelming atmosphere of the game makes it very hard to concentrate. It is a very simple game at its core, merely being a maze exploration game, but smart sound design and some unsettling graphics take it and make something far greater.

    You'll find yourself staring at a blue sky as you start the game, but you won't even have enough time to wonder where you are before you'll be tumbling down into the earth. From this point on, your entire job is to find the ladder that will lead you back to the surface. That might seem like a short-lived task when you turn a few corners and find a ladder leading out. You'll smile to yourself, shaking your head at how sad this little independent project is as you stride toward it. You probably won't even notice the little black pit yawning open under the ladder until you fall inside of it and find yourself even deeper underground.

    The walls change as you move downward, and in ways that really make this game start to gnaw at your nerves. The graphics are pretty primitive, looking a little more upscale than something from the Doom era, but they serve to make the walls look off in some hard-to-describe way. Like Lone Survivor, this game uses an older graphical style to make things look a little vague. Is that vines or veins crawling along that wall? It doesn't quite look like one or the other, and the effect left me feeling unsure of my environment and a little worried. It gave the maze an otherworldly feeling, and it shook my confidence in reality just enough to put me off a bit.



    I did quite well for a little while, but the maze seems to just sprawl off in random directions most of the time. I found quite a few ladders that looked safe to climb as I looked through some windows, but I was rarely able to find the path that actually lead to those places. Instead, I often found myself taking doors at random as I hoped to find my way through. There wasn't any compass to help me get my bearings, either, so a lot of my time was spent completely lost. It helped keep the game a little scarier, but it can be pretty annoying when you're trying to actually escape. It doesn't help that every floor is huge, and sometimes I could wander aimlessly for ten minutes or more before I found a door I'd already been through.

    You get pretty good at watching the floor after playing for a bit, too, as the game relies on the player not paying much attention in order to keep the game going. The floor is littered with tiny black holes that indicate the pits, and you'll feel pretty smart for a little bit once you notice them and start dodging them. The second you go to crawl up a ladder and find yourself falling through seemingly-solid ground, you won't be as happy. There is a specific type of grass that covers a pit, a large green patch that is almost indistinguishable from the regular grass on the cave floor. It's only obvious feature is that it is almost always right under the ladder you're currently running toward in excitement. It feels like a cheap trick, but considering the alternative was using an obvious hole that you already knew how to avoid, I can't see what else the developers could have done.

    That being said, it can be extremely frustrating to fall down pit after pit because the grass looked mostly safe. It helps make the frightening aspects of the game come to the fore a little bit better as it whittles away at your confidence when you see a ladder, though. That twinge of joy when you see a way up will quickly wither and turn to dread as you look at the ground under the ladder. Is that the kind of grass that's going to drop out from under me? Can I remember what that grass looked like? I was never entirely sure of myself when I took that final step toward the ladder, finding myself gasping with relief far fewer times than I spent cursing in anger as I dropped. It really can be an annoying aspect of the game, but it does turn moments that should feel like victories into crushing defeats. It wears the player's spirit and confidence down with each drop, setting them up for the atmosphere to do its work.



    If a feeling of hopelessness hasn't settled in by the fifth or sixth drop, the music will put that feeling into your head. There are quite a few different tracks that play as you fall further into the maze, all of them filled with droning tones that just pick at the nerves. The music is your only company as you move deeper, and it just keeps getting louder and more frightening with each floor. It's also interspersed with effects like footsteps, a sound that always seems to put me on edge in horror games where you spend most of your time alone. The tracks all imply that something terrible is waiting for you, giving this sense of inevitable doom that only grows with each fall. None of it is as intricate as some of the tracks from Silent Hill, but they all do an excellent job of making the journey through the maze much more uncomfortable.

    You're not quite the only person in the maze, either. There are a few ghosts that wander the halls, looking to drop you down another floor if they touch you. They seem to have random appearances and can come right through a wall and surprise you, so they feel about as unfair as the grass-covered pits at times. Once again, they've been put in to make the game feel more uncomfortable and take the player by surprise. The first time I saw one I was terrified, if only because the game's clumsy controls made it very hard to get away. You have to hit the directional keys to face a specific direction before hitting up and down to go forward or backward, so it's extremely hard to maneuver when you need to. The ghosts are the only time this comes up, though, so it's not all that bad. It adds a certain inevitability when the ghosts see you and begin to close in, giving the player a scary feeling of being unable to escape.

    The eyes on the walls drove that feeling home as well. I was surprised the first time I noticed one, watching as it seemed to open up from a deep sleep to stare right at me. The eyes open up a little bit for each moment you're standing in front of them, and I have to admit the effect was terrifying in its own way. I've played the game a couple of times and know that the eyes don't actually do anything, but there's something about seeing one of those things opening up across from you that just makes you want to get away. When I was running from a creepy wall texture I knew the game was doing its job well.



    All of that hopelessness, all of those feelings of inevitable doom in hallways that were steadily filling up with an almost howling music, ended up pushing me to take stupid actions. I said before that most of the spots on the ground are easy to spot when you know how to look, but the game's crushing atmosphere soon starts to push the player into rushing and making bad decisions. Without meaning to, I was moving forward as panic began to settle into me. I didn't look at the ground as carefully as I used to when ghosts began to appear, and I rushed from door to door with no sense of direction or purpose. I just knew that I needed to find a ladder, any ladder, and start working my way back up again. If I could do that then the music and the eyes and the pressure would back off a bit and I could calm down.

    I just kept making mistakes, though, tumbling ever downward until I finally figured out where the maze ended. It was a bitter moment as I fought against what happened, and I still had this insane sense that I could get away from where I'd ended up even though the logical side of me knew I was beaten. I'd lost the game long before that when I'd let it dictate my actions through a creeping sense of panic, though.

    I Can't Escape doesn't look like much, and there isn't much in the way of danger besides falling to the bottom and losing, but it plays its atmosphere and sound so well that it made me more afraid than I should have been. I wasn't all that impressed when I was goofing off with it in a well-lit room, but once I had those headphones on and was playing after midnight it all clicked together. I Can't Escape isn't so great that it can scare someone easily, requiring the player to be more open to its scares than some other horror games would need, but it still does its job extremely well. It managed to create an idiotic panic in me when I knew there was no need for one.



    It made me question the rules of the game and how safe I felt in my conclusions about the floors and environments, putting me at a point where I started to question other things I thought I knew about the game. After all, if you can't trust the floor under your feet, what else can you trust? What if those ghosts turn lethal later? What if those footsteps do mean something? You might know for a fact that something is meaningless from hundreds of attempts at the game, but it does such a good job of making you feel unsure of the game's rules that you never feel comfortable or safe. It'll do that without the player realizing it, soon leaving you in a state of blind panic that will lead all the way down, down, down into the game's depths, cursing yourself for the failure you deserve.

    Because it can be beaten. There is a way out, but unless you can overcome your feelings about the game you won't find it. You could argue that's the weakest point about the game, as a careful player who observes everything and doesn't give in to the game's atmosphere will probably get out without much trouble. It was a necessary element to give the game a reason to be played, but it still undercuts the game's main goals in a way. You win by spiting the game's attempts to scare you.

    How could you be afraid without that chance of escape, though? Doesn't the fact that you can win, that you can actually get out of the maze, make failure and panic all that more bitter? When you're running through the halls in a panic and looking for an escape route, you're doing it because you desperately hope that you can get away. If you didn't feel that there was some hope, you might give up and shut the game off, but it's that glimmer of hope that kept me going. I think it'll keep you going too, long after you've fallen so far you may as well give in. Even in that last area you'll be hammering away at the walls, hoping against hope for an escape route that you'll never find.

    Not bad for a free half-hour long game, right? If you want to try it yourself, go give it a shot on Newgrounds.
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    9:53 AM on 06.20.2013  

    An Apology to Castlevania: The Adventure



    I made a pretty tall claim a few months ago, saying that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Ė Mirror of Fate was the worst handheld Castlevania game besides Castlevania: The Adventure (The Castlevania Adventure? I can't figure out this box art). Thinking I'd be happy with my stinging remark, I walked away from the game and started goofing off with other things. I kept coming back to that comment over the months since I posted the review, as something about it just bothered me. It's not that I felt like I was too hard on Mirror of Fate, but that I'd actually been unfair to Castlevania: The Adventure. It's been many years since I'd played it for the last time, so I thought I'd pop it back in and refresh my memory. I was sure after a couple of minutes I'd be confident in my comment and could go right back to being overtaken by every other alien race in Stardrive.

    The results both shocked and horrified me.

    It is quite clear from the moment you start Castlevania: The Adventure that it is slow. Painfully slow. I'm assuming that Christopher Belmont has some sort of hip problem, given that almost every other creature and trap in the game moves at a healthy, normal pace. He must have something wrong, because he moves as if he weighs a few thousand pounds, jumping slowly as if it causes him pain to toss his mass around. Maybe he's arthritic or something. The point is that the man moves like he's stuck in quicksand and not too upset about it, but the rest of the game moves along at a normal pace for an extremely early Game Boy game.


    What does that mean for you, the player? Death. Lots of death. Given Christopher's complete inability to maneuver faster than anything, you'll have to plan out your strategies in advance if you expect to survive for any amount of time. If something catches you by surprise, there's just no way you can hope to escape it. This is even worse in areas where there are cliffs or moving traps because a few wasted steps are often enough to get you killed. This is especially terrible in level 3, as the game has you jumping from rope to rope as you try to climb your way out of the stage. Given that Chris doesn't jump from a rope so much as let go and plummet, you may find yourself spending a lot of time testing the aerodynamic properties of your Game Boy.

    It sounds awful, but at least Chris followed my button commands unlike a certain group of other characters from Mirror of Fate. To cling to a rope, all I had to do was hold up while moving over top of it. This was the most complicated thing I'd have to do while traversing most areas. In Mirror of Fate, if I had to traverse a swinging area I'd have to hit R, use the stick to keep moving, then press R again to let go, but not B because that would just make me fall like a moron. Every once in a while I'd have to hit R one more time to cling to the next hook, but sometimes that wouldn't work because the game hadn't highlighted the next hook spot properly and I'd fall to my death. Even more annoying was the magnetic slides I'd have to move along, as I'd have to hit the release button for them while also hitting jump with very specific timing in order to get past some of the hazards or I'd die again. Why couldn't I have just hit the jump button instead of hitting this conglomeration of buttons in order to get through? It made me wish for the simplistic controls of Castlevania: The Adventure. At least in that game a fall to my death was my fault and not because I'd forgotten how they'd set up the buttons for swinging or because the game hadn't realized what I wanted to do.

    Now that I'm talking about death, Castlevania: The Adventure managed to do it better as well. If you fall to your death or take too much damage in Castlevania: The Adventure, you go back to a specific checkpoint that can be a good distance back from where you were. It can suck when you're moving so slow that you fall into a death trap or take one too many hits, but at least the game has an expectation that you'll learn from your mistakes and play better next time. On top of that, you're only allowed to screw up so many times before it's back to the start screen; better luck next time. Sure, the game sabotages your every move with its slow speeds and level design that didn't take Chris' pokey movement into account in the slightest, but at least it demands that you get good at it anyway.



    Mirror of Fate just lets you die over and over again, never really penalizing you but just hoping that the threat of seeing its stupid loading screen will make you want to quit. You die all the time in Mirror of Fate, but it doesn't really mean anything beyond a small inconvenience when you have to go back a move or two before what you just did. Oh no, I dropped into an electric trap and died, it's so terrible that I have to play for about five seconds to get right back to where I was. It takes what should be a soul-crushing failure and makes it...inconvenient. You can also do this as much as you want, so if you want you can just start throwing your guy down into those pits out of pure frustration. Don't worry, the game doesn't mind, and that will teach the character not to listen to you. The jerk.

    The graphics don't even compare. The stark, barren world of Castlevania: The Adventure just isn't on the same level as Mirror of Fate. You just have to spend a couple of minutes with Mirror of Fate before you'll be blown away by all of the jagged edges on all of the polygons and amazed by the great monster design of the shifting color mermen and the evil books. Castlevania: The Adventure is a bleak, empty place by comparison, filled with lonely halls and woodlands of dead trees. Even Christopher's face seems to have been worn away by some sort of early industrial accident. The whole place is just a barren wasteland filled with monsters, the sort of place that's perfect for a vampire hunting video game.

    Who is doing all of the work in the castle in Mirror of Fate? It's huge and full of details! All of the chandeliers have their candles lit, the toymaker's workshop is filled with inventions and gadgets, and even the kitchen has a full working staff! Am I supposed to believe that the monsters have put together some sort of functional employment system? Did they team up to set up all of these mining carts and pulley systems? Also, who here is paying the electrical bill for all that junk in the workshop? On top of that, why is there electricity? Doesn't this game take place in 1072? The whole game's graphical premise is ridiculous, and just fills the game's hallways with junk that either doesn't fit with the era or would need a whole trained monster staff to upkeep. Is this Hotel Transylvania or something?



    Castlevania: The Adventure is bleak and perfect. The backgrounds in the moving spike section aren't blank because any detail here would probably cause such criminal slowdown that it would grind the game to a near-halt, but because they drive home the sense that this is a stark, empty place. The monsters aren't here because they enjoy interior decoration beyond the grave, but because they are trapped in the small holes in the floor that don't make any sense from an architectural standpoint. As for the traps, I myself have fashioned a large pit in front of my spare room so that guests feel that I am worried about their personal fitness enough to provide them with a running and jumping workout before they can spend the night. Everything about the way that Castlevania: The Adventure has been set up rings true, creating a world that is engrossing because there is nothing in it.

    Thinking of Christopher's face makes me realize what the game was doing with his slow movements. Only now do I realize the genius of the developers who built a game around demanding precision jumps from a character who moved as if both of his legs were broken. His blank face is like that of the first person shooter guy, an identity that will never be revealed despite all of his heroic acts. That blank face was left that way as a narrative device, helping the player settle into the role of being a hero. Christopher's face isn't a complete blank because no one cared enough to program one, it's because the game is working on making you feel immersed in a world of evil boomerang guys and cloaked guys who turn into bats who might be Dracula but it doesn't ever say so and nothing in this game looks like what it's supposed to because it's a launch Game Boy game. It's trying to make you feel his pain.

    Forget that the game punishes you for taking a hit by downgrading your whip even though it's extremely difficult to avoid damage. Forget about how most of the game's jumps require you to be on the absolute last pixel or else you'll fall into a pit and have to repeat huge sections. Forget about how it's impossible to get to certain places because you don't move fast enough to actually cross the dropping platforms to get to them. Forget about how the developers realized they could make the game harder by building the game around punishing the player for Christopher's slow movement speed. Forget everything that would make it difficult for me to make my point. Done? Ok, here we go.



    Christopher Belmont's slow movements are built to reflect those of a dying vampire hunter, a man crippled with age but still filled with a sense of duty. Sure, he may look young and strong on the cover, and sure, his next game takes place 25 years later so he couldn't be that old, but none of that matters. All that matters is that we go along on a journey with this aging vampire hunter, that we feel his pain with every arthritis-crippled step, that we share in his sorrow as he gasps and wheezes while dropping down from a rope when you told him to jump. This isn't a great hero's journey, but the last (well, second to last) days of a tired old hunter who's been called to duty once more. Therefore, the slow, clunky movements that seem to make the game into unplayable garbage only enhance a narrative that the developers were trying to develop. Once you dismiss those troubling facts that disprove my theory, you can see the beautiful, moving game about an aging hunter that the developers were trying to create.†

    This is vastly more important than some stupid story about some creepy vampire family squabble taking place in a historically inaccurate castle. This is true pathos, the kind that will make you shed tears in a manly way. Despite the fact that every aspect of Castlevania: The Adventure points to it being an obviously terrible game, one of the worst in Castlevania history, it is not. It's a touching game about an old man making his way through an abandoned castle to kill some guy in a cloak who turns into a bat. It's the kind of tale I'd be proud to tell my children if they asked me where babies came from or some crap like that. It's not the complete tripe that is Mirror of Fate, and I sincerely apologize to anyone and everyone who worked on Castlevania: The Adventure for daring to imply that your work was of the same caliber as Mirror of Fate.
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