Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s means I was fortunate enough to be present in the early days of home computers and games consoles. It was, however, the 1990s that saw me discover and explore the horror genre to the full via video games.
Through video games I was able to slake my thirst for all things horror via the games being released. Games that blew me away with their cutting edge graphics, atmospheric audio and immersive story telling. Well, they were cutting edge for the time at least.
Okay, so back then the graphics, gameplay and production values may not stand up to today’s standards but at the time these games kept me enthralled for many hours.
Here’s five of the games from the ’90s (in no particular order) which continue to stand out in my mind and fill my heart with sheer nostalgia:
Night Trap (1992)
Night Trap is basically an interactive movie which made it so exciting back in 1992. It was originally released by Sega for the Sega CD console but I played it on my very first PC using Microsoft Windows 3.1/DOS.
Night Trap was so exciting for the time because it was presented using full motion video so all the characters and the scenery were presented in real, if somewhat grainy, video and weren’t drawn using sprites. Production costs of the game are estimated to be around US$1.5 million making it one of the most expensive video games of the time.
In the game, your take the role of a special agent tasked to watch over teenage girls having a sleepover, typical murder fodder for the time.
Night Trap starred actress Dana Plato (formerly star of the TV show Diff’rent Strokes) who no doubt took this video game gig because she was fighting her own career-crushing demons in real life suffering some alleged problems with alcohol and drugs. Tragically Dana Plato would die in 1999 of a suspected drug overdose which was later believed to be a suicide.
Unbeknownst to the girls in the game, the house in which they are sleeping is fraught with danger. As the player you watch ‘live’ surveillance footage of the house and trigger traps to capture anyone seen endangering the girls. You can freely switch from camera to camera to watch the girls and eavesdrop on them to hear the story unfold and catch any possible clues.
In all honesty, despite the high production values and the premise having great potential it was a very shallow game with little in the way of game-play.
Despite this lack of much substance, the game’s ability to change cameras at any time meant that the playability of the game lasted a lot longer than it would have otherwise. Players kept replaying to catch any portions of the story they missed and boys in particular kept coming back to see if any of the girls actually got naked (spoiler: they didn’t apart from some underwear shots).
What really made this game stand out was the fact it was one of the featured subjects of a 1993 United States Senate committee hearing on violent video games. The hearing pointed out the violence and sexual aggression against women, prompting toy retailers Toys’R’ Us among others to pull the game from their shelves just before Christmas 1992 and Sega to cease its production entirely in January 1993.
A short time later, when the hub-bub passed, Night Trap was re-released and ported to other consoles and the PC.
The games notoriety rather then it’s gameplay sees it continuing to resurface on some of the latest consoles. It was even re-released in 2017 to commemorate its 25th anniversary.
As a side note, the Senate hearing involving Night Trap eventually led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the North American video game ratings board still in use today.
Sony PlayStation 4
Night Trap Trailer:
Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster (1995)
Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster is a point-and-click adventure video game starring the wonderful Mr Tim Curry as Dr. Frankenstein (not be confused with his iconic portrayal of Dr. Frank-N-Furter in that cult movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
The player has the role of a newly created Frankenstein’s monster, journeying through various areas of the (not-so) good doctor’s creepy castle driven by the monster’s inner-monologue to discover what was going on in the story.
The game boasted full motion video clips and 3D CGI graphics with a decent soundtrack and atmospheric sound effects. While the game was pretty clunky the graphics combined with the immersive audio kept the player plodding on through the story. I remember traveling to the castle’s tower just so I could hear the swirling wind sound effect that for some reason really made me feel like I was outside on a tall tower.
Curry of course hams it up in his inimitable style and steals the show with his performance sometimes bordering on the ridiculous but always amusing.
Some of the puzzles within the game required luck as much as skill and the game became quite repetitive fairly quickly.
All-in-all the game was a nice and clearly memorable experience but while it was fun I doubt many would continue to play much beyond the first act if it were not for the presence of Tim Curry.
Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster Demo Video:
The 7th Guest (1993)
The 7th Guest is an interactive movie puzzle adventure game, produced by Trilobyte and originally released by Virgin Interactive Entertainment in April 1993.
It was one of the first computer video games to be released only on CD-ROM. The 7th Guest is a horror story told from the unfolding perspective of someone plonked into a spooky mansion suffering from anesia.
It relies heavily on puzzles to move the story along and while it’s clearly a puzzle game, it combines puzzles with the game in such a way that allows them to fit seamlessly into the context of the story. This is no small task.
The sound effects and music are a vital part to this game and enhance the solid graphics to make it a game that is still enjoyable today.
There are many video aspects using live action which are well done and well acted. The video aspects move the story along while setting the mood.
The drawn graphics for the puzzles and scenery are great and often border on the exqusit.
I played the 7th Guest on a PC and it was a true feast for all the senses.
Even after completion, it was worth going back to and playing again due to it’s high quality of puzzles, story, audio, video and general execution.
The 7th Guest Trailer:
Phantasmagoria is a point-and-click adventure horror video game designed by Roberta Williams for MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows in 1995.
The game puts the player in the role of Adrienne Delaney (played by Victoria Morsell), a writer who moves into a remote mansion and finds herself terrorized by supernatural forces.
The game boasts live-action video scenes together with some beautifully designed computer generated environments. Sadly the video capture was good for the time but was let down by rather rough blue screen work to combine the two elements.
The game gained an ominous reputation due to it’s violent and extremely gory scenes. There was also some live action sexual content including what some felt to be a rather unnecessary rape scene where the attacker manages to commit the crime while keeping his shorts on. This scene resulted in some retailers refusing to stock Phantasmagoria on their shelves.
The game was reported to have cost US$4.5 million to develop and grossed and amazing US$12 million on it’s first weekend.
The game was a huge project taking more than two years to develop with a cast of twenty-five actors in total and even a Hollywood effects team. All the acting was done in front of a blue screen before the backgrounds were added later. The acting took place in a special studio built for the project by Sierra, the producers of the game.
At that time most games at the time featured around 100 backgrounds at most but Phantasmagoria used 1,000.
The audio is top-notch with a fine musical score including a neo-Gregorian chant performed by a 135-voice choir.
The game was huge and had to be released and shipped on 7 CD ROM discs. Strangely enough, the changing of disks never really got in the way of the gameplay too badly.
It was sometimes a slog going around the various locations in the game and the character animations soon became rather reputative. The story was okay, the puzzles were fine but rather simple but the end battle was overly difficult and required many attempts to get the required timing just right, this became a chore to complete.
There was one major bug in the game which took place when the telephone engineer comes to the mansion to repair the phone. If you move your character the wrong way on the screen at this point the game would catastrophically crash every time, filling the screen with dozens of lines of code and locking up. This required a hard reboot to restore the PC and you then you had to restart the game – being careful not to make the same mistake again when you eventually return to the game.
Phantasmagoria was an amazing achievement for it’s time and blew players away but I don’t think it stands up well today despite, like some other titles in this list, being available on Steam at the time of writing this article.
Phantasmagoria – Some of the death scenes (WARNING! GRAPHIC):
Silent Hill (1999)
Silent Hill is a survival horror video game for the PlayStation using a third-person view, with real-time rendering of 3D environments.
The game cleverly used fog and darkness for much of the game to overcome limitations of the Playstation’s hardware, it actually enhanced the game’s tension and eerie atmosphere rather than taking anything away for the experience.
The game follows Harry Mason as he searches for his missing adopted daughter in the fictional American town of Silent Hill.
Interestingly, there are five game endings possible, depending on actions taken by the player, including one joke ending.
Silent Hill received mostly positive reviews from critics on its release and was a commercial success.
The game is considered by many to be a defining title in the survival horror genre, and is also considered by many to be one of the greatest video games ever made. This game depends heavily upon psychological horror and an almost over-powering atmosphere of suspense. It also featured some of the most unnerving collection of creatures for the player to fight against.
The cherry on the cake of this game has to be the wonderful mucial score and sound effects created by Akira Yamaoka who requested to join the project when the original musician left the development team.
The music is simply awesome and matches the theme of the game perfectly despite the fact Yamaoka produced the soundtrack without seeing the game visuals.
While the game looks rather out of date by today’s standards I’m sure anyone who played it in the day remembers it with the fondest of memories.
Silent Hill Trailer:
What do you think of this selection? Do you remember any of these titles or do you have your own retro games that have a special place in your heart? We would love to hear from you.
© Colin Lawson Books