Irrational Childhood Fears – A Look at the Games that Scared Us as Kids
There have always been scary games to frighten and terrify people on Halloween. Games like Haunted House on the Atari 2600, Friday the 13th on the NES or heck, even Alone in the Dark came out before anybody had thought about an ESRB. The one thing I’ve learned however as a father is that it isn’t the big scary things that always scare kids. Sometimes it is something a bit more irrational.
So I tasked the Twinfinite staff to get me the video games that they played as kids that truly frightened them. The games that they can look back on as adults and truly question what it really was that sent those shivers up our spines. This is what really spooked us as kids.
The game I remember giving me some scares when I was young was Maniac Mansion, which I played on the NES. While there were plenty of moments intended to terrify — skeletons in the shower, dungeon traps, insane tentacle-monsters threatening you — the moment that sticks out most in my mind, the one that really rattled me and hung with me for years HAS to be placing a hamster in the microwave, pressing the button, and hearing the sickening POP as the few pixels of “glass” on the device’s front turn from blue to red.
I don’t even really know why it stuck so much, why I kept that haunting the back of my mind — but there it is. A silly few orange-brown pixels, and the notion of exploding the mansion’s younger resident’s pet inside his own kitchen haunted me.
Donkey Kong Country was one of the staples of my early childhood. My sister and I played it all the time. If we weren’t playing Super Mario World or making our Barbie dolls joust from the backs of toy dinosaurs, we were probably playing Donkey Kong Country. Despite our love for it, we both agree that Donkey Kong Country was one of the most terrifying video game experiences of our young years.
But Donkey Kong Country is a cartoonishly fun game, right? Maybe, if you were to never run out of lives. When you lose a life in Donkey Kong Country from colliding with an enemy, your Kong falls back to the ground to nurse an injury, an upbeat ‘failure’ song plays, and you hear the pop of a balloon representing the loss of one life. You still get all of that upon losing your very last balloon life, but right after the failure fanfare plays, the screen fades to black. In fades a still image of Donkey and Diddy Kong battered, bruised, and utterly defeated. The most sorrowful and low music plays as you are faced with the brutal effects of your defeat.
Don’t tell her I told you, but my sister still hides from this screen every time we play together.
I was terrified of Forbidden Forest as a child. Released in 1983 on the Commodore 64, you played an archer who was locked in an eternal struggle with the forest’s many denizens. Spiders, giant bees and gremlins all had it out for you. Forbidden Forest was technologically impressive with parallax scrolling, use of foreground and background sprites for depth, and a killer soundtrack. Besides there being giant spiders, the creepiest moment was the final boss. Night falls, the music cuts out, and a demon only appears when lightning strikes, illuminating the forest. The sense of foreboding while you wait with an arrow drawn hoping the demon is not right next to you was a truly scary moment to my child brain.
As a second rate cartoon character, Taz was lucky to get a whole game to himself in the first place. The gameplay, from what I remember, was very mundane. You ran down an endless road while avoiding obstacles and eating as many small animals as you could to ensure that your yellow bar (Presumably hunger?) stayed full. The real terrifying part is when your yellow bar runs out. You see, the entire time you’re running you’re also being chased by Taz’s mother. It instills the same paranoia and suspense triggered by games like Slender or Amnesia. When your yellow bar runs out, your mother catches up to you and gives you a big sloppy kiss.
This is obviously not even a little scary in retrospect, but the fear of being chased, of something quickly gaining ground on you, is an unshakable fear that many have experienced both in real and virtual life.
One of the first games I ever owned was Venture on the Colecovision. It was a very basic dungeon crawler in which you played as Winky, a smiling adventurer armed with a bow and arrow. Basically, you go into rooms, kill the enemies, get the treasure inside, and get out as quickly as you can. If you aren’t quick, you will be hunted down by a Hallmonster.
Hallmonsters roam in the game’s overworld as you go from room to room, and they will come after you if you linger. Sure, looking at them now it’s hard to see what the big deal was. At the time however, the combination of their dead eyes, their invulnerability, and the droning synth sound that accompanied their appearances ensured that I cleared a room QUICK when I played Venture.
I was a child that was afraid of many things: storms, roller coasters, haunted houses, and airplanes. Still, these all incited a more primal kind of fear, not the kind the sends chills down your spine and freezes your soul from the inside out. In my childhood, natural disasters didn’t hold a candle to Super Mario 64. From Bowser’s laugh that booms throughout the castle to that painting of Peach that turns into Bowser once you get closer, only to have the floor drop from beneath you. Then, of course, the infamous endless staircase with a nerve-wracking organ-type melody just replaying on a loop while you climb a staircase that literally will go on forever if you don’t have enough stars. Once little ol’ me has been thoroughly creeped the hell out, and it seems like there’s no way to the top of the stairs, I turn around to find myself literally several feet from the entrance. Also, how can I possibly forget the piano from everyone’s nightmares (and probably Hell) that springs to life as soon as you get close enough.
All that together with the N64′s graphics still leaves it pretty spooky to this day, but not nearly as terrifying as it all once was. Nevertheless, Nintendo should have just retitled Super Mario 64 as Nightmare Fuel 64: Because You Didn’t Need to Sleep Tonight Anyway.
My irrational fear is somewhat more rational (Monster Party is kind of a scary game). However, my reaction to it was not. Back when you actually rented games from stores, I had seen this and was amazed by the colorful box art full of monsters. It still is a really great cover. So I went home to plug it in and the first thing that boots up is this horrific mouth that is chomping down on the Monster Party logo. It would have been scary if it weren’t for the fact that the music is the least terrifying thing you would ever associate with a game. The intro opens up the same way with a kid happily walking down the street and stumbling upon his new monster pal.
The game then opens up and you as the boy beat up bullies, potted plants and legs as you make your way through the first level. Then you stumble upon a dead spider. Now I don’t know why this was the trigger, but this freaked me out. It is a pointless part to the game and it is an enemy that can’t attack you, but it freaked me out. Following that moment, the game starts to go all grotesque on you as soon as you walk past this tree. I am pretty sure I made it to the Pumpkin Head Ghost (who says in such a nonthreatening way “Please don’t pick on me”), but I didn’t get past him. I set the controller down and that was it. I was done and thoroughly freaked out.
I know how much of a wimp I was, and I’m almost positive I could make it past the first level, but man did that single level scar me for a few years. For those uninitiated, you can see most of the horror in this playthrough. I feel bad now that I realized I wasted my parents money on only that one level.