the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Top 10 Games Which Have Shaped the Horror Genre. Part I, The Origins: from Haunted House to Resident Evil

The Top 10 Games Which Have Shaped the Horror Genre. Part I, The Origins: from Haunted House to Resident Evil

Intro: Every great genre is shaped by the great books, movies or games in that genre. Horror genre is no exception, as writers like Anne Radcliffe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King have shaped it.

This is a three part series of lists aiming to celebrate the greatest and the most influential games in Survival Horror genre of games. A small history lesson which aims to give credit to the games which have shaped the genre we know and love.

The ranking is not based on how influential or great a game is but based on the year of its release, so the list can be read as a single chronological text. Since there are 3 parts to the series, there will be 30 games mentioned but many other games deserve the title as well. I have refrained from using Honorable Mentions because they could get long. You can look at this as an introduction.

I recommend all of the games on the list. The lists are completely spoiler free so you don’t have to worry about reading the entries on the games you have not played.

Part One: We usually begin the history of horror games with Resident Evil because that was the game which popularized the genre and gave it its name. But horror genre has existed before and it has been deeply influenced by other games from other genres as well. Before Resident Evil all the major themes of the genre were shaped.

10) 1982: Haunted House (2600) is the earliest example

The Game: The game is about a…. Haunted House. You are a pair of eyes (I kid you not) who have to navigate a haunted mansion looking for an urn. There are three floors and one basement in the mansion. Your aim is to escape the house with the urn. You can pick up only one items, a key to unlock doors, a sceptre to ward off the ghosts, or the aforementioned urn. Your enemies are a bat, a tarantula, and the ghost of the owner of the mansion. If you are hit nine times, the game is over. In higher difficulties you need to use a match to lit a fire in order to detect the items or even the walls. If you don’t have a working Atari 2600 at home you can download the game from Microsoft’s Game Room service for X360 and PC, or get the iOS game “Atari’s Greatest Hits” which includes the game.

The Impact: Check the TvTropes page for “Ur Example”. This is how it defines the concept:

“The Ur Example is the oldest known example of a given trope. Some people will tell you it’s named for the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, but “ur-” is just a German prefix meaning “proto-, primitive, or original.” Though it’s also the name of the Earth’s first known supercontinent (forming 3 billion years ago). Typically, an Ur Example doubles as the Trope Maker — but not always, and far less often with ancient tropes, which often evolved over a long period of time rather than suddenly bursting forth from someone’s head, fully formed. When they’re distinct, a Trope Maker differs from an Ur Example in that the latter becomes an example of that trope only in retrospect.” [Quoted from]

Haunted House is the Ur Example of Survival Horror games. It is completely a classic horror game, there is a haunted mansion, there are traditional horror monsters, you have to manage your inventory, and survival is more important than combat. It’s as if this is a cliche horror game and the reason which makes it interesting is solely the fact that it’s too damn old. In the later years other similar games were released, Terror House (1982), Monster Bash (1982), Ghost House (1986), and Laplace no Ma (1987).

These games are merely interesting as the historical examples and they have not aged well.

9) 1986: Castlevania (FDS) introduces horror elements


The Game: Castlevania is not a horror game itself. It is one of the best platformers of the 8-bit era. You are Simon Belmont and you must fight through hordes and hordes of evil baddies in order to finally defeat the vampire lord Dracula. Like other platformers you jump and you kill enemies but with a very cool whip. The gameplay was revolutionary for its time- you can upgrade your attacks, you can have sub-weapons, there are memorable boss fights. Plus, the game started the franchise which has masterpieces such as Symphony of the Night and Lament of Innocence and continues strong to this day. The game has been ported more than most other games, to NES in 1987, IBM, the Commodore 64, and the Commodore Amiga in 1990, and also PC. But what all this has to do with horror?

The Impact: Castlevania provided a link between horror culture and video game culture. It wasn’t a horror game in itself, but it is a game which clearly belongs to the horror mentality and culture. Skeletons, zombies, sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, bats, Medusa, mummies, Frankenstein’s Monster, Igor, and the Grim Reaper are among your enemies. Castles, dungeons, and medieval and Gothic sets are present. The game introduced and popularized these elements and the gamers were going to see them in horror games soon.

Of course, it would be a matter of time before another game would introduce the said elements, and there were less popular games around at the time which incorporated the same elements- such as Kenseiden. But the impact of Castlevania is mainly due to its popularity. The series opened new doors because it was loved by so many.

8) 1987: Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead (MSX) is the first Horror Game

The Game: The game is a lot like Zelda II. Like that game, the gameplay is a combination of action and RPG. The level design is the modernized version of dungeons (such as school or hospital). You control Lila, a young member of SWAT team, and your mission is to gather the survivors from around the town in a church, and you use your weapons and psychic abilities to kill monsters. The whole game is series of fetch quests, since each survivor has to be saved in a specific order which can’t be deviated from, and only one can be led back to the church at a time. The city that the game takes place in is called Chany’s Hill. You can use a portal to another world and there are a lot of character interactions. Of course your progress is extremely linear so you might end up talking to some characters multiple times. Unfortunately there are no English versions of the game available (not even a fan translation). However the game can be found in Japanese on PC engine.

The Impact: Kevin Gifford and John Szczepaniak believe that this game deserves the title of “the first Survival Horror” game. And they are right, looking back in retrospect, this is the first example of a game which can be considered a real horror game. Katsuya Iwamoto who created the game has said: “There weren’t any horror games back then, really, so I wanted to make one.” And when you look at it the concept of the game is eerily similar to Resident Evil: a SWAT police officer goes to a monster infested town to save the survivors. This game introduces elements such as leaving the gamer alone in a hostile environment to survive and having all communication cut off, and also having people disappear. In this way it is also similar to Silent Hill, as it alludes to Horror culture a lot, for example the priest who runs the church is called Carpenter, named after the legendary horror film director John Carpenter, or having a character called Carrie who alludes to Stephen King.

There is one problem though. The game is extremely obscure. Fun Factory, the company behind the game, exists no more and is mentioned really rarely, you see no mention of the game except in some retro blogs and here and there (Hardcore Gaming 101 and some blogs). The game doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Since it’s not translated, very few Westerners might have played it. Therefore, I don’t think anyone can claim it actually started the genre, since you have to be famous to have that kind of impact. But it is a very well known game which I am sure has deeply influenced all games of the genre directly or indirectly.

7) 1988: Splatterhouse (ARC) introduces the imagery

The Game: A traditional beat ’em up platformer. You are Rick and you pay a visit to a crazy scientist’s mansion with your girlfriend, you are killed and your girlfriend is kidnapped. You are revived by a mysterious Terror Mask, which exactly looks like Jason’s mask from Friday the 13th. You move a two-dimensional world, using you punches and kicks and Special Attacks to fight off hordes of enemies and when you reach the final boss, you have to fight them with a special style. Sometimes you can find alternate paths in the levels, but ultimately it is moving from left to right and killing enemies until you finish the game. The game is a decent side scroller, but that is not what gives the game its historical value, it is the graphics, the atmosphere, and generally the looks of the game. (You can find the original game in Wii virtual console and on the 2010 installment on PS3 and X360 by the way).

The Impact: Many people consider Splatterhouse similar to Castlevania in the history of video games, a traditional game with horror looks and elements which ultimately paved the way for the genre. While I agree, I think we can argue the impact is much deeper. There is something in Splatterhouse which you can’t find in Castlevania. There is a dark, gloomy atmosphere, there is blood and gore, there is the overall sense of doom and violence in the air, there is darkness, there is the way that monsters and characters look. Castlevania incorporated the horror elements, but Splatterhouse gave them an independent identity which one can find much more in video games than in books or films. If you look at a screenshot of Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead, or Castlevania, you have little or no idea what separates them from other 8-bit games in the same era, they have the same graphics and looks and feeling, bright colors, shiny bullets, monsters, etc.

But one look at any screenshot from Splatterhouse reveals how unique it is in comparison to the other games in the genre. The images of torture and blood and gore are dominant, and the castle looks dark and gloomy and not bright, medieval and Gothic. Therefore, each great horror game with an intricate and scary atmosphere, whether Fatal Frame or Silent Hill or The Suffering, owes a lot to Splatterhouse. It is one of the most influential games of all times because of its imagery.

6) 1989: Sweet Home (NES) establishes the genre

The Game: Based on the Japanese horror film of the same name and created by the film’s director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (and having even the same goddamn poster) and published by Capcom, Sweet Home is a psychological horror RPG for NES. The plot is very similar to the movie, revolving around five characters who want to make a documentary based on the life of a painter. When they enter his house, a wild woman ghost appears and locks them in. You now control the five characters, you will randomly encounter many monsters and your ultimate goal is to uncover the secret behind the artist’s life and saving yourself(ves). You can choose to fight the monsters or escape from them. The five characters have a specific skill that is necessary to complete the game, and if one of them dies, he or she cannot be revived throughout the course of the game. There are multiple endings to the game.

The Impact: This can be called the first Horror game, the first one which actually established the genre and did not fall into oblivion. The game introduces many elements which we consider the characteristics of the genre, almost all of them, to be precise. They include the atmosphere, the puzzles, the item inventory management, the emphasis on survival, encouraging you to flee rather than fight, scary creatures, multiple endings, and the mansion setting. The story is psychological, dark, and deep for its time (it is based on a very good movie and it delivers as an adaptation). The game may not be scary because it has aged but still the gameplay and the fact that characters don’t survive make it a very compelling experience even nowadays. The game features both scare jumps and atmospheric suspense. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

This game is the inspiration behind Resident Evil which was initially supposed to be a remake. All horror games are ultimately indebted to it, and although there are older games which can be considered horror, if someone asked you what game created and established the genre, go ahead and confidently answer Sweet Home.

5) 1989: Project Firestart (C64) brings the sci-fi to Survival Horror

The Game: A horror science fiction clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien. The game is a side-scrolling shooter with some semi-3D moments, but the gameplay does not feel like a simple shooter, there are many elements which give it depth. The gameplay is revolutionary but its innovations are so influential that you wouldn’t know that playing it by now- using terminals and journals to give backstory to the gamer about characters and the project? It was first done in this game. Pausing the game for cutscenes? This game. The story revovles around a spaceship called Prometheus which was related to genetic experiments and it has now stopped responding, and we are sent to uncover the fact that the experiments have gone horribly wrong and now we have to fight aliens. This reminds me of a certain film.

The Impact: This game too is called “the first Survival Horror game” by some, including Travis Fahs from IGN. I just called Sweet Home the first Survival Horror game, but they did come out in the same year, and ultimately this is not a race. I am sure of one thing; without Project Firestart sci-fi gaming and horror gaming would be completely different from what they are today, and certainly the lovely mix would not exist. This game doesn’t get much credit but it has shaped the entire industry in certain ways, and it’s essential for every gamer interested in some historical perspective.

Horror and sci-fi are, ultimately, very intertwined and closely-knit genres and have a great habit of marrying each other. They have the same literary giant- Edgar Allen Poe- as the founder, and the prototype of the both genres is the same book- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the video games they have met each other a lot too. And as I have said before, the conventions of this mix was first set by Project Firestart.

Among the games clearly inspired by Project Firestart one can name Dead Space, Gears of War, Bioshock, and Deus Ex. Impressive, no?

4) 1992: Alone in the Dark (PC) codifies the genre

The Game: A man dies after committing suicide in a mansion rumored to be haunted. The case is closed quickly although everything about it is suspicious. There is piano in the house which MUST be important because two people are sent to get it- one is Edward Carnby, a private investigator, sent by an antique dealer after the piano, and the second one is Emily Hartwood, niece of the deceased, who wants to find the piano because she believes there is a secret drawer with a note in it which solves the mystery. Now you choose one of these sweethearts and you enter the mansion to investigate. You are trapped inside and you find out that there are monsters inside, and you have to outsmart them and survive.

The Impact: Survival Horror is a 3D genre, and this game is the first 3D game in the series. Because of this, although it is heavily influenced by the other games on the list, it is more effective in codifying the genre, organizing the tropes and the conventions, and setting the engine running. Like the previous games, this game mixes combat with exploration and puzzle solving, while combat is deemphasized to make the gamer vulnerable and the situation scary. This game is non-linear and very challenging, making it a far better game than its successors in the series.

And this is finally where games like Splatterhouse with its imagery and Sweet Home and Project Firestart with its gameplay come together to shape a unified organic whole. Before this game, every game has bits and parts of the genre but this one finally gathers them. The atmosphere is there, and the game genuinely tries to be scary. Survival Horror, ladies and gentlemen, as we know it today, has finally found a concrete shape, a blueprint.

And since this was not impressive enough for a legacy this game gave birth to three OK but mediocre sequels, and aborted two abominations- a film and a reboot.

3) 1995: Clock Tower (SNES) introduces psychological horror

The Game: Four Norwegian orphan girls, among them the protagonist Jennifer Simpson, are adapted by a wealthy crazy person and are transferred to a mansion known as the “Clock Tower”, because the mansion has a big podium. (I’m kidding, it’s a clock tower). The woman who has taken them to come to the mansion, asks them to wait in the foyer and leaves. She takes a lot of time. Jennifer goes to investigate but the lights go out, and she returns to the foyer. Her friends have disappeared and there’s her enemy there- the Scissorman, a young boy who murders people with his huge scissors. You can only walk to left or to right and interact with the objects. You cannot kill the Scissorman, you can only run from him or sometimes narrowly save your life by a QTE.

The game is inspired by two movies by Dario Argento’s film, Phenomena. (Argento is the most fabulous horror director of all times and if you have read this far into a horror list you are legally required to watch him). The game has not been officially released outside of Japan, but there has been fan translations. (You didn’t hear that from me).

The Impact: After all these years the game has not aged, it’s as scary as ever. But why? Because this is the first truly psychological horror, one which plays with you, one which can unhinge your mind. It’s the first game which puts you in the shoes of a really 100% helpless character, it’s the first game which has true artistic merits as a horror game, the first game with a strong layer of symbolism and interpretive value, with sexual connotations. A daring avant-garde games. Clock Tower is the spiritual frontrunner of games like Silent Hill series, Amnesia series, and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. (By the way, that sanity meter in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, it was first introduced in this game). Because of this, I personally love this game more than any other on this list. The other games had more influence, but this one had a better and a more lasting influence and on better and more valuable games.

2) 1995: D (3DO) makes things a lot more serious

The Game: Developed by Kenji Eno, the game tells the story of Laura Harris is a scholar. She receives news that his father, a doctor in a hospital, has gone on a murdering spree in Los Angeles, and has barricaded himself inside the hospital. She is terrified, goes to the hospital, but is so much shocked at the image of the murdered bodies in the hospital that she covers her eyes. When she opens them, she’s in a medieval castle, trapped. There are four endings. The game is FPS and is a puzzle adventure game. The graphics is amazing for the time, and the atmosphere is really scary. There are no options for pausing the game or saving your progress, so you are forced to start and finish the game in one playthrough. The game had equally great sequels.

The Impact: This game takes things to a whole new level. A genuinely scary game (still after all these years) it introduced two things, one is the first person perspective for horror games (remember Amnesia and F.E.A.R) which is an important development in and of itself, but more importantly, the game opened the door to more taboo subjects, to real brutality and dark story telling, to real violence in a horror game. It is not dark because you kill your enemies in a violent way, it’s dark because the plot, the situation, the atmosphere, and the elements are dark. It is a game much more serious than other games of its own time, even Clock Tower.

This game holds a very important place in the history of the genre because it is daring, artistic, and very ahead of its time in all aspects, and it still plays like a very innovative game even today.

1) 1996: Resident Evil (PS) popularizes the genre

The Game: The game which made Shinji Mikami legendary. There are strange reports coming out of Raccoon City, and the Bravo team of STARS (a special police branch) are sent in, but they dissappeare. Now the Alpha is sent in to investigate. You can choose between two characters, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine. Jill is better in all aspects but Chris is tougher and dies less easily. When you enter the city there’s nothing but a rotten hand. You search further, until a lot of zombie dogs attack you. From now on, you’re (almost) alone in a city of zombies. You control the character with a very clunky system- your character has to rotate in his/her place and then walk after you have decided on the direction (even my description is clunky). You solve puzzles, shoot zombies if you can and run away if you can’t. You need item management, the story is told through documents you find around the area, in short, the game has collected all the tropes we mentioned above, and is mainly an imitation of Sweet House and Alone in the Dark, although I think Shiryou Sensen was equally important in its production.

The Impact: Most people think Resident Evil is a very innovative game which revolutionized or even invented the genre- but I hope by now you know that it was not so (Scroll up and read the rest of the top 10 if you haven’t!). Resident Evil is a great game, but it is great because it (pardon the cliche) stands on the shoulders of the giants. Its only innovation and invention is the control system- which frankly is its only annoying part. But why does this game matter then?

This is the game which helped Survival Horror explode into the gaming culture. It was the genre’s first blockbuster, the game everyone played and later everyone imitated. Usually the first really popular game leaves a greater impact, and this was the first really popular game. For years and years game creators picked up Resident Evil as their blueprint. Like it or not, this is the game which defines the genre more than any other.

And one must compliment the creators. This game manages to be a fun, occasionally scary mish-mash of all tropes and cliches of the genre, and this is no easy thing to do. T. S. Eliot once said “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” This game does not simply and randomly pick up the tropes- it internelizes them. It interlenizes them so successfuly that it becomes the genre.

Conclusion: Well that’s it, the first part! The second part will be about the golden age of survival horror, a time that the genre began to poop out masterpiece after masterpiece, and covers the timespan from Silent Hill to Resident Evil 4. Tune in next weak for part II!


  1. I’ve only played about half of these due to hardware limitations; I’m interested in that Project Firestart though.

  2. I’m pretty impressed not only with the number of titles here so obscure that I’ve not heard of them, but also that you mentioned Sweet Home. I don’t think Sweet Home has aged that poorly, and due to its presentation, I think it’s creepier than any Resident Evil or most other popular Survival Horror games. My sister’s in her twenties and it still freaks her out.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *