the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Top 10 Games Which Have Shaped the Horror Genre. Part II: the Golden Age, from Corpse Party to Resident Evil 4

The Top 10 Games Which Have Shaped the Horror Genre. Part II: the Golden Age, from Corpse Party to Resident Evil 4

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 Two: The years marking two Resident Evil games, the first one and the fourth, are the most productive and valuable years of the horror genre. Masterpiece came out after masterpiece, and definitely I don’t have space there to cover them all. Here are the ten I thought had the most impact on the genre as the whole, not necessarily the best games in those years.

10) 1996: Corpse Party (PC-9800) introduces the indie horror

The Game: This game is a dojin soft, which means an independent, usually nonprofit Japanese game. A “circle” called Team GrisGris developed this game with RPG maker for PC-9800. The story takes place in an school called Kisaragi Academy. There’s another school in the campus called Heavenly Host (because children are not to be taught subtlety). That one is closed now, because years ago a series of murders took the lives of some of the staff and students. One day, the students of Kisaragi perform a ritual which transforms them into an alternate reaction into the Heavenly Host school, and now they are haunted by the ghosts there. It is now your job to navigate and survive. The game has been also remade and released for PC in 2008, PSP in 2010, and iOS in 2012. There has also been an anime adaptation.

The Impact: Let me begin, before anything, that this game stands up the test of time and it’s really scary and fun, and also innovative even to this day, so it’s definitely worth getting your hand on. Other than that, let’s talk about is impact. It is the first indie horror game. There are many great indie horror games out there, and this game broke new grounds for them. Its anime-style graphics and intricate plot, the fact that you have to replay the game many times to get all the endings, you might abruptly face game overs, all and all built up a lot of ground for the genre of visual novels as a whole, and horror visual novel especially imitates this game a lot. (This game itself is not a visual novel but they have been influenced by it).

Plus, the idea of games created by independent developers was in its infancy at that time, and I believe the whole indie movement owes a lot to this game. We usually think indie movement is something fairly recent but that’s wrong, both western indie games and Japanese dojin soft are as old as video games themselves. This game is one of the best older indie games and therefore you should try it if you are a supporter of indies.

9) 1998: Parasite Eve (PS) defines the RPG horror

The Game: This RPG game with horror elements is a sequel to the novel Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena, Japanese writer and pharmacologist, and developed by Square. I prefer to say nothing about the story of the game, because the experience is intense and extremely creepy and I want you to go there unprepared. The gameplay puts you in a semi-open world environment, with random encounters with the enemies. The combat is pausable, and it is a mixture between real-time and turn-based, as you have a meter called Active Time Bar, which determines your turn for an attack, but while it’s not your turn you can use that time to dodge enemy attacks. You can alternate between weapon attacks and specials attacks known as Parasite Energy. The battle system is quite deep and challenging and fun to meddle with. The game has two sequels, which completely changed the genre, which is a shame.

The Impact: There has not been much RPG horrors, as much as for example FPS horror or action horrors. There has been games like World of Darkness series, Kult, and the old Call of Cthulhu. But I think still this game deserves to be on this list because of that. It’s an interesting mix which really ought to be used more. Horror is something which can work well with all the other genres, and RPG is one of them.

Other than that this series have influenced horror genre as well, by showing the possibility that horror games can have RPG elements as well. Aya Brea is an influential hero, setting a prototype for female characters stranded in city plagued by monsters. She is the survival horror’s first (or one of the first) sex idols, creating the image of sexy horror hero as well.

8) 1999: Silent Hill (PS) takes the psychological horror to the next level

The Game: Harry Mason drives with his daughter Cheryl to the resort town of Silent Hill. Along the road, he suddenly sees a girl, and drives off the road and has a crash. He has a nightmare in which he is killed by a bunch of monsters, and then wakes up in a diner, where a female cop gives him a gun and informs him that all connection to the outside world has been cut. Now he is stranded in the city, looking for his daughter, a search which will involve a lot more than what he thinks at the first. If I describe the gameplay, it looks similar to Resident Evil in many aspects, controls, combat, exploration and puzzle solving, but it is radically different in the fact that it is based on suspense and atmospheric creeping fear rather than shock and scare jumps. Your radio omits statics when you approach monsters and therefore you anticipate them with fear, you have a very limited vision, with darkness and fog surrounding you.

The Impact: This game reshapes the genre in artistic aspects. It takes everything about the genre and perfects it, by using it for a more artistic goal. So far, I think you have seen a trend; most games take place in a mansion or a bizarre city, and the hero is either a small girl or a badass cop or something. This game turns scaring to an art, which was done before, but not in the same way. It is not the first psychological horror game, but it is the first one which makes it clear that everything is psychological, that the whole thing is a manifestation of a troubled mind, and that there is a meaning behind every note and monster. So far the games have been psychological in that they tried to use the effects to scare the gamer, but silent Hill makes everything a big trial for the minds of characters and gamers alike.

But to me the other innovation of the game is even more crucial. So far, the games have been strange and exotic. They took place in strange settings and had larger than life or vulnerable heroes. But Harry Mason is not a significant character in that sense of the word, he is an ordinary man trapped in an extraordinary challenge, or a situation which is a horrifying culmination of ordinary situation, as school, hospital, and other places which feel familiar and scary at the same time, making it a familiar threat. It is not about strange people, it’s about you. This makes everything more intense and horrifying.

It is said that novel, in comparison to romance and as a relatively modern form of art, is not about gods (that is myth) or extraordinary people (as in romance), but normal people like you and me. In that. Silent Hill is the first Survival Horror novel.

7) 1999: Galerians (PS) puts the “survival” into Survival Horror

The Game: You are Rion, a boy who wakes up in a hospital realizing he has lost his memory. A girl comes to his rescue, and he shortly realizes that he has psychic abilities. The game employs Resident Evil controls while discarding the use of guns entirely and instead focusing on your psychic power to survive, which makes the situation more intense. Your offensive powers consume something called PPECs (short of Psychic Power Enhancement Chemicals) which are extremely rare, so you have to really save up, and consume your energy. Plus, killing enemies rewards you with nothing. There are sequels and anime adaptations for this game.

The Impact: In many aspects this game has not aged well. Its gameplay is clunky and the RE control style really becomes annoying and unnerving, and because of that the game got some negative reviews because of that. But if you can cope with that, the rest of the game is amazing. A great story, great cut scenes, but aside from them, the game truly challenged you in order to survive. All the games before this one were relatively easy, and although they all had survival at the center of their attention (RE had scarce ammo as well) none of them went so overboard with this survival thing, making you feel like your main challenge is not necessarily finishing the quests and levels but just staying alive. In this aspect this game is very important.

6) 1999: Blue Stinger (DC) introduces action-shooter horror

The Game: A Sega game for its sadly doomed console Dreamcast. An island had emerged out of the hole created by the impact of the meteor which destroyed the dinosaurs. A biotech company is opened there. Eliot Ballade, an officer of some agency (ESER [Emergency Sea Evacuation and Rescue], what’s with horror games and acronyms) is spending his holidays there, but then finally a giant energy dome entraps the whole island. Then a monster begins chasing him, and now he has to survive this horrifying island and unravel its mysteries too. The game emphasizes on both action- you use guns like a typical shooter and there are beat ’em up style melee fights- and survival, as healing takes time and you need to be safe in order to heal yourself and you have to interact with the environment to ensure your safety.

The Impact: Action horror is a very popular style, as it is the dominant style in horror games today, but we’ll get into that in the next list. This game is important for creating the genre. Unlike recent games, in which many would ask if you can really consider them a horror game, this game is undoubtedly horror, as it uses horror elements in equal proportions to action ones. The game is very entertaining, though I never once found it scary, but I’m sure many (I included) would enjoy it. It is a precursor of mixing action and horror and because of this it is important in the history of horror games.

5) 2001: Silent Hill 2 (PS2): The first masterpiece?

The Game: James Sutherland receives a letter from his wife asking him to meet her at their favorite resort in the town on Silent Hill. That would be fine, but for the little fact that James’s wife is dead. James travels to Silent Hill, and from then embarks on a nightmarish journey which will take him to the darkest depths of his mind. The gameplay is roughly the same as the previous game, but it has been polished and perfected, and the atmosphere, and the story, make this game the scariest experience of your life. Every bit of the game is soul crushing and scary, and there is great symbolism behind every action and scene and monster in the game. The game has met extremely positive reviews, and it is talked about today as it was the day it came out.

The Impact: So far we have had masterpieces in the genre, masterpieces which have been on these two lists and those which were not. But this game is THE masterpiece, the one most frequently talked about, analyzed, and respected. If Resident Evil brought the games to the heart of the people, while SH2 brought it to critics and proved the genre can be taken seriously as a medium of art. As in, if RE is the Star Wars of sci-fi films, SH2 is 2001: A Space Odyssey. This game made everyone realize that they should take the genre seriously, that they should not think it is something for kids and it deserves serious analysis. Maybe we can claim this game has been instrumental in attracting more serious analysis to the gaming on the whole. I, personally, when someone says video games cannot be art and things like that ask him/her to play SH2.

The game also brought disturbing sexual imagery into the gaming. Not in the Cluster’s Revenge way, which is porn that only appeals to serial killers, or Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em, which only appeals to serial killers with a sense of humor, or as in Clock Tower which hid its sexuality behind such a thick veil that only a student of Kristeva could decipher the symbolism. It was about human sexuality in the real sense of the word- unsatisfied desires, urges, objectification, rape, and complexes. It was disturbing because of the meaning behind it, and it was deep and very valuable because of that. So maybe this is the first game- or maybe the first horror game- which deals with sexuality in a deep, “mature” way.

4) 2001: Fatal Frame (PS2) an innovative game with a lot of impact

The Game: Also known as Zero and Project Zero, the story is about a teenage girl called Miku, who goes to a haunted mansion to look for her missing brother and his mentor. As she investigates the mansion, she learns horrible truths about its past. The story is based on true urban legends revolving around a real mansion in Japan. Your only weapon throughout the game is a camera, which has the ability to capture the ghosts. So, instead of fighting the ghosts, you have to take pictures from them. Your film is limited, and there are different films with different abilities in the game. Your save point is also a camera. So I guess horror for the fans of photography? You have a flashlight, and the game is pretty difficult because your HP (called strength in the game) is extremely limited and healing items are scarce.

The Impact: Well the obvious impact is the fact that the game is still as scary and effective as it was in 2001, and every other game in the series was a great game. However, a deeper impact, I believe, was introducing a formula which brought what was best about Clock Tower and games like Resident Evil together. Let me explain. Clock Tower was a great game because the protagonist was completely helpless, and it was therefore scary because gamer felt the danger on his/her skin. Games like Resident Evil bring action and tension by throwing you in a difficult fight or fly situation, but then they were badass heroes so you wouldn’t feel vulnerable and scared. But Fatal Frame has the both things in one place, so it’s double scary and effective. You are a small girl, you have no real weapon, you can’t actually fight the ghosts, but then again you can defend yourself with a seemingly normal day to day item.

I believe this formula is what makes the game very scary, and it is a game very imitated, and it will imitated as long as Survival Horror exists, because it brings two seemingly contradicting factors together, fighting and being helpless. This is also what makes it so goddamn scary.

[Note: The image belongs to Fatal Frame 3, because it looks pretty]

3) 2003: Siren (PS2) introduces Japanese occult myths to the gaming world, and adds stealth to horror

The Game: Hanuda is a recluse village in the mountains of Japan, with a very closed society with traditional values. After a weird-ass ritual, meant to reawaken a creature who has a siren, an earthquake comes and then the village is ripped off from time and space, the mountains surrounding it turn to a red water, and the town folk turn to Japanese zombies, which are called shibito. Now the story of the game takes place in three days, and you take control of ten survivors and see what happens through their eyes. There are multiple scenarios you have to unlock with an action in order to unlock. What you do in each scenario has a butterfly effect on the other scenarios in which you control other characters. You have the ability to use stealth, and therefore avoid the zombies…. I mean the shibito. Like stealth games the shibito chase you and then if you hide go back to what they did. Of course if you prefer more traditional methods there are weapons available too. You also have a cool ability to “sighjack” your enemies and look through their eyes.

The Impact: The game is extremely innovative in its gameplay, it is an avant-garde visionary masterpiece. Stealth and horror are too very potent genres to be mixed, and I wonder why there hasn’t been many more games like that. Hopefully there will be. Using stealth itself creates tension and suspense, and makes your experience more dramatic, and if you do that in a horror setting it can get really scary because the dark, the existence of the monsters and the other things compel you to run away or plunge into fight because you can’t stand the atmosphere, now imagine that under this situation you have to keep calm and remain hidden, which turns the game into a mental practice and a very tense and unforgettable experience.

The other impact of the game is to popularize the trope of Japanese occultism. Before that the monsters were either a product of experiments or related to western literature, but by bringing Japanese folklore and myths the game made the Survival Horror culture richer. Many games use the same occultism now, one of the best is Ku-On.

2) 2003: Resident Evil Outbreak (PS2) introduces teamwork and multiplayer

The Game: T-virus has erupted in the raccoon city and now you control 8 of its citizens as they try to survive the absolute chaos. They each have different abilities and items, and they are indeed some misfits, they include a waitress who can heal others, a former security guard who can fight, a worker who is strong, a cop who can shoot, a plumber who is completely useless to my understanding, a surgeon who makes the waitress useless, a reporter who can unlock doors, and finally a student run away really quick (she’s useless too). On the single player, you choose a character and a scenario and you have to complete certain tasks to unlock the final scenario. Before Capcom shot down the severs you could connect and play the game in the co-op mode, finishing the game with your friends.

The Impact: There has been many horror books and films which pits a group of people (teenagers, schoolmates, friends, or strangers) against zombies or a common threat, but before Outbreak no game replicated this trope and this feeling. Unfortunately, like other REs, this game is not particularly scary, and it suffers from certain design flaws, but it is one of the most innovative REs nonetheless. The teamwork is the main idea here, with characters who must complement each other, and the gamer must really act as a manager of a team, and the possibility of coop was entirely new. The game could be much better, with better AI, less repetitive action and recycled lines, and a more complicated story. It would also be great if the characters were not safe and the whole game played like the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2. Yes, it is a diamond in the rough, an idea which is brilliant but not executed perfectly. But it is still a pioneering game, and it has its place in the history. Many games picked up the idea, and many more will.

1) 2005: Resident Evil 4 (GC) redefines the genre

The Game: You are Leon S. Kennedy and your mission is to rescue Ashley Graham, the daughter of the president of the United States, who has been kidnapped by the members of an evil cult in a small rural village in Europe. You travel there and you find out that the whole village wants to kill you. This game finally discards the annoying tank controls, and now the controls are context-sensitive and normal, and now you can aim freely! The camera has changed to a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective. You can either shoot your enemies down or kick them in the ass. So basically, it’s Resident Evil without the annoying controls. And you can save you progress without being tortured to death.

The Impact: Our own beloved David “BGH” Kempe, who ranks this game at number 10 in his Top 12 Games of All Times, believes that the features RE4 got rid of were not really valuable game design but simply prolonged the game, while “RE4 took these thoughts out of the equation to have you focus on the challenges they built for you, all the while putting together a game that was longer than any of the ones before it. This was not just a leap forward for the RE franchise, but an admirable achievement to gaming culture as a whole, developing a lengthy (your first play can be roghly 15-20 hours) experience without resorting to cheap tricks in order to do it.” (Quotation marks mean I’m quoting him of course). I agree with that 100%. RE4 did what must have been done years ago, it got rid of the annoying aspects of the genre which had unfortunately became its defining elements. It reformed the genre. So just like RE was the game every survival horror game imitated and used as blueprint, now RE4 became such a game.

Now there are many, our own Ethan Sheaffer (Eesgooshee) among them, who believe we can’t really consider RE4 a horror game. Well, while I agree that it is not scary, like not even a single bit, like I find Fallout 3 and Mario Kart scarier games, it still is a horror game because (A) horror games are a series of tropes and conventions and they might fail to be actually scary and (B) RE series were never scary and will never be. This game still remains the best RE title because of its fabulous gameplay. But of course, it’s still more important because of its historical impact rather than its own merits.

After RE4 not only changed the controls and the camera of the Survival Horror games forever, it caused the genre to shift from a more Japanese attitude towards horror to a more Western one, emphasizing blood and gore, violence, action and combat over atmosphere, helplessness, and survival. The genre has become more accessible and popularized, in short. Whether you think this is a good change or a bad change, you can’t deny the fact that RE4 is one of the most influential games of all times and has changed the genre forever. As for my own two cents, I think atmospheric games still exist in large numbers, and I don’t really mind the change. What really matters to me is the fact that genre is reformed in many aspects as well.


About the title: In the previous list I had promised you to give you a list called “from Silent Hill to Resident Evil 4” but now it is “from Corpse Party to Resident Evil 4“. That is because at that time I still had not decided to put Corpse Party on the list and I mistakenly thought that Silent Hill had come out in 1997, while it came out in 1999, after Parasite Eve. So there’s that.

An elegy: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” This writing advice from the legendary horror writer Stephen King. And I broke my heart today: I did not put Silent Hill 3 on this list. This the game I love the most, and I consider it the greatest game ever made. I wish its impact was greater than the games listed above, but it’s not, and objectively speaking I can’t put it here, but it’s still a horror list without Silent Hill 3, and therefore I hate you all.

Anyway, the next list is more speculative, because it deals with very recent games. Tune in to read the next and final installment of this series, “The Top 10 Games Which Have Shaped the Horror Genre. Part III: the present, from F.E.A.R. to Slender.”


  1. I’ve somewhat reversed my opinion recently about whether or not RE4 is actually horror. I think the fact that it was designed in a way that makes it really easy for enemies to sneak up behind you during intense firefights (and therefore makes you feel like you’re never really safe) qualifies it for some minor level of horror. I’ve heard the term “action-horror” used (mainly to separate it from “survival horror”), and I guess I’m fine with that.

    Also, OVEN MAN!!!

  2. That was quick! I thought all the proofreading, researching and writing would take some time, but you pulled it all out in a bit more than a week.

    It seems 1999 was a great year for horror games, since you had 3 games from that year further shaping the genre.

    Just one nitpicking, though: Resident Evil 4 came out in 2005, not 2004.

    Post it on GameFAQs anytime soon so we can discuss it there.

    Very good list.

    • Thee research was done before I posted the first list, so the majority of the actual writing. I have a lot of entries written which didn’t make the editing rooms.

      It was a typo…. I’ll correct it here, but for Capcom it’s too late :(

  3. Hi there, I enjoy reading all of your tarot post.
    I wanted to write a little comment to support you.

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