The horror genre had its golden age in the 1980s, and the arcades were no different. You know I am not the biggest fan of the niche, but that does not mean that I do not recognize its contributions to our overall movement. Often, film properties and pop icons would find themselves ported over to the alleys of the arcade scene in one way or the other.
Some games, like the Elvira pinball machines, are legends to this day. But one thing they all share in common is that they pushed the envelope of what the general public thought were video games and what they could portray.
Horror arcade games were especially shocking because, unlike console titles, arcade games have a very public presence and have to advertise themselves by demonstrating gameplay and what is “inside” the game. Imagine the horror of some parents as they witnessed the literal “horror” (pun intended) unfolding on some mall arcade screens.
Nonetheless, we owe this genre a huge debt for moving gaming into the decidedly mature, and that is why I am proud to introduce you to my list of the 5 best arcade horror games.
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5. Laser Ghost (developed and published by Sega in 1989)
Okay so, Laser Ghost is not exactly scary by modern standards which might have been part of the reason why I initially became interested. It felt more like an Arcade Shooter game instead where we got to play as ghost hunters, which was awesome. My favourite thing about this title was the ability to play with up to three players thanks to the different guns mounted to the machines.
There were five levels with boss battles for each, which was great and a big time sink for a while, when there was a little group of us playing. Some nice memories from this one. Do not mix it up with the Sega Master System title (which was only released in Europe), that is not the same Laser Ghost! It’s actually a different game.
4. Chaos Heat (developed and published by Taito in 1998)
Maybe you missed this game but heard of the PlayStation game called Chaos Break? That is the inferior sequel of Chaos Heat which I will pretend does not exist for a few minutes. Anyway, CH is a 3D action game which is kind of like a shoot-em-up where you go around killing genetically-engineered monsters. The three characters you could pick from were all unique with their own special weapons, and the levels too were really fun!
They felt so unique at the time and I could just play this game for hours thanks to all the different paths and events during each of the levels. One more cool thing about Chaos Heat; it was released in 1998 and was one of the earliest games to make dodge-rolling a really useful thing in an action game. So yes, that existed before the likes of Dark Souls!
3. Alien 3: The Gun (developed and published by Sega in 1993)
Alien 3 was released in 1992, but the movie was not quite as good as the first two in the series. Still, a rail shooter game was released the next year and, while it is based on the movie, the game follows two space marines. Since there was two characters, two people could team-up to beat the game, which was great!
I remember fighting a giant face-hugger as one of the bosses which looked pretty spooky at the time though now, I just wonder why there was a giant face-hugger and who or what it was going to latch onto, lol.
Seriously, Alien 3: The Gun was a fun and (unlike Laser Ghost) scary game, the action was great and it really felt like a game set in the movie-verse of Aliens. The movie might not have been brilliant but in my opinion, its gaming counterpart more than made up for the mistakes made on the big screen.
2. The House of the Dead (developed and published by Sega in 1996)
If I had to pick some video games that made zombies popular amongst gamers, The House of the Dead would be near the top. Not only that, this is where the fast running zombies originated from and that idea quickly became incredibly popular. Zombie movies from the 2000s often featured running zombies, and even Resident Evil picked up on it a bit when they originally had slower moving ones! Yeah, that came from House of the Dead so you can thank this game for giving us the 28 Days Later movie as well.
Zombie history lesson over, this game actually was not that highly rated at the time. I remember hearing that Indianapolis even tried to ban The House of the Dead due to it being so violent that it was ‘obscene’. It did not quite work out for them. The game is great fun, the shooter side is very enjoyable, but that city was kind of right… The game is violent, but it is so cartoon-ish. The environments are destructible and the gameplay was challenging enough to make it feel fun for months.
This might even be one of my favorite arcade games from the late 90s as a result. Plus being able to team-up with someone to blast through zombies felt fantastic. Not only was it pure action, I remember it having a nice story as well and getting pretty invested in it as a result. If you missed this game, you really need to play it for yourself!
Alien Syndrome (developed and published by Sega in 1987)
This is definitely a title that could have ranked higher… A bit of a wasted chance here. To begin with, it felt a lot like the Aliens series, even though it was not actually related to them. The horror atmosphere was solid and I remember how scary it was walking through the levels to go rescue some NPCs. Sure there was the option for two players, but that did not stop the sound effects from almost chilling us to the bone. As a horror shoot-em-up cooperative game it was brilliant.
So what was wrong with Alien Syndrome? Well, for me the biggest issue was how it played solo, it just was not as fun and not because the sound effects got to me either. There was no interesting plot here, just run around and shoot some aliens in order to save your comrades. A tad disappointing, isn’t it? Overall It was nice enough, but nothing very memorable.
Eager to find out the creepiest of them all? Let’s take a deep breath and do this!
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1. Splatterhouse (developed and published by Namco; Japan and North America 1988, Europe 1989)
I will be amazed if I have not mentioned Splatterhouse elsewhere in the past! This is one of the few games that take heavy influence from the slasher film genre. This game amazed me when I first played it, and it held my attention for such a long time too.
You play as someone who was resurrected by some kind of special Terror Mask which gives you superhuman strength and encourages you to go on a rampage through the house, to find the girl you entered the house with. There was some nice plot twists as well which really caught my attention and made me want to keep playing to reach the end. It might have been a side-scrolling beat-em-up, but the variety of attacks and monsters was perfect.
Plus there were checkpoints! Death did not send us back to the start, just back a little bit to the previous checkpoint and considering some bits of the game were pretty challenging, this was a really nice feature. Splatterhouse is one of the most memorable horror games I have ever played and I genuinely wish there were more games like this. Fun fact: it was ported to mobile though early in the 2010-2011. Check it out, you will not regret it!
So, what do think about these picks, retro folks? Are there any horror arcade games that I missed but you really enjoyed? Be sure to leave a comment to tell me, especially if you liked Splatterhouse as much as I did!