Top 5 Offbeat Horror Games – The Obscure, the Forgotten, and the Just Plain Weird

[This article originally posted on October 31, 2014]
5. The Rescue of Pops Ghostly (1987, Action Max)

ActionMax_games-rescue_of_pops-ss_smallWait…what’s Action Max, you ask? It was a “video game system” released in 1987 that used VHS tapes as its medium. Yep, just regular old VHS tapes. You’d hook the Action Max console to your TV, grab the attached light gun, and you basically just watch a movie and shoot at the flashing white dots that are placed over the people and things you are supposed to be shooting at. As you might expect, this changed absolutely nothing within the video, with the only interactivity coming by way of an LED number on the Action Max console that tallied up your score. A whopping five tapes were made for the Action Max before the system died its quick and obvious death, with the best of them being The Rescue of Pops Ghostly. The patriarch of the Ghostly family is kidnapped, and its up to you to save him by going on a wild on-rails ride through a haunted house full of skeletons, ghosts, ghouls, and other such undead spectral entities. The production value actually wasn’t half bad – all things considered – and rivaled many of the full motion games of the early to mid 90’s. Plus, since it was an actual VHS tape, the video quality definitely looked better than that of Sega CD games. If you’re curious about this game – and the rest of the exciting Action Max lineup – you can find them all on YouTube, and if you want to play along, just grab whatever toy or light gun you have handy and fire away. It’s basically the same thing as actually playing the Action Max anyway.

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4. Corpse Party (2011, PlayStation Portable)

corpse partyFrom its very humble beginnings as a Japanese PC game built using the software from RPG Maker to a multi-game franchise with several manga adaptations, Corpse Party stayed a Japan-only property until XSeed brought to the North American PSN store Corpse Party: Blood Covered…Repeated Fear, a translated version of the Japanese PSP release Corpse Party: Blood Covered, which was an enhanced edition of the PC version of the mobile game sequel to the original…oh nevermind. All that matters is that we finally got the insanity that is Corpse Party, an adventure game/RPG lite featuring your stereotypical cast of rascally Japanese schoolboys and a girls exploring their haunted campus. Much of the game is spent in a top-down perspective featuring the characters as old school 2D sprites, with the expected hand-drawn anime for the character closeups and cutscenes. Naturally, sexual innuendo and dirty jokes run rampant, even in between scenes of horrific and grisly deaths (the juxtaposition of which wouldn’t seem strange at all to longtime anime fans). All in all, though, the game really is pretty decent, and beyond some fairly two dimensional (figuratively as well as visually) characters, the story is compelling, the action is satisfying, and the artwork and sound design are top notch. If you like your horror more classic Japanese style, this game is definitely worth a look if you still have a PSP lying around. (Its sequel was ported to iOS earlier this year, but I haven’t played it so I can’t speak to its quality.)

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3. Enemy Zero (1997, Sega Saturn)

220px-Enemy-Zero-ScreenCap1While a lot of gamers have played or at least familiar with PlayStation/Saturn/3DO horror game D and its Dreamcast sequel D2, far fewer have played or are even aware of Saturn exclusive Enemy Zero, the spiritual third game in the series (though it was released in between the other two). In addition to the usual D weirdness – and starring Laura, the “digital actress” from the first game – Enemy Zero’s gameplay and mechanics are unlike almost any other game you’ve ever played, horror or otherwise. For starters, the enemies in this game are completely invisible – you must not only use sound to locate them, but pay close attention to things like tempo and pitch changes in the sound to determine their exact position in relation to you. After each and every time you fire a weapon, you have to charge it before you can fire again, only you have to take care not to overcharge it or you’ll have to start the charging from the beginning. And you definitely don’t want to screw that up, because all an enemy has to do is make contact with you and your game is immediately over. On top of all of this, the total number of times you can save the game in each playthrough is finite, and on the default difficulty you only get 21 saves before you run out permanently. While its obtuse and defiantly out-of-the-box design definitely made the game difficult for anyone but the most patient gamers to get into, you have to give it credit for trying to create a real sense of tension and helplessness that most games never quite achieve, or even have the guts to go to such unorthodox lengths to try.

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2. Gregory Horror Show (2003, PlayStation 2 – Japan and PAL only)

gregoryAll you really have to do is look at pictures of this game to know that you’re looking at one of the quirkiest horror games you’ve ever seen, even when compared to the many modern artsy horror games. Based on the CG anime series of the same name, Gregory Horror Show features a cast of humans and anthropomorphic animals, with deliberately and ridiculously boxy character models, navigating a creepy hotel run by the titular Gregory (that sinister-looking mouse thing that is the cover story for this article). The gameplay is equally unique, having you sneak around the hotel and eavesdrop on guests through the keyholes on their doors to pick up clues and wait until the right moment to enter the room. In an interesting twist, especially for a horror game, the other guests in the hotel will actually run away from you – that is, until you have acquired a guest’s soul from the bottle they are carrying, which will then cause them to chase and attack you to get their soul back. The cast of characters is as wacky as you’d expect, and half the fun of the game is seeing who you are going to encounter next. It’s too bad this game was based on a relatively obscure Japanese series, since that is the primary reason it was never brought to the U.S. We definitely missed out on a great-looking, creative, and very enjoyable addition to our PS2 libraries. Maybe it’ll eventually make its way to our PSN store as a PS2 classic. You never know…we got Cho Aniki, so anything is possible.

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1. I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1995, PC)

i_have_no_mouth_and_i_must_screamHow’s this for the synopsis for a video game: An evil computer named AM has destroyed all of humanity, deliberately leaving just five people alive specifically to torture them for over a century. Each survivor has a fatal flaw in their character, and in an attempt to crush their spirits, AM has constructed a metaphorical adventure for each that preys upon their weaknesses. To succeed in the game, the player must make choices to prove that humans are better than machines because they have the ability to redeem themselves. What are these flaws and weaknesses and how do they relate to the scenarios constructed for them? Let’s just say that nothing is off limits here, from suicide to rape to Nazi concentration camps. It is by far one of the darkest games ever made, and not one that is recommended for anyone with even the slightest inkling that they might not be up for it. That said, it is a great example of just how heavy and thought-provoking games can truly be when given the freedom to do so – and without resorting to being deliberately provocative just for the sake of being controversial like similar games of its era (Phantasmagoria, I’m looking at you).

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