The season of Halloween is upon us, and it’s my favorite time of year for gaming. Not only do we usually have an onslaught of holiday releases to look forward to, but it’s the perfect time to curl up on a couch and play through some of your favorite horror games. I’ve held a belief for a long time that the nature of horror is best expressed through the video game medium. I love horror movies and books, but nothing replaces the terrifying nature of playing a game that truly scares you. Yet a game can be outside the realm of horror and still include moments that are much darker than the rest of the game.
Pokémon Red and Blue: Lavender Town
Pokémon is widely marketed as a kid’s game, but longtime fans of the series know the adult themes that have run through the universe — animal abuse, terrorist and crime organizations, gambling, and the lack of parenting in the kind of autonomy these ten year olds are getting. All of these aside, it is in the first game that GameFreak introduces children to the concept of death and dying by having them enter Lavender Town. The moment you enter this part of the game you can immediately sense something is out of place just by the music. If it’s been a while since you’ve visited the Kanto region, I suggest you find the Lavender Town music here and listen to it while you read the rest of this article. My friend aptly described it as “death put into music.”
Once you’ve come to terms with the tune (or muted your Game Boy), you have to get used to the fact that this town is sparsely populated with only a few buildings, one of which houses the spirits of dead Pokémon. If you stick around you can enjoy the townspeople recount tales of Team Rocket murdering Pokémon, and find that when your Pokémon are attacked in the graveyard they’re too terrified to battle. Your only choice is to run away until you get the Silph Scope later in the game. Oh, not to mention the possessed people who enjoy saying disturbing things to you.
Overall, Lavender Town was a horrifying portion in a game that was rated E for Everyone.
Super Mario Series: Shadow People, Drowning, and Worlds that Don’t Exist
What could be happier than the
Super Mario universe? It’s colorful, mystical, and has an innocent enough storyline — save the Princess from the monster. Yet Nintendo has included some creepy moments within these games. In the Shiverburn Galxy of Super Mario Galaxy 2, if you take a moment to look around you in first person view, you’ll see shadowy figures standing on the cliffs at the edge of galaxy. Though they are visible throughout the entire level, you can never get any closer to them, and no one in the game ever mentions their existence.
When gamers became curious they looked through the files of the game and found that the sky pattern for this level is called “BeyondHellValley”. The file for the shapes themselves are called “HellValleySkyTree”, but when looking at the actual image file it’s apparent that they are not trees; instead, the image is of people. Who are these shadow people, and why are they watching Mario? Nintendo has yet to comment.
You don’t need to look hard for this next terrifying moment in the
Super Mario series. It happens in Super Mario 64 every time you die underwater. Mario undergoes an eerily accurate animation of somebody who really has just flooded their lungs with water. He chokes and puts his hands to his throat as he fights for air before going limp and rising to the surface. Bowser cackles maniacally as you’re left with Mario floating face down on the surface of the water, much like a real drowning victim. However, this still might not be the worst way Mario dies in Super Mario 64. How about the desert levels when he gets sucked into quicksand? We watch helplessly as he struggles to remain on the surface, but is overtaken; our last glimpse of him is his hand as he struggles to keep some part of his body above the surface.
And what of the ghosts appearing inside the game? I’m not talking about Boos. In
Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS, a strange apparition can appear. If you’re in the ghost house in the fourth world and stand by the flag pole for about thirty seconds, a creepy figure will appear in the background. It will sit there for a moment before slowly disappearing again. Like the shadow people, this figure is never mentioned by anyone in the game and does not resemble any of the creatures in the Mushroom Kingdom.
As unsettling as these moments are, everything so far was intended to be in the game. How about something that was never created and shouldn’t exist, but does? I welcome you to the Minus World in the original
Super Mario Bros.
The Minus World is essentially raw game data that turned itself into a level. You can access it by a glitch present in the first warp zone you come to. By accessing it through an alternative path you can get into the first pipe before a world is assigned to it. The game doesn’t know where to take you, so it makes up a world. In this case, you’re taken to “-1”. as in, “World nothing, Level 1”.
In the U.S. version of the game, Mario is trapped in an underwater level on a loop until the timer runs out or an enemy kills him. The Japanese version goes on longer, however, and has such oddities as underwater enemies on land and a flagpole without the flag. Also, occasionally you’ll see Princess Peach floating and not doing anything. Having this strange, deranged world exist in a
Mario game makes those hours of squashing turtles as a kid a bit more unsettling.
The Legend of Zelda Series: Torture, Corruption, and Death
The Legend of Zelda games are fraught with darkness and sinister themes. Take Ocarina of Time, for example. Many of us spent our fondest memories of 1998 traveling through Hyrule. Everything seemed pretty happy until we were trapped in the Temple of Time for seven years, and when Link awakens we’re just as unprepared for this new world as he is: Ganondorf has taken over, the Market is in ruins, and ReDeads populate the town. There’s something unique about these ReDeads, however: they’re the only ReDeads in the game that we see over and over and over again. Many have logically assumed that these ReDeads must be some of the town’s people we got to know in the market. So maybe the first few times we battle and kill them, but most of us run right by them for the rest of the game. Thus, only a few of you may have witnessed this happen.
If you haven’t seen the video, it shows a ReDead ignoring you and instead kneeling down next to their murdered companion. It’s become a popular theory that they are in fact mourning the loss of their friend. This behavior is never mentioned in the game, and the
Legend of Zelda series rarely comments on the morality of killing the monsters that are trying to kill you. Does recognizing death show a sentience that we haven’t considered before in these zombie like creatures?
Ocarina of Time, you come to the Shadow Temple, literally a place dedicated to the murdering and suffering of other people. I think a line you read in the temple itself describes it nicely: “Shadow Temple… Here is gathered Hyrule’s bloody history of greed and hatred…”
While navigating the Shadow Temple you’ll find invisible walls, chasms into darkness, and floors and walls that are stained with blood. Not to mention the torture chambers you come across and the plethora of dead and decaying enemies that are trying to pull you into the afterlife. The temple itself is filled with traps meant to kill anyone who enters the crypt, and instead of ascending to the top of the temple you are systematically descending to the bottom. Every temple in the game represents an element or a spiritual connection, so the Shadow Temple seems to represent death. The Sheikah constructed it in the rear of Kakariko Graveyard, but the purpose of the temple is still unknown. Compared to the rest of
Ocarina of Time, the Shadow Temple is a dark place for young players. It might be for this reason why the temple was significantly cleaned up before being released for the 3DS.
Of course, if you want to talk about the darkness in
The Legend of Zelda series, many fans will immediately go to Majora’s Mask. Though the themes of grieving, healing, and death are widely present in Termina, there’s one moment that has always stuck out in my mind: meeting Pamela’s Father.
Pamela’s Father is a scientist who researches paranormal activity and lives in the Music Box House in Ikana Canyon. He was researching Gibdos and exploring the well when he was cursed, causing him to slowly turn into a Gibdo himself. Pamela, frightened for her father’s safety and sanity, locked him in the closet in their basement and kept her front door locked, terrified that Gibdos would break into the house and try to take her father away.
After restoring the flow of the river, Link can enter the house while Pamela is away. This is where you meet Pamela’s Father, and if you’re not fast Pamela will rush in and tell you to go away as she embraces her father, who doesn’t seem to know who he is. On the other hand, if you play the Song of Healing her father will be healed and return to his human form. This is a sweet moment in the game, but everything leading up to it is horrifying — Pamela’s seclusion, the mysterious Music Box House with the locked door, and this creature that you’re prepared to fight the first time you meet him. Also, the Nintendo 64 limitations at the time actually added to this scene, making his movements as he escapes the closet jerky and demented.
These are just a few of the unsettling scenes awaiting you in some of your favorite Nintendo games. Some of these moments in the aforementioned games are clearly displayed, while others need closer examination to really notice. For more traditional scares, feel free to play through Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or BioShock (all phenomenal games). For a truly unsettling gaming experience, however, you may not need to look further than your Nintendo console.