Practicing your social isolation? It would certainly kill the arcades these days (if they still existed). Younger gamers probably never experienced the phenomenon that was the arcade. Before it was eclipsed by console gaming in the mid-90s, the arcade was the place to play some amazing video games, including some great horror titles. Some of the more obvious ones eventually made their way to consoles, while others have unfortunately been left in bowling alleys and shopping malls. So, for those who love nostalgia, or never got the chance to experience firsthand just what the fuss was all about, here’s a sampling of some of the more notable horror arcade games.
Splatterhouse – 1988
You know the story: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl head to the West Mansion. Girl goes missing. Boy wakes up with terror mask on and proceeds to beat the tar out of every ghoul and mutant in the mansion to rescue the girl. You know the rest.
Splatterhouse was and still is a little rough around the edges , with Rick’s movement and size making things more difficult than they should be. Enemy movement pattern memorization is crucial if you want to make it through this one. Splatterhouse was originally ported to the TurboGrafx-16, but the arcade version can be played on the 2010 remake, as well as in the more recently-released Namco Museum on the Nintendo Switch.
House of the Dead – 1996
Light gun games and horror go together quite well, and Sega’s House of the Dead series is no exception. The story for the game (much like the game itself) is over-the-top hilarity: Dr. Roy Curien, obsessed with discovering the secrets of life and death, unleashes his army of the undead on an unsuspecting populace. It’s up to AMS agents Thomas Rogan and his partner “G” to stop the scientist.
Over the top dialogue and B-movie story aside, HotD is a classic shooter, employing a branching storyline, creative creature design and (for the time) excellent graphics. In fact, together with Resident Evil, the games helped to usher in a revival of the zombie genre that led to modern genre classics such as 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead. The series is still going today with the recent release of House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn. Just avoid the film adaption by Uwe Boll.
Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors – 1994
Being the king of fighting games, of course Capcom had to give us a horror-inspired fighter. Darkstalkers has a powerful alien demon known as Pyron invading Earth. As a result, monsters from around the world gather to battle it out to decide who gets to defend the earth from Pyron.
Taking inspiration from both Western and Eastern folklore, the roster for Darkstalkers sports a vampire, werewolf, merman, Frankenstein’s creature, a catgirl, a ghostly set of samurai armour and more for players to choose from. Darkstalkers was notable for its art style, which differed from the fighter crowd at the time. It also introduced concepts such as being able to block in the air, Crouch Walking and the use of powered-up special moves called EX moves, which again set it apart from Capcom’s Street Fighter II. The game saw a port for the original PlayStation, as well as getting bundled with its two sequels in Darkstalkers Resurrection for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox One.
Night Slashers – 1993
While Capcom might have cornered the market on fighting games and beat-em-ups, Data East brought horror fans one to call their own in Night Slashers. The world is overrun by werewolves, vampires and the walking dead thanks to King Zarutz, who plans on taking over the world. It’s up to a group of monster hunters called the Night Slashers to stop the Zarutz and save humanity.
While the basis of Night Slashers isn’t too different from the formula Capcom popularized (walk from left to right, beat up bad guys, collect items, etc.), what set the game apart was its horror and gore. While the North American version sports green blood whenever enemies are defeated (and fall over into a puddle of gore), the Japanese version sports red blood, as well as more gore in monster deaths. The North American version also misses out on the “Go” arrow flipping over to reveal the words “To Hell!” written in blood, and one of the characters, Christopher, holding out a cross after defeating an enemy.
Thankfully, you can grab this one on the Switch, though you’re not going to get access to the the Japanese version, sadly. While there are better games in the genre, where else can you find Whack-a-Zombie or Undead Bowling as bonus games?
Chiller – 1986
Another light gun game, Chiller has the player assuming the role of an unseen torturer who must shoot to mutilate and eventually murder captured NPCs through several stages as quickly as possible. Players will shoot specific areas of torture devices to activate them, but can also shoot parts of the victims as well as other secret areas of the stage for more points. The quicker you dispatch people, the more points you get.
Needless to say, the game wasn’t exceptionally popular when it was released, and many arcade owners refused to carry it. The game saw an unlicensed port for the NES in 1990, which allowed the option of using either the standard controller or the NES Zapper, however. Regardless, the gameplay gets pretty repetitive, and the game is pretty short. There are some secrets to be found, but other than playing for points, you could do much better with other light gun games.
Ghosts ‘N Goblins – 1985
Before Capcom hit it big with Street Fighter II, they had titles like Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Sir Arthur must journey to rescue his lover, Princess Guinevere, who has been kidnapped by Astaroth, the king of Demon World. In order to reach the real “happy end”, players have to complete the game twice.
Yeah, extending the game by having the player play through it twice seems incredibly lame now, but that was just the way things were for some games. And GnG (not to be confused with its sequel, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, or GnG) was typical of the arcade at the time: Punishing difficulty, an unfair checkpoint system and a time limit that was designed to sap your quarters. In spite of this, once again, if you mastered enemy patterns and were patient, GnG could be beaten. Like many of Capcom’s arcade games, Ghost ‘N Goblins was ported to the NES, with ports to other computers/consoles in subsequent years. Most recently, the original arcade version, along with its sequels, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts and Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, can be found in Capcom Classics Collection – Volume 1 for the PlayStation 2.
Haunted Castle – 1988
The Castlevania game that Konami forgot, Haunted Castle has Simon Belmont venturing into Dracula’s castle to save his wife Serena from the clutches of Count Dracula. Simon’s journey takes him through six stages, facing off against series’ staples. Along the way, Simon can upgrade from his whip to a sword and eventually a morning star, as well as use a variety of subweapons.
There’s a good reason why Konami has never revisited Haunted Castle: It’s not very good. Designed as an adaptation of the original NES game, the game is your standard sidescroller, though Simon’s movement is sluggish and leaves him easily hit. Speaking of which, enemies are overly powered, and are capable of sapping your life quickly if you’re not careful. The game also employed a limited continue system where you could only resume a level a few times before being kicked back to the beginning of the game. To top it off, the upgrades to your whip are rare drops that don’t happen until later in the game. Apart from the music (composed by Kenichi Matsubara, who worked on Castlevania II), this is one best left alone.
The Real Ghostbusters – 1987
Adapted from the animated cartoon of the same name from the arcade game Meikyuu Hunter G, the game has up to three players travelling across New York and into the bowels of the city to save it from the ghosts that have infested it. You must shoot creatures and then try to suck up ghosts with your proton pack. Players can shoot and collect various power-ups, including a protective aura, shot and proton beam boosters, and a Slimer shield satellite.
While pretty pedestrian, The Real Ghostbusters did sport a pretty nice rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s song (even if you heard it every single level). The game has you traveling up from a top-down perspective, where you have to collect a key by defeating the end boss of each stage to progress. The game won’t beat out Ikari Warriors or Super Contra in the fun department, but it’s not a horrible game. Though the absence of Gozer or the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man as bosses/enemies is inexcusable.
Aliens – 1990
Before Capcom gave us the superb Alien vs. Predator beat-em-up, Konami had the Alien license, and gave us this shoot-em-up. Based on the 1986 film, players control either Ripley or Corporal Hicks as they make their way through Hadleys Hope, blasting through xenomorphs until coming face to face with the Alien Queen.
Despite taking liberties from the source material (Ripley is blonde, and you have more than your standard xenomorph warriors and facehuggers, etc.), Aliens is supremely fun to play. You start out with a Smart Gun, but can upgrade to a flamethrower or grenade and missile launchers. It feels very much like a souped-up version of Contra, complete with a change in perspective when you face off against bosses and a three-way shot. The game also has a stage when you’re on top of an APC shooting down xenomorphs as you race to rescue Newt (did I mention the artistic liberties?). And yes, the boss battle against the Alien Queen inside the power loader is here. For obvious reasons, this sadly has never been ported to other systems, or part of any collection.
Zombie Revenge – 1999
Meant as a spin-off to their House of the Dead series, Sega’s Zombie Revenge is a side-scrolling beat-em-up where the AMS are called in again to stop the zombie menace that’s plaguing Woodside City. Turns out a man known only as ZED has gained control of Undead Soldier (UDS), a government plan to utilize the dead for military purposes. ZED plans to use the project as a bioterrorism weapon.
Much like House of the Dead, Zombie Revenge is played up for cheese, complete with its voice acting. Unlike HotD, however, Zombie Revenge doesn’t quite have the same longevity. The game looks and sounds great, but is bogged down by some unfair gameplay. Enemies have a tendency to swarm you, leaving you open to multiple hits. It also doesn’t help that the game employs an auto-aim system that will often target something other than what you would like. You do have plenty of ammo available to you, but that’s a small consolation when you’re constantly getting munched on. The game was ported to the Sega Dreamcast, which is largely the same, albeit for some additional unlockable modes. Compared to the Dynamite Deka series (aka Die Hard Arcade in the West), Zombie Revenge doesn’t quite match up to the fun with that title.