They say that survival horror is largely dead as a genre. Who are “they”, you might ask? Why, I’m referring to the mysterious voices that whisper out of the Internet Machine, dear reader, and kindly stop interrupting or I’ll beat you with this sack of belt buckles. But while the genre itself might have seen better days, that has hardly stopped designers from creating raw, horrifying imagery to ruin your sleep in every other genre, from shooters to puzzle games. Of course, this tendon-snapping swath of games has caught the judgmental, panicky attentions of parents, schoolmarms and busybodies alike.
But time marches on, and it appears that each call to ban violent video games only makes these lunatics look more like, well, lunatics. Not that I’m entirely unsympathetic. To an outsider, the level of realism and horror that can be created within these supposed “toys” must seem literally insane. Dead Space and Silent Hill rear their gore-glistened heads and start spewing ichor in our general direction, and you hit pause to count the individual blisters on your now-dead protagonist’s bubbling face. And it’s slick, bell and whistle heavy games such as these that make us wonder if we truly know how good we have it. Or, more importantly: are we aware of how good we had it? I’m a firm believer that some of the most frightening, dreadful games ever made were released decades ago. And it’s with this new series that I take a moment to look back and cringe at some of the most gruesome games I played before I hit puberty.
Holy crisscrossed Christ: Altered Beast.
Originally released as an arcade game in 1988, this action game was also developed for the Sega Mega Drive and the Sega Genesis. In fact, the redheaded stepchildren of the 16-bit world remember this sucker coming in the box with our underappreciated new console.
That’s right: Altered Beast was our Super Mario Bros.
Vaguely Greek in design, Beast had you playing a warrior raised from the dead by Zeus to rescue his kidnapped daughter Athena. What the powerful goddess of wisdom and battle would need with your decaying ass, I have no idea. Not that any of us knew that level of the plotline anyhow–we were too busy trying to decipher the disconnected slurring that was apparently supposed to be the voice of Zeus.
From there, you barreled your way through level after level, defeating zombies, anthropomorphic rhinos, and a giant growing out of the side of a mountain that throws his severed heads at you. That is in no way a hyperbole, by the way:
The bosses were a huge part of the horrifying quality of this game. You didn’t need blood or gore when you had creatures like this to dispose. You didn’t have endless hordes of shambling zombies to scare you, but you did have horrible blimp plants that were filled with eyeballs. Or a barnacle-covered snail dragon haunting that would haunt you for weeks. What I look back and marvel on now is just how creative these things were.
As you tear through your foes, you gain the ability to change into a plethora of badass creatures, from the Werewolf to the Dragon to the Werebear to the Golden Werewolf (identical to the Werewolf except he’s… y’know: gold). You manage to change just in time to defeat one of the aforementioned horrorbosses, which would bring you to the next creepy thing that sticks out in my head about this game: the cutscenes.
Well, not really cutscenes in the way we know them nowadays. Just a single static shot, captured in a crystal ball (Zeus’s crystal ball, I guess?) of Athena in the clutches of the villain Neff. At first, these start just vaguely spooky.
But as the story progresses, you get glimpses into Athena’s fate that perhaps you didn’t want to see.
I mean, what in the everlasting fuck??
And finally, the most horrifying aspect of the nightmare-fuel that is Altered Beast?
That’s right: the No Nukes during the end credit sequence. Because it just isn’t a frightening enough experience without taking the time to remind you that this game was made during the Reagan era.
So let’s not get bogged down in the quagmire of merely passable survival horror games, ladies and gentlemen. I say that if you want a true fright fest, the only thing left to do is plug in your old Genesis, which in its heyday, was truly the master of screwing with your head. If you don’t believe me, just show me the Mario game where they crucify poor Princess Peach, and I’ll shut up immediately.