Halloween is upon us and what better way to celebrate it than sharing my 10 favorite games for one of my favorite genres. I didn’t want to use the term “best” because that implies some sort of universal ranking system, but this is just supposed to be something fun to write about.
To give you a brief personal history lesson, I was born in 1981 and fell in love with horror films at a very early age. During a sleepover at a friend’s house, we were up late and wanted to watch a movie, which led us to dig through his family’s small collection of VHS tapes. We stumbled on to Halloween, with neither of us even sure what “horror” was. We were six years old and settled in front of a wooden floor model TV, snacks in hand, wholly unprepared for Michael Meyers murder spree in the fictional town of Haddonfield, IL.
I was terrified but I couldn’t stop watching it. And before long I was asking my parents for copies of A Nightmare of Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre instead of Pete’s Dragon and The Explorers. My mom was totally cool with my newfound obsession, which eventually bled its way into video games likes Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Genesis and Splatterhouse for the TurboGrafx 16. Once I received my original PlayStation console and a copy of Resident Evil, though, my life changed forever.
So here were are now, me at 40 years old, still obsessed with video games and routinely going out of my way to check out anything that falls into the horror genre. And these have been my 10 favorites along the way.
#10 – Friday the 13th (NES)
Like any kid that grew up in the NES generation, games were expensive and my parents usually got me a new one on my birthday and on Christmas. Rental shops like Blockbuster were godsends, but aside from the occasional rental treat we basically played what we had and didn’t understand the concept of a “bad game.”
So young Bradley played the shit out of, and LOVED, the cult classic Friday the 13th on NES. I was already a huge fan of the movies and it never once crossed my mind that Jason wasn’t supposed to be grape and blueberry flavored, but now I find it super endearing.
The game itself was very ahead of its time and ambitious as hell, featuring a 2D action mode that transitioned into an almost first-person exploration mechanic whenever you venture into one of its many, many cabins. Each had its own combat system as well, with the 2D bits feeling more like Mega Man with its jumping and shooting off different weapons, and the cabin fights with Jason mirroring Mike Tyson’s Punch-out. It’s neat!
The soundtrack is also criminally overlooked. The theme that plays while exploring the cabins is ominous, jolting into an intense repeating loop whenever Jason jump-scares you into a battle. I love the overworld theme so much that it’s been my ringtone for over a decade.
LJN published some real stinkers on the NES (anyone that watches AVGN knows this), but Friday the 13th was actually developed by Atlus and deserves nowhere near the hate it’s gotten (along with Jaws). More people have warmed up to it over the years, including the AVGN, and recognize it as a gem amongst the colossal pile of garbage released on the NES.
#9 – Until Dawn
Supermassive’s interactive 90’s horror film Until Dawn began as a PS Move title before being mercy-killed and reworked for the PS4. The end result is one of the most fun, replayable horror games in history.
You control an ensemble cast of annoying teenagers meeting up for a winter vacation in remembrance of a friend who died there the year prior after a prank went wrong. The focus shifts between each one, allowing you to explore the cabin and its surrounding areas while uncovering mysteries and making a BUNCH of dialogue choices that determine how events progress forward. It’s very similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series.
The locales vary, from the said cabin and deep forests to closed down mental asylums and abandoned mining tunnels. Horror tropes abound with whiny teenage bickering and masked killers initiating chase scenes, and it all rules so much.
What makes Until Dawn so great isn’t its reliance on 90’s horror nostalgia, but its replayability. There are so many ways events can play out, things that can go wrong, and when your own decisions lead to character deaths, there’s no coming back. They’re gone forever and a frequent auto-save system prevents you from trying again. It’s the perfect game to play with local friends too, passing the controller around and letting everyone have a go at dialogue prompts and quick-time events.
#8 – Haunting Ground
I never found a copy of this incredibly expensive PS2 gem until my partner and I moved in together ten years ago (they also brought with them Kuon!). Now it’s one of my all-time favorites.
Haunting Ground is an early combat-free horror title that’s more about puzzle solving and hiding from various stalker monsters while exploring a massive castle and its surrounding areas. It’s a spiritual successor to the beloved Clock Tower series (“beloved” if you pretend The Struggle Within doesn’t exist) without mirroring its point-and-click interface. Fiona also has a faithful companion by her side, the goodest boy Hewie, who can pin down enemies, sniff out items, and receive many, many head pats.
The actual story of Haunting Ground is really one big spoiler, but it all starts with Fiona waking up basically naked, locked in a cage, and currently being watched over by an oafish butcher. Each of the stalkers you encounter has its own backstory, but none compare to the docile servant Daniella. Slowly piecing together what makes her tick yields unsettling results and presents one of the most underrated horror villains of all time.
#7 – Clock Tower 3
Now it’s time to get a little weird. Prior to Clock Tower 3, the series was a point-and-click adventure that was heavily rooted in the slasher subgenre of horror. Collect items, explore, and uncover a story just like any other point-and-click, but you’re doing so while being stalked by a hideous figure wielding a gigantic pair of scissors.
With that in mind, you may be surprised to hear that Clock Tower 3 is actually a magical girl horror game. No, you didn’t read that wrong.
After receiving a letter to return home from private school, Alyssa finds her residence mostly empty — it’s just her and a mysterious man she doesn’t recognize. Oh, and Dennis. Annoying, ginger-haired, comic relief Dennis. I love him dearly because he sucks, so much so that a group of us fans on Twitter celebrate Dennis Day on Clock Tower 3’s anniversary and change our profile avatars to unflattering images of him.
Clock Tower 3 shares a lot of DNA with the above Haunting Ground, since it came out first. As it turns out, Alyssa comes from a long line of “rooders,” people with the ability to combat evil spirits. It’s a similar affair, with you running from stalker monsters, hiding in marked locations, and eventually meeting them in a one-on-one battle where Alyssa gives you tonal whiplash with a magical girl transformation. It’s there that you wield a magical Power Rangers-ass bow and put down the big bad evils in order to free the spirits of their victims.
This game is incredibly fun to play and even by today’s standards, it has some stunning motion-capture technology on display. The world needs more magical girl horror games.
#6 – Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
For my money, a better trilogy doesn’t exist on the original PlayStation. As the third entry in the legendary Resident Evil series, Nemesis cranked the intensity to the max with the titular stalker and, because it’s short and lacks the additional campaign scenarios of its predecessor, displayed its replay value within its branching narrative paths.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis puts you back into the shoes of S.T.A.R.S. agent and series mainstay, Jill Valentine, somewhere during the events of the previous game. You’ll explore a catastrophic version of Raccoon City, revisit the memorable R.C.P.D. building, and stand your ground within two of my favorite locales in the series: the clock tower and graveyard. While doing so, unscripted encounters occur with Nemesis, who wants nothing more than to punch your face as hard as possible. It’s legitimately terrifying. If you’re lucky and manage to take him down (temporarily) you’re often rewarded with some very helpful upgrades.
On top of a pretty robust bullet crafting system, which not everyone enjoyed, certain points in the story present Jill with two different options on how to proceed. Do you stand your ground and fight Nemesis or retreat into the safety of the police building? Hide in the sewers or have a shoot-out inside of a restaurant? Not only does this make the game feel more personally tailored, which was unheard of back in those days, but gives you new experiences on subsequent playthroughs.
I really enjoyed the remake of this as well, especially its portrayal of Jill, but it felt neutered. Gone are the path actions, as well as the entirety of both the graveyard and clock tower, but the bullet crafting system was dumbed down a bit. The overall experience ends up being very fun to play but fails to offer much of a reason to revisit it after you roll the credits.
I can see why fans of the Resident Evil 2 remake were so disappointed, given the amount of content that game shipped with at the exact same price point. Personally, though, I’ll always choose the original version if I want to play Nemesis but I do think the remake is quite good. Nobody cares about the packed-in REsistance mode, though.
#5 – Silent Hill
Resident Evil was the king of survival horror back on the original PlayStation, but along came Konami’s Silent Hill and it changed the genre forever. When Harry and his young daughter Cheryl head to Silent Hill for a nice family vacation, their jeep swerves off the road after witnessing a ghostly apparition. Harry then comes to in the fog-ridden city, but Cheryl is nowhere to be found. You’ll befriend a local cop, explore one of the most atmospheric and memorable cities in horror, and be treated to some genuinely unsettling imagery (see the above skinless, crucified-to-barbed-wire thing) as you uncover Silent Hill’s many mysteries.
It’s admittedly clunky by today’s standards, but the layer of film grain and cumbersome movements of Harry adds to the overall feeling of dread in ways that were unmatched back then. The story and iconic soundtrack still hold up in 2021, though some of the puzzle solutions can be real head-scratchers. I remember struggling with the piano puzzle for hours and this was before online walkthroughs were really a thing. I gave up, hopped in my 1986 Volkswagon Jetta, and drove to the local mall in search of a strategy guide. Even after seeing the solution, I knew that I would have never figured it out on my own.
I still revisit Silent Hill on an annual basis, most recently in July this year, and it’s one of the few games to never leave my PlayStation 3 and Vita.
There’s a pretty cool reimagining of Silent Hill called Shattered Memories, which was released for the PS2, Wii, and (I think?) the PSP, that’s more about the exploration and puzzle elements. Combat was removed entirely and each chapter was broken up with some chase sequences that I could have done without. I wasn’t overly thrilled about them coming back in Silent Hill Downpour either.
#4 – Resident Evil 2
The original Resident Evil was groundbreaking (pretty sure I said that already) so the sequel definitely had some massive shoes to fill. And fill them it did.
Once again featuring two playable protagonists, Resident Evil 2 puts players in control of rookie R.C.P.D. cop Leon S. Kennedy and the sister of an original hero, Claire Redfield, two months after the events of the original. Both meet while heading into Raccoon City, totally unaware of the zombie infestation that awaits them, but they’re just as quickly split up, and their adventure intertwines from that point forward.
Similar to the original game, each character has their own supporting cast (Leon’s being the forever-thirsted-after special agent Ada Wong and Claire getting the short end of the stick while on babysitting duty for Sherry Birkin). Unlike Resident Evil, though, neither is designated as the game’s hidden “easy mode.” Some folks weren’t aware of this, but choosing Jill before offered a far less challenging experience. She had a lockpick for certain doors and locked drawers, while Chris had to find AND CARRY small keys. Chris also had less inventory space, which means fewer healing items and ammo storage in favor of puzzle items and keys. Jill can even skip an entire boss battle because on top of being “the master of unlocking” she’s also an alchemist. Who knew?
The story itself is pretty fantastic for a campy horror game, seeing both heroes exploring a zombie-infested police station in search of a way out of Raccoon City. You’ll uncover political corruption, biological weapons, mad scientists, and a brand new variant of the original virus, all while solving puzzles, unlocking new pathways, and putting a bunch of bullets into some gnarly boss monsters.
Resident Evil 2 not only has 2 stellar campaigns to choose from, but an additional 2 after finishing each character’s primary storyline. It shipped with 2 discs (one for each character), so say you finish Leon’s campaign, you can pop in the Claire disc and load your Leon save to play what the game refers to as “Leon B.” New item placements, new puzzle solutions, and, most importantly, a brand new enemy type that will stalk you around the entire police department. It’s rad.
Not only is the original Resident Evil 2 one of my favorite games, but I also thought the recent remake was pretty damn good. The RE Engine that Capcom uses allows for some crazy levels of environmental detail and they really brought the police station to life. My only issue is that Mr. X is introduced during each character’s first campaign, so the B sides aren’t as impactful as before. Still, that aspect of the original game was so cool that I’m okay with Capcom shoving it into the A sides so everyone can experience it on their first playthroughs. Not everyone wants to stick around more than once and it’d be a shame for such a cool feature to go to waste.
#3 – Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly
The original Fatal Frame was, at the time, the scariest horror game I’d ever played. It left the comfort zone of hoarding weapons and mowing down evil creatures and instead placed you in the shoes of a young woman in search of her missing brother. Physical monstrosities didn’t exist, instead, arming you with the Camera Obscura that could combat ghostly spirits that were otherwise invisible.
The gameplay flow was familiar enough, controlling your character from a fixed-camera third-person perspective, finding items to help you progress further, and uncovering the mysteries of the game through found documentation and audio diaries. When it came to battles, though, Fatal Frame switched to a first-person perspective in order to aim and snap photos of the evil ghosts. Let me tell you, transitioning to a first-person view and being face-to-face with a creepy ghost made my palms sweat.
I loved the original game SO MUCH, but its sequel, Crimson Butterfly improved on mostly everything. You played as one-half of twin siblings who find themselves in an abandoned village inhabited with evil spirits and dark secrets. Your sister begins acting strange, often runs off, and the narrative payoff is one of the best of the era. Mio and Miyu become victims of circumstance and it’s not just a matter of escaping, it’s about surviving.
Gameplay-wise it’s similar to the original, with you exploring and battling ghosts with the Camera Obscura, but there’s more focus on uncovering the mystery of the village and why the twins were drawn there. There’s more variety in explorable areas, better visuals, and (in my opinion) better atmospheric storytelling.
Even in 2021, Crimson Buttery is possibly the scariest horror game I’ve ever played.
#2 – Resident Evil Remake HD
The original Resident Evil was a groundbreaking trendsetter of a game that’s still being copied (or providing inspiration) today. Your Alpha squad is sent to the Arklay Mountains in search of the Bravo Team when they find what’s left of them lying in a field. After being ambushed by a pack of seemingly rabid dogs and being abandoned by your helicopter pilot, you retreat to the safety of the nearby Spencer Mansion for one of the worst AirBNB experiences of all time.
The mansion is filled with secret rooms, various special locks, and lots and lots of zombies. This was the very first game that I ever played on my original PlayStation and I was scared shitless. I was “too old” to read instruction booklets and struggled to grasp the control scheme as a result. The first zombie encounter (you know the one) was the first CG cutscene I’d ever witnessed as well, which really made the PlayStation feel futuristic in comparison to my Sega Genesis and SNES.
I’ve grown to appreciate tank controls over the years, especially in these types of horror games with fixed camera angles. I also find the campy voice acting endearing and still quote some of the more memorable lines on a near-daily basis.
There is no horror game more important to me than the original Resident Evil. It was THE game my best friend Harry and I would play every single weekend for years, even after the sequel was released. He’s no longer with us and I always think about him whenever I play it today. It’s not my favorite version of the game, though.
The GameCube remake of Resident Evil is, in my opinion, the most perfect horror game on the planet and is still the benchmark for remakes in 2021. The entire graphics engine was reworked, making it looks gorgeous, dark, and timeless. You can play the HD remaster of the remake (lol) today and still be blown away by the visuals.
It also added a lot more content, most notably the memorable Lisa Trevor stuff and the addition of “crimson heads” – super zombies that would spawn from dead zombies you didn’t permanently terminate with headshots or by setting their corpses on fire. It’s still one of the most atmospheric horror games to date and it’s absolutely perfect.
#1 – Silent Hill 2
While Resident Evil Remake HD is, in my opinion, the best horror game ever created, it’s not my favorite. It’s close! But Silent Hill 2 forever sits on the throne.
Moving on from the original PlayStation to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox gave Konami more horsepower to expand upon the Silent Hill universe. The fog-riddled town is larger, has more areas to explore, and really hones in on the storytelling with some fantastically animated character models and in-game cutscenes.
Here you play James Sunderland, who arrives in Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his wife. His dead wife. You begin in the world’s grossest public restroom that even gives the one from Candyman a run for its money, before hoofing down a mountain path and into Silent Hill proper. The city manifests itself and its inhabitants based on James’ hidden life, his secrets, and desires, and it becomes clearer once the game is finished for the first time. It’s such a great ride.
The atmosphere is top-notch and works in tandem with Akira Yamaoka’s brilliant soundtrack to really elevate Silent Hill 2 to new heights. This man is a legend. The creature designs are also some of the best in the business, like the iconic Pyramid Head, the Lying Figure that’s just a contortion of body parts inside of a skin sack, and the Bubble Head Nurse design that became the gold standard going forward.
Silent Hill 2 really is the perfect package. There’s a ton of replay value, it’s not overly long or challenging (with separate difficulty toggles for combat and puzzles), the writing is excellent, and it’s still a looker in 2021.
I picked this up on PS2 the day it was released, and then again on the original Xbox when Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams came out with the additional Born From a Wish chapter and new parts of the town to explore.
When I think of the perfect horror game, Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil Remake HD are neck and neck. But, like I said earlier, I think Resident Evil Remake HD is the better game, and Silent Hill 2 is my favorite.
So overall, not a ton of variety, and clearly I consider the PS1 and PS2/Xbox libraries the best of the best when it comes to this specific genre. I’ve enjoyed a lot of horror games over the years and there were plenty of games I wanted to include, but just couldn’t for obvious reasons. Aside from the #10 spot, the rest are some heavy hitters.
Honorable mentions go out to some of my other favorites, like SOMA, Detention, Stories Untold, most of the Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, and Resident Evil series, Rule of Rose, Deadly Premonition, Kuon, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Claire, P.T., and just about anything from my top three indie dev horror teams, Puppet Combo, Chilla’s Art, and Airdorf.
But whenever I go back to my favorites, it’s usually to revisit those in my top 10.
What about you? What are some of your favorite horror games? Do you have any that you revisit every Halloween?