I did not experience true fear until my seven-year-old self booted up Rayman 2: The Great Escape.
About a quarter into this otherwise child-friendly game, the player is sent to a place called “The Cave of Bad Dreams” to find an important item. Compared to the previous stage — a luscious and tranquil fairytale forest — this cobweb-covered cavern is about as unwelcoming as can be. As if the level itself wasn’t intimidating enough, though, the player also has to traverse an increasingly difficult sliding section while being chased by the cave’s guardian spirit, Jano. As icing on the cake, developers placed the camera inside Jano’s gaping mouth, providing an unceasing view of his razor-sharp teeth as he catches up to you.
For reasons that should be abundantly clear, my seven-year-old self shut off his PlayStation without even trying to complete the stage. He then proceeded to eject the CD from the console, put the CD back in its case, and shove the case underneath a bookshelf in the hope that it would never be found by anyone ever again. A few hours later, I was trembling under the covers of my parents’ bed while my father was on the phone with Ubisoft, asking a hapless customer sales agent why on Earth they had published a video game that downright traumatizes its supposed target audience.
On niche Reddit forums and in the comments of YouTube walkthroughs, dozens of grown-up players try to describe the unprecedented terror they felt coming face to face with Jano. I myself did not muster the courage to finish Rayman 2 until I reached the double digits. Retrieving the case from under the shelf, I was surprised to find that the Cave of Bad Dreams — while not nearly as frightening as before — still managed to flare up hints of dread. Which raises an interesting question: Why do the games that scared the living hell out of us as kids continue to make us feel uneasy when we replay them as adults?
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
The premier kids’ game that’s still scary decades later, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask came out in 2000 as Nintendo’s follow-up to the ground-breaking Ocarina of Time. Despite Ocarina’s commercial success, the developers were given a shoestring budget and less than a year’s worth of time to one-up their previous accomplishment. Making do with what they had, they repurposed many of Ocarina’s assets and set their story in a kind of dark, parallel universe to the last game — one on the verge of being destroyed by a moon with a demonic grin and bulging red eyes carved into its surface.
“Plenty of games have terrifying characters and settings,” wrote Jason Leung, a former editor at Nintendo Power who localized the game’s dialogue, narration and menu items for English audiences, “but I think what gives Majora’s Mask a creepiness that’s still haunting after all these years is that the story is about being trapped in a nightmarish limbo. Every character Link meets has some form of regret, and every side quest is about completing unfinished business. There’s something unsettling about knowing that you could leave the world with regrets, and the game confronts you with that wherever you go.”
While working on Majora’s Mask, Leung spent a lot of time at Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto alongside the game’s creators. Catching glimpses into their developing process, he came to understand what everything was all about: never losing sight of the things that are important to you. “The team had just finished Ocarina, and the hours they had put into making that game took them away from their loved ones. Some had honeymoons they postponed. Others had newborns they rarely got to see. They all had regrets to exorcise, and this game became an outlet and inspiration for them.”
Super Mario 64
People didn’t think Super Mario 64 was a particularly scary game back when it came out, but looking back it’s hard to deny the plumber’s first outing in three-dimensional space has a strange, almost surreal quality to it. As with other entries on this list, Super Mario 64 has become the subject of a number of creepypastas, including the notion the game employs a “personalization” algorithm that tailors the gameplay to each individual player. This, some say, would explain why playing someone else’s copy of the game simply doesn’t “feel right.”
The game’s creepiness, rather than being the result of some design decision, seems to have been an unfortunate byproduct of the technological limitations of the time. When Super Mario 64 released, hardware struggled to keep up with developer ambition. To save storage, backgrounds were rendered with little to no polygons and mapped with blurry textures. These cut corners kept the frame-rate smooth and steady, but also had the adverse effect of making every course in the game feel as though it was suspended in a kind of limbo.
“As a child, I always had the nagging feeling that maybe not all was right in this bright and cheerful world,” YouTuber The Victorian states in his own analysis of the game. According to him, the low-resolution backgrounds, relative absence of NPCs and arbitrary, playground-like layouts of locations like Peach’s Castle combined to create an “uncanny valley effect” but for environments. “One of the reasons that later Mario titles like Sunshine feel less unnerving,” The Victorian continues, “is that the gap between what the developers envisioned and what was actually possible on the hardware is much, much smaller.”
Pokémon Red and Blue
Most of the time, the Pokémon games are about as cute and wholesome as can be. But when, once in a blue moon, the developers over at Game Freak decide they want to spook young players, they do a damn good job of it. A few repressed traumas come to mind: the ghost-haunted mansion in Diamond and Pearl, the mysterious ruins of Alph from Gold and Silver, the Frankenstein-inspired and thoroughly tragic creation of Mewtwo. However, of all the 8-bit horror stories hidden in our Pokémon cartridges, there can only be one place that takes the cake and that place is Lavender Town from Red and Blue.
This town, one of many trainers must traverse along their journey, features a temple where people mourn their diseased Pokémon. This disturbing concept, unique in the franchise, is accompanied by an even more disturbing chiptune soundtrack that — according to internet rumors — led players to commit suicide. “It’s difficult to gauge the score’s tonal center,” rationalizes Milly Gunn, a ludomusicology PhD candidate at Kingston University, “leaving listeners struggling to anticipate the next notes. Additionally, the original score was in E minor, which is often used to convey a sense of mourning and melancholy.”
“The score makes me think of how the game visually glitches when Pokémon are poisoned after a battle,” adds Sara Bowden, a music theory and cognition PhD student at Northwestern. “Prior to Generation V, all poisoned Pokémon in your party lose 1 HP per every four steps the player character takes. The Lavender Town theme, which features a four-note pattern, is a musical way of conveying this, communicating to the player that they are in danger, unwell, or (like their visual glitch counterpart) poisoned. The theme certainly tells us that something is wrong with the place we have just entered.”
Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc
Actually, forget Jano and the Cave of Bad Dreams. If played at the right time in your life, few levels in video games leave as powerful an impression as the Desert of the Knaaren stage from the 2003 sequel to The Great Escape, Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc. The story begins when Rayman’s froggy friend Globox (voiced, for some reason, by Ice Age actor John Leguizamo) accidentally swallows the game’s antagonist. For the next few hours, the player escorts Globox through one level after the other to reach the secluded office of a dubious medical professional that can help remove the fly-sized baddy from his stomach.
Like its premise, the game’s levels are for the most part wacky and whimsical. That is, until you reach the Desert of the Knaaren. At this point, an astounding number of design elements come together to create what — to the game’s prepubescent target audience — proves to be a truly horrifying experience. For starters, players are treated to a hellish red-and-black color palette and enter the level through the skull of a large, long-dead creature. Inside, they are soon separated from Globox, who gets captured by the desert’s sole inhabitants: the nightmare inducing Knaaren.
Conjuring an impenetrable shield, the Knaaren chase Rayman through their maze-like tunnels as they discuss among themselves the unspeakable things they will do once they get their massive claws on you. All these decisions were 100% intentional, even if the traumatizing effects they had on players were not. “We wanted to make a level in which players would observe,” said level designer Olivier Palmieri in an email, “think before acting, and stealthily avoid the Knaaren. We wanted them to be on their guard, but we never intended to scare them.”
“We wanted them to be on their guard, but we never intended to scare them.”
“The biggest lasting benefits from playing video games is when they are used to create shared experiences among players,” writes Dr. Mike Brooks, an Austin-based psychologist who previously wrote on whether children should consume frightening entertainment in Psychology Today. “Scary games, because of how intense they can be, might help enhance these bonds through the sense that players are overcoming these experiences together, just as visiting a haunted house with friends during Halloween can be a bonding experience.”
This is certainly true in my case. When I said earlier that I eventually mustered the courage to finish Rayman 2 myself, that wasn’t entirely accurate. Too scared to play by myself, I asked a neighborhood friend who I knew had already finished the game if he could help me through the Cave of Bad Dreams. Watching this friend escape from Jano without breaking a sweat, I remember feeling a tremendous sense of admiration for this person. When, with his guidance, I completed the stage myself, that admiration extended to myself as well. Not only had our friendship grown, but I had also turned from a boy into a man.