When I reviewed Cuphead back in September of last year, I commented on how the game was exceptional for its ability to act as “era porn” in a medium that (with only four decades under its belt) generally lacks the history for it. The games industry so often abandons certain production techniques as technology becomes more sophisticated, that it’s hardly worth pointing out. But, as time goes on, some of those same design hallmarks are being dusted off and made new again, with impressive results—particularly in the horror genre.
Recently I’ve been playing through a number of titles on Itch.io, and came away with five that you should play if you like retrograde horror games.
As I wrote back in January, a major highlight of Faith is its remarkable use of negative space to create a foreboding atmosphere, making its old school computer game minimalism a smart artistic choice rather than one borne of necessity. In it, you play a young priest who returns to the scene of a ritual gone wrong to find out what has become of a fellow clergymen. Those of you who lived through the 80s will find the game’s dark themes of Catholicism, possession, and occultism familiar—and still every bit as temptingly scary as they were all those years ago. Play this if you really enjoyed The Exorcism and Poltergeist (and be sure to stick around for all five endings).
World of Horror is a prime example of an art style that, despite its technological obsolescence, can still be used in an immensely appealing and effective way. The visuals are described as, “a love letter to the cosmic horror work of Junji Ito and the 1-bit aesthetics of early Macintosh computers” and they are gorgeous. My first several minutes with the game were just spent staring at the menu screen. While the gameplay itself is, thanks to my lack of familiarity with the format and some translation issues, a bit hard to grasp, like Faith it has an additional vintage feel due to its occultic subject matter. It also deliciously dives into the world of RPGs, Eldritch horror and spell casting in a way that is difficult to explain but impossible not to recommend. The demo has several mysteries to investigate, so there’s a lot to dive into even in the game’s unfinished form, but you can also keep an eye on the project over at Patreon.
This game, like World of Horrors, is also inspired in part by the works of horror manga artist Junji Ito, with a dash of Silent Hill for good measure. It centers on a young woman who has just moved into a new house and quickly discovers that it has a violent secret living just next door. I like the game best for its pacing, which feels like the creeping, if a bit predictable, horror of a classic ghost story. And while it’s not a ghost story per se, it does follow an old format that suits, if not enhances, its visual style nicely, with a total of five endings, each reminding me of the macabre dead ends of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Paratopic takes place from three different perspectives in a surreal dystopia where media is contraband and rumors suggest the government is selling electricity to aliens. It sounds bizarre, and it is; in fact, singling out any detail from the game feels dishonest, as it can only really be understood or enjoyed in context. The game first caught attention months ago for its visuals, which quickly built up hype as being distinctively unsettling. Its dated polygons are tinged with a distorted color loss that makes it feel like a well worn VHS tape losing key data with every viewing. Combined with the way it rapidly switches between tangentially connected (but equally indecipherable) plotlines, and those long drives along a darkened highway peering five feet into the night, the game feels almost Lynchian. Which I suspect is the best endorsement I could ever give anything.
I gave the “lost PlayStation game” Concluse a spin this past week, and while its disfigured visuals are painfully archaic, I enjoyed how they support the overall experience, serving as the game’s strongest source of horror.
Concluse also seems to deliberately use the inanity of old school game conventions to enhance its nightmare-like qualities, while its fuzzy black and white graphics feel like watching found security footage on an antique TV late at night. If you miss Silent Hill and Resident Evil, you’ll find lots to love in Concluse.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.