Horror—on-purpose horror, leastways—was a late arrival to the world of video games. Sure, there were opening salvos (Infocom’s The Lurking Horror in 1987, Sweet Home on the Famicom in ’89, the first Clock Tower game on the Super Famicom a few years later). But devoting an entire video game just to scaring the pants off its players didn’t really become a viable marketing strategy until 1996, when Capcom’s Resident Evil became such a massive hit that the industry had to coin a whole new name—survival horror, a deliberate hybrid of fight and flight—to describe what it was seeing.
Which isn’t to say, for all the early absence of outright horror games, that video games weren’t already horrifying. Any medium that spends as much time as this one does trying to murder its consumer is going to hand out a few nightmares over the years—all the more visceral because they’re happening to “you,” not just some random character on the screen. And just like with TV and film, many of the most terrifying creatures in the pantheon of video game horror frighten specifically because they pop up in games where you could reasonably expect to be safe from eldritch abominations or the unquiet dead. You can reliably count on zombies to try to take a bite out of Jill Valentine or Frank West. But who would expect Ecco The Dolphin to have to deal with extraterrestrial demons, or Zelda’s Link to to fend off the shrieking, dead-eyed undead with no sense of personal space? There’s nothing scarier than a safe space defiled, the sudden lurching turn from sunlit meadow to instant nightmare.
And so we celebrate these, the scariest video game monsters born from games that had no real right scaring this much shit out of this many players. Giant eels, evil celestial bodies, the tormented demons of haunted minds, all lurking just inches from the sunshine. It’s never the ones you expect.