Unexpected nightmares: The scariest enemies in un-scary games

Illustration for article titled Unexpected nightmares: The scariest enemies in un-scary games
Illustration: Allison Corr

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.

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ReDeads, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time

ReDeads, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time

Illustration for article titled Unexpected nightmares: The scariest enemies in un-scary games
Screenshot: Nintendo

Given how many (i.e., most) games in the series center on a small child throwing himself into monster-filled holes as part of some sort of scavenger hunt from hell, it’s not entirely surprising that the Zelda series has a healthy representation on this list. Still, nothing in the Zelda canon to date had really prepared the franchise’s fans for the first time they encountered ReDeads in Ocarina Of Time’s Hyrule Family Crypt. For a series whose default skeleton enemies tended toward Halloween-store-goofy, seeing these hulking, miserable zombies begin shambling toward Child Link was unsettling enough—and that’s before they scream. Paralyzed in place as a monster stumbles, inexorably toward you: That’s the stuff of unexpected nightmares.

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The Vortex Queen, Ecco The Dolphin

The Vortex Queen, Ecco The Dolphin

If you look at the box art or any screenshots for Ecco The Dolphin, you’d think it’s a pleasant, kid-friendly game about having fun in the ocean. The ocean is not fun or pleasant or kid-friendly, though, which Ecco learns when he encounters the Vortex, an alien race that went to war with the people of Atlantis millions of years ago and have somehow returned to do evil stuff with the Earth’s oceans. Ecco goes back in time, then forward in time, and then to space, and at some point the psychedelia of it all starts to become a little less surprising. Then you meet the Vortex Queen and it turns into a bad trip. Like the queen from Aliens, the Vortex Queen has a massive, elongated head, soulless black eyes, and a huge gaping jaw that can easily swallow a little dolphin like Ecco whole—for real, that’s what happens. If the sudden appearance of true cosmic horror isn’t terrifying enough, Ecco has to kill the Vortex Queen by using his magic sonar powers and smooth dolphin nose to rip the monster apart by blinding it and ripping its jaw off. Ellen Ripley didn’t even have to fight that hard.

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The Creeper, The Endermen, etc., Minecraft

The Creeper, The Endermen, etc., Minecraft

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Screenshot: Microsoft

You could argue that there’s nothing scarier, when it comes to the massively successful digital sandbox game Minecraft, than isolation. You’d be wrong, though; while the Microsoft-owned blockbuster’s sweeping vistas are perfectly capable of generating awe, emptiness, and a quiet sense of desolation, what they cannot provoke is the raw terror of hearing a quiet “Ssssssss” behind you, followed by a quick turn into the self-destructing, smiling face of the franchise’s infamous Creeper. The Creeper terrifies not just for its capacity for ambush, but for what it’s capable of taking away from you; when it explodes, it’s not just trying to kill you, but to wipe out god knows how much of your carefully constructed work. (In this way, online writers will recognize it as the “suddenly crashing without saving in the CMS” of malevolent video game monsters.) Not that the Creeper is alone in putting the lie to Minecraft’s cheerful exterior: Anyone who’s ever been mining through a long tunnel, besieged by the hungry moans of zombies just out of sight, or been suddenly dive-bombed by a screeching Phantom, or—worst of all—confronted by an Enderman, the, ahem, slender teleporting monsters who are perfectly safe unless you look right at them so for the love of god don’t do that, will know that terror can always come in cubic form.

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Too many to name, Pokémon

Too many to name, Pokémon

Many Pokémon are cute, like Mudkip or Jigglypuff or the original fat Pikachu. But many Pokémon are not cute. Cubone’s helmet, for example, is actually the skull of its mother. Drifloon is a little guy who looks like a balloon and likes to trick children into grabbing its “string” so its can carry them away. Oh, and it’s not full of air or organs; it’s full of souls. As in the souls of the children it steals. How about Kadabra, the classic spoon-bender from the original 151? It’s apparently actually a human child who turned into a monster because they couldn’t control their psychic powers. It gets worse: Paras is a cute little bug with mushrooms on its butt, and it evolves into Parasect, which has dead white eyes because the giant mushroom on its back is now fully in control of its brain—i.e., it’s a The Last Of Us zombie. Phantump is the ghost of a child who died while lost in the forest. Yamask is another human ghost, and the mask that it carries with its ghostly tail was the face that it had when it was alive (and also it remembers being a human and cries when it looks at the face). And we can’t forget Mimikyu, a creature that is so impossibly terrifying that dressing up as a scary Pikachu knock-off is somehow preferable to its real appearance. How scary would something have to be that it’s better off looking like something that is also scary? Pretty damn scary.

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Maw-Ray (a.k.a., “that fucking eel”), Super Mario 64

Maw-Ray (a.k.a., “that fucking eel”), Super Mario 64

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Screenshot: Nintendo

If there’s a recurring theme to the enemies on this list, it’s one of helplessness. Mario might have murdered mushrooms in such massive numbers that he could run a sensible sideline as an endorser of fungicidal ointments. But in the water, he’s just another overweight Italian guy with breathing issues. Nowhere is that gulf in power demonstrated more clearly than in Super Mario 64’s Jolly Roger Bay and its most iconically awful resident, the Maw-Ray (a.k.a. Unagi The Eel, a.k.a. “that fucking eel”). Dead-eyed, territorial, and big enough to swallow Mario whole, the eel’s one saving grace is that it won’t bother you if you don’t bother it. Too bad that two separate goals in Jolly Roger Bay involve doing just that, forcing you to antagonize this Leviathan in order to grab the star it’s guarding—and more than likely getting thrashed in the face for your trouble, a wound likely to trigger Mario’s equally upsetting “drowning” animation.

God, that fucking eel.

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The Sorrow, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

The Sorrow, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

You know what’s scarier than being the one man standing between the world and complete nuclear annihilation? Being confronted with the sins of your past. Also ghosts. The “fight” against The Sorrow comes relatively late in Metal Gear Solid 3, after you’ve had plenty of time to get used to its over-the-top collection of twisted G.I. Joe villains (there’s a guy who controls bees and shoots bees out of a bee gun, to pick just one). But the twist in the Sorrow fight is that all you can do is try and survive, as he makes you face the ghosts of everyone you’ve killed in the game up to that point—complete with jump-scares and spooky imagery. There’s no shooting or punching. There are no tricks to get out of it early. You just have to take your medicine, hope you didn’t kill so many people that the sequence isn’t survivable, and walk away with the knowledge that your violent actions have violent consequences. Better yet, the sequence is entirely dependent on how you’ve played the game: Kill everyone you meet and it’s a nightmare; kill no one and it’s a breeze. A lot of horror stories are about people facing dark consequences for their actions, but few video game fights are that judgmental.

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Waterwraith, Pikmin 2

Waterwraith, Pikmin 2

Sometimes, horror is all about the incongruity. Take the Waterwraith from Pikmin 2, a game that doesn’t lack for giant, Pikmin-munching predators. But at least those big beasts are animals—not even the game itself seems to know what the hell this human-shaped hell on wheels actually is, besides dangerous. Which brings in the other reason the Waterwraith stands out from the pack: It refuses to stay in its own boss arena, instead pursuing hapless Captain Olimar and his adorable, brightly colored charges throughout the floors of its dungeon. Pursuit by an implacable force is an elemental, awful feeling, one that series like Resident Evil and Dead Space have milked for some of their most panic-inducing set pieces. To face the same phenomenon when you’re playing the colorful cartoon game about the funny little plant guys is an unexpected bridge into a galaxy of fear.

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Winston the butler, Tomb Raider 2

Winston the butler, Tomb Raider 2

Video game enemies tend to be things that you have to fight or avoid because they’ll hurt you, but sometimes they’re just scary people who follow you forever like creepy stalkers—to the point where you have no choice but to lock them in a freezer for your own safety. Winston the butler, who shows up in Tomb Raider 2’s training level (set in Lara Croft’s sprawling mansion), is like this. He follows Lara around as she practices her cartwheel flips, always ready to bring her anything she may need. Except he doesn’t do or say anything. He just silently follows. Never stopping. Never slowing. Never leaving Lara’s side. He’s always there, quietly creeping up on you. He can’t hurt you, but that’s never really the problem with creepy silent stalkers. The problem is when you turn around and they’re right there, being a creep. Luckily, you can stop him by tricking him into following Lara into a freezer and closing the door before he can leave. But that means he’s just standing in there waiting for you. Forever.

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Nightmares, Psychonauts

Nightmares, Psychonauts

In Milla Vodello’s mind, the party never stops. Disco might be dead, but not in the mental landscape of Psychonauts’ resident levitation teacher, who runs a 24/7 dance party inside her own brain, serving as the ideal environment for the youngsters of Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp to get in their floating reps. And if the unending music also drowns out the cries of “Milla, why did you let us die?” from that one dark, awful little room in the corner, well, so much the better, right?

For a game where every single character has mental baggage (literally, you have to find little tags to get it all sorted out), the freewheeling Milla might have the darkest, and the darkest representation of it: a burning room filled with Nightmares, tucked far away from the party, where the psychic screams of the kids who died in the orphanage she used to run are still echoing to this day. Finding your way into this unhappy little cranny is Psychonauts first real suggestion that crawling into the minds of others might not always be the safest or most pleasant of pastimes. Sure, Milla’s got her Nightmares—strange, demonic creatures that represent her trauma—locked safely away. But the sibilant whispers and sudden cessation of the thumping music is a moment of outright horror and misery in a game that’s previously been little more than goofy mental fun. (In fact, it’s almost a relief when you actually have to fight a few later on, because at least you’re overcoming the screaming horror that the powerful Ms. Vodello can’t.)

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Dead Hand, The Legend Of Zelda, Ocarina Of Time

Dead Hand, The Legend Of Zelda, Ocarina Of Time

The Dead Hand is easily one of the most unnerving enemies in all of Dark Souls, looking like an amorphous blob of pale skin covered in red bloody splotches and with big jaws of awful human teeth. It… wait, this guy isn’t from Dark Souls? He’s from Zelda?! What was Nintendo thinking here? Dead Hand looks like something birthed from a creepypasta that lures children into the woods so it can grab them and kill them with its Infinite Hands. Oh, right, we haven’t even mentioned the Infinite Hands: Dead Hand is surrounded by rows of long, skinny arms that reach up out of the ground and grab Link with their red claws, and not only are they immensely creepy on their own, but they also cannot be killed. That means the hands are always reaching up, looking for little children to grab so the Dead Hand can slide over and give them a mighty chomp. Some creepypastas wish they were this messed up.

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The Angry Sun (and other things that shouldn’t chase you, but do), Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Bros. 2

The Angry Sun (and other things that shouldn’t chase you, but do), Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Bros. 2

Illustration for article titled Unexpected nightmares: The scariest enemies in un-scary games
Screenshot: Nintendo

“Things that move when they shouldn’t move” is another classic category of horror creations, and when those things are the literal sun and stars in the sky, it can be hard not to shriek in panic when they come, specifically, for you. That’s the nasty brilliance of the extremely pissed-off sun that first starts attacking Mario and Luigi in the desert world of Super Mario Bros. 3 (and later repeats its trick in the black-skied strangeness of the game’s final run of levels). But this implacable solar asshole isn’t the only creepy inanimate pursuer in the early annals of the Mario series. Players of Super Mario Bros. 2 were already perfectly familiar with Phanto, the unkillable, ever-smiling mask that would chase you down any time you tried to take a key from its vault. (The fact that you had to initiate the pursuit, while a legion of Phantos watched you silently from the walls before grabbing the key, only made it worse.) And then there’s that game’s nastiest horror touch: A bird-headed exit door—exactly like every other bird door you’ve used to exit levels throughout the game—that suddenly begins attacking you out of nowhere right before the game’s final level. Who says you can’t execute a jump-scare in 8-bit graphics?

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“Arachnophobia” spider, Grounded

“Arachnophobia” spider, Grounded

How do you make giant spider monsters palatable to people who are viscerally repulsed by the awful many-legged things? Not this way, that’s for sure. Grounded is a game where you play as a kid who has been shrunk to the size of an insect and must survive in a yard full of deadly bugs—apparently there’s a movie with a similar plot—which naturally means fighting off a number of big spiders that want to grab you, web you up, and suck out your organs. Grounded cleverly tries to throw a bone to spider-haters with an “arachnophobia” slider that lets you determine just how creepy-crawly you want your spiders to be. But the problem is that they’re just as creepy with the slider turned all the way down as they are when it’s cranked to the max—just in a different way. An eight-legged freak crawling at you is one thing, but a featureless gray blob with big red eyes that does everything a spider does but has eight invisible legs is just as scary. Imagine holding an unpainted Funko Pop and then having someone tell you it was actually a spider. You’d be scared out of your mind. (And don’t listen to those people who tell you that spiders are actually friends who keep worse bugs out of your house. They’re still spiders.)

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Giygas, Earthbound

Giygas, Earthbound

Who would have suspected a game that starts you out fighting sassy crows and New Age Retro Hippies of ending with your mutilated tween heroes facing off against a Lovecraftian nightmare from far beyond the stars? Then again, Nintendo’s satirical RPG underdog Earthbound never met a convention it didn’t try to buck. By the time Ness and company finally reach Giygas—the malevolent “mastermind” behind the alien invasion of Earthbound’s Earth—they’ve already had to sacrifice their childhoods, their hard-earned resources, and even their organic bodies to make their way to his time-locked lair. And what greets them when they get there? A mass of writhing, abstract flesh with Ness’ own (abandoned) face staring out of its single, embryonic eye. There’s not even a recognizable speech or confrontation: As Giygas’ last remaining minion, Pokey, points out, the being’s mind has been utterly destroyed by its own power, leaving nothing but a howling void (one reportedly inspired by an upsetting movie scene that designer Shigesato Itoi glimpsed when he was a little kid), with no more comprehensible desire than the death of every living thing in the universe. No wonder the game’s only recourse at this point is to have your heroes throw down their weapons, fall to their knees, and beg for divine intervention to save them from the beast.

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The Moon, The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Moon, The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Is this third and final Zelda entry on our list of unexpected video game horrors a bit of a cheat, since you never actually fight the celestial ICBM floating over poor, doomed Termina in 2000’s Majora’s Mask? To any doubters, we can only say: Look at the goddamn thing. Think back. Remember the first time you stared up at the sky—and saw that leering back down at you.

Even without its pock-marked skin, visible gums, and horrifying, murdered eyes, though, the Majora’s Mask moon would still be a figure of dread. After all, The Moon represents the ticking clock that’s counting down to Termina’s destruction, an accelerated pace that eats up every second of Link’s life as he races around the countryside, desperately trying to get a few more things done before he (and the world) meet with yet another terrible fate. That’s the thing about The Moon: You can’t fight it. The end is coming. And if watching this grinning hell-orb descend toward its destined appointment gave you your first inklings that you, too, would someday face The Night Of The Final Day, well, that’s exactly the sort of fear that can creep out at you from the least expected places, and take up permanent, hideous residence in the human heart.

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