Retrograding 01.17.03

La mayyitan ma qadirun yatabaqqa sarmadi
Fa idha yaji’ al-shudhdhadh fa-l-maut qad yantahi.

‘That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.’

Abdul Alhazred, the Necronomicon

Right, and if quasi-Sumerian and strange prophetic phrases about Great Old Ones rising to destroy mankind in both the flesh and soul haven’t scared you off or alerted Ron Gamble to the potential threat of some sort of Pagnistic activity on 411mania, than welcome to this week’s Retrograding!
I’ve got a ton of email on my Eurogaming column that’ll be going into a mailbag soon. Also some really nice email from gamers saying I’m the embodiment of the GameFAN spirit. I appreciate that, especially since towards the end of the magazine, I struck up an e-friendship with Eggo. Rest assured gaming fans, with people like Ron, Eric, Bebito, Chris, Mr. Berg, and myself you will always have access to nonbiased, hard-hitting game commentary and information. We need a catchy slogan though.
As mentioned in the last column, I want to do something more than just reviewing old games. Anyone can do that and there are tons of sites that do that. We’re a little more original here at 411, and with me being the uncrowned king of insanity and innovation here, it’s up to me to play guinea pig and see how you all react.

Now most people tagged with the “hardcore” label, are RPG fanatics. Now it might surprise you consider I’ve talked a lot about RPG’s, and done reviews for some, but you see, the RPG format is NOT my favorite video game format.

When people ask me what my favorite genre is, they come away surprised. See, it’s “Survival-terror.” No, not Survival Horror like Resident Evil, where you just blow away zombies in a huge gore fest. But TERROR

See, there is a BIG difference between terror and Horror. Horror is disgust and revulsion at gore or something violence and depraved. Terror is fear, whether it be own the unknown, the fact something is waiting in lurk for you, or knowing that only you are aware of the horrific beasts living under the earth waiting to eat mankind. I find horror overrated. Sure gore looks good in video games, and Resident Evil is a great game, but I never jump at the game. And it never makes me tense. Nor did Silent Hill. SH was another good game that just couldn’t get the terror aspects down, forcing one to pay attention more towards killing that to thinking.

The problem is that survival terror isn’t actually a video game genre. It winds its way through everything from point and click, to RPG’s. But they all have the same qualities inherent within them.
First up is that the character you play as is taking on overwhelming odds. Without the help of arcane items or rituals, you are going to die and quick. You character also isn’t a warrior by trade, but more likely, an antiquarian or some other decidedly non-combative orientation. The games also focus more on scares and thinking than blowing stuff up with guns and violence. Running away usually is just as viable a way to survive as fighting. Survival TERROR pits the character you are playing as (and 90% of the time, you the player as well) are unsure what is after you, why these things are happening to you, or truly, what the overall story is. Even after the game is done, some questions remain unanswered. But the fact only your imagination can fill in the blanks make the game stick out fondly in your mind, instead of going to a forum and ranting about plot holes. In Survival terror, these gaps of information are planned to make the game even creepier, not because the writers sucked.

This genre is greatly influenced by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and Robert Chambers, but the man who is the icon for this genre in terms of literature is also the man here as well: Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Lovecraft, like much of the force of this genre, wrote from the 1890’s to late 1920’s. His primary contribution was what we know cal the Cthulhu Mythos. In these interlinking, yet stand alone, tales, various people encountered strange creatures, aliens, and even Gods who there very sight of could draw a man’s sanity down into the trenches of depravity. Man was doomed against these various forces of darkness, no matter how hard they tried to persevere. And quite often in his tales, Lovecraft ensured the main character did not succeed and instead met a grisly fate, went mad, or turned to darkness themselves.

Lovecraft’s most famous creation is of course Cthulhu, a Great Old One (possibly the leader and most powerful, but that’s just speculation by fans and other authors. Lovecraft never named Cthulhu as his supreme creation. Instead, an Outer God by the name of Azazoth was the most powerful, but it was a mindless pile of swirling nuclear chaos, so the sheer destructive force of this god didn’t mean it was still the most dominant of all of HP’s Pantheon’s.) Cthulhu was trapped beneath the sea on a sunken island called R’lyeh and was in neither a state of dreaming or death, but somewhere in between. However, some day when the stars were properly aligned, Cthulhu would wake from his slumber and reshape the earth into his image. And killing us all.

Cthulhu quickly caught the imagination of every one, and became the epitome of all that is both frightening and terrifying to the human psyche. Even horror or terror author that is widely read today lists Lovecraft and Cthulhu has their major inspiration. King, Lumley, Barker, Gaiman, Moore, and so on have all written a Cthulhu Mythos tale and have managed to take part of his style into their work, which remains evident when you read their work even today.

Now, I could go on and on about Lovecraft’s genius and his ability to make people pick up a dictionary and improve their vocabulary just to read one of his short stories, but this is a video game column. You’ve now got his name, and one of his most famous characters, so there is NO EXCUSE for you to not go out and buy one of his collections.

However, this article is about games influenced by his style, writings, characters, and the genre of terror. I’ve got 13 games to speak of, but I’m only going to do a few of them, simply because I talked about Hell Night last week, I’m choosing Persona 2 instead of Persona 1, and many of the other games I will mention only in passing because you’ve heard of me speak about them already. Then there are also games like Splatterhouse, Night trap, and Dracula Unleashed that I just don’t have room to mention except by this lip service and all have crappy gameplay anyways. God knows I don’t want to look like I’m only preaching about the same game over and over again, each week.

Anyways, let’s show you some games steeped in terror, instead of horror. Again, remember these games are story and fear over gore and splatterpunk, otherwise Vampire Night, CarnEVIL, and Illbleed would be on here.

Koudelka (Sacnoth, PS1)
This is the best game in the genre on current systems that you can buy, so I’m starting with it. Sacnoth was made by a bunch of Squaresoft employees sick of Square’s business practices and putting style over substance. So they formed a company based on games with FF graphics, but with a gripping plot and excellent game play as well. They’ve also got the incredible Shadow Hearts for the PS2, which I’m going to recommend, but this is the game that all the others have to be measured by.

Koudelka is straight out of a Lovecraft story with some magic and the ability to actually fight as well. You play as three characters: an outcast gypsy, a thief, and a racist priest whose faith is constantly tested. The story is set in Victorian England, and all three characters enter a seemingly deserted castle for their own personal reason. However once they enter, they realize something else dwells within the castle walls, testing their sanity and forcing the three to team together or die.

The game looks like Final Fantasy gone Goth, plays like Resident Evil with battle sin tactics style combat. It has heavy Role-playing elements really help the game battle wise instead of using cumbersome RE style controls. As well, there are certain bosses that cannot be beaten until later in the game, and the monsters of very weird and creepy looking. Best of all is an exp system very close to the one you find in the first Grandia. Here you end more powerful and proficient with items as you use them. So if you only use pistols for example, you become a dead shot. But once you run out of ammo, you are pretty much useless. So one must choose between being a jack-of-all-trades, or exceptionally good with only one or two things. As well, items break. Even super special magical items. Which is both realistic, and makes the game scarier to the player. Do you go for lots of experience and risk losing your magic weapons and armor, or do you flee, saving those items for the boss fight? All these plus 4 discs of CGI movies, and the appearance of Gugs and Dark Young make this game Cthulhu-riffic!

PERSONA 2:Eternal Punishment (Atlus, PS1)
Okay, the third best video game ever made. (Before you ask it’s Valkyrie Profile, Koudleka, This, the four Sakura Taisen games, Persona 1, Shining Force 2, and Shining Force 1.) You’ve got a bunch of high school students having to deal with the merging of two realities, allying with demons in order to stop the Crawling Chaos himself (and my favorite Cthulhu Mythos character), Nyarlathotep, and generally going through one gigantic mind f*ck as you play a 40-100 hour electronic philosophication (Note: not a real world) on reality, existence, humanity, and truth. It’s very well done and one of those games you want to play again, even if you know how much it ruined your social life the last time.

This isn’t in here just because the game uses nearly every Lovecraft character ever created, and gives you the chance to get the King In yellow on your side and pit him against Shub-Niggurath, but because even until the very end of the game, the plot of the game is very gray and hidden from you. You learn as the characters learn and thus not until the credits roll, do you truly begin to grasp what you’ve just played. A beautiful example of how sometimes electronic storytelling can beat a paper one.

Alone in the Dark (Infogrames, Multiple systems)

AITD has really changed since the first game, and this is only covering the original. You play as either a male antiquarian or female dilettante. You are investigating a strange death which causes your unfortunate character to encounter things that should not be, and to learn the truth of your grizzly friend/relative. This is a super game with a very high learning curve. Yet, this game plays exactly as if a tabletop adventure for the Call of Cthulhu RPG had been lifted and turned into a semi point and click/semi action game. It may be considered a little boring, with 75% of the game based on the story and a player’s ability to read and retain tidbits of information, but this game looks, feels (and sometimes plays) like it is right out of the 1920’s. Seriously, this is the game that started both survival horror and survival Terror. It’s just too bad games 2-4 focus on horror over terror.

Clock Tower (Human, various)
This is a solely point and click game that relies on excellent stories, voice acting, and most of all, scaring the shit out of you to get you into the game. And it does it surprisingly well. Although the first game is not in English (Clock Tower for the PS1 in English is actually CT2 and CT2 is actually CT3), the second game (The one Americans have) is incredibly well done, even if you do need the first game for some of the minor plot bits. The third game is the equivalent of Season of the Witch’ for the Halloween series. CT3 has nothing to do with the series or Scissorsman and is a letdown just in that regards.
And speaking of Scissorsman, there is no creepier villain in any video game. A giant deformed homicidal maniac with a pair of scissors large enough o cut you in two. You can’t kill the guy so all your character can do is run like heel and hope to trick him or escape. And after you die for the first time, you will learn to use massive amounts of profanity every time you hear Scissorsman’s music start to play. ESPECIALLY when you can’t see him.

Clock Tower 2 (1 in the US) might not be a person’s cup of tea due to the point and click method of playing, but it’s something you really do need to try. SM’s IA is incredible. You can trick him once or twice, but if you keep using the same method of fooling him, it adapts and learns and remembers. I can still recall how I thought I had the freak beat the first time I had the game. I’d run into the bathroom after a long lead over him, lock myself in a stall and climb on the toilet. First time, it worked. Then I left, only to see him coming back my way. Same trick. It worked again. He entered the bathroom, looked for me and left. Then I left…and it was a minute or two later. I opened the door, and BAM! There he was. He had been WAITING FOR ME! I swore, ran back in and tried again. And this time, to my surprise, he ran in, opened the stall door and butchered me like a hog. Creepy as hell. And thanks to the massive CGI and voice acting involved, this is a game that is just as fun to watch as it is to play. You’ll find that is a common trend with Survival terror, even people who don’t like playing video games love to watch them

Fatal Frame (Activision, Xbox/PS2)
This is a total niche game, it’s true, but a great one nonetheless. Take Pokemon Snap or Cardcaptor Sakura and get rid of all the cuddly Pokemon. Replace them with fiendish ghouls, and angry ghosts, and you’ve got the game summed up really quickly. You have a camera instead of a Proton Pack, and you take pictures of the ghosts to dispel them.

I’ll admit, it’s very Japanese and an American does have to suspend their normal VG tastes to get into Fatal frame, but it’s really a lot of fun and something to try. It’s creepy, comical, and bizarre, and it fits the genre perfectly.

Eternal Darkness (Silicon Knights, GCN)
I’m not going to even bother talking about this game. It rocks, it’s spooky, and the best game for the Gamecube. Yes, better than Metroid Prime. Because it’s so original. If only SK had gotten the rights to use Cthulhu names from Chaosium instead of the weird ones they have (Monotrak is SO Azazthoth) it would have been even better.

D (Acclaim, Sega Saturn)
This is a great game. With a horrid ending. My first year of college at the University of MN, I hooked my Saturn up in the lounge of my dorm’s floor for everyone to use. And no, nothing was ever stolen. One guy broke a joystick after losing at WM: The Arcade Game, but he replaced it. Anyways, as soon as it got dark for the first month, everyone on the floor got together, and we played D. Jocks, geeks, preps, whatever. If you lived on Gay 2-3, you played D. Now it took everyone a month to beat the game as each night we let a different person take the controls and thus there was some backtracking. I won’t ruin the ending for you, as it ruins itself rather easily once you get it, but here’s some info on the game.

You’re a chick named Laura. Daddy goes nuts, kills a bunch of people and locks himself up in a building. You go into to stop him, only to learn reality has really gone on a mad bender. You have two hours in our time (not game time) to get through the building and solve the mysteries set before you. Now if you’re playing on your own, this shouldn’t be too bad. But with 30 people screaming, yelling and telling you what to do, the difficulty level shoots a bit up. It plays like a combination of Dragon’s Lair and Myst, which are two fun games in their own right, and D was one of those games I was happy to see get a sequel on the Dreamcast, even if D2 was pretty damn weird. And not half as fun.
Lunacy (Atlus, Sega Saturn)

Okay, the Sega Saturn and Atlus are two things well known for terror games. Atlus has Persona, Devil Summoner, Hell Night and this puppy. To be honest, Lunacy isn’t scary at all, but it fits the genre with an incredible story over everything else and is the forgotten Shin Megami Tensei game. I’d say even 90% of Shin/Persona fans don’t realize this is a Persona game. In fact you won’t get to realize it until 75% done the game, when Philemon shows up in his non-human form, and parallels with all the Persona games start happening. In fact, Lunacy is almost like a beat version story wise of Innocent Sin.
In Lunacy, you are an amnesiac in a strange town ruled by a crazy dictator. The town in inescapable and you have a strange mark on your head. The idea is to remember who and what you are, and how to escape the town. Simple enough to get you going, but this is one of those games that are hard to find for your Saturn, and will costs you as much as a new console game. It’s short, hard, but really really gripping. I actually finished the game in one day, I was so absorbed. Like all the other games on this list, half the fun is figuring out what the hell the plot of the game is, and Lunacy never fails to disappoint.

Necronomicon (Dreamcatcher, PC, PS1)
Dreamcatcher may be French, but they are the best VG Company in the world in terms of graphics. Seriously. And their games don’t suck. (mostly) Both Dracula: The Resurrection and Final Sanctuary are well-done, with great voice acting and some intricate puzzles. Dreamcatcher makes games for thinkers and rewards their patience with beautiful CGI’s, Like the two Dracula games, Necronomicon is half point and click, and half CGI movies.

However, like the name of the game, Necronomicon plays exactly like a Lovecraft story. Long, hard to comprehend sometimes, with a super slow plot and next to no action. Truly, most of this game is point and click and trying to make all the little details click somehow in your mind. The graphics are acting are well done, but sometimes the background noise drowns out important commentary, and other times you just find yourself guessing. But this game does fir the genre perfectly, even if it is the most flawed of the ten on this list.

In Necronomicon, your best friend comes to you in the night, acting slightly mad, gives you a mysterious item and tells you not to give it to anyone, ESPECIALLY him. And from that point on, you are on your own. What is the item? What is wrong with your friend? What the hell are you doing in this game? That’s Necronomicon. You are only given the barest of information and that’s only so you don’t sit exploring your house for an hour before finally deciding to leave it. It’s super hard in parts and really does take some huge thinking skills to proceed, but again, if graphics and plot are things you love, the difficulty and sometimes overwhelmingly boring parts of this game are worth overcoming just to see the story unfold and to learn what has happened to your best friend, his ancestral curse, and your fate as well. BTW, get the bad ending, it is so much better than the good ending. It really is.

Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet (Infogrames, PC)
Man, this was kind of an obvious one, huh? But it’s a great game, that’s surprisingly rare and hard to come by. I had to get my copy from Germany! Anyways, Shadow of the Comet is an old game that can run on damn near any PC, so it is worth looking at. And as a decidedly NON computer gamer, it’s a big step for me to admit there’s a game for I really like other than Dreamcatcher games (Sega’s smash pack is good. Shining Force for the PC!).

The game starts in 1910 and involves the curse of Hailey’s Comet, the rising of Cthulhu, the Necronomicon and all sorts of fiendish evil. The game’s a lot like the ones above, in which you spend most of your time solving puzzles and getting a damn good story. However the extras are what makes this game stand out. You are given all sorts of documents with the game. Death certificates, letters and other pieces of correspondence to make the game feel a little more real. I like that for parts of the game you have to look at the handouts and do some investigating instead of just keyboard typing. Finally, there’s a “Lovecraft Museum” where you can look at, read, and enjoy various Cthulhu Mythos related things. Infogrames really tries to make this game not only something, but also attempted to educate you as well, and that deserves big props, even if the game is rare and is slightly out of date compared to the other games on here.

Wow. Long column, but one I’ve wanted to write for a while. Now there’s a whole new genre you didn’t even realized existed in the VG world, contained ten of the best games ever made. Okay, story wise and graphics, ten of the best games ever made. Some of these game have boring (but easy) gameplay, which can make you want to pass of them, but all are worth looking at.

As for next week, well, I’ve emailed Working Designs, Atlus, Capcom, Square, Sacnoth, Infogrames, Silicon Knights and a few other companies in an attempt to get their permission to do some biography columns here at 411. I don’t like the unauthorized aspect when people do those, as there is something about the word unauthorized that equates with bullshit and lies.’ So we’ll see if they let me. So hopefully next week we’ll get something like that, but it may be a month or two before a company says yes. Just a heads up.

Before I go, I’m curious about something. I’m getting 50 emails per column roughly and that’s a very good sign, but I’m wondering something about my audience. Are the people reading these columns casual gamers getting their horizons expanded, or are they just hardcore gamers who have been desperately searching for something who shares their tastes in obscurity and imports? Has anyone actually gone out and searched for and/or bought a game I’ve mentioned in this column? I know a lot have gotten PS collection and one guy bought Eye of the Beholder. But I’m more worried that excited about influencing people’s decisions on games. See, I’m just one person with a bunch of knowledge. But that still makes this just an opinion column. So just because I’ve just done an 8 page essay on terror, and how cool those games are doesn’t mean if you like my writing that you’ll like that genre of video games. Just a disclaimer, but I do like to hear that people have TRIED games I’ve suggested. I’m a little less happy to hear people went out and spent 60$ on a copy of Shining Force 3.
See you next week people, and keep those emails coming!