Though Halloween never had the prolonged media battering of the present day, the audience of the 8-bit era was as fond of a good scare as we are. Stephen King and James Herbert were selling millions with each new novel in the early 80s, while cinematic teen slashers saw their heyday with iconic maniacs, like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, alongside countless John Carpenter wannabes contributing with their own take on the genre.
At this time video games was a nascent medium struggling against technical restrictions, and still in the process of establishing its own codes and conventions. The low-fi visuals and limited interactions posed a different type of challenge for generating the kind of tension that drove that era’s cinematic horrorshows.
As atmospheric as the ASCII-drawn, Alien-inspired corridors of the Nostromo try to be, being stalked by an ampersand isn’t exactly the stuff of nightmares. Despite an evocative cover and some neat light-based mechanics, Atari’s Haunted House doesn’t play much different from any regular maze chase. As for the woeful 1982 adaptation of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the less said the better.
It’s one of gaming history’s telling little ironies that, while these titles explicitly aimed (and mostly failed) at erecting some sort of early horror canon for the medium, it was a former guitarist, Paul Norman, who ended up creating arguably the first genuinely scary videogame. It was also his first commercial software endeavour, and the outcome was almost inadvertent.
The higher-ups at soon-to-be-defunct developer Synchro asked Norman for a “bow-and-arrow” title and he looked for inspiration not in classic horror films, but in swashbuckling adventures like Jason and the Argonauts and the stop-motion monsters of Ray Harryhausen.