Yeah, all right, all right, we done goofed and forgot to do a list this Tuesday. But never fear, for the magic of image editing means that no-one will ever know my shame, aside from the fact that I just admitted it. But oh well.
Anyway. As you know, with Spooky Season on the rise, people are doubtless in the mood to play some of the best horror games out there. And there’s a wide variety of them on offer — not just on consoles, but also on classic home computers. So today we thought we’d focus on this oft-underappreciated side of retro gaming, and highlight some horror games that you might want to give a go for yourself.
As always, this list isn’t intended to be in any way exhaustive — so if you have your own thoughts on what the best horror games for home computers are, let us know down in the comments!
Let us begin! In no particular order!
Clive Barker’s Nightbreed: The Interactive Movie (MS-DOS, Amiga, Atari ST)
There were actually two Nightbreed games — with a third planned but never released — but I always preferred this one over Nightbreed: The Action Game, because it was a thoroughly interesting title. Perhaps a little overambitious for what the machines of the time were capable of, but very intriguing, atmospheric and scary considering what the developers had to work with back in 1990. For me, that makes it one of the best horror games on retro computers.
In Nightbreed, based on a Clive Barker novella named Cabal, you take on the role of Aaron Boone, who has been framed for a series of murders in Calgary. Taken into care for the sake of his mental health, Boone hears tell of a mysterious place called “Midian”, where the Nightbreed call home. Thus begins a quest to find the truth behind the murders he has been framed for — and about the Nightbreed themselves.
Nightbreed: The Interactive Movie primarily unfolds as a series of minigames based on scenes from the movie adaptation of Barker’s story. It’s most noteworthy for its excellent presentation, with enormous animated sprites, digital sound and impressive (for the time) story sequences. There are numerous choices to make over the course of the narrative — many of which result in death and the need to restart — but if you know the movie and/or the book, you’ll figure things out pretty quickly.
Waxworks (Amiga, MS-DOS)
Notable for being one of the goriest games ever created — and still genuinely quite shocking in that regard to this day — Waxworks is a combination of point and click adventure and dungeon-crawling RPG that presents an extremely difficult challenge, but a highly memorable experience, and one of the best horror games on home computers.
The titular waxworks is a magical exhibition that allows you to enter several distinct time periods, each with their own story to follow. You’ll visit ancient Egypt, a medieval cemetery, Victorian London around the time of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror, and a mine infested with plant-like monsters. In each, you’ll need to track down an artifact with which you can defeat the evil witch Ixona — and in each, you’ll likely get your intestines wrapped around the scenery in a variety of creative ways multiple times before you finally succeed in your quest.
It’s a tough game, but a rewarding one. Bring notepaper and make a map, though — you’ll need it! The MS-DOS version of Waxworks is available on GOG.com.
Ghost Chaser (Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64)
This classic from Frank “Fanda” Cohen is particularly beloved of Atari 8-bit owners; Fanda put out a decent number of games on the platform, and this is regarded as one of the most enjoyable — as well as one of the best horror games on the platform.
In Ghost Chaser, you take on the role of a balding man who is tasked with exploring sixteen chambers of a haunted mansion in order to discover the treasure within. It’s an arcade adventure at heart, allowing free movement back and forth between different rooms — you’ll need to find keys in order to open locked doors, as well as magic stones to fling at the ghosts in the mansion.
It’s a tricky platformer, notable for its main character’s surprising and distinctive sense of mobility. Not only can he run, jump and duck, but he can also hang from pipes on the wall and swing his legs up to avoid enemies. This gave the game a very distinctive feel compared to many of its contemporaries in 1984.
Atic Atac (ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro)
This early title from the company that would become Rare is extremely fondly regarded by Spectrum owners for its enjoyable gameplay, distinct sense of atmosphere and detailed graphics — not to mention its exciting, sprawling adventure that tasks you with tracking down several keys to escape from a haunted castle.
Atic Atac is a little tricky to enjoy on its native platform today due to its baffling control scheme, which maps left, right, down, up and shoot to Q, W, E, R and T in that order — look at your keyboard and you’ll see why that might feel a bit weird to modern gamers accustomed to WSAD layouts. That said, most modern emulators allow you to remap control schemes in various ways — and the version included in the Rare Replay collection for Xbox platforms allows you to play with a joypad. So go with that if you have the means of doing so!
Weird Dreams (Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MS-DOS)
This exceedingly peculiar, surreal adventure was one of the best horror games on classic home computer platforms simply because it was so utterly unsettling. Taking control of Steve, a young man who has become possessed by a demon named Zelloripus, you must navigate through your own subconscious while undergoing neurosurgery in order to expel the demon once and for all.
Weird Dreams was noteworthy on its original release for not neatly conforming to any specific genre. There are elements of adventure game, platformer, beat ’em up and puzzle game in there — and it’s a challenge to even get off the first screen without your head exploding. Definitely a bit of an acquired taste, but if you let it get its claws into you, there’s one of the best horror games on 8- and 16-bit platforms to enjoy.
Action Quest (Atari 8-bit)
Despite the generic-sounding name, this is actually one of the best horror games on Atari 8-bit, and quite possibly one of the most enjoyable, original games on the platform. Taking on the role of a ghost, it’s your job to explore a castle and track down a series of treasures.
The game was noteworthy at the time of its 1982 release for being an adventure game that required no typing whatsoever. Instead, the game’s puzzles are all solved using the game’s movement and shooting controls — and there’s a lot of variety in those puzzles. Sometimes you’ll need to figure out how to manipulate the environment, sometimes it’s about dealing with enemies who are behaving in a specific way. It’s always great fun, though — and well worth checking out if you’ve never stumbled across it before.
Plus if you enjoy it, designer Jack Verson put out a sequel called Ghost Encounters, and publisher Roklan Software bundled the two games together on a single Atari cartridge and called it Castle Hassle.
Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet (MS-DOS)
There have been many Lovecraftian games over the years, and one of the most underappreciated is Shadow of the Comet by Infogrames — perhaps due to the fact it was somewhat overshadowed by the release of the classic Alone in the Dark, which came out around the same time. But for my money, Shadow of the Comet is one of the best horror games with a Lovecraftian theme that came out in the ’90s — and still worth your time today.
Unfolding as an adventure game with plenty of character interaction and puzzles, Shadow of the Comet incorporates elements from a number of Lovecraftian stories to tell an intriguing and horrifying mystery. It was noteworthy on its original release for its impressively large animated close-ups of characters and gruesome horror sequences — these days it’s still a good experience for its challenging adventure game puzzles and unsettling narrative.
Released in 1998 by DreamForge Intertainment, Sanitarium quickly established itself as one of the best horror games for home computers in the late ’90s — though it’s not nearly as well known today. In Sanitarium, you take on the role of a man who has awoken from a coma to find his face fully bandaged, and the dilapidated sanitarium to which he has been admitted apparently being connected to a variety of strange other worlds.
The game is noteworthy for being an adventure game that unfolds from an overhead perspective rather than the usual side-on quasi-3D displays seen in Sierra and LucasArts titles. Its horror comes from the story and setting’s fascinating blend of the real and the imaginary, and continually raises interesting questions over the protagonist’s perception of what is going on over the course of the narrative. It was also widely praised for making a “Game Over” impossible — failing a challenge simply allows you to try again without losing progress.
Sanitarium is available for modern machines via GOG.com, and was ported to iOS and Android in 2015.
Dracula (ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC)
Bram Stoker’s classic tale has been adapted to home computers and consoles numerous times over the years, but this particular version for the good ol’ Speccy and its contemporaries is noteworthy for being the first game that was rated by the British Board of Film Classification — voluntarily in this case. It ended up with a “15” certificate for the graphical images that complemented the text at various points in the story; the developers were actually hoping for an “18” as a publicity stunt, but apparently they didn’t take things quite far enough for that!
As for the game itself, it’s a text adventure with some entertainingly florid prose that follows through the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula across three distinct and self-contained parts: “First Night”, “The Arrival” and “The Hunt”. It was followed up by similar adaptations of Frankenstein, Wolfman and Jack the Ripper, all of which also received voluntary BBFC certificates.
One of the best horror games? Depends on your patience for mid-’80s text adventures — but it’s certainly interesting to explore if nothing else!
Ghostbusters (pretty much every retro computer ever)
And while we’ve mostly erred on the side of more obscure games today, it wouldn’t do to have a list of the best horror games for classic home computers without acknowledging Activision’s excellent Ghostbusters game, developed by David Crane, creator of Pitfall!
The game is a surprisingly complex affair for the time period, incorporating both strategic and action elements. You’ll have to navigate around a city map, hoover up stray ghosts, capture Slimers and occasionally deal with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Your ultimate aim is to destroy the temple of Zuul, as in the movie — but you’ve got quite a challenge ahead of you in order to do so!
There are loads of different versions of this game out there — including a few console versions — but for most people the Commodore 64, Apple II and Atari 8-bit versions are the most fondly remembered, both for their excellent chiptune rendition of the classic Ghostbusters theme and their digitised speech.
So those are our picks, but there are many, many more we could have added to this list. What are some of your favourite retro horror games for classic home computers? Let us know down in the comments!