There's a strange circularity when it comes to trends. Whether we're talking about music, fashion or, as we'll soon discuss, video games, it is fittingly cliché to notice that, after a sufficient length of time has passed since a certain style was in vogue or — to borrow a gaming term — “meta”, that style returns with the second wind of nostalgia propelling its sales (pun intentional and proud of it). If you recall throughout the 2010s, you couldn't move for all the pixel-art indie games that abounded. Those who were born in the early 80s and spent their adolescence playing on Gameboys only to became indie video game developers roughly 24 years later suddenly had a compulsion to pump out games like Stardew Valley, To The Moon, Terraria, and Celeste.
Basically, if it didn't involve cutesy sprites and text boxes that beeped each letter as it appeared onscreen then the Steam Store™ and ol' Gabe didn't want it. Therefore, it would only make sense that around 24 years since the release of the original PlayStation, those future indie game developers who were born in the late 80s would then have an urge to release a smattering of PS1-aesthetic video games. We're talking polygons, VHS filters, and pixelated JPEGS on faces. But whilst pixel-games seem to generally occupy the “wholesome adventure” market of video games, it seems that the recent slew of PS1-style video games released over the last few years have remained singularly in the purview of, what I would call, the “unsettling horror” market. With spooky season descending on us more rapidly than yet another Squid Game tweet, being the brave boy that I am (my GP can confirm this), I tasked myself to play a smörgåsbord of these PS1 horror games.
Consider this scare-based mine selflessly canaried.
Night of the Nun… aka Nun Massacre
Nun Massacre is a stealth/survival-horror game wherein a homicidal nun stalks you within a labyrinthian, dilapidated Catholic boarding school whilst you search for clues pertaining to your sick daughter who was a pupil there. Using your wits (and frequently arriving at their end) you have to scour every nook, cranny, alcove, and cubbyhole for tools and puzzle pieces that may avail you to abscond from this ruddy nightmare. Like 2017's popular Granny horror game series, you have to traverse a deliberately maladroit web of corridors, doorways, and vents to find wire cutters, hammers, and screwdrivers in order to progress. What's worse is that you're only able to hold a maximum of three items at a time, meaning that you frequently have to sacrifice one essential item for another and take a mental note of whatever drearily pixelated room you left it in – typically a whole universe away from where you need to use it.
Speaking of pixelation, it's precisely where the intentionally poor graphics come into their own; the lack of detail when exploring these rooms messes with your mental navigation, as well as causing unnecessary anxiety when low-res portraits or poorly textured walls are momentarily mistaken for the face of your imminent demise. The nun's abilities aren't quite clear either thereby preventing a clear strategy that might allow one to feel somewhat secure. Her presence is suggested to you when the VHS filter on your screen begins to distort due to her proximity. When your presence is noticed by her, however, you are “notified” when your eardrums explode after they are assaulted by what can only be described as a screaming freight train bell shotgunned through an Xbox 360 microphone. And don't fool yourself in thinking that the vents and the pause button will provide sanctuary; this habit-clad demon can still get at your jugular regardless.
The Convenience Store seems to be like The Shining of this PS1 horror-game renaissance. Incredibly cold, isolating, and revolving around the supernatural occurrences taking place at your place of work, the game is a lo-fi psychological horror walking simulator with occasional puzzle elements added in for good measure. Of all the PS1-style horror games I played, I found The Convenience Store to be the most aesthetic and atmospheric of the three. The VHS haze, neon lights, and accompanying muzak give the game especially strong vaporwave or – more pedantically – mallwave vibes. As for the plot and setting, you're a college student living in a basic apartment who has to walk through the foggy streets, late at night, to work the graveyard shift alone at Japan's answer to 7-Eleven. You have to stack shelves, rotate stock, exterminate pests, and monitor the shop's CCTV all the while various spooky doings are occurring throughout.
Being alone in the store, performing menial tasks beneath the clinical retail lights to the hypnotic hum of the encircling fridges incur strong feelings of severe disquietude. The seemingly endless shift-to-shift grind in the same featureless convenience store also adds a somewhat existentially-tinged psychological quality whereby the changeover from one night to the next is obfuscated by an Inception-esque temporal skip; exploiting the traditional scene transition conventions that we take for granted to then cleverly reveal later that some depiction of memory deterioration might be taking place. Whilst I would normally attribute this to some kind of wry satirical commentary on the mind-numbing effects of working in retail and consumerism, I think its main role is to induce tension for scares. Also, I'm only partly being facetious when saying that one of the biggest fear-inducing elements is in having to deal with your manager – a tale as old as time.
Not to be confused with the Japanese title for the EarthBound series, MOTHER is a survival horror game where you have to protect your two children, night after night, from the oncoming attacks of some mysterious creatures invading your home, as well as the inner demons invading your psyche. Unlike the previous two games, this one seems to be a balanced fusion of story and gameplay; taking some inspiration, I believe, from the plate-spinning essence of the Five Nights At Freddy's franchise – especially with the ‘Survive the night' objective you're frequently given in the game. MOTHER has incredibly dark source material too, drawing on themes of suicide, abortion, mental illness, abduction, murder, and substance abuse, which means that several episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and a mug of warm Horlicks are in order soon after playing.
Considering the dingy setting, the eldritch surrealism, the unseemly reclusiveness, and the ominous inner-city outside, there is something incredibly Lynchian about MOTHER. When acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace was asked what “Lynchian” means in an interview with Charlie Rose in 1997, Wallace said that it was “the unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal”. This is perfectly encapsulated in MOTHER; the juxtaposition between the deformed creature scuttling through the apartment's vents and having to tidy your household to maintain the illusion of a happy home, the overdosing of strange medication within your mould-infested room versus having to water your plant in the middle of the night, etc. The themes of derealisation, mistaken identity, and memory that permeate the game just oozes Mulholland Drive too. If you're quick on the draw, ever vigilant, and ensure that jazz is playing from the radio, then you might get through the night, toots. And as a final tip, to quote Jerry in the Seinfeld episode ‘The Dinner Party', “If people would only look to the cookie all our problems would be solved”.
Something that cannot be overstated is how foul PS1 graphics look; not only bad but unpalatable. They give off some kind of repugnant fume that just makes you feel uncomfortable. What better genre in which to use them than with horror? As Jody Macgregor aptly stated in his article for PCGamer last year: “There's a naive, child-like wholesomeness that games like Stardew Valley evoke. By contrast, early 3D graphics look rough, uncanny, unwholesome.” Personally, I would take this point further. The scuffed nature of early PlayStation coding means that if certain elements of the environment are on the proverbial blink for unknown reasons, it becomes impossible — and therefore disconcerting — to gauge whether or not it is because its genuinely faulty, whether it is being manipulated by an evil spirit, or whether the game itself has a bug. In this sense, these PS1 aesthetic games somewhat lean into these janky pitfalls and utilise them to their own advantage in order to maximize trepidation. Since the PS1 was the trailblazer for 3D home consoles and therefore the development of navigating your character in a 3D environment was in its infancy, in terms of controls, there was much to be desired.
The unintentional effect of this was that when playing a horror game such as the first Resident Evil, actually moving with any finesse or speed was a challenge in and of itself and meant that the horror of trying to escape whatever monster was attacking you was amplified. Similarly, with these PS1 art style games, the developers exploited the clunkiness of the controls in order to crank up the stress level to eleven. When a psychotic nun with a knife is bearing down on you, trying to interact with a door latch to escape that's barely one pixel in size is just diabolical. And thanks to early YouTube™ jump scare videos, I have been trained since my adolescence to be exceptionally wary when a horror game invites you to conduct a task that requires me leaning in and squinting.
So, that's PS1-styled horror games for you. You know, for the kind of person that wants anxiety and dread with their dose of nostalgia.