Long-running video game franchises and genres all have to start somewhere, and it’s not always pretty. Looking back to that origin point can show us not just how the greats began, but how far they’ve come since. Today we unearth the very first horror video game.
3D Monster Maze is considered by many folks to be the first real example of a horror game. That said, defining what is and isn’t horror isn’t a precise science. For example, it’s possible somebody found the original Asteroids scary as hell. But Asteroids, as far I can tell, wasn’t developed to be scary or creepy. In contrast, 3D Monster Maze, released on the Sinclair ZX81 back in 1982, was built to make players feel nervous, uncomfortable, lost, and even, possibly, scared. Intent is important here. So that’s why I think 3D Monster Maze is the first real stab at a proper horror game.
This might shock you, but 3D Monster Maze was a game about exploring a 3D maze that contained a monster. While it might have lacked a creative title, it was descriptive and laid out exactly what the game was all about. Each time you booted up the game it would serve up a different maze, making it impossible to predict where to go or how to escape the monster.
The monster, by the way, is actually a T-Rex, which might be scarier than a random troll or werewolf. I’ve seen Jurassic Park. I don’t want to be trapped in an ever-changing maze with those things.
3D Monster Maze has a first-person perspective and you move through the maze by turning left or right or going forward. The goal is to reach the end of the maze, at which point it sends you into another randomly generated maze.
What adds to the tension are the messages that appear periodically at the bottom of the screen while you explore. You see, the T-Rex is also exploring the maze in real time, and these updates keep you informed about what is going on with the monster while it’s out of your sight. Some of them are downright terrifying. Stuff like “He is hunting for you” or “Rex has seen you.” The most fear-inducing is easily “Run he is behind you.” If those words make me feel a bit nervous today, I can’t imagine what it must have felt like while immersed in the game in 1982.
Well...about that. The game has no music.
3D Monster Maze was developed by one man, Malcolm Evans, who created the whole thing in about seven months. Evans wasn’t a game developer, but instead a microprocessor scientist in the UK. His wife got him a Sinclair ZX81 computer for his 37th birthday and he began testing out what the machine could do, eventually creating what would be later known as 3D Monster Maze, which was also his very first game.
Both fans and critics were way into 3D Monster Maze. It was extremely popular with critics. Computer and Video Games Magazine called it the best game on the system. Popular Computing Weekly also praised the game as “brilliant” and declared it one of the best games on the ZX81.
Critics and fans were both amazed by the 3D-looking graphics on display—which ran at about 6 frames per second—, and for years after it was released, many would still point to it as one of the best and earliest examples of 3D visuals on a home PC.
Today, the game has been cited by various outlets as one of the very first horror games ever released. You can also find many folks playing the game today on YouTube. As it turns out, a simple game done right holds up, even if it looks ancient.
As I mentioned, you can find loads of folks playing various versions of 3D Monster Maze on YouTube, including emulated versions of all the different official and unofficial ports that followed the game’s initial release. But if you want even more info on the game, how it works, and what it plays like, this video by Octavius King is fun and informative.
I looked around and couldn’t find a copy of the original game on sale anywhere. Maybe you can dig around and find a copy, but considering how easy it is to emulate today, it’s not necessary unless you are an extreme collector.
After releasing 3D Monster Maze, Malcolm Evans would go on to create New Generation Software, which would continue to produce computer games for the ZX81 and other machines. Some of its biggest releases included 3D Tunnel and Trashman. Many of the studio’s later games would continue to play around with 3D-like visuals on limited home PC hardware. The company closed in 1986.
Maybe? If you go in with the understanding that this is a very old and simple game, you can probably have some fun with it. Maybe play some creepy music in the background and play it alone in the dark on Halloween. If you’re looking for an easy way to play it, it’s been rebuilt as a browser game. So you can play it right now, assuming the device you’re reading this on supports it.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of old digital mazes I think of that fantastic Windows 95 3D maze screensaver. And while not an old game, someone used the original Windows 95 maze assets to create a whole new game called Screensaver Subterfuge.