The Games That Scared The Hell Out Of Us As Kids

The Games That Scared The Hell Out Of Us As Kids

From old survival horror classics to a strange and surreal Zelda, we share what spooked us when we were younger

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A man stands near a masked cartoon character and behind them, a scary black and white face.
Image: Atari / Nintendo / Konami / Kotaku

As Halloween draws near, more and more people are loading up their favorite scary games to enjoy some digital frights. But this isn’t a new tradition. In fact, many of us here at Kotaku have been playing spooky, creepy games since we were old enough to pick up controllers or mash keyboards. And when you are a kid, scary games just hit differently, you know?

So, in honor of the spookiest month of the year, here are some of the games that scared the shit out of us back when we were younger.

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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

A large moon with a creepy face stares down at someone below.
Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is terrifying for a lotta reasons. You’ve got the theory that Link, our cute Femboy of Time, might be dead. There’s the world of Termina possibly serving as some kinda purgatory for Link and the denizens he comes across. And of course the masks, the soundtrack, and that damn moon!

So much about Nintendo’s glorified horror adventure spooked me when I was a kid that I never finished the game; couldn’t handle the nightmares it was giving me. But what has always haunted me about it, aside from the creepy moon that kills everyone in three days’ time, was its tormentor-in-chief Skull Kid. Seriously, everything in Majora’s Mask is that bastard’s fault and it’s all because he’s wearing a stolen mask. Let that be a lesson to everyone: Steal something and you’ll find yourself cursed, I guess. —Levi Winslow

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Alien vs. Predator

Alien vs. Predator

A dark blue xenomorph alien stands in front of a shotgun wielding marine.
Screenshot: Atari / Fox / Kotaku

I’ve previously confessed to being one of the poor saps who threw money at an Atari Jaguar, and one of the main reasons that misfire of a 64-bit console appealed to teenage me was its upcoming, heavily hyped first-person shooter Alien vs. Predator.

Separate campaigns let you play as a xenomorph, a yautja warrior, or a U.S. colonial marine, but the marine’s adventure was clearly the star of the show. It was just inherently more interesting to play as a feeble human reliant on gathering weapons and finding keycards while you tried to escape from that maze of a space station.

More interesting, and scarier. Alien vs. Predator was little more than Wolfenstein 3D with a lot more colors and a slightly more complex inventory system, but damned if they didn’t get the aliens right. Those things were dead-silent as they ran up to attack, whereupon they made their presence known with an ear-splitting screech.

The vast majority of the marine’s opposition was just aliens, facehuggers, and an occasional predator, but those damn xenos carried the game by cranking my anxiety on the regular. They made the whole, otherwise mediocre thing kinda work. I was always afraid to peek around the next bend because I knew what might come running, and worse, what might be approaching from behind.
Alexandra Hall

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Silent Hill

Silent Hill

A man stands near some blood in a back alley while surrounded by fog.
Screenshot: Konami / Kotaku

I was only 10 years old when I decided to convince my parents to let me rent Silent Hill for the original PlayStation. They warned me it was scary and that it would probably be hard to play. I didn’t care. I wanted to play it, and my parents couldn’t convince me otherwise. What a mistake that was.

The intro scared me. The opening scene scared me. The way the fog hid everything scared me. And then I reached the very early section where you walk into a dark alley and tiny, knife-wielding monsters that I assumed were kids leap out and attack. I screamed, turned on the lights, and watched the ensuing cutscene. I might have played a few more seconds afterward, but I don’t remember anything beyond that. For years, I assumed I had played a few hours of the game. But looking up walkthroughs, it turns out I barely made it 20 minutes into Silent Hill before running away scared.—Zack Zwiezen

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Alone in the Dark

Alone in the Dark

A man aims a gun at a zombie in a large room.
Screenshot: Atari / Kotaku

Alone in the Dark. What we’d call “basic” sound design now in 2022 was utterly terrifying coming out of crackly, old speakers in 1992. And the janky-ass polygonal enemies had a real abstract sense of horror to them. —Luke Plunkett

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Mountain King

Mountain King

A screenshot of a classic Atari game.
Screenshot: CBS / Kotaku

Maybe you think games of the Atari 2600 era couldn’t actually be scary. If so, you were never a six-year-old playing Mountain King in the early 1980s.

CBS / Tork110

Along the bottom of the titular mountain a giant, speedy spider crawls, seeking its next prey. Watch it come out of nowhere and ensnare the poor player in its giant web. Then behold as the player struggles in vain to escape, as the spider soon returns to gobble up the pathetic human, starting at the head and working its way down to the feet. That horrific death fueled many a child’s nightmares back in the day, and offered many, myself included, their first experience of real video-game fear. —Carolyn Petit

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The Legacy: Realm of Terror

The Legacy: Realm of Terror

A screenshot shows a 2D monster attacking a player in a brick hallway.
Screenshot: MicroProse / Kotaku

The Legacy: Realm of Terror was this box that sat on the shelves in my dad’s tiny boxroom he used for a study. Those shelves were a cluttered mess of PC game boxes (including the actual box Doom came in, my dad being one of seven people on Earth who didn’t pirate it), notebooks, squared paper for RPG map-drawing, pipe tobacco, and pots filled with pens, straws, screwdrivers, and anything else pencil-shaped.

I would pull the box out and look at its front cover, that awful looming mansion, dark but for two lit windows at the very top, with lightning crackling down from the sky to its rooftops. It made me shiver. I doubt I even noticed the two demonic-looking stone creatures that sat on either side of the front gate—just the building alone was enough to give me the jibblies.

One evening, when both my parents were out, I decided it was the time to finally play it. It installed the thing, from all six floppy discs, with a tremendous sense of trepidation. Some hard drive crunching later, I was confronted with a far more complex introduction than expected, the game much more RPG than first-person horror. I created a character, read through her story, and entered the mansion.

You might expect this story to now pivot to the enormous anticlimax awaiting me, given all that anticipation, but eeeeeeeeeeek: The game scared the ever-loving shit out of me. Its grimly bland wood-paneled walls and red carpets don’t make for a visual feast, but what I remember scaring me so early was the sense of being pursued. You know that feeling in a great horror game, when you’re leaning hard in your chair to try to encourage your character to just move faster, to just get the hell down that corridor and away from the creature that’s following, panic and a frenzied sense of otherworldly danger tensing your muscles? It was that, except I was a kid, in the house on my own, and I noped out so damn hard.

I’ve never played it since. I remember my dad trying it later, and telling me he’d found it far too nerve-wracking as well. I imagine, in the cold light of exactly 30 years later, this 1992 Microprose creation likely doesn’t possess the same ability to scare. But then, just looking at its cover still gives me that 14-year-old heebie-jeebies, and I don’t want to find out. —John Walker


Now that we’ve laid bare our childhood traumas, please share your stories of when a video game scared you silly as a child. Your therapist would probably approve.

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