From Super Mario Odyssey to Katamari Damacy, here are 10 games that shouldn’t scare us, but totally do.
Video games can be plenty scary. I’ve thrown my controller in the air and screamed with unadulterated terror at survival-horror jump scares and felt my guts twist at the powerful manipulation of psychological terror in the hands of gaming’s storytelling masters. Games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and PT all contain the stuff nightmares are made of.
But sometimes, games are scary not so much by design as by accident. Here are 10 games from well outside the horror genre that succeed far more than they should at being deeply disturbing.
Katamari Damacy (PS2)
In Katamari Damacy, you’re a cute little guy who needs raw material to create a new star. Your solution is to roll up a bunch of objects into an ever-growing ball that you eventually propel into space to spawn a new burning orb of white-hot, all-consuming flame. You’re not really particular about your definition of “objects” in this scenario. To you, objects include living things like animals, human bystanders, and vast cities full of the living who are gathered up pell-mell and incinerated in a fiery holocaust as pawns in your mad quest for cosmic power.
Cabbage Patch Kids: Adventures In the Park (Colecovision)
Cabbage Patch Kids: Adventures in the Park is mostly forgotten in the dustbin of history… and perhaps that’s for the best. This colorful platformer places you in control of a toddler wandering unattended through some kind of hellish playground where people leave lit fires along the path. The treeline is patrolled by giant hornets the size of a small child, their curved stingers clearly visible as they swoop by. Killer fish madly leap from tiny ponds waiting to strike you down. Simply put, this is a game about babies being burned by fire, falling off playground equipment, and suffering from bee stings.
Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
Talk about a perverse, unsettling core mechanic. This is a game where you evict the sovereign souls and free will of your fellow creatures and replace them with your own. In the course of a playthrough, Mario makes countless turtles, humans, cute innocent frogs, and dinosaurs his meat puppets, hurling them against their will into the path of mortal danger and then abandoning their dazed and traumatized husks when it suits him.
Bird Week (Famicom)
Bird Week scarred me for life. When I first played, it was hard to comprehend what I was beholding. The premise is exceedingly simple: you’re a mother bird, your babies are hungry, and you need to feed them. The seasons gradually change in a bright, vibrant world as you explore, skirting predators to gather food and bring it back to the nest. But don’t take too long, because if you do, your cute babies begin to physically waste away, becoming more and more emaciated before your very eyes, until finally they die of starvation and you watch their little souls go up to heaven.
Ecco the Dolphin (Sega Genesis)
You’re a seaborn creature, but you need oxygen. Not only is various ocean life out to get you, but the constant threat of drowning in your native oceans hangs over your head every second. What a way to go: gradual lung expansion, the desperation for breath, until you can no longer stand the pressure and open your airways to the incoming rush of briny water and oblivion. I don’t understand how real dolphins deal with this every day.
Nethack is a remarkable roguelike dungeon-crawler. It’s also one of the most terrifying games in existence, especially once you’ve mastered its rudiments and have some idea of what you’re doing and what’s at stake. The reason is permadeath. Die in Nethack and it’s game over… no reloading, no continues. And since Nethack generates a new random dungeon every time, an untimely demise or setback can nullify hours of work in a single second.
Viva Pinata (Xbox 360)
You lure resplendent happy pinatas to a farm and then beat them to death with a shovel. You’re a monster.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari 2600)
It’s not by any means designed as horror, but man, Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600 takes some terrifying turns, somehow accentuated by the blocky representations of Indy and his enemies. Snakes slither with a weird, otherworldly cadence that’s just kind of off-putting. They also tend to sneak up on you when you transition between screens. It’s easy to fall to your death in several places, and the speed and distance you plummet has a hyper realistic, terrifying quality evocative of witnessing a real body plunging to earth.
Chipper & Sons Lumber Co. (PC/Mobile)
The lifeless, plastic eyes, facial rictus, and robotic motions of axe-wielding beavers in this otherwise-innocuous kid-friendly game are quite unsettling. But don’t feel too bad for the creator of Chipper & Sons… he went on to leverage his talent for navigating the uncanny valley into the tremendously popular Fight Nights at Freddy’s series.
No Man’s Sky (PS4)
When it’s at it’s best, No Man’s Sky is breathtaking, bombarding the player with panoramic vistas, subverting the blackness of deep space with rich hues of green, purple, and orange. At its worst, the random creature generation creates twitching Lovecraftian monstrosities that cavort to the shrill piping of sinister flutes played by screaming interdimensional madmen. Or Jurassic Park played on a harmonica.
What are some games that unexpectedly terrified you? Let us now!
Jared Petty is a Host at Kinda Funny, creator of pretty good videos at HopBlipAndAJump.com, and a writer for IGN. He’s missed having a byline. Follow him on Twitter @pettycommajared.