We all love a good Xbox bump in the night. Horror games have been chilling and thrilling fans of Microsoft consoles for almost 20 years, with an enduring appeal like few other genres. After all, who doesn’t love being scared silly? Whether being creeped out by the wails of coffin-dodging cops in last year’s Resident Evil 2 remake or fretting over Silent Hill 2’s gnawing brand of psychological dread, the history of survival horror on Xbox is bloody terrifying. Join us as we look back on it… then immediately hold us.
Videogames have been tingling our collective spines for decades now. Long before the original Xbox launched in 2001, twisted, nerve-shredding games from the East helped define the survival horror genre, forever changing the medium in the process.
To trace the precise origins of gaming horror, you have to go back to the early ’80s. Over a decade before Resident Evil served up Jill sandwiches, a Japanese student crafted a frightening adventure that was indebted to a certain chest-bursting Xenomorph. Partially inspired by Ridley Scott’s masterful Alien, and taking cues from a stealth title called Manbiki Shoujo, Akira Takiguchi’s cheekily named Nostromo saw players trying to escape the gaze of an unseen extraterrestrial.
Released for the Commodore PET 2001 in 1981, it was years ahead of the undies-soiling curve. Nostromo somehow squeezed in elements of resource management long before it became such a well-worn mechanic; the spaceship’s survivor forced to collect key items to escape the vessel. Looking back, you can probably blame/praise Nostromo for Resi’s divisive item box system.
Skip ahead 15 years, and the most important moment in the genre’s history would occur with the release of a game that defined jump scares like no other… Resident Evil. Shinji Mikami’s masterpiece was originally conceived as a remake for Nintendo’s NES classic Sweet Home, before evolving into the Spencer Mansion spook-‘em-up it was always destined to be. Campy yet captivating, it helped coin the phrase ‘survival horror’, helped rocket the PlayStation into the sales-breaking stratosphere, before spawning a genre-defining juggernaut that endures to this day.
Twenty four years on, Capcom’s constantly morphing franchise continues to terrify, with Leon and Claire’s Raccoon City remake deservedly claiming OXM’s Game Of The Year in 2019. How our shattered nerves love Resident Evil 2. Capturing the collective imagination of a generation of players like few titles since, the original Resi made an indelible impression on ‘90s gaming. The moment that undead Doberman smashed through the most famous window in games, a horror icon was born, and the roots of a truly iconic series cemented. As this landmark spookster predated Xbox by 15 years, Team Green fans were forced to wait for 2015’s excellent Resident Evil HD remake to finally get in on the zombie-whacking act.
Launching within a year of the original Xbox, Konami terrified gamers with an entirely different breed of horror. Whereas Resi was all silly lines and obvious ‘gotcha!’ scares, Silent Hill 2 was more insidiously upsetting. Telling the story of the emotionally distraught James Sunderland, it dealt with themes of guilt, grief and sexual violence in a way few games have the guts to address even now. The Japanese publisher had an instant classic on its hands. It’s just a pity the series has skulked into the shadows in the intervening years, with its last proper appearance on Xbox coming with 2012’s crummy Silent Hill: Downpour.
These early days of Xbox horror also featured one of the most pleasantly surprising movie spin-offs to ever surface. Coming two decades after John Carpenter’s body-morphing horror hit, Konami’s tardy tie-in The Thing delivered frostbite frights as it made you question the every move of your AI squadmates. Were they really themselves? Did they just give you a funny look? Were they in actuality a scuttling alien parasite who’d taken the form of one of your permanently parka-covered pals? Sowing seeds of terrifying doubt, this paranoia-laced horror captured its movie’s chilling spirit long before Creative Assembly nailed the mood of Ripley’s universe in Alien: Isolation.
The twilight years of the original Xbox produced a number of horror titles spanning the entire spooky spectrum. Taking a short break between GTA titles, Rockstar made Manhunt in 2003: a gruesome interactive snuff flick that remains hugely unpleasant. Brutal yet brilliant, the ghastly antics of James Earl Cash toy with the notion of violence and voyeurism; Brian Cox’s director taking almost erotic pleasure in Cash’s murderous cat-and-mouse clashes against gangs of thugs as he hisses instructions through a mic.
That same year, two very different horror titles hit Xbox, in Dino Crisis 3 and Fatal Frame. While the original T-rex terror was in thrall to Resident Evil, DC3 blasted the series to space – no, really – subsequently making the cult franchise extinct. Fatal Frame’s approach to survival horror was a little more subtle, with unnerving ghost hunts that involved capturing spectres through the lens of an antique camera.
With the arrival of Xbox 360 in 2005, horror games evolved to match this more advanced tech. Hitting shelves alongside Microsoft’s new console, Monolith’s Condemned: Criminal Origins has to go down as the most unpleasant launch game of all time… and we mean that as a compliment. Heavily inspired by David Fincher’s serial killer thriller Seven, this grizzly horror is part first-person melee brawler, part the most disgusting episode of CSI you ever did see – its clever forensic puzzles are repellent. A year later, Monolith capturing spectres through the lens of an antique camera.
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