Get Spooked: The 20 Most Unexpectedly Scary Moments of Non-Horror Videogames

So I wasn’t planning on writing anything special for Halloween, but it’s really freaking hot in Sydney at the moment and the coolest part of my house happens to be right in front of this computer screen, so let’s do something spooky.

If you’ve ever had a videogame-related discussion with me, or even read some of this blog, you might pick up on the fact that I don’t mix well with deliberately scary games. Horror films are one thing – I can deal with those to some extent, though I don’t actively seek them out – but interactive horror experiences are quite another. I just don’t understand the idea of wanting to be scared by something. This may mean I’ve missed out on some of the most talked-about videogame titles of the last few years, such as Slender, Outlast, the Amnesia games, P.T. and more recently The Evil Within, but hey, there are other things to play.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t ever been scared by a videogame before, of course. There are quite a few games out there that, while not deliberately branded as horror, smuggle in some deviously spooky moments. These are arguably even more affecting because you don’t expect them. Some are jump scares, and some are just thoroughly unnerving. Here are no less than twenty of the most memorable ones in my personal gaming history, in no particular order. Of course, some of these are based on the fact that I was a child when I first played them, which made me more vulnerable to such moments, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are forever imprinted on my mind.
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Get Out! – Donkey Kong 64

If you’ve played DK 64 before, you’re probably already hearing that ominously deep, aggressive voice in your head right now. In the game’s second level, raiding a pyramid tomb for a golden banana or two brought up a sudden and inexplicable sniper crosshair, accompanied by a loud shout and some crapped pants. A bit of a cheap shot by developer Rare, but an effective one.
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The Basement – The Last of Us

The Last of Us is not a horror game, despite what some people might say – it’s more of a dramatic interpersonal drama. But jeeeeez, don’t ever make me play that basement sequence with the power generator again. It just ain’t happening. Combining low light with any amount of water is already a pretty heavy nope situation for me, so throwing in a rush of bile-spewing fungus zombies that spawn at exactly the wrong time is just… aagghh.
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Baby Boss – Luigi’s Mansion

His name is Chauncey, apparently, and he’s one of the ghostly bosses in Luigi’s debut solo adventure on the Nintendo Gamecube. He’s also a one-year old baby whose blood-curdling scream just should not be in a Nintendo game aimed at “all ages”. Fighting him in his room, complete with cot and creepily spinning mobile, is the most genuinely scary moment of an otherwise pretty lighthearted adventure.

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Good Housekeeping – Gone Home

The most recent entry on this list, Gone Home is ultimately a game more concerned with telling an intimate human story in a 1990s setting than throwing any jump scares at you. And yet developers The Fullbright Company insist on playing with the mind of the player by turning the lights off in nearly every room of its entirely deserted house setting. As a result, you’re always expecting something terrifying that isn’t ultimately there, and this makes the game far more memorable.
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Snacker – Banjo Kazooie

Oh dear. How my young heart skipped fifteen beats or so when I first jumped into the ocean of Treasure Trove Cove, Banjo Kazooie’s brightly coloured, sunny second level. The music goes from tropical and fun to brutally terrifying in the space of a second, and a blue shark materialises within inches of our hero Banjo’s frantically paddling feet. Why, Rare? Why did you insist on doing these things to kids?
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SA-X – Metroid Fusion

Every Metroid game packs a certain degree of unease, with themes of isolation, eerie music and some pretty messed-up story stuff all combining to create a memorably oppressive atmosphere. But the GBA’s Metroid Fusion deserves special mention for its introduction of SA-X, an X-Parasite who mimics Samus’ classic appearance and is invincible for the majority of the game, relentlessly hunting our heroine. Whenever it shows up, you run and you hide.
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Zombies – Call of Duty: World at War/Black Ops etc…

Anyone who has played a Treyarch-made Call of Duty game can attest to the appeal of their omnipresent zombies mode, which builds its co-operative powered success off of hairy moments when resources have run low and your defenses are all but overrun by the undead. These moments are scary, to be sure, but for me, it goes beyond that. The sounds those zombies make, I mean… I just can’t do it.
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Dolls – Another Code: Two Memories

I don’t have an actual screenshot for the specific part I’m talking about here, but rest assured that one of the DS’s most criminally under-appreciated mystery games features a spine-chilling moment straight out of a horror B-movie’s playbook. One of the game’s puzzles involves a line-up of different coloured dolls in the study of a seemingly abandoned beach-side mansion, and you can imagine the rest.
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The Piano – Super Mario 64

Undoubtedly one of the most famously shocking moments in Nintendo videogame history, the single room with a piano in Big Boo’s Haunt briefly turned Super Mario 64 from a fun and revolutionary 3D platform adventure into a sudden nightmare for a generation of kids. Why would any child reasonably expect a piano to come to life and start bounding towards Mario, snapping gigantic teeth? Wow, designers. Wow.
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Lumiose City Girl – Pokemon X/Y

This one is just such a “What the hell?” moment. It happens ever-so-briefly, no-one in the game ever mentions it again and it’s very possible to second-guess yourself as a Pokemon player and wonder if it even happened. On the second floor of one of Lumiose city’s many, many buildings, you enter a room and the lights flicker, you freeze in place and a strange girl hovers around you, muttering “No, you’re not the one…” and leaves. Then it’s over. Uh, what?
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The Harbor Inn – Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum

Another very quick, yet very unsettling, moment in the Pokemon games happens to those who were lucky (or tech-savvy) enough to obtain the Member’s Card event item for Pokemon Diamond, Pearl or Platinum. It’s the only way to enter the otherwise locked Harbor Inn in Canalave City, whereupon a strange man greets you, takes over your body and bids you to enter a cursed bed, cackling as he leads you to a nightmare encounter with the legendary Pokemon Darkrai. Yep.
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Lavender Town – Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow

Naturally, while we’re talking Pokemon, Lavender Town really takes the cake. Very few things Nintendo has ever produced even come close to the core-chilling vibe of the purple-hued Pokemon death site. It’s one of the only times in the entire series you’ll ever see Pokemon mortality addressed, and there’s also mediums literally baying for blood, odd stories of Poke-murder and, of course, that music. Nothing is scarier than that bloody music.
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Zombies – Conker’s Bad Fur Day

One of the reasons that Conker’s Bad Fur Day is one of my favourite games of all time is its constant commitment to changing tone, as well as the effectiveness with which it does so. Never is this more pronounced than in the game’s first night-time chapter, “Spooky”. The zombies that greet you in the chapter’s gigantic gothic mansion sound truly terrifying, change pace unpredictably and won’t go down without a proper shotgun headshot. The first time I played it was truly harrowing.
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The Flood – Halo: Combat Evolved

The Flood are widely regarded as one of the best examples of delivering a narrative and gameplay twist to unsuspecting videogame audiences. Most people certainly weren’t looking for a horror game in Halo: Combat Evolved back in 2002, but they certainly got one when the grotesque parasitic Flood turned up about halfway through proceedings, turning the Master Chief’s friends and allies against him, David Cronenberg style. What a moment.
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Boys of Silence – Bioshock Infinite

I never played the first Bioshock, ironically to avoid its undoubtedly scary atmosphere and themes. Last year’s Infinite, I thought, would be much more pleasant. Noooope. Not only is the world of Columbia as ideologically disturbing as can be expected from the series, it has some hella frightening enemies of its own in the form of the Boys of Silence. These half-machine, humanoid… things permeate the final third of the game and render the very idea of being seen petrifying.
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Drawcia – Kirby: Canvas Curse

Despite his awe-inspiring range of powers, Kirby can’t really catch a break in terms of enemies. In my favourite Kirby game, Canvas Curse, the pink puffball chases down the witch who turned him into a near-helpless sphere, all the way to Drawcia, a world straight out of an artist’s feverish nightmares. Creepy portraits follow your every move and splashes of colour threaten to damage you at every turn as a trippy backing track causes you to death-grip your DS.
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Link’s Nightmare: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

My list is going to finish with just Zelda stuff, because as it turns out, the folks at EAD really love sprinkling pinches of disturbing stuff into their Hyrulian tales. First up is Twilight Princess, because just what is going on in that horrific eye-less montage of Japanese weirdness near the beginning of the game? Like a lot of Twilight Princess‘ early game content, it’s mostly ignored once the game’s Midna story really gets going, but just what. The. Hell?
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Tears of Farore – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

For all its varied criticisms, there seems to be a general consensus among people who’ve played Skyward Sword that the Silent Realm sections of the game are really, really effective at building tension. They bring the mood whiplash in a big way, transforming Link into a largely helpless tip-toeing hero who can’t touch water on his quest to collect goddess tears. Because if he does… Oh boy. It’s time to piss-bolt the hell away from those demonic guardians like there’s no tomorrow.
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Dead Hand – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

What the hell, Nintendo? How is this ever okay in a game marketed for both kids and adults?
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Like, Everything – The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

I know I don’t have an order to this list, but if I did, this would probably be up near the number one spot. The really curious thing about Majora’s Mask is that, on the surface at least, there’s no way you could call it a horror game. But there are just so many messed-up things that take place in the game, a lot of which get more disturbing the more you stop to think about them, that you kinda can, in a way. With the possible exception of Earthbound, which I haven’t finished, it’s definitely the Big N’s darkest work. I mean just look at that moon.
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And that’s all I’ve got. Wow, I really am a wuss.

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