Gamers are no strangers to scary stuff. Hell, we have an entire genre called “survival horror” and it’s not a niche one. We’re used to fear in our games…most of the time. Sometimes creepy moments appear right where we least expect them to, and that’s where we really start to feel uncomfortable. There have been quite a few scary or creepy levels in games that would normally be feel-good, all-ages adventures. These creepy areas stick out like sore thumbs in otherwise peaceful settings, making their creepiness even worse (or better, if you’re into it). Here are five creepy levels in generally all-ages games that appear out of nowhere, offering no time to prepare for their scary, weird or unsettling subject matter.
NOTE: THE FOLLOWING EXAMPLES MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Forever Forest (Paper Mario, Nintendo 64, 2001)
Paper Mario remains one of the best RPG’s you’ll find in its generation and the game really keeps its all-ages mindset on full display…until you get to Forever Forest, a haunted forest that’s just…not comforting to be in. You must explore Forever Forest to find Boo’s Mansion. After getting a terrifying jump scare from the mansion’s butler, Bootler, you must wander the forest. But guess what? It’s a maze. In order to progress, you must pay attention to certain environmental objects which point down the right path (your teammate Goombario can help out with that). However, the level is frightening mostly because you need to examine it so closely. In order to continue, you need to see all of the eerie occurrences around you, like a creepy, grinning face on a tree or flowers that smile and move. The labyrinthine nature of the area makes the slightly eerie moments even more unsettling. You need to pay attention to the forest to progress, and once you know enough, you just might wish that you didn’t.
Clanker’s Cavern (Banjo-Kazooie, Nintendo 64, 1998)
Long-time Banjo-Kazooie fans know this one backwards and forwards. It’s one of the most well-known examples of how messed up in the head Rareware was back in the 90’s. The third level in the original Banjo-Kazooie started off relatively simple: arrive in a grimy, filthy sewer, only to be greeted by brown water and giant worms that roar, leap out of the wall and bite at you. But once you get to the level’s main chamber, you’re greeted by Clanker, Gruntilda’s garbage disposal that conveniently looks like a giant, bug-eyed shark robot. Although he’s actually pretty friendly, things get even worse when you have to go inside Clanker to obtain items. Clanker’s inside is a weird combination of animal organs and mechanical torture devices. You’ll find flesh-colored stomach walls, nerves that whip around to damage you, and grinding turbines that can cut you up instantly. To make matters even worse, you get all of the anxiety of your typical water level. If you thought Jabu-Jabu’s belly in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was gross, Clanker’s Cavern will leave you speechless. Clanker’s Cavern is creepy not just because it’s dirty and gory, but because it’s so much different than any other level in the game. The first two levels are pretty tame, but three levels in and you’re face-to-face with a giant shark with serious biological/technical issues. Three levels in.
Meat Circus (Psychonauts, Xbox/PS2, 2005)
Yeah, Psychonauts is a T-rated game, and while its art design and subject matter relating to mental conflicts is relatively mature, it never gives off a truly adult vibe. That all changes in the warped final level: Meat Circus. After defeating Coach Oleander’s brain tank, hero Raz is forced to merge his consciousness with Oleander’s, facing both the coach’s and his own inner demons. Things kick into high creepy gear rather quickly as you need to protect Oleander’s younger self from gruesomely disfigured rabbits. The rabbits represent Oleander’s fear of his butcher father, who would slaughter rabbits for meat. Seriously, this is David Cronenberg level of creepy. To make matters worse, Raz must face his own fears: water and his circus performer father. After defeating the rabbit monsters, Raz must acrobatically climb a circus obstacle course to escape rising water (which became creepy enough since the beginning of the game). Like many video game water levels, there’s a sense of anxiety, especially in this one where the water grabs you and literally pulls you under with an amorphous arm if it gets too high. Psychonauts was no stranger to the weird and bizarre, but the subtlety the game capitalized on from its start was completely abandoned in Meat Circus. Early levels were weird and a bit unsettling, but Meat Circus was concentrated nightmare fuel.
Sandopolis Act 2 (Sonic 3 and Knuckles, Sega Genesis, 1994)
Sonic 3 and Knuckles is one of my all-time favorite games, but the second act of Sandopolis Zone is still a harrowing experience to me. Upon entering the Sandopolis temple in Act 2, the room is dark. You can use hanging switches in the level to turn on the lights, but the level gets progressively darker after you do. The dark isn’t anything too unsettling on its own, but later in the level, you accidentally release a bunch of ghosts from some containment pod. From that point onward, if you let the room get too dark, the ghosts will float at the top of the screen, growing bigger and more frightening the darker it gets. If you wait too long to pull a switch and illuminate the room, the ghosts will grow giant devil horns and swoop down to damage you. This makes each run a frantic rush to get the lights on. If you’re playing as Knuckles, though, the ghosts are already released at the beginning of the stage. At full-size. Perfectly ready to attack you right off the bat. First-time players will be in pure anxiety trying to get these increasingly creepy specters off their back. Praise the sun!…I mean, the light.
Vortex Queen Boss Fight (Ecco the Dolphin, Sega Genesis, 1992)
Ecco the Dolphin is a prank and not a funny one. Don’t get me wrong, the game’s not bad (though some might disagree). It’s just a game that completely fools the player into thinking they’re playing a game about wandering around the ocean happily as a dolphin. Nope. Ecco the Dolphin takes a bunch of common phobias and puts them into a single game. Fear of drowning? Check. Fear of confined spaces? Check. Fear of giant, green alien monster heads? Oh, that’s a big check. Exhibit A: the final boss, which is just that. The last encounter in Ecco the Dolphin features Ecco fighting the giant, disembodied alien head that sucked up all of the life in the ocean. To win, Ecco needs to steadily chip away at the head. The head itself is a disturbingly detailed one, with all of the H.R. Giger/Ridley Scott trappings you’d expect, and you have to swim around dodging enemies with its giant face snarling in the background. There has been a glitch reported that causes the face to disappear, the screen to shift in color, and Ecco to be trapped in the middle while steadily losing health, which makes the fight even less comforting. Ecco the Dolphin’s final boss is the pure embodiment of the game’s philosophy, which is “let’s see how terrifying we can make a game about a dolphin.”
Remember to comment and share your own surprisingly creepy moments in all ages games!