Everyone loves video games. Well, almost everyone. A smaller portion of game lovers may even appreciate certain games that have been left behind by the leaps-and-bounds pace at which graphic and interface developments have occurred since the late eighties. As someone who began school in the age of floppy disks, I can confidently affirm that the gaming world has come a long way in a dazzlingly short amount of time.
Something magical still surrounds the golden classics of the click and point PC gaming era–at least for this writer. I remember the sensation caused by 1999’s Silent Hill with reverent fondness, due in part to the thrall that Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark: Tale of Orpheo’s Curse from 1994 held me in as a little kid. Call it nostalgia, but the simple eeriness of these games and the creepy thrill of delving into their worlds is probably one of the main reasons I write horror(ish) fiction today (second to Goosebumps, of course).
What you may not know is that some of the old PC games were downright bizarre. Many of the games on this multi-part list didn’t receive the mainstream fanfare that would’ve brought them into the radar of the casual gamer, so it’s no surprise that they remain hidden gems even in this age of limitless information.
Note that I just cited Silent Hill as a stand-in for “normal,” mainstream gaming experiences. That means you should probably prepare yourself. Things are about to get really weird.
Sad Satan, 2015(?)
Don’t try to download this game. This warning may seem like a cute but cliché hook strategy on my part, but I’m in dead earnest. Seriously, don’t search for download links to Sad Satan. The problem is that most (if not all) versions of Sad Satan software are merely clickbait vehicles for some serious malware, and you would be better off avoiding them if you value your hardware and privacy in the slightest. Even worse, “later” versions reportedly contained child pornography. Don’t be surprised when you don’t find any download links here. It’s for your own good.
So what is Sad Satan? Fabled to arise from some obscure corner of the Dark Web, Sad Satan is, as far as I can determine, part truth, part creepypasta, and part breeding ground for “deep” investigations by view-thirsty YouTubers. Acting on hints from a subscriber, according to an article on The Kernel, the YouTube channel Obscure Horror Corner supposedly embarked on a search for Sad Satan. In 2015, Obscure Horror Corner uploaded the game’s first walkthrough (to the whopping response of over 3 million views at the time of writing).
While the date technically negates the “vintage” qualification of this list, it’s an early nineties-style dungeon maze complete with graphics totally suitable to the era. More importantly, the firmly vintage aesthetic works to achieve some serious weirdness, which is what this series is all about. I’m including Sad Satan due to its strong atmospheric affinity to other games I plan to cover–besides, “atmospherics” is pretty much all there is to this game.
Wait, what? I hate to bust your bubble, but it’s true: Obscure Horror Corner included a dead “link” to the YouTube walkthroughs, depriving Sad Satan of much of its “Dark Web” street cred. Later, the channel said the link was deliberately dead link due to original file’s contamination with “child pornography.” While a Sad Satan “clone” (?) did later surface with a penchant for surprising unsuspecting players with guerilla child porn images, I find it improbable that Obscure Horror Corner deliberately posted a dead link while presenting it as genuine for such a reason (why not be up front about blatantly illegal content? I think viewers would’ve been completely understanding, which is way better than making them feel duped). What’s more, nothing really happens in Sad Satan, leaving the totality of its value to atmosphere.
So why are we discussing this, then? Because the “game,” as you can see for yourself in Obscure Horror Corner’s walkthrough linked above, is weird, dense, and disturbing as all fucking hell. Given the game’s simplicity (you just wander around in a series of mazes, occasionally happening across bizarre but largely static characters), watching the walkthrough is probably just as good as playing it. One thing is certain: you’re bound to get some serious chills.
Sad Satan has a inarguable power to capture viewers. All the efforts of “unveiling” it as a fraud and trying to decipher its horrifyingly potent imagery are testimonies to its success as a bizarre gaming classic. Who can resist the starkly hallucinatory black and white ambient texturing, the suffocating soundtrack (complete with sonically-manipulated soundbites including an insanity-inducing loop of Charles Manson saying “if I started killing people, there’d be none of you left”), and conspiracy theory references? Each highly evocative detail of this “game” posits the possibility a larger, darker message for the player to decipher. Whether the “message” truly exists or not has no bearing on Sad Satan’s ability to make viewers wiggle in their seats, be it from fear, disgust, or mere discomfort. And that, to this writer, is one hell of an effective slice of “interactive” weirdness.
Garage: Bad Dream Adventure (1999)
Now that the obligatory Sad Satan nod has been fulfilled, let’s move on to slightly more tangible games. Unfortunately, Garage: Bad Dream Adventure really is only slightly more accessible than Sad Satan in terms of playability. Released in Japan by way of a mere 3,000 copies for PC/Macintosh, Kinotrope’s Garage has become a serious collector’s item. Needless to say, you ain’t gonna find this one on Steam, although an apparent download link exists that I haven’t been quite brave enough to try (I only have one computer, folks, and I can’t have it crashing on me). What’s more, the game is entirely in untranslated Japanese. Unless you’re fluent in Japanese, there might not be much point in snagging the game anyway. Like Sad Satan, however, a full walkthrough exists (posted above) on YouTube, featuring full English subtitles.
You begin at the sound of someone asking you to sit. “You may feel vertigo, but please be patient,” the voice says. An obscured image fills the screen of what appears to be a naked human half-submerged in a large, iron machine. Darkness. You find yourself inexplicably wonder where your sneakers are, then… light. You wake up in a dim complex of dilapidated wooden structures connected by platforms, along which you navigate by way of a track.
Oh, also, you’re a large-headed, small-bodied robot doll thing.
Garage is a surreal immersion into an aesthetic that feels truly Lynchian, perhaps with a little steampunk thrown in for good measure and filtered through a thick, introspective… well… nightmare, as the title suggests. Judging from the YouTube walkthrough, this point-and-click adventure ranges from weirdly disorienting to highly unsettling. I’ve certainly never seen another game like it.
Be sure and set aside some time if you’re ready to embark on this bizarre little acid trip, because the tension doesn’t let up. Between the mind-bending imagery and the minimalist synth soundtrack, the sense that something is seriously wrong hangs thick in the air. The in-game objective is, of course, to escape, and it’s a testimony to Garage’s effectiveness that the player wants out too. Things are just overwhelmingly… suffocating in this bleak little world. Here’s to hoping for a rerelease (with English subtitles).
Unlike the previous games featured here, Gilbert P. Austin’s Harvester is (joyfully) featured on Steam! What’s more, it’s going for less than six bucks at the time of writing. That means that Harvester is unique, engrossing, and friendly to a content writer’s budget (bonus points unlocked).
In all seriousness, I’ve been playing Harvester for a few days now, and it’s one of the most unsettling, compelling, and off-color games I’ve ever had the joy of experiencing. It isn’t difficult to see what inspired this gruesome quasi-nightmare’s cult following. If any of these games spark a semblance of curiosity you have a gnawing urge to satisfy, start with Harvester (unless you just want to shell out 7,000 yen for Garage, for some reason).
Now that my fanboy enthusiasm is out of the way, let’s get down to it.
You wake up in your room, which is in your parent’s house on the edge of a town called Harvest. The only problem is that you have no memory of your own name, nor do you recall having met your parents, baby sister, or asshole of a little brother. When you voice these concerns, no one seems to take you seriously. What’s even worse, there’s something clearly wrong in the little town of Harvest. For instance, why is “dad” locked in his room? Why does “mom” keep baking cookies (day after day after day, you soon discover) only to throw them in the garbage the moment they cool? And, just a warning: if you upset the newspaper boy, you better run for your fucking life.
Harvester is a point-and-click adventure, occurring within the confines of a dozen or so locations over the span of about a week. As you explore, you become pretty familiar with the zany citizens of Harvest, even to the point of uncovering some of their darkest secrets. Your goal is to gain access to the Harvest Order, a strange, esoteric cult operating in the middle of town with members who communicate with you telepathically, so that you and your “fiancé” (also unremembered) can somehow “escape.” Along the way, you wind up tangled various of crazy subplots, such as satiating a sheriff deputy’s needs by hustling girlie mags, or running reconnaissance for the emotionally unstable WWII vet in charge of Harvester’s nuclear arsenal.
If there’s a solid predecessor to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, this is it. Although Harvester is pretty gory, the game has a strong sense of humor, giving it that half-joyful, half-horrifying flavor that Night Vale fanatics are sure to find delicious. A “trigger” warning might be necessary, however, since some of the game’s humor ranges from off-color to flat out racist. But here’s the thing: Harvester is set in and clearly parodies the values of the 1950’s. Such views are accurate for the time period, and the player’s character does not seem sympathetic to these values. Besides, Harvester’s whole shtick is to jab at the hypocritical, bourgeois American golden age, using it as a push off point for what ultimately turns out to be a commentary on video game violence. No spoilers here, however. You’ll have to find out the rest yourself.
I hope you enjoyed part one of this series. What weird, bizarre, or unsettling vintage games should we cover next? Let us know in the comments below.
-Justin A. Burnett