When you think horror games, you think Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Bioshock, or the more recent Alien: Isolation. Back in the 1980s, Nintendo and Atari’s limited graphics made it almost impossible for horror-based video games to be scary. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street all had video game adaptations, but they could hardly be considered frightening with their primitive artwork. What was it going to take to make a game scary? All it needed was a different look, or a different view, if you will. A first person view would make it seem like the gamer is actually there. In 1993, one of the first such games were released on personal computer, Isle of the Dead.
By 1993, the second generation of gaming consoles were in stores. Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were battling for supremacy, but the standard was still computer games. Without getting too technical, computers could handle better graphics, sound and performance, so that’s where the money went. Even in the early 1980s, a Commodore 64 personal computer had better graphics than the Atari 2600, Colecovision and Nintendo Entertainment System. Go back even further and a Vic-20 could compete with a Magnavox Odyssey and Intellivision. The gold standard for first person shooting games was released in 1992 with Wolfenstein 3D. Based in World War 2, Wolfenstein was about killing nazi’s. While not necessarily a horror game, there were some elements of surprise that could initiate some jump scares. One year later, Rainmaker Software developed Isle of the Dead.
In the game, a plane crashes on an island inhabited by a mad scientist who uses zombies to do his dirty work. You are the lone survivor of the crash and, at first, you are armed only with a machete, but soon, you find other weapons. Eventually, you find the island natives who turn the game into a comedy by making a mockery of the dialogue and breaking the fourth wall. The problem that everyone seemed to have at the time was it was half point and click and half first person shooter. You don’t have enough time to point and click before shooting if a gaggle of zombies are closing in on you.
Also, check out the picture above. Those are your zombies. You got a fat guy in sunglasses, a muscle-headed surfer, a lady, and a child dressed as Augustus Gloop. You deserve a medal if you can identify what the zombie on the right is supposed to be. Anyway, these halfwits drain your energy really easily, and I give props to the game for trying to be realistic, but it doesn’t even let you TRY to fight your way out when surrounded. It is imperative if you ever play this game to use the save feature as much as possible. Even if you only progressed a minute into it, save or else. You never know when you’ll get lost and run out of ammo trying to fight your way back to a familiar area. As soon as you die, which will be often, you see the mad scientist laughing before you go all the way back to the beginning. Anyone who tries to play this game without saving is as mad as the scientist.
There was something even more annoying among the many other annoying things about Isle of the Dead. There were only three songs in the game, one which loops from the beginning credits throughout, the tribal theme and the final stage. Other games, such as Super Pitfall for NES, does the same thing by having the same song loop almost the entire game, and after a while, it gets annoying. Also, because the game’s sound was so primitive, it doesn’t sound that great. Here, take a listen.
Yesiree bob, good, ol’ fashioned Soundblaster 32 MS-DOS nightmare fuel. Now, with that said, you have a confusing hybrid of first person/point and click with a looping soundtrack with cartoonish enemies and seemingly no point at all. Still, it was considered one of the first horror games ever made. How come nobody remembers it though? That question is very simple to answer. That same month Isle of the Dead was released, two other, more prolific games were released. One was the previously mentioned Wolfenstein 3D, and the other was by a rival company called iD that released Doom. Among the many things better than Isle of the Dead, Doom also blew you away as soon as you started the game. Take a listen to this opening theme:
Just a little bit better than Isle of the Dead‘s looping theme, isn’t it? While I’m not here to talk about Doom apart from its amazing soundtrack, it serves as a reminder that a game done right will be remembered forever. Others, such as Isle of The Dead, faded into obscurity. Still, if you want a trip down memory lane to what jump started the horror genre in the 1990s, then download Isle of the Dead. If you can handle the goofy graphics and looping theme, you may be able to survive. Maybe.