Most people don’t think of the NES era as the best time for scary games, and there’s no way around that.
Even though it’s not true that horror games didn’t start until Resident Evil came out in 1996, it’s safe to say that the ’80s and early ’90s were a weird time for the genre.
In a way, though, that makes it all the more fun to try to find the best scary games from the NES era.
Because there aren’t many absolute classics from that time, you have to go deep into the uncharted territory of early horror games to find the ones that are worth talking about.
A look at the best horror games from that time is less of a celebration of every early experience and more of a necessary look at the early days of this genre and why it’s important to respect the games that were brave enough to be horror games when everyone was still figuring out how to do that.
But before we get to the list, here are a few things to think about:
- In order to pay respect to the most notable NES horror games, this list also includes games released for the Famicom as well as a notable unlicensed NES game.
- While “scariness” is usually a horror measuring stick, this list also includes games with horror themes that aren’t necessarily meant to be scary.
- 18. A Nightmare on Elm Street
- 17. Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti
- 16. Jaws
- 15. Chiller
- 14. Friday the 13th
- 13. Dr. Chaos
- 12. Zombie Nation
- 11. Monster in My Pocket
- 10. Abadox
- 9. Ghoul School
- 8. Monster Party
- 7. Shadowgate
- 6. Castlevania
- 5. Maniac Mansion
- 4. Uninvited
- 3. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
- 2. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei
- 1. Sweet Home
18. A Nightmare on Elm Street
The Wes Craven movie made a lot of noise and changed the horror scene as a whole. It was a groundbreaking killer movie that made Freddy Krueger a well-known bad guy.
A video game was made based on the movie “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” I was shocked to learn that it has a bad reputation, because I think it’s both one of the best horror games on the NES and one of the scariest NES games ever made.
You play as a teen who has to search Elm Street for Freddy Krueger’s bones and set them on fire. The problem is that you can fall asleep, which lets him hunt you in your dreams.
It’s a great way to play a Nightmare on Elm Street game, and Freddy’s appearance is really scary. Seeing the sleep meter go down gives you a real feeling of fear.
17. Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti
Surprisingly, the main Splatterhouse games are creepy and scary. Wanpaku Graffiti is a joke about these names and old horror movies in general.
This is a side scrolling platformer, which is different from the other games in the series. You still play as Rick, but he is now a chibi version of his old self.
You have to fight common monsters like bats and zombies, but the boss fights are the best part. One is a vampire who does Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance over and over again.
Then you end up with a monster that can fly. Also, there’s more, and it’s a lot of fun. Wanpaku Graffiti isn’t very scary, but it has a lot of mood.
It feels like you’re in an 80s B-movie, and some of the reenactments are a little scary. It’s still one of the scariest NES games because of this.
Many people think of Jaws as more of an action movie, but I’ve always thought of it as pure horror. When I was a kid, nothing scared me more than seeing Bruce the shark eat helpless swimmers.
So, it’s strange that LJN, which is known for making bad games, made a version for the NES. In Jaws, you steer a boat across an over-the-head map, where monsters pop up at random.
You normally shoot at different sea creatures from a side view underwater, and sometimes the famous great white shark swims onto the battlefield.
I find these parts uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and sometimes even frightening. You feel useless against the finned beast, and the first few times you see it, it scares you.
Compared to current horror games, it’s not very scary, but it’s one of the scariest NES games.
During the 1980s and 1990s, people only whispered about this unauthorized NES port of a rare arcade game, if they talked about it at all.
It was one of the most controversial games of its time, and to be honest, most versions of it don’t have much to offer other than shock value.
Still, there is something to be said about how shocking this game is. Chiller is basically a NES version of a torture porn movie.
You use early light-gun mechanics to torture a range of (presumably innocent) victims and a couple of monsters.
It’s hard to defend as a game, but it shows that the simple, family-friendly NES was more than capable of making a bloody, gory horror game that could stand up to the most famous shock and schlock movies of the 1980s.
14. Friday the 13th
Yes, we put Friday the 13th on our list of the worst NES games.
However, as I said in my review of the game, Friday the 13th has the rare distinction of being a NES horror game that is actually pretty scary.
Like the movies it’s based on, the Friday the 13th NES game is scary because you don’t know where Jason is most of the time and you don’t know if you’ll be able to survive your next meeting with him.
The song is also pretty good, even though it plays over and over again.
13. Dr. Chaos
I almost never hear anyone talk about Dr. Chaos anymore, which is surprising because this, obviously obscure, title had a lot of great ideas that were probably ahead of their time.
The horror in this game is as easy as it gets (in that way, it’s a very “innocent” game), but the best part is the different ways to play.
Dr. Chaos combines platforming, puzzles, and even early survival horror features to make a strange beast that doesn’t always work but is usually interesting.
12. Zombie Nation
Zombie Nation is a pretty normal shoot-em-up game, except that it takes place in a weird horror setting that mixes sci-fi from the 1950s with magic.
It also has a giant floating samurai head trying to destroy the world, which is the kind of premise that gets at least some credit, no matter how bad the rest of the experience is.
Zombie Nation is not only surprisingly hard, but it is also pretty rare and often sells for a lot of money on the second-hand market.
It’s not really a “good” game, but it’s an interesting throwback to horror that does its best to make a weird idea work.
11. Monster in My Pocket
Monster in My Pocket doesn’t have much “horror,” but this 1992 game from Konami could be one of the NES’s most underrated total experiences.
In this strange adaptation of a comic book series, you play as shrunken, unlicensed versions of Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula who fight other shrunken versions of famous monsters.
It has a lot of fear from the Universal era and the good gameplay that Konami used to be known for.
There’s also a version of this game that doesn’t have a license called Batman & Flash. It stars…well, Batman and The Flash.
Here’s another underrated NES game that might be worth remembering because of how surprisingly “goopy” it all is.
The living spaces and enemy designs in this game have an almost H.R. Giger-like look to them.
Even though this game rarely gets to show off its best set pieces, it has enough sci-fi horror brilliance throughout to make it easy to suggest to fans of the genre who want a retro fix.
9. Ghoul School
To say the obvious, Ghoul School’s bad graphics, choppy animations, and hard-to-use tools pretty much guaranteed that it would leave a bad impression. To be honest, it’s still a hard game to play.
But Ghoul School deserves at least a little more credit than it usually gets because it was one of the first survival horror movies.
This game has RPG features and a map that looks like a labyrinth, which make it an interesting early version of the games that would soon come to dominate the genre.
It may be more unique than “good,” but fans of old horror games should give it a second or first look.
8. Monster Party
Okay, so this one is more of a joke than a real scary game. Even so, it’s still pretty scary and has a lot of mood.
In Monster Party, you play as a guy named Mark who has a baseball bat. On his way home, he finds that his city has become the land of the dead.
It is now full of an army of monsters who are still alive and can’t wait to eat his guts. As I said before, Monster Party is totally full of mood.
It’s a side-scrolling action platform game where you go out into the world and find doors that lead to different bosses.
There are things like man-eating plants, Medusa, a ghost with a pumpkin head, a giant spider, and more. I thought these strange meetings were the creepiest thing about the game.
Shadowgate is one of the two horror adventure games we’ll talk about on this list.
It’s not my favorite example of this type of game on the NES, but it’s an interesting dungeon crawler with some surprisingly scary parts.
Shadowgate is really just a complicated set of traps that will kill you if you don’t follow a very specific path.
It’s very frustrating to play without a guide, but it does make you feel like you’re in a dungeon where something terrible is waiting around the next turn to kill you.
If you’re wondering why Castlevania isn’t higher on the list, it’s mostly because there are other NES games that do “horror” a bit better than it does.
Even so, Castlevania is still one of the best games ever made for fans of the horror genre.
The Castlevania team saw the perfect chance to make you the main character in a standard gothic horror adventure, and they used that idea to its fullest.
5. Maniac Mansion
Even though the NES version of Maniac Mansion is just a shell of the PC version, you have to give the NES port credit for making a “close enough” version of this classic adventure game that gave NES players a chance to try something new.
Maniac Mansion is a funny, strange, and sometimes scary trip through a spooky house that still doesn’t feel like anything else.
It’s very sincere about how much it loves horror, but it’s also silly enough to set itself apart from so many other good horror experiences.
Let’s start by looking at the cover art. The sneering ghost on the front cover was probably enough to make kids not want to buy it.
Uninvited is a text-based point-and-click action game. The NES doesn’t have many games in this type, which is a shame because it’s a good fit.
In Uninvited, you play as a man who wakes up after a car accident. His sister has left him and seems to have gone into the close mansion.
He goes after them and finds a bunch of strange problems that need to be solved. The music is really good and creates a lot of crazy mood.
The graphics are a little bit simple, but I thought that made the game even scarier. This is the first game on this list that has kept me up at night after I finished it.
3. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
The best Castlevania game ever made, and maybe even the best Castlevania game ever, is also the best Castlevania game ever made from a retro perspective.
It also has an extra dose of horror that makes it better than its predecessors for this ranking.
The people who worked on Castlevania 3 found a way to use the NES to its fullest potential.
As a result, the game has settings and monsters that look surprisingly good even today. This one makes you feel like a real fighter wandering through a scary story.
2. Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei
There are a lot of great Famicom games that never made it to the U.S., but Digital Devil Story has to be one of the biggest missed chances for retro horror game fans outside of Japan.
Digital Devil Story is a great dungeon crawler with some of the most memorable monster designs from that time.
It’s basically a JRPG in the style of the NES, but with horror and sci-fi themes.
It’s a great piece of scary design that also has great gameplay and a very good story. Find this one if you haven’t played it before.
1. Sweet Home
Even though I understand why it’s hard to talk about Sweet Home without mentioning that it was basically the spiritual predecessor to the Resident Evil series, I don’t think Sweet Home gets enough credit for being a great horror game on its own.
Obviously, the NES’s technology puts some limits on this early survival horror game, but I have to say that I really love how Sweet Home mixes classic RPG and adventure game elements in a way that makes it feel like a Metroidvania horror game.
As far as that goes, the fact that Sweet Home has a lot of scary times doesn’t hurt.