The Nintendo Entertainment System is a fascinating console for horror games. There are movie adaptations, arcade ports, and original creations (it’s alive…alive!). Some are cheap while others will set you back the price of a used hearse, especially graded and in excellent condition. Some are humorous while others are legitimately creepy. Not all of them are great, but most are interesting and have something to recommend.
I’ve selected 10 such titles to (house of) wax rhapsodic about, including some of my favorites for the console and some where the box art is the best feature. Without further ado (a-boo?), here’s a carefully curated (i.e. somewhat random) selection of NES games to check out when you want to get your fright on, just in time for the Halloween season.
I grew up watching The Munsters and The Addams Family. Unfortunately, while there were Munsters computer games, there never was a console video game based on the funny family that lived at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Fortunately, the advent of Addams Family movies meant video games, including this platformer based on the 1991 film. The game stars many of the characters familiar to fans of the popular franchise, including Gomez, Morticia, Pugsley, Wednesday, Lurch (who plays music), and Thing (who acts as a shield).
Gomez must rescue members of his family from various rooms of his house and the surrounding grounds, avoiding skulls, ghosts, spikes, and other creatures and obstacles (many of which fall very quickly) along the way. Strangely, there are no weapons, but Gomez can jump on enemies, swim in a pond, paddle down a secret river, and collect money. Backed by a robust musical score, the game features atmospheric, richly illustrated areas to explore and plenty of tricky puzzles to solve, such as ﬁnding keys to open doors and using a potion to shrink Pugsley. The action isn’t stellar, but the game is playable, which you can’t always say about licensed video games.
Rare developed this game, so it’s great, right? But it was published by LJN, so it’s awful, correct? The latter is closer to the truth. Beetlejuice is loosely based on Tim Burton’s 1988 feature film, but it looks more like the animated series (1989–1991). Gamers guide “the ghost with the most” as he runs, jumps, and stomps his way through The Village, Storm Drains, The Maitlands’ House (which includes basement, kitchen, living rooms, attic, and model graveyard), The Attic, and Afterlife Waiting Room.
By stomping on beetles, collecting poison bottles, and destroying ghosts, whirling skulls, and other enemies, the kooky character can collect “help vouchers” for use in purchasing “scares,” such as Medusa heads for freezing floating skulls, a Birdman for jumping high, and umbrella heads for defeating the octopus. Even though it’s not a great game in terms of playability, fans of the film will want this cartridge, especially boxed and complete–it’s an amazing display piece.
Loosely based on the 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has gamers guiding Jonathan Harker through Castle Dracula, Hillingham Estate Mansion, Carfax Abbey Crypt, and other creepy locales, on a mission to rescue Mina Murray from the Prince of Darkness. You’ll battle such enemies as skeletons, ghosts, henchmen, zombies, and Dracula, including his shadow, bat, and wolf beast forms. There are also obstacles to get past, such as spike pits, nail beds, collapsing platforms, and fire-water channels.
Harker begins the game with a hacking/slashing weapon, but can pick up rocks, triple rocks, axes, and enemy-burning torches. He can also crouch, look up and down, do long jumps and standing jumps, and perform a jumping smash maneuver to fall through ledges. To grab weapons and other pickups, such as 1ups, continues, energy, invincibility, and extra time, Harker smashes open Super Mario-style boxes.
Having more in common with the Castlevania series than the thematically/literarily similar NES games like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the game features solid creature-battling action, tricky bosses, a smooth learning curve, and precise control. Each boss and mini-boss must be beaten in a different manner, and creatures pop up out of nowhere, making for a nice challenge. Decent graphics, ambitious music, and creepy-cool box art round things out.
I got my NES for Christmas of 1987, and Castlevania was a no-brainer purchase as soon as I could make it to the store a day or two later. I had heard it was great, and I in no way regretted my purchase. The game’s detailed graphics, creepy atmosphere, and awesome gameplay hooked me from the beginning, and it was such a dramatic advance over every horror-themed video game I had played before it.
As Simon Belmont, gamers must climb stairs, jump over obstacles and onto platforms, and face hordes of monster movie-like creatures, including vampire bats, phantom bats, zombies, floating Medusa heads, skeletons, hunchbacks, knights, the Frankenstein monster and Igor, The Grim Reaper, and Count Dracula himself. Belmont is equipped with a magic whip (which is a blast to use all these years later) and can grab the following weapons (carried one at a time) found in candles and bricks he destroys throughout the creepy, seven-story castle: daggers, axes, fire bombs, boomerangs, crosses (for destroying every enemy onscreen), invisibility potions, and morning stars (for increasing the power of the whip). Hearts act as special weapons ammo while pork chops can be eaten to revive lost health. While Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse for the NES is an even better game, I still return to the original from time to time for a deadly dose of nostalgic excellence.
To paraphrase the popular Michael Jackson Halloween song, “’Cause this is Chiller, Chiller night; And no one’s gonna save you from the beast about to strike; You know it’s Chiller, Chiller night; You’re fighting for your life inside a killer, Chiller tonight, yeah.”
Yeah, indeed. There are far better Zapper games for the NES—Duck Hunt and Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting immediately come to mind—but Chiller is a fascinating title for the NES, and not just because of its oddly shaped cartridge, and not just because of its gore and graphic violence. Wait, what? Yep—gore and graphic violence on the NES!
Based on the 1986 Exidy arcade game, this cart was not licensed by Nintendo, likely due to its relatively extreme content. The graveyard nudity and plethora of body parts lying about the torture chamber floor were removed from the 8-bit port, but there’s still plenty here to shock, including the fact that you shoot humans. Set in the Middle Ages, the game is chock full of horror imagery, including ghosts, ghouls, a torture rack room (with people being tortured!), and hands reaching out of graves and tossing skulls—just the way I like it! At least sometimes. Ultimately, it is a mediocre timed target shooter, but it’s about as horror-fic a game as you’ll find on the NES. Buyer’s beware: it’s a tough game to find. We’ve only ever offered two sealed copies and one CIB.
As with Castlevania, Ghosts ’n Goblins, which was adapted from Capcom’s 1985 arcade classic, was one of the first games I bought after receiving my NES for Christmas in 1987. Even back then, the game was known for being extremely difficult, but I didn’t care. I absolutely loved it and played it again and again, despite wanting to rage quit many times. I never could quite beat the game, but I had a lot of fun trying.
Armed with an unlimited supply of javelins, you as a brave Knight must run, jump, climb, duck, and throw projectiles at enemies. Throughout each of the game’s seven brief but brutal levels, there are jars hiding five different types of projectile weapons: javelins, torches, swords (which are similar to javelins, but faster), axes, and crosses (which fly straight). When the Knight picks up a weapon, he forfeits the one he was holding, and he keeps the new weapon even after he dies. Enemies include zombies rising from the ground, ravens flying toward you, green monsters that fire projectiles, forest ghosts that fly and throw spears, and flying knights that move up and down and are protected by shields. There are bosses as well, including Satan (!), but the game has a sense of humor. When the Knight is wearing standard armor and gets hit, he’s reduced down to his boxers. When the Magician casts his spell on the Knight, he becomes a frog. Who doesn’t love a good horror/comedy?
When my brother and I were kids, we were obsessed with Godzilla. We repeatedly watched all the movies, built a glow-in-the-dark Godzilla model kit, and rooted for the giant lizard when he went up against the big ape in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962 in Japan, 1963 in the US).
Unfortunately, Godzilla: Monster of Monsters! is a lousy game. However, it has nice graphics and excellent box art. For a fan like myself, that gets the job done as it makes for a great game room display piece (feel free to accuse me of being a “shelf collector”). In the game, alien invaders from Planet X attack Earth, whose authorities call upon Godzilla and Mothra to battle Gigan, Mecha-Godzilla, Varan, and four other monsters. There are three modes of play. The hex mode is a grid wherein you advance Godzilla and Mothra (one at a time) strategically across a hexagonal battlefield consisting of Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Pluto, Neptune, and Planet X. The battle mode pits your monster against fighter planes, flying saucers, tanks, and other machinery. In hyper-fight mode, you must fight one of the seven space monsters. Godzilla fights using kicks, radiation blasts, punches, and tail chops while Mothra is equipped with an eye beam and a poisonous powder attack.
My son enjoys Jaws on the NES, and none other than the late, great video game journalist Bill Kunkel called it one of his favorite titles of all time. I can take or leave the game, but there’s no doubting the cool cover art. The iconic image of the famous shark coming up out of the water, ready to strike, is nothing short of legendary, and I would be proud to place it in my NES collection or on a shelf beside my other movie collectibles.
What may surprise some gamers is that the game is not based on Steven Spielberg’s classic blockbuster epic from 1975, which made a generation of moviegoers afraid to go to the beach. Rather, it is very loosely patterned after the critically panned Jaws: The Revenge (1987), the fourth and final film in the famous franchise.
The action is divided into four types of gameplay: an overhead map sequence where you pilot a sailboat until it inadvertently hits the titular shark; an underwater side-view scenario where you use a boat, a diver, or a mini-sub to shoot sea creatures and gather conch shells, which increase your spear gun power; a bonus scene involving the bombing of jellyfish with an airplane that flies by overhead; and a first-person finale where you try and ram the famous fish with the bow of your ship. In my opinion, Chief Brody might say, “You’re gonna need a better game,” but he’d have a hard time finding one with cooler box art and better display quality.
Mark was just an average kid who loved baseball and hated school until one evening when he saw a blazing star plummet to Earth. A mysterious creature emerged and asked Mark to return with him to Dark World, where his baseball bat would be the perfect weapon for battling the evil monsters terrorizing the helpless population. Mark agreed, and he is sent through eight levels of monster mayhem, including a dungeon, a cave, castle ruins, a lake, a tower, and Dark World Heaven’s Castle. As Mark, you bash flying demons, a haunted well, demon umbrellas, walking pairs of pants, and other strange enemies, and you can bat projectiles back at the baddies. You can also grab capsules in order to transform into a flying, photon laser-shooting monster.
The objective in each level is to locate and enter multiple doorways to engage in one-on-one fights with such giant bosses as a man-eating plant, Guardian of the Giant Sphynx, Giant Samurai, and Punk Rocker. When you defeat all the bosses in a level, a key will appear to the next level. As a big fan of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, I love Monster Party’s classic creature box art. The game itself is pretty terrific as well.
Along with Chiller, Zombie Nation is the most unorthodox game on this list. Also, like Chiller, we’ve only offered two sealed copies and one CIB. In this game, players guide the disembodied holographic head of a Samurai as it travels through four nicely illustrated levels, each ending in a boss: New York City (Head of Medusa), The Grand Canyon (Atlas), The Oil Fields of Texas (Nuclear Plant), and The Underground Caverns of the North Central U.S. (Venusian Snakes).
You fire straight projectiles from the head’s eyes and arching projectiles from his mouth to kill such enemies as zombies (of course), tanks, helicopters, zeppelins, jet fighters, drone robots, water snakes, and lava monsters. You’ll also destroy buildings and mountains in the head’s path. By rescuing zombie hostages that are hurled through the air, you can power up the head with double fire, triple fire, and smart bombs, which is awesome. Zombie Nation is weird, but fast, frenetic, and fun, with constant action and shooting. This is a noisy, thunderous game that, like many NES titles, is difficult to finish. And, strangely, enough, it is one of three NES games with an animated Statue of Liberty, the others being Ghostbusters II and Superman.