Tomorrow is Halloween, and as per usual, Source Gaming likes to celebrate the spirit of the season. This time around, we’re covering just a few of our favorite horror, horror-adjacent, and plain old spooky levels in games. This is, of course, just a small number, and we’d love to hear some of your favorites, so mention them in the comments! I should also note that I was assisted on this list by some of my Source Gaming colleagues, who’ve added their names to their entries. The ones that aren’t credited are mine.
Big Boo’s Haunt, Super Mario 64: While levels based around unique environmental designs have been around forever, in some ways the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation era really pushed these into big, broad “types” through 3D mascot platformers. You had “snow levels” with Christmas trees and auroras lighting up the night, “desert levels” with pyramids and quicksand, and “water levels” with miserable locomotion. And you had the “spooky level,” something Super Mario 64 codified with fifth world Big Boo’s Haunt. It has many prerequisites: a big, spooky mansion, ghosts, violent floating chairs, an all-night background, even ironically cheerful carnival music in the basement. It’s telling that unlike the rest of the game’s level music, the creepy, unsettling theme is used nowhere else. With its more foreboding atmosphere and primarily interior environmental design, it stands as something of a trailblazer both for aspects of 3D level design and tone in E-Rated platform games.
Mad Monster Mansion, Banjo-Kazooie: If Big Boo’s Haunt defined the concept of a token spooky level, Mad Monster Mansion took it to wonderful extremes. There’s still a large house – complete with creepy, ornate bedrooms, creaking floors, and a storm drain – but the spaces around it really steal the show. A ghostly hand plays organ music in a weathered church, specters float through a hedge maze, and there’s even a spooky well surrounded by toxic water. You even turn into an adorable pumpkin! Many of the best parts of Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel were about Rare throwing every semi-related idea into the level they could come up with, and it shines through especially here.
Bottom of the Well, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: And rounding out the Nintendo 64 games is Ocarina of Time. The Bottom of the Well is a mini-dungeon – an appetizer for a grander Shadow Temple – but it’s got an atmosphere creepier and more compelling than its counterpart. Just accessing it is ominous, messing up a creepy windmill to drain the well. But it goes to a fever pitch when Link finds a series of decaying rooms at the well’s floor, filled with zombies whose screams can paralyze, giant hands that can pull him back to the entrance, and most distressingly of all the “Dead Hand.” A bizarre mass of flesh with chattering teeth and hands that pop out of the ground, it’s arguably the weirdest and most terrifying monster in the entire Zelda series, one that just sort of pops out of nowhere and is never referenced again. Even the prize at the end, the Lens of Truth – which can reveal hidden objects and gaps in walls – is a bit unnerving.
Threed, EarthBound: Okay, look, I know the end of EarthBound is legit creepy. That being said, it doesn’t quite have the same overt horror vibe of the game’s third town. If one removed the supernatural elements from Threed, it would still be a creepy place. The town is in a state of eternal dusk, and many of the trees are stark, barren things covered in gnarled branches. It does, however, have supernatural elements: the town is infested with zombies! On top of that, it seems like a circus has taken permanent residence in the middle of the town. The mixture of circus and zombie visuals is brilliant. Really, the only negative thing I can say about this area is that it’s name isn’t quite as inspired as the haunted town from EarthBound Beginnings/Mother, Spookane. – Spazzy
Ravenholm, Half-Life 2: In a game filled to the brim with memorable moments, Gordon Freeman’s trek through the ghost town of Ravenholm still stands out. The pitch works nicely for the scary tone; Gordon is trapped from his partners in a freak accident, and going through the town is the only “reliable” way back. Fortunately, you’re not defenseless, as this becomes the perfect opportunity to explore the game’s iconic Gravity Gun to pull in and shoot out boxes, chairs, and especially the surprising number of saw blades in the city ruins. The terror of being sandwiched by super-strong zombies is mitigated by an Evil Dead 2-esque approach to self-defense, slicing and dicing baddies as you ascend to the city’s rooftops. And right before it becomes too repetitive, the game throws it away and sends you off to do something else.
Fiendlord’s Keep, Chrono Trigger: Magus is an interesting and pivotal character in the Chrono series of games. Throughout the course of the original Chrono Trigger, players are slowly exposed to his tragic backstory, but none of that matters when it comes to the Fiendlord’s Keep. When you are first introduced to Magus his very visage, cloaked in black and carrying a scythe, suggests death. It is fitting then that his castle, the Fiendlord’s Keep, make this list. The enemies are your typical undead fantasy fare; you know, goblins, skeletons, bats and the like. What really makes this place special is the atmosphere, though. The stage is literally half covered in mist as players must trek from the bowels of the keep to its tallest towers in order stop Magus from completing his dark summoning ritual. The music is also amazing; easily one of the memorable tracks on the SNES’ amazing audio catalogue. Best of all though, are the little touches such as traps disguised as save points. – Spazzy
Lavender Tower, Pokémon Red & Blue/Green: Every Pokémon game has played with horror levels, part and parcel with its spooky Ghost-types. Most of them involve a large memorial ground or gravesite, or even a haunted house. But the Pokémon Tower of Lavender Town in the first games both beats and influences them extensively. The town is quiet and still, managing to feel cut off despite being a major junction in the Kanto region. Its only highlight is a tower and gravesite for Pokémon, taken over by wandering ghosts that can only be spotted with a special lens, the villainous Team Rocket using it as a base to kidnap Pocket Monsters, and even a fully-fledged avenging spirit. The fight against the ghost of Marowak is one of the most iconic moments in the franchise, and one of the highlights of the Pokémon Origins miniseries.
Transylvania, DuckTales: Okay, not every “horror” level needs to be genuinely creepy to be enjoyable. In the spirit of things such as “Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween,“ sometimes it’s just fun to have something that uses a creepy aesthetic for theming and flavor. In this regard, the Transylvania stage in DuckTales really fits the bill. First off, much like the rest of the NES classic, the music is fantastic. Secondly, It’s a stage full of mummies and ghosts and it’s capped off with a fight against Count Dracula Duck! Yeah, terrible name, but to be fair Count Duckula was taken. – Spazzy
The Roivas Mansion, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem: For the most part, I want to use this space to cover horror levels in games not really in the genre, but I had to make an exception for this. This list has shown the importance of spooky mansions in games, and the medium is rife with them: Luigi’s Mansion, Gone Home, Resident Evil, Sweet Home, Fatal Frame. I want to highlight the Roivas manor of Eternal Darkness, though, because it’s just so great. The Eldritch architecture underneath the house, the secret bookshelf wall, one of the absolute best jump scares in gaming…it’s all enticing, but in a way that feels natural and understandable instead of hokey or done just to referencing tropes. Eternal Darkness goes through four main locations in total (including a French cathedral, a Persian crypt, and a Cambodian temple) but the Mansion is the closest thing the game has to a “hub.” And it’s the kind of naturalistic, detailed space to ground players – right until pulling the rug out from under them time and again.
The Derelict Reaper, Mass Effect 2: The Mass Effect trilogy has brushed up against horror plenty of times, but for my money the best is when Cmdr. Shepard and her/his crew have to board the wreckage of a massive undead machine, perilously close to a black hole. While the level starts out quiet, with audio logs showing a science team losing their sanity to the Reaper’s psychic influence, soon you’re bombarded with hordes of the undead, running through walkways just barely holding together while a mysterious third party eludes you. The lighting alternates between a deep, dark blue and the intense orange light of a far away star. Like the rest of the level, it creates a feeling of anxiety and urgency as you try to capture a code necessary for beating the game’s memorable “suicide mission.” Mass Effect has always stymied its differing tones with its combat, but this level managed the feat.
Duskwood, World of Warcraft: This might seem like a really odd choice to be on this list. World of Warcraft, after all, is a game filled with many haunted or demon infested areas. Two of the playable races are basically werewolves and zombies, after all. Something like the haunted castle of Karazhan would be thematically appropriate and much more iconic. Duskwood, however, holds a special place in my heart. Back when I first played that game, things were different. The level cap was 60 as opposed to the current cap of 110, and every new zone felt like a brand new and super exciting experience. Duskwood was a place full of liches, giant spiders, and feral wolfmen. It was the first time I saw something like that in the game and it really went far to show me how diverse the world of Azeroth could be. -Spazzy
The Scarecrow Fight, Batman: Arkham Asylum: Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of the Arkham games, especially as the series has continued. They increasingly undercut their best systems, the dialogue reads like a parody of self-conscious “grimdark” superhero comics, and there’s a really disquieting element of sleaze to the affair. The first is easily my favorite for that reason: it’s tight, mechanically smart, and mostly knows how to balance its fun combat with even more fun stealth. And one of the high points of the game tosses both out the window, when the Scarecrow throws Batman into a nightmarish fever dream, fighting skeletons in a world of broken, floating debris. Its surrealism is, to be honest, kind of rote in the world of video games, but it works well at undercutting the player in a horror game where you are the terrifying predator.
Sanctuary of the Scion, Tomb Raider: Prior to the 2013 reboot, Tomb Raider was less gritty and more fantastical. While I love the newer games, I must admit I miss how hard the original games would lean on supernatural element. The Sanctuary of the Scion is an area from the very first game, and in it Lara must face off against killer bats creatures and undead mummies. It also eschewed any music and instead used ambient sound which really intensified the creepiness. -Spazzy
Haunted Hall, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest: Diddy Kong aspired to become a video game hero, but his first time in the starring role was under very bleak circumstances; the Kongs’ most capable, accomplished hero was abducted by K. Rool, forcing Diddy and newcomer Dixie to venture to enemy territory. Crocodile Isle, befitting of its villainous inhabitants, was a grim locale, yet it did offer moments of levity, two of which being the illuminated rollercoasters in Krazy Kremland. The aptly named Gloomy Gulch housed its own rollercoaster within its decrepit library, juxtaposing the fun, accessible gameplay mechanics we grew to associate with a joyous carnival backdrop with another the Kremlings had abandoned. Moreover, it sheltered the skeletal Kackles, who’d pursue our heroes, striking them if Diddy or Dixie failed to escape their section within their strict time limit. Haunted Hall’s other renditions reduced the stage’s impact – Donkey Kong Land 2 swapped out the unique library background for the stereotypical carnival, and the Game Boy Advance’s take increased the lighting which, while necessary to ensure players could see, lessened the tense atmosphere – but the original Haunted Hall was a one of a kind level in Diddy’s conquest. – Cart Boy
Queen Vanessa’s Manor, A Hat in Time is a recent release, so I’m not sure how many of you all out there will have played it, but from the outlook it seems like a cute and lighthearted platformer. Which it is, except for this one out of place mission in the game’s third world, Subcon Forest. This mission asks you to get an object from the attic of Queen Vanessa’s Manor. Queen Vanessa is the tragic, heart-broken, queen who no one has seen in years. Upon arrival you can clearly see something is wrong. Subcon Forest is filled with spooky stuff but none of it is ‘scary’, yet the build-up to the manor is something else. Everything is frozen and this ominous music is playing as you break through the ice barriers. When you reach the manor it is looming over you and the front door is locked. A sudden camera shift later and you are in but before you can explore you are Adam Malkovich’d and forbidden to use any of your abilities, not even your umbrella. Suddenly you are helpless and this becomes more apparent as you enter the first corridor and she appears. She comes out of the door, quite literally fading through it, and the screen shakes violently, shifting colors while loud, banging, music plays in your ears. It is frightening and this begins the game of cat and mouse where you must hide from a one-hit killer and try to get through all the locked doors without being caught. The tonal shift is massive and the way fear is presented here makes this one of A Hat in Time’s more memorable moments. – NantenJex