Nintendo games are commonly known for their cartoonish characters and family-friendly atmospheres. Perhaps, then, juxtaposition is the reason they serve as such good fodder for creepypasta—nerdy horror stories that circulate on the internet.
Or, perhaps, it’s because we all secretly know that deep in the guts of a lot of these games skulks something sinister. We may not like to admit it, but Nintendo games can be straight up nightmare fuel at times, especially for kids. Take for instance these Nintendo games that made me quake in my booties.
5. THE DROWNING PLUMBER
’Super Mario 64’
In a game full of otherwise comical death animations, this is one that strikes you as a child and makes you think, “this is what death looks like.” If you look closely, you can almost see the moment Mario’s soul leaves his body.
The game may start off with promises of cake, but it’s a trap—Super Mario 64 has a persistent, permeating creepiness. Of all the smaller instances of terror that could be referenced, though, only one image haunts me to this day: that of a limp, asphyxiated plumber.
My first encounter with the imagery was in the early level, Jolly Roger Bay. Terrifying enough in its own right, Jolly Roger Bay is outfitted with a sunken ship and a meandering, menacing eel. Clunky underwater controls add a feeling of impotence to Mario’s perilous underwater exploration. Perilous, I say, because Mario’s health meter slowly dissipates underwater. If it disappears completely, Mario begins to drown: panic sets in, he clutches at his throat, struggles, goes limp, and provides onlooking children with an enduring lesson in mortality.
4. SA-X, THE PURSUER
Metroid Fusion is primarily an empowering action game where the emotional through line revolves around the upgrades the player can collect. That is, until you consider SA-X—a virus that’s co-opted Samus Aran’s former power armor. When SA-X is in sight, the adventurous spirit of the game shifts to one of urgency.
SA-X is the pinnacle of power and a known threat, as it possesses all the abilities the game’s protagonist used to have. There’s little doubt SA-X can, and will, kill you if afforded the opportunity. As such, the only option for the player when tense, dissonant music signals the relentless pursuer’s arrival is to run. Once a suitable hiding space is found, the player must watch as SA-X prowls about Predator-style: fearless, bold and obsessed. If it spots them, it will hunt them down with murderous fervor.
What makes SA-X so terrifying is the unknowable elements of the encounters. Without the luxury of experience or insight into the game’s AI, it is impossible to know when a hiding spot is actually considered viable. As the player hides, feelings of power are suddenly replaced with feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
3. WHERE ONCE THERE WERE KIND EYES, THERE IS ONLY ABYSS
Animal Crossing for the GameCube is billed as a tranquil getaway, a neighborly experience where the player is tasked with making friends and collecting cool junk. Sounds good, right?
Wrong. There is a feature in the first game that allows players to visit neighboring towns that have been saved to the Gamecube’s memory card. I recall, not so fondly, the time I paid a visit to my sister’s town. A storm raged outside my parent’s New York house and the power cut out. I lost a little progress, but gleefully booted the game back up once power returned with the intent of reclaiming what was lost. Moments later, I was shocked to see not the face of my cutesy avatar but, instead, the face of abject horror.
It turns out that if your character is in another town when the Gamecube is turned off, he or she is rendered into a soulless, eyeless husk whose mouth is perpetually agape in unadulterated terror. I found the sight so unbearable that I was moved to the nuclear option, deleting my save file and effectively burning my carefully curated town to the ground so I could start anew. What I didn’t know at the time was that a quick visit back to my sister’s town would have purged the horrible curse. Oh well, you live and you learn.
(It’s worth mentioning that the ghastly face is designed to resemble in-game items called gyroids. Gyroids, it so happens, are inspired by these little Japanese clay dolls, called Haniwa, that were ritualistically buried with the dead. With that in mind, it would be hard for Nintendo to claim that they’re not just a little bit interested in terrorizing children.)
2. NO BONES ABOUT IT, THIS STAGE WILL HAUNT YOU
’Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest’
The sequel to Donkey Kong Country takes protagonists Diddy and Dixie away from the comfort of their homeland and into the dark and dreary territory of the Kremlings. Depending on your phobias, there is a plethora of things you might find scary in the otherwise innocuous Nintendo romp. There is, however, a series of levels in the Gloomy Gulch area that are a bit more universally scary, and one level in particular, called Haunted Hall, absolutely takes the cake.
In the stage players mount a wheeled rodent skull must avoid obstacles and collect special barrels that add seconds to a diminishing doomsday counter as the terrifying Kackle nips at their heels. The mechanics provide a respectable level of dread but the visuals are what really escalate the entire hellish experience. There’s just something about a hulking, floating skeleton monster and the giant, wheeled rodent skull that starkly opposes a commonly held childhood belief—namely, the one stating how bones are something that belong on the inside.
1. FOREST TEMPLE, NIGHTMARE FACTORY
’The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’
Early in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time the player encounters a form of the game’s demonic antagonist, Ganon, within the deeply unsettling confines of the Forest Temple. The Forest Temple, for those who don’t know, is a place that can’t decide if it wants to be a mass grave or a torture chamber. Obviously this was not the most fun place to explore as a kid.
When you enter the Forest Temple’s circular boss room, Ganon and his horse appear. He then cheerfully rips off his own face, levitates, and gallops off into one of the many framed landscapes mounted around the room. During the fight, Ganon will charge at the player from the landscape paintings. Knowing that he can appear at any time from any direction produces the sensation that something dangerous is constantly lurking just out of sight.
For all the grief it caused my 9-year-old self, I will always condemn the godforsaken Forest Temple as the unequivocal worst dungeon in Ocarina of Time. The Water Temple, by contrast, is a walk in the park.
When he isn’t spending his time writing for publications like UploadVR or PC Gamer Magazine, Benjamin Maltbie often finds himself driving drunken Pokemon GO players around in an Uber. Currently his primary goal in life is to get his girlfriend’s cat to like him. Follow him on Twitter @benjaminmaltbie so he can tell you bad jokes or something.
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