The Fried Critic Survival Horror Handbook - Part One: The Standards

In an age of annoying man-children who screech at eardrum-shattering levels, and of overrated first-person jump scare festivals that can't be bothered with any semblance of a compelling plot or atmosphere, people today aren't really getting the best of what the amazing sub-genre of survival horror has to offer. And while I wouldn't argue that it's dead, per se, survival horror still has yet to reclaim the creativity and vivaciousness that previous generations offered. So, for those not well-versed in the sometimes unnerving, sometimes bizarre, and always entertaining world of horror gaming, I figured it was high time I put together a short series detailing what you should play, what you should avoid, and what's going to make unable to walk around at night.

First up, since you can't beat the classics, here are some games that helped define survival horror as we know it today.

Resident Evil 2 (PSOne/N64/Dreamcast) 

One could argue that omitting the first Resident Evil is a bit wrong, but to be quite honest, there are a few good reasons. First off, Leon's first excursion took everything Capcom did right in the first game, amplified and polished it, then managed to make it work in the sprawl of Raccoon City. In fact, to this day, arguably more people recognize the nightmarish metropolis than they do the Spencer Mansion, and in my opinion, the setting was much more unnerving. Second off, the initial version of Resident Evil is not the best, and was improved upon significantly in the later GameCube remake (which I'll cover in a future entry.) Also important is the fact that the laughably awful live-action cutscenes were dropped in favor of a more serious tone, which helped build a better atmosphere overall. Even after all this time, Resident Evil 2 is a consistently fun and terrifying game, and has one of the best narratives in all of the series, only topped by a certain later entry. As far as fixed-angle, linear survival horror games go, Capcom pretty much set the industry standard with this title.

Availability: You can get it almost anywhere for under 20 bucks. It's also on PSN for download. 

Silent Hill 2 (PS2/Xbox)

When Silent Hill crept onto the PSOne scene, nobody had seen anything quite like it. Instead of zombies, giant monsters, or any other thing of that sort, Konami's sleeper hit was more interested in delving into the psyche of players. It offered Lynchian scares, with a low-key atmosphere that slowly worked away at the player's nerves before throwing something incredibly disturbing at them. On top of this, it had a heady narrative with substantial meaning, not to mention populated by complicated characters. But for all of its efforts, much like Resident Evil, the first entry was outdone by leaps and bounds by its successor. A true psychological horror experience, Team Silent gave us one of the most complicated protagonists in gaming history, one who, over ten years later, has rarely been matched, let alone surpassed. Not only that, but the narrative is far better than most works of cerebral horror, including the mediums of film and narrative fiction. It's not my personal favorite entry in the franchise (that honor goes to Silent Hill 3,) but it's undeniably an important work.

Availability: Most places have it for under 20 bucks in good condition. You could also play the HD Collection, which bundles 2&3, but it's kind of buggy and flawed, even with the patched PS3 version.

Fatal Frame (PS2/Xbox) 

If you've heard of survival horror games talked about amongst "cool kids," then you've probably heard of Fatal Frame. The basic gameplay concept is that you have a spiritual camera of sorts, and through various circumstances, you find yourself using it to exorcise ghosts. Now, there's usually some contention among fans of the franchise as far as what the "best" entry is, but allow me to throw my hat into the ring. While the second entry is the fan favorite, it has a completely throwaway plot with cookie-cutter characters, a soundtrack that's sorely lacking, and scares that are ultimately manufactured and not all that memorable. Still a solid game, for sure, but not the best to me. For my money, the best game is the first. The plot is straightforward and compelling, the lore is rich, and the atmosphere is top-notch. Furthermore, it was the first popular survival horror game with a weapons-free approach, requiring players to stare death in the face in order to escape it. It broke the mold, way more so than the overrated second entry, and is a definite must-play.

Availability: You can get it most places for 20 bucks, and bundled with the second entry on PSN for eight bucks, which is a total steal, as both games have a lot to do.

Doom 3 (PC) 

First-person shooters are not really known for being scary. At least, they weren't, until Doom 3 exploded onto the scene. It may seem a bit odd, considering that prior Doom games were known for being gory and action-packed, and not for their atmosphere and scares, but the shift in focus on this entry earns it a slot. Even though the most well-known first-person action/horror hybrids are F.E.A.R. and Condemned: Criminal Origins, I would argue that those games couldn't exist without id's innovations present in this game. For every exciting set-piece where you tear demons to ribbons with a chain-gun, or unleash hell on robotic skeletons with a BFG, there's a tight corridor with a demonic baby popping out of nowhere, or a vent spring-loaded with an enemy to pop up in your face, leaving you to frantically claw at it with a chainsaw. While the story is a bit bare-bones, and the later parts of the game are filled with artificial difficulty, Doom 3 is still an incredibly important game. It showed gamers that shooters could actually be terrifying if done the right way, and set in place a mold that many would follow, but few would be able to fill and/or break.

Availability: You can get this on the PC for a reasonable price, whether it's the original version or the recent BFG Edition, which is also on PS3 and 360. Pro Tip: avoid the original Xbox version, as it's scaled-down and pretty terrible, outside of an added co-op mode.

Resident Evil 4 (GC/PS2/Wii) 

Some may argue that this was the downfall of the franchise, but to this day, I still staunchly defend Resident Evil 4 as one of the best hybrids of action and horror around. It's barely aged a day, and I've played it several, several times on different platforms; each time, it manages to still surprise and excite me in equal amounts. Leon's return to action is just as filled with dynamic set-pieces as it is disturbing creatures and creepy atmosphere. While perhaps it isn't nearly as scary as previous entries, it's still an effective game, and arguably the finest entry in the franchise. Part of me resents it, sure, for giving rise to later entries, from the boulder-punching stupidity of 5 to the downright awful heap that was 6, but it's hard for me to stay too mad at a game that not only changed the face of horror gaming, but gaming in general. A decade later, and Resident Evil 4 remains a golden standard for video games, horror or no. That alone merits it having a well-deserved spot on this list.

Availability: Do you have a video game console? No, seriously, this has been released on almost everything since the initial release. For my money, the Wii version is the best, as aiming works fantastically, it has all the bonus content of the PS2 edition, and the graphics of the GameCube edition. To me, the HD versions released on PS3 and 360 are kind of perfunctory... although the new PC version coming out soon looks fantastic.

So, these are the bread and butter of your survival horror gaming experiences. They helped shape the sub-genre, and are legitimately fantastic games in their own right. These are horror games that even people not interested in being scared owe it to themselves to play. Next time, then, I'll take a look at some lesser-known classics that, while not completely obscure (I'll save that for a later entry,) are not as beloved as the games here. 


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