TERROR IN 16-BITS now available, with a new season of Spooklights on the way!

It’s here.

Ever play a game too scary to complete? Ever been haunted in the hours after the TV flickered out, thinking of how scary it would be to re-enter that haunted mansion, that bio-weapons lab, that fog-shrouded town?

7th Guest. Splatterhouse. Resident Evil. Silent Hill. Doom. Blood. Harvester. Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts. Castlevania. Dark Souls. Bloodborne.

These titles and more have inspired our newest anthology: Terror in 16-bits. Fifteen spooky levels of ghastly fun and frights, inspired by the horror video games you’ve come to know and love… and shudder to think about.

Available now through Amazon, or through pre-order via our store to support us directly.

Terror in 16-bits: now you’re playing… with TERROR!

And stay tuned for interviews with our authors in the next season of Spooklights! Podfade ain’t got nothing on us, we promise!

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Video Game Review: Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders

Available on Steam; GZDoom Sourceport Available Here

Heretic is a gothic, medieval fantasy horror first-person shooter developed by Raven Software and published by id Software back in 1994. To call it a Doom clone does the game a disservice. Yes, it plays essentially the same—explore winding mazes and complex levels, blast away at monsters, find keys, hit switches, and make your way to the exit. However, its design philosophy, art style, and atmosphere set it apart, and make it a game that, all these years later, holds up better than even the venerable Doom itself.

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Heretic, like Doom (and its sequels) is a game I revisit every couple of years. Thankfully, wonderful sourceports like GZDoom exist to make the game playable with improved graphics and controls. Mapping the controls to a modern WASD + mouse setup has never been easier, and there are a variety of display options to make the game as pretty (or 90s-gnarly) as you like. Conversely, you can always play the game in DosBox for a truly retro experience.

Heretic’s big claims to fame over its predecessor Doom is the ability to look up and down, and a rudimentary inventory system. While new sourceports allow mouselook in Doom, looking up and down can unfairly affect the difficulty balance of some maps. (Then again, I have a lot more fun playing Doom when I can actually aim those friggin’ rockets at the enemies above or below me.) Needless to say, this opens up the player’s ability to survive and navigate complex ambushes and enemy placement.

The use of power ups, while not essential for an expert player, adds some variety to the corridor combat and can get you out of otherwise nigh-impossible situations. Like other shooters of its time, Heretic’s primary challenge comes from trapping you in a small, enclosed space before shoveling wave after wave of monsters at you. Using these items—invisibility, warps, wings of wrath, health flasks, and the alternative fire mode-enabling tome of power—often marks the difference between life and death in many situations. This subtle layer of depth adds a lot of strategy to the game, as you’re forced to use your resources wisely to survive the game’s brutal levels.

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Make no mistake—the levels are difficult, especially if you cut your teeth on contemporary Call of Duty garbage. These aren’t straight-line walks from cover to cover, with plenty of opportunities to regenerate your health as dumb-as-rocks enemies take cowardly potshots at you. No, you’ll have to explore a myriad of designs, including labyrinthine mazes, open spaces with scant to no cover, caves, lava rivers, villages, castles, and treacherous dungeons—and a healthy mix thereof in any given map. Heretic has a diverse level design, and you’ll never get bored with the layout.

What really sets Heretic apart from other games of its time (and many today) is its cultivation of atmosphere. Strange sounds dog your steps; creepy (and gory) textures litter the map; gothic architecture and doodads lend the maps a sense of place and menace. The game is at once subtle and overt; however, its gore effects are quaint by today’s horror standards, especially considering that contemporary developers’ ideas of “scary” and “atmosphere” are over-the-top gore.

The monsters themselves are as diverse as the levels. The first enemy type you encounter is a flying gargoyle with a peppering projectile attack; from there, melee and projectile-based enemies abound, often with high hit points and the nasty tendency to chase you down in groups. Killing even the most basic enemies is often satisfying, with ample gory visual and audio effects, making each kill feel like a victory rather than a triviality. While some enemies are overused—the scorpion warriors come to mind—they are all intimidating and dangerous. Each encounter can feel like a life-or-death situation, something Doom and other shooters (including many that came after Heretic, well into the current generation) cannot claim.

The weapons in this game, unfortunately, represent the game’s biggest shortcoming. Almost all of them are simple re-skins of the Doom arsenal. The final weapon, a mace-ball-throwing-thing, is completely useless in almost every situation. This is, however, somewhat offset by the tome of power, which unlocks alternate, devastating fire modes for a limited time, allowing even the lowly elven wand to become a room-clearing powerhouse. Keep in mind however that much of the game’s ammunition is in short supply, forcing you to conserve your damage output in favor of strategically working your way through each map’s numerous and deadly encounters.

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Shadow of the Serpent Riders includes two additional episodes not available in the initial release of the game. These level sets aren’t as tightly-designed as the first three, and tend to mass enemy placements and restrict ammunition supplies in an attempt to appeal more for expert players. The first level of episode 4 is almost impossible to beat on higher difficulty levels for all but the most dedicated and hardcore Heretic players. While I’m a fan of difficult games, there comes a point where I want to play and enjoy a game, rather than figure out the precise, time-consuming way to defeat an arbitrarily-difficulty design. Beyond the official five episodes of the game there is plenty of user-generated content out there, including new maps, mods, and whole episodes to blast your way through. It’s not as robust a community as that of Doom, but since the source code’s release, plenty of would-be level designers have offered up some really great (and completely free) content.

Heretic is pure, unadulterated horror-action-fantasy-shooter fun. It holds up well, especially with the development of modern source ports. Its single player campaign is more fun than Doom, and sports great horror sensibilities. This is an oft-overlooked classic that is ripe for a modern sequel with old-school sensibilities. Play Heretic to see what a good action horror game can be—and what a developer can accomplish when they set out to build a solid, immersive single player experience.

5/5 Interdimensional Serpent Riders

If you enjoy Heretic, you may like its sequel, Hexen.

Video Game Review: Happytime Circus 2

Happytime Circus 2 – Doom II Mod

Designed by Shitbag, aka Ray

Available for download here. Requires Doom II and the ZDoom or GZDoom sourceport.

The Doom series nominally falls into the horror genre. Truth be told, it’s nine parts action shooter, one part horror. The grisly monster designs, gore-ridden textures, rivers of blood—these are more set dressing than anything else. While I’m a lifelong fan of the original trilogy—Doom, Doom II, and yes, even Final Doom—these games are rarely scary. There’s a few jump scares when a flaming skull or chain gun-wielding zombie gets the drop on you, and there’s always a moment of adrenaline when you open a door to find a cyberdemon or arch-vile waiting for you. But true dread? Not so much.

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[Doom III is another story. Its gameplay is radically different from the original series, with a focus on close-quarters combat with only a handful of enemies. It uses sound design, lighting effects, and atmosphere to invoke a haunted carnival house atmosphere. It may not be existentially scary, but when it yells “BOO,” you’ll jump.]

While I’m not here to review the Doom series—yet—I will say that there’s a reason that I’ve played these games, off and on, since I first experienced the shareware version on a friend’s computer, sometime back in 1994. They’re fun. Frantic, bloody, fast, with a near-perfect effort-reward balance. Beyond that, the modding community that sprung up around the games, thanks to id Software’s encouragement of user-generated content and the eventual release of the source code, has allowed programmers to pick apart, rearrange, and put the game back together again in all sorts of fun and inventive ways. I rarely play “vanilla” Doom—that is, with no mods, in its original DOS format—but instead use source ports that allow for things like jumping, mouse and keyboard controls, mouse look, high-res graphics, new animations, weapons, and enemies, and of course new levels.

“Happytime Circus 2” is one such level. But it’s also a mod—it brings a fresh experience to the game, with new graphics, enemy types, programming tricks, and textures. It’s still very much a Doom level, but it often feels like something else entirely.

It’s also scary. Very scary. Especially if you don’t like clowns.

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You begin the level with a modified pistol, the open road behind you and an abandoned town ahead. While I love the id Software Doom level sets, they rarely, if ever, had maps that looked like real places. Abstract level design philosophy was in full effect at id through much of the 90s, so you’d occasionally get smatterings of realistically-built city blocks, military facilities, or castles. But more often than not you would be fighting through a fortress that didn’t seem to serve any real-world function, with nonsensical room layout and a lack of grounding details tying it to something you might see in real life.

One of the strengths of “Happytime Circus 2” is its reversal of that trend. Built on one large map, this feels quite a bit like a medium-sized town. There’s lots of streets, houses, shops, power lines, and even a cabin deep in the woods (a la Evil Dead). It’s really amazing the amount of work the designer put into building this town, using the blocky limitations of the dated idtech engine.

And the town is creepy. While the sky texture swirls above you, you’ll walk through wind-scoured empty streets, moving from house to house in search of rare healing items, ammunition, switches to pull, or doodads to shoot. I’ve spent several hours feeling creeped out as I went from one part of the town to the next, exploring at a snail’s pace. Changing music and trigger-based sound effects really put me on edge.

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It quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary town. The circus is here—or something pretending to be the circus. Within the first few houses you’ll find little clown statues (shoot them!), paintings of Pennywise, and pieces of wall falling away to reveal tent-striped surfaces beneath.

There’s no real story to speak of, but it’s easy to build one in your own head. What is the circus doing this to the town? What happened to all of the people? What the hell is going on when you accidentally cross over into the clown dimension?

There’s several weapons available to you as you explore. You’ll start with a modified pistol, but quickly find the standard shotgun. There’s also clown grenades, a gut thrower, a gas rocket launcher, a popcorn shooter, gore balloons, and glitter-spraying mines. While their designs are interesting enough, their utility is quite limited. Most of the weapons have some sort of splash damage, and the enemies you’ll fight often ambush you in close quarters, making it hard to fight back without hurting yourself. They also feel underpowered most of the time, forcing you to expend large amounts of ammunition (“clown souls”) to take down the enemies. I found the gut thrower to be completely useless, as I couldn’t hit floating enemies or seem to damage the tinier ghouls that scampered along the ground toward me. While I appreciate the effort that went into making these new weapons, they’re pretty much useless in most of the map’s combat encounters.

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Finding ammunition is also problematic, especially in the mid to late game. While the scarcity of bullets and shotgun shells works very well in the early game—adding to it a sense of dread and tension—once you open up most of the town, you’ll be fighting large groups of enemies over and over again. You’ll run out of ammunition very, very fast.

The enemies themselves are also a mixed bag. Patrolling clowns, chattering skulls, shadow teddy bears, and more await you. The problem with the enemy design is that most of them are very difficult to hit (especially those that scamper along the ground toward you at a high rate of speed), and the enemies like the clown bulbs, clown ghosts, or flaming clown skulls take a ton of damage to drop, and deal out even more. They tend to mass in large groups, making it impossible to fight them all, or even to survive many encounters without expending all of your ammunition or having to quick save.

Still, the first time you encounter a new enemy type, it’s genuinely unnerving—if you don’t jump out of your seat.

Eventually, I felt the incentive for exploration of new sections of the town to drop, as you were more likely to expend your resources than gain any as you tried to survive the horrors within each new building. Many of the enemies can move through walls, so running away typically meant they would show up a few minutes later, usually when you were inside a narrow corridor and couldn’t maneuver away from them.

The puzzles, too, are not conducive to walkthrough-free playing. You’ll hit a switch somewhere—or pass right by a switch, not realizing what it is—only to open up another switch, wall, or portal somewhere else. Shooting the little Pennywise statues triggers events, but you’ll almost never know where to go next. This leads to a lot of backtracking, a la Hexen, which artificially increases the difficulty and time you’ll spend playing.

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It was the issues with the enemies and puzzles that eventually forced me to resign from the game without completing the map. I know it is possible to beat it—there’s plenty of Let’s Play videos out there—but I’m not sure it’s worth going through the whole map just to reach the end. I got stuck in the clown dimension in what I believe was the later part of the level, and became frustrated by the never-ending stream of enemies and lack of discernible direction. I hit a switch, then couldn’t find my way back out again.

Then why would I review this? Why would I recommend the map? Simple. Despite its design flaws, there’s a lot of care and attention to detail that went into this mod. While the weapons aren’t great, they are fun to discover and play around with at first. And frankly, the first few times you explore this dead town and explore the horrors within, you’ll be creeped out. The early game is a lot of fun, especially for experienced Doom players who want to see some new and creative things done with the engine. The designer of the map knows how to set up a good atmosphere and ratchet up the tension.

This map demonstrates that it’s the little things—sound, conservative use of gore, and authentic and creepy settings—that make video game horror actually scary. Professional game designers could learn a thing or two from this mod.

[Note: the above screenshots were taken using GZDoom, a free sourceport for Doom, Heretic, Strife, and Hexen. I also had a gore mod activated.]