Fear is often at its most effective when unexpected. When you don’t have the opportunity to brace yourself for a fright, the punctuality of it seems to land that much harder. These 10 levels are damn scary, and even more so because they aren’t in horror games at all. As we close in on Halloween, everyone’s favorite time to get a little spooky, we count down top 10 scary levels in non-horror games.
10. Pokémon Tower — Pokémon Red/Blue
From the moment you stroll into Lavender Town, things feel a little off. Lavender Town’s famously off-putting music sets a grim tone. Soon after arriving, players are forced to ascend Pokémon Tower, the grave site of many dead Pokémon. Without proper equipment, you are constantly being harassed by ghosts that you can’t battle until you find the Silph Scope in Celadon City.
Without this knowledge, anyone’s first foray into Pokémon Tower is sure to be a frightful one. Once you have the item, however, things are considerably less scary as the ghosts are just Ghastly and Haunter — even if the game insinuates these Pokemon are in fact the souls of the countless dead Pokémon buried here.
9. Wrecked Ship — Super Metroid
The Metroid series is incredibly atmospheric and leverages the player’s uneasiness constantly. Samus’ adventures are always a little scary, and you never know what new beast is going to be around the corner. For my money, however, the series peaked at frightfulness when you first board the Wrecked Ship in Super Metroid. Immediately the music becomes a thick syrup, with sparse drums layered over top, creating a chilling mood.
As you explore, the wreckage is very dimly lit and twisted masses of skulls endlessly appear from the darkness to haunt Samus until she faces the area’s boss — a giant alien ghost. Once the boss is defeated the ship lights up and is more explorable, but still a bit terrifying.
8. Big Boo’s Haunt — Super Mario 64
Sometimes for something to be scary it doesn’t have to be gory or bloody, but rather just weird. Super Mario 64 has plenty of weird, but nowhere else in the game does this weirdness coalesce as it does in Big Boo’s Haunt. The level is a giant labyrinthine mansion, constantly spitting the player back into places they’ve been with little to no progress made in the meantime.
Some rooms are empty save some bookcases, while others have the infamous jump-scare inducing pianos that spring to life when Mario nears, gnashing their teeth and thrashing about viscously. The only room that seems benign is the basement, and even it is terrifying thanks to a shift in music and a creepy carousel that is constantly spinning. I couldn’t wait to get my stars and get the hell out.
7. Planes of Oblivion — The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is an enormous game by any standard. It’s also my favorite of Bethesda’s enormous sandbox RPG’s for various reasons, but one of which was my appreciation of the classic horror style in which the Planes of Oblivion were brought to life. Lakes of lava ebb and flow around the lifeless landmasses, with terrible spires jutting into the red horizon while imps and other Daedric monstrosities lurk around every corner.
The only way into Oblivion is through one of the several gates, and the only way out is to close that gate by ascending the spires to their peak. This is where the real horror shows itself — dismembered body parts are piled into cages and the naked bodies of victims snatched and drug here are on display, hanging from hooks and chains with blood covering everything. Oblivion is a literal representation of Hell in another dimension, and it’s certainly not somewhere you would like to end up.
6. Hrackert Station — Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
From the moment players step out of the Ebon Hawk and onto Man’aan, the planet governed by the fishy Selkath, things feel off. Under the surface of the pristine, floating city you’re investigating, strings are being pulled in every which direction to subvert the strict government, pervert the youth to the dark side, and even accidentally awaken an ancient god. Upon learning that an underwater Republican kolto harvesting station has gone completely silent, the player must infiltrate and find out what went wrong.
As it turns out, the mining equipment being used awakened an enormous predator the Selkath worship, causing all of the Selkath on the station to go insane and slaughter everyone they could find. With countless dead bodies and bloodthirsty fish-people, the horror is masterfully unraveled to the player, keeping you on the edge of your seat the entire time.
6. Feros — Mass Effect
Two Bioware RPG’s back to back? It’s true. And for good reason, Feros is a scary ass place and only gets worse as Commander Shepard and crew learn more about it. Originally, Shepard’s goal is to repel a Geth attack which is threatening the colony of Zhu’s Hope, but it doesn’t take long to learn of a much greater threat to the colonists. An ancient beast called the Thorian has begun taking over the minds of the colonists and turning many of them into horrific zombie creatures.
Confronting the beast is inevitable. It is much bigger than expected and able to disgustingly spawn Asari from a jowl-like opening on its body. As with many aspects of Mass Effect, what happens is up the player and the survival of the colony is no different. Spare the colonists and hope they can reestablish the colony or slaughter them to ensure the Thorian’s grip is no longer a threat — the choice is yours.
4. New Londo Ruins — Dark Souls
The world of Dark Souls is not a particularly friendly one. Nearly everything wants to see you dead and are more than willing to assist one another to achieve the goal. It’s no surprise then, that amidst such an inhospitable place, the game can get pretty scary as well, particularly in the New Londo Ruins. To get to the ruins, the player can take multiple paths, but all of them lead to a hopeless and flooded kingdom, shunned away beneath the world.
Exploring the ruins are virtually impossible without the knowledge that many of the enemies can only be killed by using a specific consumable item. Wandering the halls without it will surely see you to your death, as the ghosts of the dead citizens of the New Londo will sprout from everywhere — below you, through walls, and from above to overwhelm and eventually drive a ghastly blade into your corpse.
3. 343 Guilty Spark — Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo: Combat Evolved changed the console first-person shooter forever, and showed just what was capable of the genre in the right hands. The gameplay was razor sharp, and t also introduced us to one of the most popular gaming mascots of all time — the Master Chief. Master Chief is the king of being tossed into impossible situations and prevailing when no one else could. But what 343 Guilty Spark does so well, is taking this sense of power and control players have been given and ripping it away.
Landing near the installation in the jungle and wading through it at night in the rain created bounds of atmosphere and questions. Why are there no enemies here and where is the crew I was sent here to find? The answers become all too prevalent as you face your first wave of the Flood and quickly realize this is truly the great threat to humanity and the covenant alike. The spores take over the bodies of humans and aliens alike, reviving them as horrific zombies with their only goal being to spread their disease. The masterful unveiling of the creatures, and Bungie’s decision to make Chief feel powerless for the first time in the game created one of the most memorable, and terrifying, moments in the entire Halo series.
2. Shadow Temple — The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda series always has a little bit of the creeps spread throughout. After all, the premise is a young man exploring dungeons and slaying monsters to eventually saved a kidnapped princess. However, it wasn’t until Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda’s first entry in the realm of 3D gaming, that the eeriness came into its own. Ocarina of Time is an inherently weird and creepy game in many ways — the dungeons are often dark, the townsfolk bizarre, and the music ominous.
But no level is as explicitly terrifying as the Shadow Temple. Simply gaining entry to the dungeon requires completing various difficult tasks, including reverting to a child and exploring the horrific Bottom of the Well. Inside, the walls are covered in shackles and chains, blood spatters various locations, menacing ghouls that look like mutated humans try and eat you — the place is Zelda’s excellent example of a horror level. And did I mention that the entrance is located in the game’s graveyard? How very fitting.
1. Ravenholm — Half Life 2
As a child, games like Resident Evil repulsed me. I didn’t like horror, and it wasn’t until I was older that I found enjoyment in the genre. More so than any other level on this list (though I would place it close with the previous entry) I was terrified when I first found Ravenholm in Half-Life 2. Half-Life 1 scared me plenty, but Ravenholm upped the ante, turning the entire level into a survival horror extravaganza. Ravenholm was a town established by escapees from the Combine’s main city but was eventually found out.
Instead of simply razing the place and slaughtering all of the citizens, the combine instead launched a slew of headcrab shells, infesting the place with the parasites and effectively turning all of the “traitors” into zombies. With density greater than any other zone in the series, headcrabs and zombies flood the streets. With little to no ammo found throughout the level, Godon is forced to use the gravity gun and various saw blades, steel barrels, and other non-weapon items to slice, smash, and tear his way through the swarm. The enemies are near endless, and survival requires unitizing wit and cunning over brute force. My mental association with Ravenholm is still one of fear and desperation the likes of which no other non-horror game has made me feel, which is why it sits atop this scary list.