Though Halloween never had the prolonged media battering of the present day, the audience of the 8-bit era was as fond of a good scare as we are. Stephen King and James Herbert were selling millions with each new novel in the early 80s, while cinematic teen slashers saw their heyday with iconic maniacs, like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, alongside countless John Carpenter wannabes contributing with their own take on the genre.
At this time video games was a nascent medium struggling against technical restrictions, and still in the process of establishing its own codes and conventions. The low-fi visuals and limited interactions posed a different type of challenge for generating the kind of tension that drove that era's cinematic horrorshows. As atmospheric as the ASCII-drawn, Alien-inspired corridors of the Nostromo try to be, being stalked by an ampersand isn't exactly the stuff of nightmares. Despite an evocative cover and some neat light-based mechanics, Atari's Haunted House doesn't play much different from any regular maze chase. As for the woeful 1982 adaptation of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the less said the better.
It's one of gaming history's telling little ironies that, while these titles explicitly aimed (and mostly failed) at erecting some sort of early horror canon for the medium, it was a former guitarist, Paul Norman, who ended up creating arguably the first genuinely scary videogame. It was also his first commercial software endeavour, and the outcome was almost inadvertent. The higher-ups at soon-to-be-defunct developer Synchro asked Norman for a “bow-and-arrow” title and he looked for inspiration not in classic horror films, but in swashbuckling adventures like Jason and the Argonauts and the stop-motion monsters of Ray Harryhausen.
Yet both games of his Forbidden Forest series, almost in spite of his own proclivity for archaeological fantasy (as evidenced by subsequent work like Aztec Challenge and Caverns of Khafka) and some gloriously cheesy artwork (that would have looked right at home as the cover of a Robin Hood porn spoof), declare their intention to unsettle as early as their introductory screens. The sequel especially, with its intermittent flashes of lightning gradually revealing the silhouettes of unnaturally bent forest trees under a moonless sky, makes it immediately clear: bow-and-arrow games these may be, but this ain't Sherwood.
Mood-setting splash screens aside, scaring players with a 320x200 resolution and 64 kilobytes of memory is no simple task. A truth familiar to filmmakers since the early days of cinema with sound is that tension can be generated not only by what one sees, but also by what one hears: something that the musical Norman, performing composer duties for both games and a self-professed movie buff, was obviously aware of. The sinister church organ in the original and the rumbling of distant thunder in the sequel, Beyond the Forbidden Forest, serve as ominous first impressions, but there's more elaborate work on display here than just a gloomy tune and the selection of thematically appropriate sound effects.
For a 1982 game, Forbidden Forest's soundtrack is a remarkable technical achievement, both setting the tone, then following and responding to the player's circumstances. As night descends upon the forest, the main theme expands and accelerates with sudden urgency, high-pitched arpeggios cut through the organ's doom and gloom like swooping banshees before, at the moment of failure, it all dissolves into an ear-splitting cacophony that, allied with the lo-res carnage on screen, builds to an all-out sensory assault.
One of the crucial components in the series disquieting effects (and, one suspects, a major selling point) was the morbidly imaginative and unapologetically gory spectacle it made of your deaths. A giant spider emerges from behind the tangled foliage of the forest and, as you fumble drawing and nocking an arrow, is already upon you, fans sinking deep into your ineptly thrashing body, hunter and prey locked together in a profusely gushing blood-geyser. In the third stage, a biblical rain of massive amphibians threatens to squash you into a crimson mass of viscera if your frantic dodging falters.
To understand how extraordinary these scenes seemed to someone playing Forbidden Forest in 1983 one only needs to know that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre adaptation (a game that certain stores refused to carry only a year earlier) signified a character's death simply by changing their outfit to a darker hue. Death by palette-swap. Predictably enough the sequel, Beyond the Forbidden Forest, published in 1985, featured even more elaborate death animations: a huge scorpion mercilessly impaling you with its stinger, burrowing worm-monsters swallowing you whole then spitting out the non-digestible parts, and, arguably the series' highlight, a giant mosquito fastening its proboscis at the back of your neck, lifting you up, then proceeding to suck all vital fluids from your body before dropping you, a drained husk of skin and fabric.
One would nevertheless be mistaken in assuming that the games' impact rests on crude visual sensationalism and little more. There is ingenuity in Norman's design both in audiovisual terms and in a couple of ingenious mechanics that underline your archer's helplessness against the creatures of the forest. Like Resident Evil 4, the Forbidden Forest games are essentially traversable shooting galleries where you'll be required to walk and aim, but cannot do both at the same time. Add to this lack of mobility the small delay introduced by the need to draw each arrow individually before shooting and your character is in constant danger before he even has a chance of fighting back, an imposed sense of vulnerability that has worked wonders across the horror genre ever since.
Meanwhile visual tricks make the forest, both versions of it, an alarming and claustrophobic place to linger in, even before any of its dreadful denizens show up for dinner. The sheer density of misshapen vegetable matter cluttering the screen makes approaching creatures harder to spot, and their unusual size means there's limited space for manoeuvre. More fiendishly, Norman has designed the trees to serve not just as spooky backdrop layers but as actively interfering (if immobile) sprites obstructing your field of vision as the encroaching monstrosities conceal themselves behind them. In yet another innovative idea, both games track the passage of time, a perfect excuse to unsettle you with a gradually darkening palette. As night falls upon the forest, it becomes even harder to discern which shadows are moving and which are not, which are threats to aim at and which are mute witnesses to your impending demise.
Perhaps this final design flourish accounts, at least partly, for another more elusive but all-pervasive aspect of the series' tone — a sense of slowly accumulating dread that cannot be explained away via gore, music, and subject matter alone. There is a sense of mounting despair to your archer's lonely quest. An uneasy impression, conveyed through twisted tree trunks and a scowling moon, that the entire ecosystem is involved in some opaque conspiracy against you, a troublesome dissonance exposed when every 'triumph' plunges the world deeper into darkness.
Despite its goofy monsters and its lighthearted inspiration, something of cosmic horror hovers over Forbidden Forest, an awareness of powers beyond your character's comprehension or ability to confront. Even the stars, symbols of enduring hope in other, friendlier, universes, look upon you cold and unflickering here, waiting for a chance to deliver their final message.