This might be a glaringly obvious statement to be making in 2020, but we are accustomed to open world environments when playing video games. These are the types of games that push the limits of where you can go, what you can do, who you interact with. Allowing players ample freedom of choice, mirroring the same freedoms that 21st century technological advances has provided us in the real world. Not to mention the hundreds of hours that can poured into these games due to their sheer size and breadth. These are all attributes associated with modern gaming.
What about games that are self contained? Games that provide very few choices in where you can go, what you can do and don’t allow much freedom of choice in the tasks that must be performed? How about the games that due to their boxed in approach to gameplay, can even make you feel a bit claustrophobic? Do these games still appeal to us once we’ve had it all, in a figurative sense?
I suppose one can make the argument that many games released in the 1980s would qualify for this dubious consideration. However, I’ve chosen several titles from this era that I recall playing, enjoying but definitely getting that feeling that you’re sort of repeating yourself over and over and over……
The concept behind Stern Electronics’ 1980 arcade smash, Berzerk, is simple. Enter a maze-like room filled with evil robots, survive and move onto the next room. To accomplish this seemingly simple task, all you have to do is move your character towards one of the several available doors. Of course there are hazards placed in each room that are designed to kill you with every step you take. You must avoid touching the electrically charged walls, robot fire and if you take too long to reach an exit, Evil Otto. Evil Otto is the menacing, grinning, bouncing ball of death who’s only goal is to kill your slow moving ass. He cannot be killed by using your weapon, so your only choice is to avoid him at all costs. If you hear that tell-tale bouncing ball noise and see him pop on screen, you are advised to find an exit quickly because he can only be outrun for a short time before catching up with you.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to shoot all of the robots in each room in order to advance but you may want to, especially in the earlier stages, in order to earn bonus points. The difficulty ramps up by adding more robots to each room while also increasing the speed and accuracy of their shots. Luckily for you, the robots are still pretty mindless and many of them will kill themselves by running into the energized walls. The lack of robotic voice that is so recognizable from the arcade version is nowhere to be found on any of the home console versions but it is not enough to detract from the clean look & feel of the gameplay. I personally enjoy the Vectrex version of Berzerk the best and I appreciate how it allows you to shoot diagonally. This is a real game changer especially considering that the enemy robots cannot shoot diagonally. That makes the Vectrex version quite a bit easier than the arcade and other home ports. The arcade game is still the way to play if you can. However, plugging Berzerk into a home console or playing through emulation all the while sitting in a small, dark room, may entice a few gamers to run outside for a breath after just a short amount of time stuck in the mazes.
Exidy’s 1981 offering, Venture, took the template of Berzerk and created their own claustrophobic shooter. Your character, Winky, is represented on screen as a goofy smiling face (huh?!?!) who seeks out treasure in various rooms while avoiding or in some cases battling the monsters within. Based on this premise, Venture could be subtitled, “The Adventures of Winky: The Courageous Dungeon Explorer”. You know, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Once inside a treasure room, you’ll need to make quick work of grabbing the treasure, killing any enemies that get in your way, and getting the hell out. Why the pressure to be quick? Venture has its own version of Evil Otto, called the Hallmonsters, that appear if you’re too slow on the take. They basically look like an angry, ugly, unbeatable Madball. Look up this interesting ’80s toy if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.
Despite being a bit of a Berzerk clone, Venture has its own merits. The search for treasure and the various maps (exterior, interior) make it a slightly better option for deeper gameplay. My personal favorite home console version is on the Intellivision as it gets a lot of things right over the Colecovision and especially the Atari 2600 versions. Venture’s downside is that the graphics on both the arcade and more glaringly on any of the home console versions, are quite dull. The game doesn’t give you a lot of variety from level to level in terms of environments, much like looking at the same four walls day in and day out when every day starts to bleed together into one long cycle.
This Hudson Soft computer game from 1983 definitely fits the criteria for a claustrophobic title due to its core gameplay. Your character, Bomberman, is a robot that is stuck in mazes and must extract itself from these mazes by blowing stuff up (obviously), including rocks or enemies that get in the way. Besides revealing each level’s exit door, exploded rocks also hide power up items that Bomberman can use to make its job that much easier.
The real sense of claustrophobia comes in when Bomberman gets stuck between rocks on one side, an enemy making its way in your direction from another side and the bomb you just laid, about to explode and blast your robot to kingdom come. This feeling of being stuck with no way out, is certainly something relatable these days. Overall, Bomberman is a well made puzzle game that was most commonly played on the NES upon its release for the system in 1987. It spawned sequels across multiple platforms and remains one of the most enduring puzzle games originating from the ’80s.
Ghost House is a frustratingly difficult action platformer, originally released as a Sega card for the Master System in 1986. The goal of the game is to destroy 5 (!) different Draculas using your youthful looking vampire hunter, Mick. Mick must punch or jump on enemies to avoid certain death while searching for these Draculas that will also be his certain death. If you choose to play this brutal game, be prepared for Mick to consistently fall down invisible pits, get knocked back repeatedly by the never ending barrage of enemies, and if you’re anything like me, ultimately rage quit entirely.
Hitting lights inside this tiny little house will freeze the enemies temporarily, which is your primary strategy for defeating the Draculas. There’s also a means to procure a sword, which helps fight off the enemies tremendously. However, the high level of difficulty in Ghost House means that only the most skilled and practiced of players will likely ever reach the point of earning the sword and defeating several of the Draculas, let alone all five.
Ghost House gives off a very claustrophobic vibe as the entire game takes place in and on top of a small house that doesn’t allow you much room to move around in. Imagine a haunted house scenario where every 3 steps you take, something jumps out at you that must be fended off. Low ceilings, narrow hallways, and a swarm of enemies that not only makes the game repetitive, but gives you a feeling like there is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Something like sharing a small house with an entire family of 5 and everywhere you turn, a family member is taking up space? Yeah, like that.