This Old Game: Night Stalker

The entertainment industry has done quite well over the years in the market of scaring people. Scary movies have been around as long as movies themselves, with television shows coming soon after. It is, of course, a natural extension of that theme that scary video …

The entertainment industry has done quite well over the years in the market of scaring people. Scary movies have been around as long as movies themselves, with television shows coming soon after. It is, of course, a natural extension of that theme that scary video games would come onto the scene with the advent of said technology. The names of some of the scariest of these games dwell among the upper tiers of video game fame; _[Silent Hill][sh]_, _[Resident Evil][re]_, _[BMXXX Racing][bmx]_.

While the growing technology of video games has offered new depths of interactivity and storytelling, most of these games have chosen to go the tried and true route of “gotcha!” scares. The kind of scares where you stand in an empty room, knowing that something is eventually going to jump out at you… the question is when and how. _Resident Evil_ mastered these scares, with zombies entering rooms every possible way you could think of: through the doors, through the windows, through air vents, through the very floor itself. Along the same lines, there is the _Silent Hill_ method of simply showing you things so twisted, so gorily disgusting that you can’t help but cringe.

And while these methods are all well and good, very few games have ever really reached the true depths of fear; the inner terror that one is helpless against. To that end, I can think of only one: _[Night Stalker][ns]_.

Published in the mid-eighties for the venerable Intellivision system, _Night Stalker_ has always been my avatar of the truly scary game. The concept is quite simple: you are a man trapped in a maze. It may be a cave system, it may be a group of dark, twisted streets; it is irrelevant. You are trapped, plain and simple. Through these corridors roam bats and spiders. Yet these creatures are not your true enemies. These are simply nuisances, annoying little hindrances to slow you on your way. Run into a bat or a spider and you are frozen in your tracks for a few seconds. While that may not seem so bad, it starts to be a problem when your true foes come onto the scene: the robots.

Yes, the robots; the root of the true terror of _Night Stalker_. There is no explanation as to why these infernal machines are hunting you. Perhaps this is a future ruled by silicon minds. Perhaps your notions of freedom and love are abhorrent to their cold metal souls. Perhaps you stole their oil. All that really matters is they are after you, and you have nowhere to hide. These robots come after you with a single-minded determination. This is not _Pac-Man_, where the ghosts may or may not cross your path, or _Super Mario Bros._, where the goombas might just be out for an afternoon stroll: these robots want you dead, no questions asked. And so you run and you fight.

At first, the gray robots come. They are slow, methodical, and not particularly powerful. So it may seem a simple task to dispatch them with your pistol. You may even take pleasure in it for a while. Things change, and that pleasure will soon seem a faded memory. Soon the robots send their more advanced models, and things can only get worse from there.

While I said you had nowhere to hide, that wasn’t entirely true. Someone saw fit to include one safe haven in this strange world: a bunker, stark and gray. While it may not seem so homey, it is the only place you can stop to take a breath. In fact, it makes a perfect place to pop out your head, fire a shot or two, and duck back inside to safety. Of course, nothing can be perfect forever, and you figure that out as soon as you run out of ammo. Yes, that gun of yours can’t fire indefinitely. A mere few shots, and you have to head back into the darkness to find another few bullets to hopefully extend your futile situation.

Perhaps the darkness is scary. Perhaps the constant repeating thrumb of the single note of music is scary. Perhaps the screeching whine of laser blasts flying down corridors is scary. Yet there is nothing scarier, nothing that speaks to the true heart of fear in this game than the sense of futility. The cold grasp of hopelessnes that clutches your heart as you realize the true direness of your situation. As the robots grow stronger, things become all the clearer. First they gain shields; no longer can they be destroyed with your simple run ‘n gun strategies. They become faster, no long content to trundle down the corridors eating your dust. Then there are more of them, as every bat you kill is instead reborn as a mechanical terror in some sort of strange karmic punishment. And while this may seem bad enough, that is only the beginning. Soon the newer models come to finish you off, and with them they bring the ability to slowly tear apart your one refuge, as each blazing bolt of plasma they fire destroys a chunk of your bunker. In a short time, you truly do have nowhere to hide. Maybe you can survive a little longer, relying on your wits to keep you alive.

It won’t help.

Soon the pure nightmare begins: your enemies can no longer be seen. Invisibly they stalk in the night, hunting you down without leaving so much as a glimpse of their glowing red eyes. It is the fear no one in this world can deny; to be trapped in the darkness, alone, with an enemy that not only can you not see, but one you cannot even hope to understand. You may fight, but they will always win. For you, there is no escape, no happy ending. You will die, lost in shadow, with only the bats and spiders to know your fate.

Now that is a scary game.


Article © 2005 by Joel Haddock