It's not hard to find scares in throwback video games, especially since spooky moments aren't always restricted to the horror genre. While people go into games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill knowing they're in for some chills, not even the scariest games of all time can hope to reproduce the shock of finding something terrifying in an otherwise lighthearted experience.
This juxtoposition is part of what helped many classic video games make names for themselves. Taking risks and surprising players with something unexpected (and often horrifying) helped the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario World stick in players' minds. Other games like Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee lay the horror on thick the whole time, offering existential terror at every turn. Like it or not, the most distressing moments in games aimed at children stay burnt into memories to this day.
Ocarina of Time features an intensely creepy undercurrent that runs through the whole game. There are the skeletons that chase Link at night, the ruins of Castle Town Market, and of course the house of spider people. While unarguably freaky, nothing compares to the Shadow Temple and it's miniboss - a zombielike creature with a cavernous mouth and long, spindly hands that resides at the bottom of a well.
Worse still is the Shadow Temple's lore, hidden deep within The Legend of Zelda Encyclopedia. According to the book, The Shadow Temple was once a blacksite used by the Sheikah at the behest of the Royal Family of Hyrule. This explains the blood, the grisly interrogation equipment, and maybe even the mass of zombies trapped within its walls.
It sure was an interesting choice to market the anti-capitalist nightmare fuel Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee to children, but that was back when most adults couldn't wrap their heads around video games not being exclusively for children.
The game has players fill the role of Abe, a humanoid creature born enslaved who has his mouth sewn shut to prevent him from crying out. He is forced to work at the biggest meat processing plant in the franchise's universe, RuptureFarms. Early on, Abe learns the new meat being processed is secretly harvested from the race of enslaved Mudokans that he happens to be a member of. This Soylent Green style moment is terrifying enough on its own, but it's punctuated by scenes of blacksite dealings and dismemberment throughout the whole game.
T for Teen sure meant something different in 1997.
Absolutely everything about Majora's Mask rings with a subtle tone of creepy. From the introductory scene in The Lost Woods to the entirety of The Happy Mask Salesman's spiel - that man's creepy smile and furious rage still plays a heavy role in many nightmares - the whole affiair feels purposely designed to upset players, nevermind the E rating.
In particular, the transformation mechanic seems to take a heavy physical and emotional toll on Link. He cries in anguish as the Zora Mask takes over his body, forcing his bones and flesh to rearrange into a new, unnatural, shape. Then there's the moon, with its orange eyes, malignant grin, and intense desire to destroy the world. Terrifying.
Earthbound is a surreal romp through space and time that tries for the most part to be a fun a cute adventure. That is until players get to the end boss, Giygas, an eldritch abomination with a demonic visage and even more terrifying dialogue. He moans out to let you know he feels good hurting the party, calls out Ness's name repeatedly, then screams "It's not right... not right... not right."
The whole thing is a nightmare experience that comes at the end of an otherwise charming game. It's even worse for players of Mother, the prequel to Earthbound, which explains Giygas is an alien that fell into madness after being adopted by a human mother. Torn between his allegiance to his race and his family he flew into a rage that lasted an eternity.