Prelude to Horror: An examination of popular RPGmaker horror games

It’s Halloween! Well, the calendar says September 30th, but these are quarantine rules. “Time means nothing, never will again!” so goes the Rocky Horror Picture Show quote. As you can tell, the October season gets me pumped. Something about those damn pumpkins, the spooky skeletons, the decorations, the candy! The season truly reawakens a real fire within me, so be prepared to hear a lot from this writer!

Pictured: HOLY SHIT!!!!

In honor of this, here we will examine five horror games that I admire, with a catch; each is an RPGmaker title that utilized their simplicity to really serve up the scary. I always found this style an effective vessel for communicating horror; a lot of the tension is built up in the unknown, and when the environment isn’t very exhaustive to begin with, one’s mind is led to wander and ultimately tense. The lack of meticulous detail proves the game designers were “writing Frankenstein with a pencil” so to speak. Teaming up with fellow Story Arc writer Luna, we will delve into these titles and give our personal thoughts on each. Happy hauntings!

Mad Father

Nah, just kidding

Vic: Kicking off our examination is Mad Father, a game created by Japanese developer Sen. It features our protagonist Aya Drevis as she delves deeper into the enigma of her perfectly sane and reasonable father. The art style is charming, having these largely, blocky and colorful character portraits that compliment the hard lines of the pixel art well. It reminds me of Touhou or Umineko in how the portraits aren’t the most overly designed though still hold a memorable silhouette for every distinct character. 

It’s also worth mentioning this game is receiving a substantial remake in the near future, with the most recent update concerning it’s progress being published during this very month. It features an incredible facelift for the game while still retaining it’s terrifyingly simple charm. Keep a lookout for it by the end of October!

Luna: Though I’ve never actually finished this game myself, it’s pretty important to me seeing as watching a let’s play years ago was one of my intros to this genre. It doesn’t do anything super unique for the genre, but it’s aesthetic and character design is top notch, and the puzzles and such are pretty solid too. I prefer its (only tangentially related) predecessor in Misao, but Mad Father is still a very solid game.


Vic: Imagine wandering around a Monet piece or an Escher drawing, except the denizens of Monetlandia are each murderous, foreboding and generally unwelcoming folk. That is Ib. The horror game features the titular Ib, a young girl who Goghs to an art museum with her parents for what assures to be a fun family outing. Thing’s take a turn for the worst as now Ib must become a Hopper of painting themed locals to escape this brush and paint hellscape. Not Munch going on sound wise, with the background tracks being particularly low in order to build tension which I find effective in this goal. The art style is unlike other similar entries in the genre, being largely elongated for the sprites though giving the game a very distinct appearance.  Each of these aspects allow for a unique and worthy entry into the RPGmaker horror classics.  

Luna: Ib is one of my absolute favorites. While most of these games have design philosophies similar to something like Silent Hill, (large areas you need to figure out how to navigate) Ib is sort of closer to something like Resident Evil, (not exactly the same but you get the point) where each room is a puzzle box you need to solve before moving on to the next one. The character writing is super fun, the character dynamics are very potent and it makes going through again and seeing different endings that favor different characters that much more appealing. Unfortunately, I don’t find that the gameplay serves replayability much, but the game is still an excellent RPG Maker horror title.

Yume Nikki

Vic: The earliest entry on this list and perhap one of the most recognizable, Yume Nikki set the precedent for the RPGmaker boom of the early to mid 2010’s. And man, is it weird. I say this in the most endearing way possible. Akin to the tripping out sequence from Mother 3, Yume Nikki features Madotsuki, a hikikomori with powerful and expansive dreams that allow her to explore her own psyche. This aspect is also why I classify Yume Nikki as the most “realistic” of the mentioned titles on this list. Killer paintings and rampaging, chainsaw wielding scientists are each rooted firmly in fiction (I hope), while the fluidity of dreams can allow the scariest medium of horror of all; relatability. It’s more abstract than the cut and dry zombie or ghost, but I find the believability is really what drives the game’s concept home. The game is explosively influential, with introduced characteristics finding their way into games like Undertale or Anodyne which solidified the titles status as the wisdom ladled grandparent to many RPGs today. 

Luna: I adore Yume Nikki. When I first played it I didn’t really feel that strongly about it, I guess something about it didn’t really click for me. However, after playing some of the great fangames like .flow and Yume 2kki, I like the original game they were based on a LOT more now. While the environments are often samey and amount to Large Open Area With Weird Thing In The Background, every other area nails an atmosphere and each one only serves to the rampant theorization surrounding the game. Yume Nikki’s atmosphere is unparalleled, and it’s a game I truly believe everyone should play at least once.

Witches House

Vic: The Witch’s House is by far the most detailed art wise of the aforementioned games. Debuting after the other titles around 2012, The Witch’s House features 16 bit graphics that are ornate as they are complex. Protagonist Viola must navigate a Witch’s dwellings in order to win her freedom by way of puzzles, terrifying enemy encounters, and a single goal; survival. A part of the game that stood out is the mercifulness of game overs and dying since often, when Viola succumbs to a poisoned loaf or a rampant foe, the game begins again at a similar spot to where she fell. This encourages repeat attempts and is a game design feature that has been refined to allow significantly less stress on the player. I mention this due to how one could view this as an evolution to past RPGmaker titles; dying could be a setback in games like Mad Father more so than today’s games. Examining this is like viewing how far RPG maker horror had progressed to this point and can lead to a greater appreciation as a whole. 

Luna: Now we get to the area I have a little bit less expertise in. This one is in a similar boat to Mad Father, where I watched a let’s play of it years ago so it’s pretty important to me, but I’ve never actually… played it for myself, oops. That said, I know a fair amount about it, and I can say that, gosh, this is an impressive game. The visuals are amazing – especially in the RPG Maker MV remake – and the story is pretty compelling with some really solid twists. I need to play this one for myself someday.

Corpse Party

Vic: My personal favorite that will cap off today’s examination is Corpse Party, a game by Japanese company Team GrisGris. It features a number of Japanese teenagers in a pact gone awry in an abandoned elementary school (what gave them the bright idea to do the equivalent to a ouija board in a known ghost infested location is beyond me). Throughout the game the player switches perspectives between the number of trapped teens as their numbers begin to thin. An aspect I enjoy from a story point of view the most is the justification of why the cast may never meet, even when they tread the same ground. The school functions on multiple planes of existence, so no single group may encounter the other without “crossing over”. Also the music! It combines this thick atmosphere with chiptunes and eventually an almost eurobeat final chapter theme (it works significantly better than one would assume, while slow burn tension tracks are fine there’s something more investing here, personally). Altogether Corpse Party is an incredible entry into the varied and substantial RPGmaker horror subgenre, a medium where horror as a storytelling type can really be allowed to spread its wings in. The floodgates have now opened to October’s usual flair for the dramatic, and I welcome it with open arms. 

Luna: This is where I have the least experience as I’ve only played the first chapter, but what an amazing first chapter it was. The sound design is ridiculously good and the characters and their dynamics are very fun to watch. The only thing is that getting all of the game overs and bad endings is pretty weird. In Chapter 1 there’s a bad ending that’s almost exactly the same as the actual ending of the chapter but with less to it, so it almost ends up feeling like you were spoiled on the actual ending, if that makes sense? Either way though, the game’s great and I need to finish it.

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