Resident Evil may not have invented the scary video game, but it certainly did the most to popularize and define the genre. When ammo is scarce, heavy weapons are just the dream of some doomed space marine, and the enemies won’t stop coming you know you’re in the grips of survival horror. But what happens if you take away the pistols and crossbows? What happens if you remove the hordes of shambling undead, the rampaging herd of dinosaurs, or the troupes of moaning ghosts? Excise the ‘horror’ and the game suffers for it, right?
Wrong. Lose the scares and you haven’t broken the genre, you’ve created a new one. One that is woefully under-represented in today’s gaming marketplace, but deserves its chance to shine in the sun. Forget survival horror, we’re talking survival. In a survival game, you aren’t trying to stop the spread of some biological plague, end the schemes of a mad doctor, or rid the space station of scuttling aliens with a desire to affix their slimy appendages to your face. Instead you’re stripped to the barest of bare essentials: food, water, shelter, heat and the struggle to keep going in the face of impossible odds. To wit, here are four great retro examples of what happens when your protagonist isn’t fighting against a power-hungry pharmaceutical company or homicidal alien queen, but instead takes on the biggest bitch of ’em all: Mother Nature.
Human made some incredible games on the SNES, most notably “Clock Tower: The First Fear” but they also made this extremely underrated and unknown gem of a third-person adventure game which is basically “The Poseidon Adventure” on a 16-bit system. You pick from a cast of four playable characters, each with a different story and potential series of victory conditions, then have to figure out a way to survive and lead others to safety after the cruise ship you’re on is capsized by a monstrous tidal wave. But no lolly-gagging―you’ve got sixty minutes to gather your entourage and get to the boiler room at the bottom (but the virtual top) of the ship. The game’s over in ten minutes if you know what you’re doing and are a completely callous bastard looking to save your own skin at the expense of everybody else, but obviously that’s not the way to the best endings.
Unlike many traditional adventure games, S.O.S. positively drips with replayability. With a massive amount of ground to cover, a limited number of survivors you can rescue, varying victory conditions for all four characters, NPCs who can hinder or help you, it’s impossible to experience everything this game has to offer on just one playthrough. What’s more, the game gets harder and harder as time ticks on: the ship swoons and rolls over, making some passages impossible to climb while opening new routes, lights flicker and go out as sea water floods the upper decks making backtracking impossible, passengers panic and become increasingly less apt to listen to you and force you to choose between attempting dangerous stunts for greater gains or taking the safe road at the expense of others’ lives, and sustaining injuries costs you valuable time while you recover. It’s a pulse-pounding race against time where one mistake can doom everyone in your party. If you ever watched “Titanic” and thought, “I could survive that with one hand tied behind my back,” now is your chance to prove it.
Disaster Report (PS2)
When Keith Helm accepted the job as editor for the respected Town Crier newspaper on the technological marvel that is man-built Stiver Island, he saw it as the chance of a lifetime. Instead it became possibly one of the last major life decisions he’d ever make. Shortly after his arrival, Stiver Island is rocked by an enormous earthquake. Now Keith has to make his way through the natural disaster that Capital City has become, help anyone he can find, and make difficult and sometimes painful choices about what to take and what to leave behind. In this situation, no shotgun or green herbs will get you out of a jam, but an extra bottle of drinking water or a discarded shovel could mean the difference between life and death for him or the people he meets along the way.
This game went mostly ignored in the US because it was translated and released by Agetec, a smaller studio known for producing quirky, offbeat titles that appeal to a less robust audience than your standard AAA-blockbusters. But as far as niche titles go, this Irem-developed survival sim is well worth the price, especially for gamers looking to stretch their dollars by investing in tech that is close to two generations out of date. While it won’t win any awards for voice acting, breathtaking cinema sequences, or extraordinary graphics that push the system to its limits, Disaster Report is capable of delivering suspense and scares equal to any of its more commonly-encountered survival horror brethren. Also look for it’s 2007 sequel, Raw Danger, to try and survive a rapidly-flooding underground city instead of the aftermath of an earthquake.
The Ignition Factor (SNES)
Most of the other games on this list place you in survival situations against your will, with shipwrecks, earthquakes, typhoons or other disasters plunging your world into involuntary chaos. But Jaleco’s The Ignition Factor (originally a license of the film Backdraft before the developers discovered they couldn’t get the rights) takes the opposite tactic, putting you into the boots of someone who takes on the ravages of nature by choice: the firefighter. Firemen don’t find themselves in harm’s way by accident. Nobody drafts them into service. They endanger themselves because someone has to do it, and refuse to stand idly by and let innocent people suffer. Such is the case with your persona in the game.
The Ignition Factor pits you and your firefighting partners against a series of raging infernos in a variety of locations (high-rise buildings, factories, underground mines and even a natural history museum), and challenges you to find the survivors, recover important items such as valuable antiques or pieces of art, and get back out before the time limit expires and the structure becomes unstable. Finding victims and getting out alive requires the ability to make split-second decisions, pick the right tool for the right job, and swiftly navigate dangerous areas without getting lost. While it’s not a patch on the real thing, taking this game out for a spin will give you a healthy respect for the men and women who do it every day.
Lost in Blue (NDS)
Any list of survival games would be incomplete without mentioning Konami’s DS series of Swiss Family Robinson-style scenarios. Washing up on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, these games challenge the player to rig up tools from stuff found on the island, make fires, and stay fed, hydrated and rested. You’ve also got a partner to look out for, so you have to ensure she’s well taken care of–teamwork is essential for moving heavy things or performing other duties that require two people so you can’t just leave her back in the cave to starve, no matter how annoying you might find her.
Lost in Blue takes full advantage of the DS’s hardware, utilizing the touch screen to simulate digging in the ground and the microphone to “blow” on a fire you’re trying to build. The story starts off simple but grows in complexity as you stumble upon the materials necessary to upgrade your living conditions with more comfortable sleeping arrangements or a stockpile for extra water, and create things like spears for fishing and bows and arrows for hunting game. There’s plenty to see and do on the island, and the situations and puzzles presenting themselves demand more of your time away from your shelter as the days go by. So do the sequels, which introduce new game mechanics and larger numbers of survivors while retaining the same basic elements which make the original so enjoyable.
The survival genre encompasses far more games than just these few we’ve covered, but hopefully this short introduction has piqued your interest enough that you’ll go hunting for yourself. Paring it down to four games wasn’t easy, but that just leaves plenty of room for a subsequent entry or some more in-depth looks if that’s what our readers want. See you at the rescue helicopter!