We live in complex times. When I was a youngster, it was perfectly reasonable to buy a game simply because it had more monsters than the other games. Playing through shooters, RPGs and platformers alike, I’d be tempted to give up when I reached the point where no new enemy types were appearing. The very idea of a game with only one type of enemy, no matter how intelligent and believable, was poison. Give me all of your mutants, demons and aliens, I cried, give them to me now.
Here are a few of my favourites, ranging from the first-person shooters of my teenage years to the surreal horrors of my childhood.
A classic. Headcrabs combine several top monster traits into one bulbous ball of peril. They’re small, scuttling things that can hide in dark corners and then leap at your face, which makes them versatile and unpleasant, and they can transform other creatures into zombie-like things, which ticks that particular box. The box that says ‘zombies’.
I was particularly taken by the use of headcrabs as a sort of biological weapon, as seen in Half Life 2. Canisters packed with the blighters dropped from on high to zombify the population of rebel facilities and settlements. A grim business, to be sure, but a fitting and credible extension of the beasties as seen in the first game.
The humble headcrab also became something of a mascot for the series. I’ve seen plush headcrabs, headcrab hats and a headcrab tattoo. I’m not going to touch on the horrible poisonous headcrabs in Half Life 2 because thinking about them means I have to lift my feet onto the chair because I’m immediately convinced there’s one under my desk. Shit.
The best Doom monster! Some people think that’s the cacodemon or *snort* the Cyberdemon. They’re wrong because nothing beats an imp. Here’s why:
Imps have the best combination of projectile and melee attacks.
Imps can easily be lured into combat with other enemies thanks to the visible and slow-moving nature of their fireballs.
They make really creepy noises when they’re snuffling and shorting in the shadows.
I used to narrate deathmatch games using the twin voices of ‘Ren and Impy’, who were the Doom equivalent of sports commentators. Like the Blood Bowl guys, except with actual jokes.
Headless are among the weirder entities in any RPG. Considering that fantasy hack and slash games regularly contain gobbets of carnivorous slime and consider floating testicles with multiple magic-hurling eye-stalks to be de rigueur, I normally have to look to Dark Souls for something weird and out of the ordinary. The Ultima series has always been slightly out of sync with its fantasy RPG brethren, however. mostly that’s in terms of its adherence to a world of virtue and vice rather than a world of looting and slaying, but its bestiary contains some oddities as well.
None stand out to me more than the Headless. It’s the fact that they’re just a part of the world that gets me – there’s no grand introduction for them and nobody seems all that fazed by their existence. They’re humans, or human-like creations, lacking a head and neck. And they chase you and punch you and kick you and kill you. Within the series’ lore, they’re assumed to be results of a magical experiment. See how casually their horrors are described in Ultima VII’s Book of Fellowship:
This ensorcelled creature appears to be a living, ambulatory, beheaded human being. It is unknown exactly how it compensates for its apparent lack of sensory organs, but it manages to do so quite well. Its favorite method of attack is strangulation.
They belong in the SCP Foundation.
Is The Sentinel a monster? It’s certainly monstrous but I’m not even entirely sure that it’s a living thing. It’s the player’s nemesis in Geoff ‘Stunt Car Racer’ Crammond’s game of the same name (that’s The Sentinel rather than a game called Geoff Crammond, although I’d definitely play the latter) and it’s one of the most terrifying foes I’ve ever faced.
The Sentinel watches, from on high, and if you don’t outwit it, you will die. Just as I’m unsure as to whether The Sentinel itself can be classified as a monster, I’m not sure it actually kills anyone. The player controls synthoids, telepathic robots, transferring consciousness around The Sentinel’s many domains in an attempt to escape its gaze. It destroys simply by seeing. I’ve had nightmares about The Sentinel, years after playing the bastard game on my Atari ST back in the day. At least part of that is down to the weird, checkered landscapes, which were no doubt a product of late eighties tech rather than an entirely deliberate design choice. There’s more of them in the next and final entry…
I actually flinch when I picture Archipelagos. Released in 1989 it is one of the strangest and most singular games I’ve ever encountered. Taking place on a series of procedurally generated islands inhabited by animated, bleeding trees, it’s a horror game that doesn’t explicitly refer to itself as a horror game. If you’re in any doubt that it’s a horror game, just read the phrase “animated, bleeding trees” again.
On each of the islands, you, playing as a drifting consciousness that has to…destroy some rocks? I was never entirely clear on the objective but I was absolutely certain that I should avoid the trees at all costs. They creep across the island, oozing blood that saturates the dirt and grass, colouring everything red. It’s like that one bit in Watership Down when a nightmarish vision of fields running red with blood made me scared of my own pet rabbit even though the rabbits were the victims. A smart kid would have been scared of his Fisher Price toy digger and construction set, but I loved those little plastic vehicles.
Archipelagos trees are evil and terrifying because they only make sense in the game’s own nightmare logic. They bleed and contaminate the islands, and when you complete your objectives, they head directly toward you and crowd around you, clogging your consciousness with blood.
A special mention goes to David Braben’s early title Virus (also known as Zarch), which didn’t scare me but had a similar blood-red colouring gradually infecting and seeping through its beautiful levels.
Those are my favourite monsters. Tell me about yours.