I’m an insatiable magnet for fright. I was in my twenties when I saw The Grudge at a midnight showing, and slept with the closet light on for longer than I care to admit. The last time I went to a haunted house the ghastly actors had zeroed in on me within minutes, calling out “let’s get goldilocks!” as I screamed at their every jump scare. There’s a litany of videogames that have scared the daylights out of me (most notably the original Silent Hill), but one of the more surprising titles in that bunch happens to be Secret of Mana.
Though a jump scare or gory moment will never fail to hook me, they are largely fleeting and leave little more than an anecdotal impact akin to the prior paragraph. Context plays a huge part of how deeply a scary moment will cut into my consciousness. For instance, when I played Resident Evil, I knew I was in for something frightening as much as I was aware when I walked into that haunted house. It’s kind of like how you can’t tickle yourself – my brain prepares me for the scare which diminishes the effect.
What my mind can’t prepare for are those scary things which are entirely contrary in spirit to nearly everything else in the video game. This is a certain pedigree in horror that, as far as I know, has no official nomenclature. I like to call this phenomena ‘terror by contrast’. Think about the ReDeads in Ocarina of Time: here you have a heroic adventure full of magic and wonder…then all of sudden there’s screaming corpses that slowly creep in to devour your flesh as you shudder from their sonic sneak-attack.
And don't forget about ol' Dead Hand!
Secret of Mana is a bright and colorful game with a beautifully whimsical soundtrack. It’s hardly the kind of place one would expect to find themselves with shaky hands and an overwhelming sense of dread, and that’s why the sequence involving the Ruins of Pandora is so effective. The strange happenings in the town of Pandora are introduced early in-game, where some townspeople have gone mute and are said to have lost the will to live; all that aimless wandering RPG NPC’s do is so much more bizarre when they have nothing to say.
At the south end of town, there are ruins where the affected citizens are gathering, but the entrance is barred by two guards wearing strange cyclopean masks. Instead of venturing immediately into the ruins, the party is sent on other tasks, periodically returning to Pandora as the mystery grows. With each visit, more citizens are stripped of their souls and the accompanying music becomes more poignant.
Even before setting foot in the ruins, this concept of people becoming empty shells had me on edge. At a young age, I experienced a series of recurring nightmares wherein my mind was lost through varying circumstances, such as everyone else in the world copying my identity or an invisible monster eating my mind. The dreams themselves were pants-wetting enough, and waking up in the twilight hours feeling like I was dead inside was worse. While this portion of the game didn’t start those nightmares, it absolutely gave them an amplified resurgence.
When one of the party members spots her friend going into the ancient and decrepit structure, she pushes the guards aside (apparently no one else had thought of that brilliant stratagem – videogames). This is where that whole context thing comes into play. There were typically ‘dark’ locations presented before this dungeon, including caves, forests, and a witch’s castle. But those locales were still very much fantastical and arguably alluring in their design, especially given the musical selections. The ruins are a complete stylistic shift.
Just take a listen as to what greets the player when stepping into the ruins of Pandora. I believe this is what a music box slowly committing suicide sounds like.
To date, I’ve never heard a piece of gaming music so utterly discordant. Coupled with the contextual shock, my first playthrough of this area involved several instances of setting the controller down, calming my shaking hands, and gathering up the courage to press onward. The game never fully divulges what happened in the ruins. We see grotesque monsters, some mask-wearing victims standing in front of an altar and Thanatos, the leader behind the cult, attempts to kill the party by dropping them into a room with a wall-demon. This lack of details actually made for a scarier experience overall.
It would be nigh-impossible for a 16-bit game to illustrate a disturbing ritual, so why not let the player’s imagination do the legwork? My mental picture of what happened to people when they were brought back into the ruins and given those masks to cover what I assumed were brutalized and eyeless faces was much scarier than anything the game designers could have come up with. I pictured unholy séances summoning fecund demons to devour the souls of the townspeople. When it comes to horror, the unseen is so much worse than a vivid depiction, and whoever designed this sequence did an extraordinary job using that tactic to create something I won’t ever forget.
On a final note, Thanatos shows his final form towards the end of the game as a giant skeleton. He’s not intimidating on his own but his theme music – a version of the ruins music on acid - is brick-shitting bliss.