Disclaimer: Catherine Brinegar is a contributor to the Haunted PS1 Demo Disk, with a game in the collection.
The demo disk. A forgotten byproduct of a simpler era where consoles lacked one distinct feature we now take for granted; namely, internet connections. Magazines were the marketing avenue de jour for promoting upcoming releases, and what better way to instil hype for these games than collecting them into a little disk of demos packed in the magazine? A revolutionary way to boost subscriptions and games sales all in one tidy package
As we moved into the modern era of consoles that could always be online, demo disks became unnecessary since the demo could just be downloaded. Online journalism slowly killed the gaming magazines of the day, further paving the way for utilizing the internet as the means of distributing information. Demos too have slowly fizzled away, as games become far more complex and intricate than a demo could reasonably convey.
Enter: The Haunted PS1 Demo Disk! A collaborative effort between a multitude of developers from the Haunted PS1 (@HauntedPS1) community and organized by Breogán Hackett (@BreoganHackett) and Bryce Bucher (@BryceBucher), it’s a shot through the heart of the nostalgia many have for this relic of a delivery system. Seventeen games grace the disk, ranging between actual demos of upcoming releases from independent developers, as well as games exclusive to the disk that are, in and of themselves, wholly complete projects that are presented as “demos”
First and foremost, its presentation is absolutely spot on to how these disks were. With complex, exquisite pre-rendered graphics and pulse-pounding drum-n-bass all done by Bryce, it really nails the design principles of the original demo disks. Even better, there’s short trailers for each game on their respective pages to show you a bit of what to expect.
Presented in alphabetical order, I played through the disk’s contents ahead of release to give you an idea of what to expect when it releases tomorrow. Without further ado, let’s get start(l)ed!
A fascinating noir tale by way of Day of the Dead, Dead Heat from Saxon Software (@saxonbristol) is an interesting spin on survival horror. The death of zombies warrants investigation, accepted as they are as contributing members of society. With its pre-rendered backdrops and pixel-art textured characters, the game drips with style and flair, not to mention nailing the hard-boiled monologues common to these crime tales.
With a holy quest imposed on you, James Wragg’s (@LovelyHellplace) Dread Delusion is an ambitiously large open-world RPG pulling threads from King’s Field and further delving into concepts introduced in Wragg’s previous Haunted PS1 related game, Penitent Dead. Adding in greater RPG elements such as stats and a stamina bar, Dread Delusion mixes exploration of a desolate world with features of interactive fiction.
Impeccably rendered, its colour palette and general art direction elevate this to an experience well-worth combing over every pixel. And I would be remiss not to mention the atmosphere elicited by Daniel Staley’s (@dstaley56) score, truly selling the weight of this world.
Redact Games’ (@ludodrome) Effigy is a tightly wound knot of intersecting mechanics and design language, a heady mixture of lo-fi crunchy graphics with punchy FPS action, wrapped in a progression system reliant on acquiring new tools with which to traverse the world. Massive arenas give way to narrow corridors as enemies besiege you constantly. A hefty set of FPS standards fill your arsenal; axe, pistol, machine gun, shotgun — but the real showstopper is the ricocheting laser gun. Setting up trick shots has never felt so good.
Erasure is a delightfully dark piece from Sam Dick (@hologram_sam), which was covered extensively in our review of it. To say the least, it’s a dense game overflowing with the kind of story beats that stick with you, forcing you to mull over them for long after the game ends. Employing unique UI design and unexpected mechanics, it all blends together into a story told just as much visually as it is with how you interact with the world.
The PS1 is home to myriad bizarre games that present themselves in ways that we now find uncharacteristic of the medium: obfuscated, inscrutable, and esoteric. Pulling that trend into modern day, Bryce Bucher’s (@BryceBucher) Fatum Betula begins suddenly within a hallowed hall. A floating sprout of a tree hangs above a massive channel of water, its roots grazing the surface. This surreal space gives way to an even stranger adventure, involving the afterlife, poisonous blood, and fishing
Its presentation and graphical styling very much solidify it as being something “of the era” for the PS1. For instance, treelines are no more than planes with a texture of trees wrapping the playspace. As it progresses, the ways in which it subverts established practices heightens the project far above a stock-standard PS1 horror-puzzle game.
Through the grit and the grain, Filthbreed from Borja Zoroza is a masterclass of horror sound design. Chattering, squishy bits echo down dark hallways as you slowly ease yourself around the next corner. Your job as a detective here to investigate cult goings-on suddenly doesn’t feel quite worth the terror it’s all instilling. With intensely scarce ammo, the crazed human husks that assault you are beasts that earn the fear they evoke.
With its dingy rendering of bleak rooms, FIlthbreed utilizes the lo-fi aesthetics common for this collection as a jumping off point to push in a direction that heightens the tension and atmosphere with the slight abstraction of what you’re seeing. Even better, the game forces you to put your weapon away regularly to interact with other objects in the world, creating a real sense of paranoia whenever you need to pick up more ammo or read some notes. All in all, it’s a deeply unnerving experience in all the best ways. You can read more about it in Emily’s review.
Heartworm, from Vincent Adinolfi (@adinolfi), seeks to return to the roots of the progenitors of survival horror, utilizing frameworks established by games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. However, it affords itself the benefits of rendering a complete playspace in real-time, unlike many of the early forays into the genre which employed pre-rendered environments to allow for a greater sense of graphical fidelity. Moments such as circling around a house to an unlocked back door, the camera on a track off to your side allowing for glimpses through windows into the eeriness to come with a TV screaming static through a seemingly empty house
Overall, its use of the fixed cameras are intensely clever and manage to reach the heights Resident Evil does by employing clever level and puzzle design to use the fixed positions as best as possible. Walking into a room, camera high above framing an element needed to solve a puzzle on a loft above you gives a clear objective to work towards in the puzzle-box that is the room. Heartworm is whip-smart, and tightly made — a real gem in the collection.
Linked by inscrutable dream logic, In Somnio by Jan Malitschek (@malitschek) is far more of a nightmare than dream. A series of vignettes proceed with the player traversing oppressive environments. These locales and their frequent switching up puts you in an off-kilter state of mind, primed for the surreal scares that make up the meat of the game. Just be ready for the teeth.
Equal parts DEMAKE98’s September 1999 and a PuppetCombo joint, developer Neurobew (@Neurobew) makes headway in the lo-fi found footage genre of horror games with Killer Bees. Its opening a cacophony of buzzing as video of a hive of bees is overlaid with strange shots of mannequins and needles, it sets the tone right away for an experience that aims to unnerve. As you explore the twisting, nigh-endless halls with nothing more than your camera and light, the eerie disquiet is punctuated by loud groans, thumps, and scratching of unseen horrors. Discoverable guns will provide some comfort, but when you don’t even know what the enemy is, how can you be sure that you can fight it?
Neko Yume 猫夢
Modus Interactive (@ModusPwnin) creates one of the most accurate LSD: Dream Emulator experiences I’ve had the pleasure to play. Neko Yume 猫夢 is as baffling as it is utterly charming. You wander disparate dreamscapes and colourful worlds packed with surprises; like small cat heads bubbling out of the landscape or encountered kittens (that are also fish?) rocketing off into the sky. Constantly shifting and taking you to new locales, it’s a game that’s packed with the unexpected and begging to be explored.
Ode to a Moon: The Lost Disk
Demakes are a great way to view a game through a new lens by employing graphical limitations or aesthetics of a bygone era. Developer Colorfiction (@colorfiction) explores this beautifully with his personal project, Ode to a Moon, in The Lost Disk. The original has a VHS-y haze overlaying it, but is wholly modern in its presentation. Shader effects explode across the screen, tornadoes of vertices and colour leave behind hellish worlds beneath an ever-present, ominous moon
In The Lost Disk, those breathtaking effects still hit just as hard, but with a thicker coating of pixelation and lo-fi lighting. Working surprisingly well, it takes a lot of the already dense atmosphere of Ode to a Moon and creates something new off of its back, the crunch of its visuals abstracting what you’re seeing, making it all the more unknowable and horrifying.
Nicholas Brancaccio (@pastafuture), Rachel Hwang (@backronyms), and Nick Grayson (@TheTechnoWizard)’s Orange County is like a skate video filmed with a GoPro using VHS tapes. In first person, you skateboard around town avoiding passing cars and cops while hunting vending machines. Each machine rewards a, sometimes bizarre, food item. Each item gained results in an increase of frequency and speed of the cars and cops.
Draped in darkness, a blinding fog hiding the depths of the city, Orange County quickly becomes an exercise in looking both ways before crossing the street as well as smartly timing skating into the street to dart between cars. Its moody presentation against beige hues and faux-CRT fuzz elicit a dissociative, frightening experience in which cops, and being caught by them, is the true horror.
A Place, Forbidden
Having discovered the “Library of Ouroborus”, Conor Walsh (@BustedKeyboards), Dennis Müller (@DMueller93), and Papi’s A Place, Forbidden sees players taking control of protagonist Bernard in their quest for ultimate, forbidden knowledge. The Library appears unassuming to the naked eye, but quickly descends into an Eldrich nightmare. A dusty tome refers to the Library being established in a place where it no longer stands, Bernard having found it countries away from the location mentioned. Readable books litter the shelves, each more unnerving and dark in their contents than the last.
Light puzzle and item hunting gives way to a peek behind the curtain of the Library, an unreality our feeble minds can’t begin to comprehend. Sometimes, even the most milquetoast of backdrops provide a stage for unspeakable horrors to emerge from the shadowy depths.
If the PS1 had a huge market in Finland, MOYA Horror’s (@AmosSorri) Sauna2000 would have been the biggest cult classic ever made. With the looks of a B-movie shot on film in the 70’s, its haze of VHS grain and motion blur really set the mood. Alongside authentic Finnish voice acting, Sauna2000 asks the player to simply chop some wood and heat up their sauna before sunset.
If only things were so simple. Quickly, unsettling visions flit in and out of eyesight, prompting the player to ask if they’re just imagining it. Its slow burn makes everything so much sweeter, undercutting the horror with a happy-go-lucky attitude. The dissonance creates a deeply uncomfortable, if amusing, experience.
Most games built around arduous, long tasks will typically establish a rhythm of proceeding through the task before taking you by surprise with a twist that ups the ante or changes how you approach the world. Donut Cove’s (@donutcove) Snowy Castle goes against this grain, instead having the player tasked with handling a job that at first seems massive and insurmountable: lighting 24 candles scattered around a castle in a blizzard.
But, quickly, the thrill of exploration gives way to a determined hunt to find the remaining few once the easier located candles are lit. Ultimately, your success only results in having to repeat the task in a Sisyphean display. The entity bequeathing this objective to you, a shadowy figure, seems not to notice or care for your plight. Atmosphere and pacing here are impeccable, with a fascinating 16-bit colour range crunchiness to its rendering.
Looking like a ramen shop out of Mega Man Legends, Tasty Ramen from Marcus Horn (@SIACTRO) is a horror game bottle episode. Stuck inside this store, a ramen brand mascot roams the halls, looking for something to fill its endless stomach. You need to collect a set of keys to get the door open while avoiding its gaze. Its position marked by squeaking shoes, Tasty Ramen becomes a tense game of cat-and-mouse, with the player throwing nearby objects around to distract the attention of the mascot as they make a desperate move out of the aisle to get distance between them. Despite its cutesy exterior, the game manages to be adrenaline-pumping, panic overtaking you as soon as you hear the telltale squeak of those shoes coming up behind you.
And here we have my contribution to the collection, until biglight. A mousepunk narrative adventure, players are being forced from their burrow unless they can cough up an exorbitantly high rent. Exploring the area nearby, the player completes odd jobs for various mice to get some chedda in the hopes of having enough by the end of the night. Things aren’t quite as they seem, however, as a conspiracy begins to emerge surrounding the locals and the authoritarian oligarchy: Fat Cats, Inc. The spectre of capitalism haunts this nook of the woods, and none can escape its tendrils.
And that’s it! Seventeen unique, deeply fascinating titles all wrapped in a cohesive whole that is palpable atmosphere, lo-fi charm, and just a hint of nostalgia. Be sure to head on over to the demo disk’s itch.io page, and grab yourself a copy of the collection. Try ‘em before they getcha!
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.