How does the horror masterpiece hold up to the test of time?

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Silent Hill occupies a large part in my mind as one of the most formative games I ever played. This game helped shape what I wanted to experience in video games for years after I played. I cannot believe it was 17 years ago that I first played a demo of this game. Silent Hill and Resident Evil were not just games to my friends and me—they were obsessions.

Replaying a now “archaic” game is interesting. I wonder how many gamers today would scoff at a simple glance of the awful graphics and deadpan voices. However, we shouldn’t cast aside the past of video games. The importance of backwards compatibility and seeing old games will make the art form have an actual legacy. We can’t see where we are going unless we know where we have been. My rant about the importance of this will be saved for another day, but in the meantime, we should pay attention to these classic games.

Harry is one of the dullest video game protagonists ever. I can almost hear all of the fans of the series sharpening their razors to come after me… Upon seeing a mutilated body early in the game he exclaims “what is going on here” with the same gusto as someone who dropped their car keys. It is easy to take cheap shots at the limitations of games, and I will be doing so throughout this review.

The Gameplay

Harry moves with the finesse and grace of a beached whale. The era of tank controls is alive and well here—and they are a pain in the ass for the player. There is no other way to say that. You will be annoyed as you play. There is no reticle for your weapons, causing some confusion in combat. Overall, the controls are a sign of the age of the game.

The monsters also chase you relentlessly. One thing that wrecked the game for me when I first tried it was I had been conditioned to kill everything. Trying to do this in Silent Hill will have you wasting time and resources where you shouldn’t. Running is the better solution for much of the combat in this game (and for most of the series). The game forces you to confront your own vulnerability. Instead of a superhero, you are often at a disadvantage in the combat. Creating this tension in a game is part of what makes it so terrifying.

The World of Silent Hill

The graphics aren’t great, but they have aged better than one might expect. It is fairly easy to tell what is what, and the effective nature of the design stands up (at least to me). One thing I have wondered is how someone new to the series would feel about the look of the game. For me, knowing what I am looking at might filter some of the errors away for me.

The town is large, and you will spend a lot of time running through the foggy streets. It is odd that there is a certain familiarity to the town for me. However, it is easy to get lost. You will spend a lot of time with your map open. The town is effectively creepy, and the large dungeons are very well done. Despite the limitations, Silent Hill is a town you probably won’t forget.

The School

As this is the first major dungeon of the game I will spend more time talking about this than the other major areas. For me, the school is one of the best designed levels ever. There is something inherently creepy about an empty school at night anyway. Here, we have messages written in blood, knife wielding children/monsters, and an alternate reality. So, yeah, this school sucks, but it is a fascinating journey.

The music and the radio static make for a surprisingly chilling atmosphere as you work your way through the puzzles (with little to no guidance). The music of the entire series is excellent, and shows how games without the technical wizardry of today can still produce an excellent experience.

The damn piano puzzle. When we first played this game, we had no internet. Myself, and two friends, worked for what felt like (and may have been) hours trying to figure it out. Terrible puzzle.

Where the school level transcends most videogames is the dimensional switch. You find yourself in a corrupted and hellish version of the school. The rusted and bloody walls are complemented by metal links everywhere. There is something clearly wrong with this place you find yourself in.

Here is where the Silent Hill series really shines. The willingness to transform the mundane into the monstrous. Other horror games have tried to emulate this, but I still think Silent Hill is the reigning champion. From the gamer’s perspective, there is clearly something wrong with this place. You want to escape—there is no glory or “cool” factor, it is simply an area that fosters terror.

Any game can dim the lights, but Silent Hill makes you believe you have gone somewhere that is literally darker. There is a stain on this place that taints everything that it comes into contact with. Even with all of the new games I have played, this game still leaves my nerves on edge.

When I was a kid, I was terrified of the first boss. Now it kind of looks like a giant coal turd/wiener. I actually laughed a little at this now. I still remember how nervous we all were to face down this foe. After defeating our unfortunately appearing foe we are transported back to the normal Silent Hill (which is still creepy). There is no resolution here for me. It is clear that you have only temporarily triumphed. The feelings the game gives the player is one of constant dread, and this is where the game’s genius lies.

The Endless Puzzle of Silent Hill

Throughout all of the series, it isn’t entirely clear what the hell is actually going on in Silent Hill. The games are not consistent in narrative construct—it is either a cult or a hellish place that manifests guilt (or something else). The people you encounter in this game offer more questions than answers. Some of the time it isn’t clear as you go if they are real people or some sort of illusion (though by the end it is clear which is which).

The never-ending questions of the series is in part what makes them so fun to play. We don’t ever get a conclusive answer as to what the town can fully do. What are the consequences? Where are the limitations of this darkness? While in the school, the transition to the dark world has a boundary. The hospital blends the two. Which is the real Silent Hill? The fact that these questions are not answered might drive some nuts, but for horror fans, this is a great source of intrigue and fun.

Overall Thoughts

Silent Hill stands the test of time for me, but to be fair, I do not know how much of this is nostalgia. The game is not perfect. Even when it was brand new, it was a little on the nose as far as control problems. The acting is rough; Harry’s reactions are underwhelming to the point of absurdity. Despite all of these issues, the game is still worth playing. While for me the school is one of the best levels, the hospital is also an impressively creepy dungeon.

The narrative is given to Harry in intervals throughout the game. The story is not spoon-fed, and your hand is not held. Most of the game, you are literally stumbling to figure out what to do next. The game also suffers from length to a certain extent. For me, there is a certain point where I am ready to be done with the game and see the ending, and often survival horror overstays its welcome for me. I might be more the exception on this one, but it does seem like some of this game could have been trimmed.

Another unfortunate aspect of this game is that the bosses are often hard to see. In the later sequels, the boss fights become more of a spectacle. Here, it is sometimes unclear what exactly you are fighting, or why. Why is it a giant moth/bee thing? Why is it a worm? Perhaps I am being nitpicky, but the later games really push the monstrous and the horror to another level. Though, this game started it all. It is worth playing. I imagine it can be found for cheap. Despite its flaws, it is worth checking out. 8.5/10

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