My first memory of being scared by a video game arrives to me with a distinctly crunchy, digitised soundbyte: ‘BEWARE, I LIVE’. It’s from the arcade classic Sinistar, where you pilot a ship around the expanse of space, growing in skill incrementally and collecting bombs to eventually attempt to take on the titular Sinistar, a sentient ship with a genuinely horrifying visage. Sinistar appears as a combination of large starship, wolf and demonic evil. When I look at it now, I think it appears kind of goofy, but back then, it was sincerely the most terrifying thing I had ever seen.
The experience of the game itself contributed a lot to this feeling, and when emotions are fairly new to you at the age of six, the intended effects of Sinistar’s ‘sinister’ vibes are heightened. Sinistar isn’t just scary, but it truly makes you feel hopeless as your spaceship dribbles around the vast dark void, getting attacked from all angles. Sinistar would slowly construct their physical form and eventually sweep through the screen, goading you with their repeated invocations. ‘RUN, RUN!’ They would command, as they pursued to dispatch your vessel in one precise chomping motion.
My memories of Sinistar are from a very early point in my life, but they’re fairly vivid compared to anything else I can remember from that age. This fear that I recall seems to deepen the memory, attaching sequences of past events to a tangible, physiological response. In turn, the game and my frightful experience of it becomes bound up with nostalgia, not just for Sinistar, but for everything surrounding it at the time. In remembering that fear, the experience of playing Sinistar becomes ever-so-slightly more corporeal – an accursed bridge that allows me to walk into an earlier time of my life.
My experience of Sinistar was with the Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits cartridge, which my brother and I would routinely put into our SNES for a few rounds of Joust, followed by passing the controller in attempts to get anywhere with Sinistar. This was mostly after we had already exhausted Super Mario World or Plok, and needed a hit of something more visceral. I remember exactly how we had it plugged into our chunky grey CRT Television, how the cables were ‘a bit wonky’, leading to interference with the display, which could heighten the frightening effect of Sinistar when the picture would suddenly drop out to static during a particularly frenetic burst of grameplay. At the time, nothing could feel worse than that, but remembering it also makes me appreciate the innocence of these scary encounters, and emboldens the nostalgia I now associate with them in a world that – 20 years later – presents me with much larger and more paralyzing fears.
Crossing this memory bridge to the fear of Sinistar also allows me to more easily recall other innocent experiences of fear. Brick by brick the bridge morphs, and builds around me a museum: one that exhibits interactive horrors that are understood as both terrifying yet oddly comfortable. I recall the gorgon-esque looming presence of the ‘haunted’ Dracula themed pinball machine that stood ominously in the corner of my local pub. After my parents separated, this is where my dad chose to take me and my brother to ‘catch up’, and in the family room where we would talk this dusty pinball machine asserted its presence with strange mechanical whirs and a digitised laughing sound effect. It reminded me of Sinistar in its compressed quality.
Occasionally, I could swear that the pinball machine was making small, rigid movements, perhaps only a few centimetres at a time. The visage of ‘Dracula’ as illustrated on the top of the machine mocked me with a wry smile. I dared not to go near it, even though I enjoyed pinball and had played on the machine that this one had replaced before. I had to face the other side of the room to sip my off-brand cola with any sort of confidence. For the first time in my life, I had encountered a game I was too scared to even look at. I constructed narratives of all the souls that had gotten trapped in the machine – the continued exposure to it created further evidence of this clutching reality.
There’s been other encounters like this, but I think of these two with warmth, despite being able to vividly recall the fear that went alongside them. I suppose that’s only possible through contrast with the things that genuinely really scare me: past traumas, the death of loved ones, and where we’re currently heading as a society. Thinking about these small encounters of being scared by games gives me a new appreciation for this innocent type of fear, and is probably to blame for my academic interest in gothic horror and more broadly ontological uncertainty. In a world that frequently presents new things to be scared about, I’m especially grateful to Sinistar for opening up a bridge into the scary, yet comforting, realms of my nostalgia.