Paranoia Engine

The horror in Wizard of Wor.

The Atari 2600 billed several releases as horror games, such as Haunted House and Halloween, but what I consider its scariest offering was marketed as an ordinary title: Wizard of Wor, an unassuming port of Bally Midway’s sci-fi classic. Its innocuous presentation heightens its terror; as fans of Doki Doki Literature Club and its ilk can attest, harmless exteriors go a long way toward making games more frightening. In the arcades, Wizard of Wor is a pulpy, chaotic romp where gun-toting gladiators (called “Worriors”) wander stardust-flecked mazes, battling the Wizard and his minions. In practice, it fuses Gauntlet, Pac-Man, and Galaxian: a labyrinthine cat-and-mouse contest demanding careful aim and judicious shot selection. When the Atari 2600’s stringent technical constraints strip the game down to its bare essentials, however, Wizard of Wor morphs into an accidental survival horror.

What bothered me initially was how the 2600 version is shorn of starlight; black background voids are all the console can handle. Those same graphical and memory limitations cause enemies to flicker in and out of sight, which made it harder to draw a bead on them. To me, the visual always suggested a monster stalking you down a hallway with malfunctioning lights, hiding in shadow whenever you turned around. And thanks to this, when the stronger enemies intentionally turned invisible, it felt like a glitch against which I was defenseless – and ill-prepared.

Then there was the insidious soundtrack. Levels feature a pulsating bass BGM reminiscent of the Jaws theme, repeating two low notes that build in speed and intensity like a predator’s inexorable approach or an escalating heart rate. Its first bars match the pace at which each level’s doors open and close, such that I mistook it for SFX the first time I played, and thought I was losing my mind upon hearing the two fall hopelessly out of sync.

All these years later, the game continues to thrill me. For it still has the power to put me on edge, whether I’m frantically deciphering my tiny radar display while fleeing an unseen pursuer, or hearing the music race like a runaway pulse, or bracing for the Wizard’s surprise attacks. But the old fears have since given way to appreciation for how minimalism can build the perfect paranoia engine.

By Alexander B. Joy

Alexander B. Joy is from New Hampshire, where he spent the long winters reading the world’s classics and composing haiku. He is currently being held against his will in North Carolina. When he’s not working on fiction or poetry, he typically writes about literature, film, philosophy, and games. Follow him on Twitter @aeneas_nin for semi-regular photos of his dog.

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