Of all the different ways to scare the player across gaming, there are few that are quite as widespread as the jump scare and it’s not hard to see why. Pulling off a jump scare is really a simple affair. All that has to be done is surprise the player with something unexpected that comes out of absolutely nowhere, leading to many calling the technique the cheapest kind of scare. Even with such a claim however, like anything else, there are more than a few ways to make them very effective. Given the proper buildup and situation, they can completely shift from one of the least impactful kinds of scares, to one of the most impactful. To celebrate ones that do manage to leave those after-effects, I’m going to list the top 5 best jump scares throughout gaming. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
5.) Super Mario 64
I know that Mario is definitely not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of jump scares, but if the Mario RPGs can have some creepy undertones now and again, who’s to say the main games can’t have such a scare. Specifically, one of the levels, Big Boo’s Haunt, is wholly based around the Boos and their ilk. Naturally, the only appropriate design was a haunted mansion filled with tricky obstacles like books that throw themselves at you, giant eyeballs, and walls that have to be phased through with the Vanish Cap. However, there’s one thing any person who played this game as a child remembers: the piano.
Upon entering the room, nothing seems particularly odd besides the piano being the only thing in the room. Considering that setup, even a kid would realize that something would happen when that instrument was approached. However, what no one expected was for the piano to suddenly and violently grow teeth and lunge at Mario while clanging very loudly. Being a Mario game, the player isn’t expecting to be scared, and that’s why it’s so surprising. The atmosphere for the rest of the game is entirely different and although this specific level’s atmosphere is a tad creepier than normal, it still comes completely out of left field. The circumstances make for an extremely effective jump and it’s clearly done well if every single person I’ve known to have played the game remember it the same way.
While not a horror game per se, Bioshock could still have some legitimately scary moments to it. This makes sense considering how the game is the spiritual successor to the very creepy System Shock 2 and while it’s not entirely obvious in the later stages, the initial ones make that fact abundantly clear, especially the Medical Pavillion. Being the first real area of the game, it sets the tone for the rest of the experience with its dismal feel and numerous unsettling setpieces, such as the spotlighted shootout after grabbing the shotgun and the entirely of Dr. Steinman. However, the particular scare I’m talking about takes place in a section called Chomper’s Dental, with exactly the enemy one would expect to see there.
Upon actually entering the empty dentist’s room, smoke comes down from nowhere, shuffling noises are heard, and a body can be seen on the patient chair that wasn’t there before. Clearly, something is there, but nothing actually attacks as the room is explored. After finding an ability tonic on the back table, the smoke comes down again without a visible change. At least, there is no visible change directly ahead. Turning the protagonist around reveals the dentist to be standing about three inches away, waiting to be noticed. This particular scare is effective precisely because it lacks a scare chord and there isn’t really any indication that the scare has already been triggered. Generally, the effect is immediately noticeable, so the lack of indication makes it all the more surprising. Regardless, I know I wasn’t the only one who shot off a shotgun round into the dentist’s face from seeing him, simply on instinct.
3.) F.E.A.R: Extraction Point
The F.E.A.R. games have always been an odd beast of a series to me. On one hand, it’s one of the better FPS games I’ve played, with solid weaponry and, for its time and even today, some of the best enemy AI I’ve seen in a game. On the other, it’s a Japanese-inspired horror game with a scary little girl and weird hallucinations. While these two separate aspects are mostly kept separate from each other from a gameplay standpoint, they still combine to make some very enjoyable games with a fair few good scares scattered throughout. However, for this specific list, I’m going to be talking about the first expansion for the original F.E.A.R.
Many times over the course of the series, Alma will pop out to say hello and produce significant paranoia about what she was trying to do. Surprising as each of these instances may be however, the jump scare that truly stands out among the crowd is when she appears as the player climbs a specific ladder. While ladders usually seem to cause a significant amount of scares throughout the series, this particular case is memorable simply because of where the scare happens. Instead of being at the top or bottom, Alma takes a literal swipe directly in the middle of the ladder from a crevice in the wall, knocking the player right off the ladder. I honestly can’t think of another instance where that has been the case and it comes so far out of nowhere that it becomes really shocking. That’s not even to mention the fact that Alma is surprisingly violent in this case where she usually doesn’t go for the direct attack until very late game. That combination of elements makes for a very effective surprise that I’ve never forgotten.
2.) Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Eternal Darkness is one of those unique games that manages to leave a significant impact due to how differently it handles its scares. The Sanity Meter decreases as the characters see more and more impossible events and when it gets high enough, the game begins to mess with the player directly. Perhaps the screen starts showing VIDEO in the upper-left corner as if the video cord disconnected, or maybe an info box appears saying the memory card was erased. Regardless of what happens, this kind of mechanic is just not seen often, if at all, and the game is remembered for that very reason. However, it also implements other forms of horror just as well, from the oppressive atmosphere to, naturally, one of the most remembered jump scares in all of gaming.
The setup and payoff of this particular scare is very simple. The main character, Alex, walks into a bathroom with nothing particularly strange about it. However, upon examining the empty bathtub, the camera angle turns and zooms multiple times until it focuses directly on a dead Alex in a completely blood-filled tub accompanied by a bloodcurdling scream. The scene flashes out right after that focus and, of course, it looks as though the mess wasn’t even there to begin with, which is more than likely. This is another example of playing with expectations to make the scare effective. There is, again, no buildup to the horrific flash and a full shot of the room reveals absolutely nothing. There is no reason to be suspicious whatsoever, but the quick camera turns throw off the player just before the actual jump, giving it more effectiveness. As with the other entries, everyone who has played this game remembers this particular scene and the basic setup makes it one of the best.
1.) Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned is a horror game where you play as a police detective and, as such, you often have to investigate the various buildings and streets to either find the correct path or gather evidence like blood samples or photographs. This investigation system, alongside the mainly melee combat system, made for a fairly unique experience in their own rights, but the integration those systems had into all aspects is what made the game really interesting. Naturally, this applies to the scares as well and while there are many noteworthy ones to be found, the best, in terms of both the game itself and jump scares in general, can be summed up in two words: Mr. Tibbits.
After searching through a school for the current victim of a serial killer known as The Torturer, main character Ethan comes to a row of lockers smeared with blood revealed through an UV light. Upon opening the locker where the blood trail ended, the body of the victim, Mr. Tibbits, is found, missing his lips, an arm, and a significant portion of his blood. Being a detective, the first thing to do is to take a picture of the body for evidence. Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t quite go through, so dispatch asks for a close-up shot. As soon as the camera is zoomed in by the correct amount, Tibbits springs to life, looks straight through the camera, grabs Ethan, and pulls him close. While Ethan himself seems surprisingly unperturbed by this, the player is most likely freaking out.
More or less, this jump scare is the best possible combination of every aspect of such a scare. It’s completely unexpected because, by all accounts, Tibbits should have been a very dead man by that point. This fact is compounded by the viewpoint from the camera, as the odd perspective makes it seem far less likely that something will happen, especially considering that, from my memory at least, Ethan never gets interrupted in the same way before or since this event. It’s completely new and is all the more surprising for it. Generally, I am fairly hard to scare, but Mr. Tibbits made me leap further out of my seat than anything I’ve ever seen while playing, and that, combined with some of the most well set up context I’ve ever seen, makes for the best jump scare in all of gaming.
Well, that was my top 5 jump scares in gaming. As always, there was no way I could hit every good one out there, so be sure to leave comments about your favorite jump scares and what you thought of the list itself. I always like to see more opinions put out there.