Some fears are more primal than others. All things spooky tap into the darker parts of our mind, where our basic survival instincts lie, and exploit them to simulate experiencing a level of fear that people in modern society rarely feel. But perhaps one of the most primal fears is that of being hunted by something stronger and unstoppable than you.
3D Monster Maze was released for the Sinclair ZX81 in 1982, written by Malcom Evans for J.K. Greye Software. It relies on a deep, primal fear of being hunted. Hit the jump, and enter the monster’s lair for yourself.
The game begins with a carnival hawker, inviting you to see a preserved mighty Tyrannosaurus rex. You are challenged to enter the T. rex’s own lair, a twisting maze with the monster itself hunting you. If you can navigate the maze, you’ll be able to escape; fail, and the T. rex will devour you.
There is no way to detect the monster aside from visually. You are given three levels of detection: one where the T. rex is “lying in wait”, one where you hear “footsteps approaching”, and the final level where you are ordered to run because he is behind you. There is no way to run backwards, so when you are told to run, you must run blindly away from the creature.
While this sounds simplistic on paper, in practice it’s a lot more spine-chilling than one could imagine. Nearly all of it comes down to the age of the console: the Sinclair ZX81 was devoid of sound, meaning that every on-screen warning was accommodated by the sound of literally nothing. No footsteps, no breathing noises – just eerie, uncomfortable silence.
When you finally see the monster himself running down the hallway, you are greeted with a low-resolution black blob with a giant cheek-to-cheek grin.
This doesn’t look anything like a real T. rex, does it? This is no Jurrasic Park dinosaur, this is a shapeless toothy mass come to kill you. The lack of detail is exactly why this monster is so scary: devoid of familiar, friendly features, you are forced to confront something that your mind cannot process. You are being hunted by some thing, not any animal that the brain can understand.
The only way to escape is to find a portal out of the maze, which is a challenging endeavour. The maze is dense and twisty, and the only clue you get for its location is that it will be at the end of a cul-de-sac in the maze. For every step you take while the monster is hunting you, you are awarded five points. If you fail, you are eaten by the monster and are forced to wander the maze forever.
The monster hunts you without any hesitation or rest, and it will find you if you are not constantly on the move. If it sees you, it will take the shortest path directly to you, and you have no choice but to run away. This can cause a crippling panic attack if you manage to run face-first into the monster, because you’ll have to slowly turn around before you can escape.
To complete the game, you must find the escape portal before the monster finds you. Since you do not know where the portal is, you’re much more likely to get eaten by the T. rex before you can get anywhere close to it. It can take several lengthy tries to get to the true end, and each time tends to be more tense than the last.
Each turn of playing this game boils down to a mad dash through the dark maze to escape an inescapable foe. There is no recourse, no fighting back, no nothing – only the slim hope of fleeing, tempered by the constant knowledge that he is behind you.
3D Monster Maze might not seem so exciting in this day and age, but if you are to play any kind of survival horror game, know that this is where it all began. For every Resident Evil and Amnesia game we enjoy today, it all distills down to the same primal fear that 3D Monster Maze cultivated. 3D Monster Maze may have been the first time that the digital medium was used for this kind of intense fear, but it will be a long, long time before we see what the last time will be.
If you’re interested, try playing 3D Monster Maze for yourself to see just how scary it really is.