I'm not sure what it is about Japanese horror movies and video games that makes them so damned scary, but Japanese developers seem to have a, err, stranglehold on the genre. That's why there are so many American horror movies that are remakes of the Japanese originals.
Maybe it's the fact that Japanese game developers and directors don't rely solely on “jump-scares,” or maybe they just know what makes people feel vulnerable. All I know is that I get creeped out in real life every time I see a little girl with long, dark hair and a hidden face in less-than-optimal lighting.
Here are what I consider to be five of the scariest Japanese video games released since 2000. Go ahead and play them in the dark if you dare!
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (PS2, PS3, Xbox 2003)
Fatal Frame introduced gamers to the concept of battling ghosts using only a camera as a weapon, and this sequel ups the scare factor by focusing on a pair of young girls who visit a haunted Japanese village. They become separated, and one of them quickly discovers that the village is not how she remembered it. Players control this girl through most of the game as she searches for her sister, battles terrifying ghosts, and uncovers a deep plot involving twins throughout the ages.
The camera battle system, called Camera Obscura, is unique to this series, and its limitations only increase the fear. I really appreciate how more damage is inflicted to enemies by taking close-up pictures rather than far away ones. In addition, various types of film can be found that inflict increased damage, but it isn't plentiful. It's too bad that selfies hadn't become a big thing at the time this game was made because I imagine the risk involved with taking them would make them cause significant damage.
Silent Hill 2 (PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, PC 2001)
Sure, the original was really scary, but Silent Hill 2 is insanely creepy, has macabre enemies, and introduces taboo topics (like suicide and rape) that most games wouldn't dare touch with a ten-foot spear (which is just a pole but better). Players assume the role of a man named James who receives a letter from his dead wife. He travels to the mysterious town of Silent Hill in search of his lost love only to discover that it's filled with terrifying monsters that would make the devil himself run in fear.
Exploring a scary town laden with dense fog as an average person who doesn't fight well and can only see a few feet in front of him is bad enough, but engaging truly terrifying monsters with extremely limited ammunition makes it much worse. Add the fact that this game introduces the iconic Pyramid Head, who will most assuredly end up in every player's nightmares at some point, and the result is a game that will literally scare some people so much they won't finish playing it.
Siren (PS2 2004, PSN 2013)
I'm sure that many of you are wondering why no version of Resident Evil is on this list. That's because Siren is a much more terrifying game with zombie-like enemies. The story is told through the eyes of several survivors and takes place in the Japanese town of Hanuda, which has been thrown into turmoil after an intense earthquake. Deadly creatures called shibito roam the town looking for survivors to transform into more shibito. The spooky atmosphere is heightened by the dominant sound of moans and creepy noises.
Resistance is futile in this game because characters have extremely limited weaponry and can get killed with one blow, so the obvious choice is to avoid combat. Lumbering shibito have excellent hearing, so it's best to quietly sneak around and use the flashlight sparingly. One really cool feature, called “sight jack,” lets players see and hear what nearby shibito or humans can see and hear. This really helps when players must complete objectives or escort survivors to safety.
Calling (Nintendo Wii 2010)
While most games on the Wii focused on realistic uses of the Wii-mote, Calling took the unique controller to supernatural new heights. Its story centers around a website called The Black Page, which is literally a black website with a counter that displays how many people have died after visiting the site. When three people visit The Black Page, they're drawn into an eerie void, known as the Mnemonic Abyss, that teeters between life and death. Their only escape is by using their cell phones, which now have paranormal features (try getting that service with AT&T).
Players are forced to explore eerie areas like an internet cafe and a doll-filled house in order to find their way back to reality. Not only is the Wiimote used to move objects and walk around, but it also receives incredibly creepy calls from dead souls and can record their voices. It can also be used to take pictures and warp to different locations, which is how players avoid combat. Apparently, the scariest games usually involve limited combat or avoiding enemies altogether!
Ju-on: The Grudge Haunted House Simulator (Nintendo Wii 2009)
The Grudge is the American version of the horrifying Japanese original film, Ju-on, and this game was directed by the same person who also helmed the films. While the plot is original, it still follows the legend that a curse is created when someone dies with a deep-seated grudge. This story focuses on a family that is exposed to the curse, and each family member must deal with it on their own. The only way the curse can be lifted is if each member is successful.
I know that the frustrating gameplay is typical of Wii shovelware, but exploring each dark and foreboding area in first-person view with only camera light to see by is definitely stress-inducing. It seems like Ju-on is tailor-made for the popular system due to the ability to realistically control the flashlight with the Wiimote. Instead of combat, this game relies on numerous scare tactics thrown at players as they explore each scary environment. It isn't necessarily fun, but hey, this list is about scary games, not good ones.