Simon Belmont, the Dovahkiin, and hundreds of other video game heroes make their l ivelihoods hacking and slashing through legions of monsters – many with fascinating, deep real-world origins we rarely stop to consider. When Frank West is clobbering a zombie’s head with a mannequin torso, have you ever paused to consider the undead’s roots in Haitian folklore? Have you ever wondered why Alucard transforms into a wolf in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night? This bestiary highlights the earliest beginnings and evolution of gaming’s most prolific monsters, along with their role in games past and present.
ORIGINS: Blood-drinking monsters have been common folklore fodder for millennia, but the origins of the humanoid vampire may be in early civilization’s misunderstanding of bodily decomposition. Unlike the pale, goth vampires of modern times, early bloodsuckers were portrayed as having a well-fed, ruddy appearance, sometimes with blood trickling from their mouth or nose. These looked like the signs of an undead ghoul who had recently fed, when a likelier explanation involves the effect of bloating gases on a corpse. These gases would escape with a foul groaning sound when pierced with say, a wooden stake, which may have sounded like a final gasp. Other vulnerabilities, like aversions to sunlight and holy crosses, stem from vampires’ Satanic associations in Christian cultures. Additionally, contracting flesh gave the appearance of menacing can- ines and claw-like f ingernails, further lending to the beastly visage.
EVOLUTION: Vampires didn’t become the slick, caped creatures of the night we’re familiar with until the early 18th century. Thanks to a cultural climate of mass hysteria spurred on by rampant disease, vampirism morphed into a blood-borne affliction that could be passed from host to victim via bites. This could explain vampires’ mythical ability to transform into wolves or bats, creatures that are generally associated with rabies, which is communicable via saliva. Literary works also earned vampires a permanent place in pop culture, especially Bram Stoker’s legendary Dracula, published in 1897. Stoker’s titular antagonist became the definitive mold that all future vampires would be judged against, further cemented by 20th century films like Nosferatu and myriad Dracula movies. Vampires have received a bloody shot in the arm in modern pop culture thanks to successul paranormal romance franchises like Twilight and True Blood.
ICONIC GAME: Fast forward 55 years from Bela Lugosi’s infamous role as Dracula to the release of Konami’s Castlevania in 1986. Simon Belmont’s quest through the haunted castle is overflowing with classic monsters from mythology and classic literature, but Dracula is the big boss of them all. Even Death himself is Dracula’s lackey.
POPULAR APPEARANCES: Castlevania’s unstoppable undead overlord may be the medium’s most prominent vampiric figure, but these blood-craving ghouls saturate games. Feral, bloodthirsty beasts with slicing claws roam games like Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, where players can toss these e nemies into sunlight to dissolve them into nothing. Some vampires are intelligent protagonists with proficient marksmanship skills as in Bloodrayne or Infamous’ Festival of Blood DLC. As long as the horror and fantasy genres remain in style, these creatures likely aren’t going anywhere.
AS SEEN IN: BloodRayne, Castlevania, Countdown Vampires, Darkwatch, Infamous: Festival of Blood, King’s Quest 2, Night Trap, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Soul Reaver: Legacy of Kain, Vampire: The Masquerade
ORIGINS: The werewolf legend has existed as long as humans have feared wild, carnivorous creatures. The origins of the classic European werewolf are said to have sprung from man’s desire to rationalize random, widespread wolf attacks by projecting their fears onto mysterious, intelligent shape shifters. Similar myths independently cropped up across the world involving the werehyenas of Africa and weretigers of Africa, further suggesting that this folklore comes from somewhere deep with the human psyche. History also connects early pagan warrior cultures, such as Vikings, with wolf symbolism, implying men become wolves on the battlefield. This is one example of shape shifting as an advantage, but the metamorphosis is also commonly perceived as a demonic curse or contagious disease throughout history. One of the earliest recorded stories of a man becoming a wolf is the Greek myth of Lycaon, a king who was turned into a wolf as punishment for serving Zeus human flesh.
Werewolf hysteria cropped up in Europe during the late Middle Ages, where serial killers and cannibals thought to be vicious lupine monsters were tried and executed similarly to the witch hunts of the time. Traditional means for overcoming werewolves included forcing the beasts to transform back into humans by pursuing them to the point of exhaustion, wolfsbane, Christian conversion, or fatal methods similar to killing vampires. One of the most important developments in werewolf lore stems from 18th century Germanic folklore about the slaying of the wolf-like Beast of Gévaudan using a blessed silver bullet, popularizing the otherwise resilient monster’s vulnerability to the precious metal.
EVOLUTION: Unlike vampires, no key influential literature existed to serve as a touchstone for depictions of werewolves. The tragic, sympathetic werewolves of popular fiction we know today evolved in film, especially thanks to Lon Chaney, Jr.’s wild, hairy makeup effects in Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man (1941). Chaney’s performances across these popular horror films solidified the sympathetic cursed man’s transformation into a wolf creature under a full moon, along with a weakness to silver weapons. While subtle v ariations of
this classic affliction have appeared over the last century, the core myth has largely remained the same in pop culture depictions.
ICONIC GAME: Sega’s 1988 arcade beat ‘em up, Altered Beast, lets players transform into a wild variety of werebeasts. Bulk up with enough Spirit Balls and you can become a werewolf that tosses fireballs, a werebear whose breath turns enemies to stone, or even a flying electric weredragon.
POPULAR APPEARANCES: Castlevania is a virtual showcase of legendary monsters, with werewolves commonly appearing as agile foes, or even as the protagonist of Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness on the Nintendo 64. The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery is a classic adventure game revolving around investigators looking into purported werewolf murders in Germany, celebrated for its intriguing plot and nuanced characters. Video game icons Sonic and Link even had their time in the moonlight, turning into a werehog and a sacred wolf, respectively. In more recent titles, blood curses turn men into feral wolf beasts in Bloodborne and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, while The Order: 1886 features a secret, evil order of intelligent werewolves.
AS SEEN IN: Altered Beast, Bloodborne, Castlevania, Darkstalkers, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Nightmare Creatures, The Order: 1886, Sonic Unleashed, The Wolf Among Us
ORIGINS: The mythology of the shambling, mindless undead we know has roots in Haitian folklore. Sorcerers and necromancers of the Caribbean country were believed to raise and control the bodies of the deceased to do their bidding. These metaphorical beliefs were potentially founded in conjunction with Haiti’s ongoing slavery problems, noted as early as Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492. Haitian lore suggests that zombies’ souls belong to their magical master, thus reducing them to walking corpses. In contrast to malevolent masters, the legend of Baron Samedi describes a powerful being that would gather dead slaves from their graves and deliver them to a peaceful afterlife, while the unworthy would be forced to remain a zombified slave forever after death. Some controversial theories even suggest that unwitting victims were drugged and manipulated into believing they had died and been resurrected by ingesting specific poisons.
EVOLUTION: While not immediately thought of by many as a zombie tale, Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein introduced ideas of scientific reanimation to the public, complete with an uncontrollable, resilient, violent undead man.
Famed early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft built upon this idea with Herbert West – Reanimator, an unhinged scientist striving to resurrect humans to similar results. These early works helped separate the zombie from its mystical roots and associate it with irresponsible advances in science. The origins of the flesh-eating, diseased zombies that infest modern fiction today didn’t come about until George A. Romero’s classic 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead. Romero drew inspiration from the apocalyptic vampire world of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, combining the traditional concepts of the zombie with viral, cannibalistic tendencies. Like the contagious zombie virus of Romero’s films, the popularity of the undead apocalypse spread across the globe.
Zombies largely remained slow, dim-witted husks until the early 2000s, when films like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake pumped their speed up to Olympic track-star levels while increasing their overall ferocity and intelligence. The popularity of zombies has held strong to today, with everything from AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series to zombie-themed obstacle races vying for fans’ attention.
ICONIC GAME: While early 8- and 16-bit representations of zombies were generally simplistic and unthreatening, that changed in 1996 with the release of Resident Evil. These lethal, resilient enemies terrified players of the time and sparked an unrelenting video game trend.
POPULAR APPEARANCES: The un- dead are commonly found in fantasy and horror games. Zombies are oftentimes the earliest enemies that players encounter in popular series like Final Fantasy, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, or Castlevania. After Resident Evil, the 2008 title Left 4 Dead introduced unprecedented waves of fast zombies, allowing friends to fulfill their postapocalyptic fantasies alongside friends. The undead have become so prolific that typing in “zombies” into Apple’s App Store yields over 10,000 results. The trend doesn’t appear to be dying down or dulling fans’ enthusiasm, either, with 2013’s game of the year, The Last of Us, earning high acclaim for its mature, nuanced storytelling.
AS SEEN IN: Call of Duty, Castlevania, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Dark Souls, DayZ, Dead Rising, Doom, Dying Light, Resident Evil, Dead Island, The Last of Us, Left 4 Dead, Minecraft, Plants vs. Zombies, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Zombies Ate My Neighbors
ORIGINS: Unlike the other iconic creatures featured here, the classic barbaric, green-skinned orc is entirely the creation of celebrated Lord of the Rings scribe J.R.R. Tolkien. The author was a linguist who enjoyed studying and creating languages such as elvish. Tolkien’s keen interest in etymology inspired his naming of orcs, which supposedly comes from the Latin word Orcus, the demonic Roman god of the dead. Orcus’ name came to be associated with demons and monsters called “ogre” in French or “orco” in Italian, which were commonly bestial, tusked, menacing creatures that feasted on human flesh.
EVOLUTION: Lumbering, hairy ogres and massive cyclops are iconic representations of ogres, but Tolkien’s orcs are different. Unlike giant ogres, orcs are shorter than humans, though they’re still ugly, generally dark-skinned, fanged, and easily manipulated into military action by malevolent overlords like Sauron. Man-sized orcs appear more commonly in Peter Jackson’s modern Lord of the Rings films and feature a wide range of skin tones, from blotchy greens to pale. Orcs were too irresistible to fantasy nerds to remain solely within Middle-earth, and became mainstays in tabletop roleplaying games of the ‘70s and ‘80s like Dungeons & Dragons and
Warhammer, doubling down on hulking, ape-like war monsters with green skin. RPGs like Warhammer 40,000 and Shadowrun eschewed the high fantasy setting, introducing orcs to futuristic, sci-fi technology like chainswords and cybernetics, respectively.
ICONIC GAME: The warring green brutes came into their own with Blizzard’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. The real-time strategy series let players control warmongering orc units, and provided sympathetic context for the orcs by showing how hellish entities are manipulating the orcs’ attacks against Azeroth.
POPULAR APPEARANCES: Orcs have been mainstay enemy fodder in video games for decades, including early Lord of the Rings games as well as classic series like Gauntlet and Shadowrun. World of Warcraft and Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series took things a step further, letting players create and play their own mighty orc. More recently, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor pitted players against a special breed of orcs called uruks, who featured their own dynamic class structure, complete with violent in-fighting.
AS SEEN IN: Blackthorne, Dungeon Keeper, The Elder Scrolls, EverQuest, Gauntlet, Grandia, Knack, Magicka, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Orcs Must Die!, Shadowrun, Space Marine, Warcraft, Warhammer 40,000, World of Warcraft
ORIGINS: This classic monster has less obvious roots in literature than other entries. However, the natural occurrence of spreading fungi, slime molds, and expanding amoebas present ripe real-world inspiration for creative minds.
EVOLUTION: H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness features an enormous, amorphous, protoplasmic monstrosity called Shoggoth that crushes everything in its path. The 1958 sci-horror classic The Blob is about an amorphous blob that absorbs people and becomes red with blood as it grows to the size of a building. The characters of The Blob discover the titular horror to be sensitive to cold, finally deciding to drop the otherworldly slime into the arctic and helping establish this monster’s elemental vulnerability. Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax says his oozing monsters, like the infamous, dungeon-sweeping gelatinous cube, were inspired by “…amoebas, insect larva, and imagination.”
Blobs have all but vanished in pop culture, yet these persistent buggers continue to flourish in video games.
ICONIC GAME: Gooey monsters are a standby in many early RPGs of the ‘80s, likely thanks to developers with penchants for Dungeons & Dragons. A recurring, early enemy in the Dragon Quest series is the adorable, simple slime. Far from terrifying, this little guy was cute enough to become the series mascot.
POPULAR APPEARANCES: Like Dragon Quest’s slimes, flans and puddings appear in Final Fantasy games, graced with resistance to physical attack thanks to their mushy form, though they’re typically weak to elemental magic. The Legend of Zelda series is filled with slime monsters, including shieldeating Like Likes and Wind Waker’s collectable ChuChu’s. Another broadly used slime monster trope is the slime monster that splits into smaller, individually minded critters when hit.
Globular creatures aren’t always enemies, however. The titular sidekick from A Boy and His Blob can consume jellybeans to transform into useful tools like a ladder, rocket, or an anvil.
AS SEEN IN: A Boy and His Blob, Castlevania, de Blob, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Gish, The Legend of Zelda, The Ooze, Pokémon, Rogue Legacy, Super Meat Boy, Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, World of Warcraft, Bloodborne.