Survival Horror, as a genre, is actually still relatively new. In fact, it was only really created when Resident Evil came out on the original PlayStation (you can see the history of the Survival Horror genre here). Yet despite this, it quickly became a mainstay of the video gaming industry. Part of this meant that a whole host of different types of horror games were released, playing with and changing the standard formula of the genre. One of these games (and series) was Fatal Frame, known as Project Zero in Europe and Zero in Japan.
Directed by Makoto Shibata, the concept of Fatal Frame was based upon Shibata’s own dreams, as well as a number of events that happened to him that he attributed to the supernatural. As well as this, further inspiration for the story, setting and atmosphere came from real-world haunted locations and local legends from Japanese culture. This helped to create a very unique yet terrifyingly real feeling for the game.
Following on from the success of the Silent Hill series, with its “fear of the unknown” style gameplay, Shibata and his team decided to create a game where you would always feel like something was just around the corner, or just off screen. This would help to boost the psychological horror of their game considerably. Jin Hasegawa, the character designer and director of CGI, has also said that the colours black, white and red were integral to the design of the game. In essence, white was to show the idea of hope, black signified fear and red represented life.
All of these ideas were fused together by the development team at Temco, along with the idea of stereophonic sounds (decided upon by composer and sound director Shigekiyo Okuda) in order to create a truly unnerving atmosphere.
The First Frame
After bringing all of their ideas together into one game, the development team released Fatal Frame: Based On A True Story (see my review here). The game was set within a traditional Japanese mansion, which came from Shibata’s original ideas for the Deception series. These ideas were ignored for Deception because of the limitations of hardware at the time of that game’s development, but now that the team were working on the PlayStation 2, these ideas became reality.
Upon release, Fatal Frame sold 22,000 units during its debut week in Japan. Throughout the game’s lifespan, it sold a total of 42,000 copies in Japan, 12,000 in Europe and saw surprise success in North America as well.
It received critical praise, gaining scores of 70% up to 90% across various different magazines. Fatal Frame was praised for its atmosphere and unique style within the Survival Horror genre. However, some critics did not that the controls were a bit difficult to get used to.
The Crimson Butterfly
Very shortly after the release of Fatal Frame, the development team began development on a sequel. One interesting fact about the Fatal Frame series is that, because a large number of players got too scared by the first game to actually finish it, the team at Temco decided to put more focus on the storyline.
The reason for this was to create a strong driving force to play the game that could overpower your fear. This lead to the creation of Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly. Designed with more focus on horror than action, the developers built upon the idea of the ghosts in the first game, creating tragedies for each ghost that would hit you hard. Because of these backstories, you end up feeling sorrow and fear at the same time.
The behaviour of the spirits was also worked on, with the ghosts sometimes disappearing suddenly, only to show up again in different locations. On top of this, their presence can still be found even after you have defeated them. This only helps the sense of tension and fear as you can’t learn the locations and patterns of the ghosts in the game.
On the 27th November 2003, Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly was released onto the PlayStation 2. Due to its resounding success in Japan and North America, it was swiftly ported to the Xbox in 2004 as well. This release was titled Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly Director’s Cut.
The Director’s Cut version featured improved graphics, new costumes to unlock, a first-person view option, survival mode and an entirely new ending. A whole new lease of life was given to an already very successful Survival Horror game.
Following on from this success, and as a tribute to the hard work put in by the developers, Fatal Frame 2 would go on to be one of the most popular Survival Horror games of all time. So much so that it was re-released on the PlayStation 3 as a downloadable game in July 2013. There was even a remake of the game for the Nintendo Wii in 2012!
The Tormented Sequel
Following on from the success of Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterly, Temco quickly started working on yet another game in the series. This time, however, they decided to take the story back and create a direct sequel.
Sticking with the PlayStation 2 as the focus console, due to their success on it, the team set to work creating an entirely new story that connected the events of the first game and second game. This including returning characters from both, now haunted by the events that they have been through and the torment they feel.
Despite the fact that the game continues to focus on the ghosts, emotions and mental health also play a major part in the game. On top of this, you play the game as two different characters, switching between them for different sections of the game, known as “Hours”.
This was a big change for the series, allowing the developers to give each character different special abilities. All of these changes were largely accepted by both critics and fans, with the game selling very well once again and scoring an average of 75% across the various review magazines.
The Changing Generations
As the gaming industry moved into the next generation of console with the release of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii, the Survival Horror genre underwent a significant change as well. Following the absolutely huge success of Resident Evil 4, action and big set pieces became incredibly popular with gamers in North America and Europe.
This could easily be seen in games like Resident Evil 5 and the changes to the Silent Hill series with games like Homecoming. However, due to the nature of the Fatal Frame games, this type of gameplay wasn’t an option for Tecmo. Fatal Frame was a slow game series that was entirely focused on atmosphere, rather than large explosions and high-octane adrenaline.
Because of this, Tecmo was forced to make a decision that hurt many fans of the series in North America and Europe. However, it was a very understandable decision.
The Lunar Eclipse
The fourth game in the Fatal Frame series, known as Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen (or Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse) was released on the Nintendo Wii on 31st July 2008. A European release was announced, but due to the change in the Survival Horror genre outside of Japan, the game never made it to Europe and North America. A fan translation patch was created so that you could import the Japanese copy and play in English, but there was never an official release outside of Japan.
Mask of the Lunar Eclipse was the first in the Fatal Frame game to be co-developed, rather than solely being made by Tecmo. Instead, Tecmo was in charge of creating the gameplay and atmosphere whilst Grasshopper Manufacture developed the character motion. On top of this, Nintendo managed the overall development.
The game made use of the Wii’s motion controls to add a sense of immersion, and actually followed the new Survival Horror game design choice of an over the shoulder camera as well.
The other major change from previous Fatal Frame games was that the setting was not a traditional Japanese style location. Instead, the developers decided upon a setting that fused Eastern and Western architecture. This was done so that new gameplay features could be built into the game.
Sadly, upon release, Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse sold just 30,000 units. This makes it one of the weakest release debuts in the series as a whole. Despite this, it would go on to sell 75,000 copies, eventually making it the best-selling Fatal Frame game at the time.
Black Water Maiden
In 2011, during the development of the Wii remake of Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterly, Keisuke Kikuchi (co-creator of the series) proposed a new game that could use the Wii U’s unique gamepad as the Camera Obscura itself. The team behind Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, along with new developers, came together to create a new Project Zero game.
Thankfully, by this time many people had voiced their disdain for the action-heavy Resident Evil games and lack of horror within the “Survival Horror” genre. This lead to Tecmo deciding to develop Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water for European and North American audiences as well.
Returning to previous game design ideas, Maiden of Black Water was set in a traditional Japanese setting once again. This was done to help make the game’s atmosphere as frightening as possible, bringing the horror back into “Survival Horror”. It also featured the largest number of storylines within a Fatal Frame game to date, although this did mean that some backstory details were overlooked.
Upon release, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water sold 27,505 copies. This made it look like the game was going to be another big success, just like Mask of the Lunar Eclipse ended up being. However, it only ended up selling 46,099 copies in 2014, despite being available in other countries outside of Japan. Critics were also very conflicted, with Eurogamer simply given Maiden of Black Water an “avoid” score, whilst IGN gave it 7 out of 10.
The Future of Fatal Frame
Well, that brings us to the end of the Fatal Frame history so far. It has been a very turbulent ride for this underrated yet incredible Survival Horror series. At present, it has been almost four years since Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water was released and there hasn’t been any sign of a new game being in development.
As such, the future of this amazing series is up in the air at the moment. I really hope that we do get a new Fatal Frame game, but with projects like Silent Hills being cancelled, I’m not sure we ever will. Thankfully, the release of Resident Evil 7 (with its focus being back on horror rather than action) and games like Outlast and Amnesia seeing huge popularity, there may still be a chance.
And That’s All Folks
Fatal Frame is one of my favourite Survival Horror game series ever made. The second game, Fatal Frame: Crimson Butterfly, remains my all-time favourite horror game whilst the rest of the series holds a large place in my gaming heart. I don’t know if we will ever see a continuation of Fatal Frame, but it would be amazing if we do.
Have you ever played a Fatal Frame game? Let me know in the comments below!