Gaming in the Rain: Dramatic Weather in Classic Video Games

This emotional relationship with the elements provides convenient thematic shorthand for authors, filmmakers, and game developers. Here’s how games use weather to heighten drama or affect gameplay.
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Gaming in the Rain: Dramatic Weather in Classic Video Games

It was a dark and stormy night in Hyrule…

Both in fictional drama and the real world, human emotions feel inextricably linked to the weather. There’s nothing happier than a sunny day or as foreboding as an impending thunderstorm. And it’s a complex relationship: While some people dread the gloom of an overcast day, others view it as a source of tranquil peace.

This emotional relationship with the elements provides convenient thematic shorthand for authors and filmmakers who use it to for various purposes: to control the flow of the action (as a deus ex machina), to quickly characterize an environment, to emphasize the feelings of a character, or perhaps to heighten the drama of a scene.

Not surprisingly, this storytelling practice has also made its way into video and computer games. That’s what I’d like to examine today. We’ll survey weather as dramatic emphasis, an environmental modifier, and as a gameplay element in titles from classic video and computer games.

I really enjoy a good thunderstorm—as long as I’m safely inside a warm, dry place —and this real-life rainy day for me is as good a time as any to examine this subject. It’s a good excuse to play video games.

Special thanks to MobyGames for capturing many of these screenshots.

  • Ghouls 'N Ghosts (Arcade, 1988)

    Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (Arcade, 1988)

    Arcade classic Ghouls ‘N Ghosts sets the stage for a stressful and challenging experience early in the game, where lightning streaks across a dark, cloudy sky in the background. Soon the wind picks up and rain falls, blowing trees violently as winged enemies swirl into view like miniature tornadoes. In a game as difficult as Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, these relatively frightening atmospheric effects ramp up tension and add another layer of obstacles you might not otherwise expect from an action platformer.
  • Utopia (Intellivision, 1981)

    Utopia (Intellivision, 1981)

    Utopia includes some one of the earliest known graphical depictions of weather systems in video games, and they are especially notable due to being directly integrated into gameplay rather than just being scenery or lending to the atmosphere.

    In this pioneering real-time strategy simulation, you serve as the ruler of an island civilization that helps it thrive by managing its resources. Weather plays a large role in the game in three ways: Regular rain storms help your crops grow. Stronger tropical storms sometimes help and sometimes damage crops or buildings. And hurricanes sometimes swirl in and destroy everything in their path. They add another level of realism to this fascinating and enjoyable title.

  • Super Metroid (Super NES, 1994)

    Super Metroid (Super NES, 1994)

    Anyone who has played Super Metroid will remember the moment when Samus’ ship first lands on Zebes in the middle of a pouring alien rainstorm. After landing, Samus rises out of her ship with thunder rumbling and lightning flashing. As you enter the first caverns, the thunder cracks continue and you can see rain pouring in the background through holes in the cave wall. Later on in the game, you re-emerge at the surface and the rain has stopped, serving as a strong visual cue that time has passed and the story has progressed.
  • Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis, 1993)

    Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis, 1993)

    In this beat-em-up classic, you punch and kick your way through dozens of enemies, and it stays entertaining partly because of the detailed and interesting scene changes throughout the game. In one instance, after fighting your way through a bar, you find yourself out back facing a main boss named Barbon and several of his toughest thugs. The rain pouring down around you definitely heightens the drama in this relatively small area, setting it apart as a distinct and satisfying set piece.
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Super NES, 1991)

    The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Super NES, 1991)

    The rainy opening moments of A Link to the Past masterfully set the stage for the rest of the game. Link wakes up in the middle of the night during a heavy rainstorm—which you hear on the roof of your house—to telepathic pleas for help from Zelda, who is imprisoned in a dungeon under her castle. Link’s Uncle leaves the house with a sword and shield, with Link on his own. Using exploration that teaches you some of the basics of the game, you must infiltrate the castle outside in the rain without raising suspicion from guards. Once inside, you hear the storm pounding on the castle roof, and the sound muffles then disappears as you descend deeper into the dungeon. Environmental drama at its finest.
  • Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (NES, 1990)

    Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (NES, 1990)

    Stage 2-2 of this challenging and beautiful action platformer sees the player guiding Ryu Hayabusa through a treacherous mountaintop scene. Strong winds, marked graphically by animated diving rain (or perhaps snow), change direction regularly, impeding your progress by blowing against you. In some parts, the player needs the added boost from the wind to clear certain jumps, which adds a clever twist to environmental gameplay that was novel at the time. On top of that, the music for the stage is incredible as well.
  • Ouranos! / Weather War! (Commodore PET, 1980)

    Ouranos! / Weather War! (Commodore PET, 1980)

    This mostly forgotten game for the Commodore PET / CBM series turns the traditional player-vs-player artillery game (where two players pick an angle and power and try to destroy each others’ installations) into a god-like struggle over the weather. Instead of cannon, two players face off wielding weather phenomena such as rain, hail, lightning, or tornadoes. The goal is to destroy the other player’s house, piece by piece, using these aimed weather attacks. It’s one of the first video games to let players control the weather. Ouranos (AKA Uranus), the Greek god of the sky, would be pleased.
  • Metroid Prime (GameCube, 2002)

    Metroid Prime (GameCube, 2002)

    At the time of its release, Metroid Prime set a high bar for impressive graphics on a home console. One of the neatest graphical tropes in this first-person game is how the environment around you interacts with the visor on your helmet. Frost can show up, gunk can stick to it, and you can even see a faint reflection of Samus’ face during certain explosions. And my favorite: While exploring the rainy Tallon Overworld, if you look up, realistic droplets of rain collect on your visor. Little touches like these add incredible depth to an already immersive experience.
  • Willow (NES, 1989)

    Willow (NES, 1989)

    In this unusually good movie adaptation, the player controls Willow in an action/adventure RPG reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda (but with more RPG depth). The visual style, music, and sound complement this game well. One graphical detail in particular always gets my attention. Upon wandering into a screen with monsters, the music changes and the wind picks up. The trees, bushes, and grass shake violently as Willow faces his foes, adding a heightened dramatic element to the battle. When victorious, the wind settles down and the music returns to normal. The weather effects help emphasize the danger Willow faces on his long quest.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

    The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

    Rain plays a big part of this classic 3D RPG, both as an environmental enhancement (both relieving tedium and emphasizing the passage of time during fishing at the lake) and as part of the thematic gameplay. At one point in the game, Link learns the Song of Storms inside the Kakariko Windmill. When played on his Ocarina for the first time, rain falls and the pace of the windmill’s rotation speeds up, adding dramatic intensity to the moment. Elsewhere in the game, it can summon rain as well as reveal key secrets. But I’ll leave that exciting discovery to you—just in case you haven’t played it yet. Pick a stormy day, sit down with a N64, and enjoy.

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