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Haunted House – Atari 2600

Haunted House – Atari 2600

Haunted House box art

Ghosts … bats … tarantulas … oh my.

Platform: Atari 2600

Developer: Atari

Publisher: Atari

Release Date (NA): 1981

Genre: Survival/Horror

Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed by Space Invader

The scant few of you who aren’t experts in programming the 6502 chip via Assembly language might approximate any attempt to instill elements of fear into an Atari 2600 game with an attempt to create a really scary, horror-themed sock puppet show.

Simply, the tools available aren’t suited for the effort. Socks aren’t scary, and similarly, neither are the bips, bops and giant pixels that typify the audio and visual effects of the 2600 machine. While all the anonymous, Atari-era programmers deserve medals for their ability to produce playable games in the face of extreme limitations, whoever programmed Haunted House deserves a parade followed by a lunch buffet.

Less is not less

Haunted house eyeballs

Just you and your eyeballs.

The scoop is that you have entered the house of the long dead Zachary Graves, a grumpy old man who in death has become a grumpy old ghost. Your mission is to retrieve all three pieces of some ancient urn, assemble them, and leave the house. Easy enough, if the four-story house didn’t contain a number of locked rooms, not to mention an evil vampire bat, several tarantulas of unusual size/vigor and, of course, the malicious spirit of Zachary Graves.

The game is a case study of the less-is-more approach, substituting what would be futile attempts at frightening images on the 2600 hardware with dark, minimalistic screens. Haunted House also pushes the sound capabilities past the typical 2600 beeps, instead featuring surprisingly effective atmospheric noises.

In all but the first variation of Haunted House, the game takes place in total darkness. Your character is visible at all times as represented by a pair of eyes. Additionally, ghosts and baddies are visible as they whoosh into the room you’re in and flashes of lightening reveal outlines of where the walls are.

The house is expansive, with staircases on each floor. Several doors are locked, which means you’ll have to concoct elaborate strategies in order to access sealed-off sections of the manor, through clever use of alternate staircases. Bumping into locked doors will bring forth an ugly “bonk” sound, and leave you cornered. You’ll lose many a life at the hands of creepy crawlies whilst pressed against a locked door.

Haunted House eyes with tarantula

Sure, it’s big enough to eat your face, but it’s just a spider.

On the bright side, so to speak, you have an unlimited supply of matches, which allow you to see objects in the small radius surrounding your character.

These items include a magical scepter, a master key, and, of course, the three pieces of the urn. The scepter makes you invisible to all the ghosts and crawlies, although in the last two game variations, the ghost of Zachary Graves is immune to its effects. The master key allows you to pass through any of the locked doors, and the pieces of the urn must be collected, assembled, and rushed out the front door.

Complicating matters, you can only carry one item at a time, which means you’ve got to use the ol’ noggin to remember where you left things when you, say, use the key to get to a room, but then must drop it for a piece of the urn. More difficult variations have creatures confiscate whatever you’re carrying to be redeposited wherever they see fit – and you lose a life. You have nine lives, but you’ll need them all.

Sights and sounds of Haunted House

In the 2600 days, lone hackers plucked away directly at the memory locations of the machines they programmed. It was a solitary sort of work vastly different from the high-level languages and vast armies of designers and programmers modern production teams enjoy. I like to think that Haunted House‘s programmer coded mostly at night, confined in the spooky basement of Atari HQ, with rain and the whistle of wind beating against a nearby window, perhaps with the crackling of thunder echoing in the distance.

Old Man Graves wearing his sheet again. Better run.

Old Man Graves wearing his sheet again. Better run.

Of course, that’s all bollocks, but the game turned out so well it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t itself birthed in a haunted house. It’s not that the game is graphically groundbreaking, it’s that it understands that it shouldn’t try to be. Rather than trying to render every object, why not leave the house’s contents to the imagination, as our hero bumbles around, feeling around the mansion in the dark? The pair of eyes staring at you beg not to be left in one place too long, as a ghost could whip around a corner at any moment. The ghost looks just like a Halloween decoration, but the way the late Mr. Grave sneaks up, often rushing you suddenly appearing out of a doorway, you eventually learn to fear the white specter. The effect of lightening, top-notch, falls just short of chilling.

The sound is phenomenal for the system. How the programmer was able to capture the sound of whistling wind I’ll never understand, but every time a ghoulie enters your room, the wind whispers its warning, usually accompanied by cracking thunder that goes hand in hand with that terrific lightning effect. The sound of doors slamming is similarly sensational.

The rustic importance of story and art

In keeping with the period, the manual actually makes for some interesting reading. Understanding the limitations of conveying any sort of a story on the 2600, Atari often included a well-written story that had the bipolar effect of either complimenting the game by adding depth or crippling the pale-by-comparison cartridge.

Beautifully painted cover art had a similar aim, often intending to mislead the gamer into an impulse purchase. The art for 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, for example, implies that its product fell right out of a future in which recreational space travel is the norm, when in fact it’s a clunky manifestation of a dull board game.

Lightening strikes revealing a tarantula.

Lightening strikes revealing a tarantula.

In the case of Haunted House, the story sets the game up perfectly, and lends itself nicely to the eerie atmospheres. The spooky box art works, too, as long as you accept that you’re not really going to see anything in the painted picture on-screen.

Notes for the modern gamer

Haunted House is a dark, fun adventure game. If you go in expecting Alan Wake, then you’re an idiot who deserves disappointment. Otherwise, choose variation 4 and up and you’ll find a nice, spooky challenge. The randomly placed items in the house offer unlimited replay value for those who enjoy this sort of thing.

The only variations of the game able to cause a real sense of suspense are 8 and 9, in which the ghost can “scare you to death” even when you’re holding the scepter, and baddies drop whatever you’re holding when they get you into a random location. Naturally, you have to start on the lower levels to get the feel, but the real game starts on variation 8, and rushing for the door on your last life with the ghost on your heels is as pulse-pounding an experience as you can expect in 1981.

The most upsetting aspect of the cartridge’s design is that default tutorial level is no fun whatsoever. The walls are illuminated, doing away with every ounce of the game’s suspense. Many gamers simply switch it on, notice the pointlessness of the simplistic level, and shelf it forever. A shame, because good horror-themed games for the Atari 2600 are, understandably, quite a rarity. About as rare as a good, suspenseful, R-rated sock-puppet show.

I ain't got no ... body

I ain’t got no … body

Written by Space Invader

Sometime in the early 1980s, in the heart of the Silicon Valley was born one Angelo. No one knew it yet, but he would grow up to become the mighty Space Invader, master of the old technology and writer of the third-person profile.

The Atari 2600 and Xbox 360 vie equally for Space Invader’s heart, but he can’t seem to choose one and settle down. Something is just so appealing to consoles that have names featuring numbers between 300 and 3000.

Little is known about Space Invader’s past, but he is rumored to drive a Buick and is said to have a tremendous singing voice.


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One Comment

  1. This is definitely one of the games where it’s apparent hardware limitations forced creativity out of the developers. So cool that they managed all this on the Atari 😀


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