Haunted House – PC
Release Date (NA): September 2010
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
Reviewed by Space Invader
A while back, I reviewed Haunted House (1982) for the 2600, praising it as a minimalistic, less-is-more, prototype for the survival horror genre. In 2010, the company that now calls itself Atari saw fit to remake the game on PC, followed by ports to other platforms, most notably the Wii.
To put it most simply, the developers added “more.” Now, if less is more, it follows that more must be less, right?
Well, no, not necessarily. In this case, however, the additions and updates detract heartily from what made the original unique.
Back to the Haunted House
The story, insomuch as I can tell, is that you are Sylvia or Jacob Silverspring, one of two grandkids of the brave adventurer who entered ol’ Zachary Graves’ haunted house in search of the three pieces of the urn in the original game. The story adds some token reason for re-entering the mansion, but that doesn’t much matter. We’re here to wander around the dark and get scared, right?
The beauty of the 2600 original was that the programmer had to work with what would today be considered positively stone-age technology. Rather than attempting to conjure up fears with attempts at frightful images built using giant pixels, the programmer wisely plunged the player into absolute darkness. Lighting a match provided a small radius of visibility, and players needed to light matches to enable them to see items, such as the master key, scepter, and of course, the pieces of the urn.
In the Haunted House 2010, the adventurer still lights matches, but unlike the original, there is visibility here. You can see the different rooms furnished. With the original Haunted House, the pitch dark means the contents of the house are up to your imagination. While one can only speculate how Atari would have decorated its Haunted House had they the means, the ability to see all the details of a room is just not as fun as feeling around in the dark. Unlike the use of matches before, light is used mostly to fend off ghouls and rats.
Yes, rats. There are rats everywhere, and they’re annoying as hell. They growl like Satan, and cause significant damage, and think nothing of sneaking up on you while you’re searching. Speaking of searching, you’ll be doing a lot of that. Every shelf, dresser, nightstand – and even couch – can be searched. Surprisingly, you don’t find any old stale Cheetos in the couches.
What you do find are matches, candles, lanterns, and random token items, that serve to fill up a useless “trophy room,” from which you can read a sentence or two about the item. Pretty useless.
Things start out promisingly enough in Haunted House. You enter the main hallway, and a chair violently smashes across the room against a wall. Out of nowhere, a ghost appears directly before you, taking your cell phone (light source) before disappearing through a wall.
It’s an abrasive beginning that ultimately belies the somewhat mild contents of the meat of the game. Unlike Reagan-era Haunted House, in which one invincible ghost (backed up by other more common creepy crawlies) terrorizes you, popping up when you least expect it, slamming a door behind it and chasing you with reckless abandon, ghosts in the reboot are all over the place. They’re easily out-maneuvered, and the fact that they’re so populous detracts from any scare factor they might have provided.
Later on, as you discover “magical” light sources, the ghosts can be defeated, which also serves to cheapen the scare factor. In the original, your only line of defense from any of the baddies was a magical scepter. So, all you could hope for when the solitary ghost of Zachary Graves showed up was to either sprint for the door (fast ghost, him) and pray that it wasn’t locked, or to happen to be holding the scepter, which makes you immune to being “scared to death” — and on the last difficulty level, the ghost was immune to the scepter. None of the enemies could be defeated.
Boss battles in Haunted House are difficult, but too arcadey for what a game like this should be going for. The boss that pops up after the eighth level proved insurmountable for me, and it was an exercise in frustration, not fright, as legions of gargoyles appeared one after another, destroying poor Sylvia.
For the most part, everything works here, and the game is by no means broken or unfair. Some tweaking would have been nice. Collision detection is inconsistent. It’s sometimes forgiving, as when ghosts come at you from certain angles, and at other times, it’s just too damn precise. You have to be standing directly on the upper left of some objects to pick them up, all whilst being chased by rats and ghosts. Not cool!
Whenever a dialogue box shows up, you must press a button to make it go away. While you’re at a standstill, the game is still going, which means that while you read the useless information the game is attempting to spoon-feed you, ghosts and rats are creeping up on you.
When you get “scared” by a ghost, you must maniacally shake the mouse. The ghosts are largely pretty good about moving on and letting you recover, but you have to do so much damn mouse waggling for so long that they occasionally re-scare you as you come to, making for an annoying loop.
Puzz ’till your puzzler’s sore
The main challenge of Haunted House involves finding keys to unlock the odd locked door, and sometimes, using levers that may or may not be hidden in other rooms. There’s nothing wrong with this.
This scavenger search aspect of the game, however, detracts somewhat from the flow of things. You are forced to search through every piece of furniture you come across. When you’re picking up random crap, such as masks the like, that don’t help you in-game, it’s distracting. Moreover, if this sounds like fun, I’m guessing you’re the sort of person who unwinds by dusting and vacuuming the house.
The crash of thunder, the screaming of babies
The graphics are fine. It’s obvious enough that this is meant, for better or worse, to double as a family-friendly game, so you know right off just by looking at the cartoonish box art that nothing in here will be all that much scarier than the Halloween episode of “My Little Pony.” I’d have appreciated a darker take, but that’s just me, and no one ever listens to ol’ me.
The music works really well in most places, and the score is haunting and builds suspense nicely. The compositions are varied enough that you aren’t driven to slam your head against a wall every time an unwelcome, familiar musical phrase pops up.
Sound effects in Haunted House are used to interesting effect – now and again, you’ll hear sinister laughter, doors creaking, ghostly voices whispering and babies crying. Babies crying! I don’t care who you are, hearing a baby cry in the middle of a dark, abandoned house is spookier than being a female employee out to dinner with Donald Trump.
You soon come to realize, however, that these sound effects are, for the most part, random. It’s still good for atmosphere, but they’d be a lot more frightening if they tied in with some in-game consequence – say, if you heard a sinister laughter, you knew that something bad was coming, or if you heard the baby crying, the computer animated baby from that old Blockbuster commercial would pop out of nowhere and Macarena you to death.
Haunted House’s characters are annoying
Well, they are. Jacob and Sylvia won’t shut up, and they have nothing valuable to say. They both offer timid “Hello?” and shakey requests of, “Is anyone there?”
Which is, to state the fucking obvious, not how you go about creeping around a haunted house. The last thing you want to do, as anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie knows, is draw attention to yourself.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because these voice samples are mostly random as well. The characters occasionally respond to something that actually happens, but you can be walking through an empty room and your character will, for no apparent reason, yell “Yikes,” or the particularly annoying, “Zoinkies.”
Sylvia also says “O … M … G…” like clockwork, and it’s terribly annoying. When she gets “scared” by a ghost, she makes whimpery … uh, intimate sounding noises. It’s wrong, but it feels so right. No, it feels pretty wrong.
You can tell by reading the back of the box about the wander through the house leading up to a “showdown” with the ghost of Zachary Graves that something is off, here, and this will not be the same sort of game as the ingeniously put-together Haunted House of 1982.
On the other hand, modern Haunted House has a bit of Halloween fun to it, and now that the price has dropped to less than $6 for a download, you could do a lot worse. Just go in with your expectations properly calibrated, and if you’ve never played the Atari 2600 Haunted House, all the better. You’re welcome.
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