Splatterhouse

Platform: Arcade (Namco System 1)
Other Platforms: PC-Engine/TurboGrafx-16, FM Towns Marty, Windows, mobile phones, iPhone, Wii Virtual Console, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco
Released: 1988
Genre: Scrolling Brawler - Single-Plane
Players: 1-2 (Alternating)


Splatterhouse is one of those rare cases where, while it doesn't sound anything too special on paper, it's the execution, particularly its horror theme, that makes it work as well as it does. Possessed by an ancient sentient mask, the luckless Rick must save his girlfriend Jennifer from the West Mansion, home to horrific monsters including zombies, fetus slug things and the infamous Biggy Man. His only hope is to use the power granted by the Terror Mask and fight his way through seven grisly stages to escape the Splatterhouse...



The game is a direct descendant of Irem's Kung Fu Master, operating on a single plane of movement rather than allowing for movement in eight directions like Double Dragon and its ilk. This makes it odd for the time of its release, even odder when you consider you have only one attack button compared with two from KFM. However, the controls are fine just the way they are- although initially slow, once you adjust to Rick's movement you'll find that you have every tool- the slide kick, the mid-air attacks, and so on- required to survive. The game is also surprisingly fair, with far fewer bullshit moments than its sequel on the Mega Drive (most enemies are slower than Rick, checkpoints are plentiful), but from a gameplay perspective the most important element is that it has plenty of variety. Every stage introduces new enemies, environments and weapons (including two-by-fours, meat cleavers and a shotgun) to keep things interesting, and with multiple routes available on a few stages, there's more to keep you playing than KFM or even Vigilante. It also keeps each section short, with no segment going on longer than necessary. With its decent level variety and tight-if-slightly-sluggish controls, Splatterhouse is a rung above KFM, but if that was it, it'd just be average.



Where Splatterhouse excels is the setting, the atmosphere. With the power of Namco's System-1 board behind it, even today the game is visually striking with everything from the enemy sprites to the backgrounds nicely detailed, the soundtrack is amazing for an arcade release (it absolutely nails that horror movie sound) and both of these, together with the downbeat story, create a game with an unsettling, sinister atmosphere. Admittedly, playing the game in an actual arcade lessens the impact a bit sound0wise (it's hard to get creeped out by Jennifer's theme music when some dude's punishing the DeathSmiles cab next to you- true story) but the visuals and the story convey that sinister feeling well enough. And like the horror movies it takes inspiration from (including films like Friday the 13th and Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn) it even has some shock twists, which for an arcade game from 1988, is pretty unique. There is no happy ending here.



It may seem a bit much to give Splatterhouse a four out of five rating, but it's proof that graphics and atmosphere can, when used correctly, make a good game better. Without its unique atmosphere and unsettling usage of gore, Splatterhouse would be average, good enough, but it's elevated beyond what it is through its other elements (seriously, the soundtrack is excellent). Although the game has a tendency to be looked down upon these days, it really is worth giving the arcade Splatterhouse another chance- it's unique for its time, it has the atmosphere, and its basic-yet-satisfying gameplay will give you a good challenge, especially if you don't puss out and set the game to easy. Go for a one-coin clear on the default settings, and maybe you'll understand why I rate it so highly...



For being more than the sum of its parts, Splatterhouse is awarded...

In a sentence, Splatterhouse is...
A brutal, challenging, unsettling adventure into horror.

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