Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Closer Look at Haunted House, Then and Now...

At first I was content to let the above cartoon speak for itself, which I think it does.  But then I realized that it was too easy and that you would probably want to know at least a little bit about how the new Haunted House stacks up against its nigh unto thirty year ancestor.  So, I’ll regale you briefly with tales of yore and then give you my opinion.

Haunted House (1981) was the single spookiest game ever.  Throughout the life of the Atari 2600 and well into the era of Nintendo, no game had the jarring ability to startle the beejezus out of me the way Haunted House did.  I mean, the screen was pitch black, and even when you lit a match you could only see what was close by.  Then, while you are diligently exploring the mansion, CRASH! out of nowhere a bat or spider would suddenly appear with a clap of thunder and flash of lightning.  Furthermore, they were on an unstoppable path toward you with only your destruction in mind.  And god forbid that instead of a spider or bat you got Old Man’s Grave’s horrible spirit.  To make matters worse, the appearance of a foe also meant that your light went out and you were totally isolated.  You damn well better hope you know where you are in the mansion because the last thing you want is to run face first into a locked door.  Tensions were always high when playing Haunted House.

Even though the graphics were blocky and simple, even though the house was only four stories high with a regimented floor plan, even though you could beat it in minutes, Haunted House managed to capture something ethereal that later games would approach, but never quite grasp.  The game has the ability to make you nervous while playing it.  It cultivates a real sense of dread every time you open a door or navigate a staircase.  A baddie could be anywhere and worse yet the Ghost could travel right through locked doors meaning that he could menace you literally any second of the game.  And every time that lightning crashed and the screen flashed, your heart jumped.  Where was the monster that set it off?  Were they close?  Where exactly are you and where is the closest exit?  Are you cornered?  RUN!

Sometimes simple is better.  And with those simple, blocky graphics and minimal sound effects, the people at Atari captured lightning in a bottle.  Later horror/thriller games like Resident Evil would capitalize upon the power of the startle effect, having the undead burst out at you through windows and the like, but for all of their graphic gore and realistic sounds, they still only rate second-best in my book.  Which is why I was very nervous when I read last month that Atari was planning on releasing an updated version of the classic that set the bar so high so long ago.

We’ve been down this road before.  Many classic games from the Atari era have seen modern iterations with very mixed results.  Asteroids, Centipede, Pac-man, Space Invaders, all of the greats have “grown-up” into contemporary versions of their perfect, simple selves.  Some of these updates have been fun, and some disastrous, but all in all they really don’t stand much of a chance against their original counterparts.  So a 2010 Haunted House had me very, very skeptical.  But, initial reviews were good and the screenshots and explanations all pointed to the opportunity for something really fun.  Hell, even the price tag, $19.99 was right.  So I gave it a go.

Much to my delight, the game is actually very good.  The fundamental premise is exactly the same as the original game: you must search the mansion and find the pieces of the urn.  The end result is different, you don’t have to flee the house with the urn, instead you have to defeat a ghoulish foe.  But the spirit, if you will excuse the obvious and painful pun, is still there.  Haunted House (2010) is literally a re-imagining of Haunted House (1981) with modern sensibilities.  The main differences are in the execution of the concept.  First, the game isn’t tough as nails like its ancestor could be.  The main element of difficulty that is missing is the darkness.  HH2010 is dark, but it isn’t pitch-black like HH1981.  You will need light sources to navigate the mansion successfully, but you can still see most everything in the house at all times.  The light sources only really increase your visibility and help you find items, levers and treasures.  True, the mansion gets darker as you progress, but it never goes completely dark like the original.  Also, unlike the original, when you get scared by a monster, your game isn’t over, you just start back at the last fireplace you lit.  This means you’ll never encounter the dreaded GAME OVER and have to embark upon your mission anew, but at the same time where the original was at best 10 minutes of game play in length, HH2010 is more like 3 hours.  I would be pretty pissed if I got 2:15 into the game and had to start over from scratch. (Sidebar: I wonder if that is a good thing or a bad thing…)

The game still features the classic monsters to avoid, plus several new ones like gargoyles.  It also features a variety of light sources for you to employ, some of which actually give you offensive capabilities you will need if you are to survive your stay.  A big difference between the newer version and the original is the addition of boss fights.  The house is divided into four sections and at the culmination of each section you will have to combat a different mega-monster.  These boss fights are perhaps the toughest part of the game as they require you to defeat the mega-monster while avoiding being scared to death.  It is an endurance run for sure.

What the game lacks in difficulty it more than makes up for in atmosphere.  Despite the update, the game maintains the creepy feel of its predecessor and even builds upon it some areas.  The main area of note is the sound.  During your time in the mansion you will be beset with a plethora of moans, wails, thumps, rattlings, baby’s cries, and other very, very creepy sounds.  None of these sounds ever manifest in anything material in the game, which only adds to their effect.  I am not kidding when I tell you that playing this game in the dark, late at night, will make you question any errant sounds that might occur in your own home.  That, my friends, is successful theming!

Another nice addition is the inclusion of treasures and journal entries that you can discover as you explore the mansion.  The journal entries will reveal the dark history of the Graves’ family and their spooky home.  The treasures are snarky references to iconic horror film characters from days gone by.  And after you find a few, and read their descriptions, you’ll be making additional trips into the mansion to find the rest.

The game play remains true, if somewhat evolved.  Like in the original, you’ll have to work your way through the mansion which is a maze of locked doors and stairways.  And like the original, you will find keys that help you gain access to areas previously impassible.  But in the modern interpretation, you’ll also need to seek out levers and various colored lanterns to gain admittance to certain areas of the house.  As stated before, the house is divided into four “floors” each subdivided into four areas and each area is completely self-contained, so you’ll never get stuck because you left a key or lantern behind in another area.  As you progress through the mansion, the areas become larger and more complex and you’ll to do more in order to move on to the next area.  And to make things even more fun, there is a great two-player version where you and a friend can work together to solve the riddle of Graves’ Mansion.  This makes some of the later levels a lot easier without taking away from the overall challenge.


I’m honestly rather shocked and impressed at how well Haunted House (2010) compares to the original Haunted House.  Everything from the original is there in spirit if not in form.  The game does not try to reinvent the wheel, nor does it try to improve upon what already works and works well.  Instead Haunted House (2010) feels like an evolved descendant of Haunted House (1981).  Many elements of the modern game are fun homages to the original game: when your light goes out, all you can see are your eyes!  Nothing will ever capture the magic the way that the original Haunted House did, but this new game certainly knows what made the 1981 game so incredible. You can do a whole hell of a lot worse for $19.99, heck for $49.99, and I think that Haunted House (2010) is perfect for fans of the original as well as those exploring Graves’ Mansion for the very first time.  Accusations that the game is “kiddie” are completely unfounded and smack of basement dwelling rejection of anything that isn’t Grand Theft Auto.  This is a great game for anyone and everyone and comes highly recommended from your ol’ pal Stan.  I anticipate playing Haunted House (2010) many more times in the future, particularly around this time of year!