I think it’s safe to say I missed the boat by a bit on the original Splatterhouse. To be fair, it came out twenty-two years ago, so it’s not too surprising that it slipped under my radar while some of Namco’s more ubiquitous releases like Pac-Man and Dig-Dug would go on to loot many a quarter from my twitchy young fingers. So apparently, it created a bit of a stir when it came out. The game follows the young Rick and his girlfriend Jennifer, two intrepid young students of parapsychology (one of those majors only offered at more specialized universities no doubt). Upon going to investigate the spooky mansion of the mysterious Dr. West, who is rumored to have disappeared years ago while conducting nefarious experiments on the dead, our young lovebirds predictably get trapped by a thunderstorm. You guessed it, after seeking shelter in the mansion, they’re totally trapped inside, Jennifer gets abducted by demons, and Rick gets knocked unconscious. Our hero awakens with the mysterious ‘Hell mask’ grafted on his face, an ancient Aztec artifact with some sort of dark power. And, this being a video game made in the 1980’s, so begins the hazardous shlep to rescue your kidnapped female companion.
Namco Bandai are re-releasing the original, unedited game on iOS to coincide with the revival of the franchise on PS3 and XBox 360. At the time of its release, Splatterhouse caused enough hoopla to cause it to be gradually pulled from most American arcades, relegating it to the shadowy corners of out-of-the-way pizza parlors and bowling alleys. In fact, it’s pretty unlikely that you ever played the arcade version back in the day. So how does it stack up by contemporary standards? Read on, dear reader. Splatterhouse is, as far as I can tell, a very faithful port of the original game (as it was released in the arcades, not the edited home console release). And from what I gather, this will mean a great deal to a small, select group of people. If the very phrase ‘faithful port of the original’ gives you some sort of retro-stalgic gore-gasm, then I would recommend you buy this game. However, the uninitiated should be aware that what they would be getting themselves into is a very simplistic side-scrolling beat-em-up experience, with gameplay that may well feel dated by today’s standards. On the one hand, the game has an enjoyably spooky/kitsch 16-bit horror aesthetic, and its progression keeps you genuinely wanting to plod along to the next room so you can see what happens. On the other hand though, the gameplay can become tedious and a bit of a chore, and despite Namco’s token offering of a ‘Splatter Rush Mode,’ there’s not ultimately much to it to make you want to keep coming back.
Horror Movie Aesthetic: Splatterhouse is like a living monument to the horror flicks of the 80’s. The protagonist looks about 97% like Jason Voorhees, many of your enemies would look at home in the Evil Dead movies, and Dr. West the mad scientist of unorthodox parapsychology is a reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Reanimator”. Considering the hardware restrictions developers were working with in 1988, Splatterhouse does a remarkable job of establishing a creepy vibe. There are plenty of memorable B-movie-ish moments, like a poltergeist that animates every object in a room one by one and makes them attack you (watch out for that chandelier), or a particularly mean baddie with a burlap sack over his head and chainsaws for forearms that you need to dispatch with your trusty shotgun. Considering these sights and sounds were produced over twenty years ago, it’s pretty impressive.
Faithful Re-Release of a Classic: The shock tactics of this game caused enough of a stir at the time of its release to get it pulled from many American arcades, and the home release on Turbo Grafx-16 was substantially edited in terms of the level of gore and several aspects of the gameplay and graphics. Although the edited version was re-released on the Wii Virtual Console in 2007, this marks the first time in a long while that the American market has had the chance to play the game as it was originally intended. It’s nice in a way to think that our country has moved on to worrying about somewhat more prescient matters than the threat of a video game mid-boss, who is composed of six goofy-looking severed heads floating around an upside down cross, turning our youngsters into violent devil worshipers. For some old-school purists, the faithful rendition of the title in its original glory is probably worth the download alone, and if you’re among that group you can stop reading because nothing I’m about to say will convince you to the contrary. Otherwise…
Lackluster Gameplay: Frankly, Splatterhouse’s biggest problem is that it was made twenty-two years ago. It plays and controls a bit like many side-scrolling Flash games that I’ve played, which I don’t necessarily mean to be a flattering comparison. The speed of the gameplay is glacially slow by today’s standards, and it basically boils down to a game where you walk from left to right, hop up and down occasionally, and punch stuff. Or pick up a meat cleaver or 2×4 and swing it at stuff. The challenge is somewhat artificially inserted into the gameplay, because when you run out of lives you can continue from a predetermined checkpoint rather than the beginning of the screen you were on. In general, there is a continue spot every four screens or so, but if you’re anything like me this is going to force you to replay some of the more boring segments of the game a few times when you die at a boss or need a minute to figure out the pattern of a room.
Repetitive Combat: For a beat-em-up game protagonist, there isn’t a lot of variety to the moves that Rick can perform. Basically, you have a standing attack, a ducking attack, a jumping attack, and a slide attack that you can perform at the end of a jump (do yourself a favor and turn on the ‘assistance’ to give yourself a button to be able to consistently do this maneuver). While the enemies look varied, there’s not much variety to what they do. Each of them basically has one predetermined attack pattern, and the bosses have about three attacks or so (if that). Speaking of the bosses, while they’re cool and memorable, the gameplay feels a little cheap in this aspect. Nearly all of them outclass you in terms of reach and maneuverability, so it quickly devolves into memorizing where the safe spot on the screen will be and waiting while they do their attack animation, then bopping them a couple times. Rinse, repeat.
No Real Replay Value: I think you would have to be a real hardcore fan of this game to want to revisit it often. The added Rush mode actually does little to amend this problem, since all it really consists of is more of the same. The twist, such as it is, is that you’re in a room the size of the screen, and monsters appear from all sides and bum-rush you (rather than reaching the end of the room, the goal is to kill as many monsters as you can, and to not die if you can manage to). To their credit, Namco have integrated Game Center support for both Arcade Mode and Splatter Rush Mode, so players can compete for high scores to their hearts content, but honestly the replay value of the central game mechanics is so thin for me that I can hardly see getting too competitive over my top score.
It really is sad that Splatterhouse did not receive wider recognition during its time, because it was a good game for its time. Hell, probably even a great one. However, really all side-scrolling beat-em-up games boil down to the same essential gameplay mechanics, and this game is those mechanics at their most basic. The signs of age are immediately obvious. While it probably has incredible nostalgia value for some gamers out there and this is a perfectly capable port of the game in all its original gore and glory, those of us who missed the boat the first time around are pretty safe in missing it this time as well. If you want a look at one of the earliest horror arcade games released in America, give it a shot. But if you’re looking for excitement and deep rewarding gameplay, you can keep sloowly marching on elsewhere like one of the undead in Splatterhouse. I’m giving it a ‘Worth a Look’ with a caveat, because I expect only the previously initiated or the incredibly retro-minded to enjoy this one.