Before the Mortal Kombats and Grand Theft Autos of today shocked us with gore and violence old-school gamers would argue that Splatterhouse blazed the trail. Released in 1988 for the arcade and later ported (and ported well I must say) to the TurboGrafx 16, Splatterhouse was a side scrolling beat-em-up/platforming game that featured some downright creepy environments, insane difficulty, and some imagery that would be controversial even in this day in age. It seemed hard to believe that a game like this would come from Namco who brought us such lovable and family friendly characters as Pac-Man and Mappy. To sum it all up, Splatterhouse was the perfect melding of violence and gore.
Splatterhouse follows the story of two college students named Rick and Jennifer who are writing a term paper on the experiments of a man named Dr. West. In the interest of research, they venture to the West Mansion, the home of Dr. West and are caught in a rainstorm. We all know girls donít like being out in the rain too much, so Jennifer uses her intuition and runs into the seemingly abandoned mansion with Rick in tow. Upon entering, a thunder crash is heard, the lights go out, Jennifer screams, and Rick is knocked unconscious. He awakens with an evil hockey mask on his face and Jennifer nowhere to be found. With the mask fueling him with power and rage, Rick sets off into the bowels of the mansion in search of Jennifer.
The basic gameplay is pretty simple to pick up. Rick uses standard punches, kicks, and even a sliding attack to take baddies down. While some baddies seem like your standard fare like zombies, bats, and the occasional possessed flying furniture, while others will likely cause double takes like hanging quadriplegic corpses that vomit on you, giant leeches leaping from piles of rotting meat, and unborn fetuses that come packaged in their original womb! Most enemies will go down in one hit as well as a fountain of spewing goo. For those tougher enemies that refuse to go down easily, there are a variety of weapons suck as cleavers to hack their heads off, shotguns to blow them to pieces, and 2x4ís that will send them splattering on the walls in the background. Each weapon yields different effects and yield some pretty satisfying deaths. Youíll be hard pressed to find a useless weapon and will be quick to learn that ordinary rocks and wrenches can be thrown at baddies with some pretty grisly results.
While the hordes of enemies seem pretty easy to take down, the gameís difficulty is nothing to scoff at. You have a health bar consisting of four hearts in the arcade version and five on the TG16. There is no way to replenish your health other than completing a level to get two hearts replenished. The difficulty stems from environmental hazards scattered throughout every level and the limitations of the gameís fighting system as a whole. Rick seems to control well at first, but in later levels where youíll find yourself surrounded by evil, Rick seems to be a little to slow when it comes to distributing the pain evenly. Performing acts like a simple jump kick seem a little too hard to pull off and could be the only difference between life and death. Some levels have sections where youíll have to jump from platform to platform where youíll learn that Rick really canít jump that well at all. The TG16 version seems to be easier than the arcade thanks to the increased health, but itís still not to be taken lightly.
At the end of every level youíll find yourself fighting the requisite boss battle. Bosses range from the mundane, like the leeches in level one, to the really creative, like the possessed room in level two where youíll have to fight off possessed furniture and decorative wall art or the skinless guy with a bag over his head and hands made of chainsaws in level three. The shocking enemy design isnít limited to the lesser enemies either since youíll be going face to faces with an upside down cross surrounded by severed heads in level four and watch Jennifer mutate into a monster in level five. There isnít much to fighting the bosses since standing in one place and constantly punching will be able to get you past the most intimidating baddies just fine. Unfortunately the religious blasphemy doesnít carry over to the TG16 where said upside down cross is replaced with a blue demon head. Boooooooring.
Gore isnít just a gimmick in Splatterhouse, itís everything. Every level manages to ooze creepiness and the gore serves as the slimy icing on the proverbial flesh cake. Amidst the creepy caverns and unsettling graveyards youíll fight dismembered and shackled human and not-so-human corpses littering the foreground as well as the background. Itís everything your local haunted house can only wish to replicate. Thereís a ton of great animation here and it really helps to get the point of violence across. The background corpses will twitch and wither while youíre lobbing heads through the air and smashing enemies on walls with the greatest of ease. The arcade version of the game provides the best experience in terms of creep factor while the TG16 version of the game keeps the gameplay elements but cuts back on the ooey-gooey.
The gameís sound serves as a giant exclamation point to the creepy visuals. While the music is appropriately scary, itís the digitized moans and groans that really add to the experience. Every monsterís moan will send chills and are emphasized with a creepy echo effect that really hits home. While the voices arenít sampled well they definitely get the point across. Other sound effects generally fall flat like when youíre armed with a cleaver, the noise that you get when you swing it sounds really out of place and seem fit more for a cartoon than a gory game that emphasizes fear. Other things like the lack of sound when you enter the possessed room in level two and everything is shaking like an earthquake really takes away from the sense of danger that youíre supposed to have. Aside from those small gripes, the general sound effects are great like the satisfying smacks youíll get when you whack a creature with the 2x4 or when you take their heads off with the cleaver.
While Splatterhouse is a fun game it is, at its core, an arcade game. There are only seven levels in each version of the game and they arenít really large and expansive. A practiced player can get through level one in about a minute and a half if they wanted to, especially when the game is constantly trying to prod you forward by scrolling the screen or in the case of the arcade game, sending a cloud of poisonous fog after you. While Splatterhouse amounts to an entertaining experience it will come to an end quickly, that is, if you manage to survive long enough. If you donít have access to the ultra rare arcade machine or an emulator, the TG16 version of the game is very close to the real thing and is really a marvel given the hardware itís running on. Itís still an entertaining game despite the lack of commitment. After all, what better way to get your Halloween fix than following up your yearly viewing of The Great Pumpkin by turning the lights off, firing up the emulator of your choice, and taking in the sights and sounds of Splatterhouse.
- Brad Hicks (Dr. Swank), SwankWorld Media