Back in 1993 Electronic Arts, before they were the big lumbering behemoth they are today, released a little gem into stores called Haunting: Starring Polterguy. Haunting told the story of a real ghost with the most, the most early 90’s ‘tude that is, and a family that he has grown to loathe for no apparent reason other than the fact that the father is a scammer, the wife is a bitch, and the kids are bratty hellions. Did they intend on usurping Polterguy’s throne built on pure radical funkitude? Sh’yeah whatever, it’s unlikely. Whatever the reason, this family of pure unbridled evil stands in the way of what Polterguy wants the most: to become a real boy and getting a spot on Kids Incorporated thus saving it from its imminent cancellation that very same year.
Haunting taught us all what it was like to be a ghost long before n-Space patted themselves on the back for being original with Geist. You play as Polterguy a green guy clad in a cliche leather jacket and adorned with the worst hairdo this side of Guile. Polterguy’s death is an utter mystery, but his choice of feuds is even more shrouded in secrecy. Polterguy has decided to pick on the Sardini family and for good reason. Vito Sardini is a king of sleazy economics, Flo Sardini spends her husband’s money uncontrollably and collects furs, Tony Sardini likes slasher films, and Mimi appreciates the invention of DDT. Either these guys are really asking for it, or Polterguy just dislikes Italian food. Either way, the family is singled out as they’re pulling up to their brand new house and Polterguy is hell-bent on scaring them out of it.
Gameplay is where Haunting shines the most. Think of it as a cross between Dungeon Master and Splinter Cell. You’ll control Polterguy as he stalks through the Sardini household unseen by their living eyes on his mission to scare the bejesus out of them. How does he do this you ask? You’ll find items that the game refers to as Fright ‘ Ems that will glow a certain color when you look at them. These items can be possessed by having Polterguy jump into them that will cause an effect that’s frightful for a Sardini and amusing to you. You can turn a couch into a giant mouth, make monsters come out of the floor, cause bathtubs to fill with blood, turn doorways into snakes and spiders, and even cause the pet bird to explode among other neat effects. If you scare them enough, they’ll run out of the room where you can give chase and proceed to torment them further until they run out of the house all together. You can only work on one Sardini at a time and if you manage to scare one and start working on another, the previous family member will eventually calm down and you’ll have to start scaring them from scratch again.
There are different types of items of possession, known in the game as Fright ‘ Ems, scattered throughout the four houses the Sardinis dwell within. Items that glow blue act as time release frights, thus allowing you to jump into two or three items in a row and cause each item to shake and prompting the family member to investigate it; thus setting them up for the scare. Possessing multiple items can cause chains of scares for any Sardini that happens to be in the room and helps to boost your score. Yellow Fright ‘ Ems will activate when you press the A button when a family member is looking in your direction. These are especially useful when you’ve panicked a Sardini to the point where they’re running out of the room and can’t be distracted by the blue Fright ‘ Ems that you’ve possessed and will allow you a bonus scare or two in the process. These are usually limited to floors where you can have eyes peer out from under a rug or doorways where you can have a grim reaper stop them (giggle) dead in their tracks. Green Fright ‘ Ems will allow you, the player, to take control of an object and try to scare the hell of the Sardinis yourself. You’ll find toy planes that, when possessed, will allow you to wind them up and send them flying after the family members or possess a dishwasher and start hurling plates at them to name a few. These are also useful if you have a Sardini on the run and will allow you to get a few shots at them before they run off like the cowards they are.
If the gameplay sounds simple enough let me complicate things a bit for you. Polterguy needs ectoplasm in order to “chill” in the living world. Your time is limited by a constantly depleting ectoplasm meter on the bottom of the screen. If you run out of ectoplasm, your zany antics will cease and you’ll be teleported to the dungeon where you’ll have to navigate a maze while following a trail of dripping ectoplasm. In the meantime there are arms reaching out of walls as well as the ground, bats, and skulls shooting from the walls that can physically damage Polterguy and kill him if he takes enough damage. You only have one life and extra health is very limited so you have to make your trips to the dungeon count. The flighty controls don’t help your trips to the dungeon one bit and it seems that the designers designed the dungeons, as well as the final boss, to take advantage of the limitations of your control. You can keep yourself out of the dungeon by chaining up scares with the Sardinis. For every scream they yelp, you’ll get a puddle of ectoplasm that will replenish your meter and add extra time towards the more important goal of getting them out of their houses.
There’s only one boss in the game and I won’t ruin it for you here, but needless to say it’s almost impossible to get him to take damage before your ectoplasm meter runs out. While the game can be fun and offer a number of laughs for the first couple of runs through, the novelty of the possessions will ultimately wear off despite having over 400 objects to possess. Sure, you may find an item or two that offer something new on the fifth or sixth run, but once you’ve been through the game a couple of times, you’ve seen it all.; Experienced players can get through the game in about an hour while inexperienced gamers will probably take three hours tops.
The visuals of the game mix well with the game’s originality. All of the characters have over exaggerated features that give the game the feel of playing a cartoon. The effects of your possessions are definitely the icing on the cake and while some are better than others, there are 400 of them so stop complaining. While the 3/4 overhead view can cause some clutter in some of the rooms and the characters appear small, the visuals are great for the Genesis. Each characters reaction harkens back to the old Tex Avery cartoons with characters jumping with eyes that bulging out of their heads and their hair totally disconnected from their bodies. The kids will also wet their pants if you scare them enough. All of the effects of your possessions mesh well with their surroundings and realistically morph into other ghastly things seamlessly. Each of the four Sardini houses have different layouts, styles, and items that help to keep the action fresh for a little longer. Sadly all of the dungeons look the same and feature the same types of creatures which in turn gives you more incentive to stay out of them.
The soundtrack features spooky organ music which is appropriate for a haunted house setting. You’ll get a myriad of screams from the Sardinis depending on how scared they are and what they see which makes scaring them even more satisfying.
Though Polterguy has looks and a vocabulary that might be laughable today, Haunting was a unique and very fun title for its time. In an era of platformers and every company scrambling to create a mascot character in lieu of the Sonics and Mario’s of the time, Electronic arts decided to create an original title that focused on something unique and new. While the game runs a little short, it could have paved the way for more games of its type if the gaming industry weren’t such a “me too” business to begin with. If EA were to resurrect (no pun intended) a franchise, they might want to look in this game’s direction. It just might make people think differently about them.
- Brad Hicks (Dr. Swank), SwankWorld Media