As I sat upon the creaky wooden steps, I felt as though my grip on sanity was beginning to loosen. My breaths came in rapid, gasping spurts, and my heart was beating with such ferocity, I felt for certain it would leap from my chest and fall to the unforgiving floor where it would flop to and fro like a great crimson fish. My skin was slick with a veneer of cool, clammy sweat, and my hands, which held the source of my terror, shook a bit as I read each cursed word inscribed in that hellish tome. Why did I ever allow my curiosity concerning the priceless urn of the Graves Mansion get the better of me?
Ok, maybe I’m being a bit overdramatic; it was just a game manual after all. But, like a number of classic Atari 2600 games, Haunted House was enhanced by a detailed back story, presented in the game’s instruction booklet. Elements of storytelling were incredibly difficult to convey given the extreme limitations of cart size and graphics capabilities in the early 1980’s. This resulted in the player having to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps of character motivation. The tale woven for Haunted House was especially effective, dealing as it did with a decaying gothic mansion located in the town of Spirit Bay. The house was rumored by townsfolk to be occupied by its deceased master, Zachary Graves. The dwelling was also said to contain a great treasure, a magic urn that belonged to the first family of Spirit Bay, but none are brave enough to enter the imposing abode to retrieve the heirloom. Even if someone did have the courage, the task would be difficult to complete, as the urn was shattered in the Great Earthquake of 1890. This was a rich narrative tapestry to present to a horror obsessed kid like myself, but a good story wasn’t all Haunted House had to offer.
Another element that could fire the imagination of gamers of the 80’s was evocative, often fully painted, cover art. In the days before the internet or mass media coverage of the video game industry, many purchases were based solely on the strength of a cover image. Another function of good cover art was its aid in identifying just what was being presented by the somewhat abstract, limited pixel representations of both characters and locations in early games. Haunted House’s box art perfectly sets up the atmosphere of the game. A pair of eyes (which actually are the player avatar within the game) look nervously forward at large bats and a spider. The images are presented in sepia tones, and fade into a white, almost fog-like haze.
Now that we’ve discussed the manual and the packaging let’s talk about the actual game! Simply put, this game was revolutionary! So much of what we know today as the survival horror genre began right here. The player explores a large (24 rooms spread over four floors) mansion in search of the shattered urn, engages in inventory management (practically unheard of at the time), and tries to avoid, rather than engage the various beings (a vampire bat, a tarantula, and the ghost of Zachary Graves) encountered within the nightmarish home. Objects can only be seen if the player has lit a match, of which a limitless supply is provided. The denizens of the house may only be dispatched by means of the scepter weapon, but since the player can only carry one object at a time, running away is the wisest course of action. The game provided players with nine levels of challenge, each with varying degrees of difficulty (for example in games 3 through 9 doors within the mansion are locked and can only be opened via a master key, which provides further inventory management options). Early attempts at ambient sound (blowing wind, which can blow out your match) and music (a brief tune plays when you ascend or descend stairs) help set the mood. Securing the pieces of the urn (and yes, picking up another item causes you to drop the urn piece you are carrying) and returning them to main entrance awards the player with an ending sequence (also rare for the time) of flashing colors and the theme from Twilight Zone.
A remake of Haunted House was released last year for both the Wii and Xbox 360, but I encourage retro minded gamers to check out the original (available to play for free from Atari) right here! Stay spooky!
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