Ahoy-hoy! I’m back from a two week Eastern European vacation. And so I’m getting right back into the swing of things. Let’s crack open the top ten of the Horror/Terror game countdown and start showing you the very best of the best.
Systems Released On: Arcade, Turbo-Grafix 16, FM Towns, Tiger Handheld Release Date: 1988 (Arcade) 04/03/1990 (TG-16)
Splatterhouse is probably a surprise top ten entrant to all of you considering how much of this list I’ve been harping on terror over horror, story over gore, and other such jargon. In fact, Splatterhouse fits all my criteria for a superior game. It boasts excellent controls, amazing graphics for its time, and in what may surprise the 95% of you who have never played it, Splatterhouse also has a very deep story with the strongest continuity between the games on the series out of anything released for the 16 Bit era. We’re talking Ninja Gaiden I-III level of quality. Sadly, most gamers who haven’t played the series, or at least haven’t played in a long time probably only remember Splatterhouse for it’s comic book style ad campaign and the fact it was the goriest game ever made up to that point and for quite some time after. To underscore that last point, Splatterhouse was the first ever game to receive a “Parental Advisory” warning in the USA. Here now, I hope to show exactly WHY Splatterhouse deserves to be considered one of the ten best Horror/Terror games of all time.
The story of Splatterhouse is quite simple at first look. A guy and a girl go into a spooky mansion. Girl gets kidnapped by monsters. Guy goes and kicks some ass. This plot on its base level as served for many games, from Super Mario Brothers to Dragon Quest. However, Namco added a ton of depth to the plot, adding dozens of references and in-jokes to true terror aficionados. Let’s take a look at the plot fleshed out a bit.
Somewhere in New England stands the mansion of one Dr. Herbert West. Lovecraft and bad movie fans alike will recognize this name as “The Re-Animator.” This mansion is where Dr. West performed all his twisted experiments that would eventually lead to his grisly demise. Locals whisper that not all of West’s experiments died with him and that many still stalk the halls of the mansion, hoping that one day a living soul or two will allow curiosity to get the better of them and enter the mansion. Thus these squamous things will continue on their wretched creator’s work.
Enter two college students from Arkham University named Rick and Jennifer. Both are parapsychology students and decide to visit Dr. West’s mansion, which through folklore has now achieved the dubious nickname of “Splatterhouse.” A downpour occurs while they are taking pictures of it, and against their better judgement, the two college students enter the house in order to keep from getting soaked. There in the dark of Splatterhouse, a something loathsome grabs Jennifer and Rick is knocked unconscious, the last sounds he hears before passing out being Jennifer’s muffled screams. When Rick awakens, a strange glowing mask is hovering above him, whispering in his mind to join with it. Together they can save Jennifer. Rick recognizes it as the Terror Mask, an ancient Aztec mask used in sacrificial rites that has shown up occasionally in books of lore Rick has been reading. Before Rick can decide whether he wishes to accept the Terror Mask’s offer, it chooses for him. Rick feels the mask covering his face and merging with his flesh. Instead of protesting Rick suddenly finds his body coursing with power. Perhaps enough power to save Jennifer from whatever monstrosities dwell within the abode of Herbert West: Re-Animator? He has to try.
All this for a term paper. Jesus.
To save Jennifer, you will have to fight through seven levels of side scrolling beat-em up action featuring what is arguably the best graphics on any of the 16-Bit era systems. For my money, I can’t think of a better looking game. Hell, the graphics of Splatterhouse are better than most of what was released on the first two years of the Playstation’s life! Back when they were available, 2D side-scrolling beat ’em up’s were as popular with me as 2D shooters and 2D fighters. Those were my games of choice. And compared to both the home console and arcade versions of Double Dragon, Splatterhouse‘s respective versions blow that game away in all aspects. People, I just informed you of a 2D beat ’em up that is superior to Double Dragon. This statement alone should have you shrieking like banshees and looking for emulators of the game or at least on Ebay for happy legal versions of the game. Unless you’re one of those punk kids whose only expose to the awesomeness that is Double Dragon in that shitty, shitty movie. God I’m old. Okay, trust me on this. Double Dragon > 95% of the games of the Cube, Xbox, and PS2. And Splatterhouse > Double Dragon.
I may have said this several times already, but I’m going to repeat it until I’m blue in the face. Splatterhouse (at least to me) is the most graphically impressive game released during the first three way console war we had in the states. Final Fantasy IV? Blah. Static heavily pixilated graphics that in no way shape or form feature a skinless man with a bag for a head and chainsaws for arms. Shining Force 2? pretty designs, but no animation. Mortal Kombat II? Only if we’re talking arcade graphics. Only Splatterhouse has you hitting zombies with a 2 by 4, knocking them into static objects and causing their guts to burst out of them in a bloody display. And the Arcade version is even MORE graphics. Sure today, the graphics aren’t as impressive as say Oblivion, but for its day, you couldn’t get more intense visually than Splatterhouse. What other 16-Bit games offer heads being chopped off with cleavers? What other game offers anatomically correct hearts to measure your life? Only a game like Splatterhouse offers you a boss in which you must punch, kick and dismember a giant sentient womb that attacks you by giving birth constantly to monsters. Yes my friend, in Splatterhouse you fight demonic placenta. Every monster in the game is highly original and very detailed for its day. It’s easy to see why this game got a parental advisory warning years before Night Trap spawned the ERSB.
There are some differences between the arcade version of the game and the US TG-16 version of Splatterhouse The first and most obvious change is that for some reason, the console version has the Terror Mask’s colour turned from white to red. Perhaps to avoid a Jason Voorhees comparison? There also a different boss at the end of the fourth level. In the original arcade version, Splatterhouse features a living inverted crucifix which is surrounded by floating severed heads. On the console version, it’s just a giant blue head. Lame. This is most likely because a lot of states banned the arcade version of Splatterhouse due to graphic imagery and satanic metaphor. There’s also a slightly different ending to the game on the console version which foreshadows the last level of Splatterhouse 3. Now that my friends, is thinking far ahead. Especially in those days. Finally, the only real noticeable difference is the graphical quality and the fact that the arcade version of the game is noticeably easier.
Since Splatterhouse originally hit the coin op circuit nearly twenty years ago, almost every company that has put out a horror game has included some sort of homage to it. For example, EVERY Resident Evil game has a slight nod to the series. RE4 features not one but TWO bosses from Splatterhouse. The creature in the lake from RE4 is a spitting image of the thing in the lake from the last level of Splatterhouse 2, and the chainsaw zombies in the game are replicas of “Biggee Man” who is the third level boss in the first Splatterhouse. So for all the RE zealots out there, just remember even the Final Fantasy of Survival Horror falls down to its knees and worships at the altar of the Terror Mask.
Sadly, there have been no plans by Namco to revive the Splatterhouse franchise. However, maybe that is a good thing after all, as I prefer Splatterhouse as a side-scrolling beat ’em up with quality gameplay. God knows I would be horribly dismayed if they turned it into a 3-D game with horrible camera angles and even worse gameplay. Maybe if we’re lucky, Namco with release a classic collection contained one or more of the Splatterhouse titles. For now, import fans with simply have to be happy with the fact the Terror Mask is an accessible item in Namco X Capcom.
Splatterhouse was one of the best overall games of the 16 bit era, featuring a strong story, graphics far ahead of its time, excellent controls, and a wonderful soundtrack. The story wrapped up perfectly with no loose ends left at the end of the third and final game of the series, but who knows? Perhaps someday Namco will choose to revive the game that for all intents and purposes started the Surival Horror genre. After all, the arcade version of the game is older than even the NES Friday the 13th. Without Splatterhouse, it is feasible to argue we would never have had Survival Horror as a genre. Without Splatterhouse, people would not have been inspired to make Clock Tower, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Echo Night. It is a real testament to the quality of a single arcade coin-op that it was not only the first of an entire genre of gaming, but that it is still easily amongst the ten best ever made. Hell part of me almost feels guilty from ranking it “this low” on the list. If you’re even a fan of the genre in the slightest, you owe it to yourself to sit down and play through Splatterhouse. You’ll be amazed at how many things have been lifted from this eighteen year old game and are still being used/ripped off/used as tributes in 2006. I’ll leave you now with the music from the Cathedral level of SH. Download it and enjoy. You might even recognize this tune from other games as well…
Splatterhouse: Cathedral Theme
#9. Dark Fall: The Journal
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: XXV Productions
Systems Released On: PC
Release Date: 7/25/2003
Dark Fall is one of those games that manages to produce an extreme reaction from those who have played it. It comes down to the fact that the game is atmospheric over action, and that the game is more akin to the classical ghost stories of Sheridan LeFanu or R. M. James instead of the more modern slasher flicks. You can not die in Dark Fall, and although there are many ghosts in the game that you will encounter in some way shape or form, you will never see any of them. Indeed, even the antagonist in the game will never be encountered. At most, if you do everything possible in the game, you will get a shot or two of it via spectral recording devices. If you are a person who needs the feeling that your character will be torn apart by a pack of ghouls in order to enjoy a spooky video game, this is not for you. This game is decidedly for those that want an excellent ghost and/or detective story that feels like it leapt straight out of a Victorian novel into a modern setting. Make no mistake. Dark Fall is very much an elitist game. It is not for the lowest common denominator. It is for the gamer who prefers Richard Mattheson to Dean Koontz, Carmilla to The Vampire Lestat, an 1806 Chateau Lafite to White Zinfandel, actually traveling to exotic regions rather than watching the Travel Channel, or most importantly, Dark Fall is for the learned mind who realizes what you don’t see is far scarier than what you are hit over the head with.
Dark Fall is a first person perspective adventure games that puts you in control of a nameless protagonist in modern day England. One evening you notice your answering machine is blinking. There is a strange message left by your brother Pete.
“Something is wrong, very wrong… I am in Dorset with 2 students from Weymouth University – Polly and Nigel, ghost hunters. I need you to come here! Whatever they have been hunting has found them, found me too… Take the train from Paddington to Weymouth and then take a cab to Dowerton station. I really need your help on this. I can hear it…. It’s right outside the door… whispering… whispering my name…. it knows my name.. I have to open the door… got to open the door…
And with that the phone dies and the message ends. I really wish I could get a .wav file or some other sound clip of this phone call, because the voice acting is perfect. The way the actor pauses, stresses certain syllables and words, and how masterfully he manages to convey a growing sense of dread mixed with madness with each passing sentence. It’s an amazing opening that draws you (and your character) to a sleepy little town with a long since abandoned hotel that will serve as the focal point for the rest of the game.
What is important to note is that as excellent as the sound is in Dark Fall, there is VERY little noise in the entire game aside from your footsteps. The game strives for being as realistic as possible, and last I checked, none of us have our own personal soundtracks. Except Peter Griffin. Any time there is sound, it is of vital importance to the game. From the clinking of an old piano, to the ringing of a phone even though it was disconnected long ago with noises on the other end that could never be made by a human throat or tongue, the auditory aspects of Dark Fall, and often the lack thereof enhance the game in ways mere words on page can not do justice to.
Atmospherically, Dark Fall is one of the most intense games I’ve ever played. Yes, you know that there is no way you can die going into the game, but that matters little. Due to the realistic graphics, and excellent sound effects/background noises, every second of the game makes you feel as if at any moment something disturbing is about to leap out at you and drag you into the darkness. Everything is set up to feel like a true haunting or paranormal epicenter. Whereas other lesser games feel you might be scared by throwing a shitload of monsters at you or to give you a cheap “BOO!” style scare every once in a while, Dark Fall is dedicated to making you feel exactly like you’re in a classical folkloric haunting. Ever been in an abandoned mental asylum or an old deserted house that has long since had a reputation for having something inhuman dwelling within its walls? That is the sort of feeling Dark Fall conveys to its player. You find yourself wondering what each creak of the old tired floorboards is from. Whether or not the breeze nearby is actual the whisper of a soul that was unable to find rest in the hereafter, or what exactly spoke your name in the shadows of that room. Very rarely in true hauntings is there anything in your face about ghosts or poltergeists. They don’t appear and force you to shoot them or smack them over the head several times with a lead pipe. No, Dark Fall captured the essence of what parapsychology is truly like, and it’s sublime.
The true enjoyment of the game comes from the fact your character will not only be discovering what evil has unwittingly been released upon this community, but you will also discover the lives and history of those the darkness has claimed for its own. Like any realistic investigation, things do not unfold in a neat and tidy linear fashion. The game’s events occur in the order you discover them, with only the beginning and end of the game set in stone. It is up to you and your research skills to put the massive amount of information in order. As you can beat the game without even uncovering a third of the clues and information available to you in the game, this puts a lot of replay value into a game that you can pick up nowadays for less than a ten spot. By uncovering aspects of characters mortal lives, you just might be able to pick up some clues as how to deal with certain situations. Hell, it just may help you out when you encounter their specters; trapped between this world and the next by the darkness that originally claimed them.
Dark Fall heralds back to the classic days of gaming when your brain was just as important as your trigger finger. Remember ye olden days with games like Shining in the Darkness or Eye of the Beholder where you needed pen and paper to solve various riddles and puzzles that would come your way? Where making maps was essential to your advancement of the game? It all holds true here. Classical retro style gameplay combined with state of the art highly realistic graphics = excellent game.
The gameplay is like pretty much every adventure game ever made. You have a first person perspective and you controls will consist solely of the mouse and the lmb and rmb upon it. One button is for examining objects and items, while the other is for interacting with objects you’ve picked up. Occasionally (such as at the very end of the game) you’ll need to type in words to solve a puzzle, but if you’ve played one adventure game, you already know how to play Dark Fall.
Dark Fall is one of the few video games to truly feel like what hauntings are purported to be like. No, you won’t be running for your life from a horde of flesh crazed ghasts or having to word off undead sharks or anything like that. Instead you’ll be placing yourself into an atmosphere that might just hit a little too close to reality for some. It’s one of the games that, despite lacking a single physical conflict in the entire game, has the ability to make the goose bumps rise and wriggle across your skin when you play it alone late at night with no ambient source of light. You can generally find the game easily online or in your local gaming store, and as Dark Fall is less than ten hours long, you can easily beat it over a nice dark and stormy weekend. Let’s just try and pretend that the sequel, Dark Fall: Light’s Out doesn’t exist. It’s a pretty game, but with all the insipid time traveling crap, it pales in direct comparison to the progenitor of its lineage.
I’ll be back next week with the next two games on the countdown. One is one of the few games I have ever given a 9 to. The other? Well, it’s the only game on this countdown that also made the top ten of my Top 30 RPG countdown.