Haunted House

Haunted House, taken out of context, is not a remarkable game. It will not likely hold your attention for long, even with nine different difficulty settings. What makes Haunted House noteworthy are its links to the survival horror genre, as it introduces some survival horror devices that were used to great effect in more recent genre entries.

Tracing the origin of horror video gaming may not be as simple as one might think, in large part due to some ambiguity over what actually constitutes a horror game. Is it enough to include horror archetypes (e.g., vampires and zombies as in the Castlevania series), or does the game have to present an atmosphere of fear (as in Silent Hill)? If the latter, do we need to consider the era in which a game was released? As movies have shown, what may horrify at one point in history can seem benign and comical later (consider the monster movies from the ’50s or even the slasher movies from the ’80s).

Some attempt to get around these questions by dividing horror into sub-genres, such as survival horror. Generally, Alone in the Dark is credited as the first survival horror game and Resident Evil is credited as the game that made this sub-genre popular; however, even this can be contested, as the Gaming Historian does in this video. He claims that 3D Monster Maze, a game that has the player traversing a three-dimensional maze while fleeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex, is actually the first 3-D survival horror game. It is an argument that isn’t without merit.

The same year that 3D Monster Maze was released, Atari released Haunted House. While not three-dimensional, and thereby unable to stake a claim as the first 3-D survival horror game, Haunted House is arguably one of the very first survival horror games to be released.

Note that is said, “arguably.”

In Haunted House, you guide a pair of eyes representing the player through the four stories of a mansion while avoiding bats, spiders, and the ghost of Zachary Graves, who was once the reclusive owner of the property. You are given an unlimited supply of matches at the outset of your journey and nothing else. Matches are necessary to find the pieces of a magical urn (your purpose for entering the house in the first place), the master key, or the scepter, which protects you from harm. On all but the easiest setting, the matches are also your only way of seeing where you are going, as they provide a circle of light around the eyes. You must find the three pieces of the urn (which reforms as you find each piece) and escape the mansion before you are scared to death nine times.

Given the premise of the game, consider what we typically consider survival horror. In these games, the character tends to be placed in an area surrounded by monstrous/evil enemies (spiders, bats, and a ghost, in this case), starts with limited resources (you begin only with matches here), has a limited inventory (Haunted House only allows you to carry one item at a time, so no running around with the scepter while picking up urn pieces), and must complete some task to escape the nightmare (here, you must assemble the urn and make it back to the entrance to the mansion). On more advanced settings, the enemies in Haunted House can chase you from room to room, and all that you can do is run and hope to lose them before being killed.

It is interesting to see tactics used in this game that would return in later survival horror games. The idea of only seeing what the matches illuminates reminds me a lot of the Silent Hill games, where often you are only able to see by the flashlight you carry. Also, the fact that you can only run from enemies and not attack is very reminiscent of the Clock Tower games.

All this considered, Haunted House is an Atari 2600 game from 1981. Obviously, there are technological constraints to the game that weren’t an issue as hardware improved. You aren’t likely to feel afraid while playing Haunted House, though you may become panicky when pursued by an enemy, as with no means of defense, you will have to flee in the dark (your match will be blown out when the enemy appears, and you can’t relight it while the enemy is still onscreen), often resulting in you running into a dead end or opening a door where another monster lies in wait.

Without a sense of terror from Haunted House, some may take issue with including it in the horror genre; however, most aren’t likely to be frightened by any of the old Universal Studios monster movies, for example. If we consider these movies a part of the horror genre, then it seems like we have to do the same with Haunted House.

Haunted House, taken out of context, is not a remarkable game. It will not likely hold your attention for long, even with nine different difficulty settings. What makes Haunted House noteworthy are its links to the survival horror genre, as it introduces some survival horror devices that were used to great effect in more recent genre entries. Just as a movie like Nosferatu is interesting as a piece of horror cinema history, Haunted House is worth experiencing for its contribution to video game horror.

Recommended for its historical significance only

Note: Atari is releasing a downloadable Haunted House game soon to Xbox Live, WiiWare, and the PC. It seems to share some gameplay mechanics with the original, so it would be interesting to compare the two once it is released.

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6 Responses

  1. sounds interesting. will have to check it out. did you see the survival horror feature on racketboy btw?

  2. No, I’ll take a look today. Thanks.

  3. oh man, I had this game as a kid and didn’t have a clue what I had to do. it was crazy!!

  4. We didn’t own this game when I was a kid, but a friend had it. Like you, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and I still couldn’t until I recently looked up the manual online.

  5. hello good sir, are you still around? Have you given up on your blog?

  6. I come back to check on my blog now and then, but I don’t seem to find much time to play games as of late, let alone write about them. I tend to have periods I take off and then start again, so I may end up writing something in the near future.

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