An avid player of tabletop and video games throughout his life, Conrad has a passion for unique design mechanics and is a nut for gaming history. He can be heard on the comedy podcast FistShark Marketing (fistshark.com) and streams video games often on Hitbox (hitbox.tv/ConradZimmerman)
The mere inclusion of Rodney Dangerfield can vastly improve anything. Films, music, toasters, anything. In particular, the force of Rodney Dangerfield could elevate video games to the level in which they are accepted by the mainstream as a true art form, bringing together people of all races, creeds and tax brackets in peace and harmony.
RetRose Tinted is a regular feature of my Cblog, in which I re-examine games that we have fond memories of and see if they still hold up. If you have suggestions for titles to be featured in the future or ideas on how I can improve the column, please let me know.
I realize that Splatterhouse was covered a little over a week ago in Kyousuke Nanbu's blog but the game is this month's entry into cowzilla3's Classic Game of the Month Club and I feel compelled to throw my two cents in. If you aren't participating in this yet, you should really check it out. Know your roots, bitches.
If the header full of zombies wasn't indication already, I'm a bit of a horror movie junkie. When I was a kid, we had this crappy, little video store on the corner of the nearest major intersection. From the age of twelve until they closed down about three years later (put out of business by the major chains), I was in there an average of three times a week because of their extensive collection of horror flicks.
On a spinning rack near the register, however, was a much more modest selection of video games for rent. It was because of that rack that I first experienced Splatterhouse 3, a game I wound up renting time and time again. It was the perfect example of a horror movie where I was in control of the main character. The graphics were gory and violent. And it was hard. I never managed to finish Splatterhouse 3 before the store went under, despite my many attempts, but it made the series one of my favorites.
The first Splatterhouse game hit the arcade scene in 1988 and immediately caused an uproar. Due to it's gruesome violence and a controversial boss in the fourth level, it has the distinction of being the first arcade game ever to receive a parental advisory.
You play as Rick, a college student majoring in Parapsychology, who visits the mansion of a Dr. West (which had better be a reference to H.P. Lovecraft or I've been living a lie) with his girlfriend, Jennifer. The mansion is rumored to be haunted and they're there for some kind of vague "school project". Once inside, Rick is knocked unconscious and awakes to find his woman missing, the house is full of foul beasts and a mysterious mask has attached itself to his head. Time to kick some ass.
Splatterhouse is a very basic brawler set on an entirely flat, 2D plane. Rick can only move and jump left or right, but this design also allows for the joystick to be pressed down to crouch (for dodging, picking up items or a low kicking attack) and some items can be picked up from the background by pressing up. The only items in the game are weapons: cleavers, 2x4s, wrenches, etc.
And the weapons are useful. Most of them extend Rick's range and damage, making them very valuable to have. Some of the weapons, such as spears, rocks and wrenches are thrown for a single use. Others, however, persist throughout the entire level and can be picked back up should you take a hit and drop it. Plus, using a weapon like a 2x4 will bash enemies into the background, causing them to explode in a gory mess. In addition, some levels feature shotguns, which can be fired 8 times for major damage.
The graphics might be sick, twisted and violent, but the sound is really where it's at in this game. Hitting enemies results in an almost squishy thud and their deaths a wet, sticky explosion. Moans and howls echo in the background and the music supplies ample eeriness. The creepy dial is really cranked up to eleven.
While the game was controversial for its content, the difficulty is what's truly obscene. Each stage consists of a few brief areas and a boss fight. Some of the levels have a bit of path branching, but it's all very straightforward. Thing is, Rick only has four hit points and three lives. Death means returning to the beginning of the area you were in, instead of just hopping back up again. If you continue, you have to start again from the beginning of the entire stage.
When the stages aren't enough to keep you down (and, frankly, they aren't all that difficult), the bosses are there to rock your world. They're fast-paced, frantic battles where you pray that you can get enough of your hits in before they completely dominate you. Honestly, the hit detection isn't the best example of programming but, even still, they're random enough in their actions that you could easily take enough damage to die in very quick order. And, should you be successful in defeating them, some of them can kill you as part of their death animation and force you to fight them all over again.
Splatterhouse was ported to the TurboGrafx-16 in 1989, and wound up being a very accurate port in terms of gameplay and level design. To keep the nagging parents off their backs, however, dramatic changes were made to the Western version's graphics and animations beyond that of compensating for the lesser hardware of the home console (the Japanese version kept all it's delicious gore).
The gore is much, much tamer in this release, with sprays of blood drastically reduced or changed into slime. Audio effects, too, suffer from these changes and sound more like hollow thumping than a boot stuck in wet mud. A couple of the bosses were changed due to their Christian overtones and the fourth boss area is altered to remove any indication that the battle might be taking place in a church. Rick's appearance is also altered, with the mask colored red, probably to prevent any confusion with the character of Jason Vorhees. Finally, Rick is given an additional hit point that doesn't seem to make a lick of difference in how quickly you die.
Other than these changes and a few other details (shorter ending sequence, weapons swapped around) the game is practically the same. All of the levels are laid out identically and even the appearance of enemies has, for the most part, been transferred directly into the port. If you get to choose between playing the arcade game or the TurboGrafx version, the arcade is the way to go. That said, it's a respectable translation that maintains most of the fun if not all of the gore and, more importantly, it's readily available on Virtual Console.
Following up on their success, Namco released Splatterhouse 2 in 1992 for the Sega Genesis. Once again, the series made history by being the first home console game to feature a parental warning.
It's been three months since the events in the West Mansion but the mask is calling to Rick, enticing him to return, promising that it's not too late to save Jennifer. Rick goes back to the scene of the horror that destroyed his life. As the game progresses, it's revealed that there is a second mansion on an island in a nearby lake.
Splatterhouse 2 is more of the same but even more tame than the TurboGrafx port of the original game. The music is a tinny mess that plays non-stop and the sound effects are largely uninspired. Almost all blood coming from the monsters has been replaced with slime, which makes it hard for me to understand the need for the parental warning at all.
The mask undergoes another transformation, appearing more skull-like. It also has developed a bit of personality, speaking to Rick in the game's opening sequence. The weapons that helped make beating on demons so much fun the first time round are now few and far between, though some do appear in certain boss fights and are very helpful.
Also helping out is a selectable difficulty level. You can now choose to be raped with lube, bareback or sandpaper, which is represented by how much health you start with on each life. In addition, a password feature is included so you don't have to (frustratingly) start the game from the beginning every time.
The level design on this one isn't really anything to write home about. Go from one end of the screen to the other. Similarly, the boss fights aren't as interesting or fun as they were in the first, though some of them have added elements such as weak spots you must hit them in. On the whole, this is a disappointing follow-up to such a great game.
All that changed in the next year, with the release of Splatterhouse 3. This entry into the series is a major divergence from what we've seen previously. Sure, it's still a beat-em-up, you're still wearing a mask and you're still running around a mansion fighting hideous beasties with bare fists and scavenged weapons. That's about where the similarities end, however.
Taking place five years after Splatterhouse 2, Rick and Jennifer are married and have a son, David. They're just getting settled into their new home in Connecticut (paid for with Rick's successful parapsychology career and some wise stock investments) when the horror begins anew. Jennifer is captured and David runs to hide in his room. Seeing no other option, Rick once again dons the Terror Mask to fight evil.
It's really hard to say what the biggest change is to the series in this one, simply because there are so many new things. Instead of the flat perspective, the game now has depth to the environments, making it more of a Streets of Rage or Double Dragon type of brawler. Each floor of the mansion is made of many rooms and gone is the straight progression in favor of exploration. Once a room is cleared of monsters, one or more doors will open up and give you access to new rooms. There's a map you can bring up on the pause screen to help find your way around, which also shows where your objective is.
Exploring the house forces you to make choices. You can find the quickest path to the boss encounter or look in other rooms to find weaponry and power-ups. There's a risk to exploration apart from the potential of death from having to face additional monsters, though. Every floor has a time limit and failing to defeat the boss before time runs out has dire consequences for Rick.
This is what I think is one of the strongest features of the game. There's a far greater emphasis placed on story in this iteration of the series than any other. Once in a while, when moving to a new room, you'll be interrupted with a photographic image and a description of what's happening to Jennifer or David at that moment. If you don't get to them in time, they'll die... or worse. The scenes which follow boss fights differ depending on how well you performed not only on the current level but on previous levels as well.
The weapons in the game are almost as varied as the original (no shotgun, though) and are scattered off the beaten path in the mansion. Getting knocked down will cause Rick to drop his weapon, just as in previous games, only now a ghost will come and try to steal it before you can pick it back up again. All the stolen items are taken to a special room where they can be retrieved but it can often be quite out of the way.
Since this is more of a brawler, Rick gets a whole bunch of new moves. His punches are now a four-hit combo, ending in an uppercut. As with many games in the genre, he can now move in close to enemies and grab them. Once in his mighty meat paws, he can headbutt them or throw them into other enemies. He also gains the ability to transform into a hulking beast by collecting and using orbs scattered around the place or dropped by enemies.
This monsterous version of Rick has equal parts neck and patience. He moves a bit more slowly and his attack range decreases a bit, but he can do significantly more damage both with weapons (which he exclusively throws regardless of type) and fists. He also gains a completely new move which sends meaty tentacles from his chest and causes massive damage to anything they hit. While in Monster form, the POW bar steadily decreases and using the tentacle move will also take a chunk out of it. Once the meter empties or the room is cleared, Rick changes back to normal. In the case of the latter, the meter is completely emptied also, making the decision to use the power a serious one.
The enemies are largely new, though some made the transition from Splatterhouse 2. While there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of variety and many times they're just palette-swaps, don't let that fool you. Different colored enemies may exhibit different patterns and attacks in addition to being able to take more damage. These palette-swapped monsters also make it all the more surprising when new baddies continue to crop up well into the final stage.
While the graphics certainly aren't as nice as the arcade version of Splatterhouse, they're nothing to sneeze at. It still replaces blood with slime but enemies show gruesome damage once their health gets depleted a bit (sometimes giving them new abilities). More significant, I feel, is the use of photography in the cutscenes. They're just so goddamn creepy. These moments are also the point at which the music shines, being otherwise generic synthesizer tracks. Sound effects are better than in the second game, but still lacking oomph.
Splatterhouse 3 is, by far, my favorite entry. With a complex story (for a brawler), interesting gameplay mechanics and a considerable amount of challenge, this game really has it all.
Lastly, there's one other rather odd game. Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti was released for the Famicom in 1989, technically making it the second game in the series. It's a side-scroller in the same vein as the original featuring super-deformed characters and a goofy story. It also features multiple endings, the most complete leading into the events of the first Splatterhouse, though it's hard to imagine this game as canon.
So, what does the future hold for Splatterhouse? We know that a new, 3D reboot of the series is coming in 2009 but hardly have more information than the above screenshot. Obviously, it resembles Rick in monster form from Splatterhouse 3 but is that his standard appearance now or is the monster form returning? Will there be any emphasis on story, or is there going to be a return to the simple but entertaining carnage of the first? And can this game catapault the series back on top as the most gory thing in gaming? Only time will tell.
Final Verdict: If you haven't figured this out by now, you haven't been paying attention.