Splatterhouse could have just been an excellent brawler if not for those words. Sure, it had horrific elements in its oozing, seeping enemy design and in its creepy atmosphere, but I wouldnít have called it a horror game until I heard that sentence. Iíve never been scared while playing the game, but I have had the rug pulled right out from under me during one sequence near the end of the game. That moment took this game from an action game with horror elements and made it into something that left me unsettled and shaken until the game had ended.
Despite its focus on action, there arenít many horror games in existence that donít owe a little something to SplatterhouseĎs enemy design. Slimy, grotesque, and bloated donít even begin to describe the disgusting array of monsters that wander these levels. Each of these shambling creatures looks like itís rotting or half torn apart to begin with, and many of them burst with sickening fluid when theyíre hit. Just as many of them have exposed bones and muscle tissue sticking out from shredded skin or are visibly in agony as they head toward you. Itís really gross, and will instantly trigger feelings of revulsion for anyone playing it. You might not feel physically ill, but your natural instinct will be to get rid of these creatures as fast as you can.
The monsters are all huge on the screen, too, so youíll get a nice, close look at the sores and wounds on their bodies. Instead of pulling far back, the game takes place on a single plane that takes up a lot of the screen. While the background takes up some of the space, for the most part itís just you and the monsters, letting you draw in every detail about them. I felt uncomfortably close to the creatures while fighting them, feeling like I was was always right on the verge of having one of these things touch me. Given the array of fluids and wounds on each of them, that was something I instinctively didnít want to happen. It was a neat effect, forcing me to approach these things while simultaneously making me want to get as far away from them as possible. Iíve been forced close to monsters in many games before, but this game made me really feel my proximity to these things.
The combat has other ways to keep players uncomfortable. The huge enemies on the screen also meant that my character was a big target, too, so things could get bad in a hurry no matter how well Iíd been doing. These hulking things quickly get close to you as they donít have to close much distance, so even though they move slowly they can still be on you in seconds. Neither you nor the enemies have much in the way of health, either, so most fights feel like youíve only just crept by. Once you get good at the game that nervousness goes away, but youíre still only one slip-up away from dying at the hands of a headless, shambling mob.
Iíve said that many of them burst open when theyíre hit, but that barely describes the smeared mess many of these things leave behind when you kill them. Thereís no blinking and disappearing here; only bleeding stumps and gore-filled stains. The game really cranks up the discomfort with the remains of these monsters, making each and every kill into a visual event. It drowns your eyes in bloody details, constantly reminding you how unnatural and sickening your enemies are. Killing these creatures only seems to make them more horrifying, and due to the gameís viewpoint you get to see every smear up close.
Thatís not taking weapons into account, either. As big of a mess as most things make, itís nothing compared to what the weapons can do. Given the array of machetes, shotguns, and 2X4s, you will almost always have a weapon in your hand, and each one does something new and terrible to enemies. The gameís name has clearly come from the mess you leave behind once you hit something with these weapons, as itís always explosive and disgusting. Hitting one of the swamp creatures in any of the watery areas just sprays their bodies against the wall, and itís extremely satisfying while also off-putting. Itís the sort of stuff that keeps you playing the game while it slowly creeps into your nightmares that night.
The sound of those remains hitting the wall really drive everything home, though. The sound effects in this game are excellent, and give every movement a weight and heft that Iíve rarely seen in games beyond Gears of War and Doom. Each weapon impact rings out with a wet crack, every body hitting the wall with the rotten crunch of flesh and bone. The sound gives the fighting a presence, adding another layer of disgust in your mind. You can hear how gross these creatures are when you hit them, and it just makes everything that much more real. I donít think I even want to know what the sound designers had to study to get this stuff down right. Special mention goes to the 2X4, which sounds so painful and bone-shattering that I think Iíd rather get hit with a chainsaw. If the fact that Splatterhouse displaced horrorís iconic chainsaw with a length of wood doesnít interest you, then I really donít know what to tell you.
Theyíve done some great work with the music as well. There are reams of creepy music in this game, all of them menacing the player in different ways. There are some tracks that drone on with quickly repeating patterns that have a strong base to them, creating a sensation of creeping dread and discomfort. There are some that are higher pitched (without being shrill) that build up slowly, gaining speed to match the dangers in the room. Your own heartbeat is probably keeping pace with it too, as it is with the rest of the gameís fantastic music. There are many things that you could argue were the same between the TurboGrafix-16 and the original arcade version, but thereís no comparison in the music and sound. There are just many different layers to the creeping, eerie music that either drive up tension or make you want to hide from whatís coming next, and you donít hear as much of that in the TurboGrafix port. Given that the arcade version is easier to find since itís on the Splatterhouse rerelease for the 360 and PS3, youíre definitely better off with the easier-to-locate version. Crank the sound up when you play it.
Now, if you donít want a key moment in the game spoiled for you, you should go try the game now. It isnít that long, and you should be able to get to what Iím talking about with a little bit of practice. Either way, leave now if you donít want to have the gameís definitive moment spoiled for you.
Like I said, SplatterhouseĎs sound design is incredible, but itís the one track that is completely different that really stands out. When you make it to the end of level 5, youíll finally come across the reason youíve been working your way through the house. Itís at this point when a beautiful, sad song begins to play. Before youíve even made it to the other side of the screen, you instantly know whatís wrong. Whatís more important is that you feel it, though. This song, amidst all of the other creepy music, just stands out and carries a power thatís rare in game soundtracks. Yes, it sounds primitive by todayís standards, but the people who wrote this song managed to pour their life and soul into the music. Itís that music thatís stayed with me ever since I played it, and is always the first thing I remember when I think about the game.
While this music plays, you are brought to one of the more heart-rending scenes in any game. You find your girlfriend lying on a couch, a horde of monsters running away as you approach. She stands up and looks at you, calling out with the words that, while a little unclear due to hardware limitations, carry a narrative power that video games rarely pull off.
Itís the last thing she shouts before turning into a clawed beast (Skip to 4:10 in the video† at the bottom of this article to watch the Turbographx version. In the arcade she says ďHelp, Iím dying!Ē instead, but both are pretty unsettling), bits of her original flesh still hanging from its twisted body. The transformation looks horribly painful, pulsing against her skin until it eventually rips out of it. This happens a few times during the fight as the monster grows weaker, each time pulling back within the womanís body long enough for her to beg for your help again. Each time she reverts back you get a little twinge of hope that youíre doing the right thing, that this is how you help save your girlfriend.
But you canít. Sheís already been destroyed by the forces in the house, and the only help you can give her is in freeing her from the thing inside of her. You can only help her by killing her.
The horror in Splatterhouse may partially come from gore and scary music, but the main reason why it is so important is in the moments when itís the most human. Its awful message is that the most terrible thing you may have to do is wish death to a loved one in order to help them. The fear is in a loved one being in danger but arriving too late to save them. Itís in knowing that nothing you do from that point on can fix whatís already happened. The time when Splatterhouse is at its most effective is when the main characterís pain is something the player can imagine and even identify with. Itís in the terrible possibility that one day, a loved one might ask you to help them by ending their lives as well.
You could argue that Iím reading a bit much into a gory video game, but I really donít think so. The developers went out of their way to make you hear the girl cry out for help. In a time when getting voice in games was troublesome and expensive (Just saying the word Sega out loud in Sonic the Hedgehog took up an eighth of the gameís storage space),they made sure that her cries for help were there and audible. Itís not something you read, but something you got to hear and endure. They also made sure you witnessed her transformation, watching how helpless she was against the thing that had ruined her body. It drives the terrible situation home, over and over again. This is what they want you to take away from the game. This is what these things want to do to people. This is why you should hate them.
There are two more levels in the game, but you may find yourself floating through them in a daze. To me, everything ended right there when my girlfriend thanked me for killing her and turned into dust. Splatterhouse is a fun, great game filled with some sickening gore, but itís the points that fly in the face of the rest of the game that made it stick with me. Itís the point when you realize itís just two humans trying to escape this terrible place that the game really finds its staying power. Yes, it is mostly an action game with horrific elements, but it was that one point when it showed its human side that it gained a spot with the horror greats.
Its contribution, as amazing as it sounds, is to being emotionally horrified, something I didnít really expect when I played it a few years ago. I also didnít expect it to hit me as hard as it did the second time, either, but the game hasnít lost any of its power with the age of its graphics and hardware. Yes, at its core itís an absurd situation, but what story doesnít use strange plot lines to explore complex human emotions? Despite being buried in a bloody brawler, SplatterhouseĎs emotional payload isnít any less significant. It stands out all the more due to being the one moment of touching humanity in this twisted world.
I was horrified at the events of this game, shaken to the point where I will always remember that one helpless scream. If that isnít effective horror, then I donít know what is.
Images courtesy of splatterhouse.kontek.net (Literally THE source for everything Splatterhouse. Definitely check these guys out), swankworld.com, greygelgoog.livejournal.com