Yes, I know it is early August; I don’t care. It’s close enough to Halloween for me to start binging on spooky media, starting with 1982's Haunted House for the Atari 2600.
This article will be part of an ongoing series examining horror games from gaming history leading up to Halloween. My wife and I are playing through these games as part of our newly launched podcast, The Eerie Arcade. We hope that some of you will play these games along with us and share your thoughts!
So, with the preamble out of the way, let’s talk about this old horror game.
I’ve described Haunted House as what you might get if you took the survival horror genre and abstracted it down to just its most core essentials. The gameplay loop is quite basic: explore a haunted house, find the three parts of a magic urn, avoid the monsters that roam the halls, and escape with your life.
What keeps this simple gameplay interesting is that, above the lowest difficulty level which acts as a de facto tutorial, the game is played in pitch darkness. With no light source, only your character’s eyes can be seen on screen, which gives the game a wonderful sense of expressiveness that’s rare for Atari 2600 games. In order to see where walls or objects are, you must light matches which provide a brief circle of flickering light.
This unique mechanic influences and enhances every aspect of the game to make it into a true horror experience. Exploration becomes stumbling around in the dark while trying desperately to get your bearings. Running from a monster only to have your match go out and frantically mashing the button to light another leads to tense encounters. Retracing your steps back to the entrance becomes a mad dash for survival.
On top of this, your character’s ability to only carry one item at a time adds to the tension. Do you grab the magic scepter to protect yourself, leaving your urn pieces behind temporarily? Do you focus on finding the key that will unlock the doors to the deeper recesses of the house? Can you remember where you left things?
Despite primitive hardware, Haunted House really does feature all the hallmarks of a survival horror game: exploration, item/resource management, unlocking new spaces, avoiding powerful enemies, etc. It’s a master class in how to build a game around the limitations present to create a compelling experience. Similarly, the game’s simply graphics benefit from the choice to obscure most of the screen, allowing the player’s imagination to fill in the horrifying details.
Even the sound design excels, as odd as it might be to say. The simple beeps and bloops of the Atari system are used to generate footsteps, thuds, thunder, screeches, etc. The sound feeds back into the gameplay by letting you know when you are running into a wall or opening a door; filling in the gaps left by the simple and obscured pixel art.
Overall, Haunted House is an impressive game for the time it was made and is still fun, and frightening, to play by modern standards. If you’ve never had the chance to try out this game, you can play it for free from your browser.
Interestingly, there have been no less than four attempts to create a sequel or reboot of the original Haunted House, and pretty much all of them have fallen flat. The only one that even remains available for purchase is the 2010 downloadable game of the same name, which can still be found on Steam.
Next up, we will be playing 1995's Clock Tower (AKA Clock Tower: The First Fear) for the Super Famicom. Give it a try if you’d like to join in on our little horror game book club!