Review by Tachibana Ukyo
"Dead by Dawn"
It all began, as they say, on a dark and stormy night. Seeking cover from an approaching storm, Rick Taylor and his girlfriend Jennifer have scampered for shelter inside an old, abandoned mansion secluded in the woods, or so it would seem. In actuality our young lovers are a pair of parapsychology students who have arrived at the former home of vanished scientist Dr. Herbert West, a madman rumored to have performed the most bizarre and grotesque of experiments in his attempts to reanimate dead tissue. Jennifer’s blood-curdling screams suddenly emanate from inside the manor just as a flash of lightning sears the sky outside; the next thing we see is Rick’s lifeless body, felled by some unseen horror. Yet a sinister presence recalls Rick to the world of the living - revived with a chilling mask bonded to his face, our undead hero must rend his decaying hosts from limb to diseased limb as he attempts to rescue Jennifer from a fate worse than death within the depths of the SplatterHouse.
His features concealed behind the suspiciously familiar visage of the gaunt Hell Mask, Rick appears to have wandered straight out of the reprehensible Friday the 13th films. Our gruesome friend is a hulking ghoul practically bursting with sinewy muscle from beneath his ragged clothes, easily capable of reducing his enemies to bloody pus with his bare knuckles - or instead placing his meaty hands on a number of weapons with which to bludgeon, mutilate, and otherwise inflict grievous anatomical harm upon the many freakish horrors inhabiting the West mansion. From the moment Rick rouses his bulky frame from the dirty ground it should become apparent to all that this 1988 release remains a graphic powerhouse that lives up to its infamous reputation – a reputation for unabashed and explicit gore.
Horizontally scrolling from room to room or occasionally stepping outside for some night air, each of the seven stages features piles upon piles of decomposing corpses and masses of raw meat stacked atop each other like cordwood in both the background and foreground. Not all of them rest quietly, either - chained zombies wretch pools of toxic slime in Rick’s path before falling limp in their shackles while their fellows thrash helplessly about having been impaled upon wooden stakes. Our hero must meanwhile confront the green and purple-skinned ghasts that quickly approach him from both sides of the screen, his fists turning them into unimpressive ooze. Ho hum, right? But wait . . . someone has thoughtlessly left a large cleaver lying unattended on the floor! Thus armed, Rick can quickly lop a zombie’s head clean from its malformed shoulders, the offending appendage soaring high into the air as a shower of gore cascades from the creature’s torn neck.
Yes, the wanton cruelty of SplatterHouse is what makes the game worth sinking one's teeth into . . . speaking of which, famished parasitic leeches soon bore out of the surrounding rancid flesh looking to feast upon Rick’s warm blood if given the chance. Hungry for more? The ever-popular third level takes us into the gloomy forest surrounding the house amidst the crackles of thunder. Bulbous deformed carcasses twist slightly in the wind as they hang from ropes in the trees, splitting open upon impact to discharge a large puddle of oozing glop. Skinless canines creep forward to snack upon the remnants of your slain foes; interrupt their meal and it will be your own flesh that faces their piercing howls and cutting jaws. A gigantic leathery-skinned thing with chainsaws grafted to the stubs of his arms lurks at the end of the path; its misshapen head tightly wrapped within the confines of a cloth sack, this disfigured killer growls in pain after you empty your shotgun into his massive chest.
The sounds! The moody, heavily bass musical score ranges from creepy and subdued tunes quietly droning in the background to the loud frenzied synths that menacingly pound away against the on-screen slaughter, while the sound effects are appropriately deep and booming; you’ll be able to hear the satisfying crack of a possessed chair shattering into pieces, the high-pitched whine of ravenous chainsaws, or the wail of a translucent female phantom as she fades into nothingness. When trudging through a murky sewer, one will encounter slimy creatures that rise from the muck and loudly moan after a 2x4-hefting Rick smashes them into a sludgy mess against the wall. Fall into a dusty basement filled with dead bodies, however, and a skeletal necromancer floats about clad in a tattered cloak and hat while repeatedly conjuring up a pack of zombies upon spitting out a malefic chant from his throaty tongue.
That it, is you can find the basement. Certain levels also feature branching paths - pits or ladders that lead to various alternate screens and perhaps allow you to circumvent a difficult scene. More often than not, however, plummeting into these drops will only put you in a worse situation than before. Rick can't afford to take his time considering whether to risk such a path, as crackling tendrils of purple ectoplasm will begin creeping towards our hero from the left side of the screen if he remains in the same place for too long, stealing away his health upon contact. Unfortunately, avoiding all these dangers is easier said than done thanks to the game’s sluggish controls; Rick walks slowly and jumps stiffly, often resulting in seemingly unfair damage or accidentally plummeting into one of said pits. In addition, his lone special maneuver, a sliding kick, is produced seemingly by luck rather than timing, rendering it unreliable in a pinch.
But the most frightening thing about SplatterHouse is its potential difficulty, allowing you to take as few as two hits depending on the machine’s settings, and don’t expect to coast through this game on a stack of coins alone; should Rick expend his three lives he will have to start the entire level anew. It is instead necessary to minimize the amount of damage you receive throughout each level and conserve Rick’s spare lives for that undoubtedly putrid boss waiting at the end, a sometimes frustrating task given the issues with the controls. A good deal of practice (and perhaps even a little meddling with the dipswitch settings for more health) should make it possible to finish Rick’s journey without too much difficulty, but newcomers will find that this game is by no means an easy one.
Even so, the rampant gore entices the player ever onward. Persevere and you will reach a shadowy chapel (plunged in darkness save for the faint illumination provided by the feeble glow of flickering candles), a scene requiring Rick to wield a large axe against the predations of a massive inverted cross surrounded by decapitated heads. Climaxing with an extremely twisted boss encounter in the fifth stage, the game quickly winds down for the final two chapters, initially placing our hero in a tunnel of what appears to be organic tissue to battle embryonic horrors that latch onto him only to burst into an ichorous mess. When finally bathed in the glare of a surrounding inferno, he must elude invulnerable fiery phantasms as they crash down from the sky with a roaring hiss before coming face to face with the misshapen ultimate source of the house’s evil.
Looking to shred intestines from the comfort of your own demonic abode? You may be interested in one of the two home conversions of this arcade slasher, although neither of them is truly ideal. The far better known edition for the PC Engine (TurboGrafx 16) was one of that console’s early hits, but sacrifices a significant portion of the original’s graphic content and impressive audio in exchange for an easier degree of difficulty. The other? An arcade-perfect offering does exist . . . in the form of a port for the FM Towns, a Japanese computer which most people have never even heard of, much less seen; this iteration is extremely scarce and will probably end up costing you an arm and a leg to obtain. The best route would be to track down the arcade PCB itself . . . if you dare.
Is this really anything more than another action game? Perhaps not, but arcade titles in this genre are legion and yet this game stands out in infamy. One could point out its branching paths or its formidable difficulty, but let’s be honest with ourselves - in terms of graphic content and a bile-inducing sense of style, games of this explicit magnitude are far and few in between, and that is what SplatterHouse is all about. It is also precisely this visceral quality that sets the original on a level apart from its handful of toned-down console successors.
Will Rick save both Jennifer and himself from the promise of a hideous demise, or is this story destined to end in tragedy? Like a festering sore burrowed deep within a wreck of desiccated flesh, the fifteen year old SplatterHouse can still turn heads.
Before it chops them off, anyway.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 05/11/03, Updated 07/24/03
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