Review by xenodolf
As one of the pioneers of the survival-horror genre and the very first horror-brawler, the original Splatterhouse has been a game I have been trying to acquire for decades, patiently waiting for a faithful port of the arcade experience. A Turbo Grafx-16 version was released back in the day (and more recently on the Wii's Virtual Console, although the Japanese audiences were given the uncensored experience exclusively despite years of pleading from western gamers). Sadly, the TG-16 variant lacked the graphical splendor of the arcade game, and its controversial violence and occult elements were either toned down or stripped entirely. Thankfully, a re-imagining of the Splatterhouse IP for modern consoles was nice enough to include the original trilogy in their full classic glory, including the ever-so elusive arcade title. This is a review based on the emulated version of the aforementioned game, since outside of owning an actual arcade machine - this and MAME and the only ways to play it.
Stop me if you've heard of this idea before - a strong male protagonist is separated from his girlfriend and might fight through an army of cannon-fodder to rescue her. Actually, that vague concept is about as much as Splatterhouse's story has in common with the ultra-cliche objective that eighty or so percent of every beat 'em up ever made has for an excuse of a plot. During a dark and stormy night, a college-aged couple (Rick, and his girlfriend Jennifer) take refuge from the elements in a mansion rumored to be the stomping grounds of an unethical scientist named Dr. West. This doctor has been performing experiments with ancient artifacts, one of which is a menacing Mayan mask that Rick finds shortly after they enter the house. Suddenly, dozens of ghastly-looking demons attack the couple, mortally wounding Rick and stealing off Jennifer into the dark recesses of the mansion. As Rick lay dying, the aforementioned Mayan mask (henceforth known as the "Terror Mask") makes an unholy alliance with the protagonist as he drifts into death. The Terror Mask lends Rick incredible, blood-fueled strength in exchange for its parasitic bonding onto his face - and Rick uses this power, knowing that his soul is probably condemned to Hell in exchange, to attempt to rescue his beloved girlfriend from the infesting evil of the mansion. I won't go into detail of the events that follow to prevent spoiling them to people unfamiliar with the game - but this story is embedded in misery and loss, with several scenes interlaced into the game-play showcasing how the choices we make are sometimes futile struggles in the gnashing teeth of fate. What's interesting about the game is that even though Rick's encased face intentionally mimics the Jason Voorhees hockey mask from Friday the 13th, the Splatterhouse's nightmarish vibe more closely resembles classic 80s horror movies like The Evil Dead, Poltergeist, and Hellraiser (hence the title of the review).
For a 1988 game, Splatterhouse is able to convey an atmosphere of visceral carrion, vibrant cruelty, and brooding claustrophobic fear. The environmental design is largely set upon the interior of an old mansion - with lots of creaking dark hallways, haunting desolate studies, and several gardens filled with inhuman denizens lurking for your flesh blood idefinately. Alongside cob-web ridden rocking chairs and dusty bookshelves, the walls and floors of most of the game's stages look like someone smeared the contents of every slaughterhouse and abortion clinic in the area. I can't imagine how people, living in a pre-DOOM and Mortal Kombat era, would feel guiding Rick through level strewn with entrails, dismembered corpses, twitching severed hands, pulsating mounds of meat, and what looks like mostly-developed fetuses hanging by ropes from the ceiling. There's even a stage that is entirely organic - a long ovarian tube with bubbling mucus orbs that lead to a shuddering growth that spews forth a flood of chunky embryonic bile when you manage to break through the exterior of its fleshy entity. Most of the enemies loosely resemble human shape, faintly suggesting to you the knowledge that were once people, but now stagger about with twisted bony bodies that erupt reeking green fluid when defeated. Not only are these hideous demons unsettling to look at, but they leave a satisfying trail of carnage as you destroy them with your various weapons (I particularly enjoy shotgunning a leaping zombie-dog in mid-air) - all of these taking place during a decade where most violence featured pixelated enemies simply blinking out of existence. While the graphics aren't perfect, even by 1988 standards (Ninja Gaiden had much more fluid animation) - the impact of these gristley visuals and the uncompromisingly surreal presentation more than makes up for some Rick's bodily stiffness.
Like all great 1980s horror soundtracks, Splatterhouse uses a blend of thudding drum beats and hair-raising ambient synthesizers to create a chilling mood to build around the on-screen action. Several of the tracks feature a warbled, hissing like noise that signifies to me of the shrieks of the hundreds of monsters prowling the mansion's estate, a concept that found itself into another amazing survival-horror soundtrack over ten years later (the original Silent Hill). The sound effects are composed of lots of squelches, splats, and gurgles - bring to mind the organic chaos enveloping the environments Rick must battle through. My only complaint is that a few of the noises seem a bit muted, even by 1988 standards (the shotgun blasts, the cleaver-into-flesh thump, and Rick's death rattle all come off as muffled).
Don't go into Splatterhouse expecting combat as maneuverable as what you would find in the beat 'em ups that would spring up in the next couple of years - because you'll be disappointed. Rick's punches, kicks, and swings are blunt and un-negotiable - but in his defense, he is a hulking frantic boyfriend who is thrust into a paranormal situation without warning, not a martial artist who spent years honing his skills before entering a tournament. I got a bit annoyed dealing with some of the leaping enemies and having to jump over the floating spike-balls in the subterranean levels, but I can be somewhat lenient to a game this old that manages to do so much else right.
Recent games like Condemned go to show how ahead of its time Splatterhouse was - taking a nightmarish setting and making the primary method of fending off shrieking, pus-filled abominations that much more primal and desperate by toning down the most common defense in horror (i.e. guns) and ramping up the use of white-knuckled melee combat. Its a lot more chilling to have to allow a monstrosity to enter your personal space before beating it into pulp than relying on long-ranged weapons that typically signify the most common route of zombie and demon killing in games. Splatterhouse does feature a bit of gun-play, however, although (in another feature Condemned borrowed two decades later) the firearms you acquire are few, and once the ammo runs out you discard them instead of keeping it secured in some over-stuffed inventory. Like most of the 1980s beat 'em ups, you move from left to right on a single plane attacking enemies that trickle onto the screen from the back and front of your character. Splatterhouse is not an easy game despite it sounding like complex than Golden Axe or Final Fight - as there are no health-pickups, screen-clearing special moves, or start-where-you-left-off continue options. You may spend 15 minutes trying to conserve your life-bar and extra lives battling across several screens before defeating a boss (which are often quite difficult) and triggering the next checkpoint. The undead horde is constantly assaulting your position, which is made even more perilous by the inclusion of several platforming segments (most of which I can deal with, although those spiked sewer mines had me throwing my controller once or twice), and the occasional presence of an instant-kill cloud of death that will enter the screen if you don't move fast enough. The combat never evolves during the course of the game, but Splatterhouse keeps you interested mostly because of how depraved and psychotic the setting and monster are (and it spirals into further derangement as you progress toward the conclusion). The title is by no means overly-clunky and in need of rose-tinted glasses - but I can say mostly succeeds with the mentality of style over substance.
Replay value 5/10
Due to its age and the nature of it being a creepy horror-themed beat 'em up, I don't have a problem with Splatterhouse lacking 2-player co-op. There isn't any kind of experience earning or upgrade system like you'd see a few years later in brawlers like The King of Dragons, nor does it have any alternative endings. About the only thing that changes from one go-through of the game from another is that a couple of levels have different routes that you can take, although they're typically harder platforming-oriented paths. In terms of re-playability, Splatterhouse does have the magnetic draw of its strikingly gory combat ominous hellish presence to fall back on - which is impressive, since many of the 80s beat 'em ups tend to get overshadowed by their more complex and flashy 90s counterparts.
If you can overlook some of the dated gaming mechanics (mostly in the area of maneuvering around airborne enemies and claustrophobic platforming segments), Splatterhouse still offers one of the most enjoyable brawler experiences of the 1980s - especially in terms of atmosphere and vibe. Its taken more than 20 years for me to finally play this blood-soaked entry in beat 'em up history, and I'm thankful that the Splatterhouse remake had the foresight to display its proud historic roots to the gamer community - newcomers and veterans of the series alike. The remake might be worth tracking down simply for the inclusion of this ghoulish classic and its two sequels - so make sure to at least rent it, as it is the only legitimate route thus far of playing Namco's long-sought-after side-scroller of terror.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Splatterhouse (US, 02/28/89)
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