On the anniversary of Namco’s beat ‘em up horror classic, we hack and slash our way through what makes ‘Splatterhouse’ so special
“This will be your grave! Ha ha ha”
When horror in gaming is brought up, we understandably turn to the survival horror genre and its many titles for conversation topics. It’s not without good reason, as titles like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and even Dead Rising helped popularize the genre in the gaming medium in the first place. In spite of that, survival horror is hardly the only execution of the genre, and sometimes just lovingly sending up horror and all things creepy can be a more effective product than something that nihilistically has you thinking about ammo and health conversation. Namco’s Splatterhouse is a notable title for premiering in the arcade of all places in 1998, before eventually seeing ports to the PC-Engine, FM TOWNS and TurboGrafx-16 (the TurboGrafx version came with warning: “The horrifying theme of this game may be inappropriate for young children… and cowards”). Namco’s eerie sidescrolling beat ‘em up would connect with such an audience that it would spawn a franchise of games and even a flashy 3D remake in 2010.
Splatterhouse tells the story of burgeoning parapsychology student Rick Taylor and his girlfriend Jennifer Willis, who go to the home of insane parapsychologist, Dr. West (who is intentionally supposed to not only be a Re-Animator reference, but might actually be the same character). Jennifer gets kidnapped and Rick is taken over by the game’s infamous “Terror Mask,” accordingly. This is actually a little more story than you tend to get in a 2D beat ‘em up of all things, but it acts as a serviceable premise that throws you into a haunted house of sorts. Each level reflects a new sort of horror staple with an archetypal boss waiting for you at the end, as you murderize your way to your princess.
Impressively, Splatterhouse comes courtesy of Shigeru Yokoyama who has no prior experience directing video games. He came from Galaga, of all places. In fact, the directors for the following Splatterhouse titles, Taiji Nagayama and the mysterious 100 Taro, are all newcomer directors, which is why it’s surprising that the Splatterhouse series has such a consistent track record. The original game is also the first console title to receive a parental advisory warning due to its violent nature and questionable content (such as an inverted cross being prominent during a boss fight in a chapel).
Coming as a huge fan of 2D beat ‘em ups, Splatterhouse is a delight, even if you’re not a horror fan (but obviously you are, otherwise why are you here?). It’s like if Streets of Rage or Final Fight were around during a time where it could have released some holiday themed DLC, with this being the result. Simultaneously, while video game adaptations from this era of big horror titles like Friday the 13th and Halloween are ambitious, messy failures, Splatterhouse beautifully functions as your surrogate solution. Yokoyama has stated that Friday the 13th and Evil Dead II are major influences on the title, and with all the other horror touchstones getting highlighted, it’s easier to just pretend this is some Poltergeist or Re-Animator video game.
Your basic beat ‘em up controls are in play here (along with a myriad of weapons that you can pick up and use at its disposable) and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it’s the game’s bosses where the gameplay especially shines. The game’s real creativity seems to be funneled here, as the bosses force you to incorporate strategy and different tactics rather than the usual “murder, rinse, repeat” that you’re doing in the levels. Some of the gems in Splatterhouse’s rogue’s gallery include a guy with two chainsaws installed as hands, a poltergeist boss that’s really just a room, and a monster that Jennifer turns into that’s actually frightening and upsetting—it even feels like a pre-cursor to some of the gruesome transformation sequences that would happen in Resident Evil. The game’s final boss, the Ultimate Evil, is also just super gross, especially for this era of gaming.
Beyond bosses, there’s also an exceptional soundtrack that amplifies all of the horror that’s going on, not to mention an impressive cinematic intro that kicks off the game in the original Arcade version of the title. The game even takes unexpected narrative twists like horror films are prone to do, such as the decision to actually kill Jessica at the end of the game, rather than rewarding you and Rick with some sort of happy ending. This of course nicely sets the scene for the game’s inevitable sequel, Splatterhouse 2.
Curiously, before Splatterhouse 2 hits the scene, an interesting side-story sees release for the Famicom Computer System. Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti might have only seen release in Japan and seems like it could be a non-canonical entry in the series at that, but it’s actually one of the more satisfying, creative titles in the Splatterhouse library. It’s actually a shame that this quirky title is often left out of the conversation and overlooked (some sort of localization or release via unlockable content seems long overdue at this point).
Wanpaku Graffiti employs a cutesy, super-deformed art style to the Splatterhouse universe in a move that actually works. The game sees Jennifer getting kidnapped from a giant evil pumpkin, with this almost feeling like a parody of the original game, rather than some sequel or side story. In your quest to find Jennifer, you encounter references to The Fly, Alien, The Exorcist, Jaws, Poltergeist, and there’s even an extended Friday the 13th riff in a level set at “Camp Diamond Lake.” In spite of Wanpaku Graffiti never leaving Japan, it’s got a surprisingly American frame of reference and sensibility. The first boss is even a vampire who greets you in a dance reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video.
There’s some inspired level design in play here too, with a sewer level that is particularly gorgeous. Its boss is a hilarious parody of Alien involved an enlarged, radioactive sewer rat, so what’s not to love here? Trick or treating level is also pretty inspired and looks exactly like what a game you’re playing on Halloween should look like. It also needs to be mentioned that the lighting effects and visuals for when you beat the Brundlefly boss are some of the craziest and most seizure-y that I’ve seen on the system.
One of my favorite touches about Wanpaku Graffiti is that the game surprisingly ends with a sound stage illuminating behind you and a director shouting “cut” (“That was some damn fine acting. This’ll be a great movie!”), only to reveal that this is all some movie that’s being filmed, not unlike in a Viewtiful Joe game. It’s almost as if this is the hokey Splatterhouse movie that is being adapted from the original game, giving this sillier tone a little context. That being said, what an ending this is, and I could see it being as contentious as Link’s Awakening and Super Mario Bros. 2 if more people were familiar with this title.
Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti introduces a parodical, hearty sense of humor that is absent from everywhere else in the series. There’s some foresight for the horror genre being shown here for their take on Splatterhouse, and in spite of this game being relatively underknown and generally (unfortunately) ignored in the Splatterhouse canon, there’s a lot to learn from this game. Can you imagine if Capcom released some satire of Resident Evil, where bosses and characters were intentionally meant to lampoon the franchise? I know we’ve seen clever jabs at franchises in works like Dead Rising, but I’m talking full-on satire. If horror films can do it, why not games, too?
Now Splatterhouse 2, the true sequel to Splatterhouse, sees Rick turning to the fray, trying to revive Jennifer, and ultimately succeeding in his task. Splatterhouse 2 is one of those prime examples of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” with this sequel playing nearly identically to its predecessor. Everything just looks a lot more polished and advanced this time around. Some gamers ended up taking exception to the small steps taken forward with Splatterhouse 2 and instead attacked it for its lack of innovation, but this is also a game where you get to chainsaw a baby to pieces, so you pick your battles. Admittedly, the gore quotient is upped greatly in the sequel (a luxury allowed by the game being developed for the Genesis, allowing them access to Sega’s more “mature” gamers), but this sort of material also has less of an impact now, due to it being a sequel. The game does manage to turn the Terror Mask into more of an actual character this time around, which isn’t a bad idea at all. The Mask talks and eggs Rick on throughout his journey, as if some sort of bloodthirsty version of Navi from Ocarina of Time.
Bosses once more are given special attention, with there being plenty of “giant face” battles, a boss that’s an unborn fetus (complete with umbilical cord that descends it onto the screen), a giant diamond, and a huge kraken that you get to fight from a boat. All of that being said, the final boss is kind of lame in the end… Beautifully, Splatterhouse 2 also lost most of its script in the localization process from Splatterhouse Part 2 in Japan. As a result, many of the changes in the game, like why there’s a new West mansion, have no answer. This certainly adds an extra b-movie quality to it all, too. The music is seriously incredible this time around, too. It’s so, so good, with each level delivering catchy, synth-y bliss that meshes with horror like viscera does with a machete.
As if learning from the few complaints regarding Splatterhouse 2, Splatterhouse 3 added some new elements to the series’ gameplay, refining the controls even further and expanding the title in fun ways. Splatterhouse 3 sees a nice twist in the narrative that involves Rick and Jennifer getting married, having a child named David, and getting their own house which in turn becomes haunted and the resident “Splatterhouse” this time around. This time Rick has to save his wife and son. Much like its predecessor, Splatterhouse 3 was a pretty big coup for the Genesis, with the game not seeing release on any other system. The new title differs from previous games in the series by introducing a time trial aspect which in turn alters various aspects of the game (like Jennifer dying in the second level, for instance) based on if you complete levels in time (kind of like Streets of Rage III’s set-up).
There’s also the addition of Eldritch orbs which let you power-up into new forms of “Badassery” when collected. Allowing this extra violence and ability to hulk out (pieces of flesh extend from your chest and become a weapon…so yeah) makes perfect sense for this sort of franchise, too. Your moveset also becomes more complex too, with you gaining the ability to pick up and throw your enemies, rather than simply punching or kicking. On top of all of that, the title also ditches the sidescrolling angle to get into non-linear exploration that encourages backtracking to collect items and find your exit. You’re even shown a map beforehand to help orient your gameplay, whereas such a thing would be completely unnecessary in the previous games. Even the bosses have a bit of a different energy this time around with one being a kid’s come-to-life stuffed teddy bear, a progressively hatching and evolving insect embryo, some Shadow Man that’s basically Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, and then ultimately a giant version of the infamous Terror Mask itself!
In spite of Splatterhouse 3 performing well both critically and in sales, neither Namco not Sega seemed that interested in pushing things further. The mind reels at what some version of Splatterhouse for the Sega CD or Saturn could have looked like. While 2D beat ‘em ups were progressively on the way out, that still didn’t stop a 3D remake of the game being attempted in 2010. Operating much like some God of War clone, Splatterhouse (2010) added fancy “splatter combos”, decapitations, and many “modern” touches. Whether these elements are necessary or not, in their own way they do sort of mirror the intense violence of the original games. 2010’s Splatterhouse is a loud, admirable flop that effectively put the final nail in the franchise’s coffin (for now at least). With audiences more recently embracing retro touches, and with horror never being more alive, perhaps it’s worthwhile to explore the Splatterhouse franchise once more. Some visionary giving their own take on the source material (like what Hideo Kojima did with Castlevania) could yield super interesting results. Until then, we’ll always have the boreworms.