Splatterhouse: The Pioneering Horror Arcade Game at 30

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

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In the realm of video video games no less than, the 1980s was a relatively sunny interval: it was the period that gave us brilliant and cheerful classics like Super Mario Bros., Bubble Bobble, and Monty Mole. Yet beneath that nice exterior stirred one thing darker and far nastier. Just ask Namco.

Thirty years in the past, Namco was greatest identified for the zip and vim of its arcade video games. It conquered the world with Pac-Man, the primary online game to introduce a cartoon-character hero and a subsequent storm of merchandising. Before and after, Namco turned alien extermination into a colourful pastime with video games like Galaxian and Galaga, it turned the apprehension of burglars right into a slapstick platformer with Mappy, and made driving like a maniac look oddly lovable in Rally X.

Again, although, one thing evil was stirring inside Namco, simply ready to be unleashed. In late 1988, that day lastly got here with the discharge of Splatterhouse, an arcade machine fully in contrast to something the Japanese agency had made earlier than. Inspired by western horror video games, it was a scrolling beat-em-up, not in contrast to hits from rival firms: Kung Fu Master, Vigilante, and Double Dragon. But in contrast to most different video games, Splatterhouse was outlandishly gory.

If you’d chanced on Splatterhouse in an arcade within the late ’80s, you’ll’ve instantly famous how totally different it appeared from different video video games of the period. While video games had been rising in graphical richness and violence for some time – Operation Wolf was a gun-crazed money-spinner for Taito in 1986 – none had been fairly as gratuitous as Splatterhouse. Cast within the function of the hockey mask-wearing anti-hero, Rick, the participant stalked the halls of the titular mansion, a haunted pile stuffed to the rafters with grotesque monsters and ghouls.

Armed at first with nothing greater than his fists and toes, Rick launched into a revenge mission in opposition to the undead who’d each murdered him at the beginning of the sport after which kidnapped his girlfriend, Jennifer. In phrases of its situation, it wasn’t in contrast to Capcom’s Ghosts ‘N Goblins from 1986, however in execution, Splatterhouse was fully totally different: punching zombies within the face diminished them to a groaning heap of bones and inexperienced goo; choosing up a weapon like a meat cleaver or a slab of wooden allowed you to smash enemies right into a bloody mess or chop them into hunks of meat.

Admittedly, the model was nonetheless cartoony, very like Ghosts ‘N Goblins was, however the larger-than-life violence and sprays of claret made it really feel extra like one thing out of EC Comics, the notorious writer whose output was thought of so corrupting that it hastened the delivery of the Comics Code.

Like EC’s comics, Splatterhouse confirmed a voluminous – and maybe opportunistic – data of up to date horror. Anyone with a passing curiosity in popular culture would have acknowledged that Rick’s masks was “impressed” by the hockey masks worn by Jason Voorhees within the latter Friday the 13th motion pictures. Other particulars in Splatterhouse had been evidently borrowed from such classics as Poltergeist, The Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and much extra apart from. 

Splatterhouse was, in brief, one of many first true B-movie arcade video games, and its artistic swiping of different storytellers’ concepts was, like several B-picture value its salt, performed with little look after self-censorship or good style. One degree noticed Rick combat a huge, monstrous womb; as soon as defeated, a nauseating gush of fluid issued forth. Another end-of-level boss took the type of an enormous inverted crucifix. With Splatterhouse, it appeared as if Namco had deliberately got down to make a sport that might horrify dad and mom, however on the similar time, go away their children grinning maniacally.

The craft and sheer element that went into Splatterhouse’s horror setpieces made it one thing of a pioneer – even when it wasn’t precisely the primary sport of its sort. In the house laptop and console markets, smaller builders had been turning out horror video games for years. The Atari 2600 obtained pretty low-rent licensed video games based mostly on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween franchises, whereas the ZX Spectrum’s obscure motion journey Go to Hell was stuffed with tiny demons and disembodied heads.

In arcades, there have been far fewer precedents for Splatterhouse’s boundary-pushing model of gore. Death Race prompted a ripple of controversy in 1976, however that was due to its theme greater than its visuals – operating over tiny stick males in a automobile was thought of past the pale again then, making it a Carmageddon for the Gerald Ford period. No, Splatterhouse’s closest forebear was arguably Chiller, a horror-themed gentle gun sport created by the identical staff that made Death Race. Taking place in opposition to a backdrop of torture chambers and haunted homes, Chiller was gory, crude, and faintly unseemly. 

But the place Chiller was a comparatively obscure title made with an evidently small price range, Splatterhouse was in a unique league by way of design. Sure, the motion’s sluggish and simplistic by fashionable requirements, with its 2D motion making it the crazed cousin of Sega’s Altered Beast, but it surely seems and sounds excellent. When Rick fires a shotgun, there’s a blast of smoke and crimson sparks, a formidable element to identify in an arcade sport circa 1988.

What’s not clear is whether or not Namco had hoped that Splatterhouse would acquire wider infamy by means of sheer shock issue alone; if it did, then the plan backfired considerably. Far from making headlines with its violence, Splatterhouse merely drifted below the radars of tradition’s self-appointed watch canines. Splatterhouse wasn’t broadly bought by arcade homeowners within the west (most likely as a result of they had been nervous about all that bloodshed), however cupboards actually turned up once in a while within the UK – this author has clear reminiscences of recognizing one in a British seaside arcade on the finish of the last decade.

All the identical, Splatterhouse was one thing of a cult hit, notably when it appeared on house consoles. The PC Engine (or TurboGrafx-16) obtained a port in 1990, and whereas it had a few of its extra excessive situations of splatter snipped out, it nonetheless offered a trustworthy approximation of the arcade’s frenzied bloodbath. There had been sequels and spin-offs on consoles, too: Japan obtained Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti in 1989, which was a type of super-deformed parody of the arcade sport shrunk down for the Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom). The Sega Genesis obtained two sequels, which continued the bloody saga nicely into the 1990s. 

Even these house variations didn’t generate a lot controversy, although, regardless of Namco drawing consideration to the sport’s content material itself. On the duvet of the TurboGrafx-16 version, a splash of blood highlights the warning, “The horrifying theme of this sport could also be inappropriate for younger kids… and cowards.”

Try as it would, Splatterhouse merely didn’t horrify adults in fairly the identical manner as one other title first launched in 1988: the side-scrolling arcade shooter, Narc. That sport contained digitized 32-bit graphics, a drug struggle theme, and motion that noticed criminals blown aside with rocket launchers. Instead of Splatterhouse, it will be Narc’s struggle on crack cocaine that captured headlines.

Four years later, the soft-focus sleaze of Sega’s Night Trap and the gory fatalities of Mortal Kombat lastly caught the eye of politicians within the US, resulting in the introduction of Entertainment Software Ratings Board in 1994. By the time Namco’s disappointing Splatterhouse reboot emerged for consoles in 2010, its cowl carried a real “Mature” ranking – not the joking public well being warning the unique bandied about twenty years earlier. 

Still, whereas Splatterhouse didn’t acquire the moment infamy of Mortal Kombat or Narc, it nonetheless garnered a much-deserved cult standing. The sport was an actual trailblazer, too: with Splatterhouse, Namco was testing the boundaries of what was acceptable in arcades of the late ’80s, paving the way in which for the equally schlocky video games that adopted.

As we’ve seen, the collection continued on consoles, however within the arcade, Splatterhouse remained distinctive amongst Namco’s in any other case bubbly canon. Before he labored on Splatterhouse, designer Akira Usukura crafted the graphics for the hit spin-off, Pac-Mania. The yr after Splatterhouse, Usukura designed Rompers, an obscure maze sport that includes a gardener in a straw hat.

It was as if Splatterhouse rose up from Namco’s collective creativeness like a demon, briefly discovered its bodily type in a singular arcade brawler, then vanished once more into the depths of hell.

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