Rick Taylor, Jennifer Willis. Two university students studying the mystifying subject matter of parapsychology. Two students captivated with the subject, and each other. Apparitional and near-death experiences… the themes that provoke their swotting. Alas, on this night, as Rick and Jennifer seek sanctuary from the abominable thunderstorm that currently plagues them, they have seemingly selected doom as their pit stop. For on this night, these two students have found themselves trapped… within the Splatterhouse.
Everyone in town had heard the rumours surrounding the appalling experiments that had apparently been conducted in the confines of West Mansion, at one time occupied by now missing parapsychologist Dr. West, but not many had believed the reports to be veracious. Ceaselessly bedeviled with all things psychokinetic, thrust forward by the yearning to learn ever more about the paranormal, Rick and Jennifer have chosen to trade poor weather… for their lives.
The duo rush into West Mansion, soaking wet from their encounter with the night’s relentlessly lashing rain, hearts hammering within their chests at the prospect of standing at the doorstep of destruction. After taking a moment to digest the mansion’s medieval surroundings, the two face each other, allowing the slightest of smiles to curve the ends of their lips, at last breathing a sigh of solace. The doors to the mansion suddenly slam shut. The nightmare begins.
Indisposed and disoriented, Rick arouses from a blood and sweat slicked slumber, finding himself lying prone in what appears to be a hypogean oubliette, surrounded by the macabre remains of innumerable humans and species that he is unable to identify. Nauseas and benumbed, he trawls himself towards a wall through a sable solution that envelops the majority of the room’s floor. Sitting upright, he begins to digest his surroundings. The spine-chilling chamber is ornamented with a copious selection of gore, ranging from severed, now desiccated limbs, to transmogrified skulls, fastidiously placed as if they were trophies. Hung from corroded, filth ridden hooks, a miscellany of unfortunate souls still cling to life, some softly moaning while others mindlessly yowl, their voices reverberating off of the dungeon’s cold, ichor soaked walls. “Soon… you will join them.” Rick jerks at the sound of another voice suddenly speaking to him. His head darts around the room, studying every corner, carefully examining the anathematized humans and creatures hanging from their sickles. It couldn’t possibly have been one of them, what with their own expiration seemingly at hand, none of their wording even comprehensible. “You will join them… if you fail to heed my counsel.” Again, the voice returns. Opaque and menacing, it speaks to Rick as if he were a clod. In a trice, Rick is enraged, clenching his fists with an unyielding force that strikes him as completely ineffable, he feels as if a surge of execration has filled the interstices between his finger bones. Not willing to showcase his trepidation to the mysterious voice, he chances a surreptitious glance down at his forearms. His gaze held in a state of petrification, Rick discovers that his limbs have been mutated, transmuted into hulking members of meat. The veins streaming throughout his swelling musculature pulsating at a level beyond intemperate. He screams, reaching up, grasping his head in his hands, only to find that his face no longer feels like his own. Dank and solidified, to his comprehension, the molding is outwardly imperishable. “Your new countenance.” Once more perturbed by the unrevealed vocalization, Rick haphazardly bounds towards a squalid and splintered mirror hung above a soiled sink, small insects permeating its conduit. Discerning himself for but a moment is all that is needed for him to register that something is dreadfully wrong. Amalgamated to his face is a vizard of disconcerting appearance. Again, he screams, raking his new profile in a forlorn venture to extract the false face from his own. Fastened around the circumference of his cranium, Rick relinquishes his endeavors to remove the mask as soon as he initiated them. This… disguise, had reconstructed his erstwhile rangy constitution into something muscularly swollen, by all accounts exploding with power. Misshapen and repulsive. A behemoth in a mask. Walking death on two columns of concrete flesh. Demoralized, he squalls. “Jennifer, Rick. You can still save her… with my help.” Puling, Rick snaps to regard. Jennifer. Where was she? Was she safe? A blood curdling scream sounds from above, carried through the vents in the ceiling by thickset odors of ozone and vomit. “Employ me, and together we can salvage her from ruin.” Newly incensed, respiring heavily, Rick takes hold of a crimson spattered plank of wood and kicks down the door to his prison, frenzied in his pursuit of Jennifer and the destruction of this entire mansion.
When the discussion revolves around video games, the early to mid 90’s were years marked with incredible advancements in fun, technology, and controversy. Slowly but surely, games were becoming increasingly brutal, vicious, and violent. By 1992, the weighty arrivals of Midway’s Mortal Kombat and Sega’s Night Trap had North American media and parents locked in fever pitch hysteria. Pronounced with blood, gore, and violence against women, the latest offerings of video games were becoming ever more adult oriented, the snag being that it wasn’t the adults that were playing them. As a result stemming from American congressional hearings held in 1993, the two titles would eventually lead to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that is still in use today. But while fatalities and blood draining devices were the hot topics of the period, one game that included the utilization of meat cleavers, shotguns, and two-by-fours to eradicate enemies seemed to fly under the radar of preservative parentals and the maniacal media. Predating the outcries spawned by Kombat and Traps, 1990’s Splatterhouse was your all-inclusive experience for barbarity in the living room.
A side scrolling beat em’ up, Splatterhouse follows the exploits of Rick Taylor as he attempts to rescue his girlfriend, Jennifer, while simultaneously dismantling the mansion that they’re both trapped within. Revived and possessed by the Hell Mask, a sacrificial Mayan artifact capable of speaking to Rick, while concurrently augmenting his strength and size, the man and mask duo embark on a rampage, tenaciously slaughtering everything in their path.
In the gameplay department, Splatterhouse is pure, unadulterated bliss. Easy to understand, easy to love. One button is dedicated to jumping, whereas the other is assigned to the purpose of Rick doling out kicks and punches. While standing, Rick will punch, whereas while he’s bent down or in the air, he’ll throw out a kick. Rick is also capable of performing a sliding drop kick, a special move that can really come in handy in difficult spots. Various weapons can be picked up throughout the levels by simply facing or crouching over them and are really fun to experiment with. My absolute favourite is a good old two-by-four, as when Rick thwacks an enemy with one, they will quite literally splatter against a nearby wall before sliding down into a puddle of sap. I’m not even a fan of horror films, but this maneuver is still undeniably satisfying to pull off.
The game’s stages consist of leading Rick through various divisions of West Mansion as he searches for Jennifer. Different sections of levels can be explored by falling down holes or climbing up ladders, adding depth to the stages and making them less linear, an impressive feature for a game belonging to the beat ‘em up genre. Each level peaks with a boss battle, those of which stem from an unconventional bevy of enemies such as a double chainsaw wielding bedlamite named Biggy Man, an inverted cross surrounded by demon heads, and an actual room possessed by a poltergeist.
For an 8-bit release, Splatterhouse is stunning. There exists an attention to detail within the game that’s seldom seen in other titles of the time. Compared to 1989’s Friday the 13th for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Splatterhouse was leaps and bounds ahead of anything that had come before it. Everything from the definition of Rick’s savage amount of muscle mass to the environments that he’s hell-bent on destroying all look terrific. Some of the monsters locked within West Mansion have a gruesome habit of hawking barf at Rick as he approaches them, and even that looks thoroughly detailed. Considering the year it was released, Namco did a sublime job at making Splatterhouse the most authentic nightmare experience possible.
Difficulty wise, Splatterhouse will test your wits and your patience… at first. Typical of the arcade category, there exists plenty of trial and error to be had while ushering Rick through West Mansion, but once you get the hang of things, the game can be completed in a relatively short time, quotidian for beat ‘em ups in the 90’s. As I mentioned earlier, several of the game’s levels contain branching paths for Rick to explore, only adding to the replay value of this awesome title.
Splatterhouse comes packaged with one of my absolute favourite 8-bit soundtracks of all time, as the songs included in the game’s stages and boss battles have a habit of complementing what’s happening on the screen flawlessly. Ranging anywhere from creepy to downright harrowing, this album of numbers seems to know every uncomfortable situation you’ve ever been in and turns them into music. The tracks accompanying the game’s fourth stage are a perfect example of this, and what makes them even better is that they change on the fly, pushing you ever closer to the edge of your seat. Katsuro Tajima is, without a single doubt, one of the unsung heroes of video game soundtracks, as his work in 2001’s Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil contains some of the greatest music that I’ve ever heard in a game, full stop. Eleven years later and he was still cranking out killer work. His partner in the Splatterhouse soundtrack department, Yoshinori Kawamoto, contributed sounds to another stately home in Splatterhouse 3, along with lending his talents to Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Klonoa Beach Volleyball, and Klonoa Heroes: Densetsu no Star Medal. Who knew Rick and Klonoa had so many tuneful pals in common?
Overall, Splatterhouse is an all too often unacknowledged masterpiece from an era that didn’t know it needed one. While just about every other company was playing it cute and cuddly with their mascots, Namco decided to unleash the improbable duo of Rick and the Hell Mask on the medium of video games, serving to unshackle a degree of violence on the industry that simply hadn’t been experienced yet. Again, I am no horror enthusiast, but even I can’t deny that what Splatterhouse contributed to the culture of video games was nothing short of a breath of fresh, yet bone-chilling air. Really outstanding in every possible way, if you consider yourself a fan of beat ‘em ups, or just video games in general, give Splatterhouse a spin. You won’t regret it.