There’s a sort of beautiful simplicity to Atari 2600 titles that tends to get overlooked until you actually go back and play a few. Despite being old enough that they wouldn’t even cut it as minigames in a larger title, much of the old Atari catalog includes great design examples of focusing on one single concept and executing it to perfection. The system gets a lot of flak for having too many laser blaster games, but between Atari and Activision, there was actually a diverse variety of fun experiences for the Atari – and a strong foundation for game design to come.
Haunted House demonstrates this concept of making a solid game out of a simple idea. You play as a treasure hunter infiltrating the haunted mansion of the late Mr. Graves. In order to escape, you must locate three pieces of a broken urn before leaving through the front door. The pieces are scattered around four floors and 24 rooms, and guarded by aggressive spiders, bats, and ghosts. Each time you come in contact with one of the nasties, you’re “scared to death” and lose one of your nine lives (natch).
What makes Haunted House unique (and thematically appropriate) is its system of darkness and exploration. Modes 2-9 (the first mode keeps the walls visible and acts as something of a tutorial) shut off all lights in the mansion and present you with a pitch-black screen and a pair of eyes denoting your character. Press the “fire” button and you’ll light a match, revealing the shadowed outlines of the walls, doors, and objects in an extremely limited area around your character. You’ll have to fumble through the darkness to navigate the rooms (with helpful sound cues letting you know when you’ve bumped into a wall or door). Higher game modes ramp up the difficulty by adding locked doors and creatures that can chase you from room to room.
Haunted House owes a lot to Adventure, but ultimately comes off a bit more as a puzzle game. Like Adventure, you can only carry one item at a time. The urn shards are the first possible object, which helpfully assemble each time you pick up the unfinished urn with another piece in hand. However, you can trade your broken urn for a scepter that will make you invincible to the monsters (except the ghost at higher levels), or a master key to unlock any secured door in the house. This creates situations where you have to drop the urn for the key to pass through to a new section, or grab the scepter to safely scout a path to all the pieces. You’ll then have to remember where you left the urn, and if doors are locked along the way, find a new path back to it. All the while, you’re doing this in near-total darkness with supernatural ghouls on the hunt.
Haunted House is surprisingly effective at creating the kind of tension and scares that later survival horror games would become famous for. You’re already lost, confused, and can’t see that well. You won’t know what lies in the next room, since you can’t see through walls. Open a door with a monster in it, and your match is instantly snuffed out while chase music kicks in. Now you’ve got to quickly stumble back through complete darkness, hoping to find a door before the creature makes it across the room. If you succeed, maybe you’re safe, or maybe the spook will just come right through the door after you! Higher difficulties also seem to increase the likelihood of opening a door right onto a waiting monster, with all the shocks that provides, or maybe my luck just decreased proportionally.
Difficulty is highly adjustable, as is typical for 2600 games. Each of the 9 game types gets progressively harder, adding more monsters and giving them new behaviors. Higher games have the bats stealing whatever you’re carrying, locked doors no longer keep out baddies, and the ghost is no longer affected by the scepter. Game 9 further ups the challenge by randomizing the layout of stairs and locked doors with every game. The 1st player difficulty switch also adds lightning crashes at the “novice” difficulty, letting players get glimpses of the walls as they run from monsters. Without them, it’s just you and the darkness. There is no points system, but the game does track how many matches you light, allowing a method of challenging your friends to see who can win using the fewest, or with the most lives remaining.
Graphics are simplistic, obviously, but easy to follow. There’s never a question of which monster is which, or what item you’ve picked up. Colors helpfully change to show when you’ve moved to a new floor of the mansion, and the outlines of walls are easily seen in the glow of the match once you get close enough. Credit is also due to the seamless scrolling gameplay, which was still quite new for the time. Sound effects are pretty ace as well. The sound of your “footsteps” can get a little annoying after a while, but crashing lightning, locked doors, and the bumping sound when you hit a wall are all clear and helpful. You’ll even be able to tell whether you’ve gone up or down stairs by their unique transition tones. Even the gimmick of only being able to see your character’s eyes remains pretty cute throughout the game, and I love how the pupils move around in relation to which direction you move the stick.
Like all games from this era, realistically, it’s not going to have a lot of staying power. The map consists of 6 equal, rectangular rooms on every floor, and their overall shape and layout will never change. This makes it much easier to navigate in the dark, and only randomized stairs or doors can offer any challenge. The basic score challenge will lose its luster quickly, and once you’ve assembled the urn and escaped, there’s nothing else to do but try to do it again a little differently. A multiplayer mode, where the second joystick controls the ghosts might have added something, and of course, more varied maps would have helped, but this is about the best you’re going to do for the VCS. And the pitch-black scenario is a nice way to turn limited graphic capabilities into a gameplay asset.
I certainly don’t expect to actually encourage a modern gamer to go back and play this one, and even trying to convince someone that such an antiquated game really can be just as tense and scary as modern games is an uphill battle. Still, I believe the 2600 title does justice to the name and the concept, it was a great example of variety in early gaming, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to transport yourself into this spooky situation where you’re frantically searching through darkness for the exit, and cursing when the door ahead is locked while an angry ghost is hot on your heels.
Isn’t that what horror gaming is all about?
You can get a lot of tension out of a little pair of eyes and some pixelated monsters. Basic gameplay that does one scenario very well. Wide variety of difficulty modes.
No one’s going to be sinking 70 hours into Haunted House. Get the urn, challenge your friends to do it faster, that’s about it.