Haunting: Starring Polterguy

“Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! …uhh Genesis!” And upon the utterance of these fateful words, deep in Electronic Arts’ software development labs, the afterlife belched forth this game. Almost a twisted version of The Sims, and one of the more original games made in the 16-bit era, Haunting casts you as a dead rocker’s ghost, and tasks you with scaring all four members of a family out of four different posh houses. You do this by possessing objects in the house, and watching the comically frightening results.

Traps are color coded and require a tiny (very tiny) bit of planning.

The plot of Haunting is never really explained in the game, except to say that you, as dead surfer-speaking Polterguy got “dissed” by the evil and wealthy Sardinis. You’ve made some deal in the afterlife to be able to return to the earth and exact your revenge. The game has you gliding Polterguy’s specter – invisible to the family members, of course – around four different isometric houses. In every room there are multiple objects that can be possessed, marked by a color-coded sparkle. If it’s blue, jumping into to object will set it like a trap. A nearby Sardini will get lured to it and automatically spooked. Yellow colors mean the trap is immediately fired off, and relies on you to make sure a Sardini is looking. Green colors mean you get to manually drive the object (like a chainsaw or a severed hand) for a brief amount of time.

Traps are prepped by diving into them with the A button. They only work when a Sardini is the room, and nearly every trap has a creative custom animation. A china cabinet fills with blood and the outline of a body. A golfer on TV knocks a ball through the screen. A monster tears off an air vent and swipes at the terrified person below. It’s usually goofy fun, but the animations also aren’t afraid to get bloody. Traps are reset when you leave the room and come back, and while a few are repeated, most of the fun here comes from seeing what bizarre effect you’ll get from each innocuous household item.

Every time you spring a trap, that particular family member’s fear level will rise, and will be indicated by their actions (jumping out of their pants, cowering in fear, etc) and by a text report rating fear at calm to very high. Once that level is at very high they will leave and enter another room to compose themselves. They will calm themselves back down if you let them, but chase after them and spring more traps, and they’ll keep running to new rooms. You can use the map to steer them towards a room with an exit door. Scare them enough in here, and they’ll flee the house completely – exactly where you want them. Spook all four family members out of the house, and you move on to the next level.

Collect ecto in the dungeon, but whatever you do, don’t get hit.

Of course the game has to put some limit on your escapade, which comes in the form of ectoplasm. A green bar runs along the bottom of the screen and rates your ectoplasm reserves. This bar is constantly depleting as ecto both powers your traps, and is what allows you to keep form in the world of the living. The only way you can get more ecto is to scare someone out of a room. The amount you earn can keep you going a little further, but you’re always getting diminishing returns.

This means that inevitably, you’re going to run out of ectoplasm. When you do, you’re dumped into a dungeon in the realm of the dead, and must run a short maze collecting drops of ectoplasm. While you’re free from harm while haunting, you can and will take damage in the dungeon – which cannot be healed and adds up over the course of the entire game. So while the dungeon allows you to keep going above ground, every time you end up in it, you run the risk of losing all your health, and thus the game.

As the game progresses, you’ll get new houses with new layouts and new traps to go with. The Sardinis become slightly more resistant to scares (they’re becoming pros at this sort of thing) but not enough to change the basic game loop. Instead, difficulty comes from the additions of rival ghosts and a dog. The rival spirits appear when there’s ecto to be gotten, and can be fended off with a kick on the B button (its only use). By eating your ecto supplies, they force more dungeon trips upon you. The dog roams the house and random and can always spot you. His barking calms a Sardini in the room, and he’ll sap some of your ecto reserves. He cannot be scared or defeated. The most you can do is distract him with some rare spells.

This sexy bathroom lady goes bad, in a nice nod to The Shining.

These spells are collected in the dungeon levels and deployed with a menu on the C button. Dog-off leaves a bowl of food that will keep that pesky pooch occupied. The fireball spell lets you fire at the Sardinis to scare them, while the gift spell drops a manually-placed trap. Extra ecto gives a one-shot refill of your ecto stores. Finally, Zombi-ize lets you briefly take control of a Sardini. You can use this to manually steer them toward an exit room, or to absolutely scare the bejeezus out of another family member (as you would expect).

Visuals are sharp, as are the designs for the characters. You know nothing about the Sardinis, except that you want them gone, so it helps that their portraits capitalize off typical stereotypes – the husband looks like a pompous ass and the kids look like complete brats. I wouldn’t want these people in my house either. The houses look great for the Genesis, making use of an extensive color range and a lot of smart decorating and design. No two rooms look the same, and no furniture is too small or undetailed to figure out.

The game can get difficult, however, and this is entirely the fault of the dungeons. You’ll end up there at least once during each level, and you are forced to go in-between houses. You almost unavoidably will take damage while there, as the controls have you slipping and sliding around like a ghost supposedly would. Unfortunately, this means sliding into walls with claws coming out, or into pits opening in the ground. The floaty controls cause trouble in the houses as well, but not as much, as your life doesn’t depend on them there. You also must play all four houses in one sitting, making the damage that accumulates in the dungeons all the more troublesome.

Possess a toilet and a poo-flinging demon pops out. Game of the Year.

It can also be unnecessarily complicated to herd the Sardinis out the door. Blue objects will lure them closer before springing, which is helpful, and the family will flee from the objects you can actively control and fly around (like the aforementioned chainsaw). Still, it is possible to get one of them stuck cowering in a corner, exhausting the room’s traps and denying you your ectoplasm, or to have to chase them back and forth around the house before they’re expelled. A said, frightening them enough simply makes them leave the room, and does not guarantee that they will head for the exit.

The final boss is also a real ball breaker, asking you to fight crawling brains that duplicate when hit. Hit them enough times and they eventually die, but you’ll have to do it by lobbing a red ball that has a fixed and awkward throw distance. Run out of ecto, and you’re sent to the hardest version of the dungeon while the brains apparently reset. It’s a good time to mention there’s no passwords here (but there’s only four houses, so no surprise).

Haunting is a very clever game, and certainly deserves praise for trying something new. Yet it is admittedly gimmicky, and once you’re over the laughter at seeing what furniture can do in you in your innocent little hands, you’re left with a game that doesn’t have much substance to it. Endless trips to the dungeon for more ectoplasm is a forgiving system, but certainly not all that enjoyable. Still, it’s a unique concept that hasn’t really been remade, so worth checking out on that merit alone if you’re interested.


The Good

Great look, traps are both clever and actually rewarding.


The Bad

Slippery “ghostlike” controls make required dungeons annoying, not much to the game once you’ve seen what possession does.


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