You know 2023 wages haven’t kept up when, in 1996, even the dead could own their own house.
1992 saw the release of Sega’s “Virtua” series, along with the Model 1 hardware powering it. Across Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter, and Virtua Cop, we were seeing some of the first examples of polygon graphics out and playable to the masses. I remember Virtua Fighter sitting right by Mortal Kombat II, and surprisingly, holding its own. While it couldn’t match refined 2D graphics, 3D polygons and free movement within the stages clearly had advantages the 2D fighters didn’t.
Around this same time, zombies were crawling back into the mainstream. I gave some theories when I talked about Last Rites, but in general, I blame VHS tapes bringing popularity and accessibility back to some of the gnarliest exploitation films of the 70s. One of Sega’s internal arcade divisions, AMD 1, correctly decided that zombies would be great fun to shoot. Releasing in 1996, they had a great antagonist for a game running on their next generation of arcade boards.
Thus, The House of the Dead was built. The arcade original is a two-player light gun game where you and a partner could blast through four levels of an overrun mansion, or at least get as far as your quarters would allow. It was considered a major hit, with nearly 10,000 cabinets sold, so 1998 saw home versions making their way to Sega’s Saturn, as well as a PC port for the burgeoning home 3D card market. For the low, low price of around 500 quarters, you could pop zombies at home to your heart’s content.
You play as James, an agent for an unexplained government agency. Your partner in 2-player is another agent named, simply, “G.” James’ girlfriend, Sophie, gives him a panicked call. You rush over to her workplace – a mansion run by geneticist Dr. Curien – to find it overrun with brain-chomping undead. It sounds a lot like Resident Evil, but the timing makes in unlikely that anyone cribbed from anyone else’s notes. Again, I think it was all just the resurgence of zombie media and mainstream interest. As mentioned, shooting zombos holds a unique appeal.
That appeal, of course, is graphic humanoid violence on creatures that, conveniently, are no longer human. House of the Dead goes all-out on disassembling the undead. Heads can be shot off, partially or fully. A comical eyeball almost always flies around when this happens. Limbs can be destroyed as well, helpfully disarming (ha!) any zombies armed with axes, flamethrowers, or chainsaws. Textures show damage to chests and heads when shot, all the way up to blowing transparent holes through their center. This isn’t guaranteed to stop them, of course. Even armless, headless zombies can still walk up and chest-bump you for damage.
While the dismemberment may be House’s marquee technical feature, its main gameplay feature would have to be its branching pathways. Virtua Cop 2 first let you pick a path in the middle of a level, but House of the Dead features multiple opportunities across its lengthy stages. Some are telegraphed, like a switch you can shoot to point up or down. Some are more devious, such as having you go left or right depending on which of a pair of monsters you kill first. It’s not quite on the same level as, say, Mortal Kombat II’s secrets; instead acting more as unexpected variety on a second or third playthrough. But it still encourages you to play multiple times to see everything. An ending screen on death shows, retroactively, exactly which path you took.
The genre’s ubiquitous innocent bystanders appear as flailing scientists. Usually, you have seconds to rescue them by shooting their attackers. Succeed, and you might be awarded an extra life. Shooting them, as is standard, takes a life from you. One criticism is that the branching pathways sometimes include these hapless dorks. If you want to see certain branches, it means you’ve gotta murder some innocents and take that life penalty. It runs counter to how you’re “supposed” to play.
My bigger complaint is simply that your gun never changes. Both players get a standard-issue six-shot pistol – but that’s it for the entire length of the game. Shotgun, rifle, or Magnum powerups feel like a staple of the genre, but they’re not hidden in those breakable boxes or pottery. There’s nothing you can do to increase your firepower. Hidden health kits are extremely rare, but the only other pickups you can find are medals(? coins?) and golden frogs, both of which just add points to your final score. I suppose it gives leaderboard chasing as another reason for a playthrough, but using the same gun for the whole game is a little boring.
As said, House of the Dead would be ported to Sega’s Saturn console and to the PC. Saturn fares the worst, with compressed textures and an inability to show transparencies. You’ll see dithering on glass and the edges of blood textures. It does, however, support the Saturn’s light gun. The PC port doesn’t have a supported equivalent. Gun controllers are pretty important to light gun games, so even though we’re talking about the PC port, the Saturn version can’t be completely blown off.
Neither version truly compares to the arcade original. This is arguably one of the last sets of game releases where bespoke arcade hardware was miles above anything that could be reproduced at home. The PC port moves quickly, but doesn’t seem to push as many polygons as the arcade. There are many moments when seams break and joints show the invisible void within these characters. It definitely doesn’t even attempt to recreate the arcade’s moody lighting – some environmental objects get flat shadows, but most of the levels look bright and uniformly lit. Side by side, there’s just no comparison.
Gore takes a hit as well. PC memory seems to have been an understandable concern, so fewer textures get tossed around. Sections where a zombie gets shot just kind of turn a featureless red. Holes shot in chests in the arcade had a level of depth with visible ribs In the PC, a texture with a transparent hole appears, or sometimes, an entire poly just gets removed. It shows the zombies are just a collection of front-facing polygons with no backs.
The lack of a lightgun is another clear disadvantage. You’ve got a mouse, at least, but swinging a cursor around the screen truly isn’t the same as snap-aiming with a lightgun. Reloading instantly with the right mouse button takes some of the challenge away. It also makes most of the bosses more trivial than they probably should be. Each boss has a weak point identified at the start of the fight. You have perfect precision with the cursor, so as long as your reflexes keep up, you’re golden. However, you’re kind of out of luck if you want a decent two-player experience. You can’t plug two mice in . This leaves player two with a gamepad or the keyboard keys – both inarguably the worst way to play a lightgun game. Well, with one notable exception.
The PC port features some extras over the arcade, but not as many as you might think. “PC mode” lets you pick different characters to play as, with slightly different stats. Areas like bullet damage, ammo capacity, and reload speed come closest to letting you play through with a different weapon. There’s also intentional comedy when the new characters replace James in the cutscenes (e.g. Sophie rescues Sophie). But nothing about the levels get changed or remixed. PC Mode is the same, short journey as Arcade, and actually, has exactly the same changes as the exclusive “Saturn mode” on the console.
A Boss Rush mode lets you throw yourself against the game’s four bosses, but that doesn’t feel like much of a rush. You can set difficulty, continues, and starting lives in the Options screen, letting you tweak the game to your preference or challenge yourself on Hard. An auto-reload option takes almost all the challenge out, but should ensure just about anyone can beat this. Finally, the box advertises how you can exclusively pick between five different shades of blood – really showing how we’re scraping the barrel on content here.
House features software rendering support through DirectDraw, or support for 3D cards through Direct3D. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a significant difference between the two. Neither 3DfX emulation through DXWnd, nor an actual Windows XP system with a 3D card, made any improvement to shadows, textures or lighting. Meanwhile, software rendering just featured slightly more compressed textures, but still ran transparencies fine and looked better than the Saturn. I bring it up because software rendering will work on a modern Windows install, but anything with Direct3D isn’t going to play ball without third-party help.
Overall, House of the Dead for the PC falls in line with other home ports of the 16 and 32-bit era. You couldn’t match what was being done in arcades, with booming sound, sharp visuals, and a lightgun in your hand. But no one really expected it to be an identical experience either. It’s easy to trash and point out flaws from a modern perspective, but back then, these issues were seen more as a compromise to being able to play the arcade game at home any time you wanted. From a modern perspective, absolutely, consider MAME. For an early 3D home port, well, this was pretty much the best you were going to do.
Pick apart zombies and explore branching pathways in the convenience of your own home. “PC Mode,” Boss Rush, and individual leaderboards are lame bonuses, but give some additional challenges. 2-player is sort of supported, but someone’s getting the bad controller.
No lightgun support. Definitely downgraded compared to the arcade, but practically no one was going to be seeing both side-by-side back then. About 30 minutes a run, with not much to offer extra variety.