Welcome to the first day of On the Stick’s 31 Day History of Horror Games! Today, we’re covering what is arguably the first horror game, Haunted House. Released by Atari for the 2600 in 1982, before the great North American game crash, Haunted House puts you in the shoes of, I’m guessing Bugs Bunny, since all you see is a pair of eyes in a totally dark house. Your goal is to guide Bugs around a mansion to find all of the pieces of an urn that, much like in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, will allow the spirit that haunts the house to cross over to the other side.
The game is very basic by today’s standards, but is surprisingly effective. On any difficulty but the easiest, the game takes place on an entirely black screen. The Atari 2600 was, as we all know, only capable of the most rudimentary graphics. The most effective way to create tension was to let the audience’s mind create it. This starts to fall apart, however, when the enemies show up. Bats, spiders and the ghost that haunts the mansion are the threats to Bugs Bunny. The ghost looks like the most unimaginative, standard “sheet with two eye holes cut out” style ghost you could imagine. The spiders and bats are only slightly less laughable, but they’re somewhat effective, if only for their unexpectedness. As we’ll learn, a lot of games rely on jump scares, and this is a tradition that starts with Haunted House. The rooms of the mansion have doors, so you don’t see what’s in the next room until you enter it. If there’s a bat or a spider in it, you won’t see it coming, and when you do, you’ll jump off the couch. Again, it’s effective, but it’s essentially a jack-in-the-box. It works to build tension when they’re not on screen, but when they are, it’s laughable.
Our hero, Bugs Bunny, in the 1955 cartoon “Hyde & Hare”
Limited inventory is another issue, one that we’ll find pervades the genre. Unfortunately, in Haunted House, the limitation is one item. There’s a scepter that prevents you from being hurt by enemies, but if you have it, you have to put down whatever pieces of the urn you have. On the higher difficulty levels, some of the doors are locked. To open them (again, as we’ll run into a lot in the next thirty days), you need a key. The key takes up your inventory slot. It essentially acts as a way to artificially lengthen the experience, since once you have the urn, all you need to do is get out of the house. Making you run back and forth for various items and forcing you to put down your magic MacGuffin makes the game take more than five minutes to finish.
Limited resources also crop up in the form of matches. See, Bugs brought a box of matches with him into the mansion, and since the mansion is dark, you need the matches to see any items (and pick them up) and, on higher difficulty levels, the walls and stairs. The instruction manual tells us that the amount of remaining matches is our score. So, not only are resources limited, you’re encouraged to use as few of them as possible.
Basically, what it boils down to is that Haunted House, whether they cite it or not, influenced nearly every game we’ll see as we move along in our history. Limited resources seen in Resident Evil. Limited light seen in Silent Hill 2 and Alan Wake. Jump scares seen in Splatterhouse. This is our genesis, but, sadly, it’s not a whole lot of fun today. You can run through it and see all it has to offer in about fifteen minutes. Still, its influence on the genre cannot be denied.
- Released: 1982
- System: Atari 2600
- Publisher: Atari