Origins of Greatness: Proto Survival Horror ‘Haunted House’ at 40

By: Mike Wilson ……

haunted house survival horror

Most people think of Resident Evil when you mention the words “Survival Horror”, and rightfully so. Of course, you get old-school gamers who will also mention Capcom’s Sweet Home or Infrogrames’ Alone in the Dark. But before all of that, Atari had its own makings of the genre in 1982’s Haunted House. Being released for the Atari 2600, some today will shrug the game off due to its primitive nature when compared to other shinier, more modern games. But even at 40 years, the game is not only historically significant for sowing the seeds of Survival Horror, but an example of how the scariest things will often be conjured by your own mind.

Designed by James Andreasen, Haunted House was typical of games at the time, relying on the story in the manual to establish the setting. In the town of Spirit Bay, the curmudgeonly Zachary Graves lived a secluded life until his death, resulting in his mansion being boarded up and condemned. However, legend has it that Graves had a magic urn that was also a family heirloom of the first family of Spirit Bay. The pieces of the urn still remain in the mansion, though no one is brave enough to venture in to find them, as they say Graves’ ghost haunts the mansion. That’s where you come in: you decide to break into the mansion and find the pieces of the urn.

Gameplay consists of you having to navigate the mansion’s 24 rooms and four floors, armed only with a book of matches. The game borrows mechanics from another Atari game, Adventure, which was released in 1981. This time, the main mechanic is the darkness. You’re represented by a pair of disembodied eyes, stumbling around blind until you light a match, which illuminates items, doors, and stairways around you. You’ve got unlimited matches, but using more of them will result in a bad score (think golf, only you don’t go into the negative). Seeing as this was from the time you played to earn the best score, you can liken it to refraining from frequent uses of the typewriter to save in Resident Evil, as in doing so depletes your ink ribbons, but also would give you a bad grade at the end of the game.

Oh, and the matches also have the habit of going out in the presence of any enemies (due to the wind blowing them out), causing you to have to flee in the dark. Again, not unlike being forced to run/avoid enemies due to the scarcity of ammo in modern Survival Horror games. You can’t directly attack monsters in Haunted House, but you can obtain a scepter that grants you invisibility to them. However, Haunted House has what can be called a predecessor to Survival Horror inventory management, where you can only carry one item at a time. This means you’ll have to scout the area out with the scepter, drop it, then rush to pick up the urn piece or master key. Luckily, each urn piece you pick up will fit it into the other piece you’re already carrying.

Apart from the musical stings when you ascend/descend the stairs (or the “not really the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme” when you finish the game), there’s no music. You only have the sound of your footsteps to accompany you on your quest, with the occasional rushing wind. One could liken it to the footsteps you hear while tramping around the Spencer Mansion, and really ups the tension/scares, since the monsters will appear without warning.

Haunted House features nine different game variations, which are essentially the difficulty options. Lower types make things a bit easier for you, such as finding the master key in the first room, or having occasional lightning flashes to illuminate the floor. Higher difficulties increase the monster count, as well as having them follow you from floor to floor. The highest difficulties even punish you for losing a life if you’re holding an item, as it’ll be placed in a random room for you to find again. The game ends when you return to the main entrance of the mansion carrying the completed urn, or when all of your nine lives are lost. Again, this having to conserve your lives to better your score is akin to that ammo/item conservation we have now.

Admittedly, Haunted House today isn’t particularly deep or allows for greater replay value other than getting a better score on higher difficulty levels. However, you can see where many of the early Survival Horror mechanics came from that were adopted and fleshed out by the likes of Sweet HomeAlone in the Dark and of course, Resident Evil. It’s also still surprisingly tense to play today, particularly on the higher difficulties. It might not be as addictive or intuitive as newer titles, but historically, you can’t deny that one of the seeds of Survival Horror started here.

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