1996 was an unbelievable year for videogames, as if the stars had aligned and an extra-sparkly sort of creativity was in infinite supply no matter what system you had sitting underneath the TV. This magical twelve month period saw NiGHTS into Dreams, Guardian Heroes, Front Mission: Gun Hazard, Bahamut Lagoon, Virtua Cop 2, Tomb Raider, and many others I can’t (yet) tenuously link you to burst into homes around the world and bring oodles of joy to the hearts of game-playing individuals everywhere. This time of boundless wonder also saw two similar-but-different titles independently settle on what would prove to be a winning formula, games that asked their players to survive an elaborate mansion sitting on top of an improbable laboratory housing a final boss that would swiftly kill the know-it-all scientist who foolishly released them (well, as far as we knew at the time…) featuring English voice acting that I will politely describe as “memorable”: Yep, it’s true – Resident Evil‘s Spencer mansion opened its creaky wooden doors the exact same year as The House of the Dead‘s Curian residence and gaming’s had a nigh-insatiable love for zombies ever since.
The Saturn version shown here released two years later and unlike many other Saturn ports of Sega’s arcade library available to buy in 1998 Tantalus‘ work on this one lacks the obvious wow factor of Virtua Fighter 2‘s crisp polygons or Sega Rally’s silky smoothness, and the presence of “home-exclusive features” such as bouts of mid-stage loading and painfully low resolution textures (even by 32-bit standards) may bring its overall quality into question. The fact remains that for all these flaws it still plays almost exactly like the arcade original and it is still the best home version available at the time of writing (MAME excluded, naturally) even though I’m typing this out over twenty years later – the Saturn’s difficulties with this title have far more to do with trying to get an ambitious Model 2 game running on hardware that was already known to struggle with less technically demanding 3D games ported by their original in-house arcade teams than anything else.
Besides, The House of the Dead had bigger things to worry about: After AM2’s Virtua Cop turned up and redefined light gun games as a whole and then followed that up with a nigh-perfect sequel how the heck were AM1 going to capture the attention and aching trigger fingers of Rage and Smarty fans? And what could swapping out balaclava’d baddies for groaning ghouls possibly add to the genre anyway?
Most obviously the spooky setting gave AM1 the perfect excuse to get autopsy-deep in B-movie style body horror: The House of the Dead will happily show off exposed bones, eyeballs flying out of destroyed skulls, or holes in chests so cavernous you can see straight through them to the next murderous cadaver. It’s all a bit grim but no matter what colour blood your version has (mine’s Japanese, hence the bright green splatter in my screenshots) the game always falls firmly on the Halloween-y side of gruesome fun no matter how unpleasant the situation may sound on paper. The great thing is once you’ve got over the icky pleasures that come from seeing this incredible technical achievement in action – having enemy parts swapped out in real time for a variety of alternative damaged sections based on where they were struck was nothing to be sniffed at in 1996 and wasn’t exactly a common feature at home two years later either – you can begin to use it to your own advantage, taking out specific limbs before they get to plunge the axe they were holding into your head or hurl a giant iron ball in your direction. What’s more every single monster’s AI will instantly and individually adjust to their personal situation (and do remember they very, very, rarely attack alone) – if you shoot off one arm then they’ll try to attack you with the other one, and if you shoot that off too they’ll channel their inner black knight and simply see it as a good time to charge in with a headbutt.
And so you end up with a game where regular enemies are rarely stopped with a single bullet and towering bosses can often only be pushed back by precise shots at the perfect moment – it’s not frightening in the way Twilight Syndrome or any number of other great horror games are (especially as when you’re playing this one you get to wave around a plastic gun backed up by infinite supply of ammunition) but there’s no doubt The House of the Dead does a great job of conveying the relentless nature of an in-your-face zombie horde and all the damaging bites, scratches, and blows that go with it.
As the game’s so keen on having you shoot (even more) holes through everything you can see The House of the Dead realises it’d be something of a contradiction to its own design to have a shot accuracy counter silently chastising you for playing as intended so that’s been thrown out – and it feels like it almost took scores with it. Outside of the end of chapter result screen and the obligatory high score table you’ll never see your score – not even when picking up the hidden golden frogs and spinning coins the Japanese manual only mentions in passing – and it’s hard not to see this apparent simplification as a huge step down from Virtua Cop’s emphasis on multipliers and speed-based bonuses. The important thing to remember is for all their superficial similarities The House of the Dead isn’t trying to be a straightforward Virtua Cop clone with a grisly veneer but the most cinematic light gun game of its day, a game that’s constantly keeping the action coming from all angles while bosses give dramatic moonlit speeches and scientists cry for help. Agile enemies can swing from chandeliers above your head or spray shattered glass everywhere as they suddenly burst through windows close by while end-of-stage monstrosities may shed their armour to reveal wriggling tentacles attached to soft flesh or kick you off a rooftop before continuing their assault – whatever happens you’re always in the thick of it, a constant stream of mini-setpieces whirling all around you.
And the outcome of these setpieces – always determined your own skill and reactions – will dictate where you end up in this labyrinth of a game, the mansion’s numerous branching paths sometimes guiding you towards completely new areas before bringing you back to a familiar room or making you tackle a recognisable area from an unusual angle with a slightly remixed enemy encounter. The enormous range of possibilities available to you make this interconnected and unrelenting web of horror feel so believably interactive when you do find yourself walking straight past a closed door you can’t help but wonder what might lie beyond even if you know in your heart it’s never going to open. To keep anyone from getting frustrated with this barrage of mostly unmarked decisions when you die you’re shown your leading man walking back over the route he took through the house (of the dead), all the alternatives you missed or perhaps consciously decided to avoid along the way clearly labelled. Having everything immediately out in the open might seem like a shame, as if the map’s gone and spoiled the surprise of getting knocked down onto a lower path or stolen the pride you were going to feel after you’d finally worked out how to make your way straight through the mansion’s entrance hall, but in practise you only itch for another go and another chance to see what you might be able to do differently next time, imagining what it’s like to wade through the sewers or wondering if you’d have less trouble going through the duct room – whatever that’s like – rather than the factory in the third area. Cleverly most of these choice are found near the beginning – the part most people will get to play – and slowly whittle down over the course of the game until you’re left with nothing more than a short straight line standing between yourself and the final boss. It’s a decision that makes perfect sense: Everyone regardless of their skill level can have a good time stumbling through the mansion, while those with the skill (or the credits) to survive further can see the game build towards a decisive climax. When the final boss is within arm’s reach a tangle of possibilities isn’t a feature, it’s a chore.
In many ways The House of the Dead’s not that deep – it’s a game more concerned with survival and spectacle rather than score so those looking for a new long-term points challenge after exhausting Virtua Cop’s more methodical offerings might be best served by (whisper it) Time Crisis‘ colour-coordinated enemy forces and pedal-based reloading. Having said that what are arcade games supposed to be if not crowd-pleasing showboaters? The House of the Dead is immediately and obviously exciting regardless of your skill level or the time you choose to invest in it, and the physical closeness of most of Curien’s violently hungry experiments makes the game play very differently to the precision marksmanship of its closest rivals. It may be deservedly outshone by its more widely-played sequel but there’s no doubt this first attempt successfully captured the most entertaining aspects of arcade zombie shooting and set the framework for all that would follow – and are still following – in its bloody footsteps.