Looks like I really urned this victory, eh? Wocka wocka wocka!
Happy Halloween, everyone! I started out this month with a horror gaming binge, so it’s only fitting I end it the same way. I’m going all the way back to the oldest horror game in my collection with this one: The venerable Haunted House for the Atari 2600. Designed by James Andreasen and published by Atari themselves in the tail end of 1981, Haunted House is considered one of the first entries in the so-called “survival horror” genre, although that term wouldn’t be coined until 1996, when it showed up in marketing material for Capcom’s Resident Evil. It’s definitely not the first horror-themed video game, though. The original home gaming console, Magnavox’s Odyssey, had a simple hide-and-seek type game for two players all the way back in 1972, also titled Haunted House. There was also Atari’s Shark Jaws arcade game from 1975. Atari hadn’t acquired the proper legal rights to adapt the Spielberg film, but it still did it best to play up the association by making the “Shark” in the logo as small as possible next to the eye-catching “Jaws.” Despite all this, it wouldn’t be at all unfair to say that Atari’s Haunted House was the earliest horror video game to actually reach a mass audience.
In Haunted House, you control an unnamed protagonist the manual refers to simply as “you.” This was a basic, but effective way of building immersion at a time when depicting detailed human characters in games was still a considerable technical challenge. The setting is the sleepy town of Spirit Bay and your goal is to explore the dilapidated mansion of deceased recluse Zachary Graves and collect three pieces of a “magic urn” hidden within before escaping through the front door. Complicating your efforts, the mansion is pitch black and filled with vicious bats and tarantulas, not to mention the ghost of Old Man Graves himself.
The gameplay is a simple variation on Warren Robinett’s groundbreaking Adventure from the previous year. Your character, represented only by a pair of disembodied eyes, navigates the mansion’s four floors and 24 distinct rooms from an overhead perspective, avoiding monsters (contact with any of them will cost you one of your nine lives) and picking up items needed to progress. In the interest of replay value, the items themselves are distributed randomly throughout the house at the start of each new game. In addition to the three pieces of the urn, there’s also a master key for opening locked doors and a magic scepter that will make you immune to enemy attacks, though the ghost can still harm you on the higher difficulties, scepter or no. As in Adventure, you can only carry one item at a time, so knowing when to swap them out is an important part of the strategy. One common technique is to locate the scepter first and then use it to scout out the locations of the other items in relative safety before dropping it and snatching up the urn pieces in one quick go on your way to the front door.
What differentiates Haunted House from Adventure is the former’s darkness mechanic. Items are invisible, as are the very walls and doors of the mansion itself when playing on all but the lowest difficulty level. If you want to see what you’re doing, you’ll need to light a match using the action button. This will illuminate a small area around your character and allow you to see items and bits of the mansion layout therein. You can do this any number of times, but the appearance of any monster brings with it a blast of icy wind which will instantly extinguish your match and force you to flee in the dark or lose a life. You also have the option of toggling lightning on or off via the console’s left difficulty switch. If enabled, these periodic lightning flashes will provide brief glimpses of your surroundings.
That’s about all there is to it. Haunted House is a very simple game by modern standards, and even by the standards of the later 1980s. There are nine total difficulty levels, with each one increasing the speed and tenacity of the monsters, the number of locked doors, and a few other variables, but it all still comes down to grabbing the three urn pieces and returning to the front door where you started out before you run out of lives.
It’s not exactly a graphical powerhouse, especially when you consider that 80% of the screen is completely black most of the time and music is limited to a single short victory fanfare patterned on the classic Twilight Zone opening theme that plays whenever you manage to escape the mansion in one piece. There are some nice touches which bear mentioning, though. I love how the pupils of your character’s eyes follow your directional inputs and how they gyrate wildly whenever you lose a life. The use of sound effects is also excellent by the system’s standards. Your character’s footsteps and the sound of rushing wind add to the atmosphere and the dull thud you hear whenever you run into a wall can actually help you get around obstacles when you’re running blind from a monster that’s extinguished your light.
Whatever Haunted House lacks in depth and audiovisual pizzazz it makes up for with a surprisingly solid horror gaming experience. There are a number of key elements in play here that would go on to be mainstays in survival horror titles all the way up to the present: Fumbling your way through dark areas, a focus on evading rather than confronting threats, managing a very limited inventory, and conserving a vital resource (your lives, in this case). On higher difficulties in particular, the Graves mansion becomes an ever-shifting maze of locked doors and extremely aggressive monsters. When you’ve already found two out of three urn pieces and are frantically rushing down its lightless halls in search of the final one with an angry ghost on your tail, this crude 36 year-old Atari game can still be legitimately nerve-wracking. If you’re looking for a quick burst of spooky fun on a chill autumn night but don’t want to commit to another multi-hour journey through Raccoon City or Silent Hill, grab your trusty matchbook and make tracks for Spirit Bay.