Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead (PC Engine)

I don’t blame these two. Finally getting to shelve this dud would make anyone grin.

Last October saw me raving over Capcom’s mesmerizing Famicom RPG Sweet Home. A year on, I still believe that its forward-thinking blend of oppressive atmosphere and high-pressure mechanics make it the single greatest game for the system to never leave Japan. It’s a masterpiece every bit as effective as the early Resident Evil games it inspired. When I found out recently that there was a newly-released fan translation of another pioneering Japan-exclusive survival horror RPG, one that predates Sweet Home by a full two years, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. That…was a mistake.

You know, as popular as “angry reviewing” is online, it seems to be most difficult thing for me to practice. Spreading the word about a brilliant game like Sweet Home comes naturally. The energy is right there, built-in. Detailing all the ways Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead for the PC Engine is a unmitigated disaster, on the other hand, is almost as draining as actually playing it. I could be cutting my losses. Moving on with my life, you know? In the interest of the public good, however, I’m willing to step up. I deserve a medal, honestly. Somebody get on that.

War of the Dead was developed by Fun Project (sometimes called Fun Factory) for MSX computers and published by Victor Musical Industries in 1987. This PC Engine port from 1989 is infamous for its shoddy coding. A lack of integer overflow checks (a commonsense precaution that most professionally made software wouldn’t ship without) meant that accumulating more than 9999 experience points or 14 inventory items would instantly render the game unwinnable. The publisher was apparently made aware of these bugs before the game hit shelves, but lacked the time or resources to fix them. War of the Dead was instead sold with a bright pink sheet of paper detailing the issues and apologizing. Oof.

Hilariously, this sheet also contained an apology for the game’s fully functional backup system! Take one look at the password entry screen and you’ll understand why. Complaining about lengthy passwords in old console games is a cliché in classic gaming circles and I typically have zero sympathy. It’s just a couple dozen letters and numbers that require a minute or two at most to input at the start of a play session, so quit whining. Not here, though. Oh, no. War of the Dead takes the inconvenience to a whole new level with 54 character password strings drawn from a total of 128 distinct symbols. 128! Expect to spend closer to five minutes navigating the menu and keying all this junk in each time. Once you do finally finish, don’t you dare relax, assuming you’ll be only be doing it just once per session. I’ll come back to this, believe me.

Fortunately, the excellent 2017 English language patch from Nebulous Translations actually fixes the game-breaking experience point and inventory overflow bugs, so I was able to play without those hanging over my head. They couldn’t fix the password system outright, although they did change the 128 characters on the menu from Japanese ones to a set of symbols more recognizable to Westerners, which is still a welcome touch. Credit where it’s due for going to the extra mile to make an irritating game just a little but more tolerable.

The central figure in War of the Dead is Lila, a member of the organization S-S.W.A.T. (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She’s been dispatched to the remote town of Chaney’s Hills after it abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with the outside world and previous teams sent in to investigate failed to report back. Naturally, the entire town has been overrun with hideous monsters except for the church, where a handful of survivors have gathered under the care of the priest, Carpenter. Like almost every other character in the game, his name is a horror film reference. Specifically, to John Carpenter, director of classics like Halloween and The Thing. There’s also a Romero, Cronenberg, and more. Spotting all these little nods was one of the very few bright spots in the game for me, even if they are just glorified name drops. Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a mini-skirt (because video games), Lila’s mission is two-fold: To save as many other survivors as possible and halt the otherworldly invasion of Chaney’s Hills before it can spread to the rest of the world.

Exploration takes place from a Dragon Quest style overhead viewpoint, with a tiny Lila sprite ever so slowly trundling across a sprawling, mostly empty world map. Despite being described as a town, Chaney’s Hills seems to consist entirely of around a dozen structures, each separated the its nearest neighbor by miles upon miles of trackless wilderness. It’s as if the designers took a standard JRPG world map and then decided to describe each individual town on it as a single building inside one giant settlement with no regard for how bizarre and unintuitive the end result reads to players.

Your roaming is frequently interrupted by the random enemy encounters typical of the genre. These take the form of side-scrolling action interludes similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s. Lila gets plopped down in an enemy-filled arena roughly four screens wide. Her options are to stab the baddies to death (preferable for conserving bullets), shoot them, or flee the battle by exiting the arena on either side. Prior to combat, Lila can also use her psychic powers to strengthen her attack and defense for a short time. This is accomplished by selecting the “PS Rem” option from the equipment menu. While this is highly effective for boss encounters, it’s not exactly the flashiest special ability in an RPG. There are no visual or audio indicators that it’s active. Even the original Dragon Quest could be bothered to make the screen flash and play some sound effects when spells were cast. Don’t expect to gain any new, cooler psychic abilities as the game progresses, either. You just get the one.

The combat isn’t too deep or challenging overall, mostly due to the enemy roster having been cut down severely from the computer versions. This PC Engine release only includes around a dozen unique enemy sprites and even the bosses (with the exception of the final two) are simply recolored regular foes with improved stats. You’ll quickly pick up on how each monster moves and attacks, which makes killing or evading their palette-swapped variations child’s play and robs the mid-to-late game of virtually all suspense and challenge. The crowing irony is that one common enemy type cut out entirely was the zombie. That’s right: War of the Dead on PC Engine is missing the dead! How do you even go and do a thing like that? It’s, like, the one thing they needed to include. Well, that and working experience and inventory systems, I suppose.

While the challenge is indeed low for the majority of a given playthrough, it should still be noted that Lila’s attack, defense, and health are all as pathetic as you would expect early on. It’s therefore highly advisable to grind out at least three or four extra levels outside the church first thing, because you really, really don’t want to die in this game. Why? Three little words: No continue feature. Die, and you have no choice but to type in your most recent 54 character novel of a password just to get back into to the game. Every. Single. Time. I actually wish I had a picture of the face I made when I first realized this. I bet it could turn people to stone.

Despite it all, I could still almost recommended War of the Dead if Lila’s journey was one peppered with eerie locales, intriguing puzzles, and unforgettable characters. It’s not, though. It’s really not. Building interiors are as drab and empty as the overworld, characters are one-dimensional, the plot is barely there, and gameplay objectives consist of minimalist fetch quests that require nothing in the way of problem solving. If you’re ever stuck, just go canvass the entire map talking to every NPC you’ve met so far until one of them finally tells you where to go next. The game is very anal about these event triggers, too, so don’t go thinking that you can just go off exploring and discover stuff out of order. That might be enjoyable. No, you need to talk to the right NPC at the right time (and usually multiple times) in order to activate the script that makes the thing you’re looking for next actually exist for you to find. Every aspect of the world and quest design in War of the Dead is predicated on shamelessly padding a profoundly empty, downright unfun experience well beyond the point of common decency.

So let it henceforth be known that the PC Engine port of Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead is barely playable trash. Its unholy union of obnoxious design and incompetent execution give rise to the single worst experience I’ve had with the system yet, and that includes unlicensed pornfest Strip Fighter II. The slew of references to better horror media and a couple of okay music tracks are closest it comes to possessing actual redeeming features. That is to say, not very. We can point to a handful of ways that it may have exerted an influence on the first Resident Evil title nine years later: The zombies (at least in the superior computer versions), the remote mountain town setting, the idea of the hero as part of an elite paramilitary type unit (S-S.W.A.T., S.T.A.R.S.), the concept of conserving bullets through efficient use of a combat knife. But so what? Unlike other key influences on Capcom’s flagship horror series (Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home), the tedious, aggravating War of the Dead has nothing worthwhile to offer prospective players on its own. It’s best left a footnote in survival horror history.

Sometimes dead is better.

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Haunted House (Atari 2600)

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 that 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 materials 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 that the manual refers to simply as “you.” This was a simple, 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 that 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 that 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.

Sweet Home (Famicom)

Comments? Well, if you insist.

First off: Did you know that Sweet Home was a primary inspiration for Capcom’s Resident Evil series? Great! Now that I’ve mentioned the thing that most reviews devote about half of their word count to, I can actually talk about Sweet Home!

Sweet Home is a 1989 horror RPG for the Nintendo Famicom developed and rpublished by Capcom and intended to be a tie-in with the horror film of the same name that hit theaters in Japan that same year. Movie director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even collaborated with his game director counterpart Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando) and granted him access to the set during shooting. The film version is pretty alright. It’s a campy, effects-laden roller coaster of a haunted house flick that owes a lot to Poltergeist. Worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing, but since Sweet Home is a lot more successful, interesting, and important as a game, I’d recommend you play it before you watch it. Neither the game nor the movie were ever officially released outside of Japan. I played Sweet Home on a reproduction cartridge using the fan translation originally released online in 2000.

Thirty years ago, the famous fresco painter Ichirō Mamiya mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a number of lost frescoes in his secluded mansion. Now, a team of five filmmakers have journeyed to the crumbling mansion to document and preserve Mamiya’s lost works. Before they even have a chance to get started, the house shakes and the door they just entered through is blocked by falling rubble. The spectral figure of a mysterious woman then appears and threatens death on all trespassers. These five ordinary people must band together if they’re to have any hope of uncovering the truth about the house’s bloody past and finding their way out alive.

Starting out, that’s all you get. Sweet Home is not a game that’s front-loaded with tons of backstory and character development. Watching the game’s intro only takes slightly longer than reading my summary of it above. After being given a chance to re-name the game’s five playable characters if you wish, you’ll be off exploring within a minute or two.

Once you are off and running, you’ll certainly notice the similarity to other old school JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The overhead view, the menus, the character statistics and inventory screens, the random turn-based battles, it’s all what you’d expect. At least at first. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll quickly realize that Sweet Home is much more than Dragon Quest with gorier monsters to fight. Numerous smart gameplay tweaks elevate it above most of its contemporaries and instill it with an unrelenting sense of urgency and dread. Sweet Home is not only better than almost every other console RPG of its time, it’s better than most horror games released to this day.

How do you make an 8-bit RPG scary? For starters, make sure that the player never feels safe. Sweet Home accomplishes this by not including any “safe” rooms in the mansion, analogous to the towns and inns of most RPGs. Instead, your party is subject to enemy attack at all times from the first screen of the game onward.

Like any good horror movie, you also do your best to separate the party members. While you start the game with five characters, only up to three can travel together at the same time. This means that you’ll spend most of the game controlling two parties that you can switch between at will: One consisting of three characters and the other, more vulnerable one consisting of two. You can also have characters travel solo if you like, but this is not advised for obvious reasons.

Next, limit the ability to heal injured characters. Healing here comes courtesy of health tonics scattered throughout the mansion. You’ll need to find them before you can use them, they’re single use only, and they exist in finite numbers. They also take up inventory space, and each character can only carry two items plus a weapon. That’s ten items total, assuming a full party, so you’ll need to make some hard decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind, all without knowing exactly which items you’ll need to cope with upcoming hazards and puzzles. This makes inventory management yet another source of tension and uncertainty.

Finally, if you should lose one of your characters to a monster attack or death trap, they’re gone for good. There are no resurrection spells or items to be found here. Dead is dead in Sweet Home, at least for your unfortunate party members. They take with them not just their combat damage output, but also two of your precious items slots. Three really, because you’ll then need to carry around an item with you to replicate the fallen character’s special skill. Each character has a special ability tied to an item that only they can carry which doesn’t take up a regular item slot: Kazuo’s lighter burns away ropes blocking your path, Akiko’s first aid kit cures poison and curses, Emi’s key opens locked doors, Taro’s camera reveals hidden messages on the mansion’s frescoes, and Asuka’s vacuum can clear paths of debris and clean dirt off of some frescoes to reveal more clues. You’ll need to use these abilities constantly, so do your best to keep everybody in one piece.

Thankfully, the game isn’t completely unforgiving, since you can save your progress anytime and anywhere. This was a standard feature in computer games at the time, but virtually unknown in a console game and it works wonders here. You can avoid a ton of heartache if you save early and save often. Each time you solve a puzzle, find an important item, or make it through a tough series of encounters in good shape, don’t forget to save!

Combat is basic for the most part. It’s also very quick, since you’ll always be battling against a single foe at a time. Characters can fight, run, use items, and pray. Praying is this game’s version of magic and you can spend your character’s prayer points to deal extra damage if you wish, although I didn’t find it all that necessary in most fights. The coolest option is the ability to call characters from outside the current battle to come join in the fight. Selecting this will transition you out of the battle screen and put you in control of the characters being called. You then have a short window of time to dash through the mansion and join up with the original group to team up against the monster. This is the only time where you can potentially control all five characters at once. Not only does getting everyone involved in a battle allow you to kill your opponent faster, it also insures that everyone gets a share of the resulting experience points and is the best time to use those all-important healing tonics. Next to saving frequently, proper use of the call command is the single most important thing to come to grips with if you want to survive Sweet Home.

All these high-pressure mechanics still wouldn’t amount to much if Sweet Home didn’t also come bundled with a suitably ghoulish presentation to support them, and it’s the combination of the tense gameplay and the creepy sound and visuals that really makes the game pop. While the standard overhead view of the mansion isn’t exactly a visual marvel, your surroundings do look appropriately dilapidated and dangerous. The rest of the game’s graphics are significantly better and the various enemies you’ll encounter are probably the highlight. They’re extremely detailed and grotesque, with many lurid deformities and mutilations that would never have passed muster with Nintendo of America’s censors. The music by ’80s Capcom mainstay Junko Tamiya is simply brilliant. Brooding, eerie, or pulse-pounding as the situation demands, it’s always perfectly suited to whatever terrible thing is transpiring on screen. It’s always fascinating to hear a well-executed stab at a true horror soundtrack using the Famicom/NES sound chip.

Sweet Home’s crowning glory has to be its plot. It’s remarkably tragic and twisted for a Famicom game and it’s left to the player to piece it together organically by hunting down diary entries, the corpses of the house’s past victims, hidden message in paintings, and the like. This is a common way of delivering story in a horror game these days, but to see it handled so well this early on marks Sweet Home as years ahead of its time.

That sums up Sweet Home in general, really. Long before Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, it was a total horror experience that somehow achieved everything it set out to brilliantly despite an overall lack of precedent. With so many trails to blaze at once, any one of them could have easily been a dead end. In those primordial days of survival horror gaming, it almost beggers belief that the puzzles, level design, combat mechanics, inventory management, visuals, audio, and storytelling all turned out this excellent. So much so, in fact, that I have no real gripes with the game worth mentioning. It still stands tall today as a slick, compelling work, not just a crude antediluvian prototype of interest only to gaming historians.

While it’s tough to compare Sweet Home directly to a more traditional Famicom/NES RPG from around this time, such as the superb Dragon Quest IV, you can make a case that the high stakes mechanics and lack of grinding make it the single most fun RPG for the system to revisit today. Without a doubt, it’s the best pure horror release for the console and one of its most interesting titles overall. It even holds up a lot better than the early Resident Evil games in my book.

The grim and gory Sweet Home never had the slightest chance of being officially localized for the family-friendly NES, but it’s a true classic that every RPG or horror fan should experience in their lifetime. Or after it….