Friday, October 5, 2012

Splatterhouse For TurboGrafx-16

If there's ever an award given for most apropos game title, The TurboGrafx-16's Splatterhouse would surely take home the gold. It takes place in a house, and man do things go splat! Adapted from a 1988 Namco arcade game, Splatterhouse may well be the very first truly gory horror game to appear on a console.

The story of Splatterhouse goes like this: Rick and his girlfriend Jennifer take refuge from a raging storm inside an spooky abandoned mansion. Unbeknownst to the two lovebirds, (or possibly beknownst; the game doesn't really say) this mansion once belonged to the mysterious parapsychologist, Dr. West, who performed grisly occult experiments. They're immediately set upon by freaky demonic monsters, and Rick is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Jennifer is nowhere to be found and Rick's face has become fused with a freaky red mask that grants him superhuman size and strength. He hauls his ponderous bulk off the floor, picks up the nearest blunt object, and sets about the task of beating every monster that stands between him and his missing girlfriend into a bloody, quivering pulp.

Splatterhouse is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that plays a bit like Final Fight, but only on a 2D plane. Rick can move left & right, duck or jump, but he can't move up or down within the level. Rick's main methods of attack are a punch, a ducking kick and sliding kick. However, there are several weapons scattered throughout each level, like 2x4s, meat cleavers, rocks, throwing spears and shotguns. Incidentally, the shotguns in Splatterhouse act like actual shotguns and not ping-pong ball shooters, which I'm pretty sure is a gaming first. Anyway, each weapon has certain tradeoffs: The 2x4 and the cleaver give you added reach, but take time to swing, leaving you vulnerable if you don't time your attacks right. The rocks and spears can only be thrown once, and the shotgun has limited ammo.

The game's seven short levels are laid out in a pretty linear fashion. Some levels automatically scroll forward, while others let you set the pace. Though Splatterhouse never strays from the side-scroller style, it throws a few fun twists into most levels, such as a hall of mirrors, wherein you're attacked by your own reflection. Some of the levels give you different routes to take, and different types of enemies to fight, but all of the routes eventually take you to the same boss battle. Some of the boss battles are fairly clever too, like level two's knife-and-artwork-thowing poltergeist. The monsters you fight range from bloody bats to shambling zombies to ethereal ghosts to grotesque fetuses. Environmental hazards come in the form of spikes that shoot up from the floor, tortured corpses that vomit dangerous viscera at you, ghostly hands that try to drag you underground, and zombified wolves that chew on the remain of the enemies you killed. Yes, there are plenty of terrifying creations lurking the halls of this house.

Unfortunately, the biggest enemy in Splatterhouse is control. Rick's built like a brick shithouse, but he moves about as fast as one. He lumbers along too slowly to dodge enemy attacks, so when he's unarmed, he has to rely solely on his pathetically short-ranged punches and kicks for defense. It seems that his attacks only connect with enemies on the right frame of animation and on a small part of his fist or foot, often leaving him wide open to cheap hits from enemies. Splatterhouse also seems to have borrowed some of the more annoying control aspects from the Castlevania games: Rick jumps in the same floaty, hard-to-control manner that Simon Belmont does, and like Belmont, he gets knocked backward when hit. This often leads to some frustratingly cheap deaths, but mercifully, there's very few platforming moments to be dealt with in Splatterhouse. The weapons do a good job of evening the odds, but only if you can hang onto them. Rick drops whatever he's carrying every time he takes a hit, and if it scrolls off the screen, it's gone for good.  The weapons can't be carried from level to level or even from section to section within the same level, leaving you to kickpunch your way through most of the game. You can't backtrack to pick up missed weapons either, even in the levels that don't automatically scroll.

The graphics and sound are a mixed bag. The game opens with what looks like a tossed-off MS Paint rendering of a house partially obscured by trees or shrubs or just overzealous use of the spray-paint tool. Fortunately, things improve once the game begins. Rick and the baddies are finely detailed, sporting a rich but muted color palette of browns and greens and greys. The enemies have different death animations depending on how you dispatch them: Punch them to death, and they collapse in a heap on the floor. Swing at them with the 2x4 and they fly into the wall, stick momentarily, then slide down into a gooey mess. Blast them with the shotgun, and their torsos explode, leaving only a pair of legs to wander about aimlessly. This goofy, over-the-top violence is a hallmark of the Splatterhouse series, and though the shock value has long since passed, it's still very endearing. The sound effects aren't great, but they get the job done. The 2x4 makes a convincing whoosh when swung, and if it connects with a monster, that monster hits the wall with a mighty splort! On the other hand, Rick makes an annoying, synthesized "Oow!" every time he gets hit, and Jennifer's plaintive cry of "Help me!" sounds like something out of a Popeye cartoon. Likewise, the background music is at turns effective/moody and repetitive/obnoxious. The game is pretty generous with extra life hearts and continues, so it's not too difficult to beat. With a little practice, Splatterhouse could be finished in about a half-hour.

In short, Splatterhouse is an unabashedly violent gore-fest that can be uneven and frustrating to play, but it still stands out as one of the best games in the TurboGrafx-16's library. If clobbering gooey hellspawn with building materials sounds like good times to you, give Splatterhouse a try.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I sing the blues with Mr. Bones for Sega Saturn.

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