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Haunted House (Atari 2600) artwork

Haunted House (Atari 2600) review


"I'll dare to say what other niche fans will consider blasphemy: Haunted House has aged poorly."



Haunted House asset


I must have played Haunted House twenty-five years too late. Had I have done so it during childhood, I might view it today as a pleasant yet archaic nostalgia trip. I might even try to paint it in a sympathetic light, as I am wont to do with some of my aged favorites. I could also do what some suggest and review this game based on 1981's standards, but let's face it: it's not 1981 anymore. The best I can do for Atari 2600 games is review them as a niche fan. Even then, Haunted House doesn't measure up to its brethren, including many superior pieces that act as simple, addictive quickies. I'll dare to say what other niche fans will consider blasphemy: Haunted House has aged poorly.

I will say that discovering this game was a breath of fresh air at first. It was nice to plug in an Atari cart that didn't require an opulence of shooting or jumping over obstacles. Instead you leap into an adventure title with an overhead view, controlling a pair of eyes as you explore a mythic haunted mansion in order to locate and repair a magical urn. Unfortunately you aren't alone in the house, as the restless spirit of resident miserly prick Zachary Graves still stalks the dusty old rooms. As if a malevolent specter wasn't enough, the house is also crawling with venomous spiders and vicious bats dripping with rabies. A single bullet or swipe of a sword could easily dispatch these nasties, but you're not a commando or a swordsman. You're a mere citizen, armed only with the abilities of running while screaming like a schoolgirl and wetting yourself at the sight of danger. With these abilities, you must give all opposition the slip while trying to secure the three pieces of the shattered urn. Only then can you run the course in reverse and charge out the front door to victory.

What this translates to in 2600 language is moseying around four identical floors, which consist of six interconnected rooms, while looking for items. Oh, and not dying. That's a big part. While that description may paint the game as overly simplistic and dull, there's still potential for an addictive quickie. You might envision a fast-paced game with plenty of obstacles and swift opponents. You can imagine that it would be difficult to negotiate, but ultimately fair; a game that demands precision and skillful elusion that occasionally overpowers you. That's what Haunted House wishes to be. Sadly, much of the experience is spent wandering from one empty room to the next, sometimes summoning the least of your skills to evade an enemy. Eventually, you happen upon the three pieces of the urn and pad back to the entrance, lightly-to-moderately abated all the while.

At least, that's my experience in playing the first variation.

Haunted House screenshotHaunted House screenshot


The true test comes with subsequent variations, where the game plunges you into total darkness and locks certain doors. This creates a convoluted pathway of interconnected, unlocked rooms for you to puzzle through. That might not sound like much until you're tailed by a tarantula or Ol' Zachary himself. Frantic, you might run into a room and hope for escape only to find the other doors locked. Unless you're quick on your feet and careful, you're pretty much screwed.

At last, the game bears its fangs and seemingly matures into the challenging, fast-paced title it should be. However, upon closer inspection, you notice some plaque on those canines.

After a few sessions with higher variations, the image you had of this game as a tense and simple mini-game vanishes like an exorcised ghost. The boredom that tormented you in the first variation returns in full force, strengthened now by the complicated network locked doors. Thanks to them, advancing through each variation's path involves checking every door in order to ascertain which ones are locked. Where Haunted House was a dull game of room searching, it's now a drab exercise in constant door inspection. The need to test out every door extends a session's length to needless proportions. In other words, this game's no longer a quickie; it's a long, repetitive affair in which you force a pair of eyes to run into a bunch of doors and occasionally dodge stock enemies.

To add insult to injury, further variations also sport randomly spawning foes. By "randomly spawning," I mean "sometimes right next to you." I'm sure that sounded like a terrific idea for a horror game in 1981, when people were used to games that lacked a sense of fairness. Contrary to what they may have believed, this doesn't boost the game's challenge. Instead, it bases your success on luck rather than skill. I don't know about anyone else, but that's the last thing I would want to hear about an Atari 2600 game, or any title that utilizes arcade-style mechanics.

Although Haunted House is recognized as something of a classic, it hasn't aged well at all. While it features gameplay that defies ancient conventions and stands out on a console loaded with clones, it ultimately doesn't give us much of a reason to play it over more solid iterations of other classics. This game may be one of a kind for its time, but that era has passed. As with many other fading stars of the bygone era, it's slowly being left behind, and rightly so.

Rating: 4/10

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (October 27, 2012)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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