Horror games are tough. Tough to make and certainly tough to play if they aren’t any good. Every time a game related to Cthulhu hits the market I run out and pick it up and have been almost universally disappointed. Now those games are on modern consoles or my PC, so what hope should I have that a game made for the Atari 2600 nearly 30 years ago would hold up and still be entertaining and dare I say, “Scary”. I can say this before I get on with the review. I was a big Atari 2600 Haunted House fan back in the day, but like many of the Atari classics, it moved to the bottom of my cart box, and was pushed aside in favor of rarer titles.
Now with a new version of Haunted House on the horizon (this Halloween), I decided to fire it up and get my haunt on.
(Okay at this point, for the sake of the review, you can assume I am playing the game. I have already played it, which kind of makes the opening paragraph slightly disingenuous, but hopefully you will just play along. It occurs to me that I probably should not have said anything at all. I should have just kept moving along with the review and counted on you to suspend your disbelief. After all you have probably read a review before that starts like this. Uggh, I really blew it. Oh well. I know! I know! I should just delete this whole parenthetical aside, but as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a lazy lazy man. So lets just all try and pretend that none of this happened. This flub will be our little secret.)
Upon playing Atari 2600 Haunted House for about 90 minutes, I was struck with just how effective this simple game is.
In the game you play the role of a pair of eyes, wandering through the dark, trying to piece together an urn and escape a … haunted house. The house is filled with creepy crawlies, which you need to avoid. To see in the dark you are given unlimited matches to light the way. Its simple and you wouldn’t think this would be fun or challenging, but as you play it and crank up the difficulty, it really is. It’s like playing a simpler-screened Adventure with the added bonus of having to contend with the challenge of “darkness” — Which even nowadays is difficult to pull off in a game.
As a VCS game, Haunted House has a lot going for it. Multiple difficulty levels, various monsters, decent sound and an actual achievable goal. Just about the only negative I could come up with (of course this takes technology into account) is the layout of the mansion. It is repetitive and predictable. Which is okay for a 4K game, but Adventure was in the same boat and they still managed to spice it up a little bit more on the maze screens.
The more I play Atari 2600 Haunted House, the more I enjoy it, but the layout of the screen keeps it a step behind Adventure and no amount of sound or quirky gameplay seems to allow it to take that step. Still this is a classic title that flirts with a perfect VCS rating. Still going to give it 4 stars out of respect for what I assume are more “perfect” titles waiting out there ( I am looking at you Pitfall II). This review has given me renewed respect for the title and I will continue to play Haunted House (I moved it to a holder on my desk) and will begin to wait impatiently for the updated version of the game to come out this Autumn.