Most people think of resident Evil when you mention the words “Survival Horror”, and rightly so. Of course, you have old school players who will also mention Capcom’s Sweet Home or Infrogrames’ Alone in the Dark. But before all that, Atari had its own ingredients of the genre in Haunted House in 1982. Released for the Atari 2600, some today ignore the game due to its primitive nature compared to other brighter and more modern games . But even at 40 years old, the game is not only historically significant for sowing the seeds of Survival Horror, but an example of how the scariest things will often be conjured up in your own mind.
Designed by James Andreasen, Haunted House was typical of games of the era, relying on textbook history to establish the setting. In the town of Spirit Bay, grumpy Zachary Graves lived an isolated life until his death, which resulted in condemnation of his mansion. However, legend has it that Graves had a magic urn which was also a family heirloom from the first family of Spirit Bay. The pieces of the urn still remain in the mansion, though no one is brave enough to venture inside to find them, as Graves’ ghost is said to haunt the mansion. This is where you come in: you decide to break into the mansion and find the pieces of the urn.
Gameplay involves navigating the mansion’s 24 rooms and four floors, armed only with a book of matches. The game borrows mechanics from another Atari game, Adventure, released in 1981. This time, the main mechanic is darkness. You are represented by a pair of disembodied eyes, stumbling blindly until you strike a match, which illuminates objects, doors, and stairs around you. You have unlimited matches, but using more will result in a bad score (think golf, only you’re not going negative). Since this is from when you played for the highest score, you can compare it to refraining from frequent use of the typewriter to save money. resident Evil, as it depletes your ink ribbons, but also gives you a low grade at the end of the game.
Oh, and matches also have a habit of going out in the presence of enemies (because of the wind blowing them), forcing you to flee in the dark. Again, much like being forced to run/avoid enemies due to ammo scarcity in modern survival horror games. You cannot directly attack monsters in Haunted house, but you can get a scepter that grants you invisibility. However, Haunted house has what can be called a predecessor of inventory management in Survival Horror, where you can only carry one item at a time. This means you’ll need to explore the area with the scepter, drop it, and then dash to pick up the Urn Piece or Master Key. Luckily, each urn piece you pick up will fit the other piece you’re already wearing.
Other than the musical stings when going up/down the stairs (or the “not really ‘Twilight Zone’ themed” when you finish the game), there’s no music. You only have the sound of your footsteps to accompany you in your quest, sometimes with a strong wind. You could compare it to the footsteps you hear walking around Spencer Mansion, and it really increases the tension/fear, as the monsters will appear without warning.
Haunted house offers nine different game variations, which are basically the difficulty options. The lower types make things a bit easier for you, like finding the master key in the first room or having occasional lightning bolts to light up the floor. Higher difficulties increase the number of monsters and cause them to follow you from floor to floor. The highest difficulties even punish you for losing a life if you’re holding an item, as it will be placed in a random room for you to find. The game ends when you return to the main entrance of the mansion carrying the completed urn, or when all nine of your lives are lost. Again, having to conserve your lives to improve your score is akin to conserving ammo/items that we have now.
Certainly, Haunted house today isn’t particularly deep or allows for greater replay value other than getting a better score on higher difficulty settings. However, you can see where many of the early Survival Horror mechanics came from that were adopted and fleshed out by the likes of sweet home, Alone in the dark and of course, resident Evil. It’s also surprisingly tense to play today, especially on the higher difficulties. It might not be as addictive or intuitive as newer titles, but historically you can’t deny that one of the seeds of Survival Horror started here.
Thanks to AtariAge for manual scans!