(Review archived from October 16, 2018)
Ah … Splatterhouse. After the intensely cerebral ‘thinking man’s horror’ experience of Silent Hill 2, perhaps I just needed to step into the big, dumb shoes of an unthinking brute, a primal force who solves problems by means of beating the ever-loving piss out of them with a 2×4. I recently described this game as being ’80’s Death Metal: The Game’, and I’ll be sticking with that assessment though much of this review. Because much like the savage, pounding brutality found in those early death metal albums, Splatterhouse satisfies in largely the same way. Is it a great game? Well … maybe not … but when it hits, it hits hard … with a 2×4.
So let’s talk about those good aspects first. At the time of its release, Splatterhouse was rather remarkable for a horror title. Earlier horror themed games had largely skirted the horror tastes of their time. They had either focused on earlier (and by and large tamer) interpretations of horror (as seen in the gothic stylings of Castlevania), or portrayed horror elements through a cartoon styled lens (Ghosts ‘n Goblins). Splatterhouse was having none of that. Instead, it explicitly drew inspiration from the slasher films that were en vogue at the time of its release and in doing so it was a very modern feeling game. It’s no great secret that the character design for Rick was a shameless rip-off of Jason Voorhees to the point that the iconic mask had to be re-colored in the North American release (it was white in Japan, red in North America). So was this an example of selling shock value for its own sake? Oh, undoubtedly, but to deny that would also be to miss the point. Much like the death metal of the time (which was arguably drawing from many of the same inspirations), the brutality and shock value here were part and parcel of the experience. That part either resonated with you or it didn’t.
And for its part, Splatterhouse does a fine job of portraying its shock and awe. Your strikes feel solid, and most enemies are dispatched in a satisfying spray of splatter and viscera. You won’t find an endless variety of weapon pick-ups here, but the few that are available all feature similar levels of brutality. The enemy designs are another highlight of the game. Despite the derivative look of the player character, many of the enemies look simply superb (with Biggy Man (pictured below) being a particular standout in my mind). Of course none of these highlights would have been possible without some nice graphical execution, and I feel like that’s the real star here. The shock value which Splatterhouse was banking on would not have been possible without some strong graphics to back it up, and it largely hits the mark here. Splatterhouse creates a unique look and atmosphere which would help to insure its continuation as a series. The music and sound design also do wonders to perpetuate this atmosphere. The sound effects are satisfying and the bass-y in-game music is simultaneously menacing and catchy.
It’s at this point that we need to mention the
elephant rotting corpse in the room … which is the gameplay itself. You’ll notice I’ve rather strategically avoided mentioning it up to this point. And I mean … it’s fine … I guess, but in order to fully embrace it, you’re going to have to take the age of the game into account. Movement is a bit sluggish. Your melee moves require a quirky sense of timing due to the frames of animation employed. The limited occurrences of platforming feel downright clumsy (though nothing approaching Double Dragon levels of jank). The game also features several instances of auto-scrolling sections that are distinctly at odds with your slow movement. And I mean … I get it … the character moves slowly just like his sole source of inspiration, Jason Voorhees. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into great feeling gameplay. It’s not that this makes the game feel impossible by any means (I beat it and I’m pretty middling where it comes to beat ’em ups), it’s just that the gameplay can feel a bit like a slog; like it would be so much better if only it were a bit more responsive. Like I said it’s a product of its time, but even then I can name a handful of other beat ’em ups from this time that feel more responsive than this.
What we’re left with then is a somewhat uneven feeling game. A game in which its fantastic elements of presentation are somewhat at odds with its lackluster gameplay. If you’re a diehard horror buff, and particularly if you enjoy the slasher genre, (or you’re just a fan of death metal!) you should probably check out Splatterhouse. It’s a lovingly brutal homage to its inspirations. If you’re looking for an unbeatable beat ’em up experience, well … you might be best advised to pack up your 2×4 and look elsewhere. Thankfully the Splatterhouse franchise would continue on in titles that largely outshine this initial outing.