Game Review: 'Haunted House'

I've been writing for FEARnet for almost five years now, and in those five years I've been using the appropriate vocabulary for a horror site.  I've used phrases like "flesh-chewing," and "gut-munching," but I never thought I'd be using phrases like "heartwarming" or "family friendly."

Well, I'm not about to start using "heartwarming," at least not without a healthy dose of irony or a cardio-related pun attached, but I'm going to have to use "family friendly" to describe Atari's remake of their 2600 classic Haunted House.  Rebooted for the 21st century on the Wii and PC (and soon for Xbox Live Arcade) Haunted House seems like a perfect fit for you and your little monsters…but is it worth revisiting?

The game casts you as either the grandson or granddaughter of Samuel Silverspring, on the hunt for their missing grandfather in, where else, a haunted house.   Within the walls of the house your character must solve simple puzzles, collect items, and ward off the house's ghoulish inhabitants with light sources ranging from their cell phone display to torches.  It's a simple formula that does little to enhance itself over the blueprint of the original, but in this case simplicity works in its favor.  While it may provide a hearty challenge for the younger set, even this grizzled old curmudgeon found the game to be remarkably enjoyable on its own merits.

What truly helps is the game's merciful lack of tacked-on motion controls.  Instead of mapping everything to waggle gestures, developer ImaginEngine opted instead to treat the Wiimote/Nunchuck combo more like a traditional controller, forcing the player to waggle only when "frozen with fear" in the face of one of the game's ghostly goons.  While this sort of control scheme can be cripplingly awful under some circumstances, like Capcom's Resident Evil Archives, it's a godsend for simpler games like this, especially with the other two versions of the title arriving on waggle-free platforms like the Xbox 360.  The controls are clean and tight, and work well with a minimum of buttons.

Even the game's production values, as low as they may be, serve their purpose well.  The 3D art works well within its low-polygon constraints, with a slightly angular, very cartoonish style that evokes a Burtonesque vibe similar to the Beetlejuice cartoon of the 90's.  Sound is sparse, but gets the job done, with thunderclaps, creaking floorboards, and crying babies (!) providing a suitably spooky, but lighthearted soundscape in tune with the bouncy score.  The 2D art, however, does bring things down a notch, with an unpolished look that makes the game look amateurish and overly cheap at times, especially during the game's slideshow style cutscenes.

As a whole, however, Haunted House is certainly better than you would expect given its pedigree.  After all, it's based off a modestly popular title for a long-dead console that's been in the mothballs for almost thirty years.  I may not have children (that I know of), but I can at least attest that this is one horror game that you can at least feel comfortable with them playing, and enjoy playing yourself.  Me?  I'm content to have such a lighthearted palate cleanser in between sessions of all the nastiness that I normally write about.  Now if you'll pardon me, I have to go build up my vocabulary repertoire…what's another word for disembowel?