Game Review: 'Splatterhouse'

Rebooting the Splatterhouse franchise should be an experience that pretty much writes itself: drop protagonist Rick Taylor (wearing the Terror Mask, obviously) into a series of gooey environments to fight against a cadre of creepy critters.  Occasionally throw in something a little more iconic, like the chainsaw-fisted Biggie Man, and you’ve got a healthy shot of nostalgia certain to bring droves of old school quarter-pumpers to your doorstep with their grownup paychecks.  Someone at Namco Bandai started with this simple formula, and then turned the proverbial dial to 11.  The result?  The most heartfelt love letter to 1980’s horror that gaming has ever seen.

We’re not just talking about the obvious, superficial themes of the time period and the genre, although Splatterhouse certainly hits those marks as well.  Underneath the obvious eighties iconography and thematic elements (the Terror Mask is only a few steps removed from Jason Voorhees’ iconic goalie mask, for example) there’s a certain contradictory vibe that Splatterhouse captures perfectly: the horror movie marketed directly towards the younger set that shouldn’t be watching it in the first place.  Splatterhouse wears this contradiction like a badge of honor, parading out its crass humor, gonzo violence, and inexplicable nudity, much to the delight of my inner twelve year old.

In fact, Splatterhouse is so repulsive and over the top in its presentation that it completely passes offensive and circles back into silliness.  Some of the game’s infamous Splatterkills should be disgusting beyond measure, but the obvious tongue in cheek presentation makes them a welcome combination of God of War and GWAR.  I have never played a game that had me tearing a monster’s spine out through his prolapsed anus, or had me collecting nude pictures of my kidnapped girlfriend, or had me beating enemies to death with my own severed arm.  Splatterhouse had me doing all of these things, all with the constant commentary of the Terror Mask serving as a backdrop.  Voiced by veteran actor Jim Cummings, who I remember from Darkwing Duck, the Terror Mask alternated between subtly sinister and ghoulishly gleeful.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” he snorts after Rick has his arm severed by a falling meteor, “was your vagina talking?”  By the way, he sounds exactly like Negaduck when he’s speaking his lines, which only goes further with the nostalgia factor, although there is something inherently disturbing about hearing a voice from a Disney cartoon snarling at me to “fuck him up!”

In discussing presentation, one also has to mention the much-hyped soundtrack for the game, featuring metal bands as diverse as Mastodon (whose shirt Rick sports in flashbacks), Lamb of God, and Goatwhore.  While the lack of truly nasty death metal or grindcore seems like a tragic oversight (no Cannibal Corpse in a game like this?  Really?) the soundtrack provides a healthy sampling of metal that feels right to slay monsters to.  However, the real standout is the game’s regular score, which again keeps the eighties torch burning with weird, John Carpenter-esque synthesizer compositions that sound as if they’re being pumped straight out of a Zenith VCR.

Of course, all of this fantastic presentation would be a wasted effort if the gameplay wasn’t fun, and thankfully it is, in spite of a few minor irritations.  The core gameplay is a fairly generic brawler, with the usual light attack/heavy attack combo system that’s been in third-person combat games for years.  Where Splatterhouse mixes it up is in the blood, which the Terror Mask feeds upon.  The more violence you visit upon your victims, the more blood you collect: it soaks into your skin, coats the screen in crimson, and chases you in red rivulets.  This blood serves two purposes, for you to upgrade your combat abilities and to occasionally enter into a Berserker mode, in which Rick sprouts bony spurs and flies into an invincible rampage in which he instantly kills smaller enemies and makes quick work of all but the mightiest of foes.  These brawling segments are occasionally punctuated by side-scrolling platforming sequences, which showcase the issues with the game’s slightly imprecise controls.  Rick’s lumbering gait and long “braking distance” may be fine for combat arenas, but they quickly become your undoing when trying to nail precise landings on tiny platforms surrounded by instant-kill pits.  While the checkpoints may be plentiful, insuring that you won’t have to replay long segments of the game when you die, the loading screens are almost insufferably long.  Prepare yourself for thumb-twiddling to rival the days of the first Playstation.

Splatterhouse is pure nostalgia, weaponized and being shot right into your inner child’s brain.  Its design and aesthetic are the sorts of things you’d scribble on your Trapper Keeper in the sixth grade during recess to the delight of your friends.  Its mentality is borne from sneaking into R-rated movies and squirreling away copies of Playboy and Fangoria under your mattress.  It’s juvenile, puerile, and sophomoric…and I loved every minute of it.   If you’re not afraid of cutting loose and taking things so damn seriously, Splatterhouse is a nostalgic blast.