The House of the Dead (1998, Tantalus for Sega Saturn)

You just have to love the sheer rush of adrenaline and fear from The House of the Dead. Terrors and thrills abound at every corner, gruesome monsters leap at you from every direction, and the roller coaster never stops. This game never gives you a moment to catch your breath before the next plunge. That this arcade smash hit became a successful and long-running franchise comes as no surprise. It is one of Sega’s most notable achievements in the 1990s.

One thing I should admit about this game is that it’s freakishly hard and I find myself beaten and kicked into submission rather quickly. Even with considerable practice and knowing where the enemies are about to strike, I find myself easily overwhelmed. Virtua Cop 1 & 2 were only the warmup, the training exercises for the real test. Were you one of those gamers who became bored with Duck Hunt in the first sixty seconds? Well, my friend, your prayers have been answered in spades. Hoo boy, have they ever.

The House of the Dead follows the theme of Capcom’s Resident Evil series and places you in the hands of police officers who must investigate a large mansion whose scientists are being relentlessly murdered by zombies, mutant animals and strange bio-mechanical creatures. As soon as you exit your car, you must rescue several scientists from a mob of zombies who prove difficult to kill. You have to shoot them several times to bring them down, unless you are lucky to score a head shot, something that is more difficult to do than you’ll expect. These monsters bob and weave, dart and dance as they march towards you with blood in their eyes. Outside the mansion, there are a series of zombie dogs that always kill me because they’re always dodging my gunshots. Perhaps my reflexes are just fading with age.

The key to success lies in knowing where and when the monsters will attack, and almost begin firing a half second early. You have to anticipate the threats before they drop down on your head, often without warning. Remember the circle gauges in Virtua Cop that warn you when you’re in danger? They’ve been chucked out the window; say goodbye to those training wheels and hello to a lot of pain.

One excellent feature of this game is the ability to choose multiple paths, often determined by whether you successfully rescue scientists in danger. Early on, you see a person being carried by a large zombie who’s about to toss him over a bridge. If the scientist is saved, you will continue to the mansion’s front door. If you fail and he is killed, you follow him down a set of stairs towards an underground passage to the basement. Each branching path sends you towards a different area of the house with unique threats such as skeletons, frogs, slugs, monkeys, and my personal favorite, the bearded maniac with a chainsaw. I almost wish there was a code so that I could play as him.

Thanks to the many pathways and options before you, it will take many games to discover them all. Interestingly enough, rescuing all the scientists gives you the most boring path of all, a straight line to the end boss. To see the really interesting places, you’ve got to let a few of these Professor Frinks buy the farm.

As always, The House of the Dead plays best with a light gun, but I should also advise that you will be more successful with a larger television display, say over 19″, than a smaller 13″ screen. It’s always a challenge to hit the corners of the screen, so this may affect your progress. If you play on a digital HD display, you can play with a joypad or mouse controller, like the VIrtua Cop series. Once again, this is a good option and better than I expected, but no substitute for the real thing. Just pick up a couple Stunners and get your John Woo freak on.

The House of the Dead was created by Sega AM2 for the arcades, but the Saturn translation has handled by Tantalus, a studio staffed by experienced Sega programmers. They’re a very solid bunch — they were also responsible for the Saturn ports of Wipeout, Wipeout XL and Manx TT — but they are clearly the backup players and not the starters (who were busy at the time working on Virtua Fighter 3 and Shenmue). The programmers did an excellent job in capturing every aspect of the arcade, including all of the mansion’s areas and its freakshow circus, but there’s a slight lack of polish. Most notably, the polygon textures are low-rez and look slightly Minecraft-y. One gets the impression that these textures were placeholders and were intended to be improved before release; this suggests that Sega’s bosses once again rushed a crucial software title out the door before it was finished.

Personally, I think this is a minor issue that has become blown out of proportion by retro gamers over the years. This videogame is far more demanding on the hardware than the Virtua Cop series, which mostly took place over open spaces and carefully timed its action sequences. Its environments are far more complex and varied; its camera swiftly glides in nearly every direction as monsters crash through doors, windows and ceilings. And throughout all of this intense action, the speed remains very fast and smooth, only occasionally skipping frames in intense moments in order to preserve that speed. Also, it must be said that HotD looks much better on a CRT display where the dithered visuals are smoothed over (such as the slash and bite marks on-screen when you are attacked).

I should also say something about the music, which kicks out some super funky bass lines, as well as the deliberately corny voice acting. One can’t have horror without a degree of funk and cheese, I say. All in all, this is one heck of a thrill ride, another great example of what makes Sega Saturn so much fun. Highly recommended.

The House of the Dead was one of the very final Saturn titles released in the US, and as a result has become very rare and expensive, averaging $300 at the time of this essay. The Japanese release can be bought for as little as $20, making it a far easier option for retro collectors.

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