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Nintendo Wii Review: Haunted House

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It seems as though every game I play these days is a sequel or a reboot or a reinterpretation or a reimagining, etc., of an older game.  That is again true in the case of Atari’s Haunted House.  Although the game it is based on is older than most and something that has been off of people’s radars for decades, it is not a newly created franchise.

The original Atari title of that name was released for the Atari 2600 in February of 1982.  As with many games back then, the idea was pretty simple – go through a location looking for something.  In this case the something was three pieces of an urn; the place was a haunted house (in fact it was the mansion of Zachary Graves); and your character, represented by two eyes, was named Samuel Silverspring.

In this sequel to the original – and despite it having the same name, it is a sequel – you can play as one of Samuel’s grandchildren, Jacob and Silvia.  We are told in the preface that the two grandchildren (adults now as this takes place 30 years after the original) have been searching to clues about their grandfather’s disappearance for years.  Now, they have received a letter directing them to Spirit Bay and the Graves Mansion, with the letter indicating that their search will end there.  The game proper starts when you, as either Jacob or Silvia, arrive at the mansion for a look-see. 

Everything in Haunted House plays like an updated version of the original.  Your job is to go through the 20 levels of the game piecing together what happened to Samuel and finding bits of the urn he was looking for as well.  This basic task is accomplished by searching (via the “A” button) almost every object you encounter – sofas, chairs, shelves, bureaus, armoires, treasure chests, etc.  Some of these objects yield nothing, but others yield a light source, a treasure, a coin, or one page of several different journals. 

While the journal pages, coins, and treasures are nice (especially if you’re into 100% completion), the various light sources are crucial.  You are allowed to carry any two types of light sources at a time (you can have multiple number of each type, i.e., 20 matches would count as one type), and with these light sources you can hurt enemies (depending on the type of light) and better explore your surroundings.  Light sources also allow you to light fireplaces.  In turn, these fireplaces hurt enemies, replenish your life, and provide save checkpoints.  How exactly turning on a cell phone manages to light a fireplace I couldn’t tell you, I only know that within Haunted House it does.

The various enemies you’ll encounter on a trip through the Graves Mansion include bats, rats, ghosts, and gargoyles, all of whom can eat away at your life.  The stronger enemies can also freeze you in place, forcing you to shake the Wii remote to get going once more.  However, even on the most difficult level, enemies are not horribly fast or strong.  What enemies are though on every level of difficulty is dumb.  With little effort you can coax any baddie into following you towards a fireplace and even after they get wounded from it once, they’re more than willing to go back there again should they get the slightest hint that human flesh will be near it.  You can even play the oh-so-fun game of putting a table (or sofa or chair) between you and the baddie and running around in circles as you slowly hurt them by lighting a lamp or torch (or other enemy-hurting light) in your possession.  Often, despite getting injured and no closer to their meal, the baddie won’t go away.  If he does, just getting within close proximity to them once more is enough to make them forget what just went down so you can start the process all over again.

The issues with the title don’t stop there.  Atari and developed ImaginEngine have opted for a not-quite top-down view for the game, angling it slightly so as to allow for more of a 3D look.  The camera never moves from its starting position, which for the most part is fine, except if you’re towards the bottom of any room, because when you are, your character will be completely blocked by the wall every single time.  There are really no items down at the bottom of rooms that you can’t see, but it’s still annoying to have your view of almost every room in the game partially blocked.

The graphics themselves are cartoony and fun, and all the various light sources you procure have a somewhat different look to them.  However, on one occasion we did notice a frame rate drop when more than one ghost opted to try and attack us at the same time.  We encountered multiple enemies on several occasions without such an occurrence which made the instance somewhat more odd, but it was certainly undeniable.

The sound design is pretty minimal, with the occasional haunting laugh or creepy noise, or enemy making a sound as you go through the mansion.  Additionally, Jacob and Silvia have the annoying habit of talking to themselves and to no one in particular on a regular basis.  Their vocabulary is somewhat limited as well, so you’re going to hear them say the same things over and over again. 

In terms of gameplay, as you progress through the levels, things do become slightly more difficult.  As an example, not only do enemies become more numerous as you go, but while at first only different keys are required to open doors, eventually you will have to find hidden levers to open doors and then different colored lights will create magic doorways through otherwise blocked openings.  There is no map available, and many floors tend to look exceedingly similar (there are a few different styles of floors, but after a while even that is not enough to differentiate levels) Haunted House does get old pretty fast, so it is nice to see that there are some incremental changes as you progress even if they aren’t really enough to keep you fully engaged. 

In the end, that’s the basic problem with the title.  The original  game worked wonderfully because it was short and sweet (if you visit the Atari site for the new game you can play the original version).  The new game is significantly longer and eventually becomes somewhat monotonous.  It isn’t a full-priced title and it is fun in short bursts, but you do get the sense that it should have been further expanded and that levels should be more differentiated.  There is a multiplayer co-op mode which is fun, but that too ends up suffering from the same gameplay issues.

If you’re on the hunt for some nostalgia or just like minimally creepy exploration titles, Haunted House certainly fits the bill.  It is really not a bad way to spend a few hours, just don’t expect the immersive and expansive gameplay experience offered by some other titles.

Haunted House is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Language, Mild Blood, and Mild Cartoon Violence. This game can also be found on: PC and XBLA.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.