Namco’s Splatterhouse is the little rip-off that could. Upon its release, this charming little beat ’em up took the iconic hockey mask of Jason Voorhees (happy Friday the 13th, by the way) and enabled players to roam the side-scrolling world of West Mansion demolishing enemies in a repetitive and derivative free-for-all. The game was simple. The controls only allowed for limited options. You could walk, you could jump, and you could slide. And you could damage things with assorted weapons. Set to a very 8-bit score dominated by creepy strings, it was somehow both bland and delightful at the same time. And it was a horror fan’s dream. Bloated bald, baby-ish monsters crawling on the ground whose head exploded into a pus crescendo, shambling Man-Thing clones who burst into water, household objects come to life, bats you had to punch in the face, and puddles of water were just some of the adversaries our leading character Rick would have to endure.
You see, Rick and his lady were heading up to the mansion for a purpose that probably included a naked shenanigan or two (or to escape a storm but who’s counting?) but that whole idea went out the window when she was snatched and Rick was left for dead. Luckily, the mansion is the location for horrible experiments by an evil parapsychologist and a floating “Terror Mask” latches onto Rick’s face and grants him the ability to walk down hallways.
There are a few leaps of faith one has to take when playing Splatterhouse. One of which is that a house, even one run by a demented parapsychologist, would have skeletons, children’s heads, chained-up nearly dead citizens, and wolves whose ribcages get exposed when you kick them just strewn about. Or spinning blades on the floor, weapons lying around, and a lower level that is filled with aggressive intestines and parasites that attack should you fall through a hole in the floor. Of course, I know nothing about parapsychology so I may be talking out of my ass. Maybe they do keep a flying inverted crucifix surrounded by floating heads just in case company arrives.
Splatterhouse is a quintessential late ’80s action game. It’s all about the patterns. Learning how to get the jump on an alien brain head once you knock it off its owner, how to be prepared when Rick walks past a mirror and the mirror Rick attacks, the best way to dodge burning men and burning logs at the same time, how to jump between puddles of ghastly fluid, and how the mid-level bosses tip their hand before bone claws shoot out of them. It’s unforgiving, especially when Rick tries to pick up a cleaver or shotgun. Creatures love to attack right as you’re about to weaponize.
Of course, the game stood out in the arcades at the time because Splatterhouse just gleefully embraced horror and gore and its screams and squishy sounds stuck out in a room filled with beeps and blasts and Sinistar’s talkative space head. It also stood out because of the hockey mask and the presence of implements of slaughter. Upon closer inspection the game isn’t a rip-off of Friday the 13th at all. It just steals the iconic face of a horror icon, but when you dig deeper the game actually pays its respects to bunches of horror staples. It’s how the game has a legacy at all. There have been a handful of games in the series and it’s survived through several generations of gaming. It’s actually a really twisted story, with Rick finally rescuing his girl only to have her transform into a less attractive thing that he has to kill several times before she returns to her normal form and then dies herself! He then has to kill the whole damn house. And then when he defeats a gigantic half-buried Slenderman/Dhalsim wannabe, he finally is freed of wearing that mask. In true horror fashion, a sequel is teased.
Splatterhouse is best treated as nostalgia. Even the most recent attempt to revive the brand felt quaint. It’s an artifact, but it’s a charming one. If H.P. Lovecraft were to somehow resurrect, Splatterhouse would be the first arcade game he’d want to play. That’s not an awful legacy to have.