Review : Atari Haunted House – Wii : Plus Win A Copy!

Note: This is the first a new series of articles where we review new games from a retro/viral/indie/web game developer/technical writer perspective.  Since we are not a game review site, we don’t want to review every game out there, but games that fit our perspective (retro evolved, retro remakes, indie experiments, downloadable games, etc.) we want to cover with our unique perspective.  Just like the magazines we loved in our youth (Electronic Games, Antic, Analog, CGW), we do not rate games with stars or percentages.  We believe games should be discussed in a fair and honest way without the burdon of a quickie ratings that do not tell the whole story.

Back in 1982,  Atari released Haunted House for the Atari 2600.  (Not 1981 as stated on the back of the new games’s box.  1981  is the copyright date, the game was released in 1982 -ed). Amid pressure from  competing platforms like the Mattel Intellivision, and 3rd party games for the 2600 (i.e. Activision’s Pitfall!),  Atari needed to release games that had more “staying power” than the simple arcade translations they had created for many years.  Both Superman and Adventure, released in 1979 showed, that the 2600 could have more involved games, but the lack of much of anything else with any kind of depth was becoming a huge problem for the platform.

The 2600 version of  Haunted House started as  Graves Manor (an awesome name! -ed) and then went through a few iterations  (i.e Mystery MansionNightmare Manor) before Atari Inc. marketing, using their knack for stripping almost everything interesting out of late-era Atari 2600 games (2K Pac-Man anyone? -ed), settled on the name Haunted House. It was programmed by James Andreasen, the same programmer responsible for the miraculous Realsports Baseball.

The game was set in the titular “haunted house”.  Your job  was to traverse the four floors (each with six rooms) of the mansion to find the pieces of a relic so you could get the heck out.  Spiders, ghosts, and scepter that scared away the ghosts figured prominently as well.  One of the main features of the game was darkness.  In the regular game mode, only walls were visible.  You ignited matches with the fire button that would light-up the area around your player, a set of “googlie” eyes.  Igniting matches was the only way to see the various objects and collect them.    The ghost’s arrival extinguished your matches, and hitting any of the baddies cost one of your nine lives.   The paradigm of a chase in the darkness, lit only by a match, was the key ingredient that set this game apart from many others.  It and helped transform, what was essentially a “maze chase and collect game”, into deep, interesting and compelling contest.

This original Atari 2600 game became a kind of “cult hit”, as it helped pave the way for a genre now known as “Survival Horror” (A point made by GameSpy’s Christopher Buecheler several years ago).   The game was a bit of a revelation when it was released.  It was still a bit crude next to some of the competition, but at the same time  it made hard core Atari fans sit-up and take notice.  Was Atari Inc. serious about trying make games that could compete on the same field as Activision and Imagic?   Unfortunately, Haunted House was followed up  by the adventure titles Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the Sword Quest series.   Those games had the dubious distinction of showing some definite promise, but also the serious limitations of the Atari 2600 at the very same time.

The new 2010 version of Atari’s Haunted House is refreshing for a couple reasons.  It is the first time in, maybe forever, that an original Atari 2600 title, one that was not already an arcade game,  has received a full commercial make-over.  Second , the game does not “shoot for the stars”, but reigns in the scope and keeps it close to the original.  Your job is to make your way through a darkened house, searching for a magic Urn, dodging ghosts and using limited light sources to find your way. In a very basic way, it is essentially the same game.  That’s OK though, as the basic game play is mechanic is an interesting one.

You start in the first dark room of the house, viewing your character from 3/4, overhead view. You cannot leave the house through the front door, so you must find another way out, and hopefully the magic Urn at the same time.  You have an initial light-source, a cell phone (very clever, by the way), that is stolen by a ghost fairly quickly…probably before you know what you are doing.   Your player is a set of googlie eyes,  an obvious nod to the graphics of the original game.  When you activate your light source, part of the room and your body is illuminated.  After your cell phone is used-up, you go about the various rooms searching chests, closets, trunks, etc. to find objects.  Much of the time, those objects are additional light sources that help you illuminate the darkness and continue searching.    All light sources have a limited life, so you need to be on the constant lookout for more matches, candles, cell phones, etc.  You can hold two objects at once, so you need to be careful about what you choose at any particular time. Areas of the house are divided by locked doors and floors.   There are various keys that must be located in each level that will open locked doors so you can continue searching for more light sources and other treasures and later, powerful weapons to fight off the ghosts.

The ghosts and others baddies  operate a lot like they did in the original game.  They will “blow out” your light source if you get too close, but instead of killing you instantly, they will “freeze you in fear” and you need to “shake out of it” (this is where the Wii-mote waggle comes in), and drain some your health.  Once your health is gone you “die”, but you can restart at the last save point.  Those save points  come in the form of fireplaces that, when lit, become a safe area, and damage ghosts near-by.   Later in the game you get torches and other objects that can be used to damage the ghosts directly, but when you start the game you are nearly defenseless.

As a simple design, the game is enjoyable, especially in cooperative multi-player mode. My 12 year-old and I played cooperatively, and the game had us hooked for a couple hours straight.  However, in the early part of the game, you really don’t have any way to defend yourself from the ghosts, but you still need to search for keys and find matches. This makes the ghosts a bit of a non-issue  because, even though they hurt you, there is not much you can do about it, and after a while, you just ignore them….waggling the Wii-mote when necessary to unfreeze yourself.    This works in a 2-player game because, if you die, you can restart with the other player and continue the game instantly. However,  I’m not sure if it would be the same in a single player game.

We did not finish the entire game, but the package says that it consists of 20 levels. However, it also says there are 4 houses with 4 levels each.  I’m not sure which is correct, but I do know that it took about 2 hours to finish the first house, so the entire game should take about 8-10 hours.  There are 3 difficulty levels, so if you play them all, there should be 30 or more of game here.    However, while the basic game design is compelling it does get a bit repetitive, so replaying all three difficulty levels might not be on your game playing calendar. All told, my daughter and I had a really fun time playing the two-player multi-player version, and she asked to play with me again.   As a father, that is all I ask for.

The game had some performance issues, mainly with slow-down at unpredictable times. Also, the waggle control for getting away from ghosts did not feel fully complete. Still, for the most part the basic controls and game engine work well.  The game’s theme is “scary”, but besides some sounds, the presentation is not really scary at all.  Inside jokes referring to other games and media with similar themes abound, so keep your eyes and ears out for them.

For what it is, Haunted House‘s proper distribution method should be something like Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, or WiiWare.  Since the Wii does not make WiiWare easily accessible to the masses, and there are problems with sales for most anyone except Nintendo, I can see why the choice was made to go with a retail game for the Wii.  However, the scope and features of this game have “download” written all over it.   What is included in Haunted House feels like a good value as a downloadable title, but it might get lost in the shuffle as a retail game.   The good news is, this game will soon be available for XBLA and PC download, which are both venues for this title.

Since this is the first in a what Atari has promised to be a series of modern remakes based on games from Atari’s classic catalog, here are some ideas for improving further games in this genre:

1. Develop a look and feel for the packaging a presentation that echoes history, but shows that it is something new.  The packaging and in-game graphics here are well-done, but do not echo their pedigree in any real way.    There is some rich history with this game, and it should at least be shown on the package in some way.  Think about how Nintendo treats Mario: A Mario game might be brand-new, but they still echo the past and you always know  what you are getting.

2. Set the price point to that of other downloadable games (about $9.99).  The two-player multi-player was really enjoyable, and worth a purchase on XBLA or Steam.  On the Wii, the $19.99 price-point feels a bit too high.  Of course, as stated above, the state of the Wii Virtual Console is not Atari’s fault, so this is probably the only way they could get it released.

3. The “Waggle” control in the Wii version of the game is unnecessary.  For a full Wii packaged game, it might be required, but since there are no other Wii-mote controls it is out of place and feels tacked-on.

In the final analysis, Atari’s updated version of Haunted House retains some of the charm from the original game, while updating the overall scope, and adding a nice two-player cooperative mode.   Aside from some obvious limitations, this  “limited light, chase in the darkness, treasure hunt” can be a addictive.  While it doesn’t appear to fit as a Wii retail game, it would be a fine title for any of the downloadable or mobile platforms.  Also, as a mild, kid friendly, holiday themed game for October, it is not a bad little choice.  We hope this game is a success, so we can see further updates of games like Yar’s Revenge (2600), Caverns Of Mars (8-bit), FoodFight (coin-up), Scrapyard Dog (7800),  Gates Of Zendacon (Lynx), and Iron Solider (Jaguar), among many many others,

Now for the contest!

We are giving away a copy of Atari’s Haunted House for the Wii.    Here are the rules:

  1. Tell us about a classic Atari game (coin-op, 2600, 5200, 7800, 8-bit, ST, Lynx, Jaguar) that you think should be remade like Haunted House.     We have linked to lists of those games to make it easy for you.
  2. Add you idea to our forum, here:

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