Horror gaming has a long history with many variants whether they involve haunted house scavenger hunts as Lord British used to hold at his castle-like home or pen-and-paper tabletops like Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. But video games have also had their undead foot in the door for decades and one of the most enduring examples of that is Haunted House for the Atari 2600.
Released in 1981, the game even had a decent writeup to describe the creepiness that would ensue from a nocturnal trip into a mansion’s madness. It seems that the mysterious mansion was home to a “mean” old man named Zachary Graves who passed away some time ago. But stories of a magical urn hidden in the house and shattered in an earthquake long ago have also drawn people to its darkened windows, windows that sometimes flicker in the dead of night with the sound of doors slamming shut echoing afterwards. And then there’s talk that Graves’ ghost still haunts its hallways.
As a fearless urban explorer, you’re heading in — at night, of course — to find all three pieces of this urn and make it out without losing all nine of your lives by being scared to death. No problem, right?
Except the stories are absolutely true, and there’s a lot more to worry about.
Gameplay is set up as a sort of 2D, top-down view of the mansion’s rooms which resemble large rectangles connected by small passageways. The player is just a pair of eyes in the darkness with a bunch of matches they carry with them to help light up the floor around them as they run through, room by room, in searching out the pieces of the urn.
Spiders, bats, and even the ghost of old man Graves himself wandered through these rooms and it was up to you to avoid them. Scoring was different from most every other game out there. Instead of points earned for overcoming challenges, it was instead based on how many matches you used and how many lives you had left.
The game also had a number of adventure elements that made it a bit more interesting. The player could pick up things like a scepter for temporary invincibility against the critters wandering about, or a master key to unlock doors sealing off rooms in one of the other game variants. The trick, though, was that the player could only carry one item at a time. In order to use that scepter, you might have to drop a piece of the urn or the master key you just found.
Sounds were also a huge part of the experience. Wind whistling nearby heralding the approach of a monster could blow out your match. Going up and down stairs elicited sounds of their own, rising or falling to indicate what level you were heading to. Lighting would flash wildly as your eyes rolled when a bat scared you.
The game box above promised 9 video games which was based on the variants that you could pick from. The first version was the “easy” level with lighted walls and few monsters with the urn pieces within easy reach. But you could always crank it up for an even greater challenge such as walls that you can’t see unless you bumped into them or used a match, monsters that chase you from room to room, and taking away the protective power of the scepter against the ghost who can and will chase you even through locked doors.
It was simple, fun, and genuinely creepy for the time especially while running away from the monsters! Over the years, many other games would revisit the same themes such as Frictional Games’ Amnesia which sent chills down the spines of many players as they stumbled through their version of a colossal haunted house plagued with monsters with a protagonist who isn’t a Ghostbuster.
Haunted House remains one of the earliest examples of a horror-filled classic done right and it even had a homebrewed sequel on the Atari 5200 called Haunted House II 3D created by a big fan of the original in which you saw the world from a first-person perspective instead of from the top. A remake of the original was also released for PCs, the Wii, and Xbox LIVE featuring 3D graphics while retaining the original gameplay mechanics.
Or, if you just want to try out the original, you can do it over at Atari 2600 online in your browser though I’m not sure how you’d try out the other variants from it. Still, it surprisingly holds up well even today as a classic, horror-flavored romp for retro-gamers everywhere.