An old classic from yesteryear, Namco’s Splatterhouse crept into Japanese arcades like a bloody and gruesome tribute to slasher flicks everywhere in 1988. It was also found in America, albeit in a limited sense, in 1989. I remember seeing one stand-up, many years later, lurking in a local theater. But most players would probably remember it from its days on NEC’s Turbografx-16 in 1990. I remember how the ads and talk about this game made everyone think you would be like Jason from the Friday the 13th flicks. No one had really expected anything like this on a home console.
In the arcade, and at home, Splatterhouse is a side-scrolling beat ’em up loaded up with gore, screams, and wicked music. It posted plenty of horror-themed goodies in the backdrop with tormented prisoners, hanging corpses, and mounds of twisted flesh bubbling oozing ichor. Weapons like cleavers and 2x4s sliced enemies in half or slammed them against dungeon-esque brick walls as you moved through a mansion filled with horrifying creatures.
It also had a story. Rick and his girlfriend, Jennifer, are parapsychology students. They learn about the mysterious house of a Dr. West, an icon in the field, whose experiments at his mansion have given it the nickname of “Splatterhouse” because of what people thought he was doing. Was he creating monsters in secret? What was he really researching? No one knows and the mysterious doctor apparently disappeared leaving the mansion derelict and abandoned. But because of the rumors of his work, no one dared to enter it. That is, until Rick and Jennifer get it into their heads to get to the head of their class by checking out what Dr. West might have been working on.
Things quickly go wrong as soon as they enter the mansion — at night, of course — when whatever lights they have cut out plunging them into darkness. When Rick comes to, he’s covered in blood, in a dungeon, and has a mask stuck to his face that apparently gives him a mean punch and swinging arm. As for Jennifer, she’s nowhere to be seen, so he sets out to find her and survive the terror of the Splatterhouse.
Namco’s pixel artists articulated the massacre without pulling any punches. Machetes sliced enemies in half, bats didn’t just “flash and disappear” — they turned into a slightly bloody pulp. Even though we had Bionic Commando on the NES with Hitler’s head doing the pinata, Splatterhouse did that with nearly every squishy punch, kick, or weapon swing.
The arcade port over to the TG-16 was actually pretty close to the arcade version, though like most conversions in the day, hardware limited the degree of fidelity with which they could be ported over with. As anyone that had seen a game like NARC on the NES can testify, developers did their best to at least approximate the same basic gameplay even if the hardware couldn’t match the superior arcade hardware in visuals or sound at the time. Or they would just do something completely different such as what happened with Strider’s action-adventure take on the NES. But it isn’t too much to guess that what was missing from the port was largely due to the same kind of restrictions.
Many of the differences were largely cosmetic – the TG-16 version didn’t have as detailed an intro or an ending as the arcade version did which could leave players asking questions when the sequel came out. The mask, in the arcade, looked suspiciously like Jason Voorhees infamous hockey mug from Friday the 13th, something that the US port avoided by coloring it (it was supposed to be something like an Aztec mask). Religious imagery from the arcade version, like a reversed cross and an altar, were also brushed out in the port over for the States.
It was largely the gore that set this beat ’em up apart from other titles in the day because, partly, the console market was still dominated by Nintendo and, indirectly, by censorship policies that Nintendo and other developers followed as a matter of business. NEC apparently didn’t have as much of a problem with a knife wielding “hero” on their system, however, which made Splatterhouse novel for what it got away with on a home console.
Gameplay-wise, however, it was a decent beat ’em up but somewhat crude compared to its peers in the arcade. Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1987, Taito’s Double Dragon in the same year, and later, Capcom’s Final Fight in 1989, took the beat ’em up genre by storm with fast moves, the ability to move freely around on-screen, and providing destructible items and environments among other things.
In comparison, Rick walked and jumped like a truck, limited to walking only left or right, had few attack moves, and didn’t have as much stuff to destroy or pick up as weapons to be used against his enemies. Yet Splatterhouse endures because of its atmospheric nod to horror that splatterphiles everywhere remember it for as well as being a solid, fun beat ’em up that hit enough of the right marks.
It would go on to be ported to other systems such as the FM Towns and, many years later, to the Wii and the iPhone with varying results. It would get two more sequels in ’92 and ’93 respectively, both of which were on the Genesis where Sega wasn’t quite as anal about censorship, and even a remake in 2010 which was actually pretty fun. The remake even has all three classic games on disc as unlockables making it a fantastic way to get the original, uncut arcade version of Splatterhouse and the two console-only sequels for classic gamers out there eager to plumb into this piece of horror history.
Splatterhouse is probably one of the few horror-themed beat ’em ups on any system, or even in the arcade, and that alone makes it worth looking at whenever you might have the urge to go a little retro on the dark side.