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Haunted House - Survival Horror Origins on the Atari 2600

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What business do you have here in Spirit Bay? Us townsfolk don’t cotton to no strangers snooping around these parts, especially those asking about the old Graves Mansion. Don’t you know that place is haunted!?

Now don’t you go lookin’ at me like I’m some sort of superstitious old coot. Ever since ‘ole Zachary Graves kicked the bucket we been hearing strange sounds and flashes of light coming from that condemned mansion of his.

There were even some poor fools who went snooping around there trying to find the lost urn o' Spirit Bay in that house - None of 'em ever returned, and neither will you if you dare step in there.

Heed my words stranger, don’t go into the Graves Mansion or you'll be doomed...Doomed...DOOMED!

Basic Facts:

  • Title: Haunted House
  • Publisher/Developer: Atari, Inc.
  • Release Date: 1981
  • Platform: Atari 2600

There have been numerous games with the title Haunted House, but the 1981 release for the Atari 2600 still stands today as the most popular of them all, often credited as the pre-cursor of the survival horror genre.

The Set-Up:

As outlined in the game manual, in the town of Spirit Bay stands a crumbling, decrepit mansion owned by the grumpy, and even more decrepit, Zachary Graves. The paranoid crazy old man carried a scepter around with him everywhere to ward off evil spirits and rarely left his house.

As with most recluses living in a spooky old mansion, legends started forming about the old man, including one claiming Graves knew the whereabouts of the towns long lost heirloom, a broken urn once owned by the first family of Spirit Bay.

Eventually Graves passed away and his home condemned, but soon the townsfolk started hearing strange noises and lights coming from the mansion, which could only mean that the ghost of Zachary Graves was walking the halls, protecting his house from invaders who would dare to steal the urn.

The Game:

With the set-up in the manual out of the way, the gameplay has you searching the Graves Mansion to find and put together the four missing pieces of the urn, however things aren’t as simple as all that.

The mansion itself is pitch black, preventing you from seeing just about anything but the whites of your eyes. The only way to catch a gimps of your surroundings is to light a match, giving you a limited view of what's directly around you in the barren levels of the mansion.

Using your memory of the surrounding walls, sounds, and the limited light from the matches, you must navigate though each room, find keys to unlock doors, use the stairs to move between the four floors, and find the urn pieces, then escape all while avoiding the nightmare monsters of the haunted house.

Haunts of the House::

There are three types of creatures that are bent on making you another victim of the house. Each time one of these monsters comes in contact, one of your nine lives is lost. Go though all of your lives and the game is over.

Enemies include:

  • Tarantulas: Giant creepy crawly spiders. All haunted houses have tarantulas…right?
  • Vampire Bats: Since vampires can't also be ghosts, you’ll have to settle for the blood sucking bats instead.
  • The Ghost of Zachery Graves: Mr. Graves doesn’t like folks visiting his mansion, especially after he’s dead. One touch from Grave’s Ghost will “scare you to death.”

Objects and Tools:

The mansion is void of all furniture, but there are some items you can find that will help you in your journey; the only catch is that you can only hold one item at a time. With the exception of your unlimited supply of matches, to pick up a tool you have to drop whatever you are currently carrying.

  • Urn Pieces: The reason you’re in this spooky pad in the first place is to find the four pieces of the long lost urn, put them together and head out to safety. If your holding a piece of the urn and find another piece, they automatically merge together. When you have to pick up another item the pieces of the urn are dropped and you better remember where you last left it.
  • Keys: The house is filled with locked doors, so of course the only way to get into these rooms is to find the keys.
  • Scepter: Use one of Zachery Graves’ own tools against him. Back in life Graves used his scepter to protect himself from the supernatural, and now you can too. When the scepter is held you are completely invisible to the creatures in the mansion, including the ghost of Graves. Even if you accidentally touch one while passing by you won’t be hurt if your carrying this magical staff.

Multi-Floors, Multi-Levels:

There are a total of four floors in the house which you can navigate between via stairs at the North and South ends of each level. All of the floors have identical layouts, but you can which one your on by the number at the bottom of the screen and through the color of the walls. IE: the first floor has all blue walls, the second is orange, third is green and fourth is yellow.

While most Atari 2600 games had only minor differences between the difficulty levels, Haunted House took the unique approach by changing some of the gamplay and considering each level a different game, which is why the front of the box touts nine games in the cartridge. For instance, only the first level allows you to see the walls without the use of matches and all of the doors are unlocked, in the second the walls are all dark, but the doors are still unlocked, in level three some of the doors are locked and more enemies are present. Further levels include objects you are holding being moved to different rooms when touched by an enemy, and more spooky challenges.

Final Thoughts:

The gameplay of Haunted House is extremely well crafted and still holds up today. It’s obvious by that some of the mechanics were borrowed by Atari’s 1979 hit, Adventure, such as only being able to hold one item at a time and being hit by a creature moving an item to another room (something that happens in later levels).

While only showing the eyes of the player character seems odd, it actually allowed for better graphics quality when compared to other Atari games at the time, most of which looked like graphical blobs.

Haunted House still remains popular today, re-releasing with nearly every Atari 2600 collection for modern consoles and spawning a 2010 remake/sequel for the Nintendo Wii and on Xbox Live Arcade.

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