I have long held the belief that Atari’s Haunted House for the 2600 is a keystone in the foundation of adventure and horror video games. So what better day to talk about it than on Halloween?
Haunted House has always been one of my top ten favorite Atari 2600 games. Along with Adventure, it helped pave the way for the multi-screen action-adventure genre which would eventually evolve into games like Metroid. But even though Adventure could maybe give you a jump scare if you enter a room unarmed to find an unexpected dragon making a beeline toward you, Haunted House was actually designed to be scary. It actually did a pretty good job at that, given its technical limitations, and it did so in simple ways that were still used in games such as Silent Hill or Resident Evil much later.
A quick overview of the game: You are trapped in an old mansion on a stormy night. You must search the mansion to find three fragments of a magic urn to unlock the front door and escape. Of course, the mansion is crawling with spiders and bats and haunted by ghosts, just to make it more interesting.
One of the major elements in Haunted House was the use of limited visibility. The whole house is pitch black, except for the walls, and all you can see of your avatar is your eyes, cartoon-style. You are equipped with an unlimited supply of matches, which light a very small area surrounding your character, and you can’t see the items you must pick up unless you have a match lit. But matches only stay lit for so long, and if you enter a room with a ghost or creature in it, the wind will blow out your match. Also, you cannot see which doors lead to stairways, or which direction the stairs lead, without the light of your match. As a matter of fact, in some of the higher-level game variations (remember youngsters, 2600 games came with “variations” as opposed to “options”), even the walls are black, and there are doors between rooms, some of which are locked — you are literally alone in the dark, to coin a phrase.
You might find a key to pass through the doors, but you can only hold one item at a time — if you hold the key, you cannot hold the pieces of the urn.
This is a perfect parallel to the use of items like flashlights and keys in the Silent Hill games, fumbling around in the dark and trying to find your way back to unlock doors, leading to disorientation and a sense of claustrophobia. What a bold design decision back in 1982, when one would think that video games had to be clear in identifying their boundaries and objectives; this was one of the earliest examples of creating atmosphere in a game. As usual with Atari games, even without much graphical or audio detail, your mind tends to fill in the blanks, as you can imagine your footsteps running over old wooden floors, dust covering the pieces of the urn, and cobwebs in every doorway.
Haunted House is actually somewhat more threatening than most modern horror games in that your character is 100% defenseless. There is a scepter in the house that you can pick up, which makes you invisible to the ghosts and creepy crawlies, but again, you can only hold the scepter, OR the key, OR the pieces of the urn which are most important to the task at hand. Other than that, you have no offensive weapons with which to fight the enemies; if you see one coming, all you can do is run away and hope it doesn’t see you. Kind of like Alien: Isolation, right?
Of course, this would be easy if you already knew where all the pieces were, but their locations are randomly generated every time. So there are no shortcuts, no getting around it: you have to explore the house.
Granted, it’s still an Atari 2600 game, so there’s not much more to dive into. But I think you can clearly see the roots of Silent Hill’s lonely, defenseless protagonist with a dying flashlight, or the Spencer Mansion of Resident Evil, right here in Haunted House. Had the designers of those classics ever played Atari’s Haunted House? Maybe, maybe not. If they had, then we know where their influences lie; if they hadn’t, then it can still be said that Haunted House did it first.
Fire it up if you dare, and have a happy Halloween!