The House of the Dead (Arcade) Review

January 9, 2019

Hey there, people. For my first review since Halo: Fireteam Raven way back in August of 2018, I’m sure many of you were expecting a different House of the Dead game. Perhaps a more…recent release. But time, as we all know, is real hard to come by these days, and this is what I played. Reviews are super-duper fun, but boy-howdy are they time-consuming. It's not that I don't want to write them; it's simply easier to write commentary on recent news. I do, however, promise to publish lengthier, more exploratory pieces in 2019. For now, what you see is what you get, kiddos. You’d better enjoy it.

            One particularly interesting tidbit about this review: Despite playing the arcade version, I didn’t actually play The House of the Dead in an arcade venue. (And no, it wasn’t MAME.) I actually bought the cabinet for myself when the contents of the recently-closed Roller Dome Fun Plex were being auctioned off. Though I hated to see my childhood roller rink disappear, I couldn’t deny the incredible opportunity I happened upon. I actually bought four games that fateful September day, which is kind of bonkers. But we’ll discuss that in some other post. (Maybe.)

            In the meantime, let’s start the review.

The House of the Dead

Developer: Sega AM1

Publisher: Sega

Release Date: 1996/1997

 

Gameplay

Although it may seem fairly obvious by the 1996 release date, the gameplay in The House of the Dead is very classic in nature. Where modern rail shooters provide mounted-gun, unlimited-ammo, thrill-ride experiences, this title is one of those age-old, six-bullet, free-moving pistol shooters. (That was a lot of hyphenated adjectives.) I didn’t get to “spray and pray” here. Rather, ammo conservation is a priority, and every shot counts. This isn’t a particularly complex ordeal—simply blast zombie dudes and shoot off-screen to reload—but The House of the Dead makes it all so incredibly satisfying.

            One of my favorite things about rail shooters is how immersive they can be, given the right design. And this title is immersive in spades—not because of fancy cabinet gimmicks, but because of how it “feels.” The twitchy, on-your-toes gameplay made me feel like I was an AMS agent in the heat of battle. I was consistently engaged, never resting. After all, the next undead creature could be just around the corner. By the end of the game, my heart was racing, and I was honestly a little sweaty. (I am, of course, a sweaty nerd.) Playing through The House of the Dead reminded me why I love 90’s pistol shooters: They take a whole lotta skill, and they’re a whole lotta fun.

            As a classic rail shooter, there is no on-screen reticle. Thusly, The House of the Dead rewards player precision. Headshots not only drain enemy health considerably more quickly but also earn bonus points to increase your end-game ranking. In fact, memorization and precision are hugely integral to success in the long-run. If you know where the zombie guys are gonna pop out, you can kill ‘em and move on pretty dang quickly. However, it pays to keep an eye on environments while progressing, as well. Shooting some stage scenery (like boxes) will reveal special items, including extra life packs, coins, or golden frogs (which also increase life points).

            Throughout the game, you’ll frequently stumble upon hostage rescue scenarios. These are very short—but very fun—sequences that break up the non-stop shooting action. I’d find a scientist cowering in fear before or being chased by a zombie, and it was my job to rescue the poor soul. While shooting a hostage always takes away one of your life points, saving them will sometimes yield a bonus life pack. I know it sounds trivial, but hostage sequences are really cool. Sure, they can be a tad annoying if you shoot a friendly, but they go a long way toward spicing up the standard gameplay. It’s nice to have a little diversion from time-to-time.

             One thing that’s super novel about The House of the Dead, especially considering the era of its release, is how player action (or inaction!) can affect each individual game experience. There are three different endings to the game (good, bad, and neutral) all based on score/performance. Additionally, there are multiple paths to be taken throughout the Curien mansion. These can be accessed through means as obvious as shooting an arrow button on an elevator or as hidden as performing a certain, unspecified task. For instance, if player a rescues every hostage, they’ll be privy to a bonus room near the end, which is super cool.

            As cool as all that is, it’s impossible to review The House of the Dead without making mention of the kick-butt boss battles. While boss battles have sort of fallen to the wayside in many modern rail shooters (with Time Crisis 5 being a notable exception), The House of the Dead is a child of the 1990’s, boys and girls. Each of the four chapters ends with a unique, hair-raising conflict. Although they are certainly a challenge, they never feel unfair. See, each boss has a specific weak point. When he enters an attack animation, you must shoot repeatedly shoot his weak point during his “cancel period” to avoid taking damage. Once you deplete his health bar, you win. It’s a gameplay style that, as simple as it may be, lends itself to some pretty intense boss battles. And of course, since each boss fight is very different from the last, you won’t get tired of these tussles. I personally loved every second of fighting Chariot, Hangedman, Hermit, and the Magician.

            In terms of difficulty, The House of the Dead provides a decent challenge while still remaining judicially fair. It’s been proven time and time again by players much more skilled than I that Sega’s classic zombie shooter can, in fact, be completed with just one credit. And even for a slightly above average player like myself, the title can most certainly be tackled with quick reflexes, aggressive play, and memorization. I believe it took me around 20 credits to complete the game the first time around, with many of those continues coming from the final fight with the Magician. When playing on a machine set to $0.50, it’s not too bad. But when playing on a machine set to $0.25, it’s perfect. Keep in mind, though, that that was a bit of a weak playthrough for me and that’s it’s not hard to beat the game with fewer credits. The difficulty (at least when the machine is set to “Normal”) is perfect. The House of the Dead is a game that can be learned inside and out.

            In fact, a lot of the “difficulty” comes from achieving perfect playthroughs. With enough practice, you’ll eventually be able to breeze through the whole game. At that point, you won’t be worried as much about how many credits you use as you will be about improving your score and reaching the “good” ending. The House of the Dead is a high-score-chaser, through-and-through, and that’s what makes it so dang cool. And naturally, if you’re looking to up the fun, it never hurts to play with a buddy. The House of the Dead allows two players to kill undead guys simultaneously, as well.

            For a game controlled with only a trigger and start button, there’s a lot of depth to be found in The House of the Dead. The basic point-and-shoot gameplay is a heckuva lotta fun, but the many secrets and bonuses make it all the more compelling. As far as gameplay goes, I cannot recommend this title enough.

 

Content

As far as raw length goes, The House of the Dead isn’t the most substantial arcade game in the universe. Most playthroughs will last about 25 to 30 minutes. Compared to modern-day Raw Thrills shooters (which often push 45 minutes), it’s relatively brief. But believe it or not, this actually works in the game’s favor. The House of the Dead is so tightly packed that the fun never lulls. By the end of the game, I was still on the same excitement high that I started with. That, ladies and gentlemen, is quite commendable.

            Additionally, this brevity makes repeated playthroughs much more tolerable. I want to play again—learning each path through the mansion, uncovering all of the hidden items, chasing higher scores—because I know I won’t have to sit through an overly long experience. The ever-so-slight lack of content in the short term leads to considerably more content in the long-term. (Well, if that makes any sense.) The House of the Dead is a nice, convenient package. Not Silent Hill: The Arcade long, but not After Burner: Climax short.

 

Controls

The controls in The House of the Dead couldn’t be any simpler, but that’s far from a bad thing. With the free-moving pistol, pointing and shooting is super natural and intuitive. And of course, shooting off-screen has always been and always will be the coolest way to handle reloading. Since the game utilizes the standard .45 caliber guns of arcade past, it all feels really nice, too.

            Admittedly, there’s not a lot I can say about this subject. It’s a rail shooter, so naturally, player input is somewhat limited. Still, The House of the Dead controls darn well, and I think that should suffice.

 

Graphics/Presentation

In my opinion, the best way to review graphics in an older game is to compare it to its contemporaries; and in that regard, The House of the Dead is pretty danged solid. All character models (especially bosses) are clean, distinct and smoothly animated. Little details come together to make everything pop, as well. Zombie gore is detailed and realistic; characters’ mouths move when they speak (even NPC scientists); and all models behave naturally within the game space. During my playthrough, it was always a treat to see far away enemies that didn’t need to be killed for progression yet could be taken out for extra points. Fun additions like those not only make Curien’s mansion feel like a living, breathing environment but also enhance the gameplay experience for skilled players.

            The grim and gritty textures also create very real sense of atmosphere. This mansion is a dark, foreboding place. Admittedly, the game can be a bit too dark at times (a problem many older games face), but the environments are still largely visible. And even though the game technically takes place in a single locale, I never felt like I was treading the same tired ground over and over again. Each section of the house feels consistent while still possessing its own unique identity. While The House of the Dead is anything but a sandbox game, progressing through the mansion does feel like a genuinely interconnected experience. I was an AMS agent, breaking down doors and exploring Curien’s mansion.

            Of particular note is the overarching plot illustrated throughout the game. While the story itself is pretty interesting—but nothing too crazy—you’re really gonna have to pay attention to follow it. Given that there’s probably only around 10 minutes of total cutscenes, there’s not a ton of room for the story to breathe. And the voice acting, as everyone knows, isn’t the greatest. (It’s actually quite passable compared to The House of the Dead 2, but it’s still pretty B-grade.) Using the control panel art, the attract mode sequence, and the in-game cutscenes, you’ll most likely be able to piece everything together. (It certainly helps to have the manual from the Saturn port, too.)

            Despite what seem to be glaring flaws, I truly do believe that the plot presentation is excellent. With The House of the Dead, Sega did something few arcade games, or even many home console releases, were doing at the time. They not only crafted a superb gameplay experience but also employed more dynamic storytelling to hold it all together. The game is perfectly fun on its own merits, but the story gives you that much more motivation to push through to the end. The final credits sequence—walking back through the mansion to the tune of a grand, orchestral composition—is simply beautiful. For all of its camp and cheese, The House of the Dead really does a phenomenal job presenting its overarching narrative.

            The House of the Dead melds raw power, quirky personality, and ambitious storytelling together for a presentation experience that still holds up today. And it doesn’t just look nice—the game runs like silky smooth butter under even the most demanding circumstances. In terms of both graphics and presentation, this title is more than competent.

 

Sound/Music

Considering that the gameplay and presentation are already so finely tuned, it’s darn impressive that the sound design shines the way it does. While, yes, the voice acting is cheesy as heck, it certainly works. Enemy voice clips and in-game sound effects make up for it anyway, because they are quite good. (In fact, one of my favorite bits is the loud zombie groan that emanates from the cabinet whenever a credit is inserted on the title screen.) But whereas the sound effects are pretty solid, the music is positively astounding.

            The soundtrack employed throughout The House of the Dead perfectly blends action and horror to create a distinct, thriller vibe. This style is imbued as early as the attract mode, with a theme, fittingly titled “Attract Theme,” that’s just as epic as it is eerie. This composition, with its booming orchestra and chilling climax, makes for arguably one of the most enticing attract mode sequences of all time. As an elementary-schooler, longing to play this game at my local roller rink, the spooky music captivated me. And as you can probably tell by this review, it stuck with me for a long, long time.

            The stellar songs certainly don’t stop there, though. If you do end up inserting a quarter, you’ll be greeted by one of the coolest “first level themes” ever. It sets the tone for the entire House of the Dead series: While they may be a zombie shooters, the action tends to be prioritized over the horror. If you got past the iconic attract mode but didn’t play past the first chapter, this song probably left a huge impact on you. It’s memorable, kiddos. Even now, having heard every track in the game (including unused pieces), the Chapter 1 theme still gets me.

            The theme music on Chapter 2 is arguably even more action-packed. What it makes it interesting, I think, is the more prevalent horror themes. While The House of the Dead is anything but scary, I've always found that it straddles the line between action and horror in a uniquely deft manner. (The Chapter 2 theme is a little weird, though. Not quite sure why a little girl says, "Hello, daddy.”) And the Chapter 3 theme, like the much of the soundtrack, sounds distinctly video game-y in the best possible way. It's an adrenaline-packed song that hypes you up for killin' some zombie dudes. It's bad, it's rad, and it sounds great.

 

 

            The Chapter 4 theme channels the horror side of The House of the Dead in the same way that iconic attract theme does. I will admit that this track can get the slightest bit tiring when looped for extended periods of time (just the slightest bit!), but it's still cool stuff. You may not get as "pumped" when listening to this song, but you'll certainly grasp the true horror of the Curien Mansion.

            But nothing could possibly compare the wonderful, glorious, perfect Magician theme. The "Theme of the Magician" is one of my favorite boss themes of all time. It emanates and oozes the unadulterated feeling of "epic". You know that the fight you're about the get into—the challenge you're about the face—has real meaning, real weight. The Magician is no pushover; that's plenty clear. The horror, too, is plenty evident. By sampling the attract mode music, the "Theme of the Magician" conveys more than one emotion. This epic composition is interlaced with true beauty, too. "Theme of the Magician" is not just a song you like to hear in The House of the Dead; it's a song you can listen to at any time, anywhere. It's darn good stuff, and that's the truth.

            Then comes the ending theme, where the game’s soundtrack reaches its simultaneous climax and resolution. It’s a more than suitable reward for all that effort. The credits music signals not just the end of a long, difficult journey, but also new hope to come. It's a reflective, almost melancholic theme. It also just so happens to be one of the grandest video game credits themes I've ever listened to (perhaps only bested by its successor).

            One thing I've always found interesting is the difference in audio between the arcade version and SEGA Saturn version of The House of the Dead. Both versions feature the same compositions, but both have a very distinct sound. The sound in the arcade version is "video game-y", a product of the hardware SEGA was running it on. Many of the tracks more closely resemble the electronic/chip-tune kind of music that you would hear on a Super Nintendo or Nintendo 64. The SEGA Saturn version, however, runs on CD-based audio hardware. Each track sounds more "orchestrated", especially the credits music. While the Saturn is “technically” superior, I would argue that the music in the arcade version is leagues better. It creates a unique feeling. The more energetic tracks (like the Chapter 2 theme) are more bombastic and exciting on the arcade hardware. They are aurally distinct. It all comes down to personal preference, but the arcade soundtrack will always be my favorite.

            If it isn’t clear by now, the music in The House of the Dead is absolutely phenomenal, especially when played through the high-quality cabinet speakers. Perhaps it was a little over-the-top of me to describe almost every track in gory detail (heh-heh), but boy is this fitting game for that kind of treatment. Every song boosts the appeal of this already exceptional title. Every song deserves a listen.

           You wanna play this dang game yet or what?

 

Cabinet

As far as I know, there are three versions of The House of the Dead. One is a very flat upright with the monitor sitting far behind protective plexiglass, and one is a giant, deluxe model featuring a projection monitor. Both of those cabinets are super ugly. I, fortunately, own/played on what is, in my opinion, the best cabinet: an upright with a narrow body jutting out from the beneath the monitor. This cabinet is, as pictured here, is fantastic.

            For those more acclimated to modern games, this cabinet’s design is very similar to Raw Thrills’ 2010 Terminator Salvation release. And that’s definitely a good thing, I think. The shape of it might actually be favorite aspect. It’s not just another boring upright; no, it’s unique, attractive, and totally jivin’. Admittedly, the extended body might get in the way if you’re the type who prefers to stand close to the monitor while playing rail shooters, but it’ll still work fine enough. (Hopefully.)

            The artwork on this dude is especially delightful. And boy-oh-boy, do I love the side art messages: “KEEP OUT! The shooting game strikes fear in a person’s heart,” and “It feeds on your fear. Don’t go in the house…alone!” Pulling a real Dark Escape 4D move (albeit 16 years earlier), The House of the Dead warns players to stay away while simultaneously beckoning them to insert a credit out of morbid curiosity alone. It’s horrifying—and downright genius.

            And I do quite enjoy the control panel artwork, with its detailed gameplay instructions and character logs. Not only do I get to learn how to play, but I’m also privy to the knowledge that—hey!—G has blue-gray eyes. While most of the information (such as height, weight, and eye color) is relatively superfluous, you can dig up some neat lore, as well. Get this: Thomas “Rowgun” was born on February 9th, 1966. Sega didn’t have to include any of these small details, but they did. And you know what? I really appreciate it.

            Overall, the cabinet’s a joy to behold. I totally dig the red and blue color scheme and that oh-so appealing marquee art. But other than all that, I suppose the cab is fairly normal 90’s fare. It’s equipped with a moderately-sized, medium-resolution monitor and two .45 caliber Happ guns (with no recoil, mind you). Although the House of the Dead may not have flashy bells and whistles, that doesn’t make it any less fun. The cabinet is still wicked cool.

            But so is the rest of the game, right?

The House of the Dead has always intrigued me. Even as a little 8-year-old boy, I distinctly remember standing before the machine at the Roller Dome, practically longing for it. I’ll never forget watching a skilled player fight his way to Chariot. Or the spooky cabinet. Or the iconic attract mode sequence. The game was painfully alluring—always in reach but never in my hands. I swore that one day I would finally get to play The House of the Dead. And when I finally did, it was oh-so satisfying.

            The best part about this—besides the fact that I actually own the cabinet—is that the fun doesn’t stop here. I may have already experienced the first game, but there are still other installments—more zombie-blasting chapters that I have yet to taste. I can play HOTD 2, HOTD III, HOTD 4, HOTD 4 Special; maybe the “Typing of the Dead” games; perhaps Zombie Revenge…why, the list is almost endless. (Except it does end, because House of the Dead games are, in fact, finite.) But there’s one title that slips my mind….

            Ah, yes. That new one at Dave and Buster’s.

            We’ll discuss that soon. (Wink.)

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