Archive for October, 2010

By Guest Writer Chad Morelock

The Splatterhouse series is about as old as I am. I first played Splatterhouse 2 on the Genesis, knowing absolutely nothing about it, only knowing that the cover at the video store looked awesome. And getting it home and finding it was a creepy beat-em-up and the first game I had played with any kind of gore, I was sold on the series. Horror themes had always appealed to me, and at that time they were few and far between in games (and even more rare in good games) – Castlevania offering an old-school Universal or Hammer gothic horror style, Alone in the Dark offering a Lovecraftian experience, and Splatterhouse nicely filling the 80s slasher/body horror category. This was at a time before games like Doom and Resident Evil had made gore and horror commonplace in games, and even in the toned-down console versions it was pretty shocking for its day.

Looking back, with a knowledge of the films that inspired it, I can more clearly see how the games were influenced by films. The game’s hero, Rick, is something of a combination of the beleaguered average Joe Ash from the Evil Dead series and Jason Voorhees, combining the former’s average-Joe backstory with the latter’s brutality and signature hockey mask (which evolved as the series went on to resemble a skull more but really – we all knew it was modeled after Jason). The mask is called the ‘Terror Mask’ and grants Rick the power to fight the demonic hordes of the Splatterhouse. His girlfriend is kidnapped by Dr. West (a callback to Re-Animator) and possessed by demons, another Evil Dead reference. In addition, there are poltergeists, bats, and mutant horrors that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg or Clive Barker flick. In a nutshell, it was 80s horror compressed into 16-bit glory (or should I say gory?).

The original game was an arcade release, which released in Japan in 1988 and North America the following year. As all 3 of the series’ 16-bit installments are, it was a side-scrolling beat-em up where you had to guide Rick through the West Mansion, fighting with weapons you found lying around – 2x4s, meat cleavers and shotguns- or more often, beating them with your bare knuckles. Rick must be one of the toughest game protagonists around, because the guy manages to punch poltergeist knives, acid-blooded parasites, and a mutant hulk with chainsaws for hands without so much as breaking a sweat. The game was ported to a number of systems in Japan, while its North American console debut was in 1990 on the ill-fated TurboGrafx 16. The American version was expurgated and toned down, but still managed to shock. And even though it’s pretty tame by the standards of God of War and the like, it might still manage to surprise you with its creepy atmosphere and impressive difficulty.

The first version of the game to make it to a console, shortly before the TurboGrafx port, was the Japan-only release Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (“naughty grafitti”). It was a departure from the gritty original and is a super-deformed parody along the lines of Konami’s Kid Dracula or Capcom’s Puzzle Fighter. The game is also a platformer rather than a beat-em up, and released on the Nintendo Famicom. The parody elements give it a different feel than the somewhat more serious central games in the franchise.

Splatterhouse 2 was released in 1992 and found Rick returning to the West Mansion to bring his girlfriend Jennifer back from the dead. It largely follows the format of the original, but its American release was largely more splatter-ific than the TurboGrafx release. The graphics are improved, similar to the arcade original and superior to the first game’s port. The game features several new weapons, as well, including a chainsaw of his own. Groovy! The game even contained some story scenes between levels, with Rick typically saying a short bit about where he was going next. There are more pop culture references to be had, with a giant head resembling Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, a transforming boss reminiscent of The Fly, and more general Evil Dead-ness. The game also introduces some more backstory concerning the powers of the Terror Mask, allowing it to open portals to the Netherworld. So far, this is the only installment of the Splatterhouse series to make it to Europe.

The third game once again finds Rick taking up the Terror Mask. A few years after the events of Splatterhouse 2, he’s married to Jennifer and has a young son named David. Jennifer and David have been taken and possessed by demonic forces, this time in Rick’s own mansion. This game changes up the rules of the series a bit – Rick can now move up and down the screen a’la Double Dragon or Streets of Rage, and he can also pick up power orbs which he can use to enter Super Mode, where he hulks out and thrashes enemies like a pro wrestler. Weapons are also few and far between and don’t seem to deal the devastating blows they once did. In addition, there are several sections where you have a limited amount of time to save Jennifer and David. You have to actually navigate the house (you have a map to help), and if you take too long you’ll get ever more dire cutscenes- however, whether you save them or not, the game continues as you slug your way through the hordes of the villainous Evil One (hence the name). Based on whether you save your wife and child (or one or the other), you’ll get one of four different endings.

The Splatterhouse series lay dormant for many years, a cult classic like the horror flicks that inspired it, until Namco finally dug up the first two installments for the Wii’s Virtual Console (stateside at least, I don’t know why most of the series never made it to Europe). Namco is finally revisiting the series, with a new game set to release in the States this November and in Europe this December. The game will include the original 3 Splatterhouse games, so those without the original carts (or regional releases) will be able to check the series out. I don’t believe in judging a new game until I’ve played it, but it looks to be like the originals, but in 3D and cranked to 11. However, we’ll have to wait until November to see if it lives up to its storied name.

Chad Morelock is a student and occasionally creative American who finds it odd describing himself in the third person. He has been gaming since he could push a quarter into a Spy Hunter machine. He also loves film, tabletop games and sharp cheddar cheese.

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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 Review

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

I have waited a long time for this game. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is the first new Sonic the Hedgehog game in the classic side-scrolling style of the Genesis/Mega Drive titles to appear on a console since 1994. For those of us who grew up with the blue blur- that’s a long time. Nostalgia aside, that’s a long time between instalments if you aren’t a big fan of the 3D incarnations.

SEGA has followed in the footsteps of Konami’s ReBirth titles, presenting this  new game in the same old-school style that made the originals work so well, with some new gameplay elements for modernity’s sake. And, for the most part, they’ve pulled it off pretty well.

The game is easy to pick up and play, although it’s got plenty of challenge even for Sonic veterans. You can run, jump, duck and perform a spin-dash as in previous titles, and the game also adds a homing jump attack. The homing attack is essential in the later levels, and is initially a bit awkward for someone set in his ways, but the learning curve is pretty gradual in the initial levels. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the physics, and I guess Sonic doesn’t control exactly as he did in the Genesis titles, but I didn’t find this to be any kind of hindrance to gameplay. The spin dash is a lot less useful in this game, which again can be awkward – but again, like any new control set, you do get used to it quickly.

Retro

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 for Xbox 360The levels are along similar lines of the stages you have in earlier Sonic games – there’s a lush, verdant hill zone to start in, as well as ancient ruins, a casino, and a machine-city, as well as a very cool final stage I won’t spoil for you. Most of them have a pretty even difficulty curve and often have mechanics unique to the level- i.e. the torch puzzles and rolling boulders in the ruins, which give each individual level a lot of diversity. Occasionally the level gimmicks are annoying, though – as a couple of levels spring advancing-walls-of-doom on you, which keeps tension up but can lead to a lot of lost lives very quickly. The momentum of the game is great, although it lacks a lot of open space to just run- you need to stay on guard or you’ll run into an inconveniently placed enemy. You can also choose the order you take your levels in after you complete the first stage, although you must complete all three to reach the boss level. The game isn’t terribly long, but what’s there is very good.

The bosses themselves are a bit uninspired – all of them are versions of Dr. Robotnik’s machines from previous games, with maybe one or two added twists. They’re also pitifully easy, especially if you’ve played the previous games. The nostalgia factor sort of works against the game in this department – I submit that Mega Man 9 and 10 would not have gone over well if Dr. Wily had just brought back the Robot Masters from the first game. It would have been nice to have some more creative bosses to fight, but I think (hope, anyway) Episode 1 will get the nostalgia-bosses out of the way and pave the way for some newer and more interesting fare.

The graphics are suitably sharp and well-defined. I played it on the Wii, so I didn’t get to see the HD version that PS3 and 360 owners will get, but since the Wii edition looked great, I can only imagine it will look even better. The backgrounds and foregrounds are particularly nice, with some great water and transparency effects, a psychedelic background to the special stage, and some nice lighting when alarm sirens are going. Also, be sure to check out some of Sonic’s idle animations- there’s some new ones beyond his classic toe-tapping.

The sound effects are familiar, and most of the sounds from the original games survive (right down to a high quality sample of the SEGA jingle when you start up the game). It all sounds perfectly crisp, and feels ‘right’. The music is pretty good – although in places it feels too laid back and not as funky as I like the Sonic series’ music to be. This is mostly in the Splash Hill Zone and Casino stages – the Labyrinth and Mad Gear stages have excellent and catchy music. This may simply be my nostalgic expectations acting up, though, and your mileage may vary. I do like the fact that you get different music for each act rather than zone- they’re all based on a single theme, but each stage features different variations, so you get a nice variety.

The Final Verdict

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a pretty good game that has a lot of room for improvement in its next episode. Sega put this episode back in development and took fans’ criticisms to heart, and I imagine the next episode will be more polished and streamlined. If you’re going to nitpick about how it’s not exactly like the originals (as opposed to me, who nitpicks about things that are the same), you probably won’t enjoy it much. I would say it’s a must-play for any Sonic fan, but Sonic has a notoriously broken fanbase, so I just say: I enjoyed it, and I think most of you will, too. It’s a solid, though not perfect, game. It looks like a sign of even better things to come.

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