Genre: Light Gun Developer: Tantalus Interactive Publisher: Sega Ent. Players: 1-2 Released: 1998
With Virtua Cop, Sega managed to revolutionize the light gun shooter in arcades and laid one of the cornerstones of the 3D gaming movement of the 1990s. With Virtua Cop 2, the company took everything the predecessor pioneered and refined it into a smoother, bigger and better experience. It was the next light gun shooter, however, which would truly become a phenomenon: House of the Dead is considered a cult classic, an arcade smash hit and, according to some articles covering the topic, helped usher in a new era of horror in video games. And no doubt about it, what House of the Dead brought to it improved virtually everything that the Virtua Cop games had established before: A distinct visual style, creative enemy designs with versatile attack patterns, boss fights that actually took some strategy aside from just pulling the trigger as fast as possible, and an actual storyline which helped creating a more exciting and immersive experience than the regular cops-and-robbers-fare of its predecessors.
1998 would be the final year of the Sega Saturn in Europe and the U.S. (the console had enough gas for two more years in the tank in its native Japan), but before Sega decided to pull the plug, the game was ported over to the waning 32bit-console. Which is great news, isn’t it? After all, the Saturn ports of Virtua Cop and Virtua Cop turned out pretty well, so having this arcade legend on the console should be amazing, right?
Well, not quite. Even though it hit the arcades just about a year after Virtua Cop 2, House of the Dead was technically way more advanced. The models used in the game had once more increased their polygon count and were covered in more detailed textures. Even though the color scheme of House of the Dead is predominantly in brown, green or grey hues, the graphics still were leaps ahead of the earlier Virtua Cop games, and even though the setting veered heavily into sci-fi horror territory, the overall look and feel of the game was way more realistic and less cartoonish than what the other titles had to offer. However, as I mentioned earlier in my review of Virtua Cop 2, the Saturn already had to struggle with the level of detail that game had brought to the table, resulting in a release that was still very faithful to the original but more an approximation than a direct translation of the coin-op source. The challenge of bringing the more advanced House of the Dead to Sega’s aging fifth generation console was even bigger, and one can’t help but notice the struggles the development team ran into.
That isn’t to say that the Saturn version of House of the Dead is a bad game. The gist of what made the arcade hit so attractive is still intact. The plot is still the same, in all of its cheesy, charmingly horrible voice-acted glory. AMS Agents Thomas Rogan (player one) and his colleague ‘G’ (player two) still fight their way through the Curien Mansion to battle the menacing zombies and mutants sprung from the labs of Professor Roy Curien and the sinister DBR corporation. The enemies you encounter a much more varied in style and strategy than the gun-toting bad guys in previous light gun games: Where the latter only came in two fashions and flavors (wearing either sunglasses or balaclavas and attacking with guns or a single melee strikes), here you have a wide range of different foes, big and small: from regular, slowly lumbering zombies to hulks throwing exploding barrels, agile freaks leaping around and slashing at you with Freddy Kruger-like claws, flying enemies like bats and weird winged monkey-like creatures, or huge mutated maggots leaping at you from the sewers – the enemies you encounter are very versatile and make for a fresher, more interesting experience. The way the camera moves through the different locations, weaving left and right and occasionally going down a ditch or up a ladder, makes for an immersive, almost cinematic feel.
As you make your way through the Curien mansion – starting in the courtyard, then going through the sewers into the sprawling castle-like interior, fighting across the rooftops and then down a secret elevator into a spacious biochemical lab – you not only encounter monsters, but also entrapped lab assistants. Shoot them and you lose a life, but if you manage to save them before they fall victim to the game’s numerous monsters, they occasionally reward you with extra health or the occasional secret. Speaking of secrets, the mansion houses many a hidden passage or extra, like doorways obscured by a bookshelf or the like. Those don’t just house power-ups or bonus items, but sometimes even open up alternate routes through the eponymous House of the Dead. So trying to keep the hostages alive through all the danger and madness pays off in a fresh and more versatile gameplay experience.
The boss fights have also been improved compared to the Cop games. Whenever a boss is introduced, you’re not only presented with a short cut scene, but also with a small grimoire-like presentation showing a sketch of the monstrosity, as well as its weak spot. This is important, because unlike in the Cop games, most bosses can only be hurt at said weakness, or only at specific times. Just firing away at the creature as fast as possible will do you no good, as they will just ignore the damage or even use that to strike back at you. The key to winning these boss battles are careful, strategic and precise shots at just the right moments, which makes the combat much more interesting and fun.
Detrimental to said fun however is the fact that the Saturn hardware really struggles to keep up with the demands the game is putting up. The console isn’t able to push that many polygons or cover them in high-resolution textures, so the graphics had to be downgraded quite a bit. The result is a very pixelated, low-res affair with lots of dithering, especially when shadows and transparency effects come into play. It’s serviceable, and it gets the mood across, but many scenes just look like a mess. The sound design also took a hit. While the sound effects and the soundtrack are still very good and pack quite a punch, there is a tinny, sometimes hissy quality to them, and the voice samples are often horribly warbled (to be fair though, they weren’t exactly crystal clear in the arcade original either). Worse is the slowdown the Saturn version runs into when there are many enemies on screen or when the camera action is trying to shift too abruptly. The game runs into framerate stutters quite frequently.
The abundance of textures and different location dressings also necessitates mid-level load times, which disrupts the flow of the action quite a bit. What’s worse, the game has the nasty habit of pausing the action right before going through a door, only to hide one or two enemies right behind it which, of course, attack you the very moment the disc has stopped loading.
To offset this, the Saturn version of House of the Dead offers something that the Virtua Cop titles were severely lacking: Additional gameplay modes and console-exclusive extras! The “Saturn Mode” offers you a choice of different characters to play as with slightly different stats like reload speed, damage output, the length of your life bar of the size of the magazine of the single, lone pistol you are stuck with the entirety of the game. In the long run though, these characters (as well as the Saturn mode itself) don’t play all that different to the regular arcade mode. There’s also a boss mode where, as the name suggests, you fight the game’s bosses in succession (all four of them) in as little time as possible
House of the Dead is an arcade classic, and rightfully so. The Saturn port, though, really struggles to live up to this reputation. It tries its best to recreate the distinct style and flow of the horror shooter classic, and it still makes a fun diversion. But ugly pixelated textures, framerate drops and sudden mid-level loading times really let the game down hard and put a damper on the overall experience. Blasting zombies into chunks is still fun, and the shooting is pretty accurate, but the it lacks the smoothness and fluidity of other offerings the Saturn has to offer. Play it for the gore, or for the cheesy voice acting, but if you want some quick arcade-style light gun action, there are better games on the Saturn for that.
Score: 7 out of 10