Many years ago in the small town of Spirit Bay, there lived a mean old man named Zachary Graves…
So begins the tale of Atari’s Haunted House, released in 1982 for the Atari 2600 console. As we lurch toward Halloween, let’s pay a brief visit to Old Man Graves’s house and the game which proved the progenitor of the survival horror genre.
The game featured you as a lone explorer, making your way through the abandoned and condemned mansion of the late Mr. Graves. Your mission was to collect three portions of an urn contained within the decrepit, old house’s walls. A simple enough task on its surface, but there were things lurking in the darkness and waiting behind doors.
Gameplay was similar to that of Atari’s 1979 game Adventure, except that instead of being represented by a small square, your character was simply a pair of eyes. Like Adventure, your character could only carry a single item at a time, but you needed multiple items to complete the game. There were also multiple difficulty levels to choose from, but unlike Adventure’s three levels, there were nine to choose from for Adventure.
You character could collect various items as you progressed through the game, three to be exact: a key, to open any locked doors you might encounter, a magical scepter, which rendered you invisible to the various haunts residing in the mansion, and the urn itself. Though broken into three pieces, the urn segments would combine as you found them. Playing on difficulty level nine rendered the magical scepter useless.
Of course, you were not in the mansion alone. It is, after all, a Haunted House. Tarantulas stalk you, as do vampire bats. There is also the ghost of Old Man Graves himself, a fast moving spectre who could move through walls and locked doors. If any of these creatures touched you, it resulted in a loss of life. Lose nine lives and the game was over. The speed of the creatures increased with each increase in difficulty level, and all creatures could move through doors when the level was set to nine.
As though these creatures were not fearful enough, you also had to contend with the dark. Items can only be seen by lighting a match. After the first difficulty level, the walls disappear as well. You locate them and find your way by bumping into things or striking a match to give you a brief view of your surroundings. The match only remained lit for a brief time before it burned out, or was blown out by the howling wind.
The game made creative use of sound. The game’s manual explained how, “The game sounds in HAUNTED HOUSE provide important clues to game play. You will hear yourself slamming into walls or locked doors. You will hear and see flashes of lightning. When you hear the wind blow, don’t be surprised if it blows out your match. As you pass through doorways, you’ll hear the doors open and shut. The mansion is so creaky you can hear your own footsteps as you race about the rooms. When you climb up or down stairways, you will even hear a spooky
tune. As you go upstairs, the tune plays low musical notes to high notes. As you go downstairs, the tune plays high notes to low notes.”
Finding and restoring the urn was only half the challenge. Once that was completed, you still had to make your way back out of the mansion. Survive the journey back the exit and you won the game.
Graphics on the game were extremely rudimentary, as would be expected of an early Atari game, and gameplay was not exceptionally difficult or complicated, but neither of these facts detracted from how enjoyable the game was (and remains) to play.