The first time I saw The House of the Dead was in the summer of 1997: Zahle, Lebanon.
One of the main attractions for children and families in Zahle is a large outdoor arcade set deep in the valley.
Beneath the cool trees and flowing water, you can play anything from bumper cars to fighting games.
In ’97, we were there on a family trip, it was a stopping point. I remember having the distinct feeling of bored animosity.
Walking through the arcade, I couldn’t find anything that drew my attention long enough to warrant dropping coins. Then, out of nowhere a giant THotD cab loomed up, bigger than all the lights around it.
In the U.S., arcades still existed then, but they were few and hard to find.
I had been lucky in that everywhere I lived, there was at least one active arcade nearby, usually attached to a movie theater.
I still hung out a lot in arcades in the late 90’s. Every weekend when my parents would drag us to the mall, my brother and I would hit up the local mall arcade (Pocket Change) and burn through an afternoon.
Somehow, Pocket Change always managed to pull in new, expensive cabs at a time when other arcades were failing. I had no idea how they did it, but I was thankful.
They didn’t have what Zahle had though and the more I watched two kids burrow further into THotD, the more I hoped Pocket Change would catch up.
I was never excited about light gun games in the arcades.
In spite of its popularity, I felt Time Crisis was a boring and hollow experience. I did not enjoy the novelty of its pedal/cover system and I did not enjoy having a timer ticking down through the whole game.
The game felt disconnected.
Time Crisis operated only as a sequence of separate shooting galleries, never as a whole game. It had no fluidity.
At first glance, TC seems interesting: 1) There is a timer counting down through the game in which time is only added by finishing ‘scenes.’ 2) In order to reload and/or avoid getting hit, the player must release the pedal to return to cover, thereby slowing the player down.
Combining these two mechanics (urgency of time and tactical judgment) the game is asking the player to make choices.
However, the mud thrown into this machine of micro-choice is the addition of time through the clearing of sections.
The game has no forward momentum: Time Crisis only jumps from section to section, making it a jarring, unnerving experience.
In 1996, Time Crisis had been out for a year and I was done trying to like it.
Walking away from the ‘House’ cab in Zahle, what stuck with me was how much forward momentum Sega built into the game. THotD’s urgency didn’t come from some cheap mechanic (time), it came from atmosphere, a constant drive forward, and quickness.
I wanted to play it more than any other arcade game of that time.
A month later I left Lebanon and came back to the U.S., I went back to Pocket Change.
They had The House of the Dead. I couldn’t believe it.
I don’t know how they did it, but there it was: the same massive cab I saw in Zahle, next to the doorway, and a line of people that ran through the food court.
A line of people that Time Crisis couldn’t bring in.
THotD was one of the most cohesive arcade products I had ever seen.
The story revolved around two AMS agents, Thomas Rogan and G., called to the mansion of a well-known and highly regarded scientist, Roy Curien, after an ominous call from Sophie, Rogan’s fiancée.
Upon arriving at the mansion, the agents are immediately thrown into a grisly, murderous scene where all of Curien’s horrific abominations have been let loose throughout the entire complex. It then becomes the agents’ job to rescue Sophie and find Curien.
THotD’s cohesive process begins with the title font and styling:
Not only is the font of the title chosen as a reflection of older pulp horror franchises (See anything made by Hammer Film Productions), there is also the addition of the decaying hand summoning/corrupting/reaching for the person who may either be Rogan, G., or a scientist.
The person represented in the title is covered with scratch marks, signifying both abandonment (cobwebs) and violence (the scratching-out).
The intro cutscene is about a minute and a half long. In that short time, it does an excellent job setting up the premise of hopelessness: Scientists running for their lives, monsters being unleashed everywhere, dead bodies.
All this is set to an ominous intro theme riddled with bells and synth organ:
After taking in all these passive elements, coins are dropped in. Each coin engages a loud howl, bellowing from the speakers, another homage to older horror films and a reinforcement of isolation.
From the second the game begins, it pushes forward into its world. The player is greeted with a cutscene showing Rogan and G. pulling up to the house at high-speed, running out of the car, and immediately engaging.
The game never loses that momentum.
The world of THotD is a dark one. All the grass and plant life in the mansion courtyard are dead, the sky is dark. The initial interaction in the world is shooting an undead creature trying to kill one of Curien’s assistants.
The mansion itself is in complete disarray as well.
The environment shows how far into his own mind Curien had fallen.
THotD filtered urgency through its cohesiveness and the speed at which its camera moved.
Time Crisis was too disconnected and Virtua Cop was a glorified shooting gallery.
The first House of the Dead perfected the sensation of perpetual motion, a sensation that has since been a staple of the THotD series.
It was a fast, hot game then and it still is now. The way in which the camera twists and turns, the way it bends, is a thing of art. Movement in this game is the final cohesive link in Sega’s vision.
It is unfortunate that THotD is the best of the series. Its sequels consistently suffer from a lack of vision.
I was obsessed with The House of the Dead ever since I first saw it. I played that game any chance I could from 1997 on. Initially, it took me five dollars in quarters and 45 minutes to complete.
In 2012, I had all 20 of the top High Scores at another local arcade. I could beat the game on 25 cents and a little over 25 minutes.
The first time I saw and played THotD 2 was in Las Vegas, at the Luxor in 1999.
It was another of the massive cabs.
My parents dropped my brother and I off early at the arcade before heading to the Casino, around 10 AM.
After having played so much of the original, we couldn’t believe we now had access to the sequel.
It took us a little over an hour and around seven dollars in quarters to complete. The sequel was never as compelling as the original. Something about it was all wrong.
The difficulty was turned up, The action was slower, the camera did less.
There was no propulsion through that world, no urgency. It was lifeless.
The last major game Pocket Change bought before finally closing was THotD 3, which utilized giant plastic shotguns instead of the smaller, standard light gun pistols.
I played it once and walked away.
The shotguns were uncomfortable to hold, awkward to maneuver, and the series’ difficulty was turned up yet again.
With each iteration becoming slower, less dynamic, more difficult (cheap), and less cohesive: The series continually failed to achieve the promise of the original.
The most recent installment in the THotD series, The House of the Dead: Overkill, reworked the series’ aesthetic into comical pulp horror, the seriousness and dramatic effect of the previous games are completely erased.
The House of The Dead revolutionized light gun games. It was incomprehensibly cohesive and faster than any other game of its kind. It was one of the last true arcade games that challenged and engaged the player with seriousness and immersion.
Given the death of the arcade outside of Japan, we will most likely never see another game like it.
We will never have the kind of cohesive immersion THotD presented. An immersion rivaled only by Virtual-On: Oratorio Tangram.
The House of the Dead had charisma, it touched on something, attracted people to it.
Exactly what its successors could never do. It was an excellent game with a strong identity, a strong sense of how it wanted to be.
Action games today can learn so much from studying what The House of the Dead presented: meticulous cohesion, immersion, and perspective.
Afterall, its only fitting that it be remembered in better games than the series it spawned.