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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Obscusion B-Side: 20 Years of The House of the Dead

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Capcom's iconic Resident Evil, the game that, though inspired heavily by the likes of Sweet Home & Alone in the Dark, is generally considered the father of survival horror; it did coin the phrase, after all. That being said, I'm not talking about that franchise's legacy (at least, not yet). Instead, I want to look back at another horror game franchise that made its debut in 1996, one that may not have the cachet of Resident Evil but deserves its own love & respect.

Happy 20th Anniversary, The House of the Dead!

While Capcom introduced survival horror to the world on March 22, 1996 via the Japanese release of Biohazard, Sega would introduce its own iconic horror game to Japanese arcades on September 13, 1996. At least, that's the only definitive date I could find, others simply say just 1997, so I'm going with that. Developed by Sega AM1, The House of the Dead, no relation to the 1860's Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel of the same name, was a Model 2 arcade light-gun rail shooter that took quarter-feeding players on a journey through a giant mansion which had been taken over by hordes of undead creatures, eventually stopping a mad scientist from unleashing his ultimate creation upon the world. Yeah, the basic plot (& I mean basic) does sound slightly similar to Resident Evil on the surface, and both franchises would end up receiving their own crazy, semi-convoluted plotlines as sequels abounded. Unlike RE, though, HotD would only see so many entries in its life. Still, there are so many spin-offs in Sega's franchise that I want to simply focus on the main, numbered entries for this retrospective; I'll bring up spin-offs & curious ports if necessary, though. Yes, this does mean that I'll be skipping over The House of the Dead: Overkill, so sorry if that disappoints you. Anyway, let's start it all with a frantic phone call for help...

December 18, 1998. Thomas Rogan, an agent of the organization AMS, receives a call from his fianceƩ Sophie Richards. Sophie is saying that people are being attacked & dying at the mansion of biochemsit/geneticist Dr. Roy Curien where she works, so Rogan heads straight over with his AMS partner, an agent known only as "G". Upon arrival the two see the scientists of the mansion being killed by creatures that look like the undead, & Sophie is taken away by a gargoyle-like creature. Armed with only their six-shooter pistols & a book detailing the deadliest of these monsters, all named after the Major Arcana & given to them by the first scientist they find before he dies, Rogan & G enter Curien Mansion, hoping to not only save Sophie but also put a stop to Dr. Curien, who has seemingly gone mad.

First thing first, the House of the Dead franchise as a whole never uses the word "zombie", which is explained in a 2012 interview HotD website Website of the Dead did with series creator & director Takashi Oda; in short, the monsters in the series are "copied" & "created" by science, not humans who were turned. Yeah, Overkill poked fun at that by having G tell Isaac Washington to never use the "Z word", but that was simply keeping true to the series' lore. Anyway, the original House of the Dead was a relatively simple light-gun shooter for its time, constantly moving you from one area to another, shooting any & all monsters in your way, while also often reloading your gun by shooting away from the screen. While the game obviously took some inspiration from AM2's Virtua Cop games, there were some differences. Instead of simply not shooting innocents, ala VC, you had to rescue scientists that were still trapped within Curien Mansion, and doing so successfully would sometimes give you extra life. The action was also much more kinetic & frantic, with monsters generally charging at you like crazy, usually two, three, or even four at a time; compare this to the more shooting gallery-like Virtua Cop. Also, you can outright dismember the monsters like crazy, removing arms, heads, & even torsos; not even Resident Evil was this rough on its zombies. Finally, the game featured four "chapters", with Rogan & G going further & further into the mansion until finally confronting Curien at the end; unlike VC, you couldn't choose the order, thereby creating an actual story to follow.

What helped make The House of the Dead so different from other games of its genre, though, aside from being horror-themed & featuring completely polygonal graphics, was the sheer amount of alternate paths one could take in the game. Depending on your actions during a stage, like saving a scientist or shooting a trap door, you would end up taking all sorts of varying paths, though you always wound up at the same place at the end of each stage. Still, even with only four stages in total, HotD featured a ton a replayability due to the sheer number of alternate paths; you'll often wind up taking a different path on successive replays without even trying to. There was also a larger focus on set pieces, with probably the most memorable being the boss fight with Hangedman (the gargoyle) in Chapter 2, as you'd start off on a balcony before moving to the rooftop, and then finally end off with Rogan & G literally hanging off the ledge of a windowsill while still having to fight off Hangedman. The music by Tetsuya Kawauchi was another highlight, going for more of a house or dance influence that, oddly enough, fit the game perfectly; "Chapter 1: Tradgedy - A.M.S. Agent" is still an absolutely iconic anthem. Of course, being an arcade game, HotD was also insanely hard & very cheap, with Hangedman & final boss The Magician still being sore spots for many fans to this very day. Still, the original House of the Dead remains a short, hard as hell, & very fun beginning to the franchise, but it's also the least easily available entry of them all.

While I can't verify this information, the last I read was that Sega lost the original source code to the original House of the Dead, similar to what happened to other games of the time like Burning Rangers & Panzer Dragoon Saga, which means that it's likely that it will never see a modern day port of any kind. While there is MAME for those who know how to use it, & there are still some random arcade cabinets still floating about in the world, the only official ports the game ever saw were on the Saturn & PC in 1998. The Saturn port, though a bit of a technical marvel in how such an advanced Model 2 game was even ported to the weaker Saturn hardware, was not ideal by any means, with reduced graphical quality (made all the worse by word that it was a slightly rushed port due to the system seeing less support from Sega), numerous load times within the stages themselves, & various bouts with slowdown. The PC port, though a much better looking & playing version (& featuring all of the extra content that the Saturn version had), was made with Windows 95/98 in mind, so compatibility issues may rear their heads if you were to try to play it on a modern PC; playing with a mouse, though better than a controller, can't match a light-gun, either. Also, anyone who tries to get the game through "other methods" now will quickly realize that none of the music actually gets installed alongside the game data & other audio; instead, the music was streamed off of the game disc while playing. It's disappointing that The House of the Dead is so inaccessible to people nowadays, but at least the sequel took everything that made the original so good & simply improved upon it.

February 26, 2000. It's been fourteen months since the Curien Mansion incident ended with the death of Dr. Curien & Sophie Richards being rescued safely, but Agent G has gone missing, with his last known location being Venice, Italy. At the same time, the city becomes infested with the same seeming undead that took over Curien's residence, leaving AMS agents James Taylor & Gary Stewart to not only locate G, but also work with fellow agents Amy Crystal & Harry Harris to put a stop to the Venice infestation & find out what DBR Corporation CEO Caleb Goldman has to do with all of this.

Released in November of 1998, The House of the Dead 2 was an ideal example of what a sequel should be, at the very least: Everything the first game was, but bigger & better. In terms of gameplay, there really wasn't anything new or different from the original. You still used a six-shooter pistol, you could still dismember monsters like crazy, & there were tons of alternate paths. Sure, the scientists were now replaced with the residents of Venice, but saving them still netted you extra lives & sometimes even alternate paths. What made HotD2 special, though, was simply that it's truly bigger & better than the original in every single way. With the power of the Naomi arcade board behind it, this game featured many more monsters (both in variety & general number), more gore, bigger & more varied environments, & even a larger focus on storytelling. Even the music could be argued to be better on the whole, with Tetsuya Kawauchi returning alongside a debuting Haruyoshi Tomita to deliver an excellent mix of original tracks that went for a more rock-influenced sound, alongside remixed versions of the two most iconic songs from the original, "A.M.S. Agent" & "Theme of the Magician". Personally, my favorite original song from HotD2 is easily Tomita's "Enemy's", which I think is the best (general) boss theme in the entire franchise.

The Naomi hardware also made it possible to create an arcade perfect port to the Dreamcast in 1999, since the system's hardware was essentially a modified version of the Naomi hardware. Sadly, there was one cool thing that didn't happen, though it was planned. For the flashback sequence in the intro, the HotD footage wasn't simply pre-rendered footage of the arcade original, but rather those pieces were outright remade using the HotD2 engine. In fact, possibly due to the loss of the original game's source code, the original plan was for the Dreamcast port of the sequel to include a full-on remake of the original game using the new engine, but when it was decided to get it out in time for the international launch of the system, the remake was dropped. Overall, The House of the Dead 2 may be the hardest entry in the mainline series (though one or two bosses are fairly easy), but it also may be the absolute best of them all, delivering a pitch perfect rail shooter experience with lots of replay value. However, there may be one aspect of HotD2 that has completely overshadowed just how good of a game it is, and that's the voice work.

Oh boy, is the voice work in this game terrible in all of the most enjoyable ways. Granted, the original game's voice work wasn't exactly all that great, either, but there wasn't that much of it, so you wouldn't normally notice. In the sequel, though, there's voice work everywhere. The citizens of Venice scream with all sorts of inflections, James & Gary are often seemingly confused in just what kind of emotion they should be emoting at certain points (usually sticking with just above monotone), Amy's Scottish accent fluctuates in intensity depending on her line, & Harry both can't emote well at all & doesn't know how to pronounce the word "genome" (saying "geh-nome" instead of "gee-nome"). Without a doubt, though, the absolute crown for terrible voice acting in HotD2 went to Goldman, who I can't even properly describe; just watch this video over at YouTube. As bad as the voice work was in this game, though, it simply added to the fun factor, making an already outstanding rail shooter even better. In fact, it even fit the game better when you play the typing game spin-off, 1999's The Typing of the Dead. That's not even the end of the weird spin-offs, either, as HotD2 was the main basis for 2002's The Pinball of the Dead for Game Boy Advance, and was later adapted into an English tutor for the Japanese public via 2008's English of the Dead for the Nintendo DS. Yes, these are all real products, & they just showcase how iconic The House of the Dead 2 is in the franchise.

It's the year 2019, and the world has become an apocalyptic wasteland overrun by the seeming undead; Curien Mansion & Venice were only the beginning. In an attempt to find out how this all come about, ex-AMS agent Thomas Rogan leads a commando squad into the EFI Facility Center, which holds Dr. Roy Curien's original research which lead to the 1998 incident, only to wind up going missing. Two weeks later, Rogan's daughter Lisa heads to EFI, hoping to find her father. Assisting her is Rogan's old partner G, and both have upgraded their arsenal, now wielding pump-action shotguns. In the process, though, the two will find out what Dr. Curien originally intended with his research, while an old "Mystery Man" (or "Mystic Man" in the original katakana) is watching everything with interest.

After a four year hiatus, Sega released The House of the Dead III into arcades in 2002, this time powered by the Xbox-based Chihiro arcade system. Originally designed to utilize cel-shaded graphics (& sporting the Arabic numeral "3"), HotDIII wound up going for a more traditional visual style, though characters were notably still more lanky than in the prior two games. Instead of simply trying to take what came before & improve upon it, which I don't think could have been done in the first place, the threequel did mix up the gameplay in some noteworthy ways. First & foremost is the switch from using a six-shooter to wielding a shotgun, which was (& still is) fairly rare to see used in arcade rail shooters. While you still had only six shots per clip, the shotgun changed up the general dynamics of shooting. For example, reloading when empty was now an automatic action instead of requiring the old standard of shooting away from the screen, though in the arcade you could also manually pump the shotgun to reload at any time; a nice feature. Also, the blast radius of each shotgun blast was much larger than the old pistols, not to mention would deliver more damage in general. This resulted in the game focusing more on quick movement between hordes & delivering fast kills, making for a much faster-paced game in general.

Sadly, though, developer Wow Entertainment (an offshoot of Sega AM1) wound up removing the myriad of alternate paths that made the first two games so readily replayable. To its credit, HotDIII did let you choose how to take the first proper stage ("Chapter 0" is a short prologue where you play as Rogan), & you could choose the order to take the following three stages in, but none of them offered any sort of alternate paths within the stages themselves; at most was how your first stage choice decides which direction you take the following stages. Partly this was because there were no civilians to rescue in this game, which is what determined alternate paths before. Instead, the game's story relids on there being two characters at all times, whereas before only one character would be seen in a single player run, and each proper stage had you rescuing your partner from taking damage; should you succeed you get an extra life. It was a neat variant of the usual rescuing system implemented before, though (in my case) seeing G needing constant rescue was kind of silly. Finally, HotDIII was also an easier game in general than its direct predecessor, though the change in reload (which includes an animation) would likely be what resulted in you getting hit more often than not. The bosses were all pretty cool, though, & the final boss (The Wheel of Fate) was possibly the most maddeningly difficult one in the main series, which I guess balanced things out slightly.

Sadly, after two games filled with really great soundtracks, the threequel kind of dropped the ball. Composed by Eriko Sakurai, HotDIII's music fit the game just fine, but overall had absolutely none of the bombast, style, or instant memorability that Kawauchi & Tomita's respective soundtracks had. In comparison, however, the voice work was a marked improvement over what came before it. While it's still intensely cheesy & not exactly professional grade acting, the actors here easily came off sounding much better. The banter between Lisa & G was fine, the flashbacks featuring Curien were easily the most natural sounding of the bunch, & the writing was obviously much more focused on having fun at times. Lisa would give little quips toward every single boss she fought, usually being punny to varying extents, & G's remarks about being caught by the undead were sometimes silly, like saying "Hey, don't touch me there."

Overall, The House of the Dead III is an excellent rail shooter on its own merit, well worth playing, but the changes made to the HotD formula both give it a feel that's all its own while also feeling more constrictive than before. The game had a port to the original Xbox just a few months after the arcade release in 2002, which featured HotD2 as an unlockable extra, followed by a Europe-exclusive PC port in 2005. In 2008, Sega released The House of the Dead 2 & 3 Return for the Wii, which made the two games playable on modern TVs (i.e. not CRTs) by using the Wiimote's pointer control system. The second game is essentially a perfect port, while the third runs just fine, though there is word of hiccups in the framerate at times; I generally didn't notice them, though. If nothing else, this twin-pack is the easiest way to play HotD2 right now, especially if you own a Wii or Wii U. Finally, Sega ported HotDIII to the PlayStation 3 in 2012 as a digital-only title, complete with support for the PS Move motion controller. This is easily the best way to play the threequel on modern televisions, & still goes on sale on PSN every now & then. If you want an oddball spin-off, though, then you can try to hunt down The Typing of the Dead II, which did with HotDIII what the original TotD did for HotD2; it saw arcade release in 2007 & a PC release in 2008, both only in Japan.

Seriously, who can say no to keyboard shotguns?!

The year is 2003, only a few years after AMS put a stop to Caleb Goldman's undead overthrow of Venice. James Taylor, who personally helped defeat The Emperor back in 2000, has decided to return to Venice with newbie AMS agent Kate Green to visit AMS' European Headquarters, due to a feeling that the "Goldman Case" was only the beginning of something bigger. While in the basement records room, the two get trapped due to a sudden earthquake, and after a few days of waiting for the rescue squad decide to try escaping after James' PDA shows footage of the undead on the security cameras. Now James & Kate have to figure out what exactly has happened while they were trapped, & how Goldman's legacy of "Pandora's Box" figures into all of this.

Released at the tail end of 2005 in Japan (& worldwide in 2006), The House of the Dead 4 was easily the biggest change up in the entire franchise. The first game ever powered by Sega's Lindbergh system, HotD4 was the very first arcade game to ever use a high-definition widescreen layout, resulting in a larger amount of screen space than ever before, and Wow Entertainment took complete advantage of that. While the previous entries in the franchise usually featured, at most, four or five enemies (maybe six in rare instances) on screen at once, HotD4 had no problems whatsoever cramming the screen with as many as ten to fifteen enemies at once, resulting in literal hordes of undead coming at you at times. To combat this fairly, Wow threw out the shotguns from III & introduced sub-machine guns, as well as a limited supply of grenades that could be thrown at any time as crowd control. Some motion control was added in, too, mainly via shaking the faux-SMG. In regular use it's now how you reload your gun, but in some instances the characters have to get past an obstacle (or enemy), in which case you had to shake the gun until a meter filled; nothing more than a few seconds to fill, really.

The end result was that this midquel was easily the fastest-paced game in the entire main House of the Dead series, with constant hordes of monsters coming after you, tons of ammo shoot with, & the occasional use of a grenade to let you breathe for a moment. The bosses were also some of the franchise's best, both in general design & execution. This was all combined with a good amount of callbacks to HotD2, which made sense considering the storyline told here. The first boss, Justice, was essentially a sewer-based variant of 2's Strength, and Chapters 5 & 6 were near-remakes of the same stages from it's timeline predecessor, with some really cool attention to detail. There's no doubt that this was partially done to evoke a feeling of nostalgia to long-time fans, but it was still very well done, so one can't really discount it for that. Even the voice work was especially good, probably even the best in the numbered entries (Overkill has the most professional voice work of them all, though). James came off much more gruff & older than you'd think (though a quick shot in Chapter 6's prologue retcons him as being older in general), though the new actor seemed to try to keep some of the original actor's odd inflections, while Kate was mostly very natural in her delivery. Hell, Goldman's new actor made him downright creepy & threatening, a supreme improvement over his original actor in 2. The music was also absolutely fantastic, as well. The duo of Susumu Tsukagoshi & Makito Nomiya focused on giving the soundtrack a strong mix of industrial & electronica, which helped push the newly apocalyptic feel that Venice now had, and the remixes of themes by the previous three games' composers all sounded great, too.

If there was any real issue to be had with HotD4, though, it would be that it also didn't feature the massive amount of branching paths that the series originally became known for. Thankfully, though, this game was not as empty as HotDIII was in that regard, as all but the last two stages (i.e. the remakes of 2's stages) featured about two sets of alternate paths to take, either by timed choice or by not filling up a shake-required meter. To be fair, however, this game was very story-focused (at least, compared to the games preceding it), and the complete lack of any sort of rescuing mechanic essentially removed any option for that. This was also a comparatively easy game against the second, with even the final boss (The World) being the easiest one in the series. It's easy to spray around with the SMG, which made it easy to hit enemies & deal constant damage to bosses, though doing so wouldn't maximize points (which focused on getting head shots) & kept you from getting the best ending (which required at least a B rank on every stage). That being said, The House of the Dead 4 simply delivers so much nonstop & frantic fun that I personally feel that it's right up there with The House of the Dead 2, so much so that I can't really give a definitive answer as to which is the absolutely better rail shooter. Unlike the other games, HotD4 only ever saw a single home release, which was on the PS3 in 2012 as a digital-only release; much like the PS3 release of HotDIII, this is the perfect way to play it at home (no choice otherwise, though). Without a doubt, these two games alone make it worth owning a PS Move, though the PS3 does have some other great rail shooters that support the Move as well (Time Crisis: Raizing Storm, the Resident Evil Chronicles games, etc.). Sadly, there are no oddball spin-offs to this game, though making a Typing of the Dead 3 would have been way too difficult in this.

With their attack against The World doing seemingly no damage to it, AMS agent James Taylor sacrifices his life in a successful suicide bomb attempt, leaving fellow agent Kate Green alone in what remains of Venice. After leaving the "Goldman Building", though, she comes across the eponymous G, who tells her that he's found what he feels is the source of the undead infestation in the city itself. Once again, AMS has to take down The Magician, who has revived again & has possession of Pandora's Box itself... But is that really enough to put a stop to the apocalypse?

Technically, HotD4 is the final major entry in the main series, but there was one last product made to cover quickly. Released in 2006, The House of the Dead 4 Special was more of a special attraction arcade machine than a traditional arcade game, as players would have to enter an enclosed machine, sit down in a chair, & buckle up for the experience. The game was built around two giant, 100" screens that were on each side of the enclosed cabinet, with the chair (fit for two) swiveling around to simulate that feeling that the undead horde was attacking from every possible angle; a five-speaker surround sound system added to that feeling. Also, anytime a character would be hit, air jets would blow onto the players to let them "feel" the damage. Finally, in place of the traditional lives system was a single, shared life bar, which when emptied would end the game, as there were no continues.

While I can't vouch for the experience itself, since the only American machines are no longer publicly available in the GameWorks arcades they were originally in, the game itself was a short one, lasting only two stages & two bosses (a revived Justice & The Magician). That being said, they were some of the most intense stages across the entire HotD4 duo, with just about every single enemy encounter being an outright battle against a giant horde; stage 1 also had a route split, which did encourage some replayability. Still, it's not terribly difficult, though there was a tricky spot or two, and while the Justice rematch had a slight change to it, it still wasn't too different from last time. The Magician fight was also the easiest of them all, mainly due to how (once again) the SMG allowed one to pile on damage much easier than the pistols & shotguns of old. After beating The Magician, though, a player had to throw a grenade at just the right angle in order to "close" Pandora's Box, or else The Magician summoned many clones of itself; while G acts like a badass & asks "Who's next?", this was deemed the "Bad End". Overall, The House of the Dead 4 Special truly lives up to it being more of a spectacle & experience than a traditional arcade game, but it's fun while it lasts. It's included in the digital PS3 port of HotD4, and can be played after beating the main game, with the shared life bar replaced by the traditional lives system & continues.

Now there are plenty of offshoots to The House of the Dead that I am purposefully abstaining from covering for this retrospective. Stuff like the Naomi/Dreamcast beat-em-up Zombie Revenge from 1999 (originally conceived as Blood Bullet: The House of the Dead Side Story), 2009's Japan-only comical minigame spin-off The House of the Dead EX (the lead characters of which, Zobio & Zobiko, would make their international debut in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing), 2011's China-developed Sega Golden Gun (which used HotD4's engine & assets), going into more detail regarding The Typing of the Dead (which is not just an excellently silly game, but also a damn good typing tutor), the highly-beloved The House of the Dead Overkill from 2009 (the story canonicity of which was debatable),& the two live-action movies from 2003 & 2005 (the first of which was Uwe Boll's very first video game movie, while the second was of debatable quality). I ignored them here mainly to make this a single piece, but it does show that The House of the Dead is an iconic franchise for Sega, one that still has plenty of fans to this day who still wish to, one day, see a fifth main game developed. In that interview I linked to early on at Website of the Dead, series creator & director Takashi Oda indicated plot points he would cover should he ever make a fifth game, and if there's anyone who can still bring something new to the arcade rail shooter formula, it's him.

Hell, I'd personally be fine if a theoretical The House of the Dead V/5 simply let you choose which character to play as and give them different weapons, allowing the players to choose (& even mix for multiplayer) pistols, shotguns, & SMGs. I think that'd be pretty awesome.


  1. Good to see someone took time to acknowledge the series.

    1. Yeah, it's saddening that House of the Dead more or less has become a bit of a forgotten franchise. Admittedly, rail shooters are niche as all hell now, but I'd still love to see it be given one last chance.