Happy Halloween! The day itself has arrived cloaked in appropriately dark and stormy weather, there are various motorized pumpkin toys all over my desk and I've watched enough horror films to fill my quota of fake blood and exploding mannequin heads for the next ten years. It's fair to say I'm feeling pretty cheerful, and in my desire to share this seasonal cheer with you I thought to myself "what's the most gruesome, slime-drenched, disgustingly ghoulish retro videogame that I can write about to cap off the 2013 Halloween Spooktacular?" It wasn't a question that took much answering. I present to you Namco's 1992 Genesis / Megadrive monster-smashin', zombie-bashin', gore-soaked classic Splatterhouse 2.
When a game's logo looks like it's formed from horribly diseased intestinal loops, you know you're onto a winner.
Splatterhouse 2 is obviously a sequel, and while the plot is hardly the most vital element of the Splatterhouse franchise - "bulgy masked freak punches monsters" is the main thrust of things - it's still interesting enough to deserve a quick recap, so here we go.
The original arcade game (pictured above) was released in 1988, and it tells the tale of two university students, Rick Taylor and his girlfriend Jennifer. The young lovers prove that they've obviously spent too much time studying and not enough time heeding the lessons that horror movies can teach us by taking shelter from a storm inside a creepy abandoned mansion. The mansion is known amongst the locals as "Splatterhouse" thanks to rumours of terrifying experiments being conducted within, which you'd think would be enough to deter visitors but I guess Rick and Jen really hate getting wet. I'd say that maybe they'd both just had their hair done, but the intro clearly shows that Rick was already wearing a sleeveless jumpsuit and no shoes before the horror of Splatterhouse unfolds, so I don't think he's a man who cares too much about his personal appearance.
The rumours surrounding the Splatterhouse turn out to be true, and upon entering the mansion Jennifer is dragged away by monsters while Rick is thrown into a dungeon. In a twist that you'd struggle to describe as "lucky" but which saves Rick's life, also waiting in the dungeon is the Terror Mask - a floating, sentient Mayan artefact that promptly fastens itself to Rick's face, reviving him, giving him bigger muscles for more efficient monster slaying and definitely not making him look like Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th. That last line was added at the request of Namco's lawyers.
The game itself sees Rick walking from left to right, punching and chopping his way through the mutant hordes. He eventually reaches Jennifer, but she's already been turned into a monster and Rick is forced to kill her. He goes on to destroy the evil force at the heart of the mansion, the mansion burns to the ground, the Terror Mask explodes (possibly due to internal conflicts over supposedly being an ancient Mayan artefact despite clearly being a hockey mask) and Rick walks away into the night.
This brings us back to Splatterhouse 2. It's been three months, and Rick is haunted by nightmares of Jennifer falling into the fleshy pits of hell, as is understandable. Then his good friend the Terror Mask reappears and tells Rick that it doesn't have to end this way and that Jennifer doesn't have to die.
Yeah, kinda like that.
According to the always-reliable Terror Mask, there's a hidden mansion near the original Splatterhouse and if Rick takes him there he can open a portal and save Jennifer. Rick has no hesitation in pulling on his sleeveless overalls once again, strapping the Terror Mask to his face and setting out to splatter some things in a house. Or in the gardens, or on a lake. Wherever there are things to be splattered, really.
And we're off! Splatterhouse 2 is a beat-em-up of the single-plane variety - no Z-axis movement here, just left, right and up when you jump. Rick can punch, or perform crouching and jumping kicks, and if you're feeling especially adventurous you can perform a sliding kick by jumping forwards, holding diagonally down and pressing attack when you land. Aside from picking up weapons, that's all the combat prowess Rick possesses. Hey, the Terror Mask just bulks a guy up, it doesn't download Bruce Lee's brain or anything.
Speaking of weaponry, here Rick has picked up a steel pipe and has used it to clobber that monster so hard that it flew into the background and exploded against a wall. Mike Haggar would be proud. It's this early moment in Splatterhouse 2 that always makes me glad inside whenever I play the game. A possible sign of deep misanthropy that could become worrying if left unchecked? Yeah, probably, but it's also such a wonderful statement of intent from the developers: a huge neon sign that says "this is an homage to the horror movies of the eighties. There will be gore, and freaks, and brutal pipe-bashings, and more unidentifiable bodily fluids than an Ear, Nose and Throat ward during a norovirus outbreak. We hope you enjoy your stay."
I will enjoy my stay, and it'll be more down to the horror atmosphere than the gameplay, but we'll get to that.
After a short first stage spent killing shambling piles of miscellaneous organs and jumping over holes filled with carnivorous worms, Rick reaches a small shack where the following scene plays out. There are three monsters in the shack. Two of them make a dash for the door on the right, only to be immediately killed by whatever horror is lurking just across the threshold, their lifeless bodies hurled back into the room. The third monster hesitates until Rick enters the room, but upon seeing our muscular hero the monster decides it'd rather takes its chances behind the door of death. It runs for the exit, only to be killed in the same manner as the first two.
It's fun to have a feeling of power, especially in a game like Splatterhouse 2 that's usually dedicated to kicking the player's arse, and while it doesn't last long you can always look back fondly on the time you played as a character so terrifying that even foul corpse-monsters didn't want to have anything to do with you.
The thing behind the door is also the boss of stage one, and it is most definitely not scared of Rick. It's always nice to see a boss that's so grotesque you're not even sure what it is, and you have to resort to vague descriptions like "mostly a mouth, also a large gut, it's clearly some kind of autonomous stomach with teeth."
Whatever this thing is, it doesn't make for a particularly difficult fight: it vomits acid at you, which you can let arc over your head if you stand in the right place. Get in close and punch it five or six times and it'll die. Oh, and make sure you step back because in a final fit of pique the boss' stomach rips open and spews a puddle of deadly acid onto the floor when it dies. It sure would be embarrassing if that killed you, right? Ha ha ha, no, of course it's never happened to me, he lied.
It's purely a matter of personal taste, but for me Splatterhouse 2 has one of the very best opening stages in videogaming, especially if you include the intro. The title screen music, the blood-red text of the Terror Mask's whispered promises, the atmosphere of the first area and its monster-thwacking action, the charming skit the monsters put on for you before the boss fight - it all adds up to one of those gaming experiences that feels like it was designed specifically with me in mind.
Also, I can't leave the first stage behind without mentioning the boss theme, one of my all-time favourite Megadrive tracks. Those drum fills are a thing of beauty.
Between stages, we get our first clear look at the Terror Mask while Rick muses on the secret entrance he's found. Now that the Terror Mask is a skull and not a hockey mask, it's difficult not to imagine Rick saying all his lines through clenched teeth. At least he looks cheerful.
Stage two starts with Rick in an elevator. Do monsters continually drop in as Rick makes his descent? Of course they do, Splatterhouse 2 is a beat-em-up after all, and not a very original one at that. For one thing, the gameplay is almost exactly the same as the first Splatterhouse, and Splatterhouse 2 does very little to innovate in the genre, sticking rigidly to a "walk right and hit things" formula that was old even in 1992. Where Splatterhouse 2 differs from most beat-em-ups is in the pacing. It's a methodical game played at a slower pace than you might expect, where rushing ahead almost always gets you killed and the emphasis is on memorizing enemy placements and attack patterns.
At the bottom of a lift is a dark corridor filled with spike traps, gelatinous monsters and tougher versions of the hopping weirdoes from the elevator scene. Also down there is a huge femur that Rick can use as a weapon, as demonstrated in the screenshot above where he's proving that the leg bone is in fact connected to the head bone. That's what we in the reviewing-gory-Megadrive-games business call the "money shot".
The underground tunnel is also filled with the wandering spirits of the restless dead, or there's a monster somewhere who's really good at making shadow puppets. Well, having a mass of writhing tentacles instead of fingers is bound to have some uses.
You probably don't need me to tell you that the ten-foot tall spectral head with the Mr. Burns nose is a boss. Just look at those eyeballs: so round, so bulbous, so inviting that you can't help but want to jump-kick right into them. Those are good thoughts, you should go with them, because that's how you beat this thing. I mean, what's he going to do, shoot smaller heads at you? Well, yes, he is. The little ones you can punch aside, but the larger ones that he spits at you will need to be leapt over.
I think it's fair to say that Rick has won this battle. Even in the notoriously no-holds-barred "twisted mockeries of God's design" school of combat, having your eyeballs explode is going to keep you out of the fight.
It's back out into the fresh air for stage three, as Rick takes a short but eventful riverside stroll. Try not to fall into these puddles as I have done, because Rick doesn't like getting wet; you remember the original Splatterhouse intro. As if Rick didn't have enough problems to deal with, now it's becoming clear that he also suffers from hydrophobia.
Oh, okay, so maybe it's the devil-fish that lurk in these pools that Rick's not fond of. On the plus side, if you time it right you can punch the monsters into the pools, where they will die and you will feel a little smug.
Stage three is fun and all, but it's really only a prelude for the frankly amazing boss battle. It starts off innocently enough, with a possessed chainsaw and pair of shears flying around the place, trying to lodge themselves in Rick's head. Once you've punched them a few times they fall to the ground, allowing you to pick 'em up and use them as weapons... but you can only have one, so I would recommend taking the chainsaw in preparation for phase two of the fight.
Deformed, fleshy foetuses suspended from nooses drop down from the ceiling, kicking at you with their pudgy little legs and puking in your general direction. Rick has a chainsaw. The babies keep falling. There is only one thing to do.
Splatterhouse 2 is a videogame that lets you use a chainsaw on a baby. It's a hideous baby demon thing, but it's still clearly a child of some description and as I slashed at it with the chainsaw I was (as I always am at this part of the game) amazed that such a thing was allowed to exist in a videogame from the early nineties. It must have been a fun pitch at the Namco offices, too. "What shall we have as the stage three boss? No, we had a guy with chainsaws for arms in Splatterhouse 1, but I like the chainsaw angle. Maybe Rick could have a chainsaw? And he could use it... on a mutant baby! Good god, I can taste the promotions already!"
All in all, I feel a tiny bit guilty for enjoying this boss fight so goddamn much.
There's even more, though, and once all the babies are disposed of this pitiable-looking monster sticks his lumpen head out of the back wall like some nightmarish turtle. Actually, he does make me think of what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could have ended up looking like, what with them being a twisted amalgam of man and tortoise and all. This guy can't do much to hurt you, so it's in everyone's best interest to finish it off quickly.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Splatterhouse 2.
In a way it's a shame the game doesn't stop there, because there is no way Namco could top that and the rest of any game is bound to feel disappointing after a bout of chainsaw-baby pinata, but Rick's in it to save his lady love, not to have a good time, so I suppose I'll struggle onwards.
Well, it's a house. It could be a perfectly normal house. It's not as if there's a Lovecraftian lake-beast swimming around out there defending it or anything.
Okay, so you probably saw that coming. This is an auto-scrolling section, where you have to keep Rick moving to the right and reach the end of the pier before the lake monster catches you. There are zombies standing between you and dry land, so I'd recommend spending as much of this scene as possible performing Rick's sliding kick. That way you can attack and move forward at the same time.
Once you escape the jetty and reach dry land, you're pretty much standing on the hidden mansion's driveway. All you have to do now is get to the front door, but your progress is hampered by three things. Two of them are pictured above - there are ghosts who latch onto Rick, dealing no damage but reversing your controls for a while, and the goofy zombies that the ghosts can reanimated and drag up from the ground.
Those zombies have always reminded me of the "Henrietta" Deadite from Evil Dead 2, and although now that I seem them side-by-side the resemblance isn't as strong as I thought it was I still wouldn't be surprised if some inspiration for the monsters' designs was taken from the Evil Dead franchise. Both series feature mounted deer heads that come to life, which sort of makes them horror blood brothers anyway.
Stage four's other complication is the holes in the ground. If you fall into one, Rick lands in an underground dungeon that he has to fight his way through before he can return to the surface. There are plenty of zombies down here and also plenty of moving spike traps, all of which are apparently being operated by this one zombie with his rotting hand on the lever. Look at the smile on his face, he really takes pride in his work. Sadly, his joy is short-lived as Rick jumps over the spikes and punches the zombie so hard that it explodes, leaving only its hand behind, still clutching the lever.
Your reward for not falling into the holes is that the level is much shorter and less difficult, but at first getting through this stage without slipping into the dungeon seems like a tall order, what with the ghosts that screw with your controls and the endless zombie hordes and such. There's a simple secret to success, though, and it's a rather Halloween-appropriate one, too: let the ghosts grab you. They don't do any damage and only reverse your controls, which in Splatterhouse 2 just means that left is right and vice-versa. You can figure out how to hold left to walk to the right, right? Well then, cloak yourself in as many ectoplasmic friends as you can. The biggest danger is that the ghosts' control-reversal spell will run out while you're midway through jumping over a hole, but if you collect enough ghosts then you can keep the effect going for the entire stage, making your life much easier. You're already wearing a sentient sacrificial mask shaped like a skull, touching a few ghosts isn't going to damn your soul much further.
Just when I feel like I'm getting the hang of Splatterhouse 2 and that maybe's it's not as hard - or I'm not as bad at videogames - as I remember, up pops this boss. He looks the part, with a head that could be all brain aside from the disturbing tongue that slurps out from between its bloody lobes, but it's the way it fights that I struggle with. The boss seems tentative, nervous even, hopping around until you get close enough for it to leap backwards and then slide towards you. It's not a difficult pattern to unravel, but the only way I can ever seem to land a hit on the boss is to jump-kick it as it slides past and jumping isn't exactly Rick's forte so more often than not I just end up landing on the boss and taking damage as he merrily glides past, the whole world made into his own macabre slip-n-slide.
If you do manage to hit the boss enough times, it falls into gooey lump only to be reborn as this rather The Thing-inspired spider-brain. I can't really give you any advice for this one beyond "don't get hit." I used the slide kick a lot. After the boss' first form, it seemed only fair.
At last, Rick makes it to the house. There's a shotgun on the wall, and when you pick up up and use it to make a jumping demon's torso explode in a shower of chunks you'll wonder where it's been all your life. If it was down to me I'd forget about Jennifer and start a loving relationship with the boomstick. Alas, the warm feeling of pleasure that comes from using a large-bore shotgun is short-lived: the bloody thing only comes with eight rounds, and even if it's not empty Rick ditches it anyway when he reaches the end of this section of the stage. I'm beginning to develop a theory that the reason the Terror Mask likes Rick so much is that he doesn't have much of a mind to manipulate.
Also part of stage five is this lab full of monsters suspended in those cylindrical glass tanks that mad videogame scientists always seem to have hundreds of, a laboratory that is home to a wonderful dick move on the developers' part. You know and I know that monsters are going to burst out of some of these tubes. Not every tube: there are too many of them for that, and even Splatterhouse 2 wouldn't be cruel enough to send twelve monsters at you at once, but some of them are definitely going to burst open. But which ones? They're all identical, until I noticed that one of the tube-monsters had air bubbles coming from its mouth, so I prepared myself for that tube to smash open... but it didn't. The next tube along did. It even made me jump. Well played, Namco, well played.
This stage's main event sees Rick chasing an undead scientist through his lab, or at least the part of the building next to the lab where he stores all his potions. Potions are his thing. I doubt that this is the same scientist who set up all the monster tubes, because that looks like it would have taken far too much time away from managing his enormous collection of potions. That's how the scientist attacks, funnily enough: he throws Erlenmeyer flasks at you that either spawn a dribbling goo-beast or smash open in a wave of fire. You dodge the fire and the monsters while advancing, the scientist throws more potions and then backs away, repeat this until the Professor Potions here runs out of place to escape to. Then you can punch him.
You can punch him so hard that his head explodes after just one blow, which is deeply satisfying. I'm sure there are some "hardcore" gamers out there who will scoff at this statement, but Splatterhouse 2 is a hard game. Really hard, if you're like me and not that great at videogames. If I'd owned Splatterhouse 2 as a kid I would have unquestionably spent hours after hour learning every facet of the game, every enemy's placement and method of attack, memorising it all just for the promise of seeing what the next stage would hold. I didn't own Splatterhouse 2, though, and so I'm stuck with my feeble reflexes and with no time to learn all the intricacies of the game, which makes it all the sweeter when I catch up with the evil scientist and spread his brains all over the floor with a single punch. It's good to not feel utterly helpless, even if it's just for a moment.
As promised, there's a portal to hell underneath the house. Apparently it's the mask that can open the portal, although you don't actually see the mask do anything: the portal just pops open when Rick gets near, so I'm going to pretend that the Terror Mask is a primitive remote control and leave it at that. Jennifer makes a brief appearance before being dragged back down by a host of extra-long arms. Rick views the whole scene with restraint and patience, because he knows it won't be long before he gets to punch something.
Something like a swarm of severed heads with expressions of real disgust on their faces. To be fair, if you'd just escape for the bowels of the underworld your face would probably be locked in a revolted rictus too.
Hands and heads spew forth from the pit, all with the sole of aim of bumping into Rick, either to keep him out of the void or just because they're bored. They don't seem actively malicious, just really excited (and, you know, horribly disgusted) to be free of the stygian depths. This battle is a good example of Splatterhouse 2's approach to difficulty, because the first time you try it, you'll lose. And the time after that, and the time after that, until you've learned the movements of each and every severed body part that floats your way. Rick is a chunky chap, built for power and not for speed, so if you mess up there's little chance you'll be able to recover without taking a hit or two. It's rare to play a videogame, even a retro videogame, where your chances of success depend so thoroughly on memorisation, but at least Namco took some mercy on the player by including a password system, glory be.
One you've slapped enough pit-buddies back into the hole they game from, one final head rises. As is becoming a Splatterhouse 2 tradition, it only takes one hit to finish off, and no sooner is that done than Rick leaps into the portal without hesitation.
After falling for a while - falling, or being hypnotised by the pulsating background, it's difficult to tell which - and punching yet more ghostly heads, Rick faces another boss fight against a big crystal with Jennifer trapped inside. I was expecting a rougher time than I got, but the crystal is surprisingly easy to take down because, unlike every other boss in the game, it telegraphs its big attack. Glowing balls land on the floor and then erupt into vertical lighting, which you can avoid by not standing in the lightning. Like I say, surprisingly easy.
Then Dr. Manhattan appears and he is pissed, chasing Rick across the screen, launching more lightning orbs and mumbling something about how Before Watchmen should never have been created. This is another boss that doesn't exactly exude hostility: he's just going about his unholy business, out for his morning walk to get the papers, and there just happens to be a masked nutcase in his way. I think it's his expression. That's a look of weary resignation, not demonic rage.
Also, the background here is excellent, with tons of parallax scrolling to make you feel as though you really are trapped in a vast void filled with the wailing spirits of the dead.
Nice of Jennifer to hold the door for Rick. While you or I would probably have run straight out the door without a second thought for our muscle-bound, mask-possessed loved one, don't forget Jennifer has been down in the pit for three months. That experience changes a girl. It changes her legs into matchsticks, for starters.
Jumping in and out of evil portals does nothing for the structural integrity of a house's foundations, so it's no surprise that the mansion is starting to collapse. This means that Rick and Jennifer enjoy an elevator ride to the surface, which is just like the first elevator ride except chunks of masonry keep falling on Rick's head without warning. This is what I mean about Splatterhouse 2 losing some of its punch towards the end - after chainsawing babies or even running away from giant transparent blokes, taking a ride in a lift is something of an anticlimax even if bits of the ceiling do keep threatening to give you concussion.
The ride back across the lake is a darn sight more eventful, because the lake monster has been waiting all this time for another go at Rick. This time it's evolved the ability to shoot spikes at you, so while Jennifer drives the boat (or rather sits at the front in a pose that's impressively casual, given the circumstances) Rick has to punch the spikes out of the air - which somehow doesn't hurt him even though touching them any other way most certainly does - and then throw them back into the lake monster's bulging eyeball.
This fight feels like it should have been easier than it was, and further reinforced the notion that I'm just not very good at videogames. All that really happens is that spikes fly at you at three heights, so just crouch-kick the low ones, punch the high ones and jump over the rest, but for some reason I just couldn't get the concept down for a long, long time. Then there's the fact that the lake monster's eye is at that awkward height where you have to jump to hit it, but not too high.
I managed to figure it out eventually, and let's just get on with it, shall we? We all know that there's another boss waiting to accost Rick and Jennifer, because I'm sure even the lake monster realises that he doesn't have the pizazz of a final boss. He's a sidekick at best, so let's get the real deal out here and break up this happy scene.
That's more like it. All that stands between Rick and freedom is a floating mound of spaghetti and meatballs that fires - you guessed it - heads as projectiles. What is it with all the heads-as-bullets in this game? There are other body part, guys. It's not a major thing but it might mix these fights up a little if I had to dodge, I dunno, a ribcage or something, maybe a flying foot. No? Okay, just heads, then. Some are humanoid, some are dog heads, but they all keep you busy while the main bulk of the boss flits around the screen. It's a matter of concentration more than anything else, and as you clear away the flying heads you'll eventually get close enough to land a punch on the boss itself. If you can hit the boss enough times, it's pasta-rific outer shell will fall away, revealing the true core of this evil from the deepest depths of Hades.
That's... kinda goofy-looking. For the dark heart of pure evil, I mean. All the bathead does is use his ears, or wings, whichever those are supposed to be, to flap around the screen at high speed. If you let it flutter about for too long, it'll regain the delicious spaghetti-and-damned-souls coating of its previous form and you don't want to be fighting that again, so make sure you punch it. This confrontation serves as a distillation of the way Splatterhouse 2 as a whole must be played in order for you to succeed - your instincts may be to chase the head around the screen, trying to jump-kick it, but that will not work. It's faster and more agile than Rick, and it'll just avoid your blows until it can reform. What you have to do instead is stand still in the centre of the screen and wait for the head to flap into punching range. If you can stay focussed, Rick will have no trouble swatting the Angry Bumblebat of Primal Terror and once he does the terrifying tale of Splatterhouse 2 will be over.
Rick causes yet another mansion to collapse - he's got a great career in demolition work ahead of him, assuming this experience hasn't left him too mentally scarred to function in normal society - and I'm left to ponder the fact that Splatterhouse 2 makes me a hypocrite. I should really be judging this game, or any game for that matter, on the gameplay but I love Splatterhouse 2 and the gameplay is barely one step above average. It's completely lacking in innovation, it's extremely difficult unless you're willing to learn every second of gameplay by rote and there's no real depth to any of it - just walk and punch. And yet it's still one of my favourite Megadrive games, having muscled it's way onto that particular list through sheer force of personality.
The presentation is so perfectly in line with the splatter movie aesthetic that I love so much that I'm almost surprised I didn't see my own name in the credits. I'm not saying Namco made this game especially for me, but it sure as hell feels that way: the music, the graphics, the character designs, the ability to smash a monsters skull in with an enormous leg bone, all of it comes together wonderfully to create something I love... but if you removed the horror trappings, kept the gameplay the same and changed it so Rick was a martial arts student out to rescued his kidnapped girlfriend from a criminal gang, I probably wouldn't give that game a second look.
So I'm a hypocrite but not too much of one, because Splatterhouse 2 certainly isn't a bad game: Rick controls crisply, your attacks have a nice feeling of weight to them and everything works as it should. It's the atmosphere that keeps me coming back, though, and as the staff roll fades away to reveal a final image of a ghostly visage escaping from the lake - hey, we gotta keep those sequel options open - I can give you my firm recommendation that if you're looking for a grisly, macabre and truly horrifying game to play this Halloween evening then Splatterhouse 2 will take good care of you.
It should come as no surprise that Splatterhouse 2 scores full marks on the Halloween-O-Meter. You didn't think I was going to let the big day arrive without playing at least one ten-out-of-ten-for-spookosity title, did you? And boy does Splatterhouse 2 earn its score - but you know that by now. So all that's left for me to say is Happy Halloween, thanks for reading the 2013 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular and normal service will resume some time next week. I've got some time to kill for the rest of this Halloween evening and you know what? I think I might play Splatterhouse 2 again.