Console Yourself: The House of the Dead
“I must admit, I’m impressed. I didn’t think you would make it this far!” -Dr Curien
On the eve of the Wii release of The House of the Dead: Overkill, it seems appropriate to look back over the history of one of Sega’s most unusual franchises. The combination of gothic horror and ecological activism has always looked slightly out of place amongst the hedgehogs and tropical blue skies, but the sheer quality of the series’ first two outings still proved enough to attract quite a following.
The House of the Dead (1997)
This is where it all started, with AMS special agents Thomas Rogun and “G” entering the DBR Corp.’s research facility after a panicked call from the formers’ scientist fiancé, claiming that the building was being overrun by monsters. Once inside the mansion, it becomes clear to the agents that the facility’s director, Dr Curien, has not reacted well to the death of his son…
The House of the Dead is based around a brilliant piece of thinking about lightgun games. The core gameplay concept is what leading scientists call “shooting people”. The problem is, you can only do it once. The earlier Virtua Cop and Time Crisis series brought 3D graphics and limited physics to the concept, as well as detailed score mechanics, but both franchises are based around to idea of a perfect run, dispatching each hazard with clinical precision. A key part of this is sharp-shooting, tackling off targets from a distance. HotD turned this on its head. Here, enemies are placed close to the player, and must be shot repeatedly before they expire. The genius of the game lies in the selection of zombies as opponents, as this allows for the addition of gory but entertaining visual feedback to the process, with the player frantically blowing holes in the wall of undead bodies that rushes them. Most of the foes lack range attacks, and so actually present a bigger target as they advance towards the player, encouraging instinctive prioritisation of threats. It’s a sublime set of rules, which ever since its introduction has towered above the lightgun genre.
It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the design is similarly touched with genius. Looking at the linear nature of the genre, the developers introduced branching levels, with the players’ actions serving to send them on very different routes through the environment. As gamers become more experienced with the title, they come to recognise the ways in which they can control their progression (e.g. shoot this enemy first, blow open this door), with areas of the mansion varying in decor, zombie presence and score potential. Experienced players tour the levels, dispatching the maximum number of foes before advancing to each chapter’s boss. While these two superb concepts reflect well on the AM1 development staff, the third string of the title’s success is more of a happy accident, with the story and concept appealing to both Japanese and western tastes for differing reasons. The non-English speakers see nothing wrong in the B-movie pastiche, but outside of Japan, the game’s po-faced and curiously acted dialogue rarely failed to raise a smile. That’s not to say that a great deal of care hasn’t been expended on the narrative design. In a move to explain the limited number of character models, the foes encountered aren’t actually undead humans, but monsters batch-produced in Curien’s Bioreactor. In what became a series tradition, conservatism was shown in the design of the bosses, with energy-projection powers reserved for the final fight against Curien’s masterpiece, The Magician. This reserve in design actually made the four tarot-themed arch-foes more memorable, with each having their own recognisable quirks.
HotD was a deserving arcade smash hit, with the only blackspot dogging its home incarnation. Home users demanded a Saturn version of the title, but Sega was reluctant to expend resources on its dying system. The three-month deadline given to the Australian coders hired meant that although the original’s gameplay was transferred intact, mid-level loading and a lack of new features blighted it. Sega duly vowed not to make this mistake with future home conversions…
The House of the Dead 2 (1999)
A.K.A “The one that everyone remembers”. With the second title enjoying a higher home profile as part of the first wave of Dreamcast releases, it’s still a regular feature in many arcades, despite being a decade old. Set in 2001, this game charted an attempt by the sinister tycoon Goldman to unleash a zombie apocalypse. Revealed as the financial backer behind Curien’s work, Goldman and his allies are convinced that humanity is rapidly making the Earth uninhabitable for all species, and seeks to commit genocide as a way of preserving the biosphere. His more advanced Bioreactor has allowed him to produce a massive army of zombies, which he uses to attack a city closely modelled on Florence. Only AMS agents James and Gary, arriving to assist in G’s investigation of the billionaire, have a chance of stopping the insane businessman…
Although it imports the gameplay mechanics of its predecessor wholesale, with the exact bullet physics reproduced, a smattering of deign errors cause the sequel to fall just short of the original title. HotD1 had its largest and most diverse chapter as the first level, which was practically a maze of different corridors and routes. This made sense- given that this is the level gamers will be playing the most, it was logical to allow them to proceed through this early environment via a vast number of different paths. While the sequel’s second chapter can rival “Tragedy” for the sheer number of choices as to the players’ path, it unfortunately prefaces it with an extremely linear first chapter, which gamers rapidly tire of. A second problem lies with the increased number of bosses. The game is a similar length to its predecessor, but features six chapters instead of four, meaning that more time is spent combating the major enemies and less exploring the environments. The four new agents investigating the mystery failed to gel with gamers, being completely overshadowed by an early cameo from G. If anything, the dialogue was even worse than that found in the preceding title, with many quotes earning their place in gaming lore.
Although weakening the title, these errors were not enough to severely damage its appeal, and the series’ place as a franchise was assured.
Zombie Revenge (1999)
Mercifully not tainting the parent titles’ name, this 3D scrolling beat-‘em-up spin-off was the first sign that things weren’t going to be plain sailing for the series. Set a few years after the events of House of the Dead 2, unnamed parties have succeeded in unleashing the worldwide zombie outbreak that Goldman sought to create, and AMS are pushed to their limits upholding humanity’s control of the planet. Three agents are assigned to investigate the mysterious Zed, who is on the verge of unleashing a new bio-engineered monster to add to the human race’s woes. The game was developed by the Dynamite Deka team within AM1, whose colleagues kindly allowed them to play with the scenario they had created. Despite some graphically impressive moments, including a sequence that predates Resident Evil 0’s “moving train” set piece, the title is utterly inept, being linear, fiddly to control and possessed of a baffling infection mechanic, which I am still unable to comprehend despite having completed the game. The mood of the series is maintained, but it’s impossible to derive any pleasure from this title.
The House of the Dead 3 (2002)
That’s not to say that the core team were above making a pig’s ear of their creation, as this Xbox-derived offering shows. By 2019, the efforts of AMS and other international organisations have largely succeeded in protecting humanity from the attacks they were subjected to in the first decade of the century, with the zombies’ presence confined to small, controlled, pockets of infestation. The newly re-established governments are understandably reluctant to let these condemned areas persist, however, and dispatching highly experienced soldiers to cleanse these remaining areas of activity. After Thomas Rogun goes missing exploring an abandoned industrial facility, his daughter Lisa enlists the help of Agent G in finding her missing father. After fighting their way through the building, the two heroes discover that Rogun has been saved by Daniel Curien, son of the late doctor. The bio weapon research set in motion by Dr Curien actually succeeded in saving his child, who has grown up in the underground bunker. Now, however, the two families must team up to prevent another aspect of the mad scientist’s legacy from wiping out the fledgling new world order.
Despite the thought that has obviously been put into the plot, the game itself is easily the weakest of the main series. The problem lies in the abandonment of two aspects of the games that had made them so appealing- the strong level designs and route branching. The limitations of the location become quickly apparent, with most chapters consisting of near-identical slogs through a floor of the ruined EFI building, while progression through the stages is considerably dumbed-down. There are essentially two fixed routes through each chapter, which the player explicitly chooses before playing it, removing the potential for improvisation and the thrill of accidentally discovering a new path. You can understand the reasoning of making the games’ lack of linearity explicit to newcomers, but the surprise of a new section on the tenth play-through is missed. It’s all a little too humourless, with the usual light relief of “save the civilian” moments replaced by the need to free your partner from a tricky spot. The bosses are generally of sub-standard design, with the final enemy in particular a letdown compared to the simple iconic image of HotD1 & 2’s Magician.
It’s possible to make some excuses for the team- they initially embarked on a completely different direction for the title, with freedom of movement and cel-shaded graphics, before outcry over the artistic direction forced them to produce a more conventional game at the last minute. In the arcades, the game is partly redeemed by the full-sized shotgun used to control it, but there’s no reason to play the home versions of this dull plod.
The House of the Dead 4 (2005)
Despite the narrative hooks left at the conclusion of the third game, this title sensibly rewinds, producing a direct sequel to HotD2 set amidst the global-scale zombie outbreak of 2003. James Taylor, the hero of the second game, returns to the city to follow up his unanswered questions concerning Goldman’s activities. On his arrival in AMS’s underground safehouse, however, the city is rocked by a series of explosions, and he joins forces with new character Kate Green in an attempt to foil the deceased industrialist’s automated contingency plan.
In a word: better. The individuality of the stages is restored, and after the players break through into the city’s underground railway in the third chapter, there’s some cracking stage concepts. The fourth chapter finally gives the games their Dawn Of The Dead shopping mall moment, while the conclusion features a couple of witty reprises of HotD2’s final levels. A sensible halfway-house approach to level branching is adopted, with James and Kate making some explicit choices of route, while others are triggered through the usual more discrete gameplay elements. There’s even a return to the unintentional humour of earlier games, with the motion-sensing lightguns explained through the onscreen prompt “Shake your gun repeatedly!” (I defy anyone not to snigger the first time they see it). The only thing holding the game back from a true return to glory is the changes to the players’ weapons. The high-spec arcade board adopted enables a considerable increase in the number of zombies on-screen, and so the agents are kitted out with machine guns This sadly downplays the accuracy based scoring system of the original games and slightly reduces the damage modelling of each shot.
HotD4 had the misfortune to fall between console hardware generations, and so far has been denied the home version granted to its fellows. A slight consolation came in the special edition of the game given a limited release, which added an epilogue putting Kate and Agent G up against a resurrected Magician.
The House of the Dead: Overkill (13/02/09)
In an unlikely move, Headstrong Games have been commissioned to provide a new instalment in the saga. In a prequel to the series, a rookie Agent G and the hard-boiled Detective Washington investigate a series of bizarre crimes affecting the southern US town of Bayou City. Although Sega has been at pains to cite Grindhouse as the inspiration for the change in tone, it’s clear that the London-based studio have had more than one viewing of Garth Marengie’s Darkplace. Although a lack of a public hands-on for the game means it’s impossible to make a call on the success of this new approach, the amount of wit and affection in the advance publicity bodes very well indeed…