Back from the dead with a vengeance! Ready to get back to the mafioso family, dude! Far out!
Believe it or not but there was a time when Electronic Arts was not the evil colossus we’ve all grown to loathe, but a publisher and developer of titles way ahead of their time thanks to solid game design and original ideas.
And not only for PC, but also for Sega’s 16bit console, the Genesis. Today I’m looking back at one of the titles I’ve also found most innovative back then, in 1993, Haunting starring Polterguy.
Designed by the duo of Dave Ralston and John Salwitz, Haunting sees the player donning the leather jacket and black boots of a punkish poltergeist hellbent on revenge.
The two were the original creators of arcade blockbusters Rampart and Paperboy, also Ralston was the main designer for Road Rash little brother, Skitchin’. The story of poor Polterguy begins with his death caused by a defective skateboard, manufactured by a firm owned by a sleazy mafioso-like business mogul. Obviously, as a ghost his first thought is coming back from the grave to haunt the whole family of the evil mafioso.
Now, this backstory was already pretty weird for a console game aimed at teenagers, but also Polterguy apparently had no name back when he was alive? Like Beetlejuice!
As we have already estabilished, our leather-clad ghost is going to get his revenge by scaring the evil family out of their houses with pranks and horror scares.
The game is basically the perfect Poltergeist movie tie-in: you interact with various objects around the house and then decide how the different scares will carry out.
Objects are divided between a) direct interaction, you actually move the object around, b) indirect interaction, you just press a button and attract the victim for a scare and c) automatic interaction. You play via an isometric view, which indeed reminds me of Paperboy, where the in-game sprite of our main protagonist basically looks like The Mask. That’s basically the whole gameplay, you will have to chase the Sardinis out of their house: each level introduces small variables here and there, like the dog that will bark and bring the victims back to reality, hence vanquishing your efforts.
Each object costs ectoplasm energy to be activated, your limited amount will drain constantly, even when you’re just moving around the house. The only gameplay element to break up the monotony is your punishment when your ectoplasm energy runs out: you get sent to a dungeon which is basically hell.
In order to escape it, Polterdude will have to collect drops of energy and not get hit by skulls, bats or sucked into pits. This is arguably the weakest part of the game since all the player does is run around, the hitboxes are imprecise and the control is slippery enough that you will get hit without much responsiblity. That’s basically it, Polterguy gets a bunch of spells as the game progresses, but the whole gameplay is just that: scare the Sardinis, survive the dungeons.
Weirdly enough, even if you carefully plan the use of your energy, as soon as the level is completed, the player will still have to go through the dungeon. Bringing back the Paperboy comparisons, it reminds me of the offroad sequence at the end of the levels, which took the player almost always off guard ending up in crashing in a manner of seconds with no second chance.
Complaints aside, what is still wonderful about Haunting is the serious amount of horror material hiding behind a game aimed at teenagers: bleeding eyes, decapitated heads spurting blood, bodies in the shower with guts spilling out. It really goes into R rated territory, showing off again that… Genesis does what Nintendon’t! This really is the perfect example of the kind of game that Nintendo wouldn’t touch with a teen foot pole.
Haunting is undoutably one of the goriest games ever released on a console back in the nineties. If Mortal Kombat was bloody, Haunting was downright gory, nasty and full of guts and blood. Of course, one could get away with it just by saying that everything that Polterguy conjures up is just an hallucination, nobody really gets killed (except for the poor protagonist), but the effect is not weakened at all.
Unfortunately limiting the gameplay at interacting with objects and the dreadful dungeon sequences, repetition ends up being the keyword. Wonderful for horror fanatics and a pretty robust choice for anyone wanting to play something unique, EA’s title is a precious and hurtful reminder that even bad guys were once sweet children.
In an era where everyone was trying to create a new mascotte to compete with Sonic and Mario, EA went ahead and made an original title which barely had any kind of precedent in videogame history. There were games which had pranks as the main objective, like How to be a Complete Bastard on the C64 in 1987, but that was more like an adventure game. And yes, the “punishment dungeon” idea is not new, I have seen it before in “witch simulator” Fiona Rides Out, again on the C64 in 1985, where, if your spell energy ran out, you had to go through an horrendously difficult maze in order not to lose a life.
Haunting remained a pretty much one-off title for years. Ghost Master in 2004 picked up the same idea and applied it to a strategy game where you have to place ghosts around a house to scare everyone. The modern influences are many, with the same basic design shared by “ideal for Twitch streamers” titles like Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose Game. Especially the last one is a basic “play pranks on insuspecting people”, but UGG goes one step beyond thanks to a more sophisticated IA along with an adventure game-like gameplay.