Back from the dead with a vengeance! Ready to get back to the mafioso family, dude! Far out!
There are many stories on the time when Electronic Arts was not the evil colossus, but a company that managed to attract all kinds of talented designers and release interesting titles. Still, even after the departure of Trip Hawkins and his vision of game developers ar rock stars, EA still managed to be inspired by his vision.
The games weren’t released only on home computers, but also for Sega’s 16bit console, the Genesis/MegaDrive. 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 guy behind the original concept 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. Obviously, this backstory was already pretty weird for a console game aimed at teenagers, but also Polterguy apparently seemed to have no name back when he was alive? Like Beetlejuice!
As we have already estabilished, our leather-clad ghost is going to do his best to scare the evil mafioso family out of their (various) houses through the use of several pranks and horror scares. The game is basically the perfect Poltergeist movie tie-in: by interacting with various objects around the house it is possible to plan how the different scares will carry out.
Objects are divided between a) direct interaction, where it is possible to move the object around, b) indirect interaction, just press a button and attract the victim for a scare and c) automatic interaction. The player moves our main hero via isometric view, which indeed reminds me of Paperboy, where the in-game sprite of the ghost definitely shares a resemblance with The Mask. That’s basically the whole gameplay, accumulating pranks and scares so as 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 the ghost’s efforts.
Each object costs ectoplasm energy to be activated, the limited amount at the player’s disposable will drain constantly, even when just moving around the house. Successfully chasing a character out of a room will restore some of the lost energy, but it is never possible to fully replenish it. The only gameplay element to break up the “monotony” of the scares, is the punishment area when the ectoplasm energy finally runs out: 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 definitely imprecise and the control slippery enough that getting hit will be the name of the gameThat’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 via careful planning of the use of the ectoplasm 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.
Gameplaywise, there is not much depth to Haunting, but what is still wonderful about it 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 alternating it with the dreadful dungeon sequences, repetition ends up being the soup du jour. 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 definitely edged closer to a pure adventure game. Indeed, the “punishment dungeon” idea is not new, I’ve also mentioned it in my review for Fiona Rides Out, again on the C64 in 1985, where, if the player’ spell energy ran out, the poor witch 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 the player places 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 Untitled Goose Game. The title 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.