It is a well known fact that, originally, Electronic Arts was not the evil colossus that would become, later, in the 00s, but a very different kind of company that attracted all kinds of talented designers, managing to release some of the more interesting titles of the 80s. Still, even after the departure of Trip Hawkins and his vision of game developers as rock stars long gone, EA would continue to release quite peculiar games like Haunting starring Polterguy, at least for a few years.
The publishing and development company was especially prolific on the Sega Genesis / Megadrive, having a pretty unique idea for the early days of the console: releasing original titles and conversion of games originally designed for home computers (Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, Starflight). At the same time, they were clashing against Sega because EA wanted to release more titles than the Japanese company would allow, so much so that they had developers going to the trouble of reverse engineering the console, so that they could have the necessary technology to release titles of their own accord. But that is a different story.
Even among their early original ideas, many of which are still fondly remembered today, Haunting starring Polterguy still stands pretty much on its own.
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, with Ralston also being the guy behind the original concept for Road Rash little brother, Skitchin’.
The story of poor Polterguy begins (or maybe ends?) with his death caused by a defective skateboard, manufactured by a firm owned by a sleazy mafioso-like business mogul. The guy did not want to hire and pay for labor, so he decided to set up “an overseas factory” with only robotic workers and cheap materials. Now don’t go give Bezos any ideas. Also, apparently the defective skateboards caused several other deaths since the manual says “Vito made a lot of money from skaters getting wasted, but his lawyers always got him out of trouble”.
So, as a ghost, Polterdude’s only objective in the afterlife is coming back from the grave to haunt the whole family of the evil mafioso, the Sardini. While this backstory was already pretty weird for a console game aimed at teenagers, apparently Polterguy did not really have a name back when he was alive?
The player’s main goal in each level will be exactly that: helping Polterguy to do his best to scare the evil Italian-American family out of their (various) houses, through the use of evil 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.
The player moves our main hero around via isometric view, which indeed reminds me of Paperboy, with the in-game sprite of the ghost definitely sharing more than a vague resemblance with The Mask. Objects can be used in three different ways:
- direct interaction, where it is possible to move the object around;
- indirect interaction, just press a button and attract the victim for a scare;
- automatic interaction, the object will just work on its own.
The design is simplified so that, generally, all pranks work in the same way with all of the members of the family. The only real strategy is being careful when the person is going to leave the room, cause that would mean wasting pranks. That is all the player does: accumulating pranks and scares so as to chase the Sardinis out of their house. Each level will introduce small variants here and there, like the dog that will bark and bring the victims back to reality, hence vanquishing the ghost’s efforts.
Each scare activated object – from a selection of 400 – comes at a cost of ectoplasmic energy, the limited amount (shown in the “ectotank”) 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 via drops, but it is never possible to fully replenish it. The only gameplay element to break up the “monotony” of Haunting starring Polterguy is the punishment area when the ectoplasm energy finally runs out: get sent to a dungeon which basically acts like hell.
In order to escape it, Polterdude will have to collect as many drops of energy as possible, while avoiding skulls, bats or being sucked into pits. This is, arguably, the weakest part of the game since all the player does is run around, trying to avoid enemies with imprecise hitboxes and slippery controls. Getting hit will be the name of the game, indeed and too many hits will make Polterguy dead. Or deader. Polterguy also gets a bunch of spells as the player progresses through the various mansion, but the whole gameplay is just that: scare the Sardinis, survive the dungeons.
At the end of the fourth mansion, Polterguy will have to defeat a final boss, which really feels like the classic last minute idea since there was no other apparent way to end the game otherwise. And who is the final boss, you might ask? Well, clearly it is the dog, which is revealed to be a demon from Hell itself. So, why does the Satanic mutt hate Polterguy so much, since one would think they would actually share the same pedigree? Maybe the dog acts a sort of Faustian representative, hence the reason why the mafioso was able to escape his overdue punishment for so long. Alright, here I go thinking way too hard about this.
After defeating the demon dog, Polterguy gets brought back to life for a precious five seconds, before he is crushed to death again by an anvil from Sardini contractors. Which comes down from the sky. In Hell. Yes, suddenly it turns into a Looney Tunes skit. I don’t know how the player is supposed to make sense of this, except as a very vague sequel idea or, more probably, just a swift conclusion to the story. I’m pretty sure no one really believed there would be a continuation to the saga of Polterguy.
Weirdly enough, even through careful planning of the use of the ectoplasm energy and avoiding any waste (easier said than done), 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, usually ending up in a crash with no second chance.
There is not much depth to the gameplay of Haunting starring Polterguy, but that hardly matters, since it works like a horror house at a Carnival. Its main focus is always on letting the player discover the amount of horror material which is surprisingly extreme for 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, despite being rated, by EA itself, only a generic PG. Haunting really is one pretty good example of the kind of game that Nintendo would not have touched with a teen foot pole.
On a surface level, Haunting can be easily considered one of the goriest games ever released on a console, at least back in the nineties. If Mortal Kombat was bloody, Haunting was downright gory, nasty and incredibly generous with guts and blood. Naturally, the way Electronic Arts could potentially 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) and the blood and gore vanish in a matter of seconds. Still, I don’t think the effect is weakened at all.
Unfortunately, by limiting the gameplay at interacting with objects while waiting for them to come to life, plus 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, but little more than that. While it has all the makings of a cult classic, it won’t hold anyone’s attention for more than an hour at most. Short, but bloodily sweet.
In an era where everyone and their grandmas were trying to create a new mascotte to compete with Sonic and Mario, Electronic Arts took a risk with a new IP. While it probably didn’t pay off, it created a unique title that has all the makings of a cult classic. The design itself is pretty unique, since while there were games with pranks as the main objective, like 1987 How to be a Complete Bastard on the C64, that definitely edged closer to a pure adventure game. But yes, the “punishment dungeon” idea is not new, I’ve also mentioned it in my review for Fiona Rides Out, again on the C64, 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 starring Polterguy and its idea of controlling a ghost who has to scare away people stayed pretty much a one-off for years. Ghost Master, in 2004, picked up the same idea of scaring people away from a house and applied it to a strategy game where the player is managing a rooster of ghosts with different powers. Modern influences of the kind of gameplay that Haunting brought to the plate may be observed in many titles, with 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 AI along with an adventure game-like gameplay.