There are many kinds of B-movies. There are exploitation movies, movies made for package deals more than any artistic merit and movies that go beyond their budget constraints to become classics. But there’s another kind of B-movie, the one you watch on rainy days, in which the hammy dialogue turns a bit serious, and you see brief flashes of brilliance and artists who had faith in what they were making.
The House of the Dead is the game equivalent of those films.
The line between drama and comedy is a smart line to straddle. Games have a very reductive focus, being mostly about the actions of the player. This lets you show only the most interesting parts, while dodging the worst aspects or even directly benefiting from them.
There’s nothing serious about a fat bearded zombie attacking with a chainsaw, but its attacks hurt. Serious or not, the enemy matters in this game, and being hit is important to you no matter how little you relate to the characters. Whenever the game makes you care, it seizes the moment to bring a small dose of atmosphere, and it succeeds beautifully. The eerie black-and-white picture of the scientists, for example, is a great moment of reflection between levels.
One of the great moments of the game has you take a twisting, hidden passage, and the camera slowly reaches the corner before suddenly turning around to meet the rest of the corridor. From a cinematographic perspective, this is silly and forced; it gives away that a zombie is coming. In a game, though, it’s amazing exactly because the zombie is coming and the screenwriter can’t save you from it.
The game’s interesting part isn’t being scared or attacked when you didn’t expect it; it’s how you react to it. It’s the aiming, the tension before something happens and the constant reminder to shoot the incoming projectile once the enemy you are currently shooting drops dead. The game gets you, and when it does you can’t cry that it’s unfair. You know what kind of game you are playing, and zombies won’t go easy on you.
There’s no need to get so involved with the nuances or the relationship between different media to enjoy the game, because above all else, The House of the Dead is a really good game. For a genre often dismissed as mindless destruction, there’s a surprising amount of depth, and plotting your actions as you get deeper and deeper into the house is a necessary tool to achieve a respectable score.
In fact, the game is very carefully geared towards racking up a high score, luring you under a fun, simple premise and then rewarding you for understanding it better. Be it through careful use of the mansion’s different passages, steady aim to collect headshots or quick reflexes to pick up all the hidden objects, this is one of those games that is designed to be mastered; it’s all the better for it.
As popular as the game was when released, it didn’t keep its popularity through the years as well as its sequels, and has never seen an arcade-perfect release. The PC and Saturn ports were noticeably lacking visually compared to the arcade version, which, while still ugly, had more flair. But, hey, if the game is worth it, why not find an actual cabinet? Bring a friend, some notes and start playing!