Retro Review: House of the Dead (Saturn)

house of the dead

Release Date: March 1998

Developer: Sega AM1 R&D Division

Publisher: SEGA of America, Inc.

Last year, I decided to do a Halloween-themed Retro Review. I took a look at Castlevania: Symphony of the Night because I love the game. But in a twist, I chose to look at the Japanese SEGA Saturn version. The game was different enough compared to the U.S. PlayStation version that it made it a novel review. It turned out to be pretty cool.

This year, Jose and I decided to tackle House of the Dead for our Halloween-themed reviews. Jose was brave enough to try to tackle the Uwe Boll movie; I stuck with the video game. His review of the movie, however, wasn’t ready for Halloween. It’ll pop up whenever we decide to do an Uwe Boll self-flagellation.

Since I don’t have an arcade cabinet at my disposal, I decided to resurrect the gimmick. Hence, The House of the Dead was played on my SEGA Saturn. Unlike Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, The House of the Dead did see a North American release. Since this game is best played with a light gun, though, I was presented with two problems. First, I needed a light gun. A quick trip to eBay netted me a bright orange SEGA Stunner. The second problem was a bit more problematic: light guns don’t work with HDTVs. To get this puppy working, I needed an old-school CRT. Cue my mom, who seems to hoard ancient technological wonders. She has a 19” CRT stashed away but serviceable. With safety orange gun and CRT at the ready, it was time to fire up my Saturn and blast away.

Three hours later, the smile on my face actually hurt. Unapologetic cheesiness tends to do that to me.

The premise of House of the Dead is as comically campy as a SEGA arcade game can be. The players control AMS agents Thomas Rogen and “G.” Together, they infiltrate Curien Mansion to rescue Rogan’s fiancée, Sophie Richards. There are undead things afoot at the Curien Mansion, and the site’s owner, Roy Curien, is behind it. So, walk in, blast zombies, and save the damsel. Got it?

The House of the Dead arcade game is everything that is amazing about video games. It is fun; it is tense; it is action-packed, and it’s cheesier than a trip to Hickory Farms! The Saturn version adds a few extra features to spice things up. Saturn mode allows players to select from different characters. Each character has different stats, like the number of lives per credit, how much damage they do, and how many rounds they can carry before needing to reload. Past that, it’s the same exact game as the Arcade mode. A Boss mode is also available, turning House of the Dead into a boss rush.

Once in the game proper, everything begins to fall apart. Graphically, the Saturn version is a few steps down from the arcade version. That was not entirely uncommon back then; it wasn’t until SoulCalibur on the Dreamcast that a home port truly exceeded an arcade release. But the visuals here are a real letdown. The House of the Dead arcade machine used SEGA’s Model 2 hardware, and Saturn conversions of that hardware usually suffer. Mainly, that means fewer polygons, and this port is missing more than a few. But the polygons that remain are very coarse and muddied by horrible-looking textures. The background detail is also more pixelated and muddy. Generally, the game looks very messy and ugly. If the visual downgrades were done to improve the game’s frame rate, it could be somewhat understandable. But the game’s frame rate is choppy despite the graphical shortcuts.

That poor frame rate makes playing the game a chore. Not only does it dull the experience, it also impacts the actual shooting. My Stunner felt unresponsive at times, something I initially felt to be the fault of the gun itself. But a subsequent playthrough of Virtua Cop purged that thought. The Stunner is reputed to be a very accurate light gun, and it performed flawlessly in Virtua Cop. But not in House of the Dead. So the fault lies in the game itself. Funnily enough, the targeting reticle moves smoothly when a regular Saturn controller is used. Hit registration is still hit-or-miss, though, because of the janky frame rate.

Unfortunately, that answers my running question on Retro Review: no, it does not hold up. Once you ruin the visuals and gameplay, there’s no real way to recover. The extra modes add very little to the game, as they only feature slight gimmicks on top of the same game. Fans of on-rails gun games are better served playing any of the Virtua Cop games or Maximum Force.

The bad Saturn port is a shame because the games in the House of the Dead series are loads of campy fun. Playing the original, though, is a little difficult. Outside the arcade and Saturn versions, there is a Windows port. It was originally going to be an unlockable extra in the Dreamcast’s port of House of the Dead 2, but was pulled. It was also pulled from the Wii compilation House of the Dead 2 & 3. Graphically, the original looks dated compared to the NAOMI-powered sequel and the System 16-powered third entry.

That makes the Saturn port of House of the Dead even more of a shame. Playing House of the Dead on a PC is fine, but using a mouse instead of a gun lessens the experience. The PC is the obvious better platform for playing the game’s reimagined version, Typing of the Dead. Home console owners wishing to play the original game in the series have no other choice other than the butchered Saturn port. Even for stalwart fans, that’s a big ask.

Good: Same campy story and atmosphere as arcade; extra modes

Bad: Terrible graphics; hit detection and gameplay marred by poor framerate


Final score: 4/10

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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