The iconic '90s light gun arcade game that probably should have stayed dead.
The '90s were a fascinating era for videogames. With the rise of home consoles, arcades once swarming with teens parting with their hard-earned spare change appeared more empty than ever. Despite the abandonment of arcades due to the convenience of gaming at home, there was one genre that still remained alive and well in any arcade: light gun games. Featuring impressively detailed cabinets, gun peripherals ranging from simple handguns through to massive cannons, and fast-paced gruelling gameplay designed to deplete your credits, light gun games were easily at their height during the 1990s. Arcade versions of fan favourites like Time Crisis, Virtua Cop, and Point Blank kept dedicated players coming back to the arcades for more.
One of the genre's most beloved cult classics is without a doubt "The House of the Dead", originally released by SEGA in arcades in 1996 and later ported to SEGA Saturn and PC. Drawing inspiration from B-Grade horror flicks and packed with enough gore to impress even a butcher, The House of the Dead became an overnight hit and is often credited alongside Resident Evil for fuelling the revival of the zombie genre through the late '90s and early 2000s. Spawning multiple sequels, spin-offs including pinball and typing games, and even a couple of films we'd rather not talk about, HotD was a zombie powerhouse. But does the original still hold up? Thanks to developers MegaPixel Studio, the original zombie shooter is back from the dead in The House of the Dead Remake out now on Nintendo Switch. Read ahead to find out whether this is a series that's worth digging up, or if this remake should have stayed dead.
Considering its inspiration in the shallow graves of B-grade horror, The House of the Dead comes with an equally shallow story to match. Players are thrust into the action as main protagonist Thomas Rogan's car screeches to a halt outside the Curien Mansion, having just recently received a distress call from his fiancé, Sophie Richards. After discovering Sophie being attacked by hordes of the undead outside the mansion, the couple are suddenly separated as Sophie is whisked away by a horrific and hideous winged zombie. Rogan's only option? Enter the foreboding mansion, save Sophie, and take down the scum responsible for the zombie outbreak: Dr. Curien.
Aside from a few exchanges of dialogue between characters and some cheesy one-liners, the story of The House of the Dead is as thin and emaciated as many of its shambling zombies. But given it's an arcade light gun game, it can be forgiven for its lack of Shakespearean narrative. Nobody plays a light gun game for its story, it's all about the...
This is where things get interesting. The House of the Dead is renowned for being a light gun game, right? Simple gameplay; just point and shoot and let your bullets do the talking. Well, The House of the Dead Remake has some glaring challenges when it comes to this style of gameplay. But let's first discuss how the game works:
The entire game can be broken down into four bite-sized levels, each lasting approximately 5 - 10 minutes. This might seem short, but given its origin as an arcade game, is par for the course. Throughout each level, players must fend off swarms of undead which are divided into distinct types of enemies each with weak points, saving captured scientists along the way, and upon completing the level must take down boss that is a literal bullet sponge. Fighting off these enemies is simple enough and offers a reasonable amount of challenge for even seasoned players, though the bosses require more precision and finesse to avoid being torn apart.
Within each level, players can make actions that affect the course of their adventure. By shooting latches, unlocking doors, or descending ladders, our plucky protagonist can explore new areas of the Curien Mansion, making for a surprising amount of replayability. Over the course of this review, I finished the game four times total, and each time was treated to a new area or detail that I hadn't previously discovered. Three endings are also possible based on the player's score and performance during each playthrough.
Sadly, the House of the Dead Remake has one of its essential elements of gameplay completely flawed: its controls. Most players will opt to play The House of the Dead as it is intended: as a light gun game with motion controls. Unfortunately this is the worst possible way to experience the game. Motion controls using the Joy-Cons are painfully inaccurate, making even the easiest shots near impossible. Having persisted through several levels attempting to use the motion controls, I unfortunately gave up in favour of using the analogue stick. While nowhere near as immersive, the analogue stick at least makes aiming possible, but takes away much of the game's fun. This is such a massive flaw that cannot be overlooked for a game so reliant on controls and accuracy.
As expected for a Switch game, visuals have improved significantly since the 1996 original, but must still compromise on graphical detail compared to its PC counterpart. While the game's environments appear interesting and detailed, the game's human character models have about as much personality as a mannequin (and look pretty similar too). Enemy design is gruesome and horrific, but the animations of them being blown apart and turning into literal piles of goo is so comical it feels out of place and dated in a modern game.
The game's lighting also has a heavy reliance on bloom, a blurred, glowing effect utilised to mimic real-life photography. When used appropriately in games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD or The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, bloom lighting can look gorgeous, but in The House of the Dead Remake, its as if the bloom has been turned up to 11. This can be turned off in the game's graphics settings, but leaves environments looking bland, flat and bare. Reportedly, I have been told that the game looks far superior on PC - so if you're a stickler for a stunning visual experience, then the Switch port likely isn't appropriate.
So can the game's audio make up for its lacklustre visual lustre? Sadly not. As a game music aficionado, I'm always eager to hear a videogame's original soundtrack, as appropriate music never fails to elevate a gaming experience. The House of the Dead Remake's music somehow manages to do the complete opposite, with songs that are so beyond tedious that you're almost better off turning them off completely.
Sound effects too can be grating at times, especially the main character shouting "RELOAD!" every time you need to replenish your ammo (which is roughly every 2 seconds). Having played out loud on a TV, it was only a few minutes before my wife was threatening to turn it off to retain her own sanity. The game can thankfully be enjoyed with headphones for a more immersive experience with the ability to hear the enemies' grunts and groans from all around you, all while sparing your family from the obnoxious sound effects.
Aside from the game's standard story mode which lasts approximately half an hour, players can access the newly added "horde mode" which ups the ante and adds swarms more enemies to mow down. Each level too can be explored alongside a friend in 2-player co-op, with plenty of interesting new routes to explore, providing a significant amount of replay value.
In addition the regular game, an unlockable gallery also features the ability to view enemy types, unlock trophies for saving scientists in-game, and a library of achievements despite Nintendo Switch not including any sort of achievement system. Rescuing all of the game's scientists also unlocks an armoury, giving the player access to brand new weapons (i.e., Grenade Launcher, Assault Rifle) which can be used in future playthroughs. So although the game is short, there is adequate incentive to keep playing for the completionists out there.
Light gun games are always best experienced alongside a friend within a bustling arcade, amidst the excitement, noise and lights of an array of arcade cabinets. The House of the Dead Remake for Nintendo Switch manages to take this beloved experience and suck the entire life out of it, leaving a corpse of a game that is inaccurate, unpolished, and at times even frustrating to play. Fans of the original may be fuelled by nostalgia as they return to The House of the Dead, but it pains me to admit that this is the worst way to experience an icon of the light gun genre. Enter The House of the Dead Remake only if you dare.
So, why should you play it?
Enjoyed the original? Chances are you'll still get a kick out of the remake.
Plays surprisingly well in handheld mode.
Plenty of replayability to extend gameplay time.
But why shouldn't you play it?
Frustratingly inaccurate controls, especially when played like a light gun game.
Unpolished visuals and choppy performance.
Grating soundtrack and audio.
Price tag may not be justified by ~30 minute completion time.
A review copy was kindly provided by Koch Media for the purpose of this review. All footage captured in this review is taken from the Nintendo Switch version of The House of the Dead Remake.
Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster
Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com