The 90s and hyperviolent media go together like peanutbutter and jelly. From Frank Miller’s absurdly bloody comic books to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s continued box office domination, everywhere you’d look, it’s pretty safe to assume you’d see a splash of crimson. And of course, video games were no exception.
Despite the blizzard of blood and bone shards found in 90s video games, I consider three of them to really stand out as the holy (or more appropriately, unholy) trinity of 90s violence. Doom. Mortal Kombat. And today’s subject, the oft-forgotten Namco beat ‘em up Splatterhouse.
Splatterhouse is the story of Rick Taylor, a poor sap caught with his girlfriend Jennifer in a terrible storm. Desperate, the two university students take refuge in a nearby abandoned mansion, and they receive the warm welcome you would expect from a monster-filled lair. The nightmarish creatures within kidnap his girlfriend, yet as he lays bloodied and dying, the suspiciously-familiar Terror Mask comes to him promising the power to save Jennifer.
And what do you think he does?
Splatterhouse is a very simple beat ‘em up, a non-stop grinder of all sorts of monstrosities advancing from all sides, all itching to take a piece out of Rick. Of course, the terror mask has given Rick a nice little boost in physical prowess, and the easily trampled University student we saw in the intro is now a bonafide killing machine. While it may not have the psuedo-3D arenas found in contemporaries such as Streets of Rage or Final Fight, Splatterhouse manages to be an exciting beat 'em up on just two planes. Rick can pull off all sorts of punches and kicks, and if the going gets rough, you can always pick up a weapon and start whacking away at the beasts.
Of course, what really makes the game stand out is its unwavering commitment to obscene violence. Not only do monsters shed quite a bit of blood when killed (including unique death animations depending on what weapon you use), it's highly likely that they're already horribly maimed and disfigured before you get your bloodsoaked hands on them. The game oozes 16 bit nightmare fuel from all pores, and the tone of the entire game can be summed up by the first boss—a horde of carnivorous worms with bloodstained teeth leaping at Rick from all directions, before a corpse hanging from the rafters explodes into acid in one final attempt to bring Rick down for good.
The bosses in general are all universally fantastic, each offering unique challenges that are quite a far cry from the usual "big guys" that make up beat 'em up bosses. Standouts include the Biggyman, a towering zombie with chainsaws for hands; an inverted cross (sadly changed to just a floating head in the US release); and the infamous Poltergeist fight which has Rick up against kitchen knives, chairs, and basically everything else in the kitchen not nailed to a wall.
However, Splatterhouse's crowning moment comes in the fifth stage, where Rick finally finds Jennifer. However, in a genuinely shocking moment, she contorts in pain and transforms before his very eyes, leading to a showdown with the mindless beast the monsters implanted in her. The fight's hard, but on top of that, it shows some surprisingly decent storytelling for an arcade beat 'em up, with Jennifer frequently managing to flash back to her human form and beg for help. But it's too late for her, and as the stage comes to a close, so does Jennifer's life.
When the final stage rolls to a close, the game ends on a tragic note, with a depressing melody playing as Rick leaves the mansion burning behind him. For such a fun game, it's really a downer ending, and is handled shockingly well considering the type of game we're dealing with. Splatterhouse isn't the longest beat 'em up of the era, and certainly is nowhere near as extensive as its also brilliant 1992 sequel Splatterhouse 2, but I would argue that it's the superior title. Sure, it's fun and it's bloody, but behind all the carnage, Splatterhouse manages to tell a well constructed story with nothing more than boss fights and a single text crawl. And as far as its competition goes in that regard, Splatterhouse is unmatched.