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The recent release of The House of the Dead Remake has made me look back at one of the formative video games of my childhood and to my wondrous surprise it still holds up all these years later. My earliest memories of gaming are in the light gun shooter genre with my first video game being the original Time Crisis which formed my obsession with video games, but it was SEGA’s on-rails masterpiece The House of the Dead (HOTD) that formed my love of horror and the zombie genre.

Source: Screen Capture – Chris Clawson

A Simple And Engaging Premise

Like most light gun shooter games of the era HOTD wastes no time in setting up it’s premise, you are one of two secret agents sent in by the fictional AMS organisation to stop the mad scientist Dr Curien who has unleashed his horrific experiments on his unsuspecting staff at his mansion. The game’s entire premise is delivered perfectly in the title’s opening attract mode (a practice used to entice arcade customers in to try the game), from the moment players hit go they are thrust into a bombastic action-packed journey into the bowels of the Curien mansion facing off against increasingly monstrous and tough enemies.

Tone Perfect

Much like Resident Evil, HOTD basks in its campy tone. It has it all, terrible voice acting, bad writing and of course a fantastically fitting soundtrack. The game is rife with classic horror tropes that help drive this home like the mad scientist, the damsel in distress and the sinister secrets hidden inside the mansion in many ways mirroring Resident Evil’s Umbrella labs with Dr Curien’s research labs.

Source: Screen Capture – Chris Clawson

The visuals also help support the game’s cheesy but fun tone with zombies and monsters being varied but distinct enough to inform the players of their threat level or attack patterns, for example, the groundskeepers carry dual axes meaning they will either be throwing from a distance or charging you head-on. Additionally, with the visuals, you have the fun gore that for the time garnered a lot of controversy. Zombies can have various limbs blown off or even be fully decapitated to the point their eyeballs spill out with their brains, it’s great stuff!

An Excellent And Underrated Soundtrack

One thing I don’t hear praised enough with HOTD is its excellent soundtrack composed by Tetsuya Kawauchi, the game features several memorable and iconic tracks that still stick in my head to this day, the game’s attract score is one of my all-time favourite video game tracks and it fits the game perfectly. It has this dark gothic tone whilst still feeling incredibly fun and never fails to excite me when sitting down for another playthrough. 

The game rarely has a bad track, the opening for the first chapter named ‘Tragedy’ perfectly summarises the game’s tone with a fast-paced electric guitar and a fun through-line that the game effortlessly loops throughout the level. Each track is vastly different from the one before it, the only tracks I’m not particularly interested in are the tracks used for the first 3 bosses, with the final boss ‘The Magician’ having a track that is a highlight of the franchise.  Overall Kawauchi created a simple but fantastic and fitting soundtrack that stands tall among some of the all time great video game music for me as it doesn’t need to be overly complex.Instead it nails down the game’s tone and perfectly supports the chaotic gameplay.

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An Addictive And Fun Gameplay Loop

Despite HOTD’s incredibly short length the simple and effective gameplay loop has made it endlessly replay-able. It’s quite straightforward, players have several lives and 6 bullets per magazine and with that they need to blast oncoming zombies and monsters while juggling a very small pool of lives which is typical for a shooter of this type.  With either your mouse or gun peripheral (if you want to put up the hefty prices) you can shoot off zombies arms, heads or even cut them in half with location-based damage being a huge component to a successful run.As always, aiming for the head is the best option but you can also do things like save yourself last minute by blasting off a zombies arm as it swings at you! The feedback and sound effects of a successful decapitation or zombie death animation is incredibly satisfying. 

Source: Screen Capture – Chris Clawson

On top of the fun zombie slaying action, you’ll also need to rescue the many scientists that you come across along your journey through the mansion. Saving these scientists can net you additional health points, an oddly generous mechanic for a game that was designed to hoover up your pound coins. More interestingly however saving survivors can also change the path you take through the levels with the first level being a wonderfully interconnected maze with hits from enemies or destructible environments allowing you to mix up each run, however this feature tapers off past chapter 2. Finally every chapter is capped off with a boss fight that shows off more of Curien’s horrific creations, including a large spider like monster and humanoid bat creature, each of these offer an additional challenge sure to keep you clinging to your precious health points.

Source: Screen Capture – Chris Clawson

Moreover, there are various high scores to aim for by collecting trinkets throughout the levels. Additionally, you can play the whole game with a friend from start to finish, taking on the role of a second AMS agent.

A Timeless Classic

In closing HOTD is still to this day one of my favourite games of all time, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve played through this fantastic game and I still get a huge dumb grin on my face every time I hear that fantastic soundtrack or blast an oncoming zombie’s head clean off. HOTD perfectly executes its premise, nothing more nothing less, and for that, it remains one of the foundational horror games and an all-time classic.

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