Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be suffering like G did through the deliciously kooky spooks of The House of the Dead. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Though I will be citing my research throughout the article, I’d like to draw particular attention to a few major sources:
SEGA’s arcade machines, alongside those made by competitors Capcom and Namco, formed the backbone of the 1990s arcade video game market. The arcade space itself had been in decline during the final years of the preceding decade, but the rise of one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter II (1991) and Mortal Kombat (1992) caused a temporary resurgence in popularity. SEGA capitalized on this historical moment by publishing many of the format’s most visually cutting-edge titles, including Virtua Racing (1992) and Virtua Fighter (1993).
The architect of SEGA’s polygonal renaissance was a man named Yu Suzuki. As the head of SEGA’s AM2 division, he had been the designer for Hang-On (1985), an early arcade attempt at quasi-3D graphics made possible through the use of scaled 2D sprites. The early years of the following decade saw him putting his expertise to use by developing the Model 1 arcade board, SEGA’s first hardware capable of rendering true polygonal graphics in real time. Though this board proved so expensive that it was abandoned in favor of a successor only one year later, its brief time in the spotlight produced both of the aforementioned pioneering 3D titles. Variations on the more cost-efficient Model 2, on the other hand, would power virtually all of SEGA’s hits for the rest of the decade.
The House of the Dead (1996/1997)
The House of the Dead was built by SEGA’s internal AM1 studio on Yu Suzuki’s Virtua Cop (1994) engine. Both make use of the Model 2 board, though they put it to rather distinctive purposes. Where Virtua Cop sees the player’s first person perspective remaining stationary except when repositioning between shooting galleries or zooming in to highlight criminals across a dense urban landscape, The House of the Dead‘s first-person point of view moves rapidly forward through a series of rooms. Director Takashi Oda has cited David Fincher’s film Seven (1995) as an influence. Though an early version of the game concept had focused on fighting ghosts, Oda and his team at AM1 quickly settled on a zombie-oriented outline which evolved into the final product.
Up to two players can cooperatively play through the game’s four chapters as AMS agents Thomas Rogan and G. The plot, conveyed through an opening attract mode on the arcade cabinet as well as short in-game cutscenes between chapters, concerns Rogan’s attempt to save his fiancee Sophie from a mansion overrun by the living dead. These monsters were created by Dr. Curien, a sinister scientist experimenting on human subjects deep within the facility.
Gameplay is reminiscent of other arcade rail shooters of the 1990s. The player characters are menaced from a first-person perspective by zombies and other creatures as they move, room by room, through the Curien Mansion and its grounds. Players point plastic light guns at the screen and pull their triggers to fire off rounds at approaching enemies, shooting offscreen to reload when their guns run empty. A life gauge is reduced by one for each hit sustained from an enemy and results in a game over once fully depleted, though the player can insert more coins to continue playing the game. Saving non-player character (NPC) scientists from death at the hands of zombies likewise restores the player characters’ life meters and can open up alternate paths through a stage.
Each stage ends with a challenging boss encounter featuring a larger-than-life opponent. These enemies, each of which is based on a card in the tarot deck, can only be defeated by targeting a weak point. In all cases besides the final boss, this weak point is revealed to the player through an on-screen graphic at the beginning of the battle.
The House of the Dead was highly successful in Japan, crossing the Pacific to infect North American arcades within a year of its initial 1996 release. AM1 had found an intellectual property which could stand toe-to-toe with AM2’s bustling arcade lineup. Ports for the SEGA Saturn and PC in 1998 were comparatively unpopular, as they featured reduced framerates and less detailed textures; the cartoonish gore of the arcade version was somewhat lost in translation to the small screen. Happily, these disappointing ports would not derail the franchise from receiving a second entry.
The House of the Dead 2 (1998)
The second House of the Dead game is a refinement on the first, offering improvements rather than any serious structural changes. As with contemporary zombie thriller Resident Evil 2 (1998), it expands its scope to include an entire city under siege by the living dead rather than a single facility; the number of stages is consequently increased from four to six. A standard House of the Dead 2 arcade cabinet, like that of its predecessor, features two light guns used by players to shoot in-game enemies.
These players take on the roles of AMS agents James Taylor and Gary Stewart on a mission to zombie-infested Venice. The House of the Dead protagonist G has gone missing during his investigation of an outbreak fourteen months after the events of the preceding game, and it is discovered that Dr. Curien’s financial backer Caleb Goldman has created a new army of monsters using Curien’s research. James and Gary are joined by humorously-named fellow agents Amy Crystal and Harry Harris as they move through an impressive variety of urban environments, including waterways, a colosseum, and a high-tech office complex.
Though gameplay is nearly unchanged from The House of the Dead, a handful of updates are worth noting. Upgrading from the Model 2 arcade board to the NAOMI – a successor to the Model 3 – permits enhanced graphics and exceptionally detailed boss monsters; zombies similarly feature more points of articulation, so they can be dismembered in spectacularly violent ways. Like the first game in the series, the players’ receive one of multiple possible endings based on their performance during the campaign.
A faithful port of The House of the Dead 2‘s arcade edition was released as a launch title for SEGA’s Dreamcast console in 1999. The Dreamcast had been built specifically to handle near-perfect home consoles versions of arcade games, and The House of the Dead 2 was an ideal test case. A PC edition two years later was less critically successful due to the lack of challenge inherent in aiming and firing using a mouse. For better or worse, all versions feature some of the most deliriously goofy dialogue and voice acting ever included in a video game.
The House of the Dead 3 (2002)
Between The House of the Dead 2 and The House of the Dead 3, SEGA dropped out of the home console hardware industry. The Saturn and Dreamcast had both been commercial disasters, prompting the company to focus on its arcade releases and the development of games for other hardware developers’ home consoles. Internal teams, including AM1, were reorganized into nine subsidiaries in 2000 and then consolidated into six primary studios shortly thereafter; AM1 thus became Wow Entertainment.
As a result of decreased emphasis on proprietary hardware development, the SEGA Chihiro arcade board that powered The House of the Dead 3 was built on the architecture of Microsoft’s Xbox. Likely due to the popularization of thick-lined cel-shading by SEGA’s Jet Set Radio (2000) on Dreamcast and Jet Set Radio Future (2002) on Xbox, AM1 opted initially to use cel-shaded graphics for The House of the Dead 3. This style would be abandoned at some point during development, but the third House of the Dead title still features the most significant changes to the series’ formula so far. It’s tonally of a piece with its predecessors, offering an unintentionally campy narrative depicted through the use of in-game cutscenes, but the level design and gameplay differ from The House of the Dead 2 in a few critical ways.
Players battle monsters as veteran AMS agent G and newcomer Lisa Rogan while exploring the disappearance of Lisa’s father (and former series protagonist) Thomas Rogan during an AMS raid on the mysterious EFI Research Center. The game is set nineteen years after the events of The House of the Dead 2, as the world has descended into a full-blown zombie apocalypse and AMS has evolved into a paramilitary organization to fight the undead. A comparatively dense narrative, at least by the series’ earlier standards, involves Dr. Curien’s son Daniel making amends for his father’s research by aiding the player characters on their quest.
While fundamentally still a rail shooter, a few noteworthy mechanical changes separate House of the Dead 3 from earlier installments. Player characters now wield shotguns rather than pistols, permitting the simultaneous destruction of multiple zombies in a single blast. Light gun peripherals include a pump action function to reload. Stages now feature no civilians, and player characters are instead required to save one another from close-range zombie ambushes to acquire additional hit points. The absence of civilians also precludes branching paths based on who the player characters are able to save during stages. This system is replaced by the ability to choose between multiple routes at the start of a stage, removing the potential for poor marksmanship resulting in two identical runs through the game. Four unique endings, including one downright comical joke ending, are available to players based on their performance.
Given the similarity of underlying hardware, it is unsurprising that an Xbox port followed The ouse of the Dead 3‘s arcade release by only four months in North America; European and Japanese Xbox localizations were released in early 2003. The Xbox version is largely faithful to the arcade original aside from a new Time Attack mode and an automatic reload mechanic. A more or less identical Wii port, which bundled the game alongside its immediate predecessor, revived the need to reload by shooting offscreen using the console’s WiiMote controller. A high-definition PlayStation 3 remaster uses that console’s PlayStation Move peripheral to emulate the light gun or WiiMote functionality of earlier versions.
The House of the Dead 4 (2005/2006)
The fourth House of the Dead entry is also the first to have been released exclusively in high-definition. A variety of arcade cabinet configurations were produced, including one still making use of a cathode-ray tube (CRT), but all feature significantly higher pixel density than any earlier House of the Dead release. This impressive display was made possible by the game’s use of the SEGA Lindbergh arcade board; unlike The House of the Dead‘s home console-based Chihiro board, Lindbergh had been built on PC architecture.
The game’s rough outline is similar to its direct predecessor, as up to two players use light guns and rescue one another from sudden ambushes while exploring a zombie-infested facility. Reloading is semi-automated, as players only need to shake their weapon to reload. A cancel gauge, which allows the player characters to prevent boss enemy attacks by repeatedly striking a weak point, has also been retained from The House of the Dead 3.
The two player characters are The House of the Dead 2‘s James Taylor and rookie AMS agent Kate Green. Both are trapped within a basement of AMS’ European headquarters by an earthquake and must make their escape, even as they battle legions of the undead which have mysteriously laid siege to the building. Set in 2003, The House of the Dead 4 serves as a prequel to the events of its direct predecessor.
A side story was released in the form of a unique arcade cabinet a year after the game’s initial publication. The House of the Dead 4: Special features two 100-inch screens surrounding a swiveling seating area and five surround-sound speakers. Force feedback from the seat and bursts of air place the technology firmly in the tradition of “4D” movie formats like Smell-o-Vision and Sensurround. Players, as Kate Green and Agent G, make their way through two unique stages that follow the events of The House of the Dead 4. Sadly, frequent mechanical issues resulted in most of the cabinets being retired and none are known to be extant in North America at the time of writing in 2019.
A home console port was produced for the PlayStation 3 in 2012 and allows the player to use either traditional controls or motion controls made possible by the PlayStation Move camera. This version features bonus content from The House of the Dead 4: Special, though these stages are necessarily compromised by the loss of the arcade cabinet’s distinctive gimmicks. The House of the Dead 4 was otherwise well-received as an effective if largely iterative series entry.
The House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn (2018)
The decade following The House of the Dead 4 would be filled with a shocking breadth of series spinoffs discussed below. It was only after thirteen years, however, that a true sequel emerged from SEGA Interactive. A prototype had been in development around 2012 but was abandoned and remains unseen by the public.
Unlike earlier series entries, The House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is built on Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 rather than a proprietary engine developed internally by SEGA. A successful test run of the game in Tokyo’s illustrious Akihabara district during January 2018 was followed by a worldwide release nine months later. The cabinet again features an enclosed seating space and bursts of air designed to startle players.
The House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn is set in 2006 and opens with an undercover mission by AMS agents Kate Green and Ryan Taylor (brother of James Taylor) at a sinister soiree within Scarecrow Manor. The mission goes awry when the manor’s manager releases a zombie horde on his assembled dinner guests, plunging the facility into chaos. Kate and Ryan must survive the outbreak, save party guests, and uncover a plot concerning The House of the Dead‘s Dr. Curien, The House of the Dead 2‘s Goldman, and a new figure called Thornheart. In keeping with these references to early franchise villains, two boss enemies from The House of the Dead are reintroduced during the adventure.
As in The House of the Dead 4, the light gun controllers are designed to resemble and function like submachine guns; they reload automatically, but can also be shaken to preemptively reload between zombie encounters. Rather than being selected from a menu before a stage, alternate paths are now triggered in two chapters through successfully firing on an environmental feature or having a high enough health gauge during a pivotal moment. Defeating enemies efficiently, saving party guests, and successfully completing quick-time events (QTEs) by shooting on-screen targets allows the player to acquire coins which can then buy power-ups from an item shop between stages in the Japanese version of the game; power-ups include shields, grenades, and powerful alternate weapons. Though the coin feature was stripped from The House of the Dead: Scarlet Dawn‘s international release, one item can still be obtained before starting each stage for free.
While the game was initially released in North America at Dave and Busters entertainment centers, SEGA has confirmed that this is not an exclusive distribution arrangement. Still, no home console ports of the game are available at the time of writing in 2019. Given series tradition, however, a port seems as inevitable as the steady approach of a hungry ghoul.
Perhaps due to the simplicity of its core concept, The House of the Dead has been heavily adapted outside of interactive media. Two spectacularly bad official films were released, one in theaters and one directly to television, while a horror-comedy called Dead and Deader (2006) is widely regarded to be a third entry in all but name. Two comics were likewise released: the first is a tie-in to Uwe Boll’s 2003 The House of the Dead movie and the second serves as a prequel to spinoff game The House of the Dead: Overkill (2013).
Within the world of video games, the House of the Dead property produced far more spinoffs than core series entries. The first of these, The Typing of the Dead (1999), would itself spawn a host of sequels throughout the following decade. Players return to the world of The House of the Dead 2, defeating monsters by typing out phrases and answering questions posed by bosses using a keyboard as their input device.
This game was initially released in Japanese arcades, but a 2000 Windows PC port and a 2001 Dreamcast port were localized in North America. Though the story and visual design remain largely identical to The House of the Dead 2, three new humorous endings are included and the player characters now wield large keyboards with battery packs strapped to their backs. Revisions to the PC version of the game were published in Japan in 2003 and 2004, while a PlayStation 2 version was released under the name The Typing of the Dead: Zombie Panic in 2004. Sequels based on The House of the Dead 3 and The House of the Dead: Overkill respectively followed in 2007 and 2013 while The English of the Dead, a Japan-exclusive sub-spinoff based on the original Typing of the Dead and focused on developing English-language skills, was released for the Nintendo DS in 2008.
The second House of the Dead spinoff bears no visible connection to its parent series in its title or promotional imagery. 1999’s Zombie Revenge, however, features three AMS agents as its player characters. The arcade and Dreamcast third-person beat-’em-up sees up to two players guiding their avatars through a series of battles against monsters, some pulled directly from The House of the Dead and some unique to this title. The home console version includes several idiosyncratic additional features, including a one-on-one duel mode and the ability to raise a zombie as a virtual pet using the Dreamcast’s portable VMU peripheral.
The next series spinoff, like The Typing of the Dead, is based on the appearance of The House of the Dead 2. The Pinball of the Dead (2002) is a Game Boy Advance game which is largely related to its parent series by cosmetic elements alone. It otherwise plays like any other virtual pinball game, and includes three tables themed around fighting zombies.
In a series first, The House of the Dead‘s next spinoff was developed outside of SEGA. London-based Headstrong Games, which had been founded in 2000 and developed Battalion Wars (2005), Battalion Wars 2 (2007), and Art Academy (2009) for publisher Nintendo, explored how to approach a franchise which was so well-known in the West for its unintentionally silly dialogue and voice performances. While an early concept involved introducing a steampunk aesthetic to the House of the Dead series, producer Neil McEwan and lead artist Mark Slater instead opted for an exploitation style heavily informed by Robert Rodriguez’s film Planet Terror (2007).
The House of the Dead: Overkill is a cel-shaded rail shooter released on the Wii in 2009. Players take on the roles of AMS agent G and Detective Isaac Washington Jr. in a profanity-laced revenge mission against Bayou City crime lord Papa Caesar, allying with stripper Varla Gunns along the way. Gameplay is more or less identical to earlier core series entries and uses the WiiMote as a light gun.
Reception to The House of the Dead: Overkill was largely positive, leading to the release of an extended edition for PlayStation 3 in 2011 which includes two new chapters focusing on Varla Gunns and new character Candy Stryper. A mobile re-release called The House of the Dead: Overkill – The Lost Reels was then published on iOS and Android devices in 2013. The final variant on The House of the Dead: Overkill, which narrowly survived cancelation following the closure of its developer Blitz Games Limited, was a Typing of the Dead entry for Windows PC featuring typing mechanics rather than gunplay. A handful of downloadable content (DLC) packages extended the life of this game through the introduction of themed text based on Shakespeare, romance, and foul language.
The final House of the Dead spinoff at the time of writing is also the strangest. Loving Deads: The House of the Dead EX (2009) is a Japan-exclusive arcade release which de-emphasizes combat in favor of light gun and pedal-based minigames, including zombie juggling and spider stomping. The plot sees audiences playing as Zobio and Zobiko, two zombie lovers trying to escape captivity through four chapters comprised of multiple missions. Though the game is unlikely to receive an official Western release, enterprising English-language fans are able to successfully run it on PC using the MAME emulator. Zobio and Zobiko would also go on to reappear as playable characters in worldwide release SEGA All-Star Racing (2010).
I’m sorry to report that I could find very little information on a rare mobile phone game called House of the Dead: Nightmare. This top-down 360-degree shooter sees the player effectively replaying the events of House of the Dead as Thomas Rogan, with G nowhere to be seen. Some footage is available online, and the art style leads The Website of the Dead to conclude that it was developed by SEGA’s China/Korea division, but little else seems to be known about the game. Such is the ignominious fate of most early mobile releases.
The House of the Dead is an impressively long-lived franchise, outlasting most of its contemporary rail shooters by decades. Spinoffs have ensured that the game remains in the public consciousness even as its original format, the arcade, has lost much of its commercial viability. SEGA has found a way to carefully balance iterative improvements and more meaningful evolution without compromising the identity of the core series.
The franchise’s legacy is likewise surprisingly extensive. In a 2013 interview, Night of the Living Dead (1968) director George Romero actually credited Resident Evil (1996) and The House of the Dead for the revival of the zombie film genre during the 2000s. Longtime House of the Dead series director Takashi Oda is currently planning to produce at least three more entries, though only time will tell how long an arcade-based franchise can remain successful in a largely post-arcade world. An upcoming HD remaster of the first two series entries on modern home consoles – announced by developer Forever Entertainment in October 2019 – suggests that fans will continue enthusiastically exploring houses of the dead wherever and whenever they can.
What do you think about The House of the Dead? Which is your favorite entry? Do you prefer the pistols or one of the variant light guns from later series entries? Have you written any friend fiction about Zobio and Zobiko? Let’s discuss below.
Please be sure to join us next week as we count down the minutes with Clock Tower. Here is a tentative list of upcoming Franchise Festival entries:
- #73: Clock Tower – October 25
- #74: Uncharted – November 1
- #75: Sonic (2D) – November 8
- #76: Sonic (3D) – November 15
- #77: Parasite Eve – November 22