Mid-Aughts Meltdown #4: The Haunted Mansion

Hello and welcome to the spookiest entry yet in Lily “Lovely Bones” Ryan’s series on video game history! This week we’ll be confronting the history of licensed video games for the first and far from last time, starting with Disney’s 2003 game The Haunted Mansion, which was produced and released to promote the Eddie Murphy family comedy1 without having many direct ties to it, and only having a slightly stronger connection to the original legendary Disneyland ride itself.

Information on this game wasn’t always easy to find. I’ve linked all necessary sources accordingly.  And a special thanks to Andy Jake on Youtube for his no commentary full playthrough of the game, I might not have finished the game as quickly as I did without his help. This series cites all sources for quotes and imagery used for factual, demonstrative, and transformative purposes, and these sources will be linked throughout.

Credit for the header image goes to Disney, High Voltage Software, and LVS McWorm Jr. on Youtube. Please consider supporting my primary image source MobyGames, as their staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. GiantBomb was also an intermittent image source this time around.

Credit: Impulse Gamer

Prologue

I was too young during my childhood trip to Disneyland to remember much, if any, of it.2 I had remembered my recent trip to the movie theater in our new Texas home to see the Eddie Murphy film, but I can’t say it left much of an impression. The relationship I had to this game had nothing to do with all of its external attachments and everything to do with my external attachment: all of the people I shared my games with, from watching my older brother play Knights of the Old Republic, to playing Gauntlet Legends/Dark Legacy co-op with him and my dad3, to all the platformers and adventure games I strongly associate with my mother from playing them with her, like Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil and Voodoo Vince4, and yes, The Haunted Mansion.

If there will some day be some way I can finally replay this game without either an Xbox One or Windows, by goddess I will find it. Credit to Steam and Beep Games, Inc.

My mom loved watching cartoons and playing games with me, showing support for my interests and getting to feel like a kid again after working incredibly hard to support our family before I was born. Today she’ll still occasionally play something on her own just because it’s creative and engaging enough, like Psychonauts, and that just makes me very happy for reasons I don’t know if I can parse. My relationship with her means the world to me, no matter how much we argue or fail to relate to each other sometimes. I treasure the honesty and vulnerability and full sense of mutual respect that took so many years to fully work out. A lot of the memories I dredge up for this series aren’t always positive, but even with the harder times in our history lingering in my mind, those thoughts of discovering and exploring game worlds together with her, solving puzzles together, they remain an unequivocal good. They represent the early establishment and sustainment of many of my creative interests,5 so much so that you certainly have her at least in part to thank for my writing you’ve hopefully been enjoying this past year. But not only that, they also capture the kind of unqualified, elemental joy of a relationship, any relationship, that I kept pursuing and continue to do so. Good conversation is magical, but so is this.

The History 

High Voltage Software is an independent developer founded in 1993 and miraculously, considering the track record for companies featured in this series, still in existence today! When High Voltage was first starting, after being founded right out of college in a suburb of Chicago by current CEO Kerry Ganofsky, it allegedly had four employees working out of a single office with old unhinged doors set on top of sawhorses as makeshift desks. Today, it has hundreds of employees working out of both their Chicago studio and the newer New Orleans studio that opened in 2015 with the help of grants and tax incentives from the Louisiana government. High Voltage usually works under contract with various publishers in porting and providing supplemental development to other studios, from their Mortal Kombat and Injustice ports, to Saints Row IV‘s DLC and rerelease.

You think there were any kids who saw this logo and were innocent enough to be frightened and think their game was dangerous? I was pretty damn gullible, I don’t find it difficult to imagine. Credit to Wikipedia and High Voltage Software

More recently, it’s had Mutant Year Zero, Fortnite: Save the World, and perhaps most importantly of all, 50 Cent: Bulletproof G-Unit Edition for PSP, and the poorly reviewed most recent title, a top-down shooter based on the second Zombieland film.  In the midst of surviving the demises of many of their early publishers, including Acclaim, Midway, Sierra, and Atari, High Voltage have occasionally been able to internally develop their own sometimes original games from scratch under these contracts, such as Hunter: The Reckoning, the Wii exclusive shooters The Conduit and Conduit 2, for which they invested heavily in developing and enhancing a dedicated engine for Wii games, the somewhat infamous Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude. These indeed also include our main subject for today, Disney’s The Haunted Mansion, which was published by TDK Mediactive before it was folded into Take-Two’s 2K Games.

The Game

In post Civil War Louisiana, young Ezekiel “Zeke” Holloway becomes the new caretaker of a grand mansion on the bayou, one that is home to 999 undead souls6 and the site of an ongoing war between the Brotherhood of the Soul, guardians of ghosts everywhere, and the Order of Shadows led by the warlock Atticus Thorn, who seeks to harvest all of the restless souls and wield the resulting power to conquer both the living and the dead realms alike.

Guided by the iconic (but blandly voiced here) Madame Leota, Zeke must explore the mansion’s long, shadowy hallways and navigate its many puzzle and challenge rooms to rescue all 999 ghosts and gather six magical soul gems to power and upgrade his Beacon, a lantern with which he can fend off servants of evil by firing various blasts of magic energy. In the process of gathering each room’s shriveled souls after completing the challenge and lighting the room, some souls will carry pieces of some of their fellow residents’ death certificates. Helping each of those character ghosts confront their deaths gains Zeke one soul gem, or one pirate’s ring, and 100 concealed souls, meaning the player ultimately only gathers exactly 399 individual souls on their own and is provided the other 600 as progress checkpoints. Instead of a health bar, Zeke has a bravery meter that drains from the fright of his enemies, and which must be sustained by collecting packs of tarot cards for lives, elixirs for boosts, and voodoo dolls which permanently increase the meter.

The wiki for this game’s source material claims the giant spiders were directly inspired by Aragog and co. from the 2002 Harry Potter film. They have no source for this, so I like to imagine some kid thought that was the invention of the concept. Credit: Impulse Gamer

After an entrance hall which simply requires you to get past a few standard ghost enemies and flip the lightswitch at the other end of a straight shot, the creativity, complexity, and variety in level design all expand quickly. There are a handful of clumsy platforming challenges7 that suffer occasionally from the camera and more consistently from Zeke’s leap being almost completely vertical, but most are focused on puzzle solving. Some rooms lack electric lighting systems, so fireplaces or chandeliers must be lit by doing things like creating a blazing trail of spilled wine across the kitchen floor, adjusting garden fountains so they won’t douse the flames while narrowly avoiding collapsing paths, and chasing after floating wayward dining room candles to carefully lead them in a parade back to their rightful positions. The single spookiest level comes late in the game when Zeke enters the seemingly innocuous Children’s Room and is caught in a tight space being chased by a towering Grim Reaper slashing its scythe at your back, until finally he is cornered and forced to conquer it. A spider-infested ballroom has a massive blaring organ whose music pushes the player back across its wide open space, forcing them to allow the giant spiders to snare you with webbing and pull them against the sound current, strategically attacking the spiders only when another one can pull you further along.

“You just have some weird obsession with keeping this lantern lit…” Credit: The Next Level 

Returning to this as an adult, I still find myself largely satisfied with the core level design and gameplay, the former neither mind-numbingly simplistic nor agonizingly obstructive, and the latter feels good aside from Zeke’s jump, unfortunately, which again is not called upon often. I’m sure it’s all quite derivative of a lot of 3D platformers and other games I haven’t gotten around to yet, the first Luigi’s Mansion seems like a safe bet for one example, but nonetheless for me it strikes a decently stimulating and entertaining balance. The collecting itself is admittedly lacking: the shriveled souls would potentially be better off being gradually obtained during the process of completing the levels themselves rather than being slowly drawn out of the same few item models on repeat afterwards, and the death certificates really feel like they need some sort of wholly distinct collection process to make them feel truly important. I do like in theory the process of being able to quietly wander and observe these newly safe, secure, and well-lit environments, but that remains only a theory due to how this game unfortunately and substantially gets in its own way.

There is one single yet constant aspect of this game that obstructs the fun it does at least personally achieve, along with a few smaller matters that have been mentioned or will be mentioned, which combine to relegate this game to decent overall rather than solidly good. The most critical problem stems from the combat system experienced through the aforementioned Beacon. I truly don’t hate this combat system, it’s fine on its own, and the performance is admirable,8 but it’s done absolutely no favors by just how much the game forces you to use it. The Gamecube controller’s analog triggers lend themselves well to a good feel for the basic shooting mechanic and charging for upgrade attacks alike, and the upgrade system, ranging from simple power bumps to an increase in the number of blasts per shot and more thorough crowd control attacks, while certainly all fairly simplistic and a little too slow to attain, does provide some variety and strategic choices to make. All of that is solid, if certainly far from truly superb, design on its own, but it’s not good enough to sustain the sheer usage of it in the game as is.

My face every time the second wave of monsters spawned in during any given level. Credit: Haunted Mansion Fandom

The problem is an excessive implementation of the combat: there are enemies in every single room, there are enemies in the hallways connecting the rooms, there are enemies spawning even after I’ve already flipped the light switch that’s supposed to purge enemies!9 Every time a new very powerful and frightful enemy is introduced, usually as a boss or miniboss, like a possessed axe-wielding suit of knight armor or a highly bestial and top-heavy gargoyle, or even just the basic giant spider introduced very early on, the player is likely to face new incarnations of that enemy in every single room they enter henceforth, including the hallways. Even the aforementioned Reaper, an enemy that truly only fits in exactly one specific encounter, continually reappeared in hallways and other rooms once I gained the final soul gem.

A previous boss as a scaled down recurring enemy can be a fun experience and healthy challenge, but perhaps this licensed children’s game shouldn’t be pulling that move so constantly it makes Bloodborne pale in comparison. The limited supply of enemy designs, only around twelve or so different monsters in total, really isn’t a problem on its own, it’s a clear product of the game’s limited production and the developers again make do reasonably well in terms of variety and creativity. It only becomes especially noticeable to begin with, and in turn does cause the experience to suffer somewhat, in conjunction with this very high overall repetition of encounters.

I know the big light beam from the sky was a popular genre trend earlier this century, but this is ridiculous! Credit: Impulse Gamer

Losing health and lives isn’t the problem either, that system is more than generous enough, even as I certainly ran low more often than I’d like. The monsters, especially in the large numbers they usually appear in across the board, even these more powerful ones (and what they more broadly represent, the game’s overall inconsistent atmosphere), are far too often less scary than they are aggravating distractions from a puzzle that’s perfectly fine on its own or a collection segment that would function better as a brief spot of calm, a break from the action in a game that could already stand to feature less action on top of that. Few encounters use the combat as precisely and intelligently as the aforementioned ballroom does, and even that one still fits in the first of four overlong and repetitive boss fights with Atticus Thorn prior to the actual final boss sequence. That one is even worse, as it plays out over two phases and strips Zeke of all his attack upgrades, being just as repetitive as its predecessors while being far slower, without even the previous minor excitement of Thorn’s intermittent teleporting around you.

The impression one overwhelmingly gets is that someone at some level of development or executive oversight10 was simply so concerned that the kids who made up the game’s target demo would get deathly bored if a puzzle or a segment of travel between levels went on too long, in this console first person shooter world of post Turok and Doom on N64 and Halo on Xbox, so High Voltage was obligated to stuff the game with absolutely as many shooting segments as could possibly fit in order without further consideration to keep this imagined audience distracted and excited at every single possible moment.

Everything is detracted by this severe misuse of a decent enough system, from the combat itself to the puzzles and the atmosphere, and even what would overall probably be a fine enough difficulty curve that gets majorly infested with what I’ve discussed before, the dissatisfactory obstructive form of game design difficulty. How do we extend the length of any given section of somebody’s playtime? Just bombard them with enemies with no thought to pacing whatsoever before, during, after, and in between every single level! I’ve belabored a point a lot, I realize, but it comes from an honest place, that I liked this game as a kid and frankly still like, but it as a whole, and all of its best and most enjoyable parts, suffer majorly from this one single overriding design choice.

Thorn
Some charming fanart by MokaMoochi to substitute for the low quality screenshots of the final boss fight that I could find.

A comparatively minor yet still notable issue is that the game truly gains nothing from its action movie macro plot of good and evil secret societies at war with each other, and not just because of how pointless and irritating all of those Atticus Thorn fights are. The overall sense of tone and atmosphere is not all that it could be even taking into account the origins as a family friendly amusement ride, veering almost exclusively between wackiness and mainstream action style semi-seriousness, when melancholy, dark humor, and indeed spookiness itself could and should have a place as well. What would in all likelihood satisfy far more fans of the original inspiration, and in conjunction also benefit its broader appeal to kids and adults alike, would be to retain the setting while employing a less dominating and distracting framework, that as the mansion caretaker, Zeke’s duty is to care for all the souls residing within it, bringing rest to the restless, which in turn provides more varied and compelling gameplay potential, while still expunging external threats when necessary to keep things ‘exciting’. At the very end, the story offers a pair of ideas that hold the potential to capture my interest in all my occasionally pretentious glory.

One is the very vaguely conveyed conceit born from Thorn’s grandiose speech during his ultimate transformation into a giant worm, some sense of the afterlife as an obstacle to the natural cycles of the world and the wellbeing of creatures through whom all life ultimately cycles through. The latter is the notion that Thorn ultimately counts on Zeke bringing everything he needs to empower himself right to him during the final battle, which is somewhat admirable in its ambition, but still slight and ineffectually executed. As clearly explained before, he directly attempted to intervene in my progress several separate times, in addition to the endless army of monsters he’s thrown at me, so it feels more like this all-powerful dark warlock is making a last-ditch attempt to save face after he consistently failed to stop a random, powerless mensch. If this were presented in that tone, that would do quite a bit to make this plot feel more true to the genuinely glib and dark humor of its source material, as opposed to, say, a band of ghost musicians declaring that their sound is in need of more cowbell, because how else could we remember this game was made in the 2000s? What else is there for me to say after such a revelation? The Haunted Mansion is a fine game, but not a great one, that being true as much on its own as it is specifically for it as a Halloween experience, and also for some reason, there’s a Saturday Night Live reference.

 

 

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Thank you to Marcus TAC, Dramus18, Singing Brakeman, Ninjaneer, Prestidigitis, and others for your financial support of this project.

The publishing schedule for the rest of 2019 includes the following: Spongebob: Battle for Bikini Bottom and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in November, with Blinx 2 in December being the final M-AM of 2019.