The original Haunted House for the Atari 2600 was one of the best "less is more" games for the console. There were virtually no graphics to speak of, yet the game was legitimately creepy because of its pitch-black rooms, giant bats and spiders, and rare encounters with a flapping ghost in a sheet. The 2010 version of this classic, available from Xbox Live Arcade for 800 points, however, is one of those "less is less" remakes that loses track of what made the original game so memorable. Instead of stripped-down spooks, you're pretty much beaten over the head with a very obvious, very generic third-person adventure game with few of the frights that made the Atari cartridge such a hit in 1981.
Where the original was much like all Atari 2600 games of its era, with virtually no story, setting, or graphics to get between you and your imagination, the new game is very different. Rather than just playing as a set of blinking eyes stomping through blackened rooms, you now take the role of Jacob or Silvia Silverspring, a brother-sister combo visiting Graves Mansion because it was the last place their late grandfather was seen alive. But there isn't much to this tale. You can collect diary entries about grandpa's travails and watch the odd cutscene, but none of these aspects of the game are integrated into the play. So in the end, you can totally ignore this cartoon yarn and just wander around looking for the three pieces of a broken urn that were also the objectives of the original Haunted House.
The gameplay leaves as much to be desired as the plot. The old-fashioned Haunted House game mechanics have been expanded, but not necessarily improved. Where before you simply explored the darkened mansion looking for the urn pieces while avoiding the monsters and their ghost pal, you now have to search desks, couches, dressers, and other furniture for all sorts of stuff like matches, cell phones, torches, flares, keys, diary entries, and miscellaneous artifacts that don't do anything but show up in a trophy room. It's all just busywork to keep you occupied. After no more than a few minutes of play you fall into a dull routine where you do nothing but run into a room; avoid the patrolling ghosts, rats, and other health-draining denizens; hold down the X button to search every piece of furniture; and then move to the next room.
There isn't any serious challenge here, particularly in the beginning, which makes the game good for younger players and those looking for a very casual spookfest. Most rooms are large enough that you can easily stay a couple of steps ahead of the resident Caspers. The few puzzles and boss monsters can be taken care of with just a tiny bit of exploration and experimentation with things like pulling levers. Later levels do step things up somewhat, with more ghosts and monsters turning the game into a bit of a frenzied race. Still, the core mechanics never vary, so you're stuck with the same old search-and-run stuff, only cranked up to a higher speed. Multiplayer supports two players locally (there is no online support over Live) going through the mansion cooperatively, which adds a bit of life to the proceedings, especially if you have kids at home.
Graves Mansion has received a makeover, with skeletons, giant fireplaces that serve as save spots, piles of bones, suits of armor, and dressers and chests. Ghosts look more like something out of an old horror movie than the guy in a bedsheet from the original game. Lighting effects are quite good, too, whether you're shining a light on the mansion's many rooms with a cell phone, torch, or match. About the only graphical touch held over from the original game is the use of a pair of blinking eyes to represent the protagonist whenever a room is dark (when a light is working, you get to see the character's entire body). So the scary surroundings are clearly more believable than what was possible on the Atari 2600. Still, they aren't as effective as they could be. Furniture graphics repeat far too much, turning the mansion into a maze of rooms that all look the same. Identical scenery can be found everywhere in the form of the same dressers, chests, and fireplaces, making you almost long for the old game's black boxes. Technical limitations made this sort of visual repetition tough to avoid in 1981, but it's a lot harder to forgive three decades later. Ghosts are generic chain-clanking spooks so numerous that they don't inspire any sort of fear.
Sound is relatively sparse, although the music is filled with superb suspense-flick tones. The voice acting is also great, with two very likable lead characters and just enough Scooby-Dooish gulps to make you feel like you're in an interactive cartoon. Sadly, sound effects that impress initially are overused to the point that you'll groan every time you hear them. Thumping footsteps and an unseen baby crying work well at first, but they aren't so eerie after you've listened to these effects every couple of minutes for a few hours. Would one of you demons shove a bottle in the kid's mouth already?
Haunted House might appeal to a preteen crowd due to its simplistic play and dime-store scares, but anyone older will just be bored with the constant repetition. Retro fans might also be disappointed that the original game is not included (although you can play it for free online at the official website). This remake is worth experiencing only for how effectively it points out to old-time Atari 2600 fans just how much time has passed since 1981, and how you can't go home again…especially when said domicile is loaded with ghosts and monsters.