It is that frightful time of the year once again. As part of our ongoing Horror Fest celebrations, I would like to present a most terrifying edition of Master System Memories.
There are plenty of classic horror titles in SEGA’s back catalogue and quite frankly, we are spoilt for choice. This one in particular is something special to me personally as it was one of the very first video games I happened to own. It is also one of the Master System’s earliest survival horror titles and as light-hearted as the graphics and sound are, it is certain to freak you out, driving you insane in ways you could not even imagine.
So, if you can spare a moment from carving pumpkins and answering the door to poorly dressed teenagers asking for money to buy cigarettes, then gather round and allow me to share the story of the Ghost House.
Ghost House, released in 1986 exclusively for the SEGA Master System, tells the tale of an unlikely hero: a short in height, big-eared boy named Mick. Players must take control of Mick and defeat a variety of deadly ghosts and ghouls in at attempt to escape Count Dracula’s haunted mansion. Failure to escape means being trapped inside for an eternity and let me tell you, the vicious vamp certainly needs his fair share of personal space.
The aim of of Mick’s quest is to search the mansion, thwarting evil by punching ghoulies in the gonads and picking up any golden keys they may drop. Once a key is collected, it can be used to open up one of many coffins found scattered around the terrifying mansion interior. Doing this will resurrect Dracula… but fear not, since as silly as this sounds it is not without purpose.
Once up and about, Dracula will most likely fancy himself a spot of breakfast. Unfortunately for Mick, he is not in a mood for Pop-Tarts. Dodging his attacks, Mick must smash the fearsome menace in the face if he wishes to avoid being eaten. Mick’s mighty fist of justice will most certainly not be enough to achieve this feat, so he will likely want to pick himself up a golden sword by jumping on top of one after triggering a candle trap. Simon Belmont, eat your heart out.
Mick will also want to use his head, and we mean that in the literal sense. Jumping upwards and bumping his noggin on a yellow ceiling lamp will freeze enemies in place for a short period of time. This is an essential tactic when fighting our villain. It is especially handy for attacks in which he transforms into a vampire bat and darts around the screen, inflicting damage upon poor Mick as he comes into contact with him.
Once Mick has defeated Dracula, a mysterious jewel object is dropped. Collect a certain amount of these by defeating Dracula multiple times and the door to the next level will be opened. It is a bit rinse and repeat, but Mick doesn’t have much choice if he hopes to escape the hellish home of Mr. Gothic Horror himself.
If the story was not enough to give you the message already, this game is strange. It is not only the premise that is weird, but the design is also peculiar. More or less all of the power-ups are needed if players wish to progress to the final screen, so why is it so unclear on how to collect them?
I spent many hours in my youth playing this title thinking that the vampires were immortal beings, impossible to defeat. Their attack range felt much greater than my own and if ever I was lucky enough to land a punch, I would still end up taking damage myself.
I certainly never saw past the first stage for some time because of this and the experience would sometimes be quite a frustrating one. I remember desperately trying to knock Dracula onto a flame floor with my bare hands, only for him to then transform into a bat and come flying back, hitting me in face and knocking me into the floor and to my fiery death. If I had known that I could have increased my attack range by jumping on top of a sword that comes hurdling across the screen, things may have been a little different.
Since enemies and arrows fly across the screen frequently, I found this method of collecting the power-up an odd one. Why would you want to jump on top of the pointy sword of death that is flying towards you? Surely collecting one can only happen by accident, which is bizarre since it does feel like an essential part to the game’s combat.
I always found the manner in which Dracula would die to be very gruesome. After receiving the final blow, the vampire shatters into pieces, falling to the floor as a pile of bones with a little skull sitting on top. As this happens, the background flashes red in a violent manner. This is something I always figured helped represent his brutal death, rather than the victory of the player defeating the boss. Pretty heavy stuff, for an early 8-bit game at least.
If I was ever able to take down Dracula there was still a chance he would resurrect himself and seek revenge . This was terrifying at times, as there was always a good chance Mick would scrape through a fight with only a lick of heath remaining. With the constant harassment from enemy bats and traps, it would happen more often than not. It is a big kick to the nuts then that Dracula can easily rise again after you begin celebrating his gory demise, spawning as a vampire bat and continuously flying into Mick without giving sufficient time for a counter attack.
Frustrations aside, Ghost House still remains a fun little horror title that retro SEGA fans may wish to consider re-visiting this Halloween.
There is a general eerie atmosphere to some parts of the game, and it can make players panic at times, such as when the mummies show up and start climbing ladders to give chase, often leaving Mick surrounded by enemies. The music when fighting the vampires adds a lot of pressure on to the player too, and it is always reliving to hear that light-hearted stage music to kick in again once they disappear or are defeated.
While some of the mechanics were incredibly confusing to my child-self, they actually help add to the general weirdness this game possesses. As if being chased around by vampires and giant round red dudes with huge mouths that breathe fire wasn’t weird enough, that is.
If you can appreciate early horror titles and do not mind wrapping your head around some usual design choices, then it might just be worth you, brave SEGA Nerd, taking a trip to Dracula’s mansion and visiting the Ghost House.
We would like to see a 2.5D re-imagining of Ghost House, perhaps on iOS and Android as part of SEGA’s recent focus on the mobile space. Until then, we are just going to have to do things the old fashioned way… blowing the dust out from our cartridge for some retro horror gaming on every Halloween.
Here is some quick trivia on the SEGA Master System title, Ghost House:
- Ghost House is loosely based on the 1982 released arcade title, Monster Bash.
- If Mick jumps on top of arrows fired from traps 25 times in a row, he will temporarily turn invincible.
- Ghost House has been released under a number of different names in several different regions.
- In Japan, the game is known as ゴーストハウス.
- In Brazil, the sprite of Mick was also replaced with the popular Mexican TV and comic book character, El Chapulín Colorado.
- This game was originally released on the 32KB SEGA Card format.
- Only 14 Master System games were released on this format.
- The format was discontinued in 1989 due to its limited popularity with customers.