Ah, Splatterhouse 3, the most ambitious of the original series by far. A lot of arguments could be made for Splatterhouse 3 being both the best AND the worst game in the series (not counting Wanpaku Grafitti). Splatterhouse 2 perfected the gameplay formula of the first game, and thus our developers likely did not know how to make any improvements. As a result, they did whatever any good developer does when they can’t top themselves; create something that throw the old formula in the trash and start from scratch. Given the stagnation of series that continue to rehash the same formula over and over again, this is a sign that quality is put over profit; but the results tend to vary.
On the plus side of things, we get games like Zelda 2, Majora’s Mask, Breath of the Wild, Mother 3, Super Paper Mario, Persona 3, Metroid Prime, Dragon Quest V, Bloodborne, and every Final Fantasy game ever that take the series in an interesting new direction and are generally well received despite their differences. On the down side, you have games like Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Lunar: Dragon Song, Ninja Gaiden 3 (non Razor’s Edge), Phantasy Star III, Metroid: Other M & Federation Force, Devil May Cry 2, Dmc Devil May Cry, and every Final Fantasy game ever that not only lack what made the original games interesting, but also are uninteresting on their own merits and often become remembered as nothing more than a failed experiment.
It’s hard to decide where Splatterhouse 3 falls into considering how just about everyone seems to have forgotten about this series and our mainstream hack critics completely ignore how these games were ahead of their time and influential in the creation of the survival horror genre (in addition to panning the reboot, which likely contributed to its poor sale thus dooming the series yet again). In a way, Splatterhouse 3 was ahead of its time in how it handled dark and disturbing subject matter in a console, game RELEASED in North America for that matter, before Resident Evil popularized horror games. Other horror titles at the time were either titles exclusive to PC or obscure CD based consoles such as Alone in the Dark, The 7th Guest, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Phantasmagoria, or Harvester, or they were Japan exclusive titles like Sweet Home, Laplace No Ma, Clock Tower, Corpse Party, Youkai Yashiki, or Otogirisou. On top of that, Splatterhouse 3 was released in 1993, which is before half of those games I just mentioned were released.
To really go into why Splatterhouse 3 was so ahead of its time, we will start with the story. Splatterhouse 3 takes place after the events of the second game where Jennifer is now rescued and is married to Rick with a son named David. Everything is going fine until disaster strikes one night and Rick’s house becomes infested with demons. Once again, Rick dons the Terror Mask and needs to fight off the demons to rescue his wife and son.
At first, this looks like your typical excuse plot to go through some levels and kick demon ass until you defeat the big bad at the end and find your family of Macguffins safe and sound. The key difference though is that, unlike the first two games, Splatterhouse 3 has actual dialogue and story progression. Granted, it is very brief and stilted dialogue that is nowhere near enough to for a connection to the characters, but it IS enough to tell you that fucked up shit is going down.
This is where one of Splatterhouse 3’s claims to fame comes into play; the timer. Splatterhouse 3 has branching story paths that differ depending on how long it takes you to beat the boss of each level. What the timer represents specifically is whether or not you have rescue Jennifer or David on time. Yes, Splatterhouse 3 averts the “children never die” principal, in 1993, on a console game! You also have to beat the boss of level two in a certain amount of time or else bore worms will devour her brain and she will turn into a mindless beast that you need to mercy kill One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest style. What makes things even more horrifying is that the images in cutscenes are of digitized actors that utilize the uncanny valley to horrifying effect. Unfortunately this needed to be changed in the version included on the reboot but the replacements aren’t pretty either.
I already mentioned in my review of Splatterhouse 2 that reviving Jennifer by venturing through hell itself to bring her back. However, Splatterhouse 2 at least sealed off the entrance that Rick used at the end, so Rick can’t bring them back multiple times like Krillin or Yamcha. As such, it becomes less effective since Rick already needed to kill Jennifer in the first game, which is likely why mindless beast Jennifer doesn’t have a boss fight if Rick doesn’t make it in time.
Despite this, the sheer fact that such a horrific way of dying is depicted is almost unprecedented for the era. Okay yes, other games at the time had a lot of gore but they were mostly style over substance. In Splatterhouse 3, it IS horrifying. Maybe not to the same extent as Corpse Party Blood Covered or Euphoria, but it could have been if only the dialogue was a little better. But nonetheless, the elements of multiple endings and in game timers that affect the plot were unprecedented at that time. Seeing a 16 bit console game having an ending where Rick needs to tell his 8 year old son that his mother is dead, or even being told that his family is only a memory is surprising to say the least.
Presentation wise, Splatterhouse 3 is as good as ever. The graphics are nicely detailed and the art design is notably well done. Each setting looks dark and atmospheric while the enemy designs are grotesque and freaky. Sound effects are as well placed as always and the music is phenomenal. The creepy music used in cutscenes and the X stages is absolutely effective, and that haunting and depressing bad ending theme evokes the feeling of dread and despair.
Since the story, atmosphere, graphics, and music are all good; you can probably see where the negativity comes into play. Yep, Splatterhouse 3 is… not that good gameplay wise. Unlike the previous two games, Splatterhouse 3 is now a Streets of Rage styled beat um up and there are no platforming elements. This on its own is not a bad thing but the execution makes for a frustrating experience.
Since the game is on a timer, this means that exploration is discouraged and there is no incentive to experiment with your route to the boss room. The game includes the ability to check a map of the area whenever you clear a room of enemies, and it has the boss room marked. To prevent players from simply making a beeline to the boss, Now Production made it so the most dangerous and hardest to kill enemies occupy the rooms used to get there. This is supposed to push the player to try different routes and explore, but a game with a time limit actively discourages exploration, which means that most players will not see half of the stage. What makes things worse is that sometimes enemies will respawn when you re-enter a room, and sometimes there will be different enemies present. This just means you end up wasting more time and more lives trying to explore.
The plus side is that the enemies are so cheap that you will likely die anyway, so you don’t have as much to lose by trying different paths out; it’s just a shame that it is the most fucked up way of making experimentation worth it. While the original 2 games had plenty of cheap moments, they are least kept the levels short so that you wouldn’t have to take forever and a fortnight to get back to where you were. Splatterhouse 3 on the other hand, has levels that can take up to 10 minutes to complete and will send you all the way back to the start. Thankfully, the game works Contra style where you just get back up if you lose one of three lives. It is just unfortunate that it is so easy to die that it may as well not even matter.
You will often have enemies that you can unload hit after hit into but will take away 3/4s of your health bar with only one attack; and you often have to fight more than one of them at once. The key to getting rid of them comes down to spamming the spin kick ability, but good luck getting the damn thing to register. To use it, you need to take a step in the opposite direction then back and then press the punch button. This is very useful because it knocks down enemies, attacks in all directions, and does twice as much damage as a normal punch combo. Unfortunately the attack will not register unless you get the timing JUST right, which means that you will often end up dying because the spin kick would not register in a crucial situation.
You also have to contend with the fact that Rick, despite being a large muscle man, is knocked on his ass if an enemy so much as breaths on him. This does nothing but waste time and take the controller away from the player repeatedly every five seconds in a game where time is of the utmost importance. Also you know those cool weapons from the first and second game? If you get knocked down while holding one, you drop it and some spirit takes it away from you. WHY was this necessary, to make the game harder when most enemies can already take you down in two or three hits?
That is what makes Splatterhouse 3 so disappointing; it has such amazing presentation and build up but it all falls apart the moment you remember it is a video game. Yes, there are some moments that occasionally border on being fun when you aren’t being screwed over by its frustrating design, but that just makes it all the more annoying. Then again, the same could probably said of most survival horror titles; most of them are never focused on being “fun” over atmosphere and tension. However, Splatterhouse was never intended to be survival horror; they were intended as horror themed action games.
Splatterhouse 3 was ahead of its time by including elements of survival horror titles, but it also came equipped with the flaws of the genre. The fact that Splatterhouse 3 focuses on the more gamey elements than the story or atmosphere simply undermines most of the effort. That being said, I still believe Splatterhouse 3 is worth checking out simply for its presentation aspects and just to see what it got away with back then. Survival horror fans may enjoy it, but action gamers should pass.
Anyway, with that out of the way, I have completed all of the retro Splatterhouse titles with the exception of the LCD handheld game and the Japan Only Wanpaku Grafitti sequel on the PS2. I may decide to check those out if I ever have enough money to blow on an LCD handheld or learn Japanese and get a Japanese PS2. Maybe I can afford them if enough people pledge to my Patreon, but for now all that remains in the 2010 reboot, and that certainly is an interesting case.