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Requiem For Splatterhouse

It was the reboot that no one expected. The game that seemed to have the odds stacked against it from the start. The underdog that, unfortunately, did not come out on top.

Splatterhouse was envisioned as a remake of the original 1988 arcade game, originally announced to the public in April 2008 after spending two years in development. Having been fifteen years at that point since the last installment of the series, 1993's Splatterhouse 3, we knew that Namco would take advantage of the technological advancements in home gaming consoles to provide the kind of horrific experience that we could only dream about when the original series was brand new. Story and gameplay elements were taken from all of the original games (even Wanpaku Graffiti) and combined into what we all hoped would be the ultimate Splatterhouse experience. Early on, the team decided that the core aspects of the game were going to be blood, gore and metal, and as producer Dan Tovar had said many times, "the main tenet of the game is more blood more power." They even went as far as showcasing the new damage system Rick had very early on, focusing on the real-time regeneration of body parts.

But there were obstacles to overcome. That decade and a half gap between games had not only provided all sorts of technological leaps and bounds, but the modern gamer had grown much more used to shocking content during that time. What had been considered so violent and gory in the late '80s and early '90s was now considered tame. Horror videogames, which were extremely uncommon in the eighties, were now everywhere, thanks to the success of franchises such as Konami's Silent Hill and Capcom's Resident Evil. Even worse, by 2008 Splatterhouse was a virtually unknown franchise, having lain dormant for fifteen years when Namco Bandai made their initial announcement of the game to the press. The old timers remembered the series, to be sure, but the new generations of gamers raised on PlayStation and Xbox had no clue about the series at all. Would the saga of Rick, Jennifer and the Terror Mask be able to reel them in the way it had the fans of old, or would it be cast aside in favor of the horror games that had arisen in Splatterhouse's absence?

Questions arose from the fans too: would this team be able to keep the core elements of what made the original games so great? Would they be able to capture the feeling of "Splatmosphere" that the original games had? Or was this going to be another half-assed attempt at reviving another long-forgotten franchise for the sake of cashing in on nostalgia?


History

In the summer of 2006, Dan Tovar and Mark Brown began brainstorming the reboot of Splatterhouse, after Namco Bandai put out a company-wide request for mature rated games and content. In the fall of 2006, Namco Bandai Games America and Namco Bandai Games Japan both gave the project the official green light. BottleRocket Entertainment was brought in to develop the game for Namco Bandai that winter, and development officially began on January 1st, 2007. During this time, West Mansion was used as the team's primary resource for all things Splatterhouse, for subjects as diverse as storyline and continuity information, character descriptions, soundtrack reference and official materials from years gone by that Namco Bandai did not have a record of. Dan Tovar has even gone on record as saying that the information I'd archived here at West Mansion "saved us an immense amount of time and research" during the development phase.

Development proceeded until such time as there was enough to show to the general public. Electronic Gaming Monthly got the world exclusive for their June 2008 issue, and from there, of course, the news got to me. Once I posted the news, Namco Bandai got in contact with me, and that opened the lines of communication with the fanbase. Everything was proceeding smoothly, as far as we could tell, and aside from some general grumbling about Rick's new look, the all-too-clean character designs and Castlevania-esque backgrounds, the fanbase was starting to get excited. Splatterhouse was slated for release in mid to late 2009.

Then a monkeywrench fell into the works. In February 2009, Namco Bandai parted ways with BottleRocket, citing "performance issues," and Splatterhouse was brought into internal development at Namco Bandai. BottleRocket closed up shop shortly thereafter, most likely as a result from the split with Namco Bandai. The full team of former BottleRocket programmers in San Diego ended up being hired directly by Namco Bandai. A handful of the Afro Samurai team, Surge, ended up assisting them with animation and programming.

As far as I can tell, this was a Good Move on Namco Bandai's part. From what I've been able to piece together over the past couple of years, the BottleRocket higher-ups were the ones that ultimately caused their own downfall, spending Namco Bandai's money on everything but Splatterhouse, as well as blowing massive amounts of money by hiring their favorite writers and artists, such as Simon Bisley, that ultimately contributed nothing to the final game. On top of that, judging by the BottleRocket stuff that did see the light of day, they were attempting to make Splatterhouse into The Mark of Kri III starring Rick Taylor. For that matter, it seems like the early interviews and articles (namely the one in the October 2008 issue of PLAY Magazine) were almost deliberately designed to mislead the fanbase. There was a lot printed in that article that the fanbase wanted to hear about the game, but ultimately turned out to be untrue. In fact, it seemed to me that the BottleRocket higher-ups were reading what the fans were posting on the forum, then saying what we wanted to hear - knowing it would see print - while at the same time continuing forward with their The Mark of Kri III starring Rick Taylor plan. If that is indeed the case, not only does it upset me that my forum and the hopes of the fans posting in it were used that way, but I can also say that I'm glad BottleRocket went under.

Namco Bandai would never publicly admit to any of this, of course. They'd look stupid and taken for a ride - and that would be considered a loss of face. If you know anything about how Japanese culture and business work, you know how serious that is to them. Because of that, "performance issues" were the only reason ever given by Namco Bandai as to why BottleRocket was kicked off the project. As an aside, a minor scandal erupted in January 2010, when some jackass started selling copies of the BottleRocket beta on the ASSEMbler forum for $675. It seemed that Namco Bandai's legal department moved fast to take care of the matter, as not much (if anything) was heard about it after that. However, at least one of the betas might have made it into someone's hands, as videos have surfaced on YouTube showing some "blockout" and beta footage (as seen here and here).

As a result of the move from BottleRocket to Namco Bandai, Splatterhouse's release was pushed back from 2009 to 2010. The next two years were a whirlwind of activity. The Splatterhouse team made many, many changes to the game while at the same time continuing to polish it and get it finished. The big promotional push started in early 2010, with Namco Bandai sponsoring several big metal shows under the Splatterhouse name, such as Revolver Golden Gods, SXSW and the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival XII. Splatterhouse appeared at E3, the San Diego ComicCon and the Penny Arcade Expo later that year, getting its own party at PAX and everything. Splatterhouse also became the first videogame to be featured as the main cover story of Fangoria magazine with the release of the August 2010 issue. And in a real "out of left field" moment, Playboy Magazine featured Jennifer as "Miss Splatterhouse, Gamer Girl of the Month" in their November 2010 issue.

And during all this, of course, were the expected trailer and screenshot releases, along with a full-fledged website dedicated to the game, complete with blog. The Splatterhouse Facebook, YouTube and Twitter pages were set up. The soundtrack, made up of songs by both well known and obscure metal bands, was announced, along with the news that videogame music legend Howard Drossin had created a score that harkened back to the '80s horror film-inspired soundtracks of the original games. The original Splatterhouse even got a a tie-in release on mobile phones and iPhones during this time. As far as anyone could tell, Splatterhouse was going to hit consoles like no one had ever expected before. Namco Bandai seemed to be extremely optimistic about Splatterhouse's success, even boasting that Splatterhouse would sell one million copies.

The Splatterhouse team and Namco Bandai's PR department kept in contact with me during this time. They granted me two exclusive Q&A sessions (which can be read here and here); gave me classic artwork that had been stored on microfiche at Namco Bandai Games Japan (which can be seen in the Artwork section); gave me VIP passes to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival XII so I could play the never-released-to-the-public-demo and give them feedback on it (read my account of that day here); and, in what must have been a first for a fansite webmaster, gave me access to the official press FTP server. That act enabled me to keep up with the latest Splatterhouse news at the same time as the big gaming sites. I, in turn, provided them with fan input and assistance whenever it was requested. I also sent ideas and suggestions of my own, a few of which were implemented into the final game (among them Biggy Man's redesign and the "Be Garbage of Cesspool" graffiti on the walls - and indirectly, the "Be Garbage of Cesspool" achievement title).

There were a few oddities, however, which began to become really apparent in the last few weeks before the release: minimal coverage in gaming publications (including ads), no playable demo released on either Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network and virtually no talk about the game at all. Then a disturbing news report appeared: Namco Bandai quietly retracted their earlier "million copies" claim, this time claiming the game would sell a much more realistic 350,000 copies - and on the same day they made that announcement, they issued a statement saying that Splatterhouse was expected to underperform. This happened after yet another delay in the game's release, from the end of October to November 23rd. Then came the word that the entire Splatterhouse team had been laid off. It was starting to become obvious that there was something nasty brewing behind the scenes, but none of us knew the extent of it until it was too late.


Aftermath

On November 23rd, 2010, Splatterhouse was released to a tidal wave of indifference and hostility from the mainstream gaming press. With few exceptions, the major review sites absolutely slagged the game, and did so without mercy. The average gamer that frequents those sites took their word as gospel, as usual, not even bothering to give the game a rent and form an actual opinion about it. Instead, they parroted what they'd read and moved on to the latest Call of Duty game, forgetting about Splatterhouse as soon as they'd found out about it.

Why did this happen? All signs point to the lack of corporate payoffs from Namco Bandai. With no palms being greased, the reviewers gave Splatterhouse absolutely terrible reviews instead of the average to above average reviews it should have received. They complained of frequent glitches, extra long load times and the worst criticism it could have received, that it was just another "mindless button masher." Interestingly, some of the media darlings released the same year also had their fair share of glitches (Red Dead Redemption, I'm looking in your direction), but those were completely overlooked in the glowing reviews these reviewers scrambled to give. A mindless button masher? Hardly. As I said in my review, if you button mash, you are going to die. I will give them their complaints about the load times, though. Even I thought they were excessive, and I have the game installed on my 360 HDD, which cut the load times down quite a bit.

The point is that Splatterhouse was singled out and trashed by the vindictive gaming press. Would corporate payoffs have helped? Undoubtedly they would have, but it's kind of hard to grease palms when you have no grease to use. To quote from my 1/14/11 News entry:

One thing I want to do is address the whole Splatterhouse debacle. Quite frankly, I'm pretty disgusted by the whole thing. It's been almost two months since the game was released and it's already been nearly forgotten - not that anyone really knew about it in the first place, aside from the fans. We can thank Namco Bandai Japan for that. Apparently sometime in the last six months or so, there was a shakeup at the highest level of management, and when the dust settled, the new guy - who by all accounts is Namco Bandai President Shukuo Ishikawa - decided that the future was iPhone games and porting stuff from Japan. Not only that, but then there was a major layoff at Namco Bandai Games America - layoffs which included nearly the entire team that worked on Splatterhouse, up to and including the faces of Splatterhouse '10, Dan Tovar and Dave Wilkins. All gone. That's a damned shame, as they're a bunch of very talented people and with the recession, now is not the best time to be out of work. I wish them all nothing but the best for the future.

And then, since apparently Splatterhouse was expected to underperform, all support for the game was pulled. Didn't see much in the way of advertising after the Playboy centerfold, did you? That's why. Splatterhouse was dumped on the market with no fanfare. All the hype and buildup toward release, the music festival sponsorships, the articles in major magazines, the high-profile E3 and PAX gigs - all of that ultimately meant nothing once support was pulled at the most crucial time for the game. Thanks, Namco Bandai Japan, you strangled this thing in the cradle.

This loss of support led to another thing. It's an open secret that game review sites give better scores when they get a payoff, usually in the form of advertising dollars. But when Namco Bandai Japan pulled their support, the Splatterhouse advertising budget got slashed to almost nothing. No advertising budget = no extra cash to send to these review sites. In retaliation, they gave Splatterhouse - a game that deserved at least average to above average scores - a sound thrashing and horribly low scores.

Yes. I just accused IGN, Joystiq, Kotaku, Gamespot (etc) of being greedy and vindictive against game companies that don't grease the wheels with a fat payoff, and I stand by it. They wouldn't know journalistic integrity if it came up and bit them in the face.

To this day, I have still not seen the bugs and glitches and framerate drops and everything else the big review sites say are wrong with the game, nor have any of the fans I've talked to. And consider this: other, smaller review sites and player reviews have consistently been in the average to above average range. How is this possible if Splatterhouse sucks as badly as the big review sites say it does? It's not. But because they didn't get paid, they felt it was their duty to trash the game instead of treating it fairly. And the problem with this is that a lot of the mindless sheep out there consider those sites "the authority." Hey, IGN trashed it, it must suck. No need to even rent it or borrow a copy from a friend and try it for myself and form my own opinion, right? I'll just go back to playing whatever IGN says is great, because they know what they're talking about. No question about that.

To make things worse, the firm hired to run Namco Bandai's Splatterhouse Facebook page, Promethium Marketing, totally dropped the ball when it came to communicating with the fans, especially the winners of the contests that were held on the page. Weeks went by, and the winners did not receive their prizes. Despite repeated requests for more info on the page, there was no response concerning the prizes. Finally, months after the contests ended, they did respond, and the winners did get their prizes - so better late than never, I guess. They also promised some exciting Splatterhouse news in February 2011. We're still waiting to find out exactly what that news was.

On the other side of the fence, November 23rd marked a long-awaited day in the history of the series. The Splatterhouse fans of the world finally got the game they'd been waiting for since 1993, and for the most part were happy with what they received. There were a few that weren't happy with certain aspects of the game (the licensed soundtrack being one of the biggest complaints), but as the old adage goes, you can't please everyone. But those burning questions the fans had were answered. The Splatterhouse team did show that they had respect for the source material, they did their best to infuse the game with "Splatmosphere," and it never once came off as a soulless cash-in for nostalgia's sake. The game looked good, played smoothly and provided a great experience for most of the fans. Overall, as a fanbase, we were satisfied with Splatterhouse.

But with that satisfaction came a sobering realization: thanks to the negative press and expected underperformance, we most likely would not be seeing a sequel. To quote again from my 1/14/11 News entry:

Ultimately, as a result of all of this, the fans are the ones who've been affected the worst. We're the losers in this whole situation. We finally got a next-gen Splatterhouse - one that lived up to most fans' expectations - after all these years of waiting, but it's a Pyrrhic victory. There's no way in hell that Namco Bandai Japan will sanction a sequel now. It's going to take another fifteen years, if not longer (or ever) before we see another game. And to put it bluntly, we've truly gotten shafted here. We're the people who waited patiently for years for a new Splatterhouse game. We've supported the franchise. We've kept it alive. We hoped and dreamed and believed that no matter what, someday it would happen. And when it finally did, we got our chances of seeing a sequel, any sequel, completely destroyed. To make matters worse, the franchise may have been killed permanently. Whether that's truly the case, or it's just gone back into a very deep hibernation, remains to be seen.

The writing on the wall was clear: Splatterhouse, much like its predecessors, was destined to be another cult game. We had all hoped for the series to finally get its due with Splatterhouse, not to mention the start of an all new franchise, but sadly it was not to be.

Regardless, Splatterhouse did accomplish several firsts for the series.

- It was the first multiplatform Splatterhouse at launch, released simultaneously for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The prior games were only released to one console when originally released. Any ports that came along were released much later.

- This is the first time the classic trilogy was collected in one place. I'd been trying to accomplish that for years with the old Splatterhouses petition I had here on the site. As Dan said to me, "Your petition definately helped the first time around, although getting another one done will be more difficult due said reviews and market performance." Basically, the Splatterhouses petition was a help in getting Splatterhouse off the ground by helping convince the higher-ups at Namco that there was still an audience for the series. As a result, I did end up getting a Splatterhouse compilation out of it, which is all I wanted to begin with. And here it's been said that internet petitions never work.

- It's also the first time the original arcade game (the actual arcade game, not a port) was released for home consoles in the U.S.

- It was the only Splatterhouse to never be released in Japan. Due to the negative reception and "poor sales," Namco Bandai Games Japan quietly canceled the release shortly before its expected arrival.

- This was the first Splatterhouse to be released that was able to take advantage of the internet for marketing, in ways that the original creators of Splatterhouse never even dreamed. The official site, blog, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages served to get the Splatterhouse name out there like never before.


Rumor Has It...

Before Splatterhouse was unceremoniously dropkicked to the curb by Namco Bandai, rumors swirled about the sequel, as well as what kind of DLC was going to be released. A lot of people hoped for Rick's original outfits from the classic trilogy, alternate Masks, Wanpaku Graffiti... the list goes on. We did get the alternate Masks - which I helped with, after receiving a request from the team for reference pictures of all of the different masks from the original games - but nothing else ever materialized beyond a few survival arenas and a premium theme for the Xbox Dashboard.

Rumors were also floating around about possible DLC after the game was released: possible new stages featuring fights with classic Splatterhouse monsters and bosses (Master Dead and Hell Chaos being the most frequent names that came up), a DLC "prelude" of sorts that would go into the origins of the Terror Mask and DLC that would wrap up the game's storyline, including a fight with the Demon Jennifer. After doing some research into these rumors, I was able to find out that if nothing else, all of those possible DLC scenarios had been discussed by the team. Whether any development was actually started on them or not, I was not able to find out. I did, however, turn up a reference to something called "My Bloody Valentine," a supposed DLC launch slated for Valentine's Day 2011. Of course, February 14th came and went with nothing, so I'm going to guess that the DLC, if it wasn't near completion, was immediately canceled when Namco Bandai turned their back on the game. Aside from the name, I have virtually no information about what this DLC could have been about. But going on pure speculation based on the name alone, it might have been the Demon Jennifer fight. Too bad we'll never know for sure.


The Unfulfilled Potential

Toys. Comics. Movies. Had Splatterhouse been a huge hit, chances are we would have seen all of these materialize - not to mention more DLC and a sequel or two. Sure, some merchandise was released - remember the Globe shoes, skateboard and the GameStop preorder exclusive Terror Mask (which apparently there's a surplus of), among other things? That was all well and good, but imagine this: after working your way into the sequel, you sit down to read a no-holds-barred Splatterhouse graphic novel before meeting up with your buddies to check out the new Splatterhouse movie in 3D at your local theater (which, naturally, I would have been a creative consultant on). This all could have happened, and as I recall, all were in the works.

Now granted, we could live without the movie, the comics or the toys, but having the sequel so unceremoniously yanked out from underneath us is what hurts the worst. Splatterhouse ended with a cliffhanger, one that will likely never be resolved now. There are all sorts of great ideas out there that could be implemented in a sequel. The team that worked on the game certainly now has an idea for what worked and what didn't, and the sequel could have been nicely refined. Not having to switch dev teams in mid-development would have been a major help as well.

So what happens from here, you might be asking? To put it bluntly, it's not looking good for the future of the Splatterhouse franchise. At this point, Namco Bandai doesn't want to talk about Splatterhouse - their PR guys aren't communicating with me anymore, which is one sign. No further DLC has been released since the Survival Arena 4-Pack, the website and blog have been untouched since the release, the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages are no longer updated and there's no mention of the game over on the official Namco Bandai community forum.

If you look at everything that's happened since the release, one thing has become painfully obvious: Namco Bandai wanted Splatterhouse dead and buried. Based on what little information I've turned up, they couldn't kill the project once the shakeup in management happened. Far too much cash had already been sunk into it and the game was close enough to release that canceling it at that point in time would have financial suicide. Rather, Namco Bandai chose to release the game, to try and make something back on their investment - but putting any more money into it was out of the question. Chances are that the Japanese office also looked at it as an embarassment after the BottleRocket debacle. If that is the case, than it's no surprise that they were anxious to consign the game to the trash heap rather than consider it the start of a viable new franchise.

If this indeed the case, the franchise is dead and most likely will never be revived. Personally, I don't see Namco Bandai ever reviving it again. After everything that's happened here, it just doesn't seem realistic to expect a revival. There could be another drastic shakeup in management further down the line and someone in charge may decide to give the series another shot, but that could take years - and chances are that Splatterhouse will be a distant memory by then.

But if it happened once before, it can happen again. I spoke with Dan recently, and he does seem optimistic about the possibility of a revival:

Hopefully the whole crew will get fired up again if and when another game can get going over at Namco Bandai. I wish I could say one way or another whether this is actually possible or not. The demand from the market is what drives the creation of these games. Your petition definately helped the first time around, although getting another one done will be more difficult due said reviews and market performance. But if you guys are vocal enough and annoy Namco enough, you might just convince them. I know I personally still have a ton of ideas, both from the un-sung sequel that didn't get to move forward and from my new found "free" time. I do really hope that someday I get the chance to try to push these ideas forward, but it may just take an un-holy amount of time. I will certainly try.
So once again we find ourselves, as fans, in the same position we were from March 18, 1993 until November 23, 2010. We must wait and see what happens. But as history has proven, we Splatterhouse fans are a patient lot. We can wait. And we will wait patiently until the day comes when we're once again beckoned to enter the halls of West Mansion, pick up a two by four and start splattering legions of the undead... all in the name of love.


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