I’ve thought a lot about The House of the Dead since its arcade debut roughly 25 years ago. Despite the impact it had then and its legacy since, Sega’s original on-rails zombie shooter has only ever been made playable outside of an arcade in the form of mediocre ports to PC and Sega Saturn in 1998, with Sega reportedly losing the original source code. So when a full remake was announced for Switch at long last, I was eager to see what developer MegaPixel Studio could do to make this classic appealing to both veterans like myself and total newcomers to the series. Unfortunately, frustrating controls, a few performance issues, and unavoidably repetitive gameplay make The House of the Dead: Remake a mixed bag for new and old fans alike.
Just like in the arcades, you assume the role of either A.M.S. Agent Thomas Rogan or Agent G as they pump hordes of undead full of bullets and try to stop mad scientist Dr. Curien from destroying mankind, with three possible endings depending on how well you do. There are more interesting nuances to the world and its characters than the one-dimensional way they are presented in-game, but sadly finding that story context requires a bit of research through old game manuals or The Wiki of the Dead rather than being explained in The House of the Dead itself.
While it stays faithful in that way, I am a little disappointed MegaPixel did not decide to add some of that existing lore into the remake – especially since the studio is also remaking The House of the Dead 2 and could have taken this opportunity to better setup the sequel. Lore additions would have also helped flesh out this entry somewhat, which otherwise remains incredibly short by modern standards. It only takes about half an hour to complete a run from start to finish, including cutscenes, and returning fans will quickly recognize all the same cheesy dialogue lines and only loosely explained story beats as the original.
Of course, you don’t really play The House of the Dead for the story – it’s the on-rails zombie shooting that the series is known for. With movement handled automatically, the only thing you have to focus on is pumping the undead full of lead, and that part remains as fun as ever. As repetitive as it can get running through the story repeatedly, there is nothing more satisfying than shooting fictional guns at zombies and infected creatures, all while racking up the highest score you possibly can. You can also find a few different routes that help shake up each run – whether that’s by shooting down a certain door, having an enemy knock you down to a different part of the level, or failing to save a scientist – which adds variety and rewards experimentation too. While the number of alternate routes dwindles as you progress further, there’s fun to be found in making your own little goals too, such as trying not to take any damage in a single run or attempting to save all the scientists in one playthrough.
And as entertaining as this remake is alone, it’s even better with a friend in two-player co-op. It’s a shame there isn’t an online option, but there are at least two local modes to choose from: competitive and cooperative. The former gives you 10 continues each and a separate score bar, while the latter has you share both your continues and your score in order to work together. The House of the Dead has always been best served with good company, and the inclusion of a competitive mode certainly makes it even more rewarding to play with friends as you try and rack up as many health packs or shoot down as many enemies as possible – provided you are both willing to put up with the controls.
Trial and Error Aplenty
The House of the Dead: Remake’s controls take some time to get used to and can feel more complex than they need to be. There are a variety of options to try, from a single Joy-Con (although only when playing co-op, for some odd reason) with full gyro-aiming for that light gun feel to simply using a Pro Controller like an FPS, but all of them can be hit and miss – literally and figuratively.
Firing your gun is done by pressing the A or ZR buttons, while reloading is tied to either ZL or the B button. That’s not the most comfortable arrangement, which makes using two connected Joy-Con or the Pro Controller preferable. Outside of providing an additional button for reloading, the D-pad/left Joy-Con buttons allow you to swap between the additional weapons you can unlock. These include options like an assault rifle and a grenade launcher that can obliterate anything in your path, though you won’t be able to unlock and use them until you unlock the armory itself, which requires that you save all the scientists in one run.
Both controller options also allow you to use gyro aiming, as well as a combination that uses the thumbsticks by default and then the gyro for finer control. I ended up primarily using this option, though there were moments when I realized the gyro aiming was not registering how I expected it to. That meant I started to rely on the thumbstick more and more – while I could easily click in the right (or left) thumbstick to realign my gyro crosshair if it was slightly out of frame, it was even easier to simply move the thumbstick a bit to shoot an enemy right away. This likely depends on personal preference to some extent, but I found gyro aiming to be a bigger enemy than the zombies more often than not.
Gyro aiming is not turned on by default, but if you use it you’ll want to go into the settings to turn it on and adjust things like sensitivity and such to your liking anyway. But this can be extremely intimidating and frustrating as there is a lot of trial and error to get the controls to work just right. The House of the Dead series has a pick up and play mentality, and the default settings have always worked just fine for me with the console ports of later House of the Dead games without having to mess with their similar calibration options. As much as I wanted to fully immerse myself by wielding a single Joy-Con like a light gun pistol, this remake is unreliable without two. More surprisingly, I found better luck with gyro aiming when playing with my Pro Controller or even in handheld mode, which is far from how I expected to prefer an arcade shooter. I can see why the controls were designed the way they were, as the flexibility to play docked, handheld, tabletop, or even on the Switch Lite is appreciated, but I still wish there was an option to remap the control layout to help alleviate some of these problems.
I noticed several performance issues not related to the inconsistent gyro aiming as well. There were multiple instances where everything would freeze for a few seconds in the middle of combat – running through the same sections with the “Performance Mode” option enabled provided a higher FPS at the cost of some graphical fidelity, but it didn’t solve freezing issues. Loading screens were also a noticeably slow problem, taking about 35 seconds for each new stage to fully load. These issues are relatively minor but noticeable and annoying nonetheless, especially when The House of the Dead: Remake is not exactly a pretty game to look at from a graphical standpoint. While character models for the main cast look fine for the most part, a lot of the scientists you save look very animatronic, to the point where it can be laughably distracting.
Revived for Modern Times
The House of the Dead: Remake has two modes: Story, which is pretty much just the original experience, and Horde, which is a new option that is basically the same but with up to a whopping 15 times more zombies on the screen at once. Outside of the sheer volume of enemies, Horde goes through the same four stages and same boss battles, although enemies also take a lot more bullets before going down. It feels a little redundant since Story mode already has four escalating difficulty options (Easy, Normal, Hard, and Arcade), but I still found plenty of satisfying challenge in it as a veteran of the series. Putting Horde on its own Arcade difficulty level ends up being a true test of your skills too. How you take damage has also been adjusted slightly from the original with the amount of damage you take from different enemies scales up in the higher difficulties.
Simulating the arcade setting, each run gives you 10 continues that act as lives; once you run out, you can “buy” more by spending the points you’ve earned on the current run, otherwise, it’s game over. You earn points by finding bonus items like coins and (more commonly) defeating enemies. The points vary depending on where you aim and the enemy itself, which encourages more than just blind shooting. And while the classic scoring method is available, there’s also the welcome addition of a new modern scoring option which offers multipliers for doing things like killing a certain number of enemies in a row.
The two modes, combined with the difficulty options and different score systems, certainly provide a lot of replay value, and the ability to tailor your settings to your tastes make this remake more approachable to a wider audience. Yet, I was disappointed that additional options like the boss mode or training mode that are part of The House of the Dead 2 weren’t included here. There’s at least a gallery mode that lets you take a close look at all of the weapons you unlock and enemies you defeated, as well as some amusing cheat codes for things like infinite ammo and unlimited continues that only unlock once you complete a certain number of built-in achievements, but those are only entertaining for so long.
Source: IGN Video Games All