Its Halloween! The time when our attention inevitably turns to oOky sPOoky titles. For this Halloween, let’s look at one that lays a little bit outside the usual.
With an FGPA Core, a truckload of podcast coverage and the sudden discovery of the immense breadth and depth of its library, Sega’s Saturn has seen a tremendous surge in stature over the last couple of years – so much so it’s now arguably eclipsed he console that outsold it across the globe: Sony’s PlayStation. Why was the PlayStation so popular at the time but relatively unloved today, despite the relative market dominance of its descendants? Aside from being the perfect Halloween title, I think Muppets Haunted House Adventure can help us with an answer.
Though released in the twilight years of the PS1, Muppets Haunted House isn’t the sort of shovel ware you’d expect. For a start, the game is a surviving artefact from an abandoned Muppet film project, and features all of the Muppet voice actors you’d expect from a Y2k-era production. On top of that, (now-defunct) developers Magenta interactive are an interesting bunch too. A Psygnosis-adjacent studio based in Liverpool, the individuals on the team had – and would have – involvement on a whole bunch of interesting titles including Microcosm, Wiz’n’Liz, the C64 port of Sabrewulf and the Zx Spectrum version of Dragon Spirit in the dim and distant past and Outrun 2006, the Buzz! Series, Little Big Planet and Lawnmower simulator all laying ahead in the years to come.
In terms of story, Muppet fans might be a little disappointed. In a gloriously 90’s-looking CGI intro, we find out the Muppets have gone on holiday to a spooky castle to hear the last will and testament of Baron Petri von Honeydew, Dr Honeydew’s uncle. Little Robin the frog faints In terror as the castle door opens and awakens to find himself in a lab with Honeydew Beaker and Pepe the frog. It turns out the evil energy permeating the place has turned Kermit and the gang into monsters themed around Universal’s classic brood, and it’s up to Robin to don a wrist based zapper, hoover up the evil energy permeating the local village and turn Robin’s fellow Muppets back to normal.
What this means in practice is that the game is centred almost entirely around Robin and guide Pepe (“Okay?”) with Beaker turning up occasionally to be used as puzzle solution, with Kermit, Fozzy and co cameoing as bosses (such as Gonzo’s ‘Noseferatu’) Not only is Robin probably not everyone’s first choice as favourite Muppet, the world itself is only really sort-of Muppet adjacent. Borrowing from the Rare school of of “Object + googly eyes = character”, Robin doesn’t exactly look out of place, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me the game started off as something completely different and had all of the Muppet-related elements added later in the project. Aside from the chickens you encounter early on, few of the characters and environments feel very Muppet-ey.
From a gameplay perspective, things are a lot more successful. Robin’s controls are tight and intuitive with a camera that generally gives you the view of the action you require. Robin’s dual attacks make for combat which is simple but satisfying, with some enemies being zappable but resistant to his spin attack, and others spinnable but resistant to zapping. Each level is small and relatively tight, with routes which are generally rewarding to follow and which are frequently broken up by mini games – be they Simon-style reaction games, foot races, time challenges or simple puzzles. At the time, it was given 7/10s across the board and this feels about right: if you’ve played the likes of Croc, Spyro or Banjo then Muppets Haunted House Adventure does absolutely nothing you haven’t seen multiple times before – it just does it all really well. If you’re looking for a fun, light, comedy-horror themed game that doesn’t require much brain power, Muppets Haunted House Adventure is well worth checking out…with one all-important reservation.
You see, looking back from the 2020s, it does feel like Muppets suffers from some disastrous self-sabotage that wasn’t noticed at the time – it was considered a standard gameplay feature at the time. Though the levels are tight and a joy to simply traverse from beginning to end, the game locks a lot of your progress behind irritating collectibles. Not only do players need to unlock each subsequent stage by collecting a certain amount of dark energy in the current level (effectively placed like coins in Mario or Rings in Sonic), but the climatic boss fight in each section can only be accessed after the player has gathered the majority of that section’s Muppet medallions as well. Limited to 5 per stage, only one in each level is generally linked to beating an obvious puzzle or mini game – the rest have to be sought out in hard to reach places which aren’t always logical or intuitive. If that wasn’t enough collecting, Robin can also gain the use of his Muppet family’s monster powers – such as Noseferatu’s glide and Wakka-Wakka-Ware Bear’s ability to claw his way up certain surfaces, but these are only unlocked after collecting tokens with the respective monster’s image on them.
Though it seems crazy today, we have to remember that this sort of mechanic was widespread even beyond platform games. You’d expect a Turok game to focus almost exclusively on the characters reptilian opponents and his ingenious blend of both extremely low and extremely high tech weaponry, but in both the original Turok and its sequel our character spends much of his time running round the jungle, frantically searching like a man who’s forgotten where he’s left his car keys.
Overall then, the reasons you might have given it a miss in the year 2000 are reasons you shouldn’t give it a miss today. By attempting to do nothing that was particularly new but executing everything else perfectly, Muppets Haunted House arguably stands as a more perfect testament to the philosophies underpinning late ‘90s game design than the titles that attempted to break the mould. Though we are thoroughly charmed by the depth of the Saturn’s gorgeous 2d library today, this is after we’ve had almost thirty years to tire of the complexities of three dimensional game worlds, and most of us were in a very different headspace at the time. On its own, “You had to be there” might be a gigantic copout, but if you’re a person who only started playing in the recent era then Muppets Haunted House Adventure can act as testament to how willing we were to let talented developers tarnish otherwise enjoyable games by turning them into pointless busywork collectathons.