In 2018, we have too many zombies and too few arcades — an inadvisable moment for Sega’s zombie arcade series House of the Dead to rise from the grave. Like the walking dead, Sega is undeterred by human logic. This month, House of the Dead Scarlet Dawn cabinets will begin to appear in Dave & Buster’s across the United States. After a nine-year arcade hiatus, the franchise still doesn’t have brains, though it has just enough blood and guts to make up for it.
Weeks ago, I had a chance to play the majority of Scarlet Dawn in Japan, where the new House of the Dead has taken the last year to establish itself in the city’s dense and lively arcade scene. No need to even spend money to appreciate the most immediate change to the series; Scarlet Dawn is tucked inside a humongous cube of wood and plastic, larded with gaudy technology.
Two players can sit on a bench inside the chamber, where they will find a pair of plastic light guns and a slew of gizmos that bombard the senses. The marketing term is “five-dimensions.” The reality is a glaring red light, an air chamber that blasts me right in the eyes and a sound system in a pissing match with a jet engine. The best place to experience the doodads is a few feet behind the cabinet, watching the game safely through its fogged rear window.
Scarlet Dawn itself is a thrill, with or without your eyes being dried by pressurized air. The campaign takes places across five missions: a prologue, a finale and three middle missions that can be played in order of one’s choosing.
The prologue progresses most like the series’ 1996 debut, dropping me among party guests in what feels at first like a castle and then like a five-star hotel. It gains traction in a hurry, introducing a variety of zombies that slump through halls, crash through windows and climb on ceilings. Some are big, some are small, some appear to be cosplaying as their favorite Dickens characters.
With the basics established, the prologue culminates with a surprisingly elaborate and botched helicopter escape. I’m stranded in a multi-story lobby elegantly lite by strings of white lights and flame that — faster than you can say “we’re doomed” — engulf the entire complex.
Dozens of zombies fall over themselves down the lobby’s spiral staircase. A colossal robot hulks through the fire, repurposing zombies into flailing projectiles. If you’re over 20, you might remember the intense jolt and awe of a great arcade game. For a few minutes, for a few quarters, you are no longer in a smoky pizza shop or a hotel entertainment room that stunk of chlorine tabs. The end of Scarlet Dawn’s prologue hits that euphoric high note. If console and mobile games are IV drips, spreading their pleasure across dozens of hours, Scarlet Dawn is a syringe to the chest.
Scarlet Dawn does share a few traits with its contemporaries. It’s the first entry in the series to use the Unreal Engine, the tools created by Epic Games to power everything from Fortnite to interior design projects. In an arcade that still houses Daytona USA and Time Crisis, Scarlet Dawn’s modern visuals look, by comparison, to be on the bleeding-edge. They don’t fare nearly as well outside of arcades. Scarlet Dawn’s graphical horsepower has nothing on a high-end gaming PC, but who cares when you’re strapped into its sensory-overloading murder chamber?
Also like its contemporaries, Scarlet Dawn has a scale and density unlike its predecessors. The number of zombies on screen has increased to the point that the game has had to evolve. The undead travel in crowds, so gone is the pistol of early entries, replaced by a machine gun that delivers many-headshots-a-second. Timing reloads feels especially strategic. Fail to mince encroaching foes and the horde will overcome you or your partner, triggering a countdown to push the crowd back with a few dozen bullets.
Boss fights are bigger and more beautiful, though not quite better. There’s a giant squid, a belligerent vampire bat, a Lovecraftian death god and more. The showdowns go big, but light-gun boss fights, in 1996 and 2018, tend to make it a little too obvious that I’m just pointing a cursor where the game tells me until the health bar hits zero, or I trigger the special move that will deliver the fatal blow.
Janky animations flatter Scarlet Dawn’s wobbly zombies, but human characters move like animatronics that Disneyland employees had long ago left in the Anaheim dump — their characterizations are limited to moving arms, legs and a disturbingly limited number of facial muscles. The voice-over performances rival some of the worst I’ve heard the past decade. On the other hand, they’re so bad that I wonder if they’re purposefully arch, that creators have intentionally recreated the series’ unintentionally bad performances.
Every stage overflows with similarly head-scratching decisions. Why is a science lab crowded with zombies dressed as Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, wearing a pink suit and wielding an axe guitar? Why does your character choose to drive an SUV through high standing water? Why is it that when the hero enters a huge, empty feature-less room, he exclaims “This sure is a weird space!”?
The last big House of the Dead game, 2009’s House of the Dead Overkill, riffed on the 1970s grindhouse cinema-style that had been revived by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and a crop of torture porn directors. It also had stilted dialogue and quirky characters and settings, but Scarlet Dawn’s inspirations seem older and less on trend. I don’t love having a red light flash in my face with each explosion or subwoofer shaking my tuchus with each flap of a swarm of bats, but Scarlet Dawn’s over-the-top hardware nicely supplements the experience in the way Smell-O-Vision and cheap 3D glasses defined the monster matinees of the 1950s.
Some of this — the voice-over, the enemies, the illogical story beats, the entire cabinet — has to be intentionally hokey. Whatever the case, when taken holistically, it works in a midnight movie sort of way. Sega presents Scarlet Dawn as the futuristic update of the series; instead, the game lovingly echoes a long-gone era when horror directors would go to absurd lengths just to add a little extra fun.