Seriously… this game. Seriously.
Where have you been all my life?
I’ll admit I’m biased toward liking Dangerous Dave. I have a kind of pseudo-nostalgia for this early era of PC games, in all its 16-color, PC speaker glory. I say pseudo-nostalgia because I wasn’t even around for it when it was going down. It really wasn’t until Doom that I came onto the PC gaming scene, but there’s still this warm, fuzzy feeling that creeps up on me when I load up these older games.
Turns out, before Doom, even before Wolfenstein 3D, id was making a whole bunch of games no one remembers anymore. And I’m not talking about Commander Keen, which is relatively well known among retro gamers (though hardly ever recognized as part of the id canon). I’m talking Shadow Knights, Rescue Rover, Hovertank 3D, Catacomb 3D, and yeah — Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion. Games that even an id worshiper like me had heard of in passing but never played.
Well, I’m playing them now, and dang.
So this is the Haunted Mansion, you’re Dave, and you’re killing monsters (zombies, werewolves, giant spiders, the works). What more do you need to know?
Okay, so Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion is a sidescrolling platform shooter. It’s actually the sequel to John Romero’s original Dangerous Dave, which I’ve never played. And it has two sequels of its own (designed by Softdisk rather than Romero).
The story of this one is that Dave is exploring a mansion, looking for his brother. I think. I already forget the story, but along the way, he’ll collect treasure and face off against all sorts of horrible, deadly creatures, with only a trusty shotgun to defend himself. Pretty unremarkable premise, I guess, but don’t write it off just yet.
What sets Dangerous Dave apart is hard to define. It actually reminds me a lot of the original Castlevania, not that Castlevania involved any shooting. More in the sense of the games’ cheesy horror film vibe, the palpable tension, and the maddening difficulty. Don’t be fooled. This game is short, but it will take you ages to finish it. I still haven’t.
I keep coming back for more punishment, though, and that’s because the game is so dang fun. There are some pretty brilliant gameplay mechanics at work here, though I have to wonder if they were intentional or just the easy way out, design- and programming-wise. Either way, they warm my heart.
First, it’s crazy-easy to die. One touch from an enemy and you’re history (with the exception of the little knife-throwing gremlin guys, who can only kill you if their knife hits you). In the first level, that’s no big deal; zombies move like molasses and you’ve got plenty of room to snipe them. But just wait until you get into the later, more cramped levels, full of skittering slime monsters and charging, pouncing werewolves.
The constant threat of an instantaneous death cranks the excitement level through the roof. You have to be prepared, every step of the way, to react with a barrage of gunfire or a well-timed jump. To not be, more often than not, spells a messy end.
Our second brilliant mechanic is the ammo system. Your shotgun is loaded with eight shells. Being empty is, of course, bad news; but you can reload automatically, shell by shell, if you stand still. Effectively, you have a limited supply for any given encounter, which allows the designers to plan around that, but you can reload to full between fights. There’s no big pool that the ammo is drawn from when you reload, so no pickups and no shortages.
It’s genius, I tell you.
The player’s instinct in a platformer is to speed through, and you can rush as much as you want in Dangerous Dave, but if you get into a jam with a near-empty shotgun, you’re pretty much done for. The reloading mechanic encourages you to stop and take things slow, and knowing you have a limit of eight shots builds the tension in any situation. There’s nothing more stressful (or satisfying) than running dry as a zombie corners you, only to slap one more shell in and blast the thing to gibs a moment before you get your face mauled off.
So that’s Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion: platforms, monsters, shooting, dying. There’s not really a whole lot to say.
It’s a series of glorious victories separated by long stretches of blissful frustration and rage. I adore it, but if you can’t stand a lot of trial and error, you may want to stay away. If you don’t mind dying a lot and retrying the same level over and over, though, the triumphant glee you’ll get at the end is worth it.
But I’m serious; you will die a lot.
If you’re interested, you can grab the Dangerous Dave pack on GoG, which includes Haunted Mansion as well as the hugely underwhelming Softdisk sequels, Risky Rescue and Goez Nutz. (I apologize for the abuse of the letter Z, but — well, it was the ’90s.)