Competition was fierce among pinball machine manufacturers in the early 80s, as each tried to outdo their rivals with new features that would set their products apart from the rest. One of the most creative was the use of multi-level playing surfaces, first introduced in 1980, when Williams placed an additional upper level in their breakthrough game, Black Knight. The following year, Gottlieb countered with a lower level of play, viewable through a window in the main playing field in their game, Black Hole. And seeking to one-up themselves, Gottlieb followed up in 1982 with the first 3-surface pinball game, Haunted House, a game still fondly remembered by pinball aficionados.
Part of Gottlieb’s “System 80” series of pinball games, Haunted House set the tone with an eerie electronic version of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” to serve as the soundtrack. Players were treated to a three-level playing field that represented the floors of the house – the main level, the attic above, and the basement below. Players could reach the upper level via a ramp or by entering an upkick area that launched their ball into the attic. Once there, a row of targets, as well as a set of drop targets, awaited the ball’s arrival. Lurking underneath the main playing surface and visible through a glass window, the basement was accessible through a series of trapdoors located throughout the game.
Upon first examination of the basement level, it was clear that something was amiss. The targets were at the bottom and the flippers were on top. Keeping the laws of gravity in mind, this section was actually angled so the ball would roll upward toward the top of the machine, offering an interesting, if not unsettling, optical illusion. To get back to the main playing surface, an upkick tube provided the launching power necessary to escape the basement. Haunted House featured two buttons on each side of the machine to control the impressive eight flippers scattered among the various levels (a record at the time).
With all of these levels came an endless supply of opportunities to rack up bonus points. Knock out the lower bank of targets twice, or the upper bank three times, and the score on the main level was doubled. Make 11 hits on the upper level lights, and you could also double your score on the lower level, or vice-versa. These were just some of the bonus scoring opportunities to choose from that made Haunted House a one-of-a-kind pinball experience.
The graphics of the game presented a tongue-in-cheek spookiness as demonstrated by the backboard, which featured an eerie haunted house, surrounded by trees, one containing an owl with menacing, glowing red eyes. The playing surfaces themselves mimicked the interior of a dilapidated, foreboding house, complete with plenty of lurking ghosts and even a menacing suit of armor wielding an axe.
Haunted House offered a delightfully spooky experience, and proved to be a formidable quarter magnet, as players attempted to see how many of the numerous bonuses they could achieve. This made arcade owners quite happy, even if the games themselves tended to haunt the hapless repairmen who had to service three levels of game surfaces and multitudes of moving parts. Today, almost three decades later, Haunted House is still a favorite among pinball machine collectors, and for those never fortunate enough to play the real thing, Microsoft decided to resurrect the multi-leveled favorite as part of its Pinball Arcade video game, where it now rests in peace.
If you have fond memories of pumping a fistful of quarters into this addictive pinball machine, we’d love to hear your thoughts about Haunted House in our comments section, as we tip our hats to one unforgettable game.