After playing through Alien Storm and its smorgasbord of different gameplay styles last time out, I thought I’d go for something a bit simpler, a little more sedate, with today’s article – and what could be more simple than a Commodore 64 single-screen platformer about a young boy’s quest to escape from a house that wants to murder him at every turn? That’s right, get your jumping boots on because it’s time for Henry’s House, programmed by Chris Murray and distributed by English Software!
Well, that’s certainly a title screen. A screen with a title on it. Yup. As you can see, Henry’s House was released in 1984, which puts it after Manic Miner but before Super Mario Bros. in the timeline of classic platformers, and it definitely leans towards the Manic Miner end of that spectrum: single-screen rooms, no scrolling, lots of precise jumping required and a host of weird things that want to kill you.
You might also notice that the title screen describes this game as “starring little Henry,” as though the Henry in question is someone we should know. As we’ll see in a while, that might actually be the case.
The game begins with this opening room. Most of the other rooms in the game are clear analogues of rooms you might well have in your house – bathroom, kitchen and what-have-you – but in this case I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be. The enormous stomping shoes and the fact that it’s the first room in the house imply it could be a porch or boot-room of some kind, but what kind of person stores their precious crown in the porch?
Whatever this room is supposed to be, the goal is the same as in every other room in the game. You control Henry – that’s him up there, with the baseball cap and little white bootees – and your goal is to tidy up this bloody mess, I’m not running a hotel here, pick up after yourself, etc. Most of the objects you can see on the screen here can be collected, and you need to grab them all to move on to the next screen. Bow ties, question marks, multicoloured sacks: all must be gathered to allow Henry’s continued progress. After you’ve grabbed most of them, a key appears which you much also collect, but you still have to collect every other item before you can head for the exit door.
Now that the basic concept has been firmly grasped, Henry can get to work. The only actions Henry can perform are walking, climbing ladders and jumping, so it’s not going to take you long to get a handle on the controls. You jump by pressing the fire button and not by pushing the joystick up, which is a welcome relief after the amount of deaths I suffered in Great Giana Sisters thanks to the latter control method.
Most of this first screen is spend figuring out what will kill Henry on contact. Some fatal traps are more obvious than others. The large shoes are a clear threat, because they’re moving up and down like a typical platformer trap and also because they’re clown shoes. Grinding children beneath their oversized soles are what clown shoes are for. The row of smiley faces might look more friendly, but they way they’re spinning around clearly indicates that they should be avoided, and indeed they should. After that, things get less obvious. Jumping into the crown results in instant death, perhaps as a warning on the corrupting influence of absolute power. However, the real kicker is that the walls will kill Henry if he so much as lightly trails his fingertips across them as one might caress a lover. That’s why he’s disintegrating in the screenshot above, he bumped into a wall. In short, if it’s not the floor you’re standing on, a ladder or one of the collectable items, it will kill you.
You also lose a life if you fall a distance greater than Henry’s height, something which gave me blood-chilling flashbacks to Spelunker. Fortunately Henry’s House is not quite as soul-grindingly hateful as Broderbund’s masochistic potholing adventure, but it does have its moments.
Once I figured out that everything in Henry’s House is lethal, even the artificially-enhanced gravity, I managed to make my way around the screen and collect all the items. It certainly helps that the hit detection in this game is absolutely spot-on, and if a hazardous pixel isn’t directly touching you then you aren’t going to lose a life. That was a relief – if Henry’s House had wonky collisions, I reckon it’d be borderline unplayable.
Once you’ve cleared a stage, you get a brief animation of Henry walking between rooms. I know the title screen called him “little Henry,” but just how little is he supposed to be? I actually got a tape measure out and checked Henry’s approximate height out against my living room door. My best guess is that Henry is about two foot tall.
Here’s room number two, and it’s a recognisable room this time. Unless Henry’s some kind of madman who had his bath plumbed into the kitchen, then this is the bathroom, and it’s packed with bathroom-related items. Deadly toothpaste, lethal taps, a spotted dick with a cartoon face that’s also, y’know, a remorseless killer. What, you don’t store your sentient dried fruit puddings in the bathroom? You really should, the extra humidity helps to keep them moist. Also in the top-middle of this room are a floating set of teeth. I didn’t realise they were teeth until a huge toothbrush appeared and started scrubbing them.
The gameplay is the same in this stage as it was in the first and will be in all the subsequent stages, but some screens do have their own small gimmicks. In this case, collecting the plug at the top-right of the screen causes the water to drain out of the bath, allowing Henry to climb inside and collect the items. It'd make more sense if the plug was anywhere near the bath, but it's still a nice touch. You will have to watch out for the water dripping from the tap while you’re in there, which, of course, is deadly. I’d rather die by drowning than have to go past the hovering teeth again, if I’m honest. Those things are creeping me out.
Next is the kitchen. I like the kitchen, because the first thing I noticed about it was the very “dad joke” sight of flower falling into the mixer. I hope the game ends with Henry meeting a nice young lady and giving her a bouquet of flour.
Less pleasing was that fact that in this very English game, a game that was published by a company called English Software, a game that plays “Rule Britannia” whenever you move between stages, in this game I was killed by tea. Glorious, life-giving tea, blasphemously transformed into a method of murder! That’s just not on. There aren’t even any biscuits to soak it up, for shame.
A cosy living room now, with a roaring log fire and the comforting glow of the television. Given that the TV presenter has the caption “Chris” underneath him, I’d imagine that he’s a cameo appearance by the game’s programmer. Apparently Chris Murray was only 16 when he created Henry’s House, so I’m willing to overlook the fact that it’s a very short game with very basic gameplay. I mean, how many computer games had you or I released when we were 16? I didn’t have time for anything like that when I was 16, I was too busy moderating Buffy the Vampire Slayer message boards.
Of course, being short and simple doesn’t make Henry’s House a bad game. It’s quite a fun little romp, in truth. There may only be eight stages but they’re all interesting to look at, with some charming sprites and a sense of playful fun that means the constant deaths never feel spiteful, even when Henry fatally splinters both his legs after falling a mere seven inches. Henry’s House avoids many of the problems with the genre by giving the player tight controls and accurate collision detection. There is a bit of a problem with Henry’s jumps in that they look kind of janky, as though he’s missing some animation frames, but he always moves along the same trajectory so it doesn’t make the game any harder.
Onward to the play room, and at first I was confused about how to get down from the upper platforms without leaving Henry as a crumpled heap on the floor. Then I realised I could jump into the toy plane and use it as a kind of mid-way stepping stone. So I jumped out of the plane to reach the items at the bottom of the screen, and when I did Henry was wearing a parachute. “Great,” I thought, “I can gently drift to the bottom of the-” but that’s all the thinking I managed to do because Henry’s parachute disappeared and he dropped to his death. Oh well. Riding in the plane was fun, at least.
A comfortable and cosy bedroom for the next stage, where the large amount of dummies are making me wonder just how old Henry is supposed to be. He seemed a bit older at the start of the game, then there was the sight of him being tiny next to those doors, then riding in a toy plane. Is Henry regressing? Is this some kind of Benjamin Button situation, and by the end of the game I’m going to be controlling a single sperm? A confession: I’ve never seen nor read Benjamin Button, but I assume that’s how it ends.
This screen does have a gimmick, but it’s a relatively minor one: you have to build the ladder up to the top-right by collecting all the “ladder +1” icons. That’s all well and good, but collecting the items that are up on that shelf is a real pain in the arse because of the patrolling radio that moves back and forth up there. You have just – just -enough time to climb up, grab one of the items and get back down to the ladder and safety before the radio clobbers you, but the timing on it is so tight that Henry’s House begins to slide towards being frustrating… and you have to do it twice. A Commodore 64 platformer being difficult thanks to it requiring extremely precise timing is hardly a shocker, but I was rather enjoying Henry’s House’s slightly more laid-back feel.
The penultimate screen is the dining room, laden with a banquet fit for royalty – and here’s where we get to the secret of Henry’s House. Apparently, this game was originally going to be called Home Sweet Home, but in a predictably money-grabbing but (I would argue) not very well thought-out plan the publishers opted to rename the game Henry’s House in order to cash in on the then-recent birth of Prince Harry. So why isn’t it called “Harry’s House,” I hear you ask? Because Prince Harry’s actual, given name is Henry, and if he ever manages to make his way on to the British throne presumably he’d be called King Henry IX. There you go, that’s a bit of monarchical trivia for you. I don’t think that particular scenario is ever likely to come to pass. Not because William is ahead of Harry in the line to the throne, but because I am now convinced that dear old Lizzy II has become immortal and will never vacate the throne.
For the final screen, Henry’s House does away with the whole, erm, “house” concept and drops our hero into a pixellated Halloween decoration. I am more than happy with that. Well, in a visual sense, anyway, and naturally I do love the way this screen looks. Cheerful skulls, dangling spiders and a witch who summons a ghost from the netherworld by banging her broom on the floor like someone trying to get their downstairs neighbours to shut the hell up at two in the morning. Best of all is that coffin with DRACULA written on it, an especially wonderful sight now that we know we’re playing as Prince Harry, so presumably one of Britain’s royal residences must have a vampire’s coffin in the basement. I don’t think that’s the coffin of Dracula himself, mind you. He’s too classy to have his name painted on the side like a vanity numberplate. My best guess is that it’s a Dracula® brand coffin, in the same vein (no pun intended) as a George Foreman grill. Now that I can imagine, Dracula loves monologuing so I bet he’d jump at the chance to promote his own line of luxury caskets. “What is a coffin? A beautiful pile of comfort! Hi, I’m Dracula, and I’m here to tell you about an exciting revolution in tomb furnishings.”
As much as I like the aesthetics of this screen, the gameplay ain’t so great thanks to one small, beaked problem: this goddamn homing missile of a bird. It flies in from the left of the screen, and unlike every other enemy or obstacle in the game it doesn’t move along a set route but instead flies directly at Henry, zeroing in on the young prince with the ferocity of the most fervent republican. This is particularly problematic during the final part of the screen, when you have to run across the flat plane at the top of the screen. If the bird appears on the left while you’re running for the exit, you’re screwed because there’s no room to avoid it. It’s a hugely annoying end to a game which otherwise had been free of such tedious bullshit, and it’s almost enough to ruin the entire experience. If I’d had to struggle against this bird another ten or twenty times rather than fluking my way past it, it might well have ruined Henry’s House, but fluke my way past it I did. Afterwards I realised that picking up the crosses on the screen causes any on-screen bird to disappear. It’s still difficult even with that knowledge, but it would have been somewhat less kick-in-the-dick painful.
Once you’ve cleared the spooky screen, that’s it. Back to the first screen to do it all again with nary a congratulatory message to be seen. Maybe there is an ending if you make a certain number of loops through the game, but I don’t think Henry’s House is a strong enough gameplay experience to make that worthwhile, plus I never want to see that bird again.
There’s not much else to say about Henry’s House, honestly. It does what it does pretty well (final bird menace aside) and it looks nice. The action’s simple but precise, and sometimes that’s all you need, you know? This isn’t a game that requires a lot of deep dissection – the fact I’ve managed to write two and a half thousand words about it is down to my own personal issues rather than Henry’s House being all that interesting. Still, you can’t argue with that flower / flour joke.
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