The fight between good and evil has always been both epic and eternal, much like the relentless bickering over whether Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the game) is actually decent or not. The 1992 Francis Ford Coppola adaptation boasted a packed cast full of A-listers – a dashing Keanu Reeves as the hero and a bulbous Gary Oldman as our toothy villain – that received mixed opinions much like our game on trial. BBC’s Dracula – that rose back in January – combined with obtaining the game on Sega Mega Drive rekindled my tireless love for the old Count and inspired a good dusting off of the 8 and 16-bit series.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to crown the Castlevania series as the best in the blood-sucking gaming business, and while Dracula has been dubbed the lesser carbon copy of the Belmont clan endeavours, it still holds its own qualities to be explored and flaws to be staked through the heart. 1993 saw a slew of Dracula releases from dev’s Psygnosis, Traveller’s Tales and Probe Software, strangely taking a whole year after the movie debuted to hit consoles. Within that year, many expected a kick-ass platformer fattened with thrilling combat, haunting atmosphere and church organ riffs, but those heights remained with the gargoyles.
Released on the Game Boy, NES, SNES, Master System, Mega Drive (Genesis), Sega CD and Game Gear, Dracula followed the same premise as its movie, operating as a 2D, side-scrolling platformer. Playing Jonathan Harker through a series of stages to escape Dracula’s imprisonment is the primary premise, defeating his army of minions along the way by kicking and punching; puny monsters. While some of the earlier systems produced identical copies of each other, later consoles decided to conjure a different spell with horrendous results.
First up was the NES and Game Boy release, the latter of which was slated as the 21st worst game of all time by FLUX magazine; If only they had waited to see the final release of the series. The GB version may have lacked originality and supplied minimal chills as a horror game, but at least its 8bit jingles kept momentum. Its twin on the NES remained as an action platformer but had the advantage of higher resolution that produced sleeker animations and colour.
When Dracula bore its fangs to the SNES and Sega Megadrive (Sega Genesis for our American friends) they continued the platformer legacy and were identical to each other. Harker finally had an ally in Abraham Van Helsing who provided advanced weapons within various levels and each of the six stages flaunted sophisticated gameplay with harder challenges than its 8bit predecessors. The Super release still remained an easy game to conquer in around half an hour (for seasoned players), as Harker now possessed a sword to battle Dracula’s three brides and fire-breathing Dragon around the castle and misty catacombs, all accompanied by a relevant score with upbeat highlights and waltz themes. A ray of sunshine for the series had finally peaked.
As legend goes, however, sunlight doesn’t last very long around the castle. After the main console releases came a trio of yawns. The Sega Master System poured blinding colour into its palette, Game Gear brought nothing new but at least it muted the Mario colours of the Master release and Sega CD abandoned the platformer style, included cutscenes from the movie (as an attempt to really fuse game to film as initially intended) and turned Jonathan Harker into a Thriller extra.
After a year of musical Dracula’s, 1994 saw an Amiga release that brought nine stages of coffin destruction to advance the game’s strategy. Psygnosis continued side-scrolling with detailed locations, arguably the best visually and atmospherically. A score that had varied over previous releases was no more, as sound effects lead the killing spree that severely lacked some of the death metal interlude music from the title screen. Harker was once again, weapon-less, his only advantage was holy crosses that allowed the player to unleash a short-lived holy beam attack; a combat maneuver that would also be welcomed in an Exorcist game.
Usually, the best is saved until last. However, the 1995 MS-DOS release from Psygnosis and Probe Software reeked of enough allicin to keep any vampire fan away. Changing to a first-person shooter, Harker cleansed coffins with holy water whilst vanquishing various creatures with a pistol or knife; A pistol that appeared in the movie but damaged the ambience and traditional vampire lore. At least melee garlic slicing would have retained a mythical quality. To make gameplay worse, an ugly, stone frame surrounded your viewpoint and the sound of concrete footsteps was the only audio input even when walking on grass. Comical fanfare accompanied discoveries and unidentified foley would blast through the speakers when you traveled through a passage. The first-person perspective and shooter style worked poorly for a game that thrived on its surroundings and should have stayed with Wolfenstein.Winning the great Bram Stoker’s Dracula battle of the early nineties was clearly the SNES in my opinion, its arsenal equipped with 16bit arachnids reminiscent of the ones you used to find in your Mum’s house and Dracula – as a final boss clad in red latex – who gave off some American Horror Story vibes. Its format was comparable to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – released on the SNES and Mega Drive a year later – and could have inspired a series of dark universe retro games based on the Universal classics. Ranging from “the worst Christmas present ever” to “the only sucking this game does is for blood” in the reviews section, Dracula has paid for its choppy movement and pixelated cutscenes over the years, but allowing the SNES or Mega Drive cartridge into your collection wouldn’t turn too many bodies in their graves.