Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famicom)

The fools! They said I was mad! Mad! Well, I’ll show them! I’ll achieve both endings in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Two full playthroughs! And it will be the more difficult Famicom version with its extra levels and enemies! Then we’ll see who’s mad! Ahahahahaha!

Whew! Sorry. I don’t know what came over me there. Just had to get that out of my system, I guess. I’m alright now. Really.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 work Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has an awful lot going on in and around it for a short novella. This tragic tale of an upstanding London physician that seeks to free himself from his base, “evil” impulses through means of an experimental chemical concoction has seemingly attracted as many interpretations over the years as it has readers. There’s the classic psychological take, of course, which posits that Jekyll’s stubborn insistence on denying and suppressing his shadow side rather than healthily integrating it into his greater personality was his ultimate undoing. Many also cite it a condemnation of rigid Victorian social mores, where an outward façade of performative respectability frequently masked the messy reality of the human condition. It’s also been approached as an addiction allegory, a commentary on the British class system, a symbolic representation of the relationship between England and Stevenson’s native Scotland, and more.

It’s enough to make you wish you could reach back through time and interrogate the author himself in order to determine what he really had in mind. In that same vein, I’d love to be able to ask the uncredited development staff at Advance Communication Company what they were thinking when they birthed their 8-bit adaptation of Stevenson’s opus onto the Famicom over a century later in 1988. In its own bizarre way, their Jekyll Hakase no Houma ga Toki (“Dr. Jekyll’s Hour of the Wandering Monstrosity”) is almost as difficult to pin down as its literary inspiration. Houma ga Toki (which I’ll refer to using its North American title from this point on for simplicity’s sake) is a truly a game unlike any other for the system. This isn’t just because it’s a case of a 20th century Japanese video game developer drawing on 19th century English language literature for inspiration, either. That happened more often than you might think. Two completely unrelated games based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hit the Famicom in 1989 and consulting detective Sherlock Holmes also made multiple appearances on the platform. No, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is special because it’s the earliest example I can cite of a developer attempting to use the medium of gameplay itself to depict a conflict taking place within a fictional character’s psyche. Despite its very real flaws and horrendous reputation online, the mere fact that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of all things pioneered techniques that would make critical darlings of titles like Silent Hill 2 and Celeste decades later is worthy of acknowledgement and, I dare say, respect.

As usual, though, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. At first glance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears to be that most common of things: An 8-bit side-scrolling action-platformer. The plot focuses on Henry Jekyll’s attempt to make his way across town on foot from his laboratory to the church in order to attend his own wedding to his fiancée Millicent, an apparently mundane task that will still end up taxing the player’s skill and patience to a prodigious degree. Incidentally, this notion of Jekyll having a love interest named Millicent is a clear reference to the 1920 silent film version by Paramount Pictures and this is the only instance I spotted of a callback to any other specific prior adaptation of the tale.

To reach the church, Jekyll has only to walk from left to right across a total of six stages representing different parts of town. These include a village, parks, a graveyard, and several different street scenes. These stages themselves are the reason that I recommend you skip the 1989 North American version of the game altogether and stick to the Famicom original. For unknown reasons, publisher Bandai opted to remove two entire levels from the NES release and fell back on lazy repeats of the village and cemetery areas to pad the final product out to an acceptable length. That’s a full third of the game gone! Most speculation I’ve see about this change centers on a specific lady character that appeared in the cut levels and would beckon Jekyll into her home and restore his lost health off-screen. It’s thought that Bandai staff may have been concerned that this would be perceived as an illicit sexual encounter and consequently run afoul of Nintendo of America’s strict family friendly content guidelines. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced. Why would this necessitate removing whole stages instead of just the offending character? Why would it be a problem at all when Nintendo had already famously included a virtually identical suggestive healing scenario in their own Zelda II: The Adventure of Link? We may never know for sure. In any case, avoid the butchered NES release at all costs.

No matter which version you’re playing, you’ll find Dr. Jekyll’s walk in the park to be, well, no walk in the park. There’s a veritable mob of relentless enemies standing between him and wedded bliss. In an amusing twist on the usual action game formula, the majority of them are not out to harm Jekyll per se. Instead, most of the threats he’ll encounter simply annoy the good doctor. He’ll be forced to confront obstacles like pushy pedestrians, bratty kids with slingshots, defecating birds, pesky insects, ill-tempered dogs and cats, a gravedigger carelessly tossing clots of dirt over his shoulder, and a terrible singer that fills the screen with hazardous musical notes. Most of these deal little to no damage to Jekyll’s health meter and instead fill up a second “stress” meter on contact. Maybe it’s because I use public transportation a lot in real life, but I find Jekyll’s struggling to keep his temper in the midst of his boorish neighbors to be extremely relatable. Play as Jekyll is completely defensive in nature, with the player striving to reach the end of the level while ducking or jumping over hazards and taking on as little stress as possible. There’s no fighting back, apart from the option to use the doctor’s cane to swat the occasional stinging bee out of the air. When the stress meter inevitably fills up completely, Jekyll will fall prone and assume the form of his alter-ego Hyde.

The Hyde half of the game bears much more resemblance to a conventional action title. That said, it remains deeply odd in its own way. The setting shifts from a sunny morning in jolly old England to a darkened wasteland of dilapidated ruins populated by vicious monsters. The instruction manual refers to this place as the World of Demons and careful observation reveals that it has the exact same layout as the normal London of Jekyll, just redrawn in a more sinister style and scrolling in reverse from left to right. Think of it as a twisted mirror image, not unlike Edward Hyde himself. I can’t help but wondered if this World of Demons and its inhabitants is intended to be a real place or if these levels are simply a symbolic representation of Jekyll’s “inner demons.” I lean toward the latter interpretation, but it will likely remain a mystery indefinitely unless one of the game’s anonymous creators steps out of the shadows for an interview someday. The screen scrolls automatically for Hyde, which is potentially quite dangerous. If he should ever reach the spot in the World of Demons that corresponds to where Jekyll transformed, he’ll be killed instantly by a bolt from heaven, as this apparently represents evil triumphing over good. Before that can happen, he’ll want to kill as many demons as possible. Each one destroyed will lower the stress meter and emptying it completely will trigger the return to Jekyll form and the world of daylight. Playing as Hyde is therefore all about killing as much as possible as quickly as possible. Hyde has two attacks at his disposal: A basic short range punch and a boomeranging fireball attack called the Psycho Wave that can be tricky to aim at times, but is a much stronger option overall. You’ll also need to make sure you minimize contact with the enemy while you’re blasting away, since all damage in the World of Demons is deducted from the health meter and if it runs dry, the game is over.

This regular cycling between passive avoidance and furious aggression is what constitutes the core of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. You persevere the best you can as poor put-upon Jekyll, getting pestered, bullied, and literally shit on (in the case of those birds) at every turn until you just can’t take it anymore and unleash your raging id in the form of Hyde to rampage all that pent-up stress away. Just make sure Hyde never gains the upper hand for too long or you’ll regret it. All bets are off in the sixth and final stage, however. Here, the rule prohibiting Hyde from outpacing Jekyll is suspended and it becomes an all-out race to the finish. Whichever persona reaches the church in their version of reality first is the victor and the player then receives one of two different endings.

If you’ve never actually played the game before and don’t recognize it from its appearances on countless “worst of the NES” lists, you may well come away from my introduction and summary thinking that it sounds pretty fantastic. Unique and varied gameplay? Intriguing themes? Wicked sense of humor? Formidable challenge? These are all present, to be sure. Jekyll and Hyde even looks and sounds the part thanks to some highly detailed graphics and an atmospheric score by Michiharu Hasuya (the only individual confirmed to have contributed to the game) that lend both the light and dark versions of London considerable presence. It’s only when you sit down with controller in hand and attempt to actually enjoy all of this that cracks start show and the game gradually unveils its own hidden evil streak.

First, we have glaring control issues that leave each character hobbled in his own blatantly unnecessary way. Dr. Jekyll is undoubtedly one of the slowest characters in gaming history and far too much of the challenge stems from the fact that can never manage more than a stiff waddle regardless of how much mayhem there is to dodge in his immediate vicinity. Now, I do feel that I understand and appreciate the intent of the Jekyll gameplay. The developers are deliberately baiting you, trying to make you feel just as harried and irritated as your defenseless avatar. You “win” these sections by not taking that bait and remaining cool and calm as you patiently navigate the maze of enemies and hazards in your path. To excel as Jekyll, you have to think like Jekyll and retain your composure in the face of every setback. I get it, but it’s still no excuse. I’m confident that this idea could have still been effectively realized even if Jekyll were able to move around at an acceptable pace. His agonizing slowness smacks of padding and not an essential design element. On the other hand, Hyde’s weakness is not his speed, but the clunky way the game restricts him to moving about within a limited area. There’s a sort of invisible wall running down the center of the screen that confines Hyde to the right side at all times. This is not only arbitrarily constricting, it also leads to bad outcomes in the few areas where it’s necessary for Hyde to leap over holes in the ground. If he should bump into that invisible wall while in the air, it can funnel him straight down into the gap.

Terrible enemy placement is another constant problem. The Jekyll sections are guilty of overusing one specific baddie to the point of absurdity: The Bomb Maniacs. These jerks appear in droves in every single stage to plant bombs right in the doctor’s path. The bombs themselves deal by far the most health and stress damage of anything in the game and their blasts must be evaded at all costs. To do that, Jekyll will usually need to turn around immediately and trudge back the way he came. The result of all this is an already ludicrously slow protagonist being bogged down even more. It’s sometimes possible for minutes to go by with the screen not advancing so much as an inch as a fresh Bomb Maniac continually appears the instant the previous one’s bomb finishes exploding. Adding insult to injury, the explosions themselves are as deceptive as they are devastating due to having hit boxes massively larger than their on-screen graphics. Jekyll can be standing inches away from the blast and still receive damage. Again, the Hyde levels have their share of sloppiness, too. Fast moving flying enemies can sometimes spawn in right behind Hyde when he’s near the top of the screen, leaving him effectively no time to dodge them.

This all obviously comes off as highly inconsiderate and amateurish design, but the restrictive movement and nasty enemy placement aren’t even the game’s biggest flaws for me. No, what hurts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde more than anything else is simply that’s it’s terrible at communicating its own rules. Similar to Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, this a game that’s impossible to pick up and enjoy without a thorough understanding of its many unorthodox mechanics and that, along with the bandwagon effect, are the primary reasons for its exaggerated infamy. This isn’t a Super Mario Bros. style experience where you can just shove that cartridge in, power on, and start having fun. No, you need to read the instructions first. This wouldn’t be so bad if the ones provided with the game were competently done. Unfortunately, even the official manual omits key information. Take Jekyll’s cane, for example, which is often dismissed as being useless except for swatting bees. The cane’s actual use goes completely unremarked upon in the manual. In fact, you can whack pedestrians with it in order to increase Jekyll’s stress level. Why would you ever want to do this? Because there are times when it can actually be beneficial or even necessary to transform into Hyde, as successfully completing a Hyde section of the game refills the health meter and clears away all enemies and obstacles that were on the same screen as Jekyll when he initially transformed. Similar confusion surrounds Hyde’s punch. It seems at first like it’s simply a weak attack that’s completely superfluous in light of the Psycho Wave. What the manual doesn’t tell you is that the punch is primarily a defensive tool. It can deflect many enemy projectiles if timed properly. This application is so obscure and non-intuitive that I didn’t even stumble across it until after I’d already completed the entire game twice! Perhaps most negligent of all, there’s no indication anywhere in the North American instructions that the standard rule about Hyde not being able to progress further than Jekyll no longer applies in the final stage. There’s no logical reason that a player should expect this to be the case, so you would think it to be at be least be worth mentioning. Nope. Without knowing this, it’s unlikely that most players would ever encounter the final boss as Hyde and receive the better of the game’s two endings. Just awful. To its credit, the manual for the Famicom version does at least hint at how to achieve the Hyde ending, although it does an equally poor job of explaining the cane and punch.

Want to know the strangest fact of all regarding this case? I quite enjoyed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Enough to recommend it to any patient, open-minded gamer up for a challenge. Despite what you may have heard, the more complete Famicom version is a long way from being from the worst option available for the system. Sure, it’s needlessly opaque and it burdens its players with some profound balance and control issues. If you manage to make peace with that, though, you may just find yourself won over by its creepy mood, quirky humor, and groundbreaking take on the psychological themes of its source material. Imperfect as it is, somebody behind the scenes was working from a vision and it shows. After all, only Jekyll can reach the final stage of the game, yet he must ultimately accept the duality of his existence and enlist the help of Hyde in order to achieve the best ending. Carl Jung would be proud. If anything, I’d classify this one as an acquired taste and place it in the same “weird, maddening fun” box as Fester’s Quest and Silver Surfer. It probably won’t be your cup of tea, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not at least trying a sip.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is equal parts trick and treat, so on that note: Happy Halloween to one and all! It’s going to be a long next 364 days….

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Master of Darkness (Master System)

Another bloodsucker bites the dust!

Picture this: It’s 1992 and the Castlevania series is already a well-loved action gaming mainstay, with six successful installments released for the NES, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy in as many years. The only problem? You’re Sega and Castlevania developer Konami won’t touch your Game Gear handheld system with a ten-foot enchanted whip due to being locked into a restrictive (and dubiously legal) exclusivity deal with Nintendo. What do you do? You make your own Castlevania…with blackjack and hookers!

Well, almost. There’s technically no blackjack in Master of Darkness, but since the game is set in 1890s London and references the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, the hookers are at least strongly implied. I’m playing the 1993 European Master System port here, since I don’t own a Game Gear. These consoles share very similar hardware and most sources agree that the two versions of Master of Darkness are largely identical, apart from the smaller field of view in the portable version. Also known as In the Wake of the Vampire and Vampire: Master of Darkness in Japan and North America, respectively, the game was developed by SIMS, who also delivered competent Master System takes on Ninja Gaiden and Disney’s Aladdin. So far, so good.

Our hero for this outing is one Dr. Ferdinand Social, psychologist and early Ouija board adopter. He’s just kicking back and channeling the spirits of the dead one night (as you do) when the board issues a dire warning: “Killer…vampire…go to Thames…caution…in the wake of…D R A C U L A.” Not being one to question his parlor games, Social grabs his trusty knife and heads to the waterfront to begin his hunt for the Ripper. Right out the gate here, I’m struck by the fact that not only did Sega produce an undeniable Castlevania clone, they even elected to retain Dracula as the main villain! That points to either a complete lack of creatively or some great big brass balls. I’m going to be charitable here and assume the latter.

Although I kid, the opening cut scene really does do a fine job of selling the eerie atmosphere and Victorian setting, with the moving Ouija planchet and animated blood dripping from the vampire’s fangs being particularly nice touches. Master of Darkness makes excellent use of the Master System’s expanded color palette (relative to the NES) and is a great looking 8-bit game generally. I immediately took a liking to Dr. Social as a protagonist. Not only does he have a pretty sweet name, he resembles Austin Powers with his shaggy haircut and powder blue suit. Groovy, baby! The music is also high quality and suits the mood, though the melodies themselves aren’t all that memorable and perhaps loop a bit too often due to the game’s penchant for lengthy stages.

Regrettably, a pleasing presentation is really all Master of Darkness brings to the table. In terms of overall design, it’s as pure a knock-off as they come. Social fights exactly the sorts of zombies, skeletons, bats, and hopping hunchbacks you’d expect him to, all leading up to a climactic battle against a teleporting, fireball chucking version of the Count. He collects some very familiar feeling sub-weapons by attacking the floating objects that dot almost every screen (masks here instead of candles, at least). He smashes trick walls to find healing items. He visits a clock tower, where he leaps around on giant swinging pendulums. And you just know he climbs a ton of stairs. So many stairs. All games take inspiration from what came before, but Master of Darkness rivals The Krion Conquest with the sheer scope and shamelessness of its borrowing. It’s practically a tracing of a Castlevania game. The only Belmont-ish thing the good doctor doesn’t attempt is wielding a whip. Instead, he starts out with a nearly useless pocket knife that he can (and should) swap out for a sword, cane, or axe. Each of these offers either more reach, more power, or both and all are viable options. For some sick reason, however, the designers seem to delight in hiding at least one copy of the puny default pocket knife in every stage, often in spots where it’s very easy to grab it by accident as you’re going about your monster slaying business. Rude.

Still, a copy of a great game still has the potential to play great, right? Isn’t that what really matters? Sure. It’s just a pity that Master of Darkness doesn’t duplicate the expert level design or thrilling challenge of Konami’s offerings. It’s as if SIMS managed to capture the broad strokes while omitting the fine details that draw everything together into a pleasing whole. Take Dr. Social’s ungodly durability, for example. He may look the part of the frail academic, but he soaks up punishment like the Terminator. Social has an eight unit health bar and most enemies take off less than a full unit on contact. That’s sixteen hits or so right off the bat, between 2-4 times as many as Castlevania typically allows for. Healing items are also far more common in Master of Darkness, so much so that it often seems there’s a handy potion served up to you after every couple of screens. This obviously makes combat a cinch and the logical thing to do in this case would have been to focus on making the platforming aspect of the game more intricate and risky to compensate, right? Apparently not. Instead, they went in the opposite direction and made legitimate stage hazards like bottomless pits quite scarce. We end up with what feels like an invincible hero numbly hacking his way through a series of thoroughly safe (albeit spooky) locales on the way to his inevitable victory.

It’s not so much that every game should be so demanding that it makes you want to tear your hair out. More that single-handedly challenging the Prince of Darkness and his armies of the night should feel at least a little daunting. Not once during my playthrough did I get the impression that the odds were against me. No, I actually felt sorry for Dracula! That chump did not know who he was messing with when he pissed off Dr. Ferdinand Social. I died a few times due to botched jumps, but always managed to rack up enough extra lives to keep me going all the way to the end. I actually had to restart the game after finishing it and kill off Dr. Social on purpose just to see if it even offered continues (it does, unlimited ones). Master of Darkness is a game that lot of players are going to complete in a single short session without having to try much and that would have been a bummer for anyone that payed full price for it back when it came out. Hell, it remains a potential bummer for anyone paying the prices it still commands today.

Master of Darkness is by no means an unpleasant time. It’s plenty stylish and it controls just fine. There’s simply no dynamic tension here. It’s a walk in the park. Or a stroll along the Thames, I suppose. A sequel really had the potential to tighten things up and add a sense of urgency to the proceedings while also breaking away from the source material more to establish its own identity. Unfortunately for Dr. Social, growing discontent in the game developer community led to the rapid deterioration of Nintendo’s once ironclad exclusivity policies as the 1990s wore on. Sega would get their first official Castlevania game in 1994 with Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Genesis, robbing Master of Darkness of its raison d’être and relegating it to obscure oddity status forevermore.

Stay tuned, boys and ghouls, for the chilling finale of my October gaming frightfest: A game so fearsome, so maligned, that its mere mention strikes terror into the hearts of man and monster alike. Also, uh…I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Or something. You get the idea.

Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)

*sniff* I’m not crying. You’re crying!

Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit is a game fraught with contradiction. It pairs a cutsey art style with one of most grim, depressing plots of its era. It’s a highly creative, even innovative release from a “me, too” publisher. It’s an expensive title for the Game Boy, a system renowned for being dirt cheap to collect for. Finally, and to its greatest detriment, it’s widely ignored despite being one of the most interesting and varied action-platformers available for Nintendo’s old gray brick.

Avenging Spirit began its (un)life as a 1991 release for Japanese arcades under the title Phantasm. This name was changed for the international versions, most likely in order to prevent confusion with director Don Coscarelli’s horror film series of the same name. It was the creation of CP.BRAiN, an obscure and long-extinct development studio founded by former Aicom designer Tokuhiro Takemori (The Legendary Axe, Astyanax). Strangely, this 1992 Game Boy conversion is the only home port it would ever receive, despite the arcade cabinet’s colorful visuals being much better-suited for the 16-bit systems of the time. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the game’s length (just six short stages) as the reason Jaleco went the handheld route instead of pitting Avenging Spirit against the likes of Super Mario World and Sonic 2. This is pure conjecture, however.

The adventure kicks off with a very well-rendered cut scene of a happy young couple strolling arm-in-arm. Their bliss doesn’t last long, as they’re quickly confronted by a pair of pistol-packing gangsters. The girl is abducted by the thugs and her boyfriend is shot dead on the spot when he tries to intervene. Yikes! I’m scratching my head here trying to think of another Game Boy title that goes from zero to cold blooded murder in about thirty seconds flat and coming up short. Jaleco certainly showed some nerve with this one. It turns out that we haven’t heard the last from this unnamed boy character. The game’s pervasive tonal whiplash kicks it right away as he regains consciousness in a laboratory only to discover that he’s taken on the form of a classic Halloween sheet ghost, doofy grin and all. As it happens, the girl’s father is a scientist specializing in “ghost energy” and the crooks that kidnapped his daughter are looking to extort him for his research. Rather than letting such dangerous knowledge fall into the wrong hands, the scientist has summoned the boy’s spirit in order to convince him to embark on a rescue/revenge mission. In order to do that, though, the harmless little ghost boy is going to need a new body. Or ten.

Yes, Avenging Spirit is the original game about creepily possessing the bodies of your enemies and using them as sacrificial pawns to further your own violent agenda. Eat your heart out, Super Mario! On his own, the ghost is limited to drifting around the stage slowly and he can’t even do that for very long. He has a spirit energy meter that depletes rapidly any time he’s not possessing a host. Run out of energy and it’s game over. Fortunately, you’re provided unlimited continues to work with, so exploring the levels and trying out different approaches is never penalized too harshly.

Every non-boss enemy in the game is playable and no two are exactly alike. Each has a unique way of attacking and a different distribution of standard variables like maximum health, walk speed, and jump height. An odd few even have miscellaneous special abilities like flight or invisibility. Most of the fun here comes from “test driving” as many different enemy characters as possible and discovering which ones best suit your play style. Of course, there will also be those times when you lack the energy reserves to be choosy and are forced to latch onto the closest available victim.

The design of all these foes is where the developers’ strange sense of humor was apparently given free reign. Beyond the typical gun-wielding mafioso types you’d expect, you also square off against ninja, robots, dragons, wizards, vampires (in boxer shorts!), and baseball players. Say what you will about these criminals, but they’ve got the workplace diversity thing down pat. Every level thrown new types into the mix, insuring that the core gameplay is never permitted to stagnate. While some hosts are very clearly stronger options than others, I’m not inclined to take this a flaw. Instead, I think it’s best viewed as an on-the-fly difficulty select for players. Playing through a given stage as a fast, durable, rocket-shooting robot certainly makes for a much easier time than controlling a standard flunkie, but a skilled player familiar with the ins and outs of that stage may still opt for the latter in the interest of maintaining challenge.

If the gameplay can be said to have a major weakness, it would be that the movement of the on-screen characters is a bit on the slow and floaty side. This is sadly a common issue shared by many Game Boy platformers and seems to be largely intentional. The LCD screens on most Game Boy models are famously prone to distracting motion blur whenever fast-moving objects are displayed. Smart game designers would typically compensate by slowing the action down a touch when compared to a similar game for a home console. At least it doesn’t come off any worse than usual here and it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment much if you’re already accustomed to the more leisurely pace of Game Boy titles in general.

Other than that, Avenging Spirit is everything you could want in a portable 8-bit platformer. It looks great, sounds great, and packs an uncommon degree of depth and replay value courtesy of its huge roster of playable characters. It’s also one of the earliest examples I can cite of the “enemy ability hijacking” mechanic. Its most obvious forerunner is Capcom’s Little Nemo: The Dream Master from 1990, although the far gentler Nemo relied on befriending cute animals with candy rather than spectral body snatching. It would be another two years before HAL Laboratory took the disturbing imagery to a whole new level in Kirby’s Adventure. Eating your enemies alive to gain their powers? Now that’s brutal.

Personally, what fascinates me about this one is its chaotic mish-mash of tones. I was obviously exaggerating for humorous effect with the Kirby thing just now, but I was not at all kidding when I noted that Avenging Spirit’s storyline is resolutely bleak. The main character is effectively sent on a post-homicide suicide mission and there is no happily ever after for him. Whether he succeeds or fails, it’s made quite clear that his spirit is fated to fade away in a relatively short time. The best he can hope for is to save his girlfriend before that comes to pass and even this outcome is not a given. If you fail to find all three of the keys hidden in out-of-the-way rooms over the course of the game, you’ll be unable to open the door where the girlfriend character is imprisoned at the end and she’ll be killed when the enemy base explodes! There are therefore two possible endings, both of which are legitimate tearjerkers in their own ways. Outside of the cut scenes, though? 100% chibi style cartoon mayhem where vampires in their underwear battle killer baseball players. The game’s creators have essentially mashed up the script for The Crow with the visual design of Caspar the Friendly Ghost and I’m in awe of the result. The surreal dissonance of it all amounts to one of those truly singular gaming experiences for me. It lingers in the mind long after you’ve powered off your console.

In other words, Avenging Spirit is haunting.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries (NES)

Where’s Christopher Bee when you need him?

What if your favorite games never had to end? This is the promise of ROM hacking. Taking a proven classic as a template, dedicated hobbyists of a technical bent are able to serve up an endless series of new challenges for the likes of Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man. At their very best, these hacks are barely recognizable as variants of the games they’re based on, showcasing not just new level layouts, but new storylines, settings, items, enemies, and even soundtracks. At their worst, they’re some bored 12 year-old’s take on Super KKK Boner Bros. Don’t worry, though. I’ll be focusing on a competent effort this time.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, let’s examine Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, a 2007 hack of the original NES Castlevania by Optomon (Chris Lincoln) and Dr. Mario. Ever since I had the opportunity to try out an early version of an even more advanced Optomon Castlevania hack (The Holy Relics) at last year’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo, I knew that I wanted to discuss his work at some point. Chorus of Mysteries is one of the best known and most ambitious of the many fan-made takes on the series’ inaugural release. For better or worse, almost everything about the base game has been tweaked in some significant way and the end result feels more like a true lost sequel than a level pack.

The hero of Chorus of Mysteries is not Simon Belmont, but Armund Danasty, a long-lost descendant of Grant Danasty, the acrobatic rogue who aided Trevor Belmont in his 1476 battle against Dracula. Chorus is set in 1800, three years after the events of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Armund, an orphan and a sailor by trade, has journeyed to the castle of Count Olrox, a vampire and associate of Dracula that Armund believes may hold clues to his own past. It should be noted that despite being a Danasty, there’s no Spiderman style wall climbing action to be found here. Armund still moves and controls exactly like Simon Belmont and his weapon (a barbed rope) handles exactly like Simon’s whip.

By the time the quick introductory cut scene of Armund arriving at the castle gate concludes, it’s clear that the art and music have received a complete overhaul. Before then, actually, as there’s also a new tune that plays over the normally silent title screen. The revamped (I had to drag that one out at least once) presentation is probably the hack’s most divisive element. The original Castlevania is not the darkest game out there, and I’m not referring to its creepy subject matter, but rather its color palette, which relies heavily on bright oranges, blues, and reds. Chorus uses a lot more stark black in its backgrounds and also elevates greens, purples, and grays to much more prominent roles. On one hand, seeing vivid purple and green elements highlighted against a pure black background occasionally lends the game a sort of “neon Castlevania” look that’s interesting in its own way. Just as often, however, the environments are simply a touch drab. For what it is, I enjoy the new art, particularly the detailed sprites.

The music is a tougher sell. Including an original soundtrack in a ROM hack at all represents a major effort of a kind I would never want to discourage as a general thing. This one, though? Apart from the fifth stage theme, which is a well-made 8-bit cover of “Dance of Pales” from Symphony of the Night, it just isn’t ear pleasing in the least. The unifying idea seems to have been to go all-in on a dainty, refined chamber music style, not unlike the one Michiru Yamane chose for “Dance of Pales” itself. Although not a terrible idea on paper, the original songs are shrill, far loop too frequently, and lack the driving percussion that underlies most great Castlevania music. If proper drum sounds are utilized anywhere in this soundtrack, I missed it. Even if I liked these tracks, they still wouldn’t be very appropriate for whipping monster ass to.

The good news is that the addictive gameplay is obviously the primary reason anyone seeks out Castlevania ROM hacks and it’s here that Chorus of Mysteries excels without qualification. The first of its six stages is patterned closely on the original game’s, but after you dispatch that familiar giant bat boss and move on to stage two, all bets are off. Be on the lookout for new level themes and layouts, new enemies to contend with, and even a new sub-weapon in the form of the laurel herb from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The laurel replaces the stopwatch and is considerably more useful. It retains its original function, conferring roughly ten seconds of complete invincibility to Armund on demand in exchange for a hefty eight hearts per activation. If you can manage to hold onto the laurel and a decent supply of hearts long enough to reach a stage boss, the ensuing “battle” is a joke.

Armed with anything except the laurel, though, you’ll have a real struggle on your hands. The stages in Chorus of Mysteries are only moderately difficult by ROM hack standards. That is to say, just slightly more intense than the ones from the back half of the original Castlevania. The new bosses are where the true horror lies. These guys all tend to be more mobile, more aggressive, and more eager to lob annoying projectiles at you than the game’s original stage guardians. If that wasn’t scary enough, the famous trick of using the holy water to freeze a boss in place while dealing constant damage no longer works in Chorus of Mysteries! At least you get the honor of being annihilated by some really cool baddies. Most of them are actually fan favorites from later Castlevania games faithfully re-created in the original’s engine. Being able to square off against a familiar foe from Super Castlevania IV or Symphony of the Night on the NES really is a trip and the battles you have with them are as well-realized as they are brutal. My one real complaint is that the lengthiest and most challenging boss encounter is placed at the end of stage five. The final boss is no pushover, but you’ll have vanquished worse by the time you reach him.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries does have a handful of noteworthy flaws that prevent it from being any sort of true improvement on its source material. There are those questionable tunes, a slightly anticlimactic boss order, and an odd hit detection glitch that can sometimes make it tough to attack things with the weakest version of Armund’s whip-rope. Despite these hiccups, the fascinating new elements judiciously woven into a proven action-platforming formula make it a treat that any fan of the first Castlevania should have the opportunity to savor. Like all great hacks, this one rarely receives the attention and respect it deserves. This is tragically inevitable for the most part. These are unofficial modern games for ancient consoles with nothing resembling proper promotion behind them, after all. They’re not part of anyone’s nostalgic memories and playing them at all requires futzing around with emulators, flash cartridges, or reproductions. Realistically, most gamers aren’t going to bother. For the few of you out there that are so inclined, my hope is that this review can draw some much-needed attention to a truly worthy title. Chorus is not just a superb ROM hack, it’s a quality NES action game by any measure.

Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead (PC Engine)

I don’t blame these two. Finally getting to shelve this dud would make anyone grin.

Last October saw me raving over Capcom’s mesmerizing Famicom RPG Sweet Home. A year on, I still believe that its forward-thinking blend of oppressive atmosphere and high-pressure mechanics make it the single the greatest game for the system to never leave Japan. It’s a masterpiece every bit as effective as the early Resident Evil games it inspired. When I found out recently that there was a newly-released fan translation of another pioneering Japan-exclusive survival horror RPG, one that predates Sweet Home by a full two years, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. That…was a mistake.

You know, as popular as “angry reviewing” is online, it seems to be most difficult thing for me to practice. Spreading the word about a brilliant game like Sweet Home comes naturally. The energy is right there, built-in. Detailing all the ways Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead for the PC Engine is a unmitigated disaster, on the other hand, is almost as draining as actually playing it. I could be cutting my losses. Moving on with my life, you know? In the interest of the public good, however, I’m willing to step up. I deserve a medal, honestly. Somebody get on that.

War of the Dead was developed by Fun Project (sometimes called Fun Factory) for MSX computers and published by Victor Musical Industries in 1987. This PC Engine port from 1989 is infamous for its shoddy coding. A lack of integer overflow checks (a commonsense precaution that most professionally made software wouldn’t ship without) meant that accumulating more than 9999 experience points or 14 inventory items would instantly render the game unwinnable. The publisher was apparently made aware of these bugs before the game hit shelves, but lacked the time or resources to fix them. War of the Dead was instead sold with a bright pink sheet of paper detailing the issues and apologizing. Oof.

Hilariously, this sheet also contained an apology for the game’s fully functional backup system! Take one look at the password entry screen and you’ll understand why. Complaining about lengthy passwords in old console games is a cliché in classic gaming circles and I typically have zero sympathy. It’s just a couple dozen letters and numbers that require a minute or two at most to input at the start of a play session, so quit whining. Not here, though. Oh, no. War of the Dead takes the inconvenience to a whole new level with 54 character password strings drawn from a total of 128 distinct symbols. 128! Expect to spend closer to five minutes navigating the menu and keying all this junk in each time. Once you do finally finish, don’t you dare relax, assuming you’ll be only be doing it just once per session. I’ll come back to this, believe me.

Fortunately, the excellent 2017 English language patch from Nebulous Translations actually fixes the game-breaking experience point and inventory overflow bugs, so I was able to play without those hanging over my head. They couldn’t fix the password system outright, although they did change the 128 characters on the menu from Japanese ones to a set of symbols more recognizable to Westerners, which is still a welcome touch. Credit where it’s due for going to the extra mile to make an irritating game just a little but more tolerable.

The central figure in War of the Dead is Lila, a member of the organization S-S.W.A.T. (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She’s been dispatched to the remote town of Chaney’s Hills after it abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with the outside world and previous teams sent in to investigate failed to report back. Naturally, the entire town has been overrun with hideous monsters except for the church, where a handful of survivors have gathered under the care of the priest, Carpenter. Like almost every other character in the game, his name is a horror film reference. Specifically, to John Carpenter, director of classics like Halloween and The Thing. There’s also a Romero, Cronenberg, and more. Spotting all these little nods was one of the very few bright spots in the game for me, even if they are just glorified name drops. Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a mini-skirt (because video games), Lila’s mission is two-fold: To save as many other survivors as possible and halt the otherworldly invasion of Chaney’s Hills before it can spread to the rest of the world.

Exploration takes place from a Dragon Quest style overhead viewpoint, with a tiny Lila sprite ever so slowly trundling across a sprawling, mostly empty world map. Despite being described as a town, Chaney’s Hills seems to consist entirely of around a dozen structures, each separated the its nearest neighbor by miles upon miles of trackless wilderness. It’s as if the designers took a standard JRPG world map and then decided to describe each individual town on it as a single building inside one giant settlement with no regard for how bizarre and unintuitive the end result reads to players.

Your roaming is frequently interrupted by the random enemy encounters typical of the genre. These take the form of side-scrolling action interludes similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s. Lila gets plopped down in an enemy-filled arena roughly four screens wide. Her options are to stab the baddies to death (preferable for conserving bullets), shoot them, or flee the battle by exiting the arena on either side. Prior to combat, Lila can also use her psychic powers to strengthen her attack and defense for a short time. This is accomplished by selecting the “PS Rem” option from the equipment menu. While this is highly effective for boss encounters, it’s not exactly the flashiest special ability in an RPG. There are no visual or audio indicators that it’s active. Even the original Dragon Quest could be bothered to make the screen flash and play some sound effects when spells were cast. Don’t expect to gain any new, cooler psychic abilities as the game progresses, either. You just get the one.

The combat isn’t too deep or challenging overall, mostly due to the enemy roster having been cut down severely from the computer versions. This PC Engine release only includes around a dozen unique enemy sprites and even the bosses (with the exception of the final two) are simply recolored regular foes with improved stats. You’ll quickly pick up on how each monster moves and attacks, which makes killing or evading their palette-swapped variations child’s play and robs the mid-to-late game of virtually all suspense and challenge. The crowing irony is that one common enemy type cut out entirely was the zombie. That’s right: War of the Dead on PC Engine is missing the dead! How do you even go and do a thing like that? It’s, like, the one thing they needed to include. Well, that and working experience and inventory systems, I suppose.

While the challenge is indeed low for the majority of a given playthrough, it should still be noted that Lila’s attack, defense, and health are all as pathetic as you would expect early on. It’s therefore highly advisable to grind out at least three or four extra levels outside the church first thing, because you really, really don’t want to die in this game. Why? Three little words: No continue feature. Die, and you have no choice but to type in your most recent 54 character novel of a password just to get back into to the game. Every. Single. Time. I actually wish I had a picture of the face I made when I first realized this. I bet it could turn people to stone.

Despite it all, I could still almost recommended War of the Dead if Lila’s journey was one peppered with eerie locales, intriguing puzzles, and unforgettable characters. It’s not, though. It’s really not. Building interiors are as drab and empty as the overworld, characters are one-dimensional, the plot is barely there, and gameplay objectives consist of minimalist fetch quests that require nothing in the way of problem solving. If you’re ever stuck, just go canvass the entire map talking to every NPC you’ve met so far until one of them finally tells you where to go next. The game is very anal about these event triggers, too, so don’t go thinking that you can just go off exploring and discover stuff out of order. That might be enjoyable. No, you need to talk to the right NPC at the right time (and usually multiple times) in order to activate the script that makes the thing you’re looking for next actually exist for you to find. Every aspect of the world and quest design in War of the Dead is predicated on shamelessly padding a profoundly empty, downright unfun experience well beyond the point of common decency.

So let it henceforth be known that the PC Engine port of Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead is barely playable trash. Its unholy union of obnoxious design and incompetent execution give rise to the single worst experience I’ve had with the system yet, and that includes unlicensed pornfest Strip Fighter II. The slew of references to better horror media and a couple of okay music tracks are closest it comes to possessing actual redeeming features. That is to say, not very. We can point to a handful of ways that it may have exerted an influence on the first Resident Evil title nine years later: The zombies (at least in the superior computer versions), the remote mountain town setting, the idea of the hero as part of an elite paramilitary type unit (S-S.W.A.T., S.T.A.R.S.), the concept of conserving bullets through efficient use of a combat knife. But so what? Unlike other key influences on Capcom’s flagship horror series (Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home), the tedious, aggravating War of the Dead has nothing worthwhile to offer prospective players on its own. It’s best left a footnote in survival horror history. A dead one.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super Nintendo)

I feel you, kid. Even in castle full of vampires, having to watch your sibling make out is the real horror.

October is finally here and let me tell you: After one of the most brutal, forest fire plagued summers in Northwest history, it is so welcome. It’s high time for some chill winds, falling leaves, and spooky media. Out with the old and in with the boo, baby! Over the course of the month, I’ll be showcasing a total of six horror-themed games for six different platforms. Some will be good and some bad. Some famous and some virtually unknown. Stir in a few misfits too weird to pigeonhole and it makes for a potent witch’s brew indeed. Enjoy.

First up on my dance card is 1995’s Castlevania: Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, also called Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. As fans of this long-running Konami series know, the Castlevania family tree can be considered to have split early on into two main branches. These would be the straightforward action-platformers patterned on the 1986 original and the action-RPG entries (dubbed Metroidvanias by fans) that got their start in 1987 with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Until very recently, I was mostly acquainted with the Metroidvania side of the franchise. This changed last year when I played through the first game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines over the span of ten days in a sort of Actionvania mini-marathon. I came away with a whole new appreciation for their distinctive blend of  weighty high stakes platforming and treacherous enemy placement. Sound judgement and expert timing are mandatory if you’re to have any chance of surviving the long night and putting Dracula down for the count. I can now say that these entries in the series may well collectively comprise my single favorite classic gaming experience.

Given that Dracula X is cast from this very same mold, I was naturally excited to dive in. At the same time, I was also somewhat leery, owing to its checkered “black sheep” reputation. Dracula X is very much a game doomed by circumstance to disappoint critics and fans alike at the time of its debut. Series obsessives that were following the news of overseas releases were expecting a more or less faithful port of the Japanese PC Engine CD-ROM title Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (better known in the West as Rondo of Blood). The casual player base expected it to play like the previous Super Nintendo entry, Super Castlevania IV, with its eight-way whip attacks and more forgiving platforming mechanics. Few seem to have been primed to be satisfied with what Dracula X actually is at heart: A prettied up rendition of the simpler, tougher NES Castlevanias.

Konami themselves surely bear some responsibility for the misunderstanding. Dracula X shares a basic storyline and many art assets with Rondo of Blood, making it nearly impossible for gamers in 1995 to draw a meaningful distinction between the two based on plot summaries and screenshots alone. Make no mistake, though, the differences are legion. Without the comparatively massive storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format, the voiced cut scenes and Red Book audio of Rondo were a technical impossibility. Dracula X’s nine stages are also completely different from the eleven included in Rondo and players are limited to controlling a single character, Richter Belmont, with Rondo’s Maria Renard being demoted to NPC status. While the core gameplay in both entries remains quite similar, Dracula X represents a clear downgrade in terms of overall scope when held up alongside its inspiration and to this day there’s no shortage of commentators eager to remind anyone within earshot of this fact.

With over a quarter century of hindsight at my disposal, however, I’d like to make a case for Dracula X as not merely a tragic mangling of Rondo, but a perfectly enjoyable and worthy Castlevania adventure unto itself. Granted, it’s also possible that I’m either a softhearted fool or a hardheaded contrarian. I’ll lay out my case and let you be the judge.

For starters, Dracula X’s plot is quintessential Castlevania: Dracula has risen from his grave! This time, it’s in 1792, a century after his previous defeat by the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Drac still seems to be holding a grudge, because he promptly orders an attack on the home town of Simon’s descendant Richter. The city is destroyed and Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her sister Maria are hauled off and imprisoned deep within the evil Count’s lair. Undaunted, Richter sets off for Demon Castle Dracula with only his holy whip the Vampire Killer in tow to rescue his loved ones and fulfill his destiny as a Belmont. Standard stuff, but it’s interesting to note that Maria has been recast as Annette’s sister in this entry rather than being described as a distant relative of Richter as she is in Rondo of Blood. Why, I have no clue. Surely, good guy Richter would be equally inclined to rescue her from Dracula in either case.

The march to Dracula’s throne room takes place over seven side-scrolling levels. This makes Dracula X slightly longer than the NES original or Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis, but significantly shorter than Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, or Rondo of Blood. A bit of extra replay value is furnished in the form of two hidden alternate stages that Richter can progress through in lieu of their regular counterparts, provided you can find them. A minimum of three playthroughs are therefore required if you want to see every level in the game and all three endings. Three endings? That’s right. The one you receive depends on whether you manage to rescue one, both, or neither of the kidnapped girls. It’s still not as much content as in those beefier entries mentioned above, but neither is it notably lacking by series standards.

Richter controls almost exactly as he did in Rondo of Blood, with a no-frills horizontal whip attack and short, stiff jump arc reminiscent of his granddaddy Simon’s. He can also find and wield the same classic set of sub-weapons. Per usual, the dagger, axe, holy water, cross boomerang, and magic stopwatch all require you to expend some of the limited supply of hearts you collect by whipping the candles and lanterns dotting each stage. While not capable of the elaborate whip stunts seen in Super Castlevania IV, Richter does bring some new tricks to the party. He can perform a quick back flip dodge by double-tapping the jump button (just make sure you’re not facing away from a bottomless pit first…), jump onto and off of staircases, and utilize the mighty item crash. This last ability is particularly important, being a sort of “super move” with varying effects based on the sub-weapon Richter is currently carrying. It requires anywhere from 10-20 hearts per activation, but usually deals heavy enough damage to be worth the price. For this reason, it’s often in your best interest to save any many hearts as possible for the end stage boss fights. The item crash also doubles as an emergency evasion technique, as Richter is rendered invulnerable for a brief period at the start of one.

Where Dracula X really steps out of its predecessors’ shadows and starts making a name for itself is in its cunning level design and drop-dead stunning presentation. As mentioned above, every stage layout is unique to this release and each is significantly more challenging on average than its closest equivalent in Rondo of Blood. The platforming is trickier, requiring more pixel-perfect jumps, and it’s complicated by some of the most devious enemy placement in the entire series. Wherever it is you need to be at a given moment, there always seems to be one of Dracula’s ghoulish minions already occupying that exact portion of the screen, ready to knock you back into the nearest bottomless pit if the timing of your movements and attacks is so much as a split-second off. Like Dracula’s Curse, this one was clearly designed with Castlevania veterans in mind. If you’re a newcomer looking to ease into the series, Dracula X is far from your best bet. Try Super Castlevania IV instead. If you do happen to be a battle scarred veteran vampire killer like myself, however, this almost ROM hack-like level of difficulty may be just the sort of thing you thrive on and constitute a major selling point.

Next, consider the superlative graphics. For my money, Dracula X is easily the best looking of all the 16-bit Castlevania titles. Most of the character sprites are lifted directly from Rondo, but the new backgrounds are another story. They’re rendered using a bright watercolor style that’s oddly well-suited to making the Gothic horror subject matter really pop. The result of this unlikely combination is a lush, painterly game world that represented a high point for the series at the time.

The soundtrack is also no slouch. The compositions themselves are essentially the same ones from Rondo re-imagined for the Super Nintendo sound chip. The transition from CD-ROM to low-fi chiptunes certainly seems like a losing proposition. Fortunately, this is the freakin’ Super Nintendo we’re talking about here and the majority of the tracks actually come across better than their PC-Engine counterparts! Any hardcore Rondo partisans still reading at this point are probably gnashing their teeth over that, but you guys just listen to that insanely funky bass line in the Dracula X version of “Opposing Bloodlines” and then tell me it’s not the sickest thing. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that this is secretly the best game in the series. I’m not even saying that it’s better than Rondo of Blood (although I do personally prefer it for the added challenge). What I am saying is that the humble Dracula X is no botched port or black mark on the saga, but a damn fine 16-bit action-platformer by any reasonable standard. Although it’s relatively short and far from newbie friendly, it should please any established fan of the tough-as-coffin-nails old school incarnation of Castlevania. Prices for original cartridges are topping $160 as of this writing, however, so do take care lest this creature of the night suck your wallet dry.