Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (PC Engine)

The PC Engine was a machine well ahead of its time. Not only was it the first home console to employ 16-bit graphics, its CD-ROM drive add-on served as gaming’s introduction to the format in the absurdly early year of 1988. If anything, you’d expect the world of high end home computing to have brought us that particular innovation. Nope. The PCE’s initial crop of CD games are widely acknowledged to be the earliest ever produced.

Until just recently, I’d been limited to running cartridge games on own PC Engine. As much as I wanted to dive into its expansive CD library, I didn’t feel like bothering with the upkeep a finicky decades-old disk drive usually requires. This changed when I got my hands on the Super SD System 3, a nifty aftermarket accessory that uses flash memory to replicate the function of a CD unit without all those troublesome moving parts. That’s what I call an upgrade!

Now where to start? As a die-hard Castlevania lover, I can’t help but opt for 1993’s Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (“Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood”). It’s the most famous Japan-exclusive title for the system, after all. Konami wouldn’t deliver an official international release of Rondo until 2007, when it was finally ported to the Sony PSP as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.  The years in-between saw the rise of the Internet and game emulation, so it should come as no surprise that this fabled lost epic has built up quite the cult following here in the West. Is it truly the greatest old-school Castlevania of them all, as many of its admirers maintain? Well….

First off, this is my kind of Castlevania game: A pure 2-D action-platformer with no experience points, no backtracking, no menus to futz with, just your wits and reflexes pitted against Dracula’s army of the night. It’s a damn attractive one, too. The PC Engine’s broad color palette was put to masterful use rendering these vibrant backgrounds and richly detailed sprites. The enemy sprites in particular are so good that many of them were reused wholesale in 1997’s Symphony of the Night for PlayStation. Rarely is in-game art able to bridge a hardware generation gap in this way.

The soundtrack is equally stellar. We do get the predictable nostalgic reprises of mainstays like “Vampire Killer,” “Bloody Tears,” and “Beginning,” but it’s not all golden oldies. Original tracks such as “Divine Bloodlines,” “Opus 13,” and “Den” can stand toe-to-toe with anything that came before. The CD medium also means we get to enjoy the historic debut of real instruments in a Castlevania score. I can’t imagine this material disappointing anyone with a fondness for the saga’s signature brand of Baroque-tinged prog rock.

Rondo’s central figure is Richter Belmont, descendant of Simon and heir to his family’s warrior legacy. The year is 1792, and a group of cultists led by the corrupt priest, Shaft, have used blood sacrifice to resurrect Count Dracula once again. Dracula abducts Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and three other young girls, intending to use them as bait to lure the young vampire hunter to his castle. It works, of course, as Richter promptly rides off to the rescue with his ancestors’ enchanted whip in tow. It’s a plain, functional, business-as-usual plot, albeit one bolstered somewhat by periodic voiced cutscenes. Not that I can understand a word of them in the Japanese, mind you.

Richter handles in the traditional Belmont manner, with a leisurely walk speed, stiff jump, and slightly delayed whip attack. The whip can be supplemented by a selection of sub-weapons that draw on a limited supply of hearts for ammunition. Sub-weapons include the long-established dagger, cross, axe, holy water, and stopwatch, as well as a newcomer: The Bible. I’ve never really found a good use for the Bible, myself. Its weird spiraling trajectory renders it awkward to deploy. Oh, well.

Also introduced here is the concept of Item Crashes. These are more powerful versions of each sub-weapon’s regular attack that’ll run you somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 hearts per use. While not all Item Crashes are created equal, the more punishing ones can easily lay waste to most bosses. I’m looking at you, cross and holy water. I’m a fan of this mechanic. It leads to interesting scenarios wherein you have to weight the immediate benefits of using your sub-weapons on regular enemies against the long-term goal of saving as many hearts as possible to Crash bosses. A solid risk/reward dynamic.

All these capabilities make for a formidable protagonist indeed. Richter doesn’t have to go it alone, though. There’s a second playable character in the form of one of the kidnapped girls, Maria Renard. If you’ve ever wanted to beat down the undead as a little kid in a pink dress, she’s your chance. Maria is more agile than the plodding Richter and has her own separate set of animal-themed weapons. She’s actually a much stronger character on the whole, despite having less health to work with. She’s such a force of nature, in fact, that I found playing as her to be rather boring. The novelty of carelessly plowing through the opposition as a silly joke character didn’t last nearly as long as I’d hoped. John Morris and Eric Lecarde from Bloodlines serve as a far better example of how to implement two distinct, relatively balanced heroes in a Castlevania game.

In addition to Maria, Rondo’s other defining feature has to be its abundance of secrets. Every area is teeming with hidden power-ups, cute visual gags, and even passages leading to entire alternate stages with their own unique bosses. This effectively encourages you to keep your eyes peeled at all times, lest you miss out on some cool piece of bonus content. The game automatically saves your progress, too, so you can easily revisit conquered stages in order to scour them more thoroughly in pursuit of that elusive 100% completion rating.

All of this raises the question: If Rondo of Blood looks and sounds great, plays great, and includes all this great stuff to discover, why is it not my favorite 16-bit Castlevania? I certainly like Rondo. I have ever since I first encountered it on the PSP over a decade ago. Now that I can play it on my PC Engine, I expect it to become a staple of my action gaming rotation. Still, when it comes to this period in the franchise’s history, I generally prefer both Castlevania: Bloodlines and Akumajō Dracula (aka Castlevania Chronicles) for a couple of reasons.

An overall lack of difficulty is one. Super Castlevania IV catches its share of flack for being too easy, yet I tend to lose more lives to random platforming flubs there than I do to anything in Rondo. While playing as Maria is a cakewalk by design, taking down the same levels as Richter is only marginally more taxing. A couple of the late game bosses, specifically Death and Shaft, put up a respectable fight, but that’s about it. This is obviously a highly subjective critique on my part. As a hardened veteran of the series, I can see how less experienced players might view this “failing” as a major plus. I just happen to favor a Castlevania experience with more bite.

More crucially, I’ve always gotten the impression that much of the tremendous creativity that went into making Rondo could have been better directed. Sure, the locations you visit are packed with wacky Easter eggs, secret passages, and the like, but how do they stack up as Castlevania stages? I find you mostly leap over some pits, climb a few staircases, swat at knights and skeletons, and collect hearts on your way to the boss room. In other words, it’s fundamentally nothing we hadn’t seen before on the NES. This game features no equivalent to the rotating rooms and whip swinging of Super Castlevania IV or the many elaborate set piece platforming challenges of Bloodlines (the rising water in Greece, the swaying tower in Italy, the hall of mirrors in England, etc). Instead, the lion’s share of the work on Rondo seems to have been devoted to polishing its presentation to a mirror sheen and cramming in as many quirky peripheral elements as possible. I’d gladly trade a little of that for some more ambitious level design.

I’m not about to declare Rondo of Blood overrated or imply that anyone who’s head-over-heels in love with it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, it’s an impeccably charming adventure fully worthy of its pedigree. I dig it. That said, I do think its grandiose reputation stems more from its history as a rare and expensive import item than from any sort of inherent superiority to similar games in the series. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t need to be some mythic über-Castlevania that towers head-and-shoulders above its peers. It’s plenty good, and that’s good enough for me.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Super Nintendo)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A blue-haired lass with the unlikely name of Princess Prin Prin has been kidnapped by demons. Only her knightly consort, Sir Arthur, is brave (or foolhardy) enough to attempt a rescue…and he’ll need to do it twice before it sticks.

Yes, welcome back to Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins, perhaps the most simultaneously loved and hated saga in all of classic gaming. The sterling quality of these games is undeniable, as is their mocking brutality. Difficult action-platformers from the outset due to fiendish enemy patterns and a two-hit health system, it’s dirty tricks like the aforementioned blindsiding of new players with the requirement to finish each stage twice in order to view the true ending that push them over the edge to infamy.

That brings me to my subject today, 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, aka Chōmakaimura (“Super Demon World Village”) in Japan. As the third game in the franchise and the first to be developed with a home console in mind as opposed to the arcades, players at the time may have expected Capcom to mellow out a tad with this one. Nope. If anything, they doubled down on the sadism with longer levels and something no home port of the previous two GnG games had: Limited continues. The result was far and away the most challenging installment to date. Good thing it was also the best.

I realize I’m likely to ruffle a few feathers with that last statement. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ immediate predecessor, titled simply Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, is quite excellent in its own right. It introduced a golden armor power-up that let Arthur charge up and release a different magic attack for each of the game’s many weapons. Additionally, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts Arthur was able to lob shots up and down in addition to the usual left and right. There are many who swear by this enhanced shooting and consequently consider Ghouls ‘n Ghosts the best of the lot.

While it is unfortunate that Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts returns to the more restrictive horizontal attacking of the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins, I feel it more than makes up for this with new additions of its own. The bronze armor has been included as an intermediate upgrade between the default steel suit and the potent gold one. It strengthens Arthur’s primary weapon somewhat without allowing for full magic use. There’s also a shield which offers some small amount of extra protection against projectiles. Best of all is the almighty double jump, my personal favorite mechanic in the series. The ability to trigger a second jump any point during the first works wonders for the chronically slow Arthur’s maneuverability and paved the way for the game’s creators to include more elaborate platforming scenarios. It feels so liberating that I often find it tough to go back to earlier GnG entries.

Another factor that endears Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to me is its level design. Capcom really upped the ante here with a host of dynamic environmental set pieces scattered throughout the first five areas. Arthur weathers surging tidal waves on a dinky raft, rides a fleshy moving platform through a maze of writhing, gas spewing innards, and risks being swept away by avalanches in the obligatory ice level, among other wild predicaments. Pity this approach is abandoned for the final two stages inside main villain Sardius’ castle, though. These contain nothing new or interesting to marvel at, just an abundance of imposing baddies coupled with some strict time limits.

Cap this overall strong package off with some of the best graphics and music to grace an early Super Nintendo release and what’s not to love? For starters, try some of the worst slowdown to grace an early Super Nintendo release! The action here starts chugging at the slightest provocation, a significant issue in a unforgiving game with a heavy emphasis on timing. This effectively adds another learning curve to an already demanding experience. There is a fan-made “restoration” hack available that removes much of this slowdown if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, your best bet is to simply wait for your brain to adjust to the inevitable speed inconsistencies. It’ll happen eventually.

A lone technical hiccup is one thing, but those limited continues constitute a proper design misstep in my eyes. There’s an immense amount of trial and error involved in any Ghosts ‘n Goblins game. The endless tries previous ones afforded you were essentially their lone concession to basic human decency. Earning extra continues by collecting money bag items is possible and indeed relatively easy in some stages. Still, the game as a whole can come to a premature end if the rate you gather these items is ever exceeded by the rate you mess up. This is most likely in the final stage, which is cunningly engineered to contain a bare minimum of money bags. Getting a game over here, especially in the second loop, is cruel even by GnG standards.

Maddening as these few flaws can be, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ many positive qualities far outstrip them. It’s considered a Capcom classic for good reason and if its reputation as a savage 16-bit struggle doesn’t scare you off, you’re in for one lush, thrilling trip to hell and back. If not, well, there are probably dozens of more easily rescued princesses out there. Sorry, Prin Prin. I’m just sayin’.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

Two hundred. As in two hundred vintage games completed and reviewed since I kicked off this crazy endeavor in January of 2017. Did I think I would reach this point? Not as such, no. At the same time, however, I never once considered calling it quits. I’ve been having way too much fun for that. Though I’ve covered a few old favorites along the way, it’s mostly been a roller coaster ride of fresh discoveries. I’ve branched out into new genres, new franchises, and new console libraries. I’ve dipped my toe into import games, fan translations, and ROM hacks. I’ve taken on long-forgotten obscurities, works of towering importance, and everything in-between. I’ve learned countless facts about the histories of the games I love and the people who made them. Most gratifying of all is the personal growth I’ve experienced. My confidence as a gamer and writer has increased exponentially with the practice.

On an occasion like this, only the best will do. That’s why my subject today is nothing less than my favorite game for my favorite system: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

Before I get into the game proper, I should clarify that just because I’ll proudly proclaim Castlevania III my favorite NES game, that doesn’t make it The Best NES Game. The very idea there could be such a thing is ridiculous on its face. With hundreds of candidates, a select few of which exert a profound influence on the hobby to this day, no one could possibly hold up to sustained scrutiny. No, Castlevania III is simply the NES game I jive with the most; the one that feels like it was made with me in mind, despite my eleven year-old self being a relative unknown in Japan circa 1989. Get comfy, y’all, because this is gonna be a long one.

Castlevania III’s introduction frames it as a prequel to its predecessors, a conceit that was actually rare among video games of the ’80s. Set in 1476, over two centuries before Simon Belmont first took up the holy whip in the original Castlevania, it stars his ancestor Trevor on a desperate mission to save Europe from the ravages of Dracula. Along the way, Trevor can join forces with a trio of playable helpers: Sypha the sorceress, Dracula’s prodigal son Adrian “Alucard” Tepes, and acrobatic rogue Grant Danasty. Savvy readers will note that this game’s plot forms the basis for the Castlevania animated series that began airing in 2017, although poor Grant has yet to make an appearance therein as of this writing.

Like most Castlevania games made before 1997’s Symphony of the Night, Dracula’s Curse is a traditional 2-D action-platformer with a campy horror theme and an emphasis on meticulous play. These “Classicvania” entries aren’t as fast and twitchy as something like Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden, nor as free and loose as, say, Super Mario Bros. The stalwart vampire hunters you control walk slowly, can’t alter the trajectories of their short jumps in mid-air, and have a primary whip attack with a significant wind-up delay built in. Enemies tend to be quicker than you, dish out heavy damage, and can easily send you flying back into a bottomless pit with the slightest touch. To survive, you need to keep a cool head as you draw on your knowledge of enemy movement patterns to plan and time your moves flawlessly. You can’t act too fast or too slow, since panic and hesitation are both penalized. It’s a demanding, arguably harsh design philosophy. Nevertheless, once I’m fully into the groove, smoothly striking down one undead monstrosity after another as I make inexorable clockwork progress toward the stage boss, I’ve become lost in the sort of transcendent flow state only a genuinely great game can induce. This utterly absorbing high stakes action is what brings me back to the 8 and 16-bit Castlevanias time and time again.

While the epitome of the above blueprint in most respects, Dracula’s Curse also happens to be the direct  follow-up to the very different Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Fan opinions on Simon’s Quest are all over the place and hotly debated. For what it’s worth, I consider it a sorry excuse for an action RPG. Regardless, it did introduce the concept of exploration to Castlevania and paved the way for Symphony and its successors a decade later. Dracula’s Curse honors this legacy, albeit in a limited fashion. A handful of literal branching paths dotted along the way ensure you’ll only ever see a maximum of eleven out of the game’s sixteen total levels during a single playthrough. After vanquishing the first boss, for example, you’re presented with a choice: Continue on your way to Dracula’s castle or take a detour up the nearby clock tower, where a potential ally awaits.

The helper mechanic is similarly crafted, in that it both empowers the player through meaningful choice and adds to the game’s longevity. Only one of Trevor’s three sidekicks can travel with him at a time. Thus, if you want to play around with everyone’s unique skills and earn every possible ending, including the extra challenging solo Trevor one, you’ll need to beat the game four times. It’s worth doing, as each character has his or her own advantages. Trevor is a carbon copy of his descendant Simon, with an upgradeable whip and the same five limited use sub-weapons, i.e. the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Sypha has a trio of elemental spells that can swiftly obliterate the toughest of foes. Alucard can transform into a bat and fly for a brief time, allowing for numerous platforming shortcuts. Finally, Grant’s exceptional agility lets him move faster, jump better, and climb any solid wall like a medieval Spiderman.

With multiple protagonists, multiple routes, and a more difficult second loop for those few who’ve mastered the first, Castlevania III is almost endlessly replayable. Finishing every stage as every character is a Herculean task. Hell, I’ve been playing regularly for years now and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it! It’s a testament to the development team’s ingenuity that this handful of seemingly simple additions to the first Castlevania’s formula was able to benefit Dracula’s Curse so much. Moreover, they realized this added depth without recourse to the backtracking, grinding, and cryptic progression requirements that dogged Simon’s Quest.

It helps that the level themselves are brilliant. There’s no finer example of this than the Sunken City, which cleverly subverts Castlevania convention to grand effect. Everything plays out as you’d expect until you reach the boss, a flying serpentine skeleton. As soon as the fight starts to turn in your favor, he turns tail and runs! This triggers a trap and causes the water throughout the stage to begin rising steadily. You then need to stave off drowning and constant fishman assaults as you race through the remainder of the City in pursuit of the boss. It’s a tense, dynamic level unlike any other in the series.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to spotlight Castlevania III’s magnificent soundtrack, the result of a collaboration between Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto. It elevates the baroque rock sound the franchise is famous for to the zenith of what the hardware is capable of. Above it, in fact, as the Japanese edition includes a custom memory mapper chip, the VRC6, that adds another three sound channels to the console’s innate five. The graphics are appealing as well. They stick to the same colorful 8-bit Gothic style as the previous games while incorporating some lovely animated background tiles. That said, the game’s score neatly surpasses its visuals as a pure artistic achievement. With or without the VRC6, Castlevania III’s music is good. So good I own it on vinyl, something I can’t say about any other NES game.

Now that I’ve gone and mentioned Castlevania III’s Japanese incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu (“Demon Castle Legend”), I know some of you are expecting me to go into detail about how generally superior it is to the subsequent international versions. Not only does it have enhanced music, it’s easier, too! You take less damage from most enemies, Grant’s regular attack is a full-screen knife toss instead of a short range stab, and Trevor and Sypha’s best sub-weapons are more readily available. This is obviously the one to get, right?

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint all you Akumajō partisans out there, but I honestly find it to be the inferior option. Sure, several characters are stronger. At the same time, the playable cast as a whole is less balanced. Grant’s ability to strike from any distance without using up ammunition combines with his supreme mobility to make him extremely powerful. Powerful enough to completely trivialize some of the game’s most treacherous segments. Similarly, making Sypha’s devastating lightning magic more common indirectly reduces the utility of Trevor, as he has comparatively little to contribute so long as you have the means to flood the screen with massive homing lightning orbs at will. Beyond these much-needed balance tweaks, Dracula’s Curse features improved spritework and animation. Several of the bosses (including Dracula himself) have also had their attacks changed in order to make them harder to dodge, which in turn renders those fights more exciting. Even the decision to up enemy damage output ultimately plays to the series’ primary strength: Measured, exacting play with little tolerance for sloppy mistakes. Akumajō will no doubt take a Castlevania novice much less time to finish. The price it pays for this up front ease is decreased player investment. Completing Dracula’s Curse for the first time is the culmination of a mighty struggle, unlimited continues and passwords notwithstanding. The intensity of that struggle produces a corresponding catharsis. Akumajō Densetsu demands less, produces less in the way of true satisfaction, and, with its abbreviated path to mastery, will see veterans returning less in search of those elusive one-credit clears and no death runs. A fine game on its own terms, it doesn’t quite have the polish or the legs of its American and European revisions.

As much as I fawn over Castlevania III, no iteration of the game is perfect. If I had to summarize its Achilles’ heel in one word, it’d be “Alucard.” Later promoted to bishōnen demigod for Symphony of the Night, he’s an abject mess of a character here. His attacks (the manual humorously dubs them “balls of destruction”) are so feeble that attempting combat with him at all is an exercise in masochism. He often fails to down basic bats and skeletons in a single hit, with bulkier targets like axe knights and bone pillars requiring a dozen or more, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to land them all. Oh, and did I mention this is a best case scenario? The balls require upgrading to reach their maximum potential, akin to Trevor’s whip. If they’re this weak at full power, imaging trying to kill anything when they’re still in their default state. It gets worse. Alucard can’t equip any sub-weapons apart from the stopwatch and he’s the only member of the group who can’t attack at all while climbing stairs. Madness! This effectively limits him to flying around in bat form, making him feel more like a power-up for Trevor than a hero unto himself. You’ll see a high ledge you want to get to as Trevor, switch over to Alucard real quick to fly up, and then switch right back. What a loser.

To make an absurdly long story short, I adore Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A quarter of its character roster may be borderline unplayable, yet it excels on so many other fronts that I find myself revisiting it more frequently than any other title on the platform. When I first encountered it back in 1990, all I knew was that it seemed super cool and super impossible. Returning to it in 2017 with some patience and determination on my side was a revelation. I discovered what I can only describe as the most Castlevania of old school Castlevanias. It serves up the most stages, the most characters, the most room to grow as a player, the most…Castlevania. To me, it represents a high water mark that’s never been met, let alone exceeded, by any of its sequels.

Ironically, this masterpiece for the ages would prove disastrous to the career of its director, Hitoshi Akamatsu. After serving as project lead for the entirety of the NES trilogy, he was demoted by Konami brass on account of Castlevania III’s supposed poor sales relative to their licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Relegated to working in a Konami-branded arcade, he soon retired from the industry altogether. A fine how-do-you-do for a visionary who graced video gaming with one of its most beloved sagas. I don’t know about you, but the next time I whip some vampire ass, it’ll be for Akamatsu-sama.

Ghostbusters (Genesis)

Another enchanted Halloween season is drawing to an end and I’m already preemptively sad. At least I’ve made the most of it. My last four weeks have been packed with costumes, haunted houses, and horror flicks. Go big or go home, as they say. And I still have time for one more ghoulish game review. This one is a special request from reader Mike Payne, who wanted me to tackle Ghostbusters on the Sega Genesis. Considering that my last reader request was Ghostbusters for the Master System, I’m noticing a odd trend here.

Genesis Ghostbusters is a very different beast than its 8-bit predecessors. It’s a wholly original work by Sega and Compile, as opposed to yet another port of David Crane’s 1984 Commodore 64 game. Great news if you’d rather gargle broken glass than drive around town dodging traffic and struggling to save up enough money to enter the “Zule building” again. Your task is to guide the Ghostbuster of your choice through an original plot that’s implied to take place between the first and second films. Paranormal activity is spiking around New York City and it seems to be linked to the pieces of a mysterious stone tablet the Ghostbusters have been discovering at various job sites. As the true meaning of the tablet becomes clear, the initially elated Ghostbusters learn that what’s good for business may not always bode well for life on earth.

Don’t expect too much from this story. While I appreciate the effort on the developers’ part, it’s rather predictable and overly reminiscent of the first movie’s. The dialog is also a missed opportunity. It’s dry and utilitarian with none of the witty banter one would hope for. It’s a serviceable justification for six stages of side-scrolling action-platforming, but only just.

Three of the four original Ghostbusters are playable here: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler. They’re all represented by instantly recognizable big-headed caricatures of the actors who portrayed them on the big screen. The lovingly-rendered receeding hairline on bobblehead Bill Murray is hilarious to me for some reason. Unfortunately, Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore isn’t seen or referenced anywhere. I’m not sure what the deal is with that. Winston appeared in the other two Ghostbusters games released around this same time on competing platforms. These were adaptations of Ghostbusters II specifically, however, so perhaps it all comes down to some arcane quirk of the license?

Each of the three characters is mechanically distinct, being built around a specific distribution of speed and durability. Peter is the balanced one, Ray the plodding tank, and Egon the swift, fragile glass cannon. You’re locked into your initial pick for the duration of a given playthrough, so make sure you like the way your guy handles before you progress too far. I inadvertently made the journey harder on myself by going with Egon straightway. His low health makes him better suited for experts. Newcomers are advised to use Ray instead. No regrets, though. I wanted to pay my respects to the late, criminally underrated Harold Ramis. Not to mention Egon is such a great character. It’s not often you see a total nerd presented as a strong, confident hero. He was very much written against type, especially by the standards of the day. Go, Egon!

Progression is fairly open, with the initial set of four stages able to be completed in any order. These range from a small suburban house to a downtown high-rise under attack by the famous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The goal of each level is to defeat (and ideally trap) a set number of mini-boss ghosts in order to unlock the door to the big boss’ room. Larger levels like the high-rise contain more boss encounters and reward your efforts with a correspondingly bigger cash payout.

Insuring a healthy cash flow is paramount because of the shops you’re able to visit between levels, which are stocked with a bevy of healing items and equipment upgrades. Using the shields and weapons you acquire in this fashion eats away at a limited pool of energy. Try not to get so carried away buying fancy new gear that you forget about upgrading the energy bar itself or you’ll constantly be running low on juice when you need it most. Be sure to zap any helpful green Slimers you encounter, since they drop health and energy refills.

This is a sound enough outline on paper and Ghostbusters nails the execution fairly well. The controls are fluid and well-suited to the run-and-gun style action. Your character can fire his unlicensed nuclear accelerator in any of six directions. He can even move and fire while crouched; always appreciated in a hectic game like this. My only real gripe with the engine involves some instances of dodgy collision detection here and there. Clearing the flame columns in the burning house without taking damage is way tougher than it looks.

The wide variety of boss monsters is a major highlight. They all have unique attack patterns and can get pretty wild conceptually, often resembling things you might see in the Real Ghostbusters cartoon show more so than the films. If there’s one downside to this approach, it’s that a few of them don’t seem like they belong to any version of this particular fictional universe. Take the fire dragon straight out of Life Force or the Little Shop of Horrors-inspired carnivorous plant, for example. The game insists these are ghosts. Color me skeptical.

Level design manages to deliver the satisfaction of exploring open layouts without going overboard and forcing confused players to resort to mapping or checking guides. Every environment has its own theme and obstacles, most of which make for a good time. I especially loved trying (and mostly failing) to dodge the Marshmallow Man’s giant fists as he punched through the walls of the high-rise. I was finally able to reach the top and blast him square in his dumb face. Revenge sweeter than s’mores! The big exception to this is that burning house level. It utilizes a darkness mechanic, meaning you’re forced to use night vision goggles to see your surroundings. Problem is, the goggles are consumable items and each pair only lasts a couple minutes. If you make the mistake of venturing deep into the level with only one or two pairs of goggles in your inventory, you’re as good as dead. You’re free to exit and return to the shop to buy more goggles…provided you can find your way back to the front door in the pitch dark with enemies all around. It’s a pity, as the actual contents of the stage are fine. It’s strictly the tedious visibility gimmick that torpedoes it.

Ultimately, this take on Ghostbusters is in the same boat as Daft’s Super Back to the Future Part II for me. Here we have a beloved blockbuster movie series finally being graced with a decent video game adaptation after years of ignoble misfires. Is it truly great? Nah. It didn’t need to be. A competent side-scroller elevated ever so slightly above par by charming depictions of familiar characters and situations still felt great to beleaguered fans. It was the first Ghostbusters game they could simply like and enjoy for what it was without tacking on a whole laundry list of qualifiers and regrets. It doesn’t need to go toe-to-toe with Genesis titans like Revenge of Shinobi, Gunstar Heroes, and Rocket Knight Adventures to be worth acknowledging and it remains a largely pleasant experience for lovers of the franchise.

Thus concludes another spooky game roundup. Rest assured I’ll be back again in eleven short months with a fresh batch of classic gaming tricks and treats. As for you, dear readers, may all your Halloweens be as much fun as collecting spores, molds, and fungus.

Castlevania: The Holy Relics (NES)

Whew! I’m back from another Portland Retro Gaming Expo! The biggest classic video gaming event on the planet makes for an intense weekend, to say the least. It’s always well worth it, though. I actually took the plunge this year and tried dressing up in costume for the first time as my favorite NES hero, Simon Belmont. I went with the grotesque, buffoonish interpretation of Simon from the Captain N: The Game Master cartoon because that’s just the way my sense of humor works. I’m only interested in embodying the most despised versions of beloved characters. Good times.

While the Expo is over, the show must go on. In my case, that means a weekly game review. What better choice under these circumstances than an underexposed gem starring my boy Simon? And one I played for the first time at a past PRGE, no less? I’m talking about Castlevania: The Holy Relics, a notably ambitious 2017 ROM hack of Castlevania by Optomon , with additional graphics work by Setz, Bit-Blade, Dr. Mario, and Boneless Ivar. You may recognize the Optomon name from other first class fan projects I’ve covered, such as Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries and Metroid: Rogue Dawn. If so, you already know this is going to be something special.

In order to to understand why Holy Relics is a such a fascinating take on the standard hack, it helps to think of it as some parallel universe’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. What if, rather than infusing open level design and RPG elements into Castlevania’s divisive 1987 sequel, Konami had kept it a traditional action-platformer and incorporated elements of their arch-rival Capcom’s Mega Man instead? The result is a style of Castlevania play which simply doesn’t exist in any official form. If that doesn’t do a better job piquing your curiosity than yet another set of super challenging remixed stages, I don’t know what would.

The events of Holy Relics are set in 1693, two years after Dracula’s defeat in the first Castlevania. A set of powerful relics looted from the Holy Land by avaricious crusaders four hundred years prior has fallen into the hands of a necromancer named Lord Ghulash, who’s used them to plunge the land into darkness once more. It falls on Simon Belmont, champion of Transylvania, to recover the relics from their demonic guardians and vanquish Ghulash.

There are a six stages on offer, as per normal. Before the action even begins, however, the game hits you with its first major alteration in the form of a level select screen! Yes, you’re free to play through the first five areas in any order you choose before moving on to the final confrontation. You’re also allowed to choose a single relic to take with you whenever you begin a stage. You start with the cross already in your possession and gain another option with every boss you defeat.

These relics are no mere plot MacGuffins or symbolic tokens of success like the glowing orbs bosses drop in the base game. On the contrary, they’re mighty tools that each break the fundamental rules of 8-bit Castlevania in their own way. The mug, for example, allows you to replenish Simon’s health on demand. The crown temporarily powers-up his whip to an absurd degree, enough to take out bosses with just three hits. The bag awards massive bonus points for killing enemies, making it easy to rack up loads of extra lives. Relic activation is mapped to the Select button and is limited by the number of special blue hearts you can manage to acquire in a given stage. Usage restrictions aside, the overwhelming power of the relics makes them as vital to Simon’s success as his familiar whip and sub-weapons. So many ROM hacks are about cranking the difficulty up so high that experienced players feel like newbies again. It’s rare to find one that’s more about upgrading the protagonist into a complete beast.

Speaking of the sub-weapons, a couple of them have received potent tweaks, too. The axe now travels at a shallower angle which covers more space horizontally at the expense of some arc height. This boosts its versatility greatly. The throwing dagger has also been given a huge shot in the arm. It’s now an oak stake that deals a hefty triple the damage with only the minor drawback of slower flight speed to compensate. The enhanced axe and stake so clearly outclass the other options for me that I found myself cursing whenever I accidentally picked up the boomerang or holy water. How’s that for a shakeup?

The levels themselves are completely divorced from anything seen in the source game. The vast majority of hacks still take place in recognizable remodels of Dracula’s castle. You have the familiar entryway, underground waterway, clock tower, etc. Holy Relics tosses this all out the window in favor of diverse outdoor and indoor locations populated with a blend of reskinned and functionally new enemies. It throws its players yet another curve ball by transplanting the idea of locked doors from Vampire Killer, the obscure Castlevania entry for Japanese MSX computers. Every stage has a pair of doors obstructing Simon’s progress which require keys to open. These keys are never too far away or tricky to find, though the search often forces you to take a slightly more circuitous route than you might otherwise have.

Collectively, such sweeping changes to the structure and mechanics of vanilla Castlevania are a lot to take in. The redrawn graphics and a soundtrack featuring a mix of original tunes and covers of songs from later games also adds to the surreality. Fortunately, for all its radical reinvention, Holy Relics still comes across as Castlevania through and through. Simon’s short, stiff jumps are unchanged, as is his whip’s characteristic delay. Skillful play remains a matter of patience, timing, and grace under pressure, so veteran players won’t be left floundering.

Of course, any experiment this daring is likely to have its rough edges. In terms of negatives, I’ve already touched on the obvious one: The insane strength of most of the relic powers. Although it’s fun to play Superman on occasion, you shouldn’t need me to tell you why the ability to hoard dozens of lives, turn invincible at a moment’s notice, or slay the most fearsome opponents with three whip cracks can be a tad much. Simply put, smart relic use breaks the game. It’s technically optional, sure, but that’s cold comfort when these items serve as the game’s namesake and primary draw. In addition, the locked doors add little to the experience. The levels here aren’t long or complex enough for key hunting to blossom into a proper puzzle solving exercise, so it’s really a trifle at best. Finally, the visual design of the final boss is quite goofy. He doesn’t look like he could successfully intimidate the average Animal Crossing resident, let alone a Belmont. Bit of an anticlimax there.

If you’re of a mind to forgive its glaring balance issues and the occasional strange aesthetic choice, I think there’s a very good chance you’ll agree with me that Castlevania: The Holy Relics is the single best fan-made twist on Konami’s legendary classic to date. Nothing else comes close to matching its scope, inventiveness, and replay value, not even Optomon’s own excellent Chorus of Mysteries. It’s pure comfort food for the old school Castlevania lover’s soul; a digital holy relic that’s earned itself a permanent spot on my NES altar.

Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!
Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street (NES)

Hey! You forgot the Power Glove!

I had such a memorable time (for better and worse) taking down the NES incarnation of Jason Voorhees last month that I see no reason to let my killer killing streak end there. Next up in my crosshairs is everyone’s favorite extra crispy child murderer, Freddy Krueger!

This is typically the part of the review where I’d question the wisdom of adapting an R-rated horror franchise to a gaming platform pitched squarely at minors. The Springwood Slasher was well into the high camp Max Headroom phase of his career by 1990, however, and not even us kids were taking him all that seriously anymore. It’s tough to inspire real life nightmares after you’ve guest hosted MTV and covered “Wooly Bully” on your novelty record, you know? That said, this relatively tame action-platformer still had the potential to be much more controversial than it was. Early builds of the game saw the player controlling Freddy himself as he bumped off hapless teenagers. It’s easy to understand why developer Rare and publisher LJN ultimately changed course and reversed these roles.

Similar to LJN’s Jaws and Friday the 13th, Nightmare presents as a more-or-less genericized version of the basic scenario that defines the movie series. Ghostly psycho Freddy is butchering the children of Elm Street in their dreams as revenge against their parents for burning him to death years back. There are no specific supporting characters depicted who would tie this game to any of the five films released prior, although several key locations and concepts appear to have been lifted from the fan favorite third installment, Dream Warriors. The player assumes control of an unnamed teen who’s looking to end this reign of terror by gathering up Freddy’s bones, which are scattered all over the neighborhood for some unknown reason, and burning them in the furnace situated in the basement of the local high school. While I tackled it alone, Nightmare actually allows up to four players simultaneously via the Four Score and Satellite multitap accessories. If there’s any other platforming game from the period that attempted such a thing, I can’t name it. Four people trying to do pinpoint platforming all at once on the same low resolution screen? Sounds like a recipe for sheer chaos to me. I’d love to try it out someday.

If you’re one of the many who despised Friday the 13th for its arcane and often poorly-documented strategy gameplay, I have good news for you: A Nightmare on Elm Street is much closer to the conventional idea of what an NES game should be. It doesn’t get much simpler than seven linear stages of increasingly difficult pit jumping and enemy bashing. The only potentially confusing element is Elm Street itself, which acts as a hub area. Fortunately, there isn’t much to it. Finish one stage and you’ll need to trek down the road to the next one and press up to enter its front door. Since only one door is ever active at a time, there’s a minor trial and error element as you try out different buildings.

Levels are broken up into multiple side-scrolling segments, each of which tasks you with collecting a requisite number of bones in order to unseal the exit. You’ll eventually reach the boss room and face off with Freddy, who assumes a variety of strange and occasionally goofy guises to combat you. Beating him earns you access to the next level. It also grants you an extra life. Make the most of these, as this is the only way you can add to your initial stock of twenty. Run out and it’s back to the title screen.

In a nod to the cinematic Krueger’s oneiric onslaughts, Nightmare includes a sleep mechanic. The red “Zzz” meter at the top of the screen represents your hero’s wakefulness. It slowly decreases with time and allowing it to deplete fully shifts the action to the dream world. The artwork takes on a darker tone here and enemy health is doubled. Level layouts and monster spawn points don’t change, it just becomes harder to kill things.

You can avoid transitioning to the dream world by picking up the coffee cups present in most stages. You may want to pass on the caffeine, though. Counterintuitive as it seems, the benefits of being trapped in Freddy’s domain arguably outweigh the dangers. Only when sleeping is your rather pathetic default character able to utilize the three powered-up dream warrior forms. There’s an athlete, a ninja, and a wizard. They all offer superior jumping ability and projectiles to replace the puny punch that normally serves as your sole means of attack. Dream world baddies take more hits to kill, sure, but you no longer need to be within arm’s reach of them to deal your damage. The advantage is yours.

The designers must have realized this, so they threw in one final hazard unique to the dream world: Periodic mini-boss engagements with Freddy. These are always preceded by a chiptune interpretation of the spooky “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” song from the movies. They should function as potent incentives to stay awake. In practice, the fights are far too easy and hardly fit for their intended purpose. No, it’s still smarter and more interesting to remain asleep, if you ask me.

If this all sounds pretty decent, that’s because it is. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, especially considering that it’s long been dogged by the usual “crappy licensed LJN game” reputation. It’s nothing mind-blowing and it absolutely has its shortcomings. The collision detection leaves a lot to be desired at times, with some of your shots passing straight through enemies harmlessly. It punks out big-time at the end by falling back on a boss rush in place of a unique final boss. Above all, it isn’t remotely scary. If you look past the fact that it includes a few Freddy sprites, the experience isn’t any more unsettling than the average Castlevania outing. Friday the 13th, for all its clunkiness, baked some real tension into your high stakes cat-and-mouse game with Jason.

Still, this is a perfectly adequate second string contract work with a smooth difficulty curve, a fun gimmick in the dream warrior abilities, and a sublime soundtrack by David Wise of Donkey Kong Country and Battletoads fame that’s almost certainly too good for the material it supports. A Nightmare on Elm Street likely won’t set your world on fire, or even your boiler room, but it won’t put you to sleep, either. I hope….

Splatterhouse (PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16)

Burning down the house!

Of all the bone-chilling titles in this year’s October roundup, Namco’s Splatterhouse holds the strongest claim to true historical significance as mainstream gaming’s introduction to gore. Suspect I might oversimplifying there? That’s fair. 1988 does seem awfully late for such a milestone. I don’t maintain that Splatterhouse was the first gory game, however, only the first to enjoy a number of advantages that collectively gave it the edge in breaking through to the public consciousness. Unlike Exidy’s 1986 light gun oddity Chiller, it received a massive marketing push from its A-list developer/publisher. Its 16-bit graphics allowed for much more in the way of shocking detail than Wizard Video’s blocky 1983 renditions of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the Atari 2600. Finally, being an arcade and console release, it had a much wider built-in audience than home computer offerings like 1987’s Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior.

Eschewing the ancient Universal homages of many other early horror games, Splatterhouse gleefully leaned into edgier contemporary influences. Its musclebound hero, Rick Taylor, donned a Jason-esque “Terror Mask” and blue jumpsuit ensemble, simultaneously paying tribute to two of the period’s most iconic big screen slashers. And he splattered things. Loads of things. Zombies, bloodsucking worms, flying severed heads, misshapen killer fetuses, you name it, all in his frenzied rush to rescue his love Jennifer from the unholy depths of West Mansion. No wonder this 1989 port to the TurboGrafx-16 became the first game to bear a violence warning, which declared it “inappropriate for young children…and cowards.” From the makers of Pac-Man and Dig Dug came the blood-drenched beat-’em-up Evil Dead and Reanimator fans had been waiting for. Go figure.

So, having established Splatterhouse as very important and very cool, how does it play? Well, what you see really is what you get with this one. Even by 1988 standards, the gameplay here is basic. At a point in arcade history when Double Dragon’s eight-directional movement represented the cutting edge in beat-’em-up design, Splatterhouse confines Rick to a single horizontal plane and thus more closely resembles Irem’s Kung-Fu Master from 1984. Simply walk to the right, hop over the occasional spike or other ground hazard, and smack down every twisted monstrosity that gets in your way. Persevere through seven stages of this of this without running out of lives and you win. A couple stages do offer short branching paths to the boss room, but this idea is sadly underutilized.

Rick’s rampage is as brief as it is straightforward. After you’ve come to grips with the level layouts and enemy behaviors, an entire playthrough can be wrapped up in under twenty minutes. This makes Splatterhouse a rare example of a “hot tea game” for me. See, I’ve unintentionally developed a tradition over the years of brewing up a piping hot mug of tea at the start of a gaming session. I then immediately get lost in the flow, forgetting all about my poor beverage until hours have passed, by which time it’s ice cold. Imagine my surprise when I cleared the TurboGrafx Splatterhouse for the first time and had a nice, warm mug awaiting me for a change! I had so much play time to spare that I threw on the Japanese PC Engine version and ran all the way through it, too. Turns out the two are almost identical. The North American edition merely changed Rick’s mask from white to red (presumably to head off any Paramount Pictures lawsuits) and took out all the crosses. Because shredding zombies in twain with a wooden plank is fine, provided you leave Jesus out of it.

Pointing out that these home editions of Splatterhouse are dead simple and light on content shouldn’t be construed as condemnation. On the contrary. As they’re intended to be faithful adaptations of the arcade original, they must be reckoned great successes. Every key location and play element is present and accounted for. The graphics, particularly the backgrounds, are scaled back somewhat, yet still convey the same hellish effect. The eerie music holds up equally well. This series in general has a reputation for style over substance, which is both technically true and frequently unfair. The entirety of Splatterhouse is positively bursting with ghoulish ambience and diabolic verve, resulting in an unforgettable experience for any classic gaming or classic horror enthusiast. What’s the sense in glossing over that as if it’s some small thing that comes standard with any random game?

Splatterhouse made enough of a splash to warrant two direct sequels on the Sega Genesis and a delightfully silly Famicom spin-off (Wanpaku Graffiti). As of this writing, an ill-fated 2010 reboot attempt is the last we’ve heard from Rick, Jennifer, and the eldritch Terror Mask. Perhaps that’s for the best. Splatterhouse’s once transgressive grue factor comes across almost naive in an age of fully-voiced interactive torture scenes (Grand Theft Auto V) and near photorealistic dismemberment (Mortal Kombat 11). Shifts in popular culture and the inexorable march of technology have rendered this former controversy magnet quaint as a caped Bela Lugosi in its own way. Its infectiously likable pick-up-and-play action, on the other hand? That’s timeless.

Majyūō (Super Famicom)

October is here at last! All hail the triumphant return of long nights, creeping fog, and, best of all, horror gaming! As is my custom during this most morbid of months, I’ll be taking on five spooktastic titles for a variety of systems. There’s a malevolent mix of obscure oddities and well-loved standards headed your way, all united in their shared fixation on ghosts, demons, zombies, and other manic manifestations of the macabre. Let the terror commence!

First up is Majyūō (aka Majyuuou, “King of Demons”), a 1995 Super Famicom action-platformer by KSS. Who’s KSS? No one could blame you for asking. Primarily an anime production company, they also managed to turn out a half-dozen Japan-exclusive games to no great success before their 2005 bankruptcy. Majyūō has acquired a reputation as the standout KSS effort and presumably had a limited print run in its day. Accordingly, you can expect to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of owning a vintage copy. A saner option as of this writing is the authorized 2018 re-release by Columbus Circle at around $60.

The central figure in Majyūō is pistol-packing family man Abel. One Bayer, a former friend of our hero, sold his soul to demons, murdered Abel’s wife, and then kidnapped his daughter to serve as a sacrifice to revive the demon king, Lucifer. What an ass. Now Abel, with a weird assist from the spirit of his dead wife in nude pixie form, is out to storm the very gates of Hell and get his daughter back before it’s too late.

Not a bad setup, honestly. Bonus points for going darker than usual in a Nintendo game with the whole murdered spouse/human sacrifice angle. I would have preferred a little more mid-game development, however. All the plot elements here are concentrated at the beginning and end. Even when Abel comes face-to-face with the traitorous Bayer for the last time, no words are exchanged. I suppose this terseness does keep Majyūō accessable to a non-Japanese audience. I made use of the Aeon Genesis fan translation patch because I could, not because it was necessary.

Abel’s demon slaying odyssey is a compact one, made up of six modestly sized stages. In truth, it’s closer to five capped off by a low effort boss rush. This is undoubted the game’s biggest sticking point for me. Platforming fans in the mid-’90s had already grown accustomed to much longer adventures. Super Castlevania IV, for example, had over three times this amount of content to plow through and didn’t have to skimp on the quality to get there. Poor Majyūō is nearer to the original NES Castlevania in this respect.

Apparently aware that length was going to be an issue, Majyūō’s designers settled on another method of extending play time: Demonic transformations. Taking a page from Go Nagai’s Devilman manga, Abel can merge with the souls of vanquished boss monsters (represented by colored gems) in order to assume three different human-demon hybrid forms. Utilizing all three before reaching the fifth stage of a given playthrough will unlock a superpowered fourth transformation required to see the better of the game’s two endings.

Note that you don’t need to transform if you don’t want to. Beating the whole game as a puny human is definitely possible. Abel’s default health and damage output leave a lot to be desired, as do his stiff, plodding movements. On the plus side, he does have a robust moveset which includes a double jump, evasive roll, charged super attack, and descending jump kick. The various demon forms just happen to do all these same things better, making them a difficulty select of sorts. In light of this, it’s a bit odd that the best ending is reserved for Abel’s most powerful incarnation rather than his least.

Try as they might, I don’t think these alternate forms succeed in making up for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time and often clunky action. That leaves the presentation to hopefully take up the slack and earn Majyūō a mild recommendation. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. The vision of Hell the artists conjured up here is a memorable one, sometimes for unexpectedly silly reasons. Take my favorite level, the speeding demon train. As if the very idea of Hell having its own rail system wasn’t strange enough, this particular train is loaded with explosive crates marked “danger.” Who’s in charge of that? The Abyssal Safety and Health Administration? Oh, and some infernal joker spray-painted “fuck” onto the side of one of the rail cars, so the underworld has its own population of cheeky graffiti taggers, too. I don’t know if the creators intended their implied world building to be this absurd and I don’t care. I’m too busy being delighted. The remainder of the stages skew more normal. Well, normal for Hell, anyway, with plenty of fire, ice, fleshy organic corridors, etc. They’re complimented by some suitably deranged enemy designs and up-tempo action tunes. The weakest links are the sprites for Abel, which are small and lack detail. He looks more like an NES protagonist than a SNES one.

As an action-platformer in the Castlevania mold, Majyūō never rises above average and occasionally struggles to get there. It’s criminally short and the combat isn’t as fluid or fun as it could have been, major flaws that are scarcely mitigated by the cool premise, trippy artwork, and ability to transform Abel himself. If I’d paid full price for this one back in 1995, I’d have regretted it. If I’d paid a king’s ransom in the present day, I’d have really regretted it. Fortunately, getting to play it for free is another story altogether. This is a prime example of a game that had to wait patiently for the age of flash cartridges and emulators to finally come into its own. You may end up damned to Hell for your brazen software piracy, but at least you’ll know what to expect when you get there.

Friday the 13th (NES)

The time has come to realize my destiny as a true innovator. Brace yourselves for this one, folks: I’m going to review the Friday the 13th NES game on Friday the 13th! Now I know how Neil Armstrong felt.

Okay, so it’s not exactly original. I guess the Halloween lover in me just wanted an excuse to get a head start on next month’s annual spooky game roundup. This’ll do.

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this infamous Atlus-developed take on the classic slasher saga. LJN published it exclusively here in North America in February of 1989, between the seventh and eighth movies, and it’s been a magnet for negative buzz ever since. Ask anyone with a knowledge of the NES library beyond Mario and Zelda to rattle off some crappy licensed games and Friday the 13th will usually be at or near the top of the list. For three decades now, it’s been universally panned as confusing, frustrating, and a host of more profane things to boot.

Or has is? Over the past few years, a sustained effort by admirers of the game to re-frame it as a misunderstood survival horror pioneer has gained considerable traction. This led to officially licensed toys modeled on arch-psycho Jason Voorhees’ garish NES color scheme and a hilarious callback to the same in IllFonic’s much better received 2017 Friday game. Could these fans have been right all along? Did critics and the general public alike dismiss Friday the 13th merely for being ahead of its time and refusing to conform to conventional action game stereotypes?

The debate surrounding this one may be complicated, but at least its plot isn’t. Hockey mask-clad murder machine Jason is running amok at Camp Crystal Lake. A team of six teenage camp counselors must band together to defend themselves and their fifteen young charges from Jason’s onslaught. If Jason does manage to slaughter either all six counselors or all fifteen kids, the game is over. In true slasher movie fashion, “killing” Jason once won’t be enough. He needs to be put down a total of three times over three consecutive days to end his rampage for good.

Friday the 13th isn’t based on any specific entry in the film franchise. That said, savvy horror buffs will spot some obvious nods here and there. The opening animation with the knife penetrating the mask is clearly based on the poster for The Final Chapter and the gameplay itself incorporates several ideas from Part 2. One thing that stands out as odd is the choice of protecting children from Jason as a primary goal. Jason never killed kids on the big screen. The MPAA and other movie rating boards hated the series enough as it was. There’s no way the studios would have antagonized them that blatantly. Although all child death in the game takes place off-screen, it’s still arguably the bleakest concept ever broached on the NES. Kudos to Atlus and LJN for pushing that envelope, I guess.

In terms of mechanics, Friday the 13th is a sort of strategy/action hybrid. Controlling one counselor at at time and switching between them as needed, the player is tasked with scouring the camp for hidden items required to defeat Jason while also responding in a timely manner to the maniac’s unpredictable attacks on the other characters. Jason’s murder attempts on the kids and non-active counselors in their cabins are frequent, perhaps too frequent, and he can show up on the trails to interrupt your exploration in a more direct way, too. This makes time management the most crucial component of the game. You need to figure out how to the get the stuff you need and then make it happen fast. Unless you’re able to get your hands on more powerful weapons early, the best you can hope for is to drive Jason off temporarily, knowing full well he’ll always return and eventually whittle your beleaguered team down to nothing.

Gearing up for battle is no mean feat. As if Jason’s constant harassment wasn’t enough, the only real help the game provides is a hint to try lighting all the fireplaces in the larger cabins. If you can accomplish this with a single counselor, you will indeed be rewarded with a flashlight that reveals secret doors in the cave area. Beyond that one helpful tip, you’re on your own. Learning the ins and out of staying alive long enough to fight back is a protracted trial-and-error process. For example, you’ll soon catch on that not all camp counselors are created equal. Mark and Crissy are vastly better at running and jumping than the rest of the crew, so it’s best to not bother using anyone else for exploration and item gathering. The optimal plan is usually to focus on obtaining the best equipment for Mark and Crissy while stationing the other, more disposable teens as close to the kids as possible so they can act as cannon fodder to repel Jason attacks.

I believe this strategic bent, sketchily-documented as it is, constitutes much of what Friday the 13th’s defenders are responding to when they feel compelled to stick up for it. I say that because it can’t possibly be what passes for action here, which is frankly terrible. Traversing Crystal Lake from a side-view perspective fending off an endless supply of birds, wolves, and out-of-place zombies is wholly unsatisfying in itself. I get why the designers wanted to include some non-Jason baddies. The big guy would rapidly lose his mystique if he had to serve as sole obstacle to your progress. This is a far cry from Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden caliber combat, though. It’s shallow, stiff, and more of a rote chore than anything else.

Fighting on the trail may be dull, but it’s a picnic compared to taking on Jason inside the cabins. These encounters utilize an over-the-shoulder third-person view reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! sans any degree of polish or charm. You dodge Jason’s swings and fire back as best you can until he flees or one of you dies. This is doable with a little practice on the first day, when Jason is relatively slow. All bets are off after that, as the masked marauder grows exponentially quicker over subsequent days, eventually becoming nearly impossible to evade. Suddenly, the game’s insistence that you go inside to protect the defenseless kids from Jason makes sense. If they weren’t a factor, venturing indoors at all after day one wouldn’t be worth the risk.

So, apart from those few cool strategy bits, Friday the 13th is cryptic, punishing, and hamstrung by some truly wretched combat. It would tough to recommend to anyone if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s damn effective survival horror! Yeah, I was surprised, too. Turns out the scramble to prepare for the final showdown with Jason while simultaneously enduring his relentless assaults is laden with genuine tension and an atmosphere of impending doom so thick you could cut it with a machete. As with any proper entry in the genre, you need to play cautiously and exercise good judgement when it comes to managing healing items and other limited resources.

Most important of all for a game based on one of cinema’s premier monsters, Friday the 13th does its villain justice. Jason’s sprites are large and imposing by 1989 standards. He can show up just about anywhere at any time to ruin your day, accompanied by an appropriately startling musical sting. He can kill off one of your hapless counselors in just a few hits and is effectively invulnerable to anything less than the strongest weapons. In short, he lives up to the hype. This makes it immensely satisfying to finally turn the tables on him. As a devotee of the film series, I can’t deny that Friday the 13th is fundamentally faithful to the spirit of its source material. That’s more than I can say for most old licensed games.

By no means is Friday the 13th a world-class NES release. I’d wager few outside its hardcore following would even rank it among their top hundred games for the system. I maintain it’s miles above true LJN-published travesties like Uncanny X-Men and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, however, and worth a fresh look next time you’re in the mood for some 8-bit terror. You may end up hating it, but things could always be worse. You could be watching Jason Goes to Hell.

Castlevania: Overflow Darkness (NES)

Sometimes all you want is for a game to be mean to you again.

One of the very best things about classic gaming, at least from the perspective of the average busy adult, is just how concise these old titles can be. In most cases, game makers of the past had no other choice. From the primordial dawn of the hobby on 1960s university mainframes all the way up to the widespread adoption of CD-ROM technology roughly three decades later, every byte of precious memory counted. Skilled programmers were still able to realize RPGs and other intricate games featuring dozens or even hundreds of hours of play time, but this often meant embracing a more modest audiovisual presentation to save space. For fans of these more cerebral offerings, the tradeoff was well worth it. Action gamers, on the other hand, had an insatiable fondness for spectacle that often placed the developers of their favorite releases in an unenviable position. How could they consistently dazzle their audiences with the most detailed backgrounds, the biggest characters, the smoothest animations, and the most adrenaline-pumping tunes, all while still leaving room for, well, a game?

The enduring legacy of all these thorny compromises is a pantheon of tight, polished 8 and 16-bit thrill rides that experienced players can blaze through in well under an hour. Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Gradius, Mega Man, and many, many more, including my personal favorite, Castlevania. It’s only after you’ve played through one of these masterpieces countless times that their brevity begins to work against them. As pleasant as it invariably is to kick back and whip my way through Simon Belmont’s iconic debut vampire hunt, I’ve long ago reached the point where the challenge, even on hard mode, is deader than Count Dracula himself. Who can you turn to when your favorite hardcore action game just isn’t beating you down like it used to? The ROM hacking community, of course!

Hacks dedicated to furnishing veteran players with ferociously difficult new takes on old favorites are a dime a dozen and the first Castlevania specifically is one of the most frequently remixed NES titles. So why am I focusing on Overflow Darkness? Because this 2011 effort by Luto Akino is more than just your typical “Castlevania on steroids” with some extra pits and enemies sprinkled in. It’s tricked out with gorgeous new artwork, level design as well thought-out as it is brutal, and some clever tweaks to core gameplay mechanics.

Unlike Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, which I reviewed last October, Overflow Darkness doesn’t attempt to add any new characters or lore to the series. The scenario here is exactly the same as in the base game: Dracula is terrorizing the countryside and a whip-wielding warrior named Simon Belmont is out to destroy him. The only change is to Simon’s appearance. Instead of his original brunette locks, he’s sporting the long red hair from his 2001 Castlevania Chronicles redesign. While I’ve never been a fan of ginger Simon and was pleased when he reverted to a more traditional look for his most recent showing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I actually don’t mind it here. Chalk that one up to the relatively simplicity of NES sprites, I suppose.

Speaking of sprites, it’s not just Simon that’s been re-drawn. Several of his familiar enemies have also been given professional quality makeovers, including Medusa, Death, and Dracula. Surprisingly, these new sprites are improvements  in virtually every instance. Dracula’s demonic second form in particular is exponentially more menacing here than the bright blue “cookie monster” that confronts you at the end of vanilla ‘Vania. The new background tiles are just as impressive. The rather basic underground waterway at the start of level four, for example, has been re-imagined to great effect as a flooded catacomb packed with skeletal remains. None of the new art in Overflow Darkness stands out as the work of an amateur, which is just about the highest compliment ROM hack visuals can receive. Don’t expect anything so brilliant on the audio front, however. The track order has been swapped around, but it’s still the same Kinuyo Yamashita score we all know and love.

Pretty as Overflow Darkness is, it still wants you dead. Badly. The new stages here are all markedly more difficult than anything in the regular game, deluging the player with a near-constant stream of flying bats and medusa heads while placing durable enemies like bone pillars and axe knights in close proximity to death pits. It’s common to face off against several enemy types simultaneously on very precarious footing and some stages even open with Simon already under attack from multiple angles. Think fast!

Bosses have also been given a shot in the arm. The fight against the familiar giant bat at the end of stage one now takes place on uneven terrain with a hoard of smaller bats fluttering onto the screen from both sides. I lost several lives to this encounter, which is humbling to say the least. There are a couple of all-new bosses, too, and they have a habit of lurking at the top of the screen and showering Simon with projectiles, limiting the usefulness of the overpowered holy water sub-weapon in these battles.

Ruthless as these stages are, Overflow Darkness does play fair. Unlike T. Takemoto’s infamous Kaizo Mario World trilogy, the challenge isn’t predicated on tricking or teasing the player with deliberately absurd trial-and-error setups. It’s fundamentally the same precise combat and platforming as the “real” Castlevania, just with far less allowance for sloppy play. There’s considerable inventiveness packed into some of these new level layouts, too. The second stage contains a multi-tier “stair maze” that forces Simon to travel and up and down repeatedly across the same few screens in search of the door to the next section. Areas like this will push your reflexes and pattern recognition skills to their limits, especially since Simon loses a full quarter of his maximum health with every hit sustained from the very beginning of the game.

Yet another, more subtle layer of added difficulty is derived from the way item drops have been adjusted to be stingier than usual across the board. Remember how easy it was to score whip power-ups in the regular game? If you died and restarted with the weakest leather version of the whip, you always seemed to find a replacement upgrade an instant later from the very first candle you stumbled across. Well, forget about all that! According to Overflow Darkness, whip upgrades from candles are for the weak. Instead, you can only really count on obtaining them from random enemy drops and these can prove maddeningly elusive if luck isn’t on your side. The bottom line is that you’re going to become very adept with that puny starting whip, whether you like it or not. Sub-weapons and shot multipliers for them are also more scarce. Oh, and remember the large hearts that would increase your ammo count by five when collected? Overflow Darkness reduces this to two. The idea here seems to be to force players to rely more on deep mastery of Simon’s innate capabilities and less on exploiting power-ups. Although it can come off a bit heavy-handed and I certainly wouldn’t want to play this way all the time, it is a bracing change of pace from the default “melt everything’s face off with triple holy water” strategy most Castlevania players fall back on.

The takeaway here should be that Overflow Darkness is simply the best at what it does. Its stylish graphics, quality level design, and eye for fairness make it the current gold standard in extreme difficulty hacks of Castlevania 1986. There are other hacks available (Chorus of Mysteries, The Holy Relics) that are much more creatively ambitious, aiming to re-work the source material into something approximating a whole new entry in the series. These are well worth your time, but if all you’re really craving is a viable “super hard mode” for one of your favorite NES games, Castlevania: Overflow Darkness is the real deal. It’ll whip your ass and make you like it.