Vampire Killer – MSX2
Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10
If you’ve read my list of Top 10 Castlevania Games You’ve Never Played or have extensive knowledge of the series’ slew of oddball releases, then just maybe you already know a thing or two about Vampire Killer. If you don’t, allow me to expound. Japanese audiences have always been gluttons for punishment when it comes to video games. In the old days of stiff controls, no saves, and 3 lives, popular Japanese titles were continually dumbed down for Western consumers. As if the first Castlevania wasn’t hard enough, Konami developed a sort of “alternate” version of the first game and called it Vampire Killer. Japan has also seen a far greater number of consoles and computer-console hybrids than North America, especially during the 80’s and 90’s, and Microsoft’s series of MSX platforms was one of them. Though the MSX (and its subsequent iterations) would also be found in Brazil and parts of Europe, they were never marketed stateside. I won’t go into the history of the MSX other than to say that 4 major versions exist: the original MSX, the MSX2, MSX2+, and the lesser-known MSX turboR. Vampire Killer made it to the MSX2, just barely a month after the Japanese release of the original NES game. Officially, Vampire Killer is the 2nd Castlevania game ever.
Before we get too far in, it’s worth mentioning that the Japanese title of this game is Akumajō Dracula, a common title associated with most Castlevania games across the (other) pond; I believe it translates into something like “Devil’s Castle Dracula.” For the European market, Vampire Killer was chosen, presumably because Castlevania was not yet a well known title. It wasn’t released in Europe until sometime in 1987, and I’m not sure if it made it to Brazil or not despite the presence of MSX machines in the country. I suppose that Akumajō Dracula would be the more apt title for this article (I did in fact play a ROM of the original Japanese version), though it seems that Vampire Killer is the preferred title for English-speaking audiences. I have ROMs of both versions, though to my knowledge there is no difference except for the title screen.
I will go into more detail in a future article to document the specifics of the emulation itself (I went to some lengths to make this as much like playing a console game as possible), but for now, let’s take a look at just why this title holds any significance at all. Many of the backgrounds and sprites from the NES game are reused, but there are enough differences to make Vampire Killer its own game. Over half of the items from the original are replaced with all-new items. Sub-weapons are still used in some capacity, but are mostly relegated to auxiliary items instead of weapons with weapons like the axe and cross becoming boomerang-like primary weapons. Konami has also done a little something different with Dracula’s final form that die-hards may want to check out for themselves!
So far, these differences may not sound all that exciting, but have patience. The real aspect that sets Vampire Killer apart is the level design and its prototypical non-linearity. The game is broken up into 18 stages, similar to the first installment of Castlevania. Instead of walking in a mostly straight line to reach the end, the levels consist of a series of rooms arranged above, below, and next to each other in a sort of “clump.” Nearly all of them have a type of circular mechanic; rather than discrete boundaries and finite end points, one can travel in circles. For example, if you were to keep pressing on to the right, you’ll probably traverse 3 or 4 screens and then suddenly you’ll end up entering the left side of the room you began at. This also works going up and down; on one occasion I fought my way up, up, and up, and ended up ascending a staircase that led to the floor of the room I started in. It can be frustrating at first, but it quickly becomes an efficient way of exploring these “clumps” and choosing optimal paths. But why these “clumps”…?
The objective in Vampire Killer is to move from one stage to the next via the use of a special key. These special keys are almost always hidden in breakable bricks or positioned in a location that requires a bit of ingenuity to reach (often using the circular element mentioned above). Once one has the special key, he or she must then make it to the locked door leading to the next area. Also dotted around are smaller keys and treasure chests, containing important items like the whip powerup, both temporary invincibility and invulnerability, the occasional health boost, hearts, and a few other all-new items that Castlevania veterans may not have ever seen. The majority of gameplay consists of exploring these little clumps of rooms in search of the special key. Each stage typically consists of 6 to 10 rooms, increasing slightly as one progresses. Although the player can’t explore previous stages, they are free to explore the current stage without restriction. In some cases the master key is extremely well hidden.
Even in early stages, one is likely to have some trouble making progress at first. It takes a bit of time to get a handle on the map (you can make maps if you need to, but the stages usually aren’t that complicated) and then one must visit each nook and cranny to find the key. Initially playthroughs will be fraught with lots of wall-whipping, though I found the searching process to be a lot of fun. Finding the final door isn’t usually a problem. Once you’ve located the key, the game then comes down to survival. Finding the best route to get the key and reach the end provides another degree of entertainment.
After you know where to find the key, any special items you want along the way, and have your route committed to memory, it’s time to make the best of both reflexes and methodology. You’ll want to move through the stages taking as little damage as possible because you don’t get an automatic energy refill. At the end of each 3 stages, you’ll confront a boss and you’ll want as much health as possible to get through it. Superficially these battles can appear pretty tough, but most bosses have exploitable patterns to be taken advantage of as long as you can stand to take a few hits.
I can’t really speak much as to the controls since I don’t have an authentic MSX2. The MSX platform look to be QWERTY keyboard-based; I’m unsure of whether or not a separate controller was available. I was, however, able to experience Vampire Killer via my DualShock 4, appreciably more natural than using a computer keyboard. Control mechanics are identical to those found in the 3 NES installments: no movement in mid-air, no whipping while moving, and other limitations. Even so, the environments are perfectly surmountable with a little practice. The levels are well planned and none attempt to push the controls to extremes, though they do necessitate thinking outside of the box to properly complete at times.
Graphics and sound are on par with those of the mid-80’s but with the usual attention to detail that Konami pumps into the series. Bosses and baddies aren’t quite as impressive as they’ll appear in later years, but they’re more than adequate. Music still consists of chiptunes with a jaunty, adventurous tone. Some of it is kind of cool if you really pay attention, but it’s not necessarily the sort of music that’ll grab your attention outright.
Vampire Killer may not go down in the annuls of Castlevania history as any more than a curiosity, but I had much more fun with it than I thought I would. Unlike usual, I didn’t have the luxury of playing for a couple of hours and then cranking up the Game Genie/Shark or Action Replay; I had to make it through the entire game on wits alone…. Okay, that’s not quite true. Konami came out with a couple of little devices for the MSX2 called the Game Master, and through the wonders of fMSX I was able to use them to my advantage. However, all they allow the player to do is input a number between 1 and 99 for character lives as well as type in a stage number. Admittedly I cranked the lives up to 99, but I did finally manage to move through each and every stage. I finally finished with 18 of those lives. (I did use Stage Select to go back and get some of these screenshots however.)
While it may not be for everyone, fans of old-school Castlevania may want to give this a look, especially if you’re able to plug in a controller to your PC. With a familiar setting yet all-new gameplay, Vampire Killer has a good deal to offer anyone who’s willing to dig in.
By the way, this is a pretty cool video of a clever fellow playing through the entire game without losing a single life. It goes a long way to prove that these old games aren’t always about meticulous planning, but rather syncing oneself with the “rhythm” of the game engine.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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