A fun platformer that will only haunt you just a little bit!
To Beat: Reach the ending playing on Hard difficulty
Played: 8/31/2016 – 9/5/2016
My Difficulty: 7/10
It has been well over a month since I played through Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but in this case delaying the writeup plays into my favor a little bit. My last horror themed game, Ghoul School, was beaten back in April on the wrong part of the calendar. This time I get to share Bram Stoker’s Dracula with you as we approach Halloween.
The film Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in November 1992. It was directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola and is based on the novel Dracula written by Bram Stoker, hence the name. It was released to generally positive reviews and performed well in theaters grossing over $200 million on a $40 million budget. Like most other movies that led to an NES game, I have not seen the film.
Surprisingly there were many different games that spawned from the movie. The NES version is a platformer that shares gameplay with versions released on the Game Boy, Game Gear, and Sega Master System. The Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis received their own version of the game that is a more action based platformer. The Sega CD version is yet another variation of a platformer game that isn’t all that great but does have fuzzy digitized movie cutscenes included. The Amiga version uses similar if not the same graphics as the Sega CD version yet it is another unique platformer game. Finally, the DOS version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t a platformer at all, but a first-person shooter in the vein of Doom or Wolfenstein 3D. It is amazing to me that a movie license like this led to five distinct video games plus several console variants. There’s a YouTube video from Gaming History Source that has some footage of each game to compare and contrast the versions.
The NES version of the game was released in September 1993. The game was published by Sony Imagesoft and developed by Probe Software. The Psygnosis logo appears in game before the title screen so they probably had some hand in either the development or publishing but there’s no solid information on their exact role for the NES title. I do know Psygnosis developed the other versions of the game as well as published the Amiga and DOS versions. The game was not released in Japan, but it was released in Europe. I was not able to nail down a release date for Europe but I suspect it was sometime in late 1993.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula on NES, you play as Jonathan Harker as he seeks to defeat Dracula and save Mina Murray from his evil clutches. Your mission is to clear each of the seven scenes in the game and defeat each form of Dracula that you encounter along the way. Now the game manual describes seven scenes, but each scene is comprised of a daytime stage and a nighttime stage so there are actually 14 levels total. Each of the nighttime levels ends in a boss battle with one of Dracula’s forms.
Before starting play there is an options menu. Here you can choose your difficulty level of either Easy, Medium, or Hard as well as toggling your jump and attack buttons. There is also a sound test where you can play any of the sounds or music tracks you like.
The game plays like a typical platformer game. Jonathan can jump with the A button and attack with a short range knife with the B button. There is no run button in the game to change the player speed but it’s not really needed because Jonathan scoots along pretty fast. He can crouch by pressing Down to dodge some enemy attacks. Also while crouching the camera will pan down to show what’s below, and similarly you can look upward by holding Up while standing. Jonathan has a jumping smash move that is triggered by pressing Down while jumping. This move is typically used to destroy certain floor blocks to open a path forward.
The bottom of the screen displays the status bar. This is fairly bare bones and it takes up a decent chunk of the screen despite being sparsely populate with game info. You can see the number of lives remaining, how much health you have, how much time is left on the clock, what special weapon you have equipped if any, and how many shots remaining on the weapon. The game does have a scoring system but this only appears on the status bar when the game is paused by pressing Start. The pause screen also shows how many credits are left.
Throughout the levels there are question blocks that look like they belong in a Mario game. These boxes contain various powerups to help along the way. You can slash them with your knife or perform the jumping smash move to open them. The powerup floats upward when released from the box so they can get away pretty easily if left alone too long or if the box is opened unintentionally. Using the jumping smash to open the box makes it a bit easier to collect the item because generally you grab it as you slam into the box, but then you collect the powerup immediately without seeing what it is first. It’s kind of an interesting trade off when you think about it.
There are quite a few items to collect but most of them are standard fare. There are three different kinds of health pickups that restore a tiny bit of energy up to full health powerups. There in an invincibility item that lets you wreak havoc for 10 seconds. There’s a clock item that adds 20 seconds to the level timer. Gold coins give points and the diamond gives you even more points. There are also extra lives that show up from time to time, but even better than that are continue credits that let you continue if you run out of lives. There are no continues to start with so you can only get them by finding them in the stages. You will definitely want to memorize where the credits are hidden!
The other set of powerups are special weapons that temporarily take the place of the knife attack. These powerups are all throwing weapons and they have a limited number of uses before running out. The axe weapon slightly arcs through the air when thrown. The torch leaves a flame the spreads on the ground for a short distance that can hurt enemies that come in contact with it. The rock is tossed out in a straight horizontal line, and the triple rock is a three-way attack that has the best range.
The levels tend to be somewhat maze like. There are occasionally branching paths and dead ends, but mostly there are hidden rooms and caches of items tucked away in certain places. The hidden rooms are often enclosed behind fake walls that you can pass right through despite appearing solid. The primary path to the end of the stage winds around a lot so there is a little bit of memorization involved in finding the best way through the stage. There are lanterns throughout each level that act as checkpoints and are activated by touching them.
There are all kinds of enemies that inhabit the levels. Many of them are what you would expect to find in a game like this such as bats, zombies, skeletons, wolves, etc. There are skulls installed in the walls that shoot fireballs. There are hands that grab out at you from the background and ghosts that pop out right in front of you. There are retracting spikes in the walls, moving platforms, and crumbling platforms as well. There is enough variety here to make the game interesting to play.
Aside from a few problematic enemies, perhaps the biggest threat in the game is the level clock. I find the amount of allotted time tends to be fairly tight late in the game so there is a balance between exploring the stages for items and moving forward to reach the end. One of the frustrating aspects of the clock system is that hitting the checkpoints does not save the time remaining when they were touched. So for instance if you die 60 seconds after activating a checkpoint then you don’t get that time back. I know I got stuck in situations like this where dying in a bad spot meant that I didn’t have enough time left to reach the end of the stage.
There are a few interesting mechanics in the game that are worth mentioning. First, the daytime levels have a bit of a grace period at the start of the level where there are no enemies to deal with. Thematically it makes sense that in a horror game there would not be many daytime threats. Eventually it starts to get dark and when that happens not only do the enemies start appearing, but the screen dims a bit and the music changes to something bleaker. The nighttime levels have the enemies and traps enabled the whole way through.
Another unique aspect about the daytime levels in that each one has Van Helsing hidden somewhere. He will aid you if you find him though the benefit is not immediately evident. The bosses at the end of the nighttime levels cannot be attacked with the default knife, so if you do not have a special weapon the game will provide rock ammunition. Finding Van Helsing turns those rocks into triple rocks which make the fights significantly easier.
Finally, one recurring threat is the Bride of Dracula. These encounters act as a sort of a mini-boss battle. Here you cannot do damage to the Bride and all you need to do is survive until she goes away. When you reach her chamber she will appear, sweep across the room in some kind of pattern, and then vanish. She will repeat this several times before leaving. These parts are all about both recognizing the pattern and learning how to dodge her in that pattern. The encounters ratchet up in speed later on and the patterns get more challenging to learn.
This was my first time playing through Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I remember testing the game after I bought it and playing through the first stage. At the time I thought it was a pretty decent game and having played through it I enjoyed my time with it. I didn’t recall how I got the game in the first place, but thankfully my email records had that answer! I see that I bought the game on eBay in November 2013 for $8.99 shipped in quite nice condition. That must have been a case where I saw the listing come up and knew that it was a good price for that game. I imagine it was around a $15-$20 game when I bought it, and now it has creeped up in the $30 range.
It should be no secret by now that I like to try and beat games on the highest difficulty whenever possible, so given the choice of three difficulty levels I picked Hard from the beginning. For this particular game, that was a good choice because the game can only be beaten on Hard difficulty. Easy difficulty ends after the first two scenes, and Normal difficulty ends after the first four scenes. Hard mode is the only way to play all seven scenes. The only other differences that I have found is that the powerups are more lucrative in the easier levels. Hard mode has only small hearts, Medium replaces some of the small hearts with medium hearts, and Easy mode contains large hearts. You also get fewer uses of the special weapons the higher you go in difficulty.
It took me about a week to beat the game over 7-8 attempts. It’s the type of game where every time you play you get further while breezing through the earlier levels more quickly. This is especially true once I found where the extra lives and continue credits were hidden. However, it wasn’t exactly smooth going. One enemy type that really gave me trouble were the ghosts that pop in right in front of you. They are fine once you know where they are, but if you don’t you really have to tiptoe through the stages so you don’t collide with them as they appear. That strategy runs counter to wanting to move through the levels at a brisk pace once the clock becomes an issue. Some of the Bride portions really took some time to understand the patterns as well. Those two elements were what made the game challenging to me.
My winning run had an exciting finish. This will spoil the last level a bit, so skip ahead if you want to try this game out on your own. It was my first time playing the last stage and I had one life remaining on my final credit. I got about halfway through the level and I got completely lost. I found a room with a bunch of clock items in it which helped get my time up, but I was otherwise going in circles trying to find the boss. I ended up running out of time. Dying does not reset the clock, and every single time I had run out of time in any prior run I was on my last life anyway. As it turns out the game does give you one minute back on the clock if you run of time with lives remaining. So now I had 60 seconds to try and finish the game on my last life. I found some more clocks to give me some more breathing room, and I was able to find Dracula’s hiding spot. Down to my last bit of health and not having seen this form of Dracula before, I managed to defeat him anyway and beat the game. I wasn’t really looking forward to spending another hour or so to get back to the end of the game and lucky for me I didn’t have to try again!
Bram Stoker’s Dracula on NES is not well known at all but I think it is a pretty good game and a nice surprise. Developers had a pretty good grasp of what could be accomplished on NES during the last couple of years and they made a competent game out of this one. It’s not a masterpiece and probably not a hidden gem, but it was good enough and I enjoyed tackling this game.