Collins’ Crypt: Revisiting The BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA game

A game as flat and monotone as Keanu's performance!

A few months back, when I played through the Frankenstein game, I pondered why these games were always rushed to meet the theatrical date. To me, who knows nothing of the game industry, it seemed like it would make more sense to aim for the DVD (well, VHS back then) date, because not only would they have more time to make a good game, but they'd also know if the movie was successful - who'd want to play a game based on a movie that no one saw (we will find out next time when I do Warlock: The Armageddon*). Well I got my wish in a roundabout way - the Bram Stoker's Dracula game was released in 1993, nearly a year after its namesake film was released theatrically (and thus probably after it came to video, even). It's very rare to see that big of a gap for this sort of thing; I assume the movie's success took them by surprise and a game was commissioned after?

Or maybe it was scheduled for simultaneous release and ultimately delayed because it was so relatively ambitious. The game came out for pretty much every existing system of the time (NES, SNES, GameBoy, Genesis, Sega CD, Game Gear, Amiga, and MS-DOS), but they weren't all the same game with varying degrees of graphical capability. DOS got a first person shooter, the Sega CD and Amiga version had a side scroller with FMV and digitized elements from the movie, while the other consoles got typical platform/side-scroller nonsense with different levels (and numbers of them) depending on the system. I of course played the Genesis version, though the NES one (the only other system of the above I still have) looks different enough to try if I was so inclined, which I probably won't be.

Interestingly, I distinctly remember this as one of the games that made me realize how much better the Genesis/SNES was than my lowly 8-bit NES. I remember looking at the games side by side in the video store and seeing how much more "real" the 16-bit versions looked compared to the only one I could play at the time. I ended up getting a Genesis for Christmas that year along with the Jurassic Park game and the first Sonic (with a mail-away rebate for Sonic 2! Score!), and used my Christmas money for a couple others that kept me busy until long after my mild interest in Bram Stoker's Dracula had faded. I liked the film OK enough, but it seemed a bit above my 13 year old interests, and by the time I got around to revisiting the film (around 2006) I found myself more fascinated by the production design and FX more than the story itself (for the record, my favorite Dracula after Lugosi/Browning is the 1979 one from John Badham). However, when I started doing this column semi-regularly, it quickly shot to the top of my wishlist, and I finally found a copy a few weeks back at my local used game megastore (same one I got Frankenstein at).

It's actually a lot like the Frankenstein game in many respects, in that you travel around levels that are sort of based on ones from the movie (here it's inns, graveyards, castles, that sort of thing) and fight standard game enemies - spiders, rats, bats, etc. - with your shitty little sword. In the Sega CD version Harker gets to kick stuff as well, but the Genesis couldn't handle something as crazy as a 2nd basic attack, I guess. In lieu of Frankenstein's item-based light puzzle solving, this one seems a lot easier at first, with arrows directing you where to go and enemies that only take a single hit to kill. Your first objective is to find Van Helsing (I think?), who stands in one spot and will tell you via speech balloon what projectile weapon you should look for in order to beat the level's boss. The arrows then confusingly direct you to the exit, instead of the weapon, so you have to hunt around for something that's just laying on the floor (it wasn't there before, I assure you, as it will often be in a spot you had previously walked by), and THEN go to the exit. This brings you to the boss stage, which is superficially similar to the first but shorter and, obviously, with a boss at the end. Using that projectile weapon (which gives you ten shots) will make short work of him, and then you move on to do it all over again in another area. The game gets tougher (enemies take more hits to die, platforms start moving, arrows and fireballs show up, etc), but otherwise it never changes from this standard setup, and the bosses are all basically the same - giant forms of Dracula (or his brides) that take all 10 of your projectiles to kill.

But you can make it interesting/harder if you suck at it, like me! See, the weapon Van Helsing "gives" you can only be found in that area - once you move on to the boss area you can't replenish it. So if you use them up on common enemies, or lose it entirely by exhausting your extra lives and using a continue (which will let you continue from that area, but take away your projectile), you'll be stuck with your sword for the boss. The sword has very limited range, and the bosses don't exactly stand still, so you're likely to get hit as often as you hit them if you're trying to fight them that way. Given that you have at most 5 hits before you die and it takes 10 blows to kill a boss, it's basically a kamikaze mission to fight one without the much safer projectiles. So my advice if you're going to play the game - if you're short on lives during a "Van Helsing" stage, kill yourself and use a continue THERE, so you'll lessen the risk of losing the weapon to a continue during the next stage when you actually need it.

You might have noticed I said "at most" 5 hits - that's because you can actually choose how many hit points you have. After the title screen, you are given a menu that offers a difficulty option (I left it on normal), some control options (swapping the jump and action buttons, for example), and two meters: one with hit points, the other with extra lives. You can adjust them to your liking in a give and take system - give yourself the most amount of hit points, but get the least amount of bonus lives, or vice versa. Nothing in the game can kill you with one hit, and there are no insta-death pits/falls that I can recall, so I don't know why you'd give up hit points for 1-2 more lives, since it seems like anything that killed you might not have done so if you had an extra hit point or two, but it's an interesting option to include in a game like this nonetheless.

Of much more use would have been a password system (or unlimited continues), because while there's only one thing in the game that I couldn't EVENTUALLY beat, I didn't have the time/patience to get to the end in one go. You get three continues, and by my own carelessness and lack of skill I ran out twice just before a certain boss, so I eventually had to find a cheat code to act in place of a password/unlimited continue system, picking up from that boss level (and without my weapon, sigh) instead of starting at the beginning a 3rd time. It's not a long game, and like I said there's only one thing I couldn't actually get past, but I just didn't want to start over every single time I ran out of lives/continues (plus the code was DRACULA - Down, Right, A, C, Up, Left, A - so that's just too sweet not to use). The game has a checkpoint system within the levels (using lit torches, another thing reprised in the later Frankenstein), but it rarely helped for any trouble spots - you'd have to beat them again once you died, so it was only helpful in not having you redo the less difficult part once you had resurrected (and, as long as you didn't run out of lives, spare you from having to do it again if you managed to activate the next torch).

But the level select code proved to be no help near the game's end, when a long stretch between checkpoints, a flurry of enemies that took a few hits to die, and no projectile weapon to be found resulted in a Groundhog Day-ian number of demises for me. It was the game's final level, which had no Van Helsing to help out, and it also featured what has been the bane of my gaming experience for 25 years: timed jumping when things were being thrown at you. From the Hammer Bros in the first Super Mario Bros all the way up to whatever the last platforming game I played was, this is something that I can simply NOT DO with any regular success, and this entire level was built around such things. Arrows come at you randomly (making it hard to time) when trying to land on moving platforms, and then again as you make your way past (read: jump over) a bunch of statues and big stone heads, always reducing my hit points. This would leave me vulnerable for the aforementioned mob of enemies, ones that I couldn't even jump over due to the low ceiling.

You can see in the video above (19:50 begins the offending part) that the guy doing it clearly had turbo on to get through (I do not have a turbo controller) and even he gets hit, and that's with a rather low turnout of those mummy things on the 2nd part (I've had nearly 2x as many in some attempts, as it is randomized). I actually DID manage to get past this bit once, but then there's another goddamn "jump the arrows" sequence followed by a "jump in between the fireballs" part that did me in. I was one measly jump away from getting to the final boss (which, per this video, has a spot where you can apparently stand and never get hit!) but after failing yet again I didn't have the heart to go through the level again. I accepted defeat and watched the hilariously overlong text ending on the walkthrough video (it's how/why I found it in the first place - there's nothing in the game that would require you to seek assistance), figuring I came close enough. Besides, there are no Achievement points on the Sega Genesis, so I could just SAY I beat it and who'd know the difference anyway?

So it's a pretty generic side-scroller, one that can be completed in a little over 20 minutes, time that's never used for a single interesting idea or gameplay mechanic (beyond the HP vs lives thing). And it barely even functions as an adaptation of a movie - why you assume the role of Harker for the entire game instead of Van Helsing** is anyone's guess, and none of the other characters show up - no 16-bit Winona Ryder to enjoy.  Books are used to introduce each level, but they don't offer anything that could be described as a "story", it's just the name of the level (i.e. "The Journey to Civilisation") and nothing else. I'm not even sure if it's established that you're Harker, I'm just assuming since the movie/book starts with him and he is the usual hero (even though, as anyone can tell you, his significance is reduced as the story goes on). 

The Frankenstein game did a pretty good job of keeping you up to speed with what was going on, but if you hadn't read Stoker's book or seen Coppola's movie you'd probably walk away thinking it was about an acrobat who seeks advice from an immobile man while fighting spiders and zombies (yep) with his trademark sword. Basically, it FEELS like something that was rushed out to meet the theatrical release date, where it should be setting a high bar for such things given that they had almost another year to deliver. Hit detection, control, etc are all fine (my missed jumps were due to my own lack of skill, not their sloppiness), but I'll take some slippery controls if it meant they were hampering an otherwise exciting and novel game. Great music though, I'll give it that much.

Maybe one of the other versions is better, or maybe this is sadly the best of the lot. It seems the Sega CD one is certainly LONGER; 20 minutes seems more in line with an NES game than the 16-bit era usually offered.  Then again, the game is kind of tedious as it is so I doubt extending its runtime with another level or two would make the experience any more satisfying.  While it's more polished overall I am stunned that it's "not as good as" the (not-great) Frankenstein game, however, and since Coppola's movie plays up the tragic romance aspect I can't help but wonder why they didn't just make Dracula the protagonist.  Especially when the game came along so long after the movie - everyone hated Reeves!  Why surround a game on the least-loved character?  Who wouldn't want to see what Gary Oldman's butt-hair looked like in 16-bit graphics?  This one was just a big missed opportunity.

*I know I said that would be the next one, but I guess it's relatively long for such things, and tough - two things that are keeping me at bay given my baby-mandated lack of time to play these things. So I'll try to get to it next, but don't be surprised if it's a ways off, especially when -

** I recently found that a game based on that 2004 piece of shit exists. I may have to make that my next one.