Monday 6 June 2011

Akumajō Dracula

Hey look it's Akumajō Dracula. Which Akumajō Dracula? Well, it's not the first game (a.k.a. "Castlevania"), it's not the arcade game (Haunted Castle) and it's not the MSX2 game (Vampire Killer), it's...

...Akumajō Dracula for the Sharp X68000, released in 1993. Yes, it's the fourth game in the series to share the same Japanese title, and it's entirely different to the other three. Confused? Join the club.

It takes a special kind of company to make a game and then feel the need to re-tell its story four more times. Thankfully I believe this is the last Castlevania game to have the same basic plot of the original, but it still doesn't excuse the fact they continued with this obtuse naming scheme six years after continuity was introduced with Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. The lack of a subtitle only serves to confuse customers, and likely drive away sales (I mean why buy this version when you assume you already have it on the Famicom?).

However, the naming crimes here aren't quite as severe as say, the Nintendo 64 "Castlevania", or the Game Boy Advance's "Castlevania" or the PlayStation 2's "Castlevania", each having their subtitle stripped in certain regions. From what I can see, there were three recycled names in Japan, three in Europe and one in North America. This is one of many reasons why me and Castlevania don't often see eye to eye. That and because it built its success of the NES. Have I mentioned I'm a Sega fan?

But this Akumajō Dracula is Nintendo free. Instead it's a Sharp X68000 game, a computer I keep referencing but have never really covered until now. The system is a generation ahead of the machines such as the Sharp X1 and NEC PC-8801 and for once it's a computer that might spark some interest, mostly because it has games like this.

Akumajō Dracula for the Sharp X68000, which I will from now on call "Castlevania X68", is best known for its appearance in Castlevania Chronicles, a PlayStation game. Chronicles takes Castlevania X68 and spices it up for compact disc fans, and it's perhaps the definitive version of the game as a result. It means there's no reason to hunt down the X6800 version. I only found it due to the confusing naming scheme (I thought it was just a better port of the original. See, it catches people out.), but it's still fun to give it a go.

Being a retelling of the first story, it has Simon Belmont toddle along in 1691 attempting to stop Dracula and chums. From the outside... it's very much the same game as the original, moreso than the others which share the name. It's a 2D sidescroller in which you walk around whipping various monsters before fighting Dracula. The levels are similar, the enemies are similar, even some of the music is similar, but it's otherwise a different product. You just don't realise it until the end of the first sage.

Castlevania X68 boasts a "new engine", one that's infinitely better than those seen in the earlier titles. It has such moves as being able to change direction in mid-air, and not being screwed around quite as much after being hit. Not massive improvements when compared to later games, but better than nothing.

It's also not a NES game, and this fact alone greatly benefits Castlevania X68. The graphics don't flicker, the music sounds excellent and on the whole it feels like a more solid release. It's perhaps not quite as pretty as Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth, but on a gameplay perspective, it's pretty much on par, which is a good thing. This is the definitive "first adventure", ReBirth is the definitive "Game Boy adventure".

Sadly my screenshots don't give the greatest impression of what Castlevania X68 has to offer. You see, the emulator I was forced to work with, "XM6" isn't very strong in the graphics department. XM6 hasn't been in production since 2006 and the fork, XM6 Type G, despite having a supposed emphasis on graphics, decided that everything should be stretched to a 4:3 ratio, meaning it was at risk of making this post look ugly. And of course emulator substitutes have their own flaws.

I don't want programs emulating TVs, I want programs emulating video game systems, so screenshots from an older version will have to do for today. It's the curse of being an obscure but powerful system - work is required to get it to run properly, but the demand for such things is low. Anyway just take note that some levels are supposed have more background layers and transparency effects. Like the above shot, which should have another layer of grey rock in the background.

Like most early Castlevania games, Castlevania X68 takes no prisoners when it comes to gameplay, a fact that becomes oh so very obvious when the third stage rolls around. The whip is restrictive and Simon can't cope with small enemies jumping around like crazy, so as you can imagine, it's one for the gaming elite. Pretty much all of the rules from the original Castlevania are present here, you're just granted a bit more freedom when it comes to moving around.

But of course, with the same rules comes the same flaws. Stairs are death traps and a lack of of whip control means enemies have an unfair advantage. Also despite the many keys spread across the Sharp X68000 keyboard, the game still employs "NES controls", meaning the secondary weapon is slightly more awkward to use.

However, what should certainly be established is that this is a far superior release than the first two NES games, and possibly the third if you're not too fussed with losing selectable characters. It's leagues ahead of the home computer conversions, the MSX2 game and the arcade release, but there is one road block which stops it being the definitive Castlevania title up until this point - Super Castlevania IV.

Super Castlevania IV for the SNES is an exceptional game (quite literally - all other Castlevania games have followed Castlevania X68's example). It doesn't have any sort of control issues and is a unique adventure built for the fans. However would I consider it the better game? Yes, but it's not a clean victory.

Castlevania X68 has the Sharp X68000 behind it, and that means better quality backgrounds and better quality sound than the Nintendo offering (I mean seriously, there's three different sound chip options). It can't rotate entire rooms around with the SNES' mode 7 effects, but it can rotate smaller objects without any trouble, a feature Castlevania X68 makes heavy use of. Visually it is a more vibrant and active game, and more inline with later 2D Castlevania releases.

Also lest we forget, as is the style with these games Castlevania X68 borrows music tracks from all the Castlevania games before it. That means Super Castlevania IV gets a mention (Specifically in the form of Simon's Theme, the signature tune of that game). The new tracks are just as good as the rest of the series, though it doesn't have a defining theme of its own as it simply recycles Vampire Killer for its first stage.

I think it's a matter of personal preference as to which Castlevania is superior. And as well as Super Castlevania IV, Castlevania X68 has to deal with Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Castlevania: Bloodlines, both of which came along in the years that followed. But even if it doesn't come first in terms of brilliance, chances are it comes second. It's a quality "classic" Castlevania and even though it offers very little in terms of originality it's still one worth checking out.

But as said... you can get it on the PlayStation, and it comes paired with a remake. So there's not much point in hunting down a Sharp X68000 copy other than to boast. It's not the rarest Castlevania game but it's not the most common either.

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