In 1982, the Sharp Corporation, the computer technology giant, began releasing a series of computer systems in Japan under the title "X1," which became a line of successful multimedia devices. The X68000 series, its successor and culmination of its advancements, was released starting in 1987 and went on to become one of the most popular computer platforms in Japan for video games. When the 16-bit era became all the rage in the early 90's, the Sharp X68000 found itself as the home to large amounts of next-generation titles and the most impressive home-computer versions of popular arcade games like Street Fighter 2. So, not shockingly, it was only a matter of time before our good friends at Konami arrived to develop for the computer system.
Thus, in 1993, Konami once again called upon its overworked mascot, Simon Belmont, for Akumajo Dracula X68000. Using the X68000's powerful hardware, it created one of the more impressive-looking yet overdone entries into its famed franchise. However, since the X68000 was never marketed outside of Japan, despite its huge success, there was no way for fans from other countries to know that their beloved series had temporarily changed its address. Akumajo Dracula X68000 never came to any of the 16-bit consoles and, as a result, it unfortunately became our fourth lost title.
Akumajo Dracula X68000 is a one-player game almost directly in a superficial mold of Super Castlevania IV. Like Super Castlevania IV, incidentally, it also serves simply as a super upgrade to Castlevania, the NES adventure, and furthers our storyline in no way other than repeating its tale only from a different perspective. Because it aims to be just that, Akumajo Dracula X68000 really doesn't offer anything we haven't seen before, so in the absence of any type of innovation, its use of technology is instead center stage. Our story, therefore, is what you'd expect: Dracula is back, and he's looking for a rematch after his defeat at the hands of Christopher Belmont one hundred years earlier.
You must take control of Simon and guide him through an eight-stage romp that concludes with a final battle against the Dark Lord. Simon starts his mission with a long but weak leather whip, the Vampire Killer, which, as usual, can be powered up two levels through the collection of morning-star symbols--the first transforms it into a chain whip and the second maximizes its potential and imbues upon it the symbol's namesake, the all-powerful Morning Star whip. Simon's confined to swinging the whip left and right, but, otherwise, he's able to whip downward in three directions while airborne--straight down and diagonally left and right. For extra punch, he can command any of the usual five sub-weapons--the axe, the dagger, holy water, the boomerang and the stopwatch--plus one exclusive to Akumajo Dracula X68000: The laurel, which (rather than offering the invincibility you'd harness in Simon's Quest) can be used again and again to replenish lost energy. All sub-weapons are powered by the small and big hearts that you can collect by whipping away candelabras and by destroying enemies. The rest of the magical items are all-too-familiar by now: You have your usual invisibility potions, money bags, rosaries, double- and triple-shots, pot roasts and 1-Up symbols.
Akumajo Dracula X68000 is an artistically realized game. Though it falls short in exceeding the graphical presentation you've seen in Super Castlevania IV, it does surpasses it in the category of detail in the use of layering; there are always subtle yet effective animations defining its multiple scrolling backgrounds and foregrounds, and there are always interesting sights to see: You'll remember such instances as trees felled by lightning; gargoyles that gather in the distance and come in for the kill; giant statues that cry bloody tears; the flames of hell that burn while you dodge falling chandeliers and battle guardian knights; the shattering of the dungeon's false background; and the ominous clouds that cycle around the castle keep. You'll be robbing yourself of the experience if you blaze through the game without ever stopping to just look at it in action.
The characters are also a strong part of the package. They're all painstakingly detailed--shaded with dark colors and plastered with wily facial expressions--and, for the most part, nicely animated. In that vein, the sharp-looking enemies come off as angry and menacing (the black panthers, the phantom bat and the skeleton dragon are the best examples). Simon's sprite design is a bit awkward, like an anemic, lanky replica of his Haunted Castle skin, but his animation and level of detail are at least consistent. If there's one glaring problem with Akumajo Dracula X68000's graphical engine, it's this strange glitch that causes Simon to temporarily flash out of visibility when victim to certain attacks; during this period, you'll lose sight of his placement and become more vulnerable and increasingly prone to plunge into an abyss. If you've experienced this problem, it's likely dependent on the X68000 model that you're currently using--on the whole, however, it's a fairly common problem. Despite any such flaws, the game moves smoothly and at a quick pace backed by the memory of the powerful hardware.
Akumajo Dracula X68000 is different from Super Castlevania IV in how it attacks stage design: Whereas Super Castlevania IV carved its own niche and presented an all-new take on the action, Akumajo Dracula X68000 feels more like an update to the original. That is, you'll recognize that most of its stages--or at least parts of its stages--are ripped right out of the NES classic. In reality, for a better definition, it borrows the decor to make you feel at home but it regardless blossoms into its own adventure. Therein, you will find two unique stages, and those familiar have been expanded upon with whole new sections that are assigned their own trials and pitfalls. Konami tries to liven things up by supplying to the familiar stages some devious traps for those who go in expecting them to closely mimic the originals.
What the game lacks in evolution to the classic Castlevania formula it makes up for with a creative use of platforming and clever ideas applied to the familiar style of stage design. Konami's new ideas include the underground cavern's wild raft ride, where you're constantly under assault by fishmen that spit fireballs while crashing into your raft, reducing it to splinters; an ice cave where enemies and past heroes alike are frozen solid in giant ice cubes, where in the case of the former, you can release them from stasis by clearing away the ice with an attack; a toy room where an assortment of tiny yet deadly enemies continues to escape from the many small toy chests that comprise the entire area; embedded skeletons that challenge you to a deadly game of jump rope; and a sequence where the Frankenstein Monster suddenly springs to life, breaks free of captivation, and chases you while flailing the dislodged chains.
The game's soundtrack is a mixture of some new tunes and some of the older favorites. While standouts such as Bloody Tears, Vampire Killer, Wicked Child and Theme of Simon (the stage-one theme of Super Castlevania IV) are used appropriately, Konami relies more on its new selection to set the mood and provide its usual atmospheric touches. The result, as expected, is another winner thanks to memorable melodies like Thrashard In the Cave, Etude for the Killer and the James Bond-like Tower of Dolls. While the music's composition shines, its quality is unfortunately hampered by the computer system's digital-sounding output, and the flow is jumpy and lacks any real flow. It's very good work, still, but it's obvious that the X68000 put a limit on what they could do.
In actuality, it's Akumajo Dracula X68000's sound effects that suffer the most: What you get is a very garbled, sickly assortment of sounds--every conceivable action results in either a "splurge" or a compressed crashing noise. The lack of sound storage seems to have caused them so much trouble that the majority of characters are simply bound to silence. It all amounts to a mild miss.
The control scheme doesn't seem to have been a top priority, either, and not many of Super Castlevania IV's conventions are taken into consideration. What's good, while on the short list, is very good: Simon is now the sleekest hero around because he's able to execute his attacks quickly and in a controlled fashion. Due to the loose nature of his restrictions, he's afforded the ability to control each jump till its very end, wherein he can switch directions and redirect on a dime to avoid enemies, their attacks, and other surrounding stage hazards. Plus Simon is also blessed with extremely favorable hit detection, which allows him to get really up close and personal with enemies without taking damage. Since this applies to his jumping, as well, enemy contact while airborne should be less of a fear than ever before. The fluidity of Simon's movement and the hit-detection are done so well that they almost carry the flawed effort on their back.
But in a series whose games are often plagued by disastrous controls, much more was needed. Instead, we regress to past formulas instead of building on recent conventions and breakthroughs. For instance: You can't jump onto and off of stairs, so it's back to climbing from a base. What makes this frustrating is that the developers designed it so that Simon climbs at a snail's pace, which slows the game down and negates the purpose of trying to outrun enemies in tense situations. Also, the control conflict between climbing and sub-weapons returns in all its infamy, and, as always, this works to make enemies more of a threat because you're virtually handcuffed in trying to speedily and accurately defend yourself while climbing. While the hit-detection does its job well in helping to protect you in such instances, it's futile when Medusa heads, bats, deadly toys and ravens are coming in from above, below and all angles in between. What happened to Super Castlevania 4's influence? Where did it go?
The balance finally falls out of its favor where challenge is concerned. It's no secret that in the series' average game you'll receive progressively higher damage as you get deeper and deeper into the adventure, but that doesn't seem to be the case here; instead, you'll take a heavy amount damage for everything. You're just not equipped enough to handle what would have been academic for Super Castlevania IV's Simon; at the rate you lose energy during enemy onslaughts, you'll just know that the stage bosses are going to eat you alive. Except for maybe one (the gear-tossing She-Wolf), these boss battles are hardly interesting--they're intentionally made to result in quick-fire slugfests. And because you're not able to sustain more than four hits (assuming you're not carrying a laurel at the time), this is hardly to your advantage; you're always the heavy underdog in these fights, because your odds of winning even when fully healthy are still pretty low.
Forget trial-and-error--this is trial-and-more-trial. And if the many enemies and hazards weren't quite enough, Akumajo Dracula X68000 likes to surprise you with really sneaky tricks right near the stages' ending points, just in case you didn't already have enough to worry about. Though you're allowed to continue as many times as you'd like, the frustration is likely to mount to a boiling point as you start to wonder if you'll ever be able to clear a stage in question. The ability to save your mission's progress onto the disk is a nice luxury, but considering what you're up against, this doesn't guarantee that you'll eventually be able to dredge your way through it.
Akumajo Dracula X68000 feels like a wasted effort. It's another case of having all of the right ingredients but not having it result in a good dish. If anything, it's undercooked and needed a few extra months in the oven while the chef studied the manual a little more closely. It's a good game that a diehard fan is likely to enjoy, yes, but I don't think that a less-enthusiastic audience will "get it," because stairway confliction, enemy pileups, superman bosses, and the diminished means to combat these dangers are a throwback to when games weren't capable of rising above their hardware's limitations, and even most hardcore gamers would be apt to pass this title off as "another one of those." For every good idea Konami applies, there's a negative that cancels it out, and taken in heavy doses, this is an easy game to hate. I appreciate that they wanted this to be a "remake" of the original, but that doesn't mean that we had to ride the time machine back to 1987. Maybe it's because Rondo of Blood is such a peak game that's so very hard to live up to--but you get the sense that Konami either didn't trust its vision or it just didn't have the will to again execute this formula in grand fashion.
Still, I can recommend Akumajo Dracula X68000 in light of its presentation, its artistic achievement, and its interesting ideas in regard to stage design. There's also, of course, the novelty of discovering a title that's been lost for over seven years; uncovering and experiencing a piece of history is always a thrill that defies reason. For those who are die-hard, this is perhaps the last chance to experience an "old-school" Castlevania challenge, a trait that would come to disappear once Koji and the gang came along to veer the series into a totally different direction. For what it is, I award it three and a half Medusa Heads.
For the Chronicles version review, please click here.