In the 1980s, using multipurpose home computers for the sole purpose of playing video games was all the rage. The most popular form of home computer, especially in the interest in the younger sect, was the Commodore 64, which was actually geared more toward games; if kids and game enthusiasts wanted to play any of their 8-bit favorites, all they had to do was pop in a floppy disk, load away and hope for the best. In Japan, it was the MSX and its successor, the MSX2, to which the video game-hungry populace flocked. The MSX computer systems were popular because they were home to some of the better-looking exclusive titles and arcade ports. More importantly, the MSX was Konami's early nesting ground, from which it created the firsts of what would go on to become some of its more popular game franchises. The one most relevant to us is Akumajou Dracula.
So before there was Castlevania on the Nintendo Entertainment System, a humble little title named Akumajou Dracula had debuted on the MSX2 Home Computer; this bizarre yet intriguing creation, while sharing its name with the Famicom Disk System title whose release was in direct proximity, is to the world outside of Japan the origin of the Castlevania series--this due to its release in Europe under the localized title Vampire Killer (the name to which we'll refer) and the MSX's very limited U.S. release before the FDS title was ever ported elsewhere. Due to the MSX's failure to catch on big outside of Japan, Vampire Killer has become a victim of and a part of its legacy. If there were ever plans to port it to the our consoles or home computer systems, all hopes were dashed when Konami decided that the FDS version of Akumajou Dracula better represented the company's vision for the trademark, whence they tossed Vampire Killer into the abyss of obscurity.
Regardless of its status, this lost title can be considered the series' genesis in more ways than one, since many of its ideas still lurk beneath the surface of even our more modern marvels. From gauging its screenshots, Vampire Killer may look to you exactly like Castlevania, but you'll soon learn that it has significant differences as you discover its true nature.
Vampire Killer is a one-player game that features six stages of action culminating with the final battle against Count Dracula. Rather than exploring stages in an action-focuses, straightforward manner, you move from screen to screen, each room an isolated exercise in danger. Each single stage is broken up into three screen-to-screen sections, which are confined and mostly looped. So, as strange as it may seem, plunging into a pit may inexplicably land the player on a section's upper portion or perhaps through a series of drops onto the top platform of the room he or she was already in; in essence, each stage is more or less a trap-filled maze, with a few instances of true bottomless pits.
Somewhere within each stage section you'll find a locked door. In order to open the door, you'll need a procure a big white key, which you'll find by searching the individual screens; these, the stages' most important items, are either found laying about in hard-to-reach spots or are more often hidden behind breakable walls. Naturally, you'll have to negotiate the stages' maze-like structure to solve the puzzles guarding most of them. Therein, you'll have to take chances and sometimes dive into what may only appear to be a bottomless pit. Once a white key is found through this means of exploration, the section door can be opened, and the next part of the stage can be accessed. At the end of the third such stage section will be a door that this time leads to the domain of a familiar stage boss.
Without question, you'll be guiding our perennial hero, the faceless Simon Belmont, through all of this madness. The game's story and its place in line, we understand, exist only as an iteration of Castlevania, since Konami doesn't supply Vampire Killer its own explanation beyond the usual premise of "Dracula has been waiting for you." Simon starts with just his weak leather whip, which will prove to be ineffective. At his command, eventually, will be many more weapons and magical items that will make a huge difference. He can find morning-star extensions to increase the whip's power, or, more unexpectedly, he can replace the whip with three other weapons: Throwing-daggers, which can be chucked one after another; a boomerang-like cross, which travels far but is fairly weak; or a boomerang-like axe, which can only be thrown a short distance but is greater in strength. (If a respective boomerang-like weapon isn't caught on the rebound, it'll be lost, and Simon will be again stuck with a leather whip.) Regardless of your choice, you lose all collected weaponry once a stage is cleared.
Furthermore, you can expect to find a bevy of magical items in Vampire Killer that are unique to this series, and there are generally three different types of them: First, there are the more typical items that when collected will remain in Simon's inventory box atop the screen for an entire stage. Such items--like sub-weapon-powering hearts, currency-boosting bibles, and scroll maps--will have a constant effect on the action. Most notably, you can equip two types of shields (a mechanic directly in the vein of the rib-bone power from Simon's Quest); one acts a projectile deflector while the other offers better overall defensive ability.
A second group features items that remain in the inventory box for shorter periods. For example: You have boots and wings that allow you jump higher and move faster, respectively, but are designed to last for only one screen apiece. Items from our third group are there to be collected for immediate use; it's in this category of item where you have the potions and crystals that restore energy, screen-clearing crosses, two types of invincibility icons, and still much, much more.
Simon will even collect two different sub-weapons to supplement this sizable arsenal: There are vials of holy water, which work as you'd anticipate, and an hour glass, which mimics the future stopwatch; by jumping and pushing down and left/right respectively, you can activate them. The sub-weapons, disappointingly, are not as defined or as useful as you'd expect within the game's context--that is, there are no obvious uses for them, and the means for activating them are troublesome--but you can have both equipped for use at the same time, which is definitely something out of the norm.
More so than in candelabras, the majority of magical items and sub-weapons are locked away in the treasure chests that are found laying everywhere; these chests can be opened using the small gold keys that are also scattered stage-wide. Since there are so many chests and only a limited number of these gold keys, it'll require a little bit of experimentation if you hope to attain the desired weaponry. The point is that you're never limited: Because of the number of options available, you're always presented the opportunity to change or upgrade your inventory at a moment's notice. As it is in the case of striking weapons, you should know, all magical items and sub-weapons are lost after a stage is cleared.
If you dig further into the game's design, you'll begin seeing even more of the seeds that spawned Castlevania II: Simon's Quest and its ilk. Noticeable is a goal-oriented system of gameplay (in this case the locating white keys) and, more obvious, the collection of hearts as both a power source and as currency. By collecting big and small hearts, you can build up the wealth needed to purchase new items and weapons from Vampire's Killer's merchants. Hidden throughout the castle in large number, the hermit-like merchants can be spotted either camping out all around or, more likely, found hiding behind large breakable structures. A merchant will sell you a specific weapon if you manage to get its attention and meet its asking price. It's important to utilize their services, because even though the larger selection of items is already available via candelabras, treasure chests and breakable walls, some of the more useful and thus rarer weapons and items can be purchased only from these merchants.
(Some important tips that may help: Whether or not you use a joystick, the keyboard will be a necessary component during your playing experience. Rather than "Enter," use F1 to pause the game. If at any time you find an area scroll map on a given stage, use F2 to view it; it'll show your current location and the area's exit. Be forewarned, though, that Vampire Killer will potentially crash on the map screen. Finally, if you want to exit gameplay, simply push F10.)
Graphically, Vampire Killer looks very similar to Castlevania, but it manages to one-up the NES classic with smoother textures and easier-to-look-at backgrounds; the MSX, as a computer system, is naturally better at handling memory and a larger palette, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. Though you may encounter some of those patented "ugly-looking" backgrounds, you'll find this to be a rare occurrence in what is a much cleaner game. True--the stages all resonate the same tone and exhibit the same graphical elements present in Castlevania plus they feature all of the same traps, the same enemies (with slimes as the only unique addition), and the same bosses (sans the second form of Dracula); but while virtually the same in tone, the presentation here is more spooky and haunting due to the more graphically defined haunt; the cleaner, more-hollow look works to better supply a sense of claustrophobia and dread, which works to differentiate this experience from Castlevania's more hurried, gritty presentation.
Thisis not to suggest that Vampire Killer's stages fully emulate the structure of those from in Castlevania. To the contrary, you'll find that Vampire Killer has some tricks up its sleeve. Individual stage sections are larger in all instances, for instance, with some exclusive terrain, noticed especially in the final stage, where the castle keep is actually its own section rather than a simple staircase leading to Dracula's throne room. Entailed, too, are some interesting gameplay mechanics that we haven't seen before, like Stage 4's use of room-connecting portals (which in Castlevania's Frankenstein cave are simply decoratory archwork). It's instead the enemies, we find, that more closely, more traditionally emulate Castlevania's selection. While a few enemies--like, say, axe knights--may employ atypical sprite designs, their jobs remain the same; this holds true for others, like zombies and bats, who if anything are just colored differently. Whatever the case, and while Vampire Killer's similarities to Castlevania are purely superficial, everything comes together nicely to define what turns out to be simply the more atmospheric of the two games.
Obviously, from this information, you shouldn't expect any new tunes on Vampire Killer's soundtrack. What you've heard in Castlevania is what you'll hear when you load up Vampire Killer. I won't tell you that its soundtrack is any better or worse than Castlevania's--it's just a different composition, more digital and a bit higher-toned. I tend to like this soundtrack more, because this particular musical style better complements the stages' engendered atmosphere, which is to say more representative of an investigation rather than a pure-action experience. The sound effects, in that respect, are about identical to those in Castlevania yet also higher-toned and more pronounced.
The controls, too, differ very little from the standard fare experienced in Castlevania and its sequels, but you can expect hell if you don't have a compatible joystick. Among such perils: They programmed it so that you have to push up on the keyboard to jump, so when trying to climb a flight of stairs, which also requires that you push upward, Simon must be placed perfectly at the stairway's base; this spells certain doom if you mess up the positioning while a wave of enemies is marching toward you. The deficient whip doesn't compensate, and hit-detection doesn't favor Simon in the least, so his health meter will feel the wrath. Also, you have to push down or right/left while jumping to toss your sub-weapons, which can cause annoying hiccups when you try to jump in certain directions; the problem here is that you keep using the holy water and the hourglass accidentally, which rapidly depletes your precious heart-total; the system of "pushing a direction" makes the sub-weapons useless while climbing because their use is dependent on an airborne Simon. So if you play with a keyboard, this is what you should expect; if you own a compatible joystick, it will make your life easier because "up" is instead solely used for climbing, and there's less of a chance of wasting hearts while using sub-weapons. Still, even with a control pad, it's not the smoothest or most convenient of configurations (there's no sub-weapon use on stairs), the control scheme having needed a bit of refinement.
And then there's the challenge: When playing Vampire Killer and Konami's other MSX offerings, you get the sense that Konami felt it was in the business of producing impossibly hard games. Even though I know what I'm getting into when I load up the MSX classic, I still pause frequently if not only to question the developers' sanity. Depth of challenge is what makes this franchise legendary, certainly, but even the NES games are somewhat fair. Vampire Killer's evil brewers supply you no continues, which means that you'll have to clear the game in one shot. This is easily imagined but not likely done. The main point of frustration can generally be attributed to what I call "rough spots"--these are certain points in a game where you're bound to lose most of your lives in one clump (read: in the catacombs), and it's always the same jumps that'll do you in over and over again. Then it's all for nothing, and you'll have to try again from the start. That such a fate is an expected outcome is sad, because the game is fun, and you'll want to play on. How can you, though? Take it from me, a veteran of this game-type: Hours of practice will be needed to conquer Vampire Killer, and I'd venture to guess that there are many who will never clear it at all without using the famous cheating device that allows for the manipulation of life-stock and stage selection.
In the end, I can say that Vampire Killer is a game that's difficult not to like. Its problems are indicative of the early years of gaming and the limitations lofted upon developers, true, but the game has a curious charm that can't be denied. Vampire Killer, somehow, is a game that gets better with age, its strongest attribute clearly its growing mystique; for anyone who loves Castlevania, it's almost eerie to discover the existence of its long-lost twin, to see an embedded classic exist in a more oddball, wacky form. The discoverer, though pleased to have found a new toy, will surely be overwhelmed by a fit of nostalgia created through the use of familiarity and similarity. You'll just know from the start that you're experiencing classic, haunted by the sense that this is "where it all began."
Drawbacks aside, any group that calls itself "diehard" is missing out on a big piece of history by ignoring this game. It's surely worth the effort to find it, play it, and delight in its aura. In the opinion of this hardened fan, Vampire Killer is a flawed game whose deficiencies can't be ignored, but it does everything else well enough to where it's worthy of your attention and certainly of three and half Medusa Heads.