What does Dracula, lead villain of the Castlevania series and someone who is resurrected so often even Jesus is starting to suspect he's doing it just to show off, get up to between his Belmont-battling adventures? Well, he lies around in his coffin and waits for the next set of Satanic idiots to come along and reset his infernal alarm clock. That's not to say that Castlevania is peaceful while Big Drac is dormant, however, because he has a son - a cheerful, lively son with hair stolen from a Dragonball Z character and a tendency to get into adventures of his own. His name is Kid Dracula, and here he is in Konami's 1993 Game Boy title, erm, Kid Dracula!
The Castlevania connection is a lot clearer in the game's Japanese title, Akumajou Special: Boku Dracula-Kun, because the Castlevania series is known as Akumajou Dracula in its homeland. If you'd played Castlevania before you'd have probably figured it out anyway, because some familiar faces appear only now they are adorable.
I should also mention that Kid Dracula is a pseudo-sequel to a Japan-only Famicom also called Akumajou Special: Boku Dracula-Kun. Why am I writing about the sequel instead of the original? Well, for starters there's not that much difference between the two games, with a lot of shared level designs, bosses and graphics. I also seem to hardly ever write about Game Boy games, and one final push towards the Game Boy version is a quote from the Kid that you'll see later. You'll witness the steel core beneath his cutesy façade. It's fun!
The plot is the main thing that marks Kid Dracula as a sequel to rather than a straight-up remake of the Famicom original. In the Famicom version, Kid Dracula does battle with Galamoth, a demon who wants to take Dracula's throne and who you may recognise from his appearance as a boss in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Kid Dracula defeats Galamoth (or Garamoth, as his name is often spelled) in the original, only to return in Kid Dracula to try the same thing again. The news of Galamoth's return is broken to you by Death who, as always in the Castlevania games, is Dracula's bitch instead of being the ultimate representation of The Inescapable End of All Things. Death has the personality of a worrywart maiden aunt, constantly fretting over Kid Dracula, but I will cut him some slack because at least Death didn't turn traitor like all the rest of Dracula's minions.
As you can see, Kid Dracula is not worried about the threat Galamoth poses. He's a real get things-done kinda kid. Unfortunately for you, the player, he managed to forget all but one of the magic spells he learned in the previous game. I'm sure it'll be fine, Kid himself says he'll "remember them when the time comes". Personally I appreciate the developer's flippancy on the subject, it undercuts the whole "how will we level the playing field this time" situation that so often causes the start of a Metroid game to make me groan out loud. Maybe the next Metroid game should follow this example, just have Samus arrive at the next Space Pirate base and declare that she can't remember where she left the keys for the Varia Suit.
The single spell Kid did manage to hang on to is at least a rather useful one. Hold the attack button down for a second or two, release it, and Kid will turn into a bat that can fly wherever it likes for five seconds. A bat with Kid Dracula's perpetually-cheery head. I can already tell I'm going to enjoy this.
Right from the start, Kid Dracula feels like a game you've played before even if you haven't played it before. It's very much an 8-bit platform action game, built around the classic themes of "getting to the end of the stage" and "not letting the enemies bump into you". You can jump, you can throw fireballs and if you hold the attack button down for a bit before you let go you'll throw a larger, more powerful fireball, unless you have a spell selected, in which case you'll perform that spell. Like I say, it's typical. Archetypical, even, especially for a Game Boy run-n-jump adventure - with it's big, chunky sprites, small numbers of enemies on screen at once and apparent simplicity, Kid Dracula feels like it could be the mighty granite mountain from which all other Game Boy platform games are hewn.
Stage one evokes the most Castlevania feelings, which makes sense because you're making your way through Dracula's castle. Bats swoop down from the ceiling, (and unfortunately for them Kid can fire upwards, unlike those Belmont boys,) there's a clocktower to ascend and big-eyed Frankensteins dash about on blocky platforms, all of it rendered in this chunky, "Fisher-Price's My First Demon's Castle Playset" style.
The platforming in this first stage is uncomplicated and would be easy even if you didn't have the option of turning into a bat: the only obstacles are these tilting platforms and the occasional fluttering chiropteran. This area's main function is to make me realise how much easier the NES Castlevania games would be if you could attack straight upwards.
The first boss battle is against a family of ghosts who are taking advantage of Dracula's absence in order to run amok at the top of the castle. The ghosts attack by jumping into you and firing ectoplasmic bullets, so it's a simple matter of running underneath them when they jump, hopping over their projectiles and hitting them with charged shots when you can. First you'll fight the baby ghost - although that implies they're the ghost of a baby, and that's a though that's hardly in the fun Halloween spirit, so let's just say they're a small ghost - and once they're defeated a bigger ghost appears. Defeat him and elderly grandfather ghost waddles into the fray! Grandad Ghost is immune to all your attacks but he is not immune to the ravages of time, so all you have to do is avoid him for a while until he falls asleep. I find this tactic works with non-spectral grandparents, too.
Small Ghost appears at the edge of the screen and sheepishly drags his slumbering grandfather away, which is a nice way to end a fun fight against the charming ghost family. Sorry, did I say "charming ghost family"? I meant "bunch of racist rednecks".
I'm not intending to thoroughly compare the Japanese and Western versions of Kid Dracula, (I don't think there are many differences,) but it would be remiss of me not to mention that in the original version the ghosts have a swastika on their heads. I think Kid Dracula just kicked the shit out of the Ku Klux Klan. Hey, if you lived in Castlevania I don't think you'd get very far trying to spread a message of hatred against anyone who's different, because while Dracula may be the ever-living incarnation of pure evil he is most definitely an equal-opportunity employer.
With the hatemongering ghost family out of the way, Kid Dracula catches up with his bat minions. The bats defected and joined Galamoth, but now that they've seen how Kid deals with the Klan they want to join back up with their pointy-toothed master. Kid agrees, because he knows the value of having allies who can fly and also spread rabies amongst his enemies, but not before issuing Batty with a stern warning.
You want to watch out, Bat. There's no mistaking that tone. One more mistake and you'll be first in the shopping basket next time the castle's witches need some Wing of Bat to finish off their latest brew. Don't be fooled by his happy-go-lucky nature, Kid Dracula possesses the same steely heart as his father.
Clearing stage one also earns you a new spell: a short-ranged attack where three bats curve upwards in an uppercut kind of fashion. I only really found one use for this move, but it was an important use, as we'll see later.
The pattern of Kid Dracula's gameplay is already firmly locked down after just one stage - a fairly short stage followed by a boss with at least two forms, and maybe a new spell at the end - so let's take a look at the other eight levels. I'll try to keep it brief, I know we've all got homes to go to.
After the castle comes the forest, and while a forest stage in a '90s platformer is as inescapable as vicious family arguments at Christmas this one at least mixes up the usual pattern by not being the first stage. Ascending the trees and crossing the crumbling bridges is the order of the day, a task that is made only slightly more difficult by the fact the trees can swallow you, sending you back down to the bottom of the trunk. There are also owls lurking in the foliage, their huge eyes flashing brightly before they burst out and slam into you. At least, that's what I thought was going to happen, but it turns out that I was having flashbacks to the extremely similar section in Castlevania III where the owls posed a much graver threat. These owls are fat and slow, which I suppose is what happens when there are no Belmonts around to keep them busy, and therefore much easier to avoid.
The boss is rather more threatening, as he's a hockey-mask-wearing killer who lives near a lake. I know, I know, I can hear you screaming "it's Jason Voorhees!" and that's perfectly understandable. There's a good chance he is based on the star of the Friday the 13th movies. However, I personally think this boss is a homage to Rick Taylor from the Splatterhouse series, especially his appearance in Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, Namco's own cutesy parody version of a horror-themed classic.
That's how Rick looks in Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. Notice that he's got an axe, just like the boss Kid Dracula's facing. Once you hit the boss enough times he ditches the axe and grabs a shotgun. Rick uses a shotgun, but Jason Voorhees? He'd never lower himself to slaughtering teens with a mere firearm. So there you go, that's my flimsy evidence that this boss is inspired more by Rick from Splatterhouse than Jason from Friday the 13th. Of course, Rick was clearly inspired by Jason in the first place. It's Six Degrees of Masked Killer Separation, and would you look at that, Kevin Bacon was in the original Friday the 13th. It's a small world after all.
Stage three is set high in the clouds and ramps up the amount of platforming you have to do, with Kid navigating the hovering platforms and avoiding the attacks of the cutesy witches. The witches don't seem too concerned with actually killing Kid Dracula, mind you. I think they've lost their love for the work. It's difficult to serve a Dark Master and still feel like you're really making a difference in the foul quest to destroy the world of man when you're just patrolling the cloud area and dropping the occasional magic bomb, you know?
Some guys who are definitely still in love with their work are these cloud platforms. Look at their goddamn faces, so alive with wide-eyed joy that you can't help but wonder if they're hard-core masochists who have lucked into the most incredible line of employment they could have possibly hoped for.
"And to think my dad wanted me to be a lawyer! Screw you, dad, I've got people trampling over me all day every day and I've never been happier!"
The second half of the stage takes place on an auto-scrolling rollercoaster, most notable (to me anyway) for an appearance by not-Godzilla-famous-but-still-fairly-well-known giant monster turtle Gamera. In this screenshot, I am about to collide with Gamera's flaming arse and be knocked off this frankly extremely unsafe fairground ride. And I thought Gamera was supposed to be a friend to all children. You got something against vampires, you rocket-propelled dick?
The boss is a giant chicken because sure, why not. There isn't much to say about this one, folks. You all know what giant chickens are capable of. Just get underneath it and fire upwards, you'll soon have this thing fried.
Before we move on to stage four, a quick mention of Kid Dracula's inter-level diversions. Killing enemies with a charged fireball causes them to drop coins, and between stages you can use these coins to play minigames for a chance to win extra lives.
There are four games in all: pictured here is a simple round of Pop-Up Pirate, where the pirate has been replaced by a skeleton. I mean, I suppose it could be the skeleton of a pirate but I don't want to make assumptions about this guy's life based on the shape of his skull. Phrenology has long since been discredited, after all. Anyway, this is simple enough - stick swords into the barrel and hope you don't pick the one of the two slots that cause the skeleton's skull to drop off. The more swords you stab into the barrel without decapitating the skeleton, the more lives you get, and the first time I attempted it I managed to (without cheating) get all the swords in for a bonus of nine extra lives. Kid Dracula is not exactly stingy with extra lives.
You can also play rock-paper-scissors against a zombie, attempt to catch bats with a net or try your luck at the game pictured above, where Kid Dracula straps on a World War I-era German helmet and attempts to pop balloons by jumping into them on a pogo stick. Quite why this nets you extra lives is never explained, so let's just say that Kid really hates balloons and admires the political career of Otto von Bismarck.
The next level is set on a flying wooden airship and yes, it will remind you of the airship levels from Super Mario. Bros. 3. The skeletons found in Kid Dracula's airships are much more... oh, how can I put this without seeming cruel? Stupid-looking than a Dry Bones, though. These skeletons are goofy, overbite-sporting goons who look like they not only ate the craft glue when they were schoolkids, they ate the plastic spreader thing as well. As such I have a huge amount of affection for them, even though they're trying to push me into the falling spike traps and rotating floorboards that make up most of this level's obstacles.
The boss' name is apparently given as Witchie Wench in the European Kid Dracula manual, but what with all the hovering and throwing of scythes this is clearly Kid Dracula's version of the classic Castlevania battle against Death. Thankfully this is much easier than most other encounters with Death in the Castlevania series, because with it being a Game Boy game Witchie doesn't have the necessary resources to fill the screen with flying sickles. It's strictly one scythe at a time, so all you need to do is hop over them when they fly towards you and blast her when you get a chance.
Galamoth's troops can't be accused of not exploring every avenue of attack in order to eliminate the Dracula family, and no sooner have you defeated the sorceress / grim reaper amalgam you're faced with a great big robot to blow up. Luckily, at the end of the previous stage Kid remembered the spell that lets him walk on the ceiling, allowing him to reach the robot's vulnerable head with ease.
Oh hey, it's Galamoth. He seems very cheerful. If he wasn't trying to destroy me and take everything I have for himself, I'd have suggested we went to the pictures together sometime.
The next stage is a short one, but it makes up for its lack of content by being much more difficult that everything that's proceeded it. Well, apart from the pointy-helmet / pogo stick minigame, I couldn't get anywhere with that one. For most of this stage Kid is trapped in a platform-filled tube, and as the platforms whizz by you have to jump between them lest you fall victim to the implacable foe that is the auto-scrolling. What trouble does that pose to someone who can turn into a bat, I hear you ask? None, but then again Kid can't turn into a bat here because that power has been deactivated for the duration.
Sometimes an astronaut will fly up from the bottom of the screen because apparently this elevator goes into space. Why has there never been a Castlevania game set in space? It'd be great, and don't give me any nonsense about the era the series is set in being incompatible with the idea of interstellar travel: I don't think motorcycles were around in 1852 but that didn't stop skeletons riding them around the place in Castlevania 64.
Galamoth is waiting for you at the top of the space-lift, and in keeping with the sci-fi theme he's got a lightsaber that can shoot a screen-filling beam of energy. Well, it fills most of screen, apart from near the ground, so you can just crouch under it. The real difficulty comes when you try to do Galamoth some damage, because he can only be hurt if you shoot him in the head and it took me quite a while to get my aim just right. Galamoth's attack pattern is simple enough to figure out that you've got plenty of time to practise, at least.
Once you do manage to shoot Galamoth's head enough times, it falls off and the boggle-eyed alien inside is revealed. Yes, it was just a fake Galamoth being piloted by an extraterrestrial after all. Thank you, Konami, for deciding to not take this game even the slightest bit seriously.
Stage six is the obligatory fire stage, but this one is just about rescued from the usual bland "jump over a fireball" antics by being a good excuse to play about with the walk-on-ceilings power, which is a lot of fun, as well as being a gentle homage to the Gradius series. Much of the level sees you dodging the kind of arcing plumes of flame that will be familiar to anyone who has played Konami's famous shoot-em-up series, and there's even an appearance by the rock-lobbing volcano from Gradius' first area.
The volcanoes are not a problem for Kid Dracula, because Death has given him Dracula's most treasured heirloom - the Bat Umbrella. Simply equip this devilish parasol and then crouch, and you'll be impervious to all projectiles. This makes me wonder why Drac didn't get it out of the wardrobe when Simon Belmont appeared and started throwing holy water at him.
This stage also has one of the game's best music tracks, and as this is a Castlevania game you know that means something because a Castlevania game with a soundtrack that rates any lower than "very good" is something that that simply doesn't exist.
I was originally going to write this boss off as a dog with a beard, but on closer inspection it's probably supposed to be a kirin. Whatever it is - a dog with well-groomed facial hair or a mythical creature that's probably based on a giraffe someone once saw in the distance - it has sealed its fate by fighting Kid in an area where segments of the floor will move downwards, giving the player somewhere to hide while the boss runs about overhead. Once you've got a handle on the boss' pattern of "run across the area, spawn a baby kirin, jump into the background and repeat," the biggest danger you face is getting too cocky and jumping into the boss while you're trying to hurt it.
Kid Dracula is starting to lose some steam as we head into the penultimate stage, and the Halloween-appropriate mood of Gothic whimsy has been almost entirely abandoned. Instead the main focus of stage seven is on using Kid's Bomb spell to take out mining robots and blow holes that he can jump through in the moving walls pictured above. Trust me, those walls are moving. I know this because one of Kid Dracula's few frustrating points is that it's very unforgiving about getting you trapped and instantly killed between moving pieces of scenery.
I don't want you to think I'm being to down on robots, by the way. I love robots, it's just that there are more appropriate enemies that Kid Dracula could be fighting. The boss robot tries to earn his place in this game by coming up with his own unique boss battle, where Kid and the very Mega Man-esque Hammerbot try to score hits on each other by attacking the centre wall, sending the bricks flying over to the other side of the screen and hopefully into their opponent. You know what? It's fun enough that I'll let the robot off with not being spooky.
For the final stage, Galamoth has unleashed a new and terrible weapon against poor Kid Dracula: gravity. In the first half of the level, the screen scrolls upwards at a fair old clip and you have to guide Kid Dracula down through the platforms, without having him walk through the health-sapping spikes. I didn't think it would be possible to breed a frog and an American football, but the enemies scattered throughout this section have proven me wrong.
The second half, which is somehow both much more leisurely and more difficult, involves these background panels forcing Kid into the air. Once you're up there you have to change lanes, as it were, to avoid being hoisted into the many spikes that litter the gameplay area. And to think I had earlier pondered to myself about the lack of spikes, usually such a staple of the 8-bit platformer, in Kid Dracula. Galamoth clearly just had a limited supply of spikes and he made the tactical decision to concentrate them all into one area for maximum fiendishness. It was a good decision on the evil space-dragon's part, and I did a lot of dying during this segment.
Almost at the end now, just a few short section of avoiding the giant falling drills and battling your way past these xenomorph-from-Aliens intergalactic visitor types. As you can see, they stand no chance against the power of the Bat Umbrella, which easily knocks them aside and nicely sets up next summer's big blockbuster movie Independence Day 2: Dracula vs. Aliens.
After eight stages, several rounds of Pop-Up Skeleton Pirate and a bout of rather uncouth language during that section where you're thrown up towards the spikes, Kid Dracula and Galamoth finally square off. Galamoth can fly without even having to turn into a bat, and he uses this skill to full effect, hovering at the top of the screen and firing lightning from his hands. Sometimes he fires a single bolt while - and this is the important part - opening his mouth. Galamoth must have some unattended dental problems because he can only be hurt when his mouth's open, and the curving-uppercut-ish bat attack Kid received for clearing stage one finally has a use. Wait for Galamoth to open his gob, fill said gob with bats, repeat until phase one of the boss fight is over. That's what we in the "making bad jokes about videogames" trade would call Chekov's Bat Attack
I was expecting a more impressive transformation than "oops, my wings fell off," Galamoth. At least Dracula has the decency to turn into some enormous demon after taking enough whip-blows to the head, all you've done is swap hovering for hopping. The same application of bats to the face will still work, and with a little perseverance Kid Dracula will bravely conquer King Galamoth.
Yeah, like that.
That's Kid Dracula, and it's a game to warm the heart on a rainy October evening. Platform-hopping action adventure games are ten a penny on the Game Boy, on every retro console even, but few are as winningly crafted as this one. The gameplay offers little in the way of innovation - Kid's various spells are about the extent of the game's new ideas, and even they have a very Mega Man feel about them - but the adventure is put together with such a sense of fun that it doesn't matter.
Between the infectious soundtrack, the expressive graphics and the nods to other franchise both Konami-owned and otherwise, Kid Dracula is designed to make you smile. For me, it was achieving that goal even up until the very end of the credits, where Death makes one final matronly appearance to scold Kid Dracula for not taking proper care of the Bat Umbrella. Listen, you wittering old bonebag, the whole point of this umbrella is that it's indestructible. Now get out of my sight before I find out what disgusting blackmail material Dracula has on you. It must be pretty bad if you've been his slave for the past twenty-five years.
That's my hearty recommendation that you give Kid Dracula a go, then. Only one question remains: just who is Kid Dracula? He's never referred to by name. Dracula's his dad and he's got white hair, so the obvious conclusion is that Kid Dracula is Symphony of the Night star Alucard, but I don't think it's ever stated outright that's who he is. All I can say is that if Kid Dracula is Alucard, then this game must take place before his mother was burned at the stake for being a witch. I don't think even Kid Dracula could maintain his extreme level of cheerfulness after that.
So, a game where you play as the son of Dracula has to score highly on the Halloween-O-Meter, right?
Indeed it does, with Kid Dracula's ascent up the pumpkiny pole of Halloween pleasures only being arrested by the fact that the game's theme goes rather off-piste in the final few stages. Gradius parodies are great, but they ain't spooky. If the whole game had been set in Castlevania itself we'd be looking at a ten here, but eight is still a perfectly acceptable score.