So far in the 2014 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular, I've enjoyed the Scooby-Doo-ish cartoon capering of Ghost Hunters and the sleazy B-movie gorefest that was CarnEvil, so for this instalment I'm going to play something a little more restrained, something with a bleak, Gothic atmosphere, something with a bit of martial arts in it just to stop the less cultured amongst you getting bored - it's Seta's 1994 SNES dangling-from-ledges-em-up Nosferatu!
The name of the game is Nosferatu and the title screen shows an imposing castle bathed in moonlight, so please try not to recoil in surprise when I tell you that Nosferatu is about travelling through a castle to fight a vampire. You're thinking about Castlevania now, right? Yeah, me too, but as difficult as it is for me I'm going to try to push any thoughts of Konami's classic vampire-slaying series out of my mind so I can judge Nosferatu on its own merits.
A vampire abducts a young maiden, as vampires are wont to do. The thing is, Nosferatu is set in the 1990s, and that's odd for two reasons - one, there's still a traditional eveningwear-and-spooky-castle vampire around in the 1990s and two, he's an actual vampire. He could go to any goth club or "alternative" boutique and just tell girls he's a vampire, thus avoiding the need for abductions. You're just making extra work for yourself here, Nosferatu. Oh, yeah, by the way, he's a vampire called Nosferatu and not "a nosferatu." It is almost impossible not to think of him as Dracula. Nosferatu is probably getting pretty fed up of hearing about Dracula. "Ooh, Dracula, he's so mysterious and seductive, they got Gary Oldman to play him in a movie, lah-di-dah! His ridiculous antics are just making life more difficult for real vampires like me and Carmilla and Steve the Vampire."
You know, it's been a while since I played a videogame where the aim was to rescue a kidnapped girfriend / sister / princess. The last one was Attack Animal Gakuen, I suppose, but this classic and over-familiar story appears once more in Nosferatu. This is the hero, riding his horse to Nosferatu's castle to save his girlfriend Erin from exsanguination and an un-lifetime of floating about in gauzy nightdresses. Again, this game is set in the Nineties. I expected the hero to travel to Transylvania by skateboard, not horse.
The hero's name is Kyle. Since learning this, I have mentally renamed Nosferatu to Kyle vs. Dracula. I cannot undo this. It took a significant effort of will to not enter Kyle vs. Dracula as the title of this article. Kyle vs. Dracula just feels right.
Anyway, Kyle arrives at Nosferatu's castle, where he will no doubt make his way tentatively past the entrance halls guarded by zombies before moving through ballrooms and clocktowers before reaching his nemesis atop the castle's spire.
Or he could immediately be thrown into the dungeon, that's also a possibility.
After pushing a crate to one side to reveal a hole in the floor, Kyle can escape from his cell and thus the adventure of Nosferatu begins in earnest. What kind of adventure is it? Well, imagine if Prince of Persia and Castlevania had a baby, and they taught that baby karate while it was growing up.
Nosferatu is what I'd describe as a precision platformer, although an easier way to explain the gameplay would be to compare it to Prince of Persia. I would be very surprised if there was ever a review of Nosferatu that didn't mention Prince of Persia at some point, but it's a difficult comparison to avoid when the gameplay is so similar - this is a game all about avoiding traps, leaping over chasms and not falling to your horrible bone-shattering death through delicate platforming manoeuvres and an emphasis on timing your movements perfectly.
There's also fighting, and that's where the karate comes in. Kyle's a multi-discipline fighter, mind you - he's got some boxing moves in there too, and they can all be put to use against the hideous denizens of Nosferatu's castle. In this case, Kyle is punching a slimy zombie in the face. If you keep punching the zombie, Kyle will do a short combo in the manner of side-scrolling beat-em-ups everywhere, but there are also a host of other techniques: jumping kicks, running shoulder-charges and crouching uppercuts amongst them. I think my favourite is the dodge. Activated by holding attack and moving the stick left and right, it makes Kyle slip to the side, hopefully avoiding enemy attacks. Sure, more often than not you'll just dodge into an enemy's attack, but you'll kind of feel like Muhammad Ali while you're doing it so it's definitely worthwhile. As a rule, though, the focus of all combat in Nosferatu is getting into a position where you can unleash a punch combo on an enemy, because they do by far the most damage.
Before you start getting all misty-eyed about Kyle the debonair karate-kicking vampire hunter who charges across the landscape on his stallion - a description that's even getting me a little hot under the collar - I should mention that he completely ignores these desperate, pleading prisoners locked in Nosferatu's dungeon. Doesn't even give them so much as a glance. Kyle's kind of a prick, then, but a possible explanation for his single-minded determination is that up ahead is the battle all karate masters dream of - a chance to face off against a Frankenstein.
Trapped in a narrow corridor between a spike-filled pit and a freakish monster assembled from human parts and imbued with blasphemous mockery of life, Kyle begins to wonder if he's really that serious about Erin. I mean, she's fun and all, but having to rescue her from a vampire's castle is going to put a strain on the relationship.
Taking on a Frankenstein in a straight fist-fight is just going to get Kyle pulverised, and the important lesson that you take from this first Frankenstein encounter is that each enemy in Nosferatu has to be dealt with in a specific way. In this case, you have to duck under Frank's double punch, pop up with some hits of your own and then get out of the way before you can repeat it. Remember this technique and apply it to each Frankenstein you encounter, then learn the right way to deal with every other type of enemy in the game, and you'll have made a lot of progress towards defeating Nosferatu.
I made it outside, where I was set upon by an angry hunchback whose nickname amongst his hunchback friends is almost certainly Stabby. Oh, he loves to stab, hopping through the moonlit night and shanking anyone who passes by. It's little surprise that Stabby is the first of Nosferatu's bosses. It makes sense that Nosferatu, while valuing Stabby's intruder-puncturing skills, would want to keep the horrible little goblin as far away from his inner sanctum as possible.
After taking a certain amount of damage, Stabby's true form is revealed. He's a werewolf! A big, stupid werewolf who does nothing but slowly walk into Kyle's fists and get his furry backside kicked. The only problem you might encounter is that if the moon becomes full before you finish the fight, the werewolf regains all its health, but that's only a problem in that it makes the fight longer and not any more difficult.
Dracula may have Castlevania, but Nosferatu has a much more expansive property portfolio. Six castles? Most kings don't have six castle, unless you count King Koopa, and because vampires are always in the last place you look that means I have another five castles to clear before I reach Nosferatu. I'd better get on with it, then.
Here's a fun new cause of death: throttled by a mummy. When he was alive a Pharaoh would had slaves to do his throttling for him, leaving the Pharaoh free to pursue the important Pharaoh business of ruling Egypt, being revered as a god and marrying his sister. Of course, that's all changed now and Imhotep here has to get his bandaged hands dirty. Surely a low point for a once-respected leader, but at least this breaks up the monotony of wandering back and forth along this corridor for countless centuries.
As for the non-monster-related gameplay, did I mention that it's very similar to Prince of Persia? If someone had told me that Nosferatu was an genuine sequel to Jordan Mechner's much-ported classic I would have believed them. The games share nigh-identical platforming action, with Kyle negotiating a similar array of pits, crumbling floors and bladed traps as the prince. It's a game that demands patience and deliberation, two qualities which even my most generous defenders would admit that I lack, so there was a lot of opportunity for Nosferatu to be something I was frustrated by. Fortunately such frustration was avoided for the most part by fluid controls and a clear sense of what you're supposed to be doing and where you're supposed to be heading, at least most of the time. It's a good job, too, because some of the time limits in Nosferatu are very tight, leaving you little time to plan your route.
Stage two's boss fight is a battle against a pair of apes. That's a true seal of quality right there - name me a bad game that includes a bare-knuckle fist-fight against an ape. That's right, you can't. Rise of the Robots doesn't count, because that's just a robot that looks like an ape and not the real simian deal. This, though, this is a no-holds-barred grudge match between man and his closest genetic relatives, and knowing what a chimpanzee is capable of doing to a human if it gets angry enough means that in a real-life situation I'd much rather take on a Frankenstein or a mummy than an ape. A mummy is markedly less likely to rip your testicles off, for instance. Still, in this case the monkeys aren't too much of a threat as long as you don't get trapped between them, and I found that running shoulder-tackles bought me enough space to deal with them one at a time, and once you've disposed of the first ape the other one poses little challenge.
Punching an ape is an undoubted highpoint of this or any videogame, but Nosferatu does an excellent job of keeping the player engaged through other means that aren't related to monkey violence, as implausible as that sounds. A major one is the atmosphere, and Nosferatu is dripping with gothic creeposity - the stages are all flickering candles and solemn brickwork that really feel like the castle of a vampire, albeit an insane vampire with the unhelpful attitude that every ledge and corridor is improved by the addition of deadly spikes. Everything is beautifully animated too, especially Kyle, to the point that on more than one occasion I stopped what I was doing to make him throw out a few karate kicks, just so I could watch him in action. It reminds me of Clock Tower in that regard, with animation that feels more "human" and less videogame-y.
Here's Kyle nonchalantly rummaging through a treasure chest while lethal blades shoot out of the ceiling mere millimetres from his head. "Rescue your girlfriend" may be the overarching goal of the game, but in real terms reaching each new treasure chest is the aim of all this exploration. Each one is like an oasis of restorative calm that soothes the player after each fraught section of dangerous platforming / Frankenstein combat. The chests either contain hourglasses that refill your time limit, or a variety of coloured gems. Blue gems are the rarest and best because they increase your maximum health, green gems restore your health, and then there are red gems. Collecting red gems makes you better at fighting, and the more you're holding (up to a maximum of nine) the more powerful Kyle is and the more moves he has at his disposal. The effect of the red crystals isn't permanent, however, and if Kyle is knocked over by an enemy or falls too far, a red crystal falls out of his pocket and shatters, lowering his total. While this does provide a physical explanation for the common videogame mechanic of a character losing power-ups when they're hurt, it also posits a universe where vampires hoard magical crystals that make a person better at karate just by holding them.
Sometimes, the treasure chests are home to the cheerful ghost of an especially rancid fart. There are no warnings or distinguishing features that mark these chests out as being different: you just have to play the game enough times to form a mental record or which chests contain flatulence so foul it can knock you on your backside.
Boss number three is... well, I'm not sure, really. A zombie of some kind? The way it grabs Kyle and bites at his neck made me think it was a vampire, but we're outdoors in the daytime. So, some sort of ghoul, then. Whatever it is, the flesh of Kyle's body doesn't agree with it because if you kick it away after a chomping session it vomits on the floor. How delightful! There's not much else to say about this one, folks. Dodge and punch, try not to get puke on your Reeboks.
I'm enjoying Nosferatu, but I still have some issues with it. While the controls are mostly good, I found it difficult to get Kyle to run sometimes, and when doing running jump there seemed to be much more a lag than usual between pressing jump and Kyle taking to the air. That said, my biggest problems with jumping were all self-inflicted, because I kept forgetting to switch out of "combat stance" when attempting leaps. This makes Kyle hop delicately to his death instead of performing the proper jump that he does when he hasn't got his fists raised. You can't beat up gravity, Kyle, c'mon.
However, my biggest complaint is that there are some parts of the game that will hurt you without warning or a chance to avoid them. In the screenshot above, for example, the perfectly normal-looking bit of floor I was standing on collapsed, despite all the other crumbling floors in the game being obviously crumblier than a digestive biscuit in a tumble drier. There are some sections where enemies appear from nowhere, which is aggravating, and it serves to illustrate that the key to success in Nosferatu is memorisation. This is a very tough game where the slightest slip can mean instant death, sending you back to the beginning of the stage, so remembering where every unlabelled killer floor or ghost-infested treasure chest is becomes the only sure way to progress, and if you're planning on giving Nosferatu a try then how much enjoyment you get out of it will probably depend greatly on whether you've got the time to note down all these little details.
The fourth boss is a light fog. Not particularly terrifying, as monsters go, unless you're flying a small aircraft or piloting a boat near a rocky shore. The boss' main method of attack is to launch copies of it's own head at you in a manner reminiscent of the first boss of Altered Beast, and so the pattern to defeating this vaguely man-shaped meteorological event is to jump and duck your way past his flying heads, wait for it to attack and then dash in for the killing blow. Quite how Kyle can punch mist hard enough for it to die is not explained. I suspect Nosferatu's magic karate crystals are involved.
By the time you reach this fifth stage, Nosferatu has become oppressively difficult, with death and dismemberment constantly a step away... and it's fun, at least when the game makes it clear where the obstacles are. Tense, definitely, but fun. Perfect timing is required to make any progress, as always, but new traps like these roaming buzzsaws mix things up a little. Every section of Nosferatu is it's own little puzzle, and the most rewarding part of the gameplay is solving those puzzles, especially when the solution is not always the most obvious thing: for example, I was rather pleased with myself for figuring out that Kyle's dodge move is great for getting past the speedier sword traps.
This game also provided me with the rare opportunity to get my arse kicked by a table. Thanks, Seta.
This stage's boss is a stone golem who, considering the difficulty of the castle he's guarding, was surprisingly easy to beat. He fires his fists at you like the rocket punches of an anime robot, but they're easy enough to avoid and once you're in range you can kick him until he collapses into rubble. Of course, once he does collapse into rubble the golem then turns into a giant foot, flies up into the air and tries to land on your head, but you won't get hit by that attack more than once. After the element of surprise has gone, the Big Rock Monty Python Foot attack loses most of it's potency.
"Erin, honey, come inside, you're going to catch a chill," says Nosferatu. "If you're going to stand on the Brooding Balcony overlooking the wind-lashed and barren moors, at least put on a cape. That's why I always wear a cape, you know."
Here in Nosferatu's home even the paintings are deadly, tripping you up as you walk past them. After all this is over, I expect Kyle will return to the castle with a Super Soaker full of turpentine and a score to settle.
On my first playthrough, this was the point where I had to turn to the Action Replay to see me through - not necessarily because the game was too difficult to complete, but because it's difficult in a time-consuming way and I wanted this game to be part of the Halloween Spooktacular, not the Inappropriately-Timed Summer Ghoulfest. That said, no amount of cheat codes helped me through the section pictured above, the area of the game that caused me the most number of deaths. It's a quick-fire platforming section across a spike pit where the platforms crumble beneath your feet, and it should have been as simple as getting a running start and tapping jump each time you hit a new platform, but for whatever reason I just couldn't get it right and countless times I ended up with Kyle trying to haul himself onto a platform that was already disintegrating. I looked for "flying in Nosferatu" and "advanced masonry repair skills" cheats, but none were forthcoming, so I just had to bang my head against it until on the fiftieth-or-so try I got it right.
One benefit of the cheat codes is that I didn't have to risk life and limb - legs, if you want to get specific about the limbs in question - trying to open chests with saw blades right in front of them. Nice try, Nosferatu, but even your dark magics and home woodworking tools can't compare to the awesome power of the Game Genie, RRP £49.99, available in all good stockists.
And here he is, the Prince of Darkness, King of Vampires, the sinister and ageless Dracula! I mean Nosferatu! Sorry, Nosferatu.
Nosferatu's main gimmick is that he spends most of the fight hovering around out of punching distance, which obviously makes him kinda difficult to hit, although from now on I will always be able to use this fight to remember that Fighting-Type Pokemon are weak against Flying.
Once you do manage to slap Nosferatu around a bit, he transforms into a giant bat, because it may be 1990 but some vampire traditions are too deeply ingrained to change. In this situation, just wait for Nosferatu to stop swooping around like a confused bird that accidentally flew into your living room and switch back to his original form, because you won't be able to do the bat any meaningful damage. On the plus side, the bat's attacks are easy to avoid, while Normal Nosferatu has the annoying habit of picking you up from across the screen with his Psychic Vampire Powers and slamming you into the floor. As I've said several times now, the key to success if learning when to move in to attack and when to get out of the way, and once you have his patterns memorised you'll be able to pummel Nosferatu so thoroughly that he'll wish he never crawled out of his coffin.
Kyle rescues Erin, who has hopefully not been turned into a vampire. That would put a downer on things. Mind you, even if she has become a living corpse with an insatiable lust for blood, Nosferatu's dead and there's no-one else around, so I guess Kyle is the proud new owner of six castles. Get rid of all the zombies and Beholders, open the windows to get the old person smell out, throw a few scatter cushions around, they'll be sold in weeks and Kyle and Erin can enjoy their new life of fabulous wealth.
As the credits roll, Kyle's horse makes a reappearance. Kyle riding a horse is the most unbelieveable thing in this game to me, and I took part in a three-way ape fight. A couple of things in the credits caught my eye: one was this graphics design credit for one K. Igarashi. If that name looks familiar, that's probably because it's very similar to Koji Igarashi, better known as IGA - the former producer of the Castlevania series. As far as I can see Koji Igarashi was working at Konami during Nosferatu's development - but maybe he slipped out to help Seta, because otherwise that name appearing on a game about a young man entering a monster-filled castle to do battle with a vampire lord is one hell of a coincidence.
The other thing is this "special thanks" message. "and all other guys who have been real supportive," it says, and I cannot help but read that sentence in the exaggerated Wisconsin accent that Joel, Mike and the bots sometimes used in Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Oh yah, those guys were real supportive!
So Erin's definitely not a vampire, then? I hope not, because otherwise Kyle's going to whispering sweet nothings to a pile of dust once that sunlight reaches them.
I enjoyed Kyle vs. Dracula, but I can imagine not everyone would. It's a very demanding game, and an occasionally unfair game, but I know that if I'd owned it as a kid I would have absolutely devoured it, playing it over and over to learn every facet of its deadly charms and drawing maps of the stages in exercise books pilfered from the supply cupboard at school. Nowadays the experience of playing it was not quite as exciting, although whether that's down to the mollycoddling influence of modern games or a simple lack of time to learn all the game's quirks I couldn't tell you. I certainly can't fault the presentation, though, so if you're looking to play an appropriately macabre game for the season, then this comes fully recommended, and speaking of which it's time for Nosferatu to be subjected to the mouldering embrace of the Halloween-O-Meter!
Eight out of ten for Seta's effort, which might seem low for a game in which you get to punch all the classic horror monsters with the exception of the gill-man, but to me "spookiness" and "Halloween-osity" are two closely related but separate conditions. For something to really have that Halloween spirit it's either got to have a sense of comedy or be an over-the-top goresplosion, neither of which are present in Nosferatu. Still, eight out of ten is a pretty high score, and Nosferatu does include the bonus of ape fist-fights. If that had have been the first bullet point on the back of the box, Nosferatu would be as fondly remembered as Super Metroid.