Oh thank god, it’s finally here. What feels like the longest summer in British history is at last on its way out, the nights are darker and stormier and it’s the time when having my desk covered in various pumpkins is slightly less weird than during the other eleven months of year. Yes, it’s October, the most wonderful of all months, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the 2016 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular! Nothing but spooky games and tangentially-related creepiness for the next thirty-one days, plus listening to "Dream Warriors" and the Fright Night theme on repeat. That last bit is just me, by the way. I’m not going to subject you to musical stylings of Dokken every time I publish an article.To kick off the season, here’s something a little unusual: Chinese developer Vast Fame’s unlicensed Game Boy Color title Emo Dao! It shares some of the characters in it’s name with the Chinese name for Castlevania, although as soon as you see the title screen you’ll realise that me telling you that this game is, erm, influenced by Castlevania was kinda redundant.
See? That’s the most Castlevania-looking title screen I’ve ever seen that wasn’t on an officially-licensed Konami product. The only way it could be more Castlevania-y is if it had a swarm of Medusa Heads floating across it. And just look at those adorable bats! Did I mention that I’m excited about it being October?
Now, Emo Dao is an unlicensed Chinese Game Boy Color game that has already made its Castlevania influence abundantly clear, so you might be expecting a simple romhack of a pre-existing Castlevania game. That’s what I was expecting, but I’m happy to report it’s something a bit different. We’ll get to that presently, but first let’s take a look at the intro.
Evil monks, dressed in pointed hoods and shoulderpads that make doorways a harrowing trial, arrive. They do something with magic. Evil magic, one assumes. They don’t look the sort to be making pumpkin carriages and ballgowns for downtrodden serving-girls.
Whatever the monks are up to, it’s scared the bejeesus out of these villagers. The chap on the right seems particularly scarred by the experience, looking as he does like Christopher Lloyd when he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night after remembering he was in Foodfight. If these humble peasants look familiar, it’s probably because these graphics were ripped directly from the intro to Castlevania: Dracula X.
There’s a dragon involved somewhere along the line. That makes sense, the “Dracul” part of Dracula means “dragon,” after all. This is clearly a vampire dragon, is what I’m getting at. There’s also some Chinese text to explain what’s going on, but my knowledge of Chinese is roughly on par with my knowledge of nuclear submarine maintenance, so I’m afraid of a lot of Emo Dao is going to remain shrouded in mystery.
The game begins, and rather than being thrust straight into some side-scrolling leap-and-whip action as I was expecting, our Belmont-adjacent hero finds himself on an overworld map. There’s not much room for roaming, as it’s all narrow paths blocked by various locations. The first ones I found were this tower, which represents an action stage, and a small village.
The village was home to this Crypt Keeper type. I think he might be a save point wearing a waterproof cagoule but, again, I can’t read Chinese. Still, it’s nice to see a friendly face, or at least a face that isn’t trying to chew my face off. Anyway, I bid my farewell to the old man and set off to the first action stage I could find.
Emo Dao really is a side-scrolling action game for the most part, with the overworld serving as little more than a way to move between stages. There’s our slightly beige hero, staring down a one-eyed ghost lady. He’s definitely got the trademark Belmont stance, doesn’t he? Very solid footing, he must have the stability of a mountain goat. He's surely related to the Belmonts in some way, albeit distantly. I was going to come up with a daft name for him and my first thought was “Ralph Belmont,” but then I remembered that’s actually the name of a genuine Castlevania Belmont. Ralph, slayer of evil, vanquisher of Dracula. Hmm.
Does our unnamed hero fight with a whip? Well, yeah. It’d be weird if he didn’t, at this point. However, he’s not very good at whipping, and he doesn’t actually extend the whip in front of him in the traditional Belmont manner when he attacks. Instead, he whips it vertically in front of him. This means your attacks have very little range. On the positive side, these attacks do cover the whole front of our hero from head to toe, and you can attack pretty rapidly by holding down the button, so it’s a bit like having a short-range but damage-dealing shield in front of you the whole time.
So, that’s the gist of Emo Dao. Pretty basic side-scroller action that doesn’t actually feel that much like a Castlevania game, mostly because it’s much, much faster. I wonder what other surprises are lurking within?
A Pokemon attacks! That’s definitely a surprise. I mean, that’s clearly a Grimer, right? It’s the same colour and everything. As far as I know, this is the only Pokemon enemy in the game, which disappointed me more than I thought it would. Emo Dao could have been the Castlevania / Pokemon crossover the world has been waiting for! I’d like to imagine that if a Belmont was also a Pokemon trainer, they’d use nothing but Zubats just to defeat Dracula in the most ironic way possible.
When you finish an action stage you’re sent back to the world map, on the other side of the area you just cleared. From here, I spent most of my time wandering around not really knowing where I was going or what I was supposed to be doing, so I managed to see a fair few stages. If this set-up seems familiar, that’s probably because this is how another of Konami’s 8-bit classics works – Emo Dao is as much a rip-off of the 1987 Famicom game Getsu Fuuma Den as it is of Castlevania. The action and the flow of the gameplay are very similar to Getsu Fuuma Den, but the spooky monsters and whip-swinging hero are all Castlevania.
Here you can see just how short the range on our hero’s whip is. It’s baffling, it really is. A bit of distance is the entire point of using a whip! I want to defeat the evil, not give it a cuddle. My theory is that Emo Dao is based on an earlier game where the protagonist used a sword or his fists. Oh well, at least the whip attacks quickly, and every enemy I encountered was defeated in one hit anyway.
This is great stage for the first entry in this year’s Halloween Spooktacular, huh? Dark forests, glowing eyes peering out in the background, zombies shambling around all over the place. Ah, it’s the videogame equivalent of a nice warm bath. A blood bath, cackle cackle, thunder sound effects, etcetera.
Grimer’s back, and he’s brought a spinal column with him! What a wonderful enemy design, with the spine acting like a plant’s stalk. I call it Chiropractor's Bane. I’m amazed that this isn’t an enemy in a real Castlevania game, it’d be a perfect fit.
Emo Dao’s stages take place in a variety of different locations, from graveyards to woods to caves, although really they’re all the same. There’s jumping to be done, but none of it is on floating or moving platforms: it’s all just bottomless pits to jump over and lumps (for want of a better word) giving the stages their verticality. One thing that marks Emo Dao out as an unlicensed game is that our hero doesn’t have a jumping animation. Press jump and he flies straight upwards without moving a muscle. My best explanation is that our hero has rockets in his shoes, which would also explain how he moves so fast.
I recognise this ghost. I’m sure I’ve seen it before somewhere. The problem is, I’ve seen thousands and thousands of cartoon ghosts. In fact, I probably have seen more carton ghosts than I’ve had dinners, and not just because I really like sandwiches. Thus, I’m having trouble placing it, and I know eventually I’ll remember where it’s from and it’ll be something really obvious and I’ll feel like a tit. So, if you want to speed along the process of me feeling like a tit, let me know where this ghost is usually haunting in the comments.
I think this ghost might be all-new, and he’s a cheerful fellow indeed. These ghosts are one of the few enemies that can fire projectiles, however, and that makes them kind of a pain in the arse. Emo Dao is one of those games where most of the damage you take comes from monsters you couldn’t see because they were lurking off the edge of the screen. The play area is rather cramped, and because everything moves around very quickly you’ll frequently be bumping into boils and ghouls you didn’t see coming unless you take things at least a little slowly. That said, there are still some sections where you have to make blind jumps onto narrow platforms that have monsters on them, which is just awful game design even if you can mostly deal with them thanks to the whip’s rapid fire ability.
This stage has bear traps in it, which I was about to decry as not being very spooky until I thought about unwittingly standing on one and now I will concede that they’re are, in fact, terrifying.
So, Emo Dao doesn’t do anything surprising with the walk-n-whip formula. Every stage consists of the same gameplay, with no new mechanics added that I managed to find. What is surprising, though, is that it’s not terrible. Pretty decent, even! A lot better than most licensed Game Boy Color games I’ve played, that’s for damned sure, with reliable controls, chunky and mostly flicker-free graphics, and the general feeling of being a solid, well-made if unimaginative game.
There were a few cave-based stages, but sadly I never managed to get past them because of these bricks blocking the way. I’m certain there’s a way to get past them, but I never managed to figure out how. Perhaps some kind of special item? Is "very large chisel" an unlockable skill? I wish I knew.
I’d hoped it’d be one of the items I could buy from this charming boutique, staffed by a goblin with a jack-o-lantern face and some fetching bangles. Oh yes, there are items to buy in Emo Dao, and there’s even an experience meter you can fill for that real “with added RPG elements!” feel. I say that you can fill the experience meter – I played Emo Dao for a good few hours and never got anywhere close. Check the first few of screenshots in this article and then compare that to the experience bar in the last couple, and you’ll see just how little progress I managed to make on that front.
Here’s a mummy, because hey, it’s the Halloween season! Specifically it’s a mummy from the Metal Slug games, squashed down so it’ll fit into a Game Boy Color game. If you are going to steal your graphical assets, you might as well steal from the best.
Unfortunately, this is about as far as I managed to get with Emo Dao. I know I usually finish the games I write about, but I explored thoroughly and still couldn’t make any more progress. The big problem was the bricked-up cave stages, whose mystery I never unravelled. I did manage to buy a new weapon, a fireball projectile that replaced the whip, and as soon as I got it I raced back to one of the bricked-up passages in the hope that I could smash the blocks apart, but nothing doing.
The only other thing I found was this minotaur, who occupied a unique tile on the overworld, but even meeting him didn’t lead to anything. When I first saw him I assumed we’d be having a scrap, or at least a bit of chase-me-chase-me through a labyrinth, but all he did was shout at me in Chinese and send me back to the world map. An extremely tentative translation is that there might be something about finding a demon whip before he’d allow me to pass. Maybe it’s tied to the experience meter, but as I said I played Emo Dao for a good long time and never got it more than one-sixth full, and frankly I didn’t have the time or the patience to completely fill it. I’d like to write about some other games this October, you know?
It’s a shame I didn’t have more time to spend with Emo Dao, because while it’s not a game to set your soul aflame it is a half-decent unlicensed Game Boy Color game, and that’s a rare thing indeed. If you’re interested in unlocking Emo Dao’s secrets for yourself, I’m sure you can find it with a bit of internet detective work. All in all, a rather good start to this year’s Halloween season, I feel: straightforward action-platformer gameplay dipped in a crispy batter of cartoon ghosts and spinal column skull-plants. I’m not done with it quite yet, though. Because this is October, that means it’s time for the return of the VGJunk Halloween-O-Meter!
As always, the Halloween-O-Meter is not a measure of how good a game is, but rather of how Halloween-y it made me feel, based on my complex and often-shifting whims. I dithered between a seven and an eight for Emo Dao, but in the end I had to go with the higher score because it’s basically a Castlevania game and giving a Castlevania game anything less than an eight doesn’t feel right. It’s got plenty of creeps, mercantile goblins and Pokemons on the spooky end of the spectrum, so I think it’s earned it. A solid start to the 2016 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular, then – and I can’t wait to see what else I stumble across before November rolls around and the world goes back to being grey and boring.
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