24/10/2017

DRAC'S NIGHT OUT (NES)

He’s had a shower and a shave, which is difficult when you can’t see yourself in a mirror. He’s polished his big medallion until he can see his face in it, except, you know, no reflection. He’s told the nightmarish creatures that inhabit his castle not to wait up for him, because he’s off to paint the town red. That’s right, the world’s most famous – and more importantly, public domain – vampire is ready to party in Microsmiths’ and Parker Brothers’ 1991 NES adventure Drac’s Night Out!

Not pictured: Dracula. Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing plenty of him soon enough. What do we have on this title screen? Not much of anything, really. There’s an ominous castle far in the distance which promises a certain amount of Halloween flavour. Other than that, the title screen is ninety percent dirt road so maybe Drac’s night out involves some moonlit quad-biking.
If you’re thinking that this title screen (and especially that half-arsed logo) seem rather underwhelming then I might have an explanation for that. You see, Drac’s Night Out was never actually released to the public. This is a prototype version of the game, and while the gameplay’s pretty much all there the presentation can leave something to be desired. With that in mind I’ll try to temper my expectations a little because hey, they might have fixed some of the game’s issues prior to a retail release and I’m sure the core gameplay will be interesting enough to keep me engaged.


At least the plot made it into this prototype version and yes indeed, we will be playing as Dracula himself. It is midnight, and Dracula rises from his coffin. Hang on, midnight? You’d think he’d want to get up at sundown, the lazy sod. This is like me or you crawling out of bed at noon. They shoulda called this game Drac’s Lie In. A knock-on effect of Dracula’s laziness is that he now only has six hours to get out of his castle and into the village, where he must find Mina Harker and definitely not drain her of her blood and turn her into his mindless slave, the game's creators wouldn't want us playing as a monster.


The game begins with Dracula crawling from his casket, and of course his bedchambers are right at the very pinnacle of the castle’s tower. Makes sense to me, if you’re a vampire lord then there are only two acceptable locations for your bedroom: either in a dank crypt or forgotten catacomb beneath the castle, or at the top of the tallest tower where you get the best views of the villages you’re terrorising but you do have to put a lot of faith in the thickness of your curtains.


Drac’s Night Out is (at first, anyway) a sort of platformer, although jumping is a very minor part of the action. It’s… a staircase descending sim, maybe? Your task is to get to the bottom of the castle and Dracula’s too cheap to install elevators. Eager to prevent the fiend from reaching the village below, the townsfolk have invaded the castle with the intent of stopping Dracula. It sounds like a terrible plan on their part – they don’t even have magic whips – but then you realise that they kill Dracula on contact so maybe it’s not as bad a plan as it first seems. You can see a few villagers in the screenshot above: someone kneeling in the top-left corner, a crucifix-carrying chap in the middle and a babushka-style little old lady at the bottom. If anyone’s going to defeat Dracula, my money’s on her. You get an old lady angry enough and they stop being scared of anything, in my experience.
Oh, and there’s a Frankenstein, too. He’s not a villager, he’s just hanging around because as always, Dracula’s castle is basically a backpacking hostel for the creatures of the night.


For a terrifying supernatural entity, Dracula doesn’t have much in the way of powers with which to defend himself. The only magic power he can use at first is looking at people. It’s supposed to be vampire hypnosis, I guess, and it definitely puts the whammy on them long enough for you to walk past the angry villagers. However, what you really want to be doing is embracing technology. Dracula’s castle is absolutely packed with gates, switches, levers, toggles and buttons, and interacting with them will have some kind of effect. Sometimes it’s as simple as raising a gate, but there are lots of other effects the switches can have. For instance, one switch will make the chandelier in the above screen shot fall down. Another will cause one of the decorative swords at the bottom right to fly across the room. Others might spawn roaming, friendly monsters. If you can lure the villagers into one of these traps – or get the Frankenstein moving so he lumbers into the villagers – they’ll be stunned… harder, somehow, and when they’re in that state you can drink their blood, killing them outright and filling up Drac’s blood meter. It’s a set of mechanics that’s a little reminiscent Bonanza Bros. or Spy vs. Spy, and I’m happy with that as a concept.


The other power-up you can collect, besides the warm blood of the living, are shoes. There’s one now, at the bottom of the staircase. Okay, brace yourself, because the shoes are where Drac’s Night Out gets really weird. Like, conceptually weird. You see, those aren’t just any old sneakers, they’re officially branded and licensed Reebok Pumps. If you don’t remember them, Reebok Pumps were trainers with air cushions inside that you could inflate by squeezing a basketball-shaped pump on the tongue, with the inflated areas providing a “custom” fit around your foot. I say “were,” Reebok are apparently still making Pumps today, but they were unequivocally a very Nineties thing, and here they are in Drac’s Night Out. Collectable Reebok Pumps, that let Dracula move faster and jump further when he picks them up. That there is no animation of Dracula squeezing the pump to inflate them is nothing short of a complete travesty, but he’s definitely wearing Reebok Pumps. It even says “featuring the Reebok Pump” on the title screen, as though the shoes were the co-stars of some unfathomably bizarre monster movie. The travesties keep coming when your realise Shaquille O’Neal had his own range of Pumps but they didn’t make a team-up game called Drac ‘n’ Shaq. Drac’s Night Out? Drac’s Wasted Opportunity, more like.
So then, Drac’s Night Out – an NES action game about Count Dracula unleashing monsters and drinking the blood of the innocent – is actually an advert for shoes. What the absolute hell is going on? I mean, I commend the originality of the concept but I feel it’d work a lot better if the shoes tied into the game in a manner deeper than being just a power-up.


Okay, with that colossal bombshell out of the way, I can get back to the action. It quickly becomes clear that the best way to progress is to take it slowly and try to eliminate as many villagers as you can using the traps scattered through the tower. It’s a shame that’s most effective plan, though, because you’re constantly timed during this game. Don’t forget, Drac’s got to find Mina before sun-up. I wasn’t doing too badly, although I did notice a few issues with the gameplay that quickly became a cause for much muttered griping under my breath. One is jumping. You don’t have to do much of it, and that’s good because jumping is a real pain in the arse. Drac can’t jump very far and the button feels just unresponsive enough to be annoying, so a lot of the time he’ll slide off the edges of ledges before the jump button kicks in. That’d be bad enough, but if Dracula falls any distance, he dies. The smallest stumble will make him vanish in a puff of smoke. I never thought I’d see the day, but I’ve finally found a videogame character less suited to survival in the environment they inhabit than the protagonist of Spelunker. It’s a good job there’s a skeleton up there, jauntily striding across the stage with the manner of a reanimated pile of bones that are truly relishing the second chance at walking they’ve been granted. That's the kind of sight that'll keep me going.


Another problem with the gameplay is that, apart from jumping, all Drac’s commands are handled by the same button in a context-sensitive manner. There were several times that I was trying to hypnotise an advancing villager without realising I was standing next to a switch – and a lot of the switches are small, hard-to-see background elements – causing Dracula to hammer the button while the villager ambled into him and killed him. That’s not a great situation to be in, and it all adds up to the feeling that Drac’s Night Out is a bit too slippery, a touch too finicky, to be really enjoyable.


One way to avoid these problems is to drain five villagers of their blood. Doing so transforms Dracula into a bat. Whaddya mean, “what bat?” It’s that clump of white pixels next to the villager at the bottom-left… oh, I see what you mean. You were confused because it doesn’t look much like a bat. Fair enough. Anyway, it’s only a temporary transformation, but while you are a bat you’re invincible and can fly in whatever direction you like, so use the opportunity to get as far down the tower as you can.


I made it to the exit, eventually. Drac’s going to have to start setting his alarm clock earlier than midnight if he ever plans on getting anything done, because that was one hell of a trek. I’m sure you’re all excited to see what Dracula’s carriage looks like.


Like a top hat with pretzels for wheels, that’s what. You’d think the Prince of Darkness could have rustled up a bigger horse.


Once you arrive at the village, you’ll realise that Drac’s Night Out is now a completely different game. Rather than a trap-triggering semi-platformer, you’re now in a top-down landscape full of houses with one goal: to find Mina. She’s in one of the village houses, and you have to collect various items and clues to her location so you can track her down before sunrise. Maybe I’ll just start going door-to-door. This is just some hamlet tucked away in the Carpathian mountains, right? It shouldn't take long to check each house in turn.


Ah. “Village” seems to have been something of an underestimation. What the hell is this, Dracula Takes Manhattan? A town this size needs some kind of mass transit system, I’m already getting tired of walking Dracula round the place. I’d like to hop aboard the Night Bus – which sounds like Dracula should be riding it anyway – but instead I’m stuck wandering the streets.


You first task is to eat some villagers. They have to be specific villagers, mind you. I’ve managed to capture the three main types in the screenshot above, so here’s a quick breakdown. The guy with the cart at the bottom-left can’t be eaten, but one of these vendors is carrying the town map so make sure you find that as quickly as you can. The three stooges walking shoulder-by-shoulder in the middle of the screen are the classic angry mob. If three people can even qualify as a “mob,” I mean. The mobs walk the moonlit streets, and if Dracula collides with them he’ll be killed, so most of the “gameplay” during the town section consists of trying to the lure the road-spanning groups of peasants out of the way so you can head to your destination without getting a pitchfork in the unmentionables.
The final type of villager is the little old ladies, who you can see on the middle-left of the screen. Those you can eat, and in fact you must do so to make progress. Dracula can enter pretty much every building in the village, but all the doors are locked and the only way to get keys is by killing villagers. There are a couple of other items they can also drop, but for now we want keys so we can enter houses and get hints on Mina’s location.


I guess vampires don’t have to be invited in in this universe, unless the rules are extremely fuzzy and this old man’s “welcome” mat counts as an invite. Dracula bursts into the man’s front room, and whether out of raw terror or a general sense of sociopathy, the old man gives Drac his first hint.


That’s… that’s a weirdly specific piece of information to divulge, old man. I really hope you’re a teacher at that school and you’ve seen Mina nearby. If not, get that story in place for when the police come to question you, and thanks for betraying your fellow humans without having me resort to physical violence.


It’s a little hard to see, by the old man has indeed marked the school on my map. It’s right down in the bottom-right corner. So, about as far away as possible from my current position. Thanks for that, Drac’s Night Out.
Despite my grumbling, you can see that this is a very useful hint that does a lot to narrow down Drac’s search radius. It did cost me one key to get here and receive the hint, but it was definitely worth it. This isn’t always the case, especially if you don’t have the map. Obviously the old men can’t mark locations on a map you don’t possess, so instead they tend to give you much vaguer hints like “there is a sheep near Mina’s” location. Unfortunately this is a large town is also fifty percent petting zo, and there are horses and sheep all over the bloody place. Also, alligators infest the rivers, which might explain why people aren’t as worried about Dracula as you might expect them to be. The Prince of Darkness might not come down from his castle, but there’s always an alligator in the back garden.


Another type of villager you can “meet” are these sleeping ladies. If you creep up to them, Dracula will drink their blood and turn them into his slaves. That’s what’s happening in the screenshot above. You’d have thought the vampire lord would have bitten their neck rather than trying to drain their blood by biting their toes through the bedsheets, but he’s got a system and it works for him.


Once the woman is under your thrall, they leave the house and guide you towards Mina’s house for a little while before stopping and pointing towards your goal. You know, think I understand why this game was never released. Reebok wanted a tie-in game for their new shoes, but the developers came back with a game where you play as a bloodthirsty creature of darkness who prowls into women’s rooms at night, drinking their blood and turning them into mindless puppets who help their demonic master to stalk some other poor woman. From a marketing perspective, it’s not a great fit, is it? Like, what was the intended message here? “Wear our new trainers and you’ll be better at tracking down victims and draining the life-force from hundreds of innocent souls”? I have to assume it was Reebok who passed on Drac’s Night Out being released. What a truly bizarre game this is.


One other complication on the “overworld” are certain locked gates, which can only be opened by four-leafed clovers. You get the clover in the same way as you get the keys, but they have a much lower drop rate so there were several occasions where I had Dracula roaming the streets looking for peasant women to eat on the off chance one of them was carrying a bit of foliage. I can almost see the confused looks on the developer’s faces when they realised they needed to include an item for unlocking gates but they’d already used keys for something else. Four-leafed clovers? Sure, why the hell not. It makes about as much sense as a vampire’s movement speed being increased three-fold by basketball shoes.


After making my way through the locked gates to the south-east of the map and “enlisting” the “help” of a few more hapless maidens, I managed to find Mina. You can tell it’s Mina by the flawless, radiant beauty she possesses that has so bewitched Dracula. Okay, so you can actually recognise Mina by her blue dress.


Drac’s Night Out has a real problem with tone, huh? All that blood-drinking and maiden enslavement and yet here’s Mina happily going off with Dracula without a care in the world, both of them looking like Transylvanian relatives of the Monopoly guy. Hold up, Dracula was wearing Pumps the entire time? Then why did picking up new shoes give him powers? Is he wearing two pairs at once? What the hell is going on in the game?!


Well, I can at least tell you what’s going on in the second stage of the game – the exact same thing as in the first stage. Once you’ve found Mina it’s on to the next day, and Dracula springs from his coffin, tries to make it down the tower and, erm, find Mina again. This goes on for five tower-town cycles before the game ends, and by the end of the second run you’ll be screaming at Drac to implant some kind of tracking chip under Mina’s skin.


In fact, the rest of the game is so repetitive I could probably get away with ending the article here. You wouldn’t be missing much, but there are a couple of things I want to mention so here goes.
The biggest change in later stages is that there are now multiple connected tower, each with their own colour scheme like this very CGA-looking area. You move between the towers by walking through doors at the left or right edge of the screen, and obviously this makes descending the tower that much more difficult and time-consuming as you make progress, reach an obstacle, and then move “sideways” to a different tower to bypass said obstacle.


Slogging through the tower over and over again, with a lot of each stage being constructed from parts identical to previous stages, was not a task that filled me with much enthusiasm. However, my rapidly-souring mood was saved by the appearance of this pumpkin-headed ghost. What a darling treasure this apparition is, and helpful to boot – his wandering and wailing paralysed the nearby villagers for long enough that I could murder them. But, uh, in a fun and cutesy way, I guess?


Speaking of fun and cutesy, just look at the pumpkin ghost’s face. What an angel. Fire up the tattoo gun, I’m coming in with a printed-out NES screenshot and a song in my heart.


As for the town scenes, they really are identical, except Mina’s in a different house. Apart from the time she was in the same house as the first town stage. I think I actually prefer the town stages to the tower parts, mostly because I’m not fighting against Dracula’s overly-fussy controls and constant death via unexpected rolling boulders. One thing I do like about them are these slightly larger angry mobs, because these ones actually are carrying pitchforks, and the roaming mobs are a fun concept for a combination enemy-slash-obstacle.


I also managed to find a magic lamp, and rather than wishing for something useful like some kind of Mina delivery service or even her goddamn address, Dracula can use the lamps to travel though the underground passages found inside certain houses. There are several problems with this. The first is that you have no way of knowing where the tunnel leads. You’ll arrive at some random house once you’re done. It’s also where Drac’s Night Out’s status as an unfinished prototype feels most apparent, because all you do is hold right on the d-pad. Deadly-looking items do fall from the ceiling, but they never seemed to effect Drac even when an arrow landed right on his bonce.


I suppose that’s about all I have to say about Drac’s Night Out, one of the weirdest games I’ve played in a while. As with any unreleased game I play, the big question is always “is it a shame that the game was cancelled?” and in this case I’m going to say… sort of? I’d need to know a bit more about how close this version is to the intended final product, because it definitely still needs some work. It doesn’t control very well, at times it becomes frustratingly difficult and annoyingly vague about what you’re supposed to be doing and the repetitive natures of both types of gameplay quickly becomes tiresome.


Oh, and one of the stages begins in complete darkness, which is some bullshit.
However, if they fixed up a few of the issues I think there are enough interesting concepts here to make Drac’s Night Out enjoyable. The idea of playing as Dracula in a castle full of traps and monsters that you can unleash on the villagers is a fun one, and although it’s been done better by similarly-themed games like Dungeon Keeper another take on it wouldn’t be a bad thing. My best solution would have been to remove the “platforming” entirely, if I’m honest. As for the town sections, they just need more variety and maybe less of a feeling that everyone is super-helpful and will do whatever Dracula tells them, the spineless wimps. So, in summary, Drac’s Night Out could have been pretty decent, but it isn’t. I didn’t need to play through the entire game to figure that out, but I did, just in case there was an ending.


There was not.


And so to the Halloween-O-Meter, where I’ve decided that Drac’s Night Out deserves and eight out of ten. A little harsh? Maybe, and that pumpkin ghost definitely makes a strong case for a higher rating, but I find myself unable to go any higher than an eight for something that’s an advert for athletic shoes.

7 comments:

  1. It seems obvious to me that Drac wears The Pump because the custom fit ensures his kicks don't fall off when he turns into a bat.

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    Replies
    1. You'd think the big shoes would weigh a bat down...

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    2. Maybe he keeps the air bladders filled with helium?

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  2. One of the games developers said the game was completed. So I guess this is pretty much the finale product.

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    Replies
    1. Oh. Well, in that case it's not a great game! (and surely they were going to add a better ending than that.)

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  3. Make a review of Midnight Mutants!

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    Replies
    1. At the rate I'm going I'll have covered every retro Halloween-appropriate game soon enough!

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