Last time out I covered All Hallows, a spooky 2018 ZX Spectrum game with lovely graphics and a fun movement mechanic that made controlling your pumpkin character a real pleasure. Today’s game is superficially similar in that it’s spooky ZX Spectrum game, but that’s where similarities end. There’ll be no charmingly animated jack o’lanterns merrily bouncing around the screen in this one, I’m afraid. It’s pretty much just doors, and a character that walks like each shoe contains a live and very sensitive piranha. Welcome to the 1984 hobble-em-up Vampire Killer!
Sadly Vampire Killer has nothing to do with the Castlevania franchise, despite sharing a name with both a famous music track from that series and the MSX version of the first Castlevania game. There might not be a connection, but I would recommend listening to a version of Vampire Killer while playing this game. It will increase your enjoyment of the experience by roughly thirty thousand percent.
Not that there’s nothing to enjoy about Vampire Killer; there’s this loading screen, for one thing. I’m definitely enjoying this, especially as I ponder whether the vampire intentionally shaped his cape so it forms the silhouette of a big raven, or if that’s just a happy coincidence. Maybe the vampire simply lost a fight with a sleeping bag. Who can say? What I can say is that Dracula here is not having a fun time as a vampire. That’s the face of someone realising they have to subsist solely on blood forever more. Isn’t blood quite fattening? That’s probably why he invested in such a big cape.
A general outline of the game is provided on the title screen. Dracula is sleeping on the twelfth floor, apparently, and despite being thoroughly unsuited to such a macabre undertaking it’s up to you to reach Dracula’s chambers and stake him before the clock strikes midnight. Unfortunately, the lifts are out of order. Bloody typical.
I’ll be going for the easiest difficulty level, so surely I’ll romp through this simple little game with no trouble at all. Vampire Killer was published by a company with the impressive name of Scorpio Gamesworld, but it was was a £1.99 budget release coded by a single bloke called Barry Jones. I tell you this both as trivia about the game and to take your expectations and ram them right into the ground.
This is Vampire Killer. Pretty much all of Vampire Killer, if I’m honest. You’re in control of the blue person at the bottom of the screen, the one with a head shaped like a confused pipe wrench. Starting out on the bottom floor, your goal is to reach the twelfth floor and eliminate Dracula, all within a strict eight-minute time limit. I say eight minutes, I’m not entirely sure that the eight minute timer is accurate. You do have to be quick, though, because Vampire Killer offers very little leeway for dallying or indeed dawdling.
Some issues are immediately apparent. One is that your character jerks across the screen like a poorly-drawn flip book. Vampire Killer is not a fast-paced action game, that’s for sure, although we could always attribute our hero’s cumbersome gait to a reluctance to, you know, face Dracula. Also a problem are this big yellow spider and low-flying bat. They’re blocking our path, but there’s nothing much I can do about them at the moment and touching them results in instant death.
Yeah, like that. Bitten by a spider… to death! I don’t know whether that means the spider bit once and injected deadly venom or if it spent some time gnawing on our hero until his leg dropped off and he bled to death, but this is Dracula’s castle so all manner of terrifying scenarios are possible. Okay, not Dracula’s castle. Dracula’s mansion, possibly. Dracula’s apartment block might be more accurate, although as we shall see I don’t think this place belongs to Dracula. He’s just squatting here, the shiftless freeloader.
With no way past the deadly creatures, it’s time to start opening doors. Every door you see can be opened, with your nosiness having several possible results.
The most common result is that you’ll find a room. Sometimes the rooms have things inside, like much smaller and presumably less bitey spiders, crucifixes and big boxes of bullets. Anything you find in a room is automatically added to your inventory, and now that I’ve found some bullets I can shoot the creatures that were blocking the way forwards. You only get a few bullets per box, by the way. I think it’s four bullets per box, so going by the size of the box each bullet must be about two feet long.
Half the time you’ll find an empty room – a time-waster, a pointless diversion but at least one that doesn’t actively harm you. It’s just that, like, no-one plays computer games to look at empty rooms, right? There could have at least been a house plant in the corner or something. A haunted house plant, if you like.
I eventually made it to the second floor. You know how the title screen said the lifts were out of order? Turns out that’s only partly true, and to reach the next storey you have to find the one elevator that takes you up. All the other elevators take you back down. I’d say that “out of order” sort of covers this scenario, but the description did make me think that I’d have to take the stairs or something.
And so on you go, opening doors and trying all the lifts until you move upwards. Each floor looks identical, with the same layout made up of five or so horizontally-arranged screens each containing a couple of green doors and one elevator. Rarely there’s a hole in the floor, and you have a limited amount of “bridges” you can use to fill in the gaps and cross over. I never managed to run out of bridges. I suspect you get exactly as many bridges as there are holes, making the whole bridge thing redundant.
This all means that, in essence, Vampire Killer is a guessing game. The contents of each door seems to be randomised every time you play, so all there is to it is opening doors with your fingers crossed and your eyes half-closed like you're room service at a love hotel. There’s might be something horrible behind any given door, and indeed the game’s instructions do say that some doors lead to “cupboards holding things that will shock you,” things like…
...a skeleton. The terror is palpable. My heart’s pounding, my palms are slick with sweat and yes, that might be because I’m dangerously out of shape and I just had to dash upstairs to answer my phone but I’m sure the skeleton is a contributing factor. Perhaps it’s a more psychological fear, because this is literally a skeleton in the closet so maybe it represents the dark secrets of your past being dragged into the light of day. Chilling!
Opening a shocking door does nothing except deplete your shock meter. If the shock meter reaches zero, then that’s a game over.
Overcome by fear, our hero bolts from the house and you get this wonderful little screen. I wonder what swear word those characters are masking? Trying to figure that out might be more fun than actually playing the game, but I promise I’ll get back to Vampire Killer rather than wasting time pondering whether he’s saying “bugger!” or “shitbag.” I suppose it depends whether the exclamation mark is an exclamation mark, or part of the censorship.
I also like that the incredibly narrow shape of the house implies that Dracula really is hiding in a building that’s nothing more than a series of long corridors.
Back to poking around the many, many rooms of the building. This time, I found a small clump of the Incredible Hulk’s pubes. Dracula must be bricking it. Okay, so what is that green stuff supposed to be?
Oh, garlic, right. I’ve also collected a hammer and stake, plus a crucifix. To reiterate, all of these vampire-slaying tools were laying around in Dracula’s hideout. It’s very unlucky for Dracula that the only available place to take refuge was a combination hardware store / French restaurant owned by observant Catholics. It’s like me sheltering in a cottage built from supermarket own-brand doughnuts and doner kebabs, the instruments of my demise all around me.
Having collected at least one of every anti-vampire tool, I redoubled my efforts to reach the highest floor. Here’s the thing about Vampire Killer: it’s boring. Deeply boring, punishingly slow, relentlessly tedious, a great thick soup of dullness seeping from every miserable second of the gameplay as your little man trudges from one identical screen to the next. I’ve written about a lot of incredibly bad games over the years, but in most cases those games were so dreadful that I wasn’t bored, exactly. Vampire Killer, however, might well be the most boring game I’ve ever played and last weekend I was “playing” a French dictionary on the Game Boy with my nephew. I’m worried I might yawn so hard that my lower jaw will snap off and wound a passer-by. Isn’t there anything that can inject a little excitement into this game, he said in a manner that is definitely tempting fate?
Well, sometimes you can open one of the identical doors and rather than a room or a spooky skeleton it’s just a hole that sends you all the way back to the first goddamn floor. Yes, the shaft is definitely what you’re getting here. This does imply that our hero is stepping straight into rooms without looking inside them first, although to be fair playing Vampire Killer is making me want to throw myself down an elevator shaft so maybe that’s what’s going on. If you fall into a shaft you might as well start the entire game again, because the tight time limit means you’ve got no chance of making it back to the top of the house.
This building is quite obviously not twelve stories tall. I feel lied to. The timer runs out and Dracula turns into a bat and flies off into the night, looking for virgin blood and a new roosting spot that doesn’t look like Simon Belmont’s supply cupboard. Our hero looks on helplessly. This is appropriate, as they’ve done everything else in this game helplessly, too.
I loaded up a new game and this time, through the magic of making a save-state before I opened every single sodding door, I made it to the twelfth floor. All that’s left to do now is check each door until I find the one that leads to Dracula’s lair. It’s so close, I can feel it, soon I’ll be done with this bloody game.
At last, it’s here! Dracula’s lair! But I cannot continue because I haven’t found enough. Enough what?! I’ve got at least one of every available item. Do I need more than one hammer? Am I going to come at Dracula with a hammer in each hand and a stake in my mouth? Do I need to make a garlic rope long and thick enough to moor a cruise liner? I demand answers from Vampire Killer, but none are forthcoming. I simply don’t have enough. I sure as shit don’t have enough patience for another run-through of the game, so I’m making the decision to call an end to my time with Vampire Killer.
“S” to self-destruct, huh? Yep, that’s the menu option for me. By the way, selecting the “???” option brings up a list of other games available to buy from the same publisher, which is quite a clever way to get people to look at your advertisement: after all, who’s going to be able to resist hitting the “???” option? I certainly wasn’t. Sadly the effect is hamstrung because you can only see the ad after having played Vampire Killer at least once, and that’s really going to put potential customers off buying any other games from Scorpio Gamesworld.
Vampire Killer is a pretty terrible game, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now. Slow, boring, entirely reliant on random guesswork, boring, frequently punishes the player with no warning and so boring it makes scrubbing your shower seals with a toothbrush look like a fun Sunday afternoon. And yet, I kinda like it. Someone had an idea for a game – not a good idea, granted – and then created the game and it still exists. You can still play it, you can get a taste of the budget computer game market of 1984, you can almost feel the disappointment of having spent one pound and ninety-nine pence on this. Plus I genuinely like the game over screens, they’re fun. And with those straws firmly clutched at, I bid you adieu. I promise the next article won't be a ZX Spectrum game.
I was really hoping a game about assassinating Dracula was going to be more Halloweeny, but alas it’s only the bats and skeletons that make this Halloweeny at all, and not just a man getting lost in a big building. Perhaps an unfair rating because I never actually reached Dracula and maybe he’d be spooky enough to bump the rating up significantly, but I doubt it.
- SPLATTERHOUSE 3 (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)
- NEW GHOSTBUSTERS II (NES)
- VAMPIRE KILLER (ZX SPECTRUM)
- ALL HALLOWS: RISE OF THE PUMPKIN (ZX SPECTRUM)
- GHOUL PATROL (SNES)
- CRUEL GAMES: RED RIDING HOOD (PC)
- CASTLEVANIA: ORDER OF SHADOWS (MOBILE)
- SEIKIMA II: AKUMA NO GYAKUSHUU (FAMICOM)
- SPOOKY COMPUTER GAME COVERS, PART II!
- FRIGHTMARE (COMMODORE 64)
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