When I was young, I had never seen any of the classic Universal monster movies. I had only vague ideas of what creatures like Dracula and Frankenstein were about. They are so much a part of popular culture that by the time I heard of them they were so played out that they were very hard to take seriously, even for a child. When I was a teen I read Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein and found them to be very deep and subtle horror stories that have stood up very well over the years. With a newfound respect for these characters I was curious to see how they had been presented in other media, and after being seeped in Universal and Hammer films, I went to see how games had treated them. For Dracula it was simple. He had shown up in numerous games throughout the years, but is most well known as the main antagonist of the Castlevania series. It didn’t take much to find him, but Frankenstein’s monster was another story. Although there are some examples of his presence in games, it is usually as a lackey for Dracula in Castlevania.
Occasionally he got a strange one off game. There was even a game that attempted to ape the Castlevania format, but failed due to absurd difficulty and broken game design. However there was one game that stood out to me. It was an adaptation of Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the Sega CD.
I had seen Branagh’s film a few years earlier and was not very impressed. Despite its ambition of being the most faithful adaptation of Shelley’s work, it had very poor pacing and almost no subtlety. Aspects like Robert De Niro as the Creature, and the elaborate set designs were commendable, but the generally over the top performances as well as a few baffling story changes brought down the experience. In many ways it was reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which also tended to sacrifice substance for style.
There was an adaptation of the film released for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, however that version was a very unimpressive action platformer. The version for the Sega CD drew from multiple gameplay genres including point and click adventure, top down action, and even 2D fighting.
This adaptation presents a unique take on the story. Rather than follow Victor Frankenstein, the young doctor who creates a monster, the game puts you in the role of the monster. Finding himself with new life, the Creature seeks to know who he is and what his purpose in life is. Dr. Frankenstein, horrified by his creation abandons the Creature leaving it to the cruelty of world that fears it just because of its hideous appearance. Now the creature must travel across Europe to find his maker and find the reason for its existence.
I have to say, the narrative, though taking great liberties with the source material, is very interesting. The creature is presented in a sympathetic light all throughout the story. At no point does he go on a murderous rampage, or even take part in his “revenge” against Victor from the original book. All the conflict comes from either people antagonizing him or him fighting to defend others. It is a very refreshing take on a well known story. Of course, to make this work, almost everyone you encounter is either ridiculously evil, or utterly oblivious to the creature’s appearance. Also, by removing the Creature’s revenge, there is a major plot point that is altered. In the story, the Creature kills those dear to Victor, the last victim being his wife, Elizabeth, when the doctor refuses to make a companion for the Creature. In the film, a distraught Victor decides to make the companion out of Elizabeth’s corpse to bring her back. This does not go well.
The game changes the whole scenario. When Victor backs out of making another monster, rather than the Creature killing Elizabeth, she decides to fight the Creature in one on one combat. The image of Helena Bonham Carter fist fighting Robert De Niro is one of those things I can take off my bucket list.
After the fight, Victor creates the companion, but unlike the film where she freaks out, she actually rejects Victor and goes with the Creature. And in a strange way, it’s kind of a satisfying turn of events after all The Creature has been through.
There are two main gameplay styles at play here. The majority of the game is played in a side-scrolling adventure style (Above). Although it has the bearing and presentation of a point and click game, you control the Creature with the controller. Most of these sections involve basic puzzle solving and fetch quests for the NPCs. They are not that complicated, but on occasion if can be hard to distinguish items you can take from the background design. It is not always that clear what you need to do for some of the tasks, but if you pay attention you’ll do fine. Most areas tend to be broken up by top down screens where for you to explore areas like Geneva and Ingolstadt (Below).
The other mode of play is rather peculiar. On occasion, you will be accosted by city guards, wild animals, frightened villagers, and of course Elizabeth. These segments play like any other 2D fighter like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. You have basic attacks like punching and kicking and a couple of special attacks like a charging head-butt and a roundhouse kick. These sections move very smoothly and play very well. Most enemies have a specific attack pattern that, once learned, can be exploited to win. An important note is that you have a continuous health bar. If you are hurt in the exploration segments, you will have less health in fights. This can be worrisome if you aren’t careful. Losing a life puts you right outside a fight, but if you get a game over you go back to the title screen. Fortunately you can save at the start of each level, but it’s still a bit of a hassle.
The presentation is admirable. Far too many Sega CD games rely on poorly digitized character models on blue-screened sets. All the characters in this game are rotoscoped sprites over pre-rendered backgrounds. It makes everything look more natural and the large fighting mode characters look very nicely done. As a small addition, every item can be looked at with it’s own 3D rendered image. There are a few cut scenes in the game and they use 3D graphics, and one very well animated 2D cutscene. Unfortunately, to make them fit on the CD they are very dark and heavily interlaced (Below). They are fine for what they set out to do, and I kind of prefer them to poorly digitized film clips. The music is pretty good. It’s all very moody and gothic. Fitting for the game. There are tracks that can grate on your nerves, but they are few.
I was very impressed with this game. It is not the best adventure game I’ve played, even on the Sega CD, but it was ambitious and that’s something I really respect in games. It is clear that effort went into this project. I appreciate the variety in gameplay and the pleasing graphics. I again, commend the original take on the story. Although most tellings of Frankenstein do let you sympathize with the Creature at some point, few portray him as a figure that is wholly a victim, or one who comes to terms with his isolation and even, in a strange way, “gets the girl” in the end.
There are points where the game is undeniably clunky, but the variety on hand makes for a rather enjoyable experience. This isn’t the kind of game to set the world on fire, but it does help one justify owning a Sega CD.