Almost every film version of Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula has deemed it necessary to change major elements of the plot. The original Universal film changed names, character motives, and omitted major events. The Hammer film Horror of Dracula remained closer to the book, but still changed major plot points and names. Some more recent pictures have deliberately set out to change things in order to keep the story fresh, such as Dracula 2000, in which the Count is really Judas Iscariot, cursed by god to live forever, or Dracula Untold, wherein Dracula is really Vlad Tepes, a Romanian nobleman who willingly took on the vampire curse to save his people.
When I first read Dracula, I was very surprised at how far off base the movies were. Here was a fantastic gothic horror story. One where the villain’s actions are felt rather than observed, where pieces of the puzzle come together in the background of the personal narratives of the characters. It didn’t make sense to change so much from the book in adaptation, so why had no film ever taken Stoker’s original story to heart? This question burned in my mind, for just prior to reading the novel I had seen Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt to bring the original story to the big screen with 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
At the time I saw this movie, the only real thing I knew about it was that at some point, Dracula has a ridiculous double beehive hairdo. I watched the movie and was struck by how inexplicably bad it was. This was one of the worst examples of style over substance I had ever seen. Almost all of the actors were going way over the top, and some were very miscast. Gary Oldman played Dracula as a bipolar fop, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker was wooden as might be expected, but the bad English accent made things awkward, Wynona Rider as Mina Murray constantly came across as a whiny, selfish brat, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing was just a blunt jerk who hardly seemed to care about any of this colleagues, and almost all of the other main characters were just forgettable to the point that it was hard to care about them when they suffered. On top of all of this was an out of place amount of sexual tension that really didn’t fit the period or the tone. After I had read the book it was odd just how much the movie had kept from the story, but gotten completely wrong in tone and structure. The movie changed personalities and character motivations. They threw in this weird reincarnation love triangle that wasn’t in the book. They tried to make Dracula sympathetic while still including the unapologetically horrible stuff he does in the original story. For all the effort that went into the production, Coppola’s film was a massive let down.
It was some time later that I came to know that there was a video game made based on the movie. Even though I considered the film a dud, I was still curious to see how a game might turn out. After all, Castlevania was a huge success, and the premise of Dracula certainly had the makings of a good game. While researching the game it came to light that there was not just one, but five different games released around the same time, produced by the same publisher and developer, across several home consoles and computers. This was an interesting prospect. The publisher, Sony Imagesoft, and the developer, Psygnosis, had spread their resources thin for these projects, and it made me wonder, could there be a worthwhile game among the lot? With so much variety, maybe these developers had hit on something with at least one of these ideas.
The 8-Bit Version: NES, Sega Master System, Gameboy, Game Gear
The story is very brief. Dracula has placed the vampire’s curse on Mina Murray, and as Jonathan Harker, you must track down the count and kill him to free her. The stages are loosely based on scenes from the film, having you go to Castle Dracula, to Hillingham Estate in London, and back to Transylvania.
The game is an action platformer. You control Harker through winding levels, gathering items and weapons to fights enemies like spiders, bats, and skeletons. Half way through most levels you will fight a mid-boss, often Dracula’s vampire brides, and at the end you will fight the count himself in one of the forms he takes in the film. This is a little interesting since it offers some variety in the levels, but at around the mid point of the game, they start to repeat boss encounters, and it loses its pizzazz. This is also one of those games that require you to play on a harder difficulty to see the later levels.
The game weapons and items you find are contained in Mario style “?” Blocks, called pick up boxes in the manuals. They range from rocks and torches to axes. These weapons you throw at distant enemies, but when an enemy or pick up box is close enough, you will attack with a small punch or slash. You also have to ability to do a ground pound to break certain surfaces, but this is only necessary a couple of times. When you reveal an item, it begins to float away. This can be a pain, because you will hit most pick up boxes from below and you cannot stand on an open box.
The graphics vary on each system, although they are just variations on the same assets. The NES version’s graphics rather barebones, but is quite colorful.
The Gameboy version suffers from being very zoomed in. It seems that they wanted to keep the detail of the NES game, but to do that they had to restrict your field of view. This make it hard to tell where you are going to land with most jumps and the enemies have a tendency to come right out of nowhere.
The Master System version has superior graphics. The larger color pallet allows for greater detail.
The Game Gear version is almost the same as the Master System version, but it suffers the same screen crunch experienced on the Gameboy.
The music in this version by Jeroen Tei is basically the same across the board, and it’s not very good. Some of the music is okay, but most of it is very grating and unpleasant. The Sega versions also have a small difference from the Nintendo ones; a small voice clip that says “Dracula” at the title.
This game is alright. It isn’t a terrible game, but it’s not that great either. It doesn’t attempt to copy the Castlevania formula, opting for a more original style, but it doesn’t get anywhere close to that standard of quality. The Gameboy version was probably the worst to play, but that was mainly because of the limitations of the system. The Master System version was the best, mainly because of the superior graphics.
The 16-Bit Version: SNES, Sega Genesis
The story is the same chopped up retelling from the 8-bit version, however this is not merely a port of that game. The 16-bit consoles got a side scrolling hack and slash platformer with all new assets. The levels are more dynamic and do a much better job of following the scenes from the film. Yet in spite of the improvements, the game feels a little incomplete.
The gameplay this time round is a little bit faster. Although you start the game with just a small knife you quickly discover a sword that you use throughout the game. In each level there will be one of two goals. Either go right till you find a boss, or go on a brief scavenger hunt to find the exit. The second goal is a bit odd. In certain levels you will have to find a man, presumably Abraham Van Helsing, who will then think of an item. That item will appear somewhere in the map and you can choose to either grab it, or just go to the exit. A couple of levels, like the library and Hillingham estate, require you to find some sort of switch or key. These levels can be a little annoying on a first try as you can usually miss whatever it was you needed to grab or hit.
The combat is also wonky. Attacking doesn’t stagger enemies and the hit detection is imprecise, so often times you’ll find yourself mashing the attack button, waving your sword at enemies until the unceremoniously poof away. You also have no invincibility frames when you are hurt, allowing your health to drain away very fast when something like a spike trap gets you. The secondary weapons you find are also rather useless. They are all just variations on throwing an item that hardly does anymore damage than a sword slash. Picking up an alt weapon replaces the one you currently have so you can’t build an arsenal.
Both versions of this one look almost exactly the same in terms of graphics and color. They have large sprites and some very fluid animation. The Super Nintendo version looks a little bland with the colors are kind of washed out, but it has vastly superior music. When I said this game feels incomplete I was mainly referring to this one. It feels like it was at an early stage of development with such bland gameplay and the general lack of variation. Besides the audio, it doesn’t take advantage of what the SNES could do.
The Genesis version is much more vibrant. It has all the same assets, but the field of view is just a bit wider than the other one, which really helps with the gameplay. I get the impression that this version had a bit more time in development, mainly because of a few small things that give it more polish. The life bar on the Sega version has more detailed vials, while they are just black outlines on the SNES, your lives are displayed as the small Harker 1ups you find whereas they are just dots in the SNES, the animations look better with the slightly pulled out field of view, and the Sega version has an extra sub-weapon: a revolver.
Andy Brock composed the music this time and it is much more cohesive than Tei’s. It is much moodier and ominous, and feels more in line with the atmosphere the game is trying for. Unfortunately, the Genesis sound card doesn’t perform very well, and some of the tracks are a little out of place at times.
This one is more impressive than the 8-bit version. It has better graphics, but it all feels unrefined and lacking in polish, which is probably the result of having so many teams working on different versions of the same project. Although the SNES sounds better, the Genesis version is the superior edition in terms of graphics and gameplay. It really does feel like they had a bit more effort put into it before publishing, but only just so.
The Sega CD Version
The story this time is altered strangely than the others, which barely touched on it. Jonathan Harker is a vampire hunter who sets out to destroy Dracula. Mina is never mentioned, but a reanimated Lucy Westenra serves as a boss and refers to Harker as her love, which makes no sense. The levels follow the same pattern as in the other games, but are now connected with very confusing snippets from the film. Often these clips have little to nothing to do with what’s happening in the level, and are really only there to show off what the Sega CD can do, but it’s not very impressive since they are so heavily compressed and have no original audio.
Here we see a shift in the gameplay from action platforming, to side-scrolling fighting. Although the game is clearly going for a sort of Double Dragon-esque style, the visual design prevents it from being nearly that dynamic. Because the levels are all pre-rendered FMVs that scroll behind you as you more to the right, you are restricted to just moving back and forth in a straight line, and since there are so few humanoid enemies the game almost feels like a slow, clunky side-scrolling shooter with no shooting. Bats, Birds, and rats all come at you Galaga style, and your slow movement usually just results in you taking a hit from just about every enemy that comes your way. There are other hazards that come from the foreground and the background, as well as some small platforming challenges, but the sluggish and imprecise controls almost guarantees that you’ll get hit. Unlike the previous games, Harker has no weapons, opting to take on the evil hoards with his bare hands. Your attacks feel very weak and have little reach. The whole experience is laborious.
This game has very poor presentation. The main selling point is the advanced 3D graphics, but in reality the levels are just pre-rendered FMV corridors. As you move foreword the background moves slightly, but you cannot go back. The CG backgrounds also emphasize the jarring, digitized Harker model. His animation is very choppy and just looks like a man awkwardly walking in front of a blue screen. The bland, animated enemies do not help this effect. Each level is introduced by a narrator with a thick Romanian accent, who describes what’s coming next. The quality of the voice clips is pretty good, but most of the sound effects in the game proper are pretty weak and unimpressive.
The music produced by Mike Clarke this time, is not that great. It’s mostly this overly loud organ music that is somewhat fitting, but not very appropriate for the underwhelming action in the game. Occasionally there is a brief sound clip from Wojciech Kilar’s score from the movie, but it is rare and a shame that it wasn’t the main source of music in the game.
This was a very unpleasant game, and it makes you appreciate the other versions despite their flaws. It is a shame that the developers opted to go over the top with the bleeding edge technology and tried to show off rather than taking their 16-bit version and improving in it. Given all the versions, this one was probably the most expensive to produce and it is a real pity that it didn’t turn out better.
The Amiga Version
The Amiga version’s story, although similarly cut down, is a bit closer to the source material. Harker is again out to kill Dracula, but rather than just chase the Count through the film’s highlights, the main goal in each level is something right out of the story proper. You must explore each level to find boxes of Transylvanian soil. This comes from a key element of the original story, that Dracula couldn’t just sleep anywhere in a coffin, he had to rest in the hallowed ground of his native land. In essence, this is so far the most faithful game.
In terms of gameplay, this is another beat ‘em up. In fact all the enemies and characters are reused from the Sega CD version. Because of this the combat is just as jerky and imprecise as that version. A unique feature in this version is the ability to use a holy cross as a projectile weapon. It blasts enemies with waves of death. Each level sees you exploring locations from the film searching for Dracula’s boxes and once you destroy the last one, a boss will appear. Once again, most of the enemies are just small nuisances that are hard to hit, and the lack of enemy variation is dull.
Although the theme music composed by Kevin Collier is nice, it is the only music in the entire game. The rest of it is completely silent. The presentation over all is okay. The sprites have been drawn over so they stand out less than they did on the Sega CD and fit in more with the backgrounds. The levels also lack variety. Just about all of them are ruined houses or castles and most of the rooms look exactly the same. Despite being a step in the right direction, it’s use of the poor Sega CD assets, but not its gameplay results in an experience that is more cohesive, but less striking.
The MS-DOS Version
In a strange twist, the Dos version of Dracula is a first person adventure game, more in the style of Ultima Underworld than Doom. The story and objective is the same as the Amiga version, destroying Dracula’s resting places.
Each level has you explore a location like the village in Bukovina, or the grounds at Hillingham. You find items that you carry in an inventory and can attack with either a gun or a knife. The main goal is to find artifacts like holy water or the host with which to purify the Transylvanian soil. You fight roaming skeletons, werewolves, zombies, and hypnotized people. This is one of the few early first person games to use a mouse interface for attacks rather than just having you face an enemy and hold fire until they die. The combat is more dynamic than most, but the large levels and the maze like designs get old fast.
The music was produced by a group called Pearl Music. It’s alright. It’s nothing too spectacular, has no music from the film, and no variations on music from the other versions. The sound effects are a little annoying. Every time you kill a monster there is this little fanfare that is pretty loud and really kills the mood. This is certainly the most ambitious title, but still suffers from rather monotonous presentation.
The lesson to be taken from these games is that developers should not spread their resources too thin. All of the different versions all have the kernel of a good idea in them, but none of them feel like they’ve had enough time in development individually. The 8-bit version is completely playable, but it has some gameplay quirks that need to be ironed out, the 16-bit version really feels like it needed more time under the hood, though this is truer for the SNES than it is for the Genesis, the Sega CD version is nearly unplayable, the Amiga version has the right idea, but the assets from the Sega CD version and the lack of music makes for a dull game, and the DOS version, although the most technically impressive version does not have the depth of its Ultima contemporary or the frantic energy of other FPS games of the time.
Personally, I think that Stoker’s novel has not been done justice on film since Nosferatu, which ironically was a plagiarized version of Dracula before Stoker’s estate sued. Coppola’s film had a large amount of talent and resources behind it, but I fear that we will never see a film that gets closer to the source material. As for gaming, Castlevania remains the reigning champion of Dracula games, in spite of their tenuous connection to the book. It doesn’t capture the tension of the story, but still provide an excellent gaming experience.