While the original Castlevania is often remembered on the NES, many often forget that there was also a similar game released for the MSX titled Vampire Killer. It had the same story, soundtrack and the visual-style of the NES-version, but the gameplay was quite different. This is understandable, since both titles were developed at the same time and released for different systems. With a different take on what many consider to be the formula of the original Castlevania, was it for the better?
Castlevania: Now with treasure-hunting!
You once again traverse through Dracula’s castle on your journey to take him and other famous horror-creatures down. The enemies and even the stages share similarities to the NES-version, with underground caves and the clocktower being present with hunchbacks, bats and of course the infamous Medusa-heads. What is different, is the much less linear approach, making the game have more in common with Metroid, with each area of the stage being shown screen by screen, similar to the original Zelda. The areas are often very similar to each other, having each screen only giving you a somewhat different layout and maybe a trap or two. What you do in them is usually the same as well, making for a repetitive ride.
Having more in common with Metroid, you have to search the areas throughout to get to a different area. You traverse through parts of the stages, searching for a big key to open the main door to the next part of the stage or to a boss. There are also smaller chests that can be opened with smaller keys that are also hidden, candles that can be destroyed for goodies and merchants you can purchase items or equipment from with hearts being in-game currency this time. Items vary from potions to restore health to temporary abilities, such as rings to make you invincible for a short time.
The equipment is interesting, with shields that have different uses, scrolls to show the map and even different weapons this time. The weapons range from the traditional whip that can be upgraded once, axes and crosses that can be thrown as a boomerang, and the throwing knife These are not sub-weapons anymore, but simply equipped weapons. Sub-weapons have been simplified to only the Stopwatch and the Holy Water, each costing 5 hearts to use. The Stopwatch still stops time for 5 seconds and the Holy Water can be thrown to the ground and deals massive damage to enemies.
What might be at first a turnoff to many is that the more important items, such as keys to get to the next level, are hidden inside invisible walls that must be broken with your weapons. This could potentially be a terrible excuse to prolong the game, but they are usually easy to find and you can even acquire a candle that shows you which walls can be broken, making it so you are never stopped for too long. There is also the possibility to buy a map, so confusion is less of an issue, even if the stages can be big.
Simon Belmont controls a bit stiffer than before, but it is not a big deal since the enemies aren’t as plentiful or harsh as before, and you are well-equipped anyway. Even the bosses that are mostly taken from the NES version are not as hard either, since you can be really powerful due to Simon’s equipment. What is a pain, however, is that the hit-detection is off and often feels like you have to be up-close to enemies to deal damage, making the whip an unfavorable weapon and killing monsters a chore. Should you also bite the dust, you will lose all of your acquired upgrades, items and hearts. When the 3 lives are gone, you will also start from the very beginning of the game. This makes the journey unbalanced and can make the difference between an easy time and a harsh playthrough.
Having more focus on exploration makes for an interesting take on the formula and with elements making the journey less confusing, and items and equipment helping you throughout the game, makes it a decent experience. The stages don’t vary much from each other, enemies are not as huge of a threat as before and our hero can easily become overpowered. Combine this with the way too harsh punishment and the game being slower overall, it can be a bit of a mixed ride throughout the 1 and a half hour of playthrough.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Same style, different engine
The presentation is really similar to the NES-version, but the use of colors in each stage is limited, making it not as artistically intriguing as it could have been. The enemy-design and our hero look good and the game in general is less pixelated than the NES-version. The levels differ from each other, but the levels themselves aren’t as diverse or interesting as before, making them forgettable. The game has a good visual presentation though, even if it is not great artistically and a bit too repetitive.
The music has all the tracks from the NES and it makes good use of MSX’ chiptune abilities. All the songs are here and still iconic, gothic, action-packed and a joy to listen to, from the famous Vampire Killer to the End-stage-theme.
Presentation Score: 7/10
While it could have used a bit tweaking to make the game less repetitive and better hit-detection, it is still an interesting take on the original game and comes recommended for those who have traversed through the NES-classic many times. There are better Metroid games and of course: metroidvania-games, but this is a decent start and can be an enjoyable time if you enjoy a good treasure-hunt and don’t need anything else.