Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a eulogised classic novel and A-list nemesis we’re all familiar with in at least one of his manifold guises; everything from vanilla authentic to Count Duckula!
In 1992 Francis Ford Coppola had a stab at spinning the well-worn yarn in a more romantic, misunderstood direction producing yet another movie adaptation, this time starring Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina Murray, Hannibal Lecter as Professor Abraham Van Helsing, and Ted Theodore Logan as Jonathan Harker.
It was this interpretation of the source material that Psygnosis chose on which to base their in-house developed game of the same name. However, arriving two years after the movie, and not capitalising on the license in the least (well except for the GUI graphics snagged from the poster), they may as well have simply adopted the root themes from the public domain novel, and left it to our imagination to fill in the blanks.
That said, there would have been no squabble for the license, and if any money changed hands at all it would have been an inter-company transaction; Psygnosis were acquired by Sony Electronic Publishing in 1993, Dracula was a Columbia Pictures film, and Columbia Pictures are owned by Sony, so Psygnosis being ‘awarded’ the contract to produce the game was a foregone conclusion from the outset.
From a nest egg budget of $40m Dracula grossed $215m at the box office clearly demonstrating the public were primed for a gaming tie-in of some kind. Psygnosis gave us four, Bram Stoker’s Dracula also putting in an appearance on the Sega CD, SNES and Genesis/Mega Drive in 1993. The Sega CD iteration features resolution-diluted FMV cutscenes from the movie and an additional roundhouse kick, while the cartridge based editions approximate a sort of Castlevania-Strider hybrid.
Given the rich back story and epic, gothic overtones you might have expected a deeply engrossing adventure or RPG game. Sadly not; what rolled off the assembly line was a drab, digitised beat ’em up no more evolved in terms of gameplay mechanics than the first Double Dragon coin-op. I’m not kidding – they really did button masherify the novel you studied in English Literature class at school.
We’ve come this far, I suppose we better peg our noses and crack open the cine conversion crypt.
You play the role of newly qualified solicitor, Jonathan Harker, whose fiancé, Mina Murray, has been abducted by the Dark Prince. As it’s a one player game and I don’t see anyone else in the room it’s your duty to confront his royal undeadliness and legions of subservient lackeys who stand in the way of tracking her down and staging a rescue.
Rather than researching the sort of vampire-slaying paraphernalia you might need to fetch along to a crusade of this nature – holy water, exorcism instruction manual, blessed crucifixes, garlic, silver bullets, wooden stakes, grainy items such as rice or salt, that kind of thing – you turn up empty handed looking like you’ve just finished a shift as a cocktail waiter. At least in the SNES/MD edition Harker has the forethought to wear a hard hat and bring along a plasma sword to the skirmish.
As such your not-so-fearsome vampire hunter comes equipped – out of the box – with only a basic punch and a kick manoeuvre. The only other weapon on offer has to be collected in the form of a holy cross, cordially left by your pal Doctor Van Helsing… Hallelujah it rings out on contact! These confer the power of the divine sonic boom and are quite potent while they last. Also keep your peepers peeled for silver chalices as these will rejuvenate your health, represented by a chemical flask filled with blood.
What’s striking is how little atmosphere there is for a supposed horror-themed game. This certainly isn’t helped by the lack of in-game music and lazy, thudding ‘sandbag dropped from a great height’ sound effects that are recycled for almost every scenario.
It’s perhaps appropriate that everything about Dracula screams ‘brain-dead’. Your controls are so sluggish if you look closely you can actually see Johnboy growing moss on the tip of his nose due to extended periods of dormancy.
Enemies seem to attach themselves to an area of the screen that’s close to you without actually making a connection so when you attempt to shake them free they cling to the screen while you move in isolation, which ironically is more disorientating than having your veins sucked by the undead!
Minions resemble homeless, drug-addled zombies carrying sleeping bags on their backs, while your own stair-climbing/descending animation makes you look like an arthritic Munster who would benefit greatly from a Stannah Stairlift.
To top it all off there’s no consistency between what equates to foreground and background objects. Sometimes, for instance, you can jump on tables, yet on other occasions not on other seemingly identical ones; you’ll fall right through as if they’re not there.
Despite appearances the game’s plot resembles that of the movie fairly closely, at least in terms of the core motivations of the cast and locations. Not that kicking and punching rats, spiders, bats, owls, snakes, gargoyles, skeletons, scorpions, zombies, and Thing from The Addams Family featured too prominently in the silver screen incarnation. Renfield eating bugs, yes. Beating them up, not so much. You have to read the manual and watch the movie to get the gist, and learn to suspend your disbelief, immersing yourself in the fantasy fabric of the movie’s DNA.
Your ultimate goal is obviously to nail old fangy-chops, though to do that you’ll need to destroy the coffins his gypsy servants have filled with Transylvanian decrepit soil from the bowels of the castle and sequestered in England to sleep in during the day so as to guard the wellspring of his strength. You may assume some kind of exorcism or voodoo style ritual would be required to vanquish such otherworldly, ungodly artefacts… and feel very silly when you realise that brute force will get the job done with far less fuss. End of level ‘minions’ or ‘brides’ are awoken whenever you turn a casket to splinters. Upon setting about the final coffin tooled up with your bovver boots tuned to ‘stomp’, old hairy hands materialises for the final showdown.
All platforming, all the way, Dracula is divided into nine equally dreary stages themed around environments snipped from the movie, each harbouring one of the Count’s snooze pits. Areas are segregated by doors, some of which require unlocking with red keys. These include a tavern, the Black Devil’s castle, a convent, your fiance’s des-res aka Hillingham House where Dracula has disguised himself as one of the Victorian gentlemen, and a lunatic asylum in which you’ll encounter an old colleague of yours by the name of Renfield driven into insane subservience by Vlad who now spends his days guarding one of his coffins. In contrast, loyalty knows no bounds in the movie where he’s snuffed out (death by prison bar actually) by his own taskmaster for tipping off Mina as to his whereabouts.
In the mausoleum you must confront Mina’s former lifelong friend, Lucy Westerna, who has since been raped, biten and morphed into a vampiress, before taking on Dracula in his lupine form in Carfax Abbey, London… actually isn’t that Mr Tumnus wearing a costume party head?
In the parallel universe of the movie it’s actually Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood (Lucy’s fiance), Dr Jack Seward and Quincey Morris (a former suitor) who exhume, stake and decapitate Lucy, but since programming five player games is complicated and time-consuming you’re left to lynch her and do the dirty work yourself. Had this been bound for the amusement arcades, TMNT or Simpsons could been reskinned, a Dracula character dropped and… forget it, this game’s silly enough.
“Mina Harker: How did Lucy die? Was she in great pain?
Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Yeah, she was in great pain! Then we cut off her head, and drove a stake through her heart, and burned it, and then she found peace.”
Speaking of the abbey (I was at some point before getting sidetracked), that’s part of the reason you got mixed up with the loony bloodsucker in the first place; as his solicitor – Renfield’s impromptu stand-in – you were travelling to Transylvania to arrange the acquisition of various London-based properties on his behalf, ten altogether. Had the wistful, teary romantic not happened upon your Facebook profile he’d never have taken a shine to school mistress Mina or mistaken her for the reincarnation of his deceased wife, Elisabeta, who committed suicide having been tricked into believing that her husband had died on the battlefield fighting with the ‘Order of the Dragon’ against the Turks in 1462.
By the time Jonathan makes his acquaintance four centuries later it’s 1897 making the Impaler 466 years old! He’s the best looking coffin embracer I’ve never met!
“Jonathan Harker: The Count, the way he looked at Mina’s picture fills me with dread. As if I have a part to play in a story that is not known to me.”
Legal qualifications aside three’s a crowd, hence you’re now surplus to requirements, thus Dracula sicks his brides on you allowing him to swoop in and stake his claim. Vlad is such a charmer – and somehow remarkably handsome by day – he manages to seduce Mina (apparently vampires don’t necessarily turn to ash when exposed to sunlight, they are merely more vulnerable – at least in this revamp of the tall tale). At one point she gets so confuddled she declares her undying devotion towards the Count and truly believes she’s his wife, even going so far as to plead to be vampirised (™).
“Mina: I want to be what you are, see what you see, love what you love.
Dracula: Mina, to walk with me you must die to your breathing life and be reborn to mine.
Mina: You are my love… and my life, always.
Dracula: Then, I give you life eternal. Everlasting love. The power of the storm. And the beasts of the earth. Walk with me to be my loving wife, forever.”
As much as I dig the torrid twists and turns of a good brainwashed love triangle tale, let’s get this carnival show on the road shall we? Destroy the coffins in Dr Jack Seward’s offices and tango with Dracula as he emerges in his bat form to see what all the commotion is about and he’ll be forced to return to his Transylvanian castle. On his own home turf he can be cornered and executed once and for all with a stake through the heart, saving your betrothed from eternal damnation, eternal hunger for living blood.
In the movie Jonathan slits the God-renouncers’ throat while Morris pierces his ever-pumping heart with a Bowie knife and Holmwood/Van Helsing lend moral support.
“Dracula: I, who served the Cross. I, who commanded nations, hundreds of years before you were born.
Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Your armies were defeated. You tortured and impaled thousands of people.
Dracula: I was betrayed. Look what your God has done to me!”
Finally Mina finishes the job with an especially ornate blade (befitting apocalyptic sacrifices of this nature) through the heart before decapitating him in the chapel where he first threw a paddy having learnt of the suicide of his missus, stabbed the holy stone cross with his sword and drank the blood that against the odds somehow oozed out turning him to the dark side, signing him up for immortality.
“Mina: [narrating] There, in the presence of God, I understood at last how love could release us all from the power of darkness. Our love is stronger than death.
Dracula: Give me peace.”
Nuking Nosferatu must be like raising children; it takes a whole village to do it properly. I really hope the NSPCC don’t misread that. Hmm, moving swiftly on, Dracula’s curse is at last lifted, he ascends to heaven with his soggy erstwhile wife, Elisabeta, to live happily ever after. Presumably God will go easy on him for all the demonic vampification, rape, desecration of holy places and so on, having taken into account his mitigating circumstances. Let’s hope he’s ‘new testament’ or Dracula will be up the creek when he gets to the pearly gates!
Psygnosis’s diluted reworking of the historic romance yarn is hardly a monumental, nail-biting quest teeming with intimations of self-discovery, intrigue and allegory, and they did themselves no favours by drawing the curtain on a shambling, geriatric Dracula sporting a gaudy, garish dressing gown and a walnut whip for a headdress. It’s by no means the decorous comeuppance it might have been, even though the superficial depiction of Dracula between mediums is spot on.
If you were hoping the concluding sentiment might go some way towards redeeming this nursery school pantomime you’ll be sorely disappointed…
Oh. Right. Well that’s that then.
Critical reception was divided at the time of release; the reviewers couldn’t make their minds up which brand of Vamp-B-Gone to douse it with first, and the version which most closely resembles that of the Amiga (the Sega CD) didn’t fare much better.
“Incredibly poor. After eight seconds of playing this you’ll have seen all that Dracula has to offer.”
14% – Amiga Power issue 39 (July 1994)
“The stake through the game’s heart is that the task of hunting down the coffins is plain boring, and is made even more so by the laborious trudging back and forth through the levels you have to do. With this game Psygnosis have rewritten vampire legend, turning Dracula from a bat into an out-and-out turkey.”
41% – The One issue 66 (March 1994)
“Graphically, it looks OK but unfortunately it all gets rather dreary after a while. ‘Dracula, you can keep my fiancee. I can’t really be bothered’.”
39% – Amiga Format issue 60 (June 1994)
“This has got to be the most ridiculously appalling game in the history of the world. It’s about as scary as a ride on one of those ladybird roundabouts you see on particularly poor fun fairs at seedy seaside resorts. Truly awful from start to finish.”
18% – Amiga Action issue 60 (August 1994)
“The concept is good, but the game needs work. The sound is good and rendered backgrounds are fantastic, but the overall graphics are grainy and choppy. The game plays terrible. Not that much fun.”
52% – Electronic Gaming Monthly (January 1994)
“Dracula’s as likely to drain your will to live as your wallet. Pass the garlic, Mater.”
51% – Mean Machines (August 1993)
“Despite the potential for a gruesomely good time, you’re really sticking your neck out with this monotonous game. Bram Stoker’s timeless novel deserves a great treatment, but, unfortunately, this isn’t it. The CD game only makes you hungry for a nice stake.”
50% – GamePro (US) (February 1994)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a video game is impressive in one respect at least; it was quite a feat of engineering to take a gift-wrapped, entrancing, supernatural concept that’s universally recognised – and on the whole cherished – and mould it into a troglodytic brawler that could easily have been inspired by a typical Christmas day get-together at the Queen Vic (Cliff Notes: that’s an EastEnders reference).
I fired up the old Ouija board to poll Bram’s verdict – he was literally so apoplectic with rage he was incapable of forming coherent sentences! His silence speaks volumes I’m sure you’ll agree.
In the manual you’ll find a warning concerning the likelihood of the game triggering an epileptic fit should you be prone to that particular psychedelic box of tricks. According to
epilepsytalk.com’s “list of uncommon epilepsy triggers”, boredom alone could be sufficient to tip you over the edge.
“You always thought you could be ‘bored to death’ but it can also incite a seizure. By being isolated, having no social interactions, diversions, or recreational activities – all that’s left is to think about yourself and anticipate when your next seizure will come.”
I can’t say I spotted any strobe lighting effects playing the game, although I did nod off and lose the will to live a few times. I think Psyggy knew, don’t you?