Nosferatu is possibly-maybe-correct-me-if-I’m-wrong the winner of the award for the video game based on the oldest movie licence in the world ever. Which would be an intriguing claim to fame if I hadn’t been lying.
I didn’t set out to. You see, Nosferatu is a German, black and white silent movie released in 1922, whereas the game is actually based on Werner Herzog’s 1979 colour, talky remake distributed by 20th Century Fox. Hmmf.
What gives it away is the character names. When Dracula’s copyright was still under the jurisdiction of Bram Stoker’s widow Florence, F. W. Murnau requested permission to produce a movie adaptation of her late husband’s 1897 novel. She refused, yet the director forged ahead regardless, tweaking its cast names and storyline slightly to avert legal action.
Nevertheless, he failed, subsequently obliged to destroy all prints of the film. This too wasn’t entirely successful seeing as some copies survived, which explains why it’s possible to watch the lovingly restored and remastered Blu-ray edition today. The original is also freely and legally available for download from archive.org. Film historians would have us believe it’s a true masterpiece, although your mileage may vary. 90 minutes of silence is a tough sell this side of the 21st century.
When Herzog trod similar ground in homage to Murnau’s interpretation of the Transylvanian Count in 1979 Dracula’s copyright had expired, thus his movie mostly features the character’s authentic names. As does the 1986 8-bit Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64 game developed by Design Design for publishers, Piranha. They still have a web presence!
In essence, it’s a 3D isometric puzzle-adventure game in the style of revered 1985 classic, Knightlore.
Whilst not immediately obvious Nosferatu the game does accurately reflect the movie’s plot, though mostly courtesy of the manual’s exposition. Speaking of which, as it’s so comprehensive and illuminating I may as well inject the entire thing right about here.
“Nightfall. The deadly enchantment begins. Will you live to see the dawn?
Fight a desperate battle to save your soul from the vampyre’s bloodlust. Your enemy’s power is subtle and mysterious, his strength never-ending. There is only one way to bring Nosferatu’s reign to an end.
There are three parts to your struggle to overcome the Vampyre:
You are Jonathan Harker (or Thomas Hutter if you ask Murnau), an innocent employee of the estate agent Renfield. Count Dracula (aka Count Orlok) wishes to buy a house in your home town, Wismar (or Wisborg if you prefer). You have been sent to his castle to complete the sale, only to discover the Count’s true identity – he is a Vampyre!”
Not actually too shocking given that the townsfolk warned Jonathan prior to his 4-week journey!
“Now you must act fast to protect yourself and the inhabitants of Wismar from his power. If Nosferatu moves into the house he could soon take control of the whole town and turn the innocent inhabitants into vampyres!”
And that’s especially tricky to combat because all the sprites are identical barring the male/female distinction. Once turned it’s like being attacked by displaced projections of ourselves… all a bit disturbing it has to be said. Wearing long, flowing dresses that conceal their feet, the women glide through Wismar like Daleks on hidden tracks. Automaton zombies are pretty creepy so it’s not a criticism. In that sense, this lazy clone bodge works in Nosferatu’s favour.
“You left the deeds to the house on the dining room table, but they have disappeared. You must find them and escape as soon as you can. Nosferatu is most dangerous at night when the castle doors are locked.”
What’s odd is why Orlok is so concerned with buying a house through the proper legal channels. He kills people for a living! I don’t think Judge Judy would approve of that.
“You cannot escape until the light of day, when the Vampyre lies low. Meanwhile, you may have to contend with vampyre beasts, plagued rats, and hallucinations created by Nosferatu for your confusion.”
Rats are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie. Thousands of white ones were shipped over to Holland where filming took place in lieu of Germany. Following various failed efforts to (inhumanely) die them grey, they remain white on-screen. Herzog has been subject to much criticism from animal rights advocates as a result. It was all ridiculous and unnecessary because the visual spectacle is so dramatic regardless of their colour. Their abuse could so easily have been avoided.
“You can find weapons and objects to aid your survival, but fighting the evil beasts will sap your energy.”
Plus there’s little benefit to doing so since landing accurate blows is almost impossible whether we’re wielding a gun or an axe. We may as well conserve our strength, avoid them and get on with the main mission.
The town of Wismar
“Here you control Jonathan Harker, Lucy Harker (or Ellen in 1922) and Van Helsing (Lucy’s brother-in-law and admirer). Choose 1, 2 or 3 to change character control.
Nosferatu has been drawn to Wismar by Lucy’s special power of attraction. Unknown to Jonathan, her husband, and Van Helsing, she is the only one who can destroy him. You must keep her alive in order to win the game.”
…because in the movie he’s so distracted by her celestial beauty that he fails to notice the dawning sunrise emerging through the window and thus flatlines under the influence of its terminal rays. As all genuine vampires do. Oops.
“To ensure both Lucy’s survival and the protection of the Wismar townsfolk, the two men must destroy the growing number of plagued rats and kill or keep at bay those inhabitants who have already succumbed to the Vampyre’s power. A population count is made during the game to measure your success.
Remember, if Nosferatu still holds the deeds to the house, he will have a safe base from which to operate his blood-hunting, and will be extremely powerful. If you managed to retrieve the deeds from his castle in the first part of the game, then the Count will be forced to roam the streets and take shelter from the daylight where he can – in disused houses, cellars, etc.”
Weird, so it’s not that Orlok can only enter buildings if invited in, as dictated by vampire lore. Again, why does he care so much about adhering to trivial things like property law? I’m getting in touch with Plothole Busters posthaste!
“If he is trapped for long enough without taking victims, Nosferatu’s bloodlust will grow stronger and his desire for Lucy more irresistible. You can then take the opportunity to lure him to Lucy’s house and his ultimate destruction.
If Nosferatu does not have the deeds to the house, he may try to regain them by seeking out the estate agent, Renfield (Herr Knock originally). Renfield, now sadly in a mental asylum, could agree to Nosferatu’s request. It is up to Jonathan and Van Helsing to keep Renfield protected by laying garlic around the asylum. They must not neglect their duty – in Renfield’s unstable condition he could undo their work.
What do you have to help you in the seemingly endless battle against the growing threat of vampyres and plague in the town? Garlic, of course, will keep the vampyres at bay, but to kill them you need stakes. A supply of stakes may not be readily available so you must improvise.”
As Adam Sandler (playing Dracula in Hotel Transylvania) quite rightly responded when asked about the veracity of the “wooden stake to the heart” cliche, “Yeah, well, who wouldn’t that kill?”
It makes you wonder how many innocent people must have died testing for traces of vampirism. Personally I’d be more averse to garlic. Have you smelled that gunk?
To sustain Jonathan’s energy during his quest he’ll need proper nourishment and water, not health supplements. A rising coffin helpfully indicates our current health status, taking all the guesswork out of the survival business.
Other collectables that can be scavenged from cupboards or found strewn about the floor include boots to aid our spider-stomping capacity, a lamp (and matches) to illuminate the cellar where Nosferatu’s coffin resides, and various weapons, such as a sword, axe or gun, employed in neutralising the larger or airborne threats. It’s possible to carry one weapon and one additional object at a time, though Jonathan even struggles to juggle these without getting them mixed up at critical moments.
“Remember, as an employee of the Estate Agent, Jonathan alone may have access to some useful items there.
Should you manage to move Lucy in safety towards her house, discover Nosferatu’s whereabouts and lure him with you, then the final part of the ordeal begins.”
Sadly all this decision tree nuance can be bypassed by executing the bare minimum of the steps required, laying waste to some pretty impressive AI for an ancient Speccy game! What remains serves merely as scene-setting fantasy fiction to mull over as we play. For instance, the deeds supposedly central to the plot can be abandoned if finding them proves too much bother. As long as we have the key to Dracula’s castle in our possession it’s perfectly feasible to escape. This is the only prerequisite required to progress to the Wismar section.
“As Lucy, you alone can destroy the Vampyre. Jonathan and Van Helsing are unaware of your destiny and, with your best interests at heart, will try to keep you away from Nosferatu. You must lock them away in your house before you can proceed. Bear in mind that although united in their vampyre-hunting, the two men share a love for Lucy. Once they are out of your way, you can take Dracula to your room in the east side of the house for the final hours of your nightmare. If you manage to keep Dracula with you
until the light of dawn his reign will come to an end.”
You’ll also end up dead if the movie’s plotline is rigidly shadowed since manipulating Dracula entails allowing him to feast on your jugular! Lucy sacrifices herself to save the surviving population of Wismar, which is pretty noble.
Incidentally, why is she known as Lucy Harker in Herzog’s movie when Jonathan’s fiance is called Mina in Stoker’s novel? Lucy Westenra is Mina’s best friend in the original text, and no duplicitous shenanigans occur. This is supposed to be the ‘anything goes’ tribute interpretation that couldn’t be produced legally in 1922 so it’s not clear why it cherry-picks authentic details. *Shrug*
With only an inlay card on which to cover the instructions and plot, many cassette games skimped on the wordage. This clearly isn’t amongst those guilty of taking shortcuts; Nosferatu practically reviews itself. Actually, if you read some of the old reviews from around the time of release you’ll realise that much of this narrative was relayed verbatim. How lazy is that? It’s as if they copied and pasted it. Utterly shocking!
Also unusual for an 8-bit trifecta is that Nosferatu looks almost identically monochrome across all three platforms, so for once Amstrad and Commodore 64 owners couldn’t look down their noses at Speccy devotees. OK, so the predominant colours cycle to indicate changes in daylight, sprinkling proceedings with a smidgeon of chromatic variety. Aesthetically it’s an appealing game regardless, laden with intricate detail, receiving enthusiastically positive critical accolades across the board.
I’m not entirely sure why, then I’m not a massive fan of isometric games. They’re not sufficiently complex to compete with point and click adventures, and not action-orientated enough to take on the dedicated 2D platformers. They occupy a sort of middle ground where drudgery plods, and heads topple over heels.
Nosferatu is over in quarter of an hour once you know what you’re doing, and most of the events that transpire must be imagined rather than experienced. Without reading the manual or watching the movie it would feel like a very hollow affair. Which makes me wonder if the reviewers enjoyed the movie and were transposing their affinity for it onto a blank canvas, allowing the celluloid to fill in the gaps.
It’s frequently described as one of the most atmospheric 8-bit games of all time. Really? What if it was a standalone ‘encourage the bald, fanged creep to chase you to your sunlit bedroom’ style title? I suppose we could find out by having a dabble with N.E.X.O.R. (aka Nemesis), one of Design Design’s very similar, slightly earlier isometric offerings. Both were published in 1986 in fact.
Part of the problem is likely that neither movie is especially scary, more comically goofy in a rubbernecker sense. You’re compelled to endure them to see what all the fuss is about, then are dumbfounded by the outpouring of praise. Maybe the critics had their necks chewed by Vlad the Impaler, Count De Ville, Mr De Ville, Klaus Kinski, Max Schreck, or whatever you want to call him, and the infection of vampirism caused them to lose their tiny minds.