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Vampire Killer (MSX) artwork

Vampire Killer (MSX) review

"At a cursory glance it might even resemble a simple port, but this impression couldn't be more incorrect – Vampire Killer immediately stands out as a dramatic departure from the rest of the franchise even as its influence can be felt in Simon's Quest, Dracula X, and Symphony of the Night."

Released only a month after the original Famicom Disk game and sharing the same Japanese title of Akumajou Dracula, this MSX2 cartridge features nearly identical (but noticeably sharper) graphics, monsters, and music as its iconic console sibling. At a cursory glance it might even resemble a simple port, but this impression couldn't be more incorrect – Vampire Killer immediately stands out as a dramatic departure from the rest of the franchise even as its influence can be felt in Simon's Quest, Dracula X, and Symphony of the Night.

This is no straightforward platformer, as each level is instead laid out in a veritable maze of 256x224 screens that loop both horizontally and vertically, meaning you can intentionally fall through a pit to land on an otherwise inaccessible platform in the room below or traverse the length of an entire stage to reach the other side of a wall. Regardless of their maddening makeup, every labyrinth is stacked to the rafters not only with the expected flickering candles, rickety staircases, and bloodthirsty beasts but also a multitude of treasure chests and scattered skeleton keys. Hunting down these keys is pretty much your only hope for survival, such are the impressive variety of power-ups they unlock: everything from the familiar chain whip upgrade and holy water to a shield that blocks projectiles, a candle that reveals breakable pieces of wall, or boots that increase your speed. The dagger, axe, and boomerang also make an appearance but actually replace your whip, the latter two requiring you to intercept their return arc or they become permanently lost.

And speaking of being lost, you'll simply wander in circles unless you keep a sharp eye out for your ultimate goal in each stage – an often concealed, always out of the way special white key that opens the level's equally distant exit door. The MSX game also feels considerably longer, and not only because you're trying to solve a puzzle in addition to fending off the walking dead. For every one of the stages present in Castlevania you'll face a trio of visually similar but completely original dungeons in Vampire Killer, with later areas even adding a second "false" key which you can't retrieve without either getting stuck or dying in the process. Interestingly, the final boss fight is totally new; Dracula's initial form is a bloody skeleton wrapped up in a voluminous cloak, this encounter followed by his massive portrait that spews wave after wave of hungry bats. Not that you'll ever make it that far.

Castlevania games are always either child's play or outright malevolent, and this is the most ridiculously cruel entry in the entire series, tossing out only three measly lives and NO CONTINUES. Adding insult to injury, you're stripped of all that badass equipment if you lose one of those precious few lives, and after defeating a boss retain nothing but your current cache of hearts. Thus at any given moment in the game there is a roughly 70% chance that you are mere seconds away from being totally screwed; having absolutely zero margin for error doesn't mix particularly well with a formula that demands exploration along with liberal trial and error.

That said, as a red-blooded American übergamer I still posses a soft spot for this game, but since most MSX fans probably wanted to see past the second block without their thumbs falling off, back in the day Konami's official Game Master cheat cartridge let them select their starting location and number of lives. Thus as long as they don't mind being forever branded as the cowardly, rotten cheaters they truly are, even the hopelessly coddled gamers of today can overcome the unholy brutality of Vampire Killer and experience its pleasantly cerebral twist on traditional undead slaying action instead.

sho's avatar
Staff review by Sho (October 25, 2010)

Sho enjoys classic video games, black comedy, and poking people until they explode -- figuratively or otherwise. He also writes a bit.

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zippdementia posted October 25, 2010:

Woo hoo! I love seeing these reviews, Sho.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 25, 2010:

This game sounds absolutely brutal. I think if I ever did play this that my vocabulary would be permanently stuck on only the word "fuck" for two weeks. Awesome review!
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sho posted October 26, 2010:

I thank you for the support and promise more retrohorror in the days ahead.

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