Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #50

Vampire Killer

Oh, the wide world of video-game history--what an amazingly expansive place it was turning out to be! I continued to be blown away by the sheer scope of it--so much so that I was having trouble taking it all in. Here I was uncovering dozens of games and systems about which I'd previously never heard or read. My frequent forum-visits and random Yahoo! searches were consistently yielding newly gleaned information about company histories and unsung eras of gaming. Dedicated fansites were teaching me that my favorite series were far more ubiquitous than I ever could have imagined. I was making new discoveries with each and every mouse-click.

This was a far cry from where I was a few weeks earlier, when I'd just taken my first steps into the world of the Internet. At the time, I believed myself to be fairly knowledgeable about the medium's history. After all--I'd grown up surrounded by video games, and I'd witnessed each phase of their evolution, so how could I not have been considered an authority on the subject?! Sure--I couldn't have told you who manufactured the Intellivision or named more than three Apple Macintosh games, but I knew enough, dammit! And even if my grasp of history was shakier than I claimed it to be, then I could still take solace in the fact that I was an expert when it came to, say, the Castlevania series, which I'd been following almost since its inception!



Yet here I was in early 1999 still coming to grips with the true depth of my ignorance as I feverishly navigated my way around The Castlevania Dungeon's Vampire Killer page, frankly shocked by what I was reading. It wasn't the first time, no. I mean, I was also astonished to learn about Japan-only titles like Rondo of Blood and Akumajou Dracula (X68000), but it was a different shade of wonderment. Their existence was fathomable to me when I considered post-'92-Konami's penchant for disregarding built-in audiences; I could see the company heedlessly bouncing the series around from one obscure system to the next. Vampire Killer was something else entirely; it was conceived during a much earlier period, when Castlevania and those of its ilk were assumed to be exclusively tied to the NES and the technical and aesthetic attributes that defined it.

Now I was being told that this wasn't true--that Castlevania, which I lovingly regarded as a quintessential NES game, had an alternate skin and was living a second life on computers--a format I perceived to be incompatible with action games of its type (I regarded the Commodore 64 port, which I'd long known about, as more of a compromised interpretation of a classic).
 


I was so blown away by this discovery that I scoured the Internet in search of more information and stumbled across a rather humble MSX fansite that happened to feature a small collection of Vampire Killer screenshots. And as the Dungeon's accompanying text suggested, the game indeed looked remarkably similar to Castlevania!

But it couldn't have been Castlevania or even a port of it. There were simply too many inconsistencies: Simon Belmont was clad in purple garb. The color schemes had an uncharacteristically vibrant tone to them. The backgrounds had discernible shape and texture. There were unique-looking enemies and environments. It looked to have an expanded inventory system. And one particular screenshot appeared to be depicting the interaction between Belmont and ... a merchant?!

This certainly wasn't the Castlevania I knew.

"What it is, then?" I wondered. "Is it a remake? Or perhaps a highly derivative sequel?" (That it shared the same Japanese title made the former unlikely.)

"And what the hell is an 'MSX,' anyway?"



I spent the next hour or so reading up on the MSX's history and acquainting myself with its library, which surprisingly featured a bunch of similarly familiar-looking titles (Gradius, Metal Gear, Contra, Bubble Bobble, The Legend of Kage, and many others). It was all rather confusing, actually: The MSX format apparently had a number of alternate models, a laundry list of separate vendors, and a series of nebulously described successors. MSX computers were commercially available in Japan and Europe, where they found great success, but not in North America outside of a "limited release"--a claim that was regularly disputed. Konami and Microsoft had a hand in establishing the brand, or maybe they didn't. There was no solid word on anything, really.

As best I could tell, the MSX was a close Commodore 64 equivalent and shared many of its values, which made it instantly appealing to me. That it was said to be the earliest breeding ground for companies like Konami and Hudson Soft, whose games I'd been playing for over 13 years, only heightened my interest.

It worked out that I'd become more intrigued by the MSX than the game that led me to it. There was an aura of mystery surrounding the platform--a sense that delving into its world would reveal the secret origins of quite a few of my favorite games and series. Sadly, at that point in time, I wasn't able to satiate my curiosity and further explore the MSX's library, because circumstances made it too difficult to do so; basically, I was still new to emulation and found computer-based emulators to be a troublesome combination of complicated and intimidating (and I knew nothing about "BIOS files" or where I could find them).



However, playing Vampire Killer was still a possibility. Naturally, there wasn't a chance that I was going to come into possession of a working MSX machine, no, but it so happened that The Castlevania Dungeon was hosting a convenient batch file that would allow me bypass the intricate setup process and run the game with a simple double-click.

Booting up an old system for the first time was always a captivating experience for me. I likened it to witnessing the discovery of a mythical artifact. I could feel the oppressive wave of history washing over me as the MSX logo ascended from a sea of blue and Konami's famous symbol flashed onscreen. By the time Vampire Killer's title screen popped up, I was thoroughly engrossed in the moment. I wouldn't touch the keyboard or my Gravis pad, mine the intention to begin the proceedings by watching the demo sequence and soaking in both Vampire Killer and the MSX's every vibe.

It was kind of surreal: One of my favorite games of all time had a long-lost twin, and here I was about to find out if it could live up to its sibling's legacy. I pressed down the space bar with the sense that this was the closest I would ever get to re-experiencing Castlevania for the first time. 



I spent the entirety of that initial session being fascinated by how Vampire Killer's surface-deep similarities continued to belie its distinct design philosophy--how the two products could look so much alike yet differ so significantly in terms of gameplay. Vampire Killer's stages were structurally similar to Castlevania's, yes, but this wasn't a side-scrolling game; rather, the action here flowed from screen to screen, the stages broken up into three or four confined sections and set to a loop. The goal wasn't to rush on through to a stage's ending point; I was tasked, instead, with meticulously exploring their separate sections in search of big white keys, which I could use to open the areas' locked doors. It was almost a puzzle-platformer in that sense.

Also, those merchants from the screenshots were strewn all about the castle--some of them plainly visible, and others hidden away behind destructible environments (the latter variety usually possessing one of the more desirable items); they'd ask for hearts in return for their goods, which brought to mind images of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest's shop system, whose anachronistic presence created a spiritual connection--a shared vibe--between the two games. It couldn't have been a coincidence, then, that one of the items for sale was a shield that functioned similarly to Dracula's Rib. Much of what Vampire Killer was doing reminded me of Simon's Quest, actually, which furthered the notion that the MSX and Konami's games were the breeding ground for ideas that might be used at a future date.

More so, Vampire Killer felt like a true computer game in that parts of it were rife with opacity. There were a ton of different items to collect, though at least half of them had no obvious use, and the game wasn't apt to provide descriptions. I wasn't sure how the inventory system was supposed to function or if all of that space could actually be used for anything. Sub-weapon use required experimentation and was needlessly unintuitive in practice (which was more a byproduct of the designers keeping keyboard-only users in mind). And having to reach the top part of a stage by falling into a pit below was simply a strange means of navigation for an action game--certainly not something you would immediately think to do in a game that resembled Castlevania, in which falling into pits was instant death. 



Having access to a manual might have alleviated some of my confusion, sure, but where was I going to find one of those in 1999? Hell--information about the game was so scarce back then that me putting up an image of a Potion with the description "Full Energy Restore" instantly rendered my site the number-one source of information about Vampire Killer--ever. Besides--I didn't mind being in the dark about certain game elements; not being able to fully comprehend it from the start is what lent Vampire Killer its important air of mystery.

I didn't get very far into Vampire Killer that day, so I wasn't prepared to hand down a final judgment. From what I'd observed, it clearly wasn't in the same league as Castlevania--not in terms of action or stage design--but it had a lot going for it. It was creative. It offered a unique take on the Castlevania formula and action games in general. Its unmistakable computer aesthetics worked to conjure a great sense of atmosphere (its tonal conveyance reminded me a lot of my Commodore 64 favorites). And having encompassed so much unknown history, there was a powerful allure to it, as if Vampire Killer was a lost treasure, and I was one of the few to have ever laid eyes on it. I was looking forward to examining more of it.



My successive play-throughs were about further exploring the game's depth, yes, but there was also a hearty emphasis on continuing to compare it to Castlevania. I'd become obsessed with making note of every difference between the two, no matter how trivial. It was obvious that Vampire Killer had cleaner, smoother textures, which made for a more coherent graphical presentation; the discernible background work stoked my imagination in ways Castlevania's often-messy depictions didn't (my favorite little detail was a rectangular portal in Stage 07 that gave view to a shadowy collection of evergreens as defined by the eerie blue sky; Vampire Killer was loaded with such fantastic little touches).

Its soundtrack featured all of the same tunes, not surprisingly, but the MSX's subdued brand of MIDI output added an what I'd call an "investigate quality" to the music; whether intentional or not, I felt that this style of composition was perfectly suited to what was a more exploration-based game. Also, it had an exclusive slime enemy whose inclusion was one of many that worked to form my opinion that Vampire Killer was a testing ground with no boundaries; as it were, it felt to me like a bizarre amalgamation of Castlevania and Simon's Quest, and I loved that it conveyed as much.

Though, Vampire Killer wasn't completely slavish to familiar templates: Its final stage was greatly expanded, its Castle Keep section expanded to comprise a fully formed, aesthetically distinct third area. Dracula had a unique final form--the background's giant self-portrait, which he'd possess following the destruction of his ghostly body. And there was an actual epilogue (though truncated and rather unsatisfying) rather than a faux-credits sequence. That the game wasn't quite as good as Castlevania didn't bother me at all; I was too fascinated with it to care.



I discovered most of the aforementioned later on, however, since Vampire Killer had a rather unfortunate issue: There were no continues. Its demand was that I finish the game in one shot or hit the road. Frighteningly, this fact, alone, made it far more difficult than even its notoriously challenging sibling. Though, its considerable difficulty wasn't born from tougher enemies or brain-busting puzzles but rather a number of irksome late-game platforming sequences ("rough spots") during which I was prone to dump my entire stock in a matter of seconds. I could point to the watery section of Stage 4, the Catacombs, as the reason why I wasn't able to reliably advance further. I had to resort to using Konami's "Game Master" cheating device (an emulated version of it, of course) in order to access the final stages (I needed to snap screenshots for them, after all). It took me about a year of off-and-on play to reach Vampire Killer's endgame portion without it.

The rough platforming sequences were what made me stop short of frequently revisiting Vampire Killer, which I actually liked quite a lot. I wish I'd spent more time with it. Maybe I'll get the chance if Nintendo starts taking this Virtual Console stuff seriously and brings over those MSX games (screw licensing issues--preserve those games!). I mean, I'd prefer to play it legally and support the people who made it--the creators who aspired to add some spice to an existing recipe and cook up a unique-tasting dish. I wouldn't put Vampire Killer in the league of Castlevania or its sequels, no, but it still holds great appeal; it's a game that all Castlevania fans should play at least once, if even for a few minutes, just to get a sense of history--to absorb Vampire Killer's computer-game ambiance and understand why it was so important to the series' evolution.



For the longest time, I mistakenly assumed Vampire Killer to be the "series' origin," which seemed to be a logical conclusion: It was noticeably unpolished (the game was plagued by frequent slowdown and annoying hit-detection issues). Some of its mechanics felt raw. And everything about its design screamed "experimental." Surely this was the rough draft from which the fleshed-out Castlevania was born, I thought. But it wasn't; I learned that Vampire Killer was instead a wildly fascinating remix whose development--and indeed its very existence--was shrouded in mystery. There was no clear explanation for how it came to be, and there was no telling as to how many additional secrets were hiding beneath its familiar exterior. In that sense, Vampire Killer was the perfect metaphor for the MSX and what it meant to me. It's appropriate that the two are intrinsically linked.

My perception of the MSX hasn't changed since then. For that reason, it stands at the top of the list of the platforms I look forward to more thoroughly exploring in the future. And I'm betting that it'll provide me plenty of material for future "Memory Bank" pieces.



As for Vampire Killer: I'll continue to love that it exists--that one of my favorite games of all time has a long-lost fraternal twin who quietly redefined the rules. Thinking about it serves as a reminder that there are so many others like it--so many wonderful games and platforms that are out there just waiting to be discovered.

I can't wait to begin digging.

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