Halloween month 2020 here at the blog rolls on, and boy do we have something October-appropriate today.
Nowadays, if someone wants to play a horror-based video game, it’s not even remotely hard to do. I mean, just looking at the Resident Evil series alone, there’s been a seemingly-endless number of entries released over the years. But you know, back in the earlier years of gaming, the options were a little more limited.
Disregarding games with vaguely-horrific undertones (the impending arrival of the presumably-murderous extraterrestrial intruders in Space Invaders, for example), it took a bit for full-fledged horror-themed titles to begin appearing. Maybe it was because the systems – and the people programming for them – had to advance enough in order to make something plausibly ‘horrific’ (intellectually, if not realistically), or maybe (probably) it was because the kids all this stuff was aimed at liked horror movies, the home video revolution was bolstering that, and video games were trending something huge at the time. Yeah, it’s probably more the latter than the former.
Even so, there still weren’t a ton of horror-based games on home consoles, not quite yet. Certainly their numbers would increase as the years progressed (Castlevania, anyone?), but in the early-80s, like I said, the options were a little more limited.
As far as home consoles (as opposed to home computers) went, the Atari 2600 was far and away the most popular of the era, and as such, you saw more scary (“scary”) titles there than anywhere else. Atari themselves got the ball rolling with 1981’s Haunted House, and the next few years saw Xonox’s Ghost Manor, 20th Century Fox’s Alien (technically based on the movie, but really just a Pac-Man clone), Data Age’s Frankenstein’s Monster, the double-whammy of Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre from Wizard Video, and, I guess this counts, Ghostbusters from Activision.
BUT, we’re actually talking about the 2600’s main competitor, the Intellivision, today. Despite being considerably more powerful than the 2600, the Intellivision was also less popular, and as such, the horrific pickings were quite a bit slimmer for those faithful to it.
Still, there was at least one full-fledged, absolutely, positively horror-based game for the system, and MAN, did it deliver…
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Dracula, released by Imagic exclusively for the Intellivison in 1983.
Imagic was one of the better 3rd party companies of the early-80s, and while they never quite eclipsed, say, Activision in popularity, they frequently put out a high quality product. From gameplay to graphics, they typically hit it out of the park more often than they didn’t. Barring a few relative duds, their offerings for the 2600 were almost all good’uns. Some were ported over, and appropriately enhanced, for the Intellivision (Atlantis, Demon Attack, Dragonfire), while others remained solely the domain of Atari’s console.
It worked the other way around too, though; the 2600 could have never hoped to push something as graphically-intensive as Microsurgeon, Beauty and the Beast was a Donkey Kong knock-off that put to shame DK on both the 2600 and Intellivision, and then there was Dracula.
Based on Bram Stoker’s famous vampire (duh!), you could only get Dracula on the Intellivision. The 2600 probably could have handled a port, albeit a fairly scaled-down one, but for as much as I would have loved to have seen this one appear there, there’s something to be said for having such a neat, Halloweeny game only in one place. It’s not hard to imagine this one making Atari loyalists a little green with envy back in the day, and not only because of the then-impressive graphics; it isn’t perfect, but there’s no doubt this game is just plain cool.
That’s the original cartridge above obviously, resting upon my beloved INTV System III (which we last saw when I talked about that one Magnavox TV). Don’t let the guy in what appears to be cheap Halloween makeup in the artwork fool you; this ain’t no silly goose outing!
Mainly because you play AS Dracula in this game. That’s right, instead of the probably-
more-expected plot of attempting to defeat Drac,
(Castlevania, anyone?) you instead ARE Drac, who of course has the goal of putting the bite on as many villagers per night as possible. Naturally there’s a bit more to it than that, but the ultimate goal in Dracula is to bite a set number of people per night before the sun comes up – which as we all know is something Drac ain’t terribly fond of. (I.e., sunlight kills ‘im dead.)
Depending on your chosen difficulty setting, you’ll have a certain number of people to bite per night, which of course increases with each successive round, as you would expect.
Each round (night) begins with Drac rising from his grave in the nearby cemetery (you’d think the village would do something about that; it’s probably bad for tourism) and stalking the streets of the town in search of victims. Some you’ll find wandering the streets (don’t you people ever go to bed?!), while others you’ll actually have to scare out of their houses. How do you do that? Just, uh, walk up to the door and Drac will automatically knock politely. If someone’s home, they’ll stupidly rush outside you to chase. Yep, just like in the horror movies, people do inexplicably dumb things!
What with you rowdy kids and your Grand Theft Autos nowadays, the idea of playing as a bad guy isn’t going to raise many eyebrows anymore, but back in 1983, this was still a pretty novel concept. The same approach was employed in the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the 2600, though things are quite a bit less icky here on the Intellivision.
Of course, since you are indeed the antagonist here, naturally there has to be some protagonists, too. Or in this scenario, would Drac be considered the protagonist and the others antagonists? Or is everybody an antagonist? A protagonist? I’m probably thinking too much about this.
As you may expect, pretty much everybody and everything is an adversary to Dracula in this game. You have the ability to turn into a bat at will, which allows you to speed through the town a whole lot faster. BUT, changing to that form leaves you vulnerable to a purple vulture. Should said purple vulture carry you off screen, guess what sport? Y’all dead. Well, undead dead, I guess. Something like that.
Whenever you reach your quota of bitten necks for the night, a white wolf will appear and chase you around. That’s your cue to beat a hasty retreat back to your coffin. The wolf won’t kill you, but should you get a bite from him, you’re going to move noticeably slower, and when you’re racing the clock to get back before sunrise, that’s, erm, not a good thing.
The only human character to fight back against Dracula’s shenanigans is a roaming constable. Dude tosses wooden stakes at you! If you get hit by one, you don’t die but are frozen for a few seconds. (I guess none are direct hits to the heart? Is Drac momentarily irritated by this action, hence the temporary hesitation? I’m probably thinking too much about this.)
Should you land a bite on the constable, he instead will be frozen for a few moments, but the only real way to turn the tables on him is to create a zombie, and this is one of the more novel aspects of Dracula‘s gameplay.
Y’see, you have two bites you can employ on villagers. Hitting the lower left fire button on your handy Intellivision control pad and successfully copping a chomp will simply cause your victim to disappear and your score to rise. But, when a constable is on the scene, you can also hit the lower right fire button, a successful bite from which will instead turn your victim into a zombie. By manning the second controller, you can then control the zombie and attempt to ram into the constable for eradication and, uh, more points.
The zombie is your only real ally in the game, and while hastily grabbing the second controller to man him yourself is a bit of a hassle, if you’ve got a buddy sitting nearby, this makes for an added bit of two player action beyond the actual two player action I’ll talk about a little later.
It may sound like there’s a lot to do in Dracula, but if the game has an Achilles heel, it’s this: it doesn’t take very long to get repetitive. Messing with the difficulty options will change things up a little, but the bottom line is it’s still a lot of doing the same things over and over. The gameplay sorta levels off after awhile; dodge a constable, bite a victim, rinse and repeat until the wolf shows up, and then get back to your coffin right quick. Certainly there’s some added emergency if the sky is starting to brighten and you’re movin’ slow thanks to a wolf bite, but the sad fact is Dracula never really changes things up when it needs to. Once you’ve seen all you can, that’s just sorta…it.
Though to be honest, your biggest adversary isn’t the time limit or vulture or cop, but rather something that isn’t actually a fault on the game itself: the Intellivision controller. If you’re unfamiliar with it, just scroll way back up to my helpful picture and take a look. The mushy fire buttons on the sides, coupled with the also-mushy numeric keypad, and the ill-advised directional disc, not to mention the uncomfortable overall design of the thing itself, rarely did any of that do games any favors, and Dracula is no exception. The Intellivision had a habit of running slower, clunkier games in comparison to the 2600, but Dracula frequently feels even slower and clunkier than it really should, and it’s because of that controller. It’s not much fun to be harassed by the constable while Drac is hung up on absolutely nothing because the directional disc isn’t responding correctly to my frustrated presses on it.
“Why ain’t yoy just use a better 3rd party controller bro HAW HAW HAW” I can hear someone exclaiming in undeserved realization now. The answer to that is simple: the Intellivision, and the third (merely cosmetic) variation INTV System III I actually used for this review, had hardwired controllers. That’s to say, they’re built in, and unless you wanna play MacGyver and open the console up, they’re not removable. Now, the Intellivision II did have detachable controllers, but using that second (also merely cosmetic) variation opens up other issues, not the least of which being I don’t actually have one. And besides, I don’t think there were any 3rd party controllers made for the system, anyway.
(While on the subject, the Sears Super Video Arcade variant apparently features detachable controllers as well, and while I don’t have one of those either, I certainly want one; that thing looked, looks, ridiculously cool, and that’s coming from someone who generally tends to shy away from rebadged units such as that. Do I dare say it was the best looking Intellivision of them all? I do!)
Still, if there’s one thing that can’t be debated, it’s that for its time, Dracula was a fantastic looking (and sounding) game. Okay, sure, compared to the more powerful ColecoVision and Atari 5200 that were on the scene at the time (not to mention the home computers, which don’t count cause, man, they ain’t consoles), the game might have been less impressive. But, when compared to the offerings of the Intellivision’s main competitor, the Atari 2600, Dracula looks and sounds absolutely phenomenal. It’s still an impressive piece of programming today, provided it’s viewed with an eye towards video game history anyway.
Whatever faults the gameplay itself might ultimately exhibit, Dracula is certainly a polished piece of programming otherwise. The graphics are simply terrific! Drac actually rises from his grave at the start of each round, and climbs back into it at the end of each successful completion. The cemetery is filled with Crosses and tombstones, lightning occasionally cracks the sky, and even the sky itself darkens and brightens appropriately. You even see the rising/setting sun/moon! (I could have done without the little smiley faces Imagic put on them, but that’s a mild complaint.)
The village you traverse scrolls smoothly and is fairly lengthy (it wraps around on itself, so you only ever need to head in one direction, if you so desire), and it’s littered with extra touches such as puddles, streetlights, and relatively-detailed houses. Eyes even peek out of the windows of some of ’em! (Those let you know someone is home and can be scared out. But beware – if they’ve seen you bite someone, they won’t answer your knocks; nice touch! Guess the villagers aren’t completely dumb after all!)
The characters sprites are nicely animated and multi-colored, as well. Drac slinks around menacingly when in human form and opens his mouth when going in for a bite, villagers run frantically when being chased, and the constable actually swings his nightstick as he walks along!
This all may look a little blocky, this IS a game from 1983 after all, but the level of detail and actual ‘spooky’ vibes the game exhibits is genuinely impressive, even now. Imagic was known for really pushing a console graphically, and Dracula absolutely doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
(By the way, the screenshots in this article, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Double Dragon before it, they were all taken by me via an actual console and cartridge and CRT TV. As such, while I know they lack a little sharpness and exhibit some mild ghosting, they also, to me, feel much more authentic. I consider emulation to be jive; to get the full effect, you gotta play this stuff the way it was meant to be played!)
Sound-wise, the impressiveness continues. Thunder claps are heard, a little jingle plays when the constable is present during a round, the wolf barks, even some (relatively) realistic knocking is heard when Drac pounds on someone’s door. And to top it all off, a decent, harmonized snippet of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor appropriately plays at the beginning and end of each round! Imagic really went all out from a presentation standpoint with this one!
Personally, Dracula seems like it’s best left as a single-player experience, with the exception of a friend taking control of the occasional zombie. There are, however, two legitimate two-player options for those so inclined: an alternating mode where the second player takes control of Drac once the first player has finished the round, and a mode in which one player controls Drac and the other controls a potential victim, with the roles reversing upon the completion of the round. I’m not sure these two-player options were totally necessary, but it’s not like they hurt the game; they’re nice additions I guess, even if I can’t think of anyone who would really want to play this game with me.
(You can also adjust the difficulty, easy/medium/hard, which of course changes the number of victims, when the constable shows up, etc. etc. etc.)
So when it comes right down to it, I see Dracula as one of the standouts on the Intellivision. Okay, sure, maybe back in the day the polished presentation of the whole thing was enough to make gamers ignore the eventually-repetitive nature of the gameplay, and that’s a mindset that modern day players may not share. But you know what? I still think the game is impressive. It’s certainly fun, at least in shorter bursts and controller issues notwithstanding, but what really knocks my figurative socks off is just how horrifically evocative it manages to be. This is just such a Halloween title! As far as home consoles go, I’m not sure I can think of a more Halloween-appropriate game in the pre-crash era!
Just to reiterate what I said earlier, maybe the 2600 could have handled a port of the game, provided the graphics and sound were obviously scaled back and the controls modified accordingly. But again, while it certainly would have been cool to see Dracula appear on that console, there’s something to be said for it remaining an Intellivision exclusive. Somehow, it just feels so right, even now. It’s a cool, spooky game that can only be had here, and while I may not go so far as to call it a killer app for retro gamers in this day and age, well, I guess that sorta depends on your love of the classic movie monsters, doesn’t it?
Actually, forget that; I am going to say it’s a killer app where retro gaming is concerned. Dracula is just too cool and impressive to say otherwise. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t immediately on my personal “want list” when I was gifted the INTV System III several years ago (which immediately became my ‘playing’ Intellivision, since my original variation was, and still is, stored away). As I recall it, I snagged a copy online pretty much instantly upon acquisition, and it has remained nestled with the System III ever since.
Imagic ultimately didn’t survive the 1983 video game crash, but for the few years they were alive, boy did they release some impressive games. And perhaps there’s no better example of that than Dracula. Want some spookiness by way of retro gaming? Grab an Intellivision and give it a go!