Akumajou Dracula

Akumajo Dracula Title Screen
Platforms: Famicom Disk System/NES
Released: Released: 09/26/1986 (Japan, Famicom Disk System), 05/1987 (US), 12/19/1988 (PAL), 02/05/1993 (Japan, Famicom)
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Japanese Name: 悪魔城ドラキュラ
Translated Name: Devil's Castle Dracula
Localized Name US: Castlevania
Other Localized Names: Castlevania

When you think about the first entry in the Castlevania/Dracula series, you probably think about two things: The incredible atmosphere  and the high level of difficulty. Neither of these things change when you go from any of the western versions to the Japanese one, though some qualities of the Japanese version alter the difficulty slightly. A common point of frustration in the Western versions of the game is that you can’t save your game at all, unless you’re playing on one of those fancy emulators. But how would it change Castlevania’s difficulty if you could save your progress each time you got a game over?

In the bizarro world that is Japan, you could do just that! Why was this feature taken out of the Western version? Castlevania was released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System, rather than on a regular Famicom/NES cartridge (though it would be much later on, in 1993). This meant that saving your progress did not require the creation of a password system or the inclusion of a battery inside of the game cartridge, since it could be written directly to the floppy disk. Apparently it wasn’t deemed worthwhile to develop a password system for the Western release (as was done by Nintendo for the Western release of Metroid, for example), or it simply never occurred to anyone. The ability to save progress obviously makes playing through this difficult game much more manageable. Even though playing it on the Disk System results in some load time, it’s arguably the definitive way to play a physical version of Castlevania.

Akumajo Dracula's name registry on the Famicom Disk System VersionSimon Belmont approaches the gates of Castle Dracula
The original Disk System version actually required you to enter your name for seemingly no other reason than just to label your save file. However the mix of English (“name”) and romanized Japanese (“touroku”) is delightful!Simon Belmont approaches the gates of Castle Dracula. This is really an impressive feat for a 1986 Famicom game!

The Disk System debuted on February 21st 1986, and this was Konami’s first piece of software for it. Truly story driven games weren’t common at this point, most home games were trying to emulate an arcade-like experience. Castlevania certainly has an arcade feel to it (in fact an arcade conversion would be released a year later: VS. Castlevania) and you get no explicit story telling throughout except for the impressive opening sequence of Simon Belmont opening the gate to Dracula’s castle. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t thought put into the story though! The following is a translation of the story straight from the Japanese manual:

There is a legend that says once every 100 years in Transylvania, when Christ’s power is at its weakest, Castle Dracula will be resurrected from the prayers of the wicked-hearted. At this time, evil magic grows stronger. Dracula was brought back to this world once in the past, but was stopped by Christoper Belmont. He returned Dracula to his slumber in the Transylvanian countryside.

On Easter night 100 years later, a grand carnival celebrating Christ’s rebirth was held. On the outskirts of town in a ruined monastery, heretics poured blood of the living onto the corpse of Count Dracula in a black mass ritual. Suddenly black clouds covered the city, and blinding flashes of lightning struck the monastery. Count Dracula returned to the world once again. Simon Belmont of the Belmont clan took up his whip, containing mysterious powers, that has been passed down through his family. He set off alone to Dracula’s castle.

The map screen that allows you to track your progress to DraculaMedusa, the second boss of the game
It’s like one of those Hollywood star maps, but for classic horror movie monsters! No, actually it’s just to give you a sense of progression as you go through the game…boring!I guess at some point Medusa just became a giant disembodied head who can’t actually turn you to stone with her gaze…

In 1986, this story was more than enough to set minds ablaze! To enhance this thrilling back story, the game uses one very key element that sets it apart from so many of its contemporaries: Atmosphere. The foremost element in setting up this atmosphere is the sense of change that the player feels when they’re moving through each level of Dracula’s castle. That is to say, each level is actually set in a different part of the castle. This gives you the feeling of moving through the castle toward Dracula, instead of just playing re-skins of previous levels with only slight differences. The map of the castle that’s shown between levels supports this idea, since you can see yourself getting closer to the final showdown. The bosses for each area of Dracula’s castle also include some well known creatures of horror: Frankenstein, Medusa, The Mummy, The Grim Reaper, and more. Determining the best strategy to beat each of these formidable bosses is an important part of the game as well. Pattern observation and having the right sub weapon (Hint: it’s almost always holy water) is key to getting through them. While certain liberties were taken in the way some of these monsters were presented, their depictions are all very loving ones in the end. Try not to take it too personally, old horror movie buffs.

Simon versus The MummiesSimon vs. Frankenstein and Igor
The Mummies are beaten by pretty much just sitting up on one of these blocks and hitting them with the whip. Was it that easy in the movie?Here is Frankenstein with his jumpy little friend Igor. I hate that little bastard…

The other component in creating Castlevania’s atmosphere is one that’s recognized by many, and rightfully so: The music. Composer Kinuyo Yamashita did an absolutely superb job in creating tracks that not only perfectly fit the Gothic atmosphere of Castlevania, but also were of superior quality when compared to a lot of the music that we’d heard on the Famicom or Disk System thus far. Not to mention this was her debut work as a game composer! The music of this series will continue to be a high point throughout its life, and its creation will end up falling to a few different composers. There can be no doubt that we have Yamashita’s original compositions, as well as her further involvement in the arrangement of the soundtracks to thank for such continued high quality. All of her compositions would go on to be remixed and reworked by other composers later on as well.

Simon facing down his greatest foe, the stairsThe Grim Reaper, one of the game's hardest boss battles
Those who can’t grasp the intricacies of the controls will dread their encounters with…the stairs!One of the hardest boss fights in the game: The Grim Reaper. Basically there are sickles everywhere.

As mentioned previously, this game is known for its high level of difficulty. Some common reasons for this are the inability to control Simon mid-jump, having to hold directions to ascend and descend stairs and the rather large knock-back to Simon when hit by an enemy. While all of these things are legitimate flaws by today’s control standards, they’re by no means insurmountable. Learning to understand Simon’s jump arch is essential, and once you do it won’t matter anymore that you can’t change his direction mid-jump. You’ll know if you didn’t execute a jump correctly the moment you do it. It’s also completely possible to make it through this game without the ability to save, even though you have to be dedicated to learning many enemy patterns, strategies for more easily defeating bosses, and the best ways to hold onto that holy water and get those II and III power-ups to increase the amount of them that you can throw in one burst. There are some particularly frustrating parts in the game (perhaps most notably the fight against the Grim Reaper), but none of them stop it from being fun. Many call this an essential game of the 8-bit era, and for very good reason. It’s a quality action platformer all the way through.

The beautiful moon just before the fight with DraculaThe final boss fight with Dracula himself
Take a moment to enjoy this fine depiction of the moon before going into the final boss fight with Dracula!Here’s Dracula himself! Perhaps not as imposing as I would have imagined…though his head did appear on-screen before the rest of his body.

If you’re good enough to make it through the game and defeat Dracula, you’re treated to a rather amusing credits sequence in which classic horror movie-themed aliases are used. For the staff portion of the credits, they’re credited with roles in the same way that they might be in a movie: Directed by Trans Fishers, Screenplay by Vram Stroker, and Music by James Banana. Though it’s made extra amusing in this case due to the theme, it wasn’t at all uncommon at this point in Japanese game development to use aliases for staff in the credits. This was because companies were afraid of their staff being poached by another company if their full names were listed. Even the characters themselves got credits though: Dracula – Christopher Bee, Death – Belo Lugosi, Frankenstein – Boris Karloffice, Mummy Man – Love Chaney Jr., Medusa – Barber Sherry, etc.

For those who don’t want to invest in a Famicom Disk System or emulate, you have a few different options. The contents of the Famicom cartridge version that was released much later on are mostly the same, but it includes a new easy mode to compensate for the lack of a save feature. Because the Super Famicom was Nintendo’s main console at the time, not many copies of this cartridge were produced. That makes it quite rare and expensive. A Game Boy Advance version also came out in 2004 as part of the Famicom Mini collection, complete with the ability to save progress. Lastly, you can download this game from the Wii, Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles in all regions.

Headless DraculaDracula's final form
After you take down Dracula’s health his head goes comically flying across the room! No, seriously!And then for his final form he turns into some strange monster that has wings but can’t do anything more than jump. What is with that sprite?

If you’ve played later entries in this series, it’s pretty fascinating to go back and look at the straightforward action platforming roots. Some prefer this type of Castlevania game, and some prefer the Metroidvania type that’s yet to come, but this is where it all began.

(The following are scans of some of the amusing art found in the instruction manual of the Famicom Disk System version)

Castlevania - Story Part 1 (Manual Scan)
Previously mentioned story blurb, part 1
Castlevania - Story Part 2 (Manual Scan)
Previously mentioned story blurb, part 2

Castlevania - Monsters List Part 1 (Manual Scan)
Monster list, part 1
Castlevania - Monsters List Part (Manual Scan)
Monster list, part 2

Castlevania - Monsters List Part (Manual Scan)
Monster list, part 3

And here is the Japanese TV commercial


Hokuto no Ken

Hokuto-no-Ken - Title Screen
Platforms: Mark III/Master System
Released: 07/20/1986 (Japan), 1986 (US and PAL)
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Japanese Name: 北斗の拳
Translated Name: Fist of the North Star
Localized Name US: Black Belt
Other Localized Names: Black Belt

It was the right time for the Hokuto no Ken franchise to be made into a video game: The manga and anime series had been popular for 2-3 years already. You could that Hokuto no Ken was made to be a video game since it involves copious amounts of violence. For those unfamiliar with the story, Our hero Kenshiro travels throughout the a post apocalyptic world overrun by gangs to find his kidnapped fiancee Yuria, utilizing his Hokuto Shinken to pummel enemies with fists and feet. This usually results in them gruesomely exploding from the pressure point manipulation that Hokuto Shinken is based around. If this wasn’t begging to be made into a side-scrolling beat-em-up, what was?

Luckily, that was exactly the type of game that Sega created. While this isn’t as historically relevant of a beat-em-up as Irem’s Spartan X/Kung-Fu Master (which was in arcades in December of 1984) or Technos Japan’s Nekketsu Kouha Kunio kun/Renegade (which was in arcades in May 1986), but it is the first one for home consoles that wasn’t a port of an arcade game. Hokuto no Ken definitely took more from Spartan X’s design then it did from Renegade’s, given that movement takes place on a single plane and regular enemies only take a single hit to vanquish. It also did something important to appeal to fans of the Hokuto no Ken franchise: When you strike one of the many enemies that runs or jumps toward you, they explode into pieces! The bodily explosions in the source material are not quite so instant as they are here, but this was still a wonderful touch for fans.

 Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion The second level of Hokuto no Ken
When struck they explode quicker than Kenshiro can say “omae wa mou…shinde iru!”The second level: where the real challenge starts. Enemies come leaping at you like maniacs!

Unlike other anime and manga based games of this era, Sega stayed loyal to the source material in most ways. Locations such as Southern Cross Town, God Land, Devil Rebirth and Cassandra make up the game’s levels. The sprites do all of the characters justice, and the bosses include Shin, Toki, Souther and of course Raoh. For each level’s final boss you’ll be transported into a special area in which both of the character’s sprites suddenly shoot up in size. This really lets to appreciate how close they tried to get the sprites to the original character designs.

 Kenshiro performing Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken on Shin Kenshiro vs. Club, the 1st stage's 3rd mini boss
The Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken attack being performed on Shin.One of the first level’s four mini bosses: Club. Did he originally have Wolverine claws?

Another key way in which this game remains true to the source material is this: If you attack each of the bosses in a specific way that is accurate to the way inwhich were defeated in the manga, you’ll deplete their energy more quickly. For example: Shin was defeated by Kenshiro’s Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken attack, a series of rapid punches to the chest. Therefore Shin’s weak point in the game is his chest. Whether or not you take advantage of this you’ll still be treated to a scene in which Kenshiro actually defeats the boss using the same finishing as in the story, complete with the name of the move shown on-screen at the end.

 Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion
The game’s second boss is the Colonel of God’s Army in God Land itself!Pieces of the game’s third boss, Devil Rebirth after he’s been atatatatatatatata’d to death!

For as nice to look at and interesting as Hokuto no Ken is, it’s perhaps a bit too challenging. Though your energy does slowly replenish as you work your way through a level, energy and power-ups are very difficult to come by. This is due to the ridiculous conditions that must be met to obtain them. In Chapters 1, 3 or 4 you can only obtain energy by performing a super-jump kick when the time indicator reaches “80”. Power-ups can only be obtained in Chapters 2 or 5 by punching some dog-faced statues above gates. These sorts of stupidly obtuse conditions for obtaining bonuses are common in games of this era though. Apart from these cases, a power up will occasionally come scrolling across the top of the screen for you to jump up and grab. Another interesting secret is that the hidden 7th chapter can be accessed by entering a set of inputs when the ending message is displayed. This chapter is one of the earliest examples of a boss-rush mode, wherein you have to defeat all of the game’s bosses in a single life with no additional energy or power-ups.

 Hokuto no Ken Enemy Explosion Black Belt's First Level
The awesome title screen for “Black Belt”Same fighting action, more generic Kung Fu sprites!

Some Western Master System owners may have played this game under the name “Black Belt”. All of the character sprites and backgrounds were changed from their original designs. A lot of the sprites were altered to be generic looking Kung-Fu characters (perhaps shooting for the same aesthetic found in Irem’s Kung-Fu Master), others to generic looking street thugs. Their names were changed in similarly ridiculous ways, to either a basic Chinese or Japanese name. The best examples are Kenshiro’s name being changed to “Riki”, and Raoh’s to “Wang”. This was probably all done to cash in on the cheesy martial arts movie craze that was in full swing in America at this point. The music was also completely changed from the Japanese version of the game, to no clear benefit.

 Kenshiro and Shin as Riki and Ryu in Black Belt Black Belt's 3rd Level, now with a temple background!
Oh god Shin, what happened to you?!The backgrounds were changed to temples and slightly less ruined cities.

While few of the enemy or boss patterns were changed in Black Belt, the game is made much easier by power-ups appearing much more frequently. Such a simple change may make this version of the game more enjoyable to play, though don’t expect to get the full Hokuto no Ken experience by doing so. The small scenes that tell parts of Hokuto no Ken’s story were also completely removed here.

For those looking to pick this game up in its original form, you don’t necessarily have to invest in a Japanese Sega Mark III console. It’s available on the Japanese Wii Virtual Console as well as the Japanese PS2 remake of this very game “Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol. 11: Hokuto no Ken” in emulation form. There is one rather insignificant alteration to these re-released versions of the game that should be mentioned. After defeating Raoh in the original Mark III version, you’re treated to a spectacular display of rapidly flashing lights. For fear of causing another Pokemon epilepsy incident that would leave children having seizures in front of their TV screens, this was removed from the Wii Virtual Console and PS2 versions.

Many fans of the Hokuto no Ken games, as well as fans of the beat-em-up genre in general, consider this to be a pretty decent game. Considering this was developed by Sega (and programmed by Yuji Naka even, long before he had made name for himself at Sega), and some of the garbage that would be some of the next few Hokuto no Ken games, I would agree with that. It’s definitely worth playing, though I wouldn’t plan on getting very far into the game if you can’t take advantage of the infinite lives trick that requires the actual Mark III/Master System hardware. The only other chance you have is to possess a good eye for enemy patterns: button mashing will NOT get you through this. Regardless of the level of challenge, there’s no doubt that this game has some place in history since it ended up becoming a million-selling game.

Dragon Ball: Shen Long no Nazo

Dragon Ball - Shen Long no Nazo Title Screen
Platforms: Famicom/NES
Released: 11/27/1986 (Japan), 1988 (US and PAL)
Developer: Tose
Publisher: Bandai
Japanese Name: ドラゴンボール 神龍の謎
Translated Name: Dragon Ball: The Mystery of Shen Long
Localized Name US: Dragon Power
Other Localized Names: Dragon Ball: Le Secret Du Dragon

While not the very first Dragon Ball console game (that honor goes to an extraordinarily expensive Dragon Ball title on the Super Cassette Vision), this was the first on a console with a significant install base. There was never any doubt that the Dragon Ball franchise would spin-off into the world of home video games: The manga began its run in 1984, and the TV animation in 1986. This game covers the first major story arc in the Dragon Ball series, which involves Son Goku and friends gathering the Dragon Balls, foiling the plans of Emperor Pilaf, and finally summoning the wish-granting dragon Shen Long. For those not familiar with the progression of the Dragon Ball series, it wasn’t always the action heavy Dragon Ball Z in which a single fight could span over the course of a dozen episodes. The series started as a much more fun loving story of Goku and friends going on actual adventures, and meeting an assortment of wacky characters. Shen Long no Nazo is centered around this period of the series.

This was one of the first anime games that I’m aware of to use a version of its anime counterpart’s theme song, in this case “Makafushigi Adventure”, as the background music. Perhaps as a space saving technique or due to ineptitude by the game’s sound programmer, this song is on a very short loop. So if you’re not particularly fond of the song (or maybe even if you are), it very well may drive you crazy before too long.

It should also be mentioned that The Legend of Zelda was released by Nintendo on the Famicom Disk system in the earlier part of this same year. This would slowly but surely set a trend in motion of action/adventure games trying as hard as they possibly could to capture that magical feeling that Zelda gave off. Dragon Ball: Shen Long no Nazo was no exception, and it makes no attempts to hide its biggest influence. For this period in the Dragon Ball series though, it actually makes sense: Link was setting out on an adventure, and so was Goku.

Dragon Ball Shen Long no Nazo - General Game PlayDragon Ball - Shen Long no Nazo - First Boss
Goku getting ready to take on the…dog army?Dragon Ball: Now With Bears!

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that you’ll mostly be exploring different areas that Goku travels to throughout the series from a top-view perspective, and attacking enemies as you go along. You can collect various items from defeating those enemies on the map, or from wandering into one of the extremely well hidden areas. Like so many games of this vintage, there’s no real indication as to where they are: You’ll walk into a tree or rock and appear in a new room. The items to be found include health, better weapons (such as Goku’s staff Nyoibo) and stocks of the famous projectile attack Kamehameha for use of more difficult enemies. So basically use a guide or just try walking into everything that you see. This was probably their attempt to replicate the idea of having to burn every bush and bomb every wall to find secrets in Zelda, but it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying since you don’t have any of those tools to actually uncover these areas.

Dragon Ball - Shen Long no Nazo - Scary Women attacking GokuDragon Ball - Shen Long no Nazo - Villagers Attack
A hidden room in which women of the village immediately fall in love with Goku and chase him around…but still cause damageVillagers (or maybe construction workers?) come out to attack Goku, who is clearly an evil conqueror here for their village

While you can see that they really did make some effort to get all of the sprites of actual Dragon Ball characters to look like those characters, many actually end up looking like they were scribbled out by children. Goku’s sprite doesn’t look too bad, but some of the rest are pretty far off. It’s also a little strange that so many of the enemies are various types of animal men or just regular human villagers. There’s some precedence for animal men being aggressors in the source material (particularly at the start of the series), but I don’t remember Goku ever being attacked by human villagers.

The amount of background detail put into the areas is pretty good for this time period though, even when compared to The Legend of Zelda itself. Individual rocks and various flora are more noticeable and less just a “part of the scenery”. That might just be because you get into the habit of walking into everything to see though.

Goku's Victory DanceDragon Ball - Shen Long no Nazo - Versus Yamcha
Is Goku in a Super Mario Bros. level? Yes, he can even break those blocks with his head.The third boss battle against Yamcha. Look, it’s an actual Dragon Ball character!

Now for the game ruiner: Your life continuously ticks down, even when just walking around. Even for a reasonable early Famicom game, this is a baffling design decision! And it’s not like there’s any precedence for this in the original story either. Did they think that the game would either be too similar to Zelda, or too easy if they didn’t do something like this? It makes finding food items to replenish your health fairly frequently a necessity, but it’s really up to luck as to whether you get any before your life completely runs out. Collisions with or attacks from enemies will naturally deplete your health even faster, so you really have to be careful if you hope to last until the end of an area.

DB Shen Long no Nazo - CutsceneDragon Ball - Shen Long no Nazo - Muten Roshi Panties
An example of a “cutscene”: Goku and Bulma talking about the Dragon RadarMuten Roshi thinking about his favorite thing in what is probably the game’s most iconic moment

Despite its problems though, the game does a good job of capturing the feel of the early manga and anime. There are even small cutscenes with conversations between the characters throughout the levels that help to tell a very abbreviated version of the early Dragon Ball story. This is just another reason why this is so close to being a decent game. If it wasn’t for the ticking-down health, this would be a good Zelda clone. It wouldn’t be able to stand up to the real thing of course, but it would have been a great foot for Dragon Ball to put forward into the world of video games.

Dragon Power - General GameplayDragon Power - Cutscene
The US version of the game, “Dragon Power”The same “cutscene” from before, but in English

Surprisingly, America also saw a release of this game in 1988, though the cartoon didn’t come to the west until the 90s. Because of this it was dubbed “Dragon Power”, and everything related to the Dragon Ball franchise was stripped out and replaced with the most generic Kung Fu nonsense that you can imagine. The Dragon Balls themselves became regular crystal balls and Goku’s sprite turned into one that arguably more accurately represents depictions of the actual monkey king Son Goku in other forms of media. Its most memorable change was probably the sprites of panties revolving around Muten Roshi’s head being replaced by sandwiches in the scene where he asks to see Bulma’s panties. I don’t think I have to point out that the dialog was obviously not translated by a native English speaker either.

Dragon Power - Give Me Your SandwichDragon Power - Sandwiches
Muten Roshi’s request to Bulma to show him her panties was turned into this in the US versionAh sandwiches…wait, what did they do to Muten Roshi’s sprite?!

For those who want to own this game but don’t care to hunt down the Famicom cartridge, you can pick up the DS title “Dragon Ball DS 2: Totsugeki! Red Ribbon gun” on which this is a playable extra.

I wish I could say that things would get better from here. The Dragon Ball series is about to sink into a deep, dark hole that it will not emerge from until the better part of the Famicom era has ended. Its new formula will likely leave you reminiscing fondly about this game before things get better again for this series.