It’s been a while since I have done a review, so I figured I’d focus on one of my favorite Famicom games of all time: “Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun”, which translates to “Demon Castle Special: I’m Kid Dracula”. There must be some place in my heart reserved for the super deformed bastard offspring of horror franchises, because this game, along with Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti are two of my most cherished Famicom titles.
This time, it’s Konami delivering he goods with a spin-off of their massively popular Castlevania franchise. It’s a shame that the Kid Dracula franchise only saw two games, one of them being the Famicom Japan-only release we are discussing here and the other which is a 1993 Gameboy title that was released in North America, but is more of a remake than a true sequel. Along with the Famicom vrsion of the game, the North American Gameboy cart also sells for a ridiculously high price on Ebay and other auction sites, so if you really want to play these games on the original hardware, be prepared to make a considerable investment. If you would like more info on the Gameboy Kid Dracula, Ben from Video Game Take Out has an excellent review over at RetrowareTV.com.
Now, back to the game itself. Kid Dracula is a side scrolling platformer very much like its Castlevanian relatives, but gone is the dark and brooding Gothic atmosphere of the main series titles. Kid Dracula, being a super deformed gaiden, swaps out the dark orange and grey palette in favor of a bright vibrant world filled with cartoony sprites and upbeat music. The first level of the game is your standard Romanian castle that is very reminiscent of the early levels in Konami’s original Castlevania and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Elements such as giant clock gears, swinging pendulums, and fall away plaforms are obvious homages to the original NES games. This brings me to the first (of many) reasons why I love this game: the level design. Beyond the first obligatory castle stage Kid Dracula really takes you on a journey through some of the most inventive stages I have seen in a non-Mario adventure. From precision-jump heavy cloud worlds, to flying pirate ships, ice caverns, haunted pyramids, and the New York subway system, Kid Dracula manages surprise you with stages that are not only cosmetically varied, but also play differently from each other, and require you to use different mechanics to complete.
This brings me to the secondary weapons. Unlike most other Castlevania games, you do not aquire weapons and hearts from candelabras. Instead you acquire a new weapon or ability after every boss you destroy, a’la Mega Man. The weapons are switched via the select button and can be used by charging the main (baseball?) attack. This is done by holding down the fire button for a couple seconds, or until the Kid Dracula face at the center of the status area starts making an angry face. Weapons and abilities include enemy freezing snow balls, a fire ball cluster, the ability to turn into a bat and fly for a short period, and a Gunstar Heroes / Metal Storm style gravity switcher which allows you to walk on the ceiling. The starting secondary weapon, when charged will not only deliver more damage to your foes, but will cause them to drop a coin. Collecting these coins through-out a level will give you more chances in the stage ending bonus games, in which you have a chance at winning additional lives.
This is where the language barrier comes into play. The bonus games are easy enough to figure out logically if you play them a couple times, but you really feel like you are missing something with teh amount of type that you have to breeze through. Another area of the game that I had to make it through on pure luck was at the end of the New York rooftop / subway level, instead of fighting a boss you are put in a trivia contest with the bosses at the end of the first two levels by an anime statue of liberty (with huge guns!). You can answer wrong as many times as hearts you have remaining, and if you lose all your hearts you have to do the subway portion of the level again. I had to do the level an average four or five times before I got lucky enough to blindingly guess the correct multiple choice options to get to the next stage.
Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun has a nicely balanced difficulty that occasinally throws some tough parts at you and often slaps you in the face with traps and hazards that you can not possibly predict the first time through (especially with later boss battles), but the welcomed addition of infinite continues (even though you lose the extra life hearts you have collected) makes the over all difficulty of the game manageable. Just like most old school games, practice and repeat and you shall succeed.
This leads me to my only real complaint about this game. Near the end of the game their is a stretch of level that starts with a boss, then two separate spike related hazard areas and than two bosses in a row. The bastard of it is, if you die on any of these areas, you have to start back at the start and do it all over again. And trust me you will certainly die. Alot. Just when you have one bosses pattern figured out and you have isolated his weakness, you move onto the next area and die because it throws a whole new curve ball at you. I found myself having to repeat this part of the game dozens of times before I could clear the first four or five parts perfectly so I would have enough life left over to survive the final boss fight. In this games defense, this type of artificial difficulty-inflation was fairly common in the games of the 8-bit period, but it is still extremely annoying.
Other than that minor gripe, Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun plays great, has enough of a challenge to keep you coming back and not alienate you, and has enough variety to warrant successive play throughs. If you are lame you can download the translated rom and play it on (*shutters*) an emulator, or you could be a man and import it and play it the way it was meant to be experienced.