Friday, July 19, 2002

Dracula X is the Greatest Game Ever Made

Now, normally I'm not one to gush about a game like this or to engage in such superlatives. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm fiercely critical of lots of video games. Most games are crap, because the machine producing them is one that is optimized for short-term commerical profit, not for making good games. However, once in a very long while, something truly spectacular comes out. One of these in particular is Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, which was released on CD-ROM for the PC Engine (The Japanese analogue of the Turbografx-16) around 1993. Unfortunately, it was only released in Japan, so most American gamers never got to see it or play it. Over time, Dracula X's reputation grew to command a ridiculously high price in the used-game collector's market. Its high collectible value made it even less accessible to the gaming masses.

So here I am to tell you how wonderful and unique this game is. If you have any means of playing this game yourself (hopefully not via an emulator) I strongly suggest you do so. First of all, I should note that Dracula X is part of the Castlevania series of games. It is the direct predecessor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN) which was released in America for the PlayStation around 1998 and was also very highly regarded among gamers. In Japan, SOTN's original title is Akumajou Dracula X: Gekka no Yasoukyoku. To keep it simple, I'll refer to the PlayStation game as SOTN and the PC Engine game as Dracula X. The lineage is important, because it explains the significance and importance of the first Dracula X. A lot of the unique details and elements that made SOTN so cool originally appeared in Dracula X. It also shows how cleverly the makers intertwined the game with the rest of the series. For example, the burning town in Stage 1 is not just any town, it's Aljiba Town, which appeared first in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Those who have played the older game will immediately recognize its similar layout. You can even walk up to and read the sign that marks the town's entrance. Most of the enemies in SOTN are not new; they actually first appeared in Dracula X.

One element that has never really been done in a game before is that the initial prologue stage in SOTN is actually a re-enactment of the very last stage in Dracula X. What makes it so special is that the interface elements and characters, even the stage's title graphics are more consistent with Dracula X than what you encounter for the rest of SOTN. You don't just watch what happened in the last game, you PLAY what happened in the last game.

Each pixel and moment in this game was crafted with such thought and care that has never been seen before or since, and possibly may never be surpassed. For example, each boss in this game has a special dramatic entrance. In Stage 1, as you walk toward the gate of the castle, you can see the Wyvern flying in the distance across the sky. In another instance, you can see the Serpent boss' body peek out of the lake from far away before it submerges to approach you. The Stage 4 boss, Minotaurus, enters the screen from a dark doorway, but for several moments before its body appears you can only see its glowing eyes. What makes the bosses even more believeable as evil entities that really want to kill you is that most of them have special desperation attacks thatare only unleashed as they die. Using its very last ounce of energy as a last-ditch attempt to even the score, the Serpent's skeleton bursts straight out of the water immediately under your feet, right after you thought you saw the last of it.

Even the interface elements are special. The boss' energy meters are intertwined by some kind of skeletal dragon. When the boss dies, its energy meter crumbles toward the ground. Really, I could keep going on for pages but you get the idea. Here are just a few more neat visual devices:

• Usually, you can find pieces of meat by whipping away certain parts of walls (this is a standard Castlevania game element). In one instance, there's a little mouse on the ground that runs into its hole if you chase it. Whipping at the hole reveals a piece of meat with a little chunk already nibbled away.

• In one section of the castle, a swarm of insects surrounds a light. If you destroy the light, the swarm is attracted to either another light, or your head, whichever is closer. This doesn't impact the game functionally.

• There is a particular ghost-type enemy with a rifle that shoots at you. After firing two shots, the enemy stops to let the empty shells fall to the ground, then re-loads two more shells one at a time.

• Here and there, certain statues actually point to secret points of interest.

• Most enemies you meet only appear once, or only appear in one small section of the game.

The coolest thing of all is the flow of gameplay. There are a couple noteworthy elements in particular. First, when you fall into a hole, in most cases instead of falling to your death (as you would expect), you fall into a completely new area! The stages are semi-linear, as there is a beginning and a definite end to each stage, but there are multiple secret routes to be found in each one. Finishing a stage by traveling via the secret route will present a new boss to battle and will lead to another secret stage. Next, there is a special second character you can control, but only if you're able to rescue her from somewhere in the castle. This kind of an event is shocking, as at first there's really no sign to suggest that you could actually control one of two characters in the game. Theoretically, it's possible to complete the game without ever knowing about it.

After lurking though several discussion boards, I found out that there was quite a lot of sentiments that expressed dissatisfaction with Dracula X, that it was over-rated, nothing special. First of all, it seems as though most of the people who are saying these things are playing Dracula X for the first time through an emulator. Although the emulators are pretty good these days, if you are trying to play this game using a keyboard then your situation is hopeless. Secondly, those who have played it in the manner which it was designed and still don't like it I think are concentrating too much on graphics. Okay, you know what? The graphics are not the most impressive thing in this game. Instead, look at the exquisite detail in the animation, the sheer variety and ingenuity behind all the enemies and environments, behaviors and interactions. Most impressive of all is that there is a well-balanced, accessible and playable game at the very foundation. To combine so many qualities into one game successfully is so rare, it only happens once or twice in a decade. For the 1990s, Dracula X was that game.

-- Ara Shirinian