Vampire Killer is an obscure Castlevania game and the first one to try a nonlinear approach. Sadly, it’s not that great…
|Release Year||1986 – 1987|
|Purchase||Purchase from eBay.|
So, what are we looking at here? A bootleg of the original Castlevania?
Actually, no. Vampire Killer is a pretty obscure title, but it’s one of the oldest Castlevania titles, released just a month after the original Castlevania. So it’s technically the second game of the whole series, before Simon’s Quest. Pretty crazy, right? And it’s not to be confused with the series’ iconic whip known as the Vampire Killer.
But this is a different game from what we were used to. Most Castlevania titles are sidescrolling platformer games while some are 3D action-adventure games. This one, however, comes closer to being like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest in its design. But even that alone isn’t enough to explain how this game works.
Vampire Killer was a game exclusively released for the MSX2, a type of Microsoft home computer that was only available in Europe and Japan. So that means this game never came out in North America. As an additional slap in the face, this game came out on the Wii U Virtual Console… in Japan. Well, gee, thanks for that. Thanks, Nintendo of America. You could have found an audience in the west for games that are about as old as the NES, but decided not to. Do you have any idea how much a MSX2 is going for nowadays? I hope you’re proud of yourselves.
But perhaps this could be a blessing in disguise. Why, you ask? Because this is one of the worst Castlevania games I ever played. Yeah. I just made it awkward.
Castlevania: Key Collector
Judging from the image, Vampire Killer looks almost exactly like the original Castlevania. The noticeable changes include a different color palette, some better-looking enemy sprites and nicer backgrounds. I guess you can say that’s one thing the game has going for it.
So, let’s start with my first gripe here. The controls kinda suck. Arrow keys to move, space bar to attack enemies, up arrow to jump, F1 to pause and F2 to use the map (if you have it). Being unable to remap controls is expected of a game of this era. But honestly, I’m a right-handed person who despises using the arrow keys to move. So I used the Xbox One controller and remapped the controls to something more conventional.
I know this kinda defeats the purpose of “playing it exactly how it’s meant to be played.” But fuck it. I’m not patient with using these kinds of controls to play an especially difficult game. And I’m not kidding. This is one of the hardest Castlevania games I ever played, even worse than Dracula X.
Behold, this is Vampire Killer. At first glance, it definitely looks like an older Castlevania game. And the music also sounds like Castlevania, only with weaker percussion. There is no time limit, so you can spend as much time as you need to look for items and progress through the next stage. Kinda looks fun, right? Well…
It might interest you to know that Vampire Killer is the very first game in the series to try the non-linear approach. Before Simon’s Quest and Symphony of the Night, there’s this game. So hey, maybe this game won’t be so bad after all.
And to be fair, Vampire Killer didn’t start off too badly. It did seem like fun once you get used to the fact that this is not the first Castlevania. The objectives and minor goals are different, but the base gameplay is still there.
So you’re a vampire hunter named Simon Belmont and your job is to slay Count Dracula and his forces of evil. You must complete six levels (with three smaller stages each) and confront the Count himself.
You can jump and attack monsters with your whip. Furthermore, the levels themselves are heavily based on those of the original Castlevania. There are also the same enemies, the same bosses, you get the idea.
But the similarities end there. To begin with, this is not really a “sidescroller” per say. In fact, the screen doesn’t move at all during any point in the game. Instead, it’s more like a series of smaller maps connected to each other like a maze. Sometimes, these smaller maps may even loop. In this instance, it’s sort of like Simon’s Quest except with smaller maps that take up the whole screen. You might even call it a miniature version of a Metroidvania type of game, long before that term was coined. It’s a bit hard to explain. But I promise, it’s simple to understand when you actually see the game.
Your main goal in each stage is to find a white key, so you can use it on the big door to enter the next stage. This key is typically hidden inside walls, so you frequently need to attack the walls to find all sorts of goodies.
You can find collectibles out in the open, after defeating enemies, whipping candles, breaking walls, buying from merchants or opening the blue chests. But to open the blue chests, you need to collect the smaller bronze keys—which is no problem, since those keys are everywhere. But what is even better is the cane/stick/staff/stick thing, which can open multiple blue chests before breaking.
Castlevania: Treasure Hunter
Vampire Killer has a pretty big item variety, including weapons and support items. And of course, this game came out during an age of no in-game descriptions. So, I’ll go ahead and list the items here based on my memory and this source.
- Axe – replaces your whip with a throwing axe; powerful but has short range, returns to you in a boomerang-like fashion; you must catch it every time you use it, or else you will revert back to the leather whip
- Blue Ring – grants you invincibility for a short time; allows you to kill enemies on contact
- Blue Orb – grants you invincibility for a short time
- Boots – walk faster
- Candle (handheld) – reveals breakable walls
- Cane – can open multiple treasure chests
- Chain Whip – upgrades your whip for a more powerful attack
- Crucifix – replaces your whip with a throwing cross; long range and average damage; you must catch it every time you use it, or else you will revert back to the leather whip
- Dagger – replaces your whip with throwing knives; long-range and can pass through walls, weak attack; can throw two at a time
- Gray Spell Book – decreases the price of items from the merchants
- Holy Water – throw a bottle of holy water onto the ground for powerful damage (especially effective against certain bosses) by jumping and pressing left/right while in mid-air; uses up 5 hearts
- Hourglass – allows you to freeze time for a few seconds by jumping and pressing down while in mid-air; uses up 5 hearts
- Map – allows you to view a map of the stage by pressing F2; will fade away after some time
- Money Bags – increase your score
- Red Orb – restores some health
- Red Shield – take half damage from attacks
- Red Spell Book – increases the price of items from the merchants
- Tan Shield – blocks projectiles
- Wings – jump higher
If you’d like to know my recommendations on which items to get, here are some.
- Whatever you do, do NOT get the Red Spell Book! This is the only item that is directly harmful to you as it makes it harder for you to purchase from vendors. ALWAYS get the Gray Spell Book.
- The whip is a terrible weapon. The chain whip is not much better. If at all possible, get the Dagger weapon. Its excellent range and the fact that you can throw two at a time make it easy to kill enemies without taking damage. The Axe and Crucifix are okay substitutes, but it’s also very easy to lose them. And you do NOT want to go back to the leather whip if you do lose them.
- The Holy Water and the Hourglass are great to have in any situation. But be careful. Because of the bad control scheme, it’s easy to accidentally use them and waste hearts.
So, you might notice that weapons work in a weird way in Vampire Killer. In most Castlevania games, the whip remains as your primary weapon while you can carry one sub-weapon at a time. But in Vampire Killer, the Axe, the Crucifix, and the Dagger actually replace your whip. Furthermore, the Holy Water and the Hourglass are secondary weapons that you can carry at the same time.
Why is it this way? I have no idea. I don’t even understand why the Axe’s function is changed in this game. Originally, it was a useful sub-weapon that allows you to lob projectiles in a curved path at an enemy, making it easier to defeat enemies directly above you. But here, it’s just a stronger Crucifix. What the hell is even the point of the Crucifix then?
You will also find many white-robed vendors who will give you certain useful items in exchange for hearts. But to even get them to talk to you… you would have to whip them until their robe turns blood red… what… why…?
And for some reason, many of these guys are hidden inside walls. You thought pork chops being stuck inside castle walls is weird? Try random robed figures trying to do business for hearts… by hiding in breakable walls.
Also, did I mention NOT to get the Red Spellbook? Well, this bears repeating. Do you really want to pay this?
Or would you rather get the Gray Spellbook and pay this?
Massive difference there. Moving on.
Trials & Tribulations
At its core, Vampire Killer is certainly not a bad idea for a game. Once you understand how it works, it seems like a fun time. So why am I calling it one of the worst Castlevania games I ever played?
For starters, the hit detection feels off. This is especially true for the whip, which has poor range and seems to only register hits when you hit the enemy at dead center. If you played this game and the original Castlevania back to back, you can definitely feel the difference. The whip animation also plays much faster, which makes it harder to anticipate your enemy’s movements.
I already mentioned that Vampire Killer’s control scheme wasn’t very good either. In a game like this, using the Up arrow as the jump button makes it easy to trigger jumps that you don’t want. Furthermore, mapping the Holy Water and Stopwatch sub-weapons to arrow keys while jumping is also a terrible idea. It’s so easy to accidentally trigger them when you don’t need to and waste hearts in the process. It’s even worse when you consider that these little accidents can even screw you over in the worst ways possible… such as breaking walls you don’t want to break.
Combining the two, you get a frustrating experience. But that’s just the beginning of this game’s problems.
The first level wasn’t so bad, but the second level is where shit hits the fan. For one thing, you don’t keep any of the powerups you gained from the previous level. You’re back to using the terrible whip, so you’d have to hunt down the useful shit again.
The level is infested with spear knights and Medusa heads. Kind of like in the original Castlevania, yes, but here’s the thing: the level design of Vampire Killer is what makes the game unbearable to play at times.
Looking at the above example, those spear knights move fast and they can turn around to attack you at any time. Look at the one to the right of the screen. You can barely get past that motherfucker without taking damage. Sure, you can try jumping over him, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the timing just right before he actually touches you. Even with practice, it’s still luck-based.
And on screens like these, enemies can respawn infinitely until you leave the screen itself. In this case, the Medusa heads respawn here. Sometimes, they can even respawn on top of you, forcing you to take damage or knocking you over into a bottomless pit without warning. Imagine the respawning enemies of the original Ninja Gaiden on NES, but worse.
Also, the knockback effect that plagued so many platformers of this era is pretty bad here. Because jumps kinda feel like you’re floating across the Moon in this game, you also get knocked back even further when you take damage. It’s almost as bad as jumps in Holy Diver.
Also keep in mind that falling down into a pit doesn’t always kill you. Sometimes, it just takes you to another screen. However, you could still die if you drop into a bottomless pit in that other screen. And there are times when you must drop into a pit on one screen to find the stage’s exit door. If you didn’t find the map, it’s a leap of faith. Just, what the hell, man. What kind of cheap bullshit is that?
Also, be prepared to see this a lot.
Want to make it even worse? You only get three lives and no continues. No continues. No fucking continues!
So if you get the Game Over screen at any point in the game, tough. You have to start over from the first level. There are no cheat codes or secrets to allow you to continue from a Game Over. Yes, not even the famous Konami Code is usable here.
Also, the second stage is where you first encounter booby traps. When you break certain candles, a slime enemy may come out instead of an item. In most Castlevania games, your first instinct is to jump, whip and grab the item immediately. Vampire Killer isn’t like that. There’s now a chance where you can take damage when you break candles. And while we’re at it, let’s bring back the Red Spellbook to make things harder for you. Then you need to grind for more hearts to buy that one item that you need. That’s lovely, Vampire Killer. Just keep on making the game more tedious.
So if you somehow made it to the third level through Hell and beyond, you will notice that you are required to drop into open pits to access certain platforms. And sometimes, those platforms have enemies that will immediately ambush you and knock you off the platform, making it impossible to grab specific items in the level.
Again, this game’s level design is all over the place. From the second level and onwards, there’s always some sort of quirky design choice that makes things arbitrarily more difficult and sometimes even render certain stages impossible to finish unless you commit suicide and waste one of your three lives.
Want another good example? Try level 4; more specifically, stage 12.
Look at this situation. Notice that one bone dragon? He’s guarding a breakable stone brick that contains the white key that opens that door in the end. That one set of stone bricks on the floor is breakable too. Guess what happens if I accidentally break that one set of stone bricks on the floor?
Look at this bullshit. I can’t jump high enough to reach the key. And the stone bricks don’t respawn if you enter a different screen. So what can I do? Go find an area with an enemy and let him kill me, wasting one of my three lives.
See, these kinds of level design choices are what killed my enjoyment for Vampire Killer. It’s one thing to make a game difficult. It’s another to make it unfair. Even if I know that I shouldn’t break that one specific set of bricks, I could still accidentally destroy it with a single hit. One time, I destroyed it by accidentally triggering the Holy Water sub-weapon. So…
Bad level design + bad controls = FRUSTRATION!
Or let’s see… how about spawning items in a place where you can’t escape? And all you can do is kill yourself?
None of the walls in this screen are breakable. And that one pit kills you. What the hell is with this game!?
Now, there is this elitist fallacy that just because a game is harder, the fault lies within you (the player). All you had to do is git gud. So you would have to spend hours upon hours upon hours to git gud. And this somehow dismisses any bad game design choices presented to us, therefore clearing the developer of any wrongdoing. And clearly, that’s incorrect. By that logic, that means there doesn’t exist a single bad video game.
Just because you don’t find fault into a video game doesn’t mean no one else did. Therefore, your opinions on the game is not any more or less important.
Progression in a hard video game can be immensely satisfying. For example, a game like Dark Souls would catch a lot of first-time players off guard, but you would always look forward to exploring new areas and encountering new tough enemies. It’s a game that you can keep replaying to learn new strategies and new ways to play.
Vampire Killer is not one of these games. It’s a mostly static experience where you need to use a lot of trial and error. You also need a lot of luck to succeed. Sure, you can memorize very specific parts of a level on what to avoid. Sure, you can learn some better ways to avoid taking damage from enemies. But you’d still be butting your head against the wall the whole way. When you get lucky enough to avoid cheap deaths, you can finally make progress. But any minor mistake can cost you one life. And you only get three for one playthrough. Once they’re all gone, it’s back to square one. Even Ghosts ‘n Goblins wasn’t this diabolical. It’s not fun.
And that’s the thing about Vampire Killer. The original Castlevania is one of the toughest platformers of its time, but it’s also very fun and satisfying to make progress in. Despite the punishing difficulty, the game’s good level design allows you to learn from your mistakes and come up with strategies to even out the odds.
In contrast, Vampire Killer has instances of bad level design that pose an unintuitive and unfair challenge against the player. Combined with sloppy controls and sloppy enemy placement, you’re in for a bad time. Again, it’s not fun.
And to conclude this review on how poorly designed the game is, let’s get to the final point: the bosses.
The bosses are pretty much the same as with the original Castlevania, except for Dracula himself. And they’re generally easier to defeat, except the first boss of the game: the giant bat. And guess what? It’s the hardest boss of the game. I’m not kidding. The first boss is the hardest one in this game!
Because the Axe doesn’t lob in this game, the giant bat is more difficult to defeat. But even then, it’s still not that difficult to defeat.
As for the rest of the bosses… they’re a joke. For most of them, you can easily block out their projectile attacks. If you have the throwing knife as your main weapon, you can make short work of them easily. Just get really close to them and spam the knife. You will take their health away faster than they take yours. Even Death, one of the most infamously hard bosses of the series, is easy to defeat here.
And finally, let’s talk about the final boss: Dracula. If you somehow managed to get to this point, congratulations! Prepare for a shockingly easy and somewhat hilarious fight.
The first phase is pretty much the same as the one in Castlevania, except it’s easier to avoid his projectiles. But his second phase is entirely different. He possesses this giant painting of himself and spits out a myriad of bats at you. This is so hilariously cheesy. Even funnier, the throwing knife turns this “final boss” into a complete joke. The bats do a poor job in attacking you and you can easily spam projectiles at a single weak point.
And there we go! That is Vampire Killer, an obscure Castlevania game that somehow aged more poorly than its predecessor. It’s… meh…
Some of you might disagree with me heavily on this game. And that’s fine. I won’t hold you against it as long as you don’t hold me against it. It’s not that I don’t like nonlinear games, Castlevania games or even hard games. I love hard games just as long as the difficulty is fair and consistent. As far as I see it, Vampire Killer is a product of the times and fails to maintain a lasting appeal up to present day. Unlike Castlevania, which is still fun to this day, playing through Vampire Killer isn’t nearly as satisfying.
Even if I were to take out the comparisons to Castlevania, well… at least the graphics and music were good for the time? The gameplay still could’ve been much better.
This game is not THE worst. Just ONE of the worst in my opinion. Still, I’d play Vampire Killer over Simon’s Quest any day, due to the latter’s dreadfully dull level design and lack of difficulty. In contrast, I’d prefer to play Dracula X over Vampire Killer since the former has improved gameplay mechanics and generally better level designs (even if they’re flawed). However, I can at least say that I do appreciate Konami trying something innovative at the time, so at least we got that going for it.
If you’re a Castlevania enthusiast, you might find more enjoyment from this game than I did. Otherwise, give it a pass.
Vampire KillerPrice Varies
- Generally better-looking graphics than the original Castlevania.
- Music is pretty much the same as the original Castlevania, which is great. Though the percussion sounds more muted.
- Its nonlinear level design was at least innovative for its time.
- Very low accessibility, especially outside of Japan.
- The control scheme is awkward and makes it easy to press the wrong keys at the wrong time.
- Your default weapon, the whip, has poor attack power, low range and bad hit detection. The crucifix and axe are very easy to lose.
- Sloppy level design with poor enemy placement, leaps of faith, dead ends that require a suicide to escape, and breakable objects that are required to obtain certain items.
- Three lives, no continues.
- Underwhelming boss fights.