Formerly Japan-only castles from the past – Akumajou Dracula

An animated intro featuring the Black Mass resurrecting Dracula greeted players in all of its heart-squishing majesty before landing them here on the title screen.

An animated intro featuring the Black Mass resurrecting Dracula greeted players in all of its heart-squishing majesty before landing them here on the title screen.

A few Castlevania titles were initially released exclusively in Japan, some eventually making their way over to the West more or less intact in the following years. One of those was Akumajou Dracula for the Sharp X68000 personal computer.

Akumajou Dracula, or “Demon Castle Dracula”, could be a bit confusing since it’s the same title used by the original game as it was released in Japan and a number of its variants on other systems…the differences often being content exclusive to specific platforms like the MSX or the Sharp X68000.

Back in the 80s, Japan’s PC market wasn’t quite the same as it was in the West. It made huge strides towards the end of the decade domestically as well as growing a major technology supply chain for Western markets such as when it came to DRAM memory. Back then, their industries dominated electronics from VCRs to Walkmans along with a host of other devices — but the personal computer wasn’t one of them.

Why? From what I was able to understand from digging around, there were a number of factors. The short-short answer is that one of those reasons was that Japan’s PC scene was dominated by massive conglomerates like NEC and Fujitsu. It never had the explosive, “decentralized” effect of a cottage industry of businesses that the West experienced fostering intense competition that helped drive prices down for commercially available systems.

Japanese PC makers were also gunning to dethrone IBM in the high-end mainframe market which they actually had some success with. IBM, at the time, was the mega monster of PC makers before the clone wars. As a result, PCs in Japan were also largely seen largely as business boxes. Very expensive business boxes. They did alright domestically — and with a little help from the government — in business circles, but never quite had the same level of penetration that PCs did in the West.

The Sharp X68000 series kicked off in ’87. Architecturally, they shared a number of things in common with arcade hardware, apparently even serving as the development platform of choice for Capcom’s CPS programming teams. A Yamaha sound chip was also integrated inside the system much like a number of arcade boards from companies like Capcom had also done. According to the IPSJ Computer Museum site, this was a system that “aimed for maximum performance achievable with a PC” with high level graphics and RAM expansion up to 12MB which was huge at the time. One could probably say that it was like having 12GB today.

The system proved to be relatively popular in Japan with 20 different models sold by 1993 and was also attractive to arcade developers like Capcom and Konami who took advantage of the platform at home and looked to other PCs abroad. But not all of their games actually made it beyond Japan. At least initially.

Akumajou Dracula arrived on the X68000 in 1993 as something of a revamped version of the first Castlevania from ’86 with enhanced graphics and music. At least, that’s the first impression that players may get when they start playing the game right up to the vampire bat boss at the end of the first level. At the same time, it also had quite a bit of additional content mixed in that helped make it more than a simple “HD remake” for PCs.

Simon Belmont, still in his brown leathers, but no less dangerous now that he also comes with a few new moves.

Simon Belmont, still in his brown leathers, but no less dangerous now that he also comes with a few new moves.

The story established its place in Transylvania “in the heart of medieval Europe” where the legend of Count Dracula has haunted its people. The Prince of Darkness, as he has become called, was defeated by Christopher Belmont (Castlevania: The Adventure) and peace descended on the countryside for a century. But now, “one Easter night”, a group of dark followers enacted a Black Mass to resurrect their fallen lord — and succeed! Count Dracula is once again back to spread his nightmarish terror across the land and it falls to another Belmont to destroy him…Simon Belmont.

Like in the first game, Simon is going at it alone with only his whip and a collection of sub-weapons to be found along the way to aid him in defeating the evils in his way. Instead of six stages split into three smaller sections, the X68000 version had a total of eight for 24 sub stages filled with monsters, tricks, and pork chops hidden in walls. Simon can also power-up his vampire killing whip twice, collect heart points for sub-weapons, and do everything he can to try and stay alive.

Akumajou Dracula didn't hold back on taking advantage of the power of the X68000's graphics hardware and sound.

Akumajou Dracula didn’t hold back on taking advantage of the power of the X68000’s graphics hardware and sound.

Akumajou featured a few innovative touches to Simon’s repertoire of moves, the biggest of which was a vastly improved and responsive jumping mechanic that allowed players to adjust his direction in mid-flight. Not only that, but he could also whip diagonally downwards, or straight down, at enemies while grabbing air. Alas, unlike in Super Castlevania IV which came out in ’91, Simon loses the ability to whip diagonally upwards or straight up (or dangle the chain whip) in something of an oddly flipped trade.

Visually, the game doesn’t look bad, especially with some of the backgrounds. Simon is a bit more detailed, the monsters die spectacular deaths, and the sound effects work. The game even comes with a feature that most games today don’t even entertain anymore — a sound test mode where you can sample all of the tracks including another version of the series’ iconic Vampire Killer that kicks off in the first stage.

You know what I miss in today's games? This. An actual sound test mode. It doesn't even have to have equalizer graphics like this does. On starting up the game on the X68000, it would ask if you wanted to use the internal Yamaha sound (which was really good), Roland synthesis, or Roland GS wavetable MIDI.

You know what I miss in today’s games? This. An actual sound test mode. It doesn’t even have to have equalizer graphics like this does. On starting up the game on the X68000, it would ask if you wanted to use the internal Yamaha sound (which was really good…the X68000 really was a nice piece of kit), Roland synthesis, or Roland GS wavetable MIDI.

One thing that fans have noted about the X68000 version was its incredible difficulty. While the game was a linear slog from start to finish, the sub stages themselves allowed for a degree of exploration with hidden secrets awaiting those that wanted to see it all. This was a tough game, but it also would be a game that would make it out of Japan and into the West eight years later in 2001 for Sony’s Playstation as Castlevania Chronicles.

Instead of a pork chop hidden behind some bricks, an endless torrent of hunchbacks comes out instead to feed death to hungry players.

Instead of a pork chop hidden behind some bricks, an endless torrent of hunchbacks comes out instead to feed death to hungry players. Unless they run.

Castlevania Chronicles featured the original X68000 version and an “Arrange” version that players can pick from the opening menu. The original version had one or two missing cosmetic touches that were present on the X68000 thanks to a bit of clever programming. It used the computer’s internal clock to generate the actual time seen on the Clock Tower during the boss fight as well as change the color scheme of the painting used in the 21st stage depending on what season it was.

The Arrange version brought a number of graphical tweaks (Simon is decked out in black armor and a mane of hair) as well as retooled soundtracks taking advantage of the CD-ROM format and the Playstation’s hardware. Ayami Kojima’s art style was also brought back for the cover of the manual and the characters. There’s even a difficulty level selector in the Options for the Arrange version (the original version remains as hard as ever) allowing players to go at it in Easy mode and buff up the number of lives they start with up to five.

Simon's sports a new look in the Arrange version. He also has an item introduced with Akumajou Dracula -- the laurel which can heal a few points for the cost of 10 hearts. This one was found underground and finding a hidden room where a grey robed guy presented a new set of goodies he could drop every time you hit him.

Simon’s sports a new look in the Arrange version. He also has an item introduced with Akumajou Dracula — the laurel which can heal a few points for the cost of 10 hearts. This one was found underground and finding a hidden room where a grey robed guy presented a new set of goodies he could drop every time you hit him. Once you liked what he presented, you just hit the items above and got what you wanted — hopefully.

The Western version of Castlevania Chronicles also comes which is also accessed from the Options menu — an interview with Koji Igarashi where he answers a few questions about the series he’s now in charge of. Apparently, Chronicles came about because of his love for the original on the X68000.

A young, goatee-less Koji Igarashi talks about his love for the series and the work he's done in a small special filmed for Western audiences.

A young, goatee-less Koji Igarashi talks about his love for the series and the work he’s done in a small special filmed for Western audiences.

Chronicles also came out in 2008 on the Playstation Network for North American audiences and, weirdly enough, finally hit Japan in 2014. Not bad for a game that started out on two floppy disks.

Akumajou Dracula for the X68000 is an interesting example of how Konami, using relatively the same game, had managed to spin it into a different experience depending on the hardware in question. As I’ve noted before, back in those days, a title port could look and sound dramatically different depending on where it was going. Things like “platform parity” weren’t so much ignored because the developers didn’t feel like putting in the work or that the publisher demanded it…but if you wanted the game out on another platform and people wanted it, you worked with what you had and in many cases, the essential gameplay elements survived intact despite their looks.

But unlike a number of other Japan-only PC titles, Akumajou Dracula would surprisingly find its way over to the West not only as an emulated copy but include a version featuring improvements to keep things fresh. It was also a release that followed a few years after the epic Symphony of the Night in ’97 which, by any measure, was a hard act to follow. Yet as infrequent as Castlevania could be with new console releases (it went crazy for Nintendo’s handhelds in the opening decade of the new millennium), and given that the game was Japan only until then, you really can’t blame Konami for wanting something to fill the gap. Especially when the launch PS2s, which came out the year before in 2000, were backwards compatible.

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