I can say with reasonable (and very predictable) certainty that the first time I ever came across the word “Nosferatu” was on page 54 of Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, the 1973 encyclopaedia that inspired many of my later obsessions when I got hold of my auntie’s copy a bit later that decade. As well as highlighting some of the greatest shadows to ever grace a horror movie, that particular page gives us a lovely introduction to this iconic piece of early silent cinema…
“I am Dracula. I bid you Welcome.” But it tells us that although lead man Max Schreck was Dracula, he had to be called Graf Orlok to fool Bram Stoker’s widow. Unsurprisingly, and no doubt in no small part down to his original German title card explicitly stating it’s based on Stoker’s novel, director F.W. Murnau’s dodge failed, but his film did not, and fortunately a few copies survived after a court ruling said they all had to be destroyed! Gifford goes on to conclude that “Nosferatu (Prana, 1922) remains a frightening thrill unequalled even by Tod Browning’s Dracula (Universal, 1931), with Bela Lugosi as the legal, lethal count.”
It’s worth noting the full name of this original movie, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, because whenever we eventually get to the game, we’ll discover that it actually takes its name (and, initally at least, its artwork too) not from there, but the 1979 homage, Nosferatu the Vampyre, athough writer and director Werner Herzog actually named it Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night in its original German. This one starred Klaus Kinski as the actual Count Dracula, and we also get actual Renfield, Lucy Harker, Jonathan Harker and other characters from the novel, although the movie itself is based on the original Murnau take on the tale, rather than Stoker’s Dracula. There’s also two versions of the film, one in German and one in English!
As much as I appreciate both versions, as well as the myriad other silver screen interpretations of the original novel (in particular, by default, any starring Winona Ryder!), I’ve got to look to Hammer for the ones I keep coming back to. And I’ll keep coming back to any of them, from their original 1958 Dracula, kicking off the Christopher Lee Dracula and Peter Cushing Van Helsing on-off face-off that would be resurrected (literally!) through The Brides of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula has Risen From the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and culminating with 1974’s Lee-less The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.
I’ve just noticed that the more you write the word “Dracula” the weirder it looks. Weird! Anyway, if I’ve got to pick an absolute favourite out of all of those – and one that I religiously watch at least once a month, and occasionally back-to-back – it’s got to be Dracula A.D. 1972! “The Count is back, with an eye for London’s hot pants… and a taste for everything.” What an incredible tag-line, and up there with another one from its original poster… “New from Hammer! The time: Now. The place: King’s Road, Chelsea. The killer: Count Dracula.” Yes, Drac is back in modern London, resurrected by Johnny Alucard, no less, after being staked by a runaway stagecoach wheel there a hundred years ago. Johnny hangs around with a group of groovy post-hippies that happens to include the stunning descedent of the man with the stake, Stephanie Beecham, as granddaughter of Peter Cushing’s modern-day Van Helsing. As well as that piece of essential seventies visual candy, you’ve also got one of Caroline Munro’s finest performances as part of the hotness gang too, who, looking for new kicks, end up at Alucard’s fateful black mass in the old church near where Dracula’s remains ended up, and then the real party gets started.
Now, I was born in 1972 so don’t remember much about it, but looking back now this is as much a snapshot of swinging London then as Hammer’s more traditional Dracula, Frankenstein, Jeckyll, Reptile, Zombie and so on movies are of Victorian times. And like them, it’s all about the atmosphere that Hammer never failed to absolutely nail, and it is absolutely wonderful. What a soundrack too! Anyway, what I do remember much better, though, is Christmas 1987, and Hammer weren’t the only ones that could come up with some great tag-lines! “Nightfall. The deadly enchantment begins. Will you live to see the dawn?” That’s where we begin, deep in the the cassette box for Alternative Software’s re-release of Piranha’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, resurrected at pretty much the same rate as Christopher Lee’s Dracula, from its original release a year earlier in time for Christmas 1986. I was just late to the party, not like the police at the start of Dracula A.D. 1972!
Back with the generously lengthy instructions, we’re informed that we’re to fight a desperate battle to save our soul from the vampyre’s bloodlust, whose power is subtle and mysterious, and his strength never-ending! There’s only one way to bring Nosferatu’s reign to an end, although that one way is actually made up of three parts… First, Dracula’s Castle. We are Jonathan Harker, an innocent employee of the estate agent Renfield who’s been tasked with helping Count Dracula buy a new place in your home town of Wismar. Off you trot to his castle to complete the sale, only to find out his true identity. Vampyre! “Vampyre,” by the way, is the old-English way of spelling vampire, which you’ll also find it in the title of John Polidori’s novel, The Vampyre, the first written in English on the subject after a bloke called Byron challenged his friends to write a horror story one night while they were all on holiday in Switzerland back in 1816, over eighty years before Dracula came along. And, of course, another of those friends was called Mary Shelley, and her attempt at a story was called Frankenstein…
Back at Castle Dracula, stamp duty and kitchen surfaces be damned as you now need to act fast to protect yourself and the rest of the villagers of Wismar from his power – let him move in, and before long he’ll control the town and you’ll all be vampyres! Unfortunately the deeds to the house that you left on the dining room table have vanished, so you need to find them then get out quick, but you can only do that when there’s daylight and the Vampyre lies low, so until then you’ll need to contend with vampyre beasts, plagued rats and Nosferatu’s hallucinations. You can find food, weapons, crucifixes and other objects to help you out, but fighting the evil beasts is going to cost you energy so best just to avoid everything!
Make it out and you’ll now be in control of Jonathan Harker, wife Lucy and Van Helsing, who here is apparently Lucy’s brother-in-law and admirer, all at the press of the 1, 2, 3 keys. Unfortunately Van Helsing isn’t Lucy’s only admirer though, and it turns out that Nosferatu has actually been drawn to Wismar by Lucy’s special power of attraction. And as I say that, I’m thinking about Smells, the episode of Bottom where Ritchie and Eddie buy the revolutionary pheromone sex spray that only attracts dogs, and Ritchie ends up advertising his wares in the lonely hearts column of the local newspaper – “Hot Young Buck” and “Foxy Stoat Seeks Pig” and all that! I assume that Lucy also went to that sex shop, and as a result is the only one that can destroy Nosferatu, so stage two of the game, The Town of Wismar, is all about keeping her alive.
This mostly involves fighting rats and the odd villager who’s already been turned, which you can keep track of with a handy on-screen population counter. At this point, if you got out of stage one with the deeds, homeless Nosferatu is going to be left wandering the streets looking for shelter from the daylight in shop doorways and old houses, but if you left without them, he’s becoming all-powerful in the comfort of his new lair, so you’ll probably want them. Lucy’s not the only one you need to protect though – your estate agent boss, Renfield, is now a fruitcake, and could be talked into handing the deeds over regardless if you don’t keep a fresh supply of garlic around his asylum. Either way, if he’s trapped for long enough without finding new victims, his bloodlust is going to get stronger and he’s going to go nuts for Lucy, which is when you can lure him to her house and bring him down for good. Garlic and some improvised stakes in hand, you now need work out where Nosferatu is then start moving Lucy towards her house as bait.
Stage three, Lucy’s House, and you are now exclusively Lucy. Only you know that you alone can kill the Vampyre, so Jonathan and Van Helsing are going to be trying to keep you away from him. They might mean well, but you’ll need to lock them away in your house before you can carry on. Once that’s done, it’s off to find Dracula so you can get him into your room and keep him occupied until dawn so you can end his reign of terror! And by “occupied” I mean wander around in circles avoiding him for a while to the most ZX Spectrum soundtrack you will ever hear, until the most anti-climactic game ending screen you will ever see, even by Spectrum standards! “Congratulations you have killed Nosferatu. And scored 7000 points.”
It’s actually taken me longer to write all of that than complete the game, which can be done in about twenty minutes once you know what you’re doing, although back when 1987 was quickly becoming 1988, I never got out of Dracula’s Castle. In reality, I don’t think I even knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing, but that had very little to do with enjoying most games back then, especially ones that looked like this! I talked about Hammer’s movie atmospheres earlier, and that’s what we’re talking here too, and I really never had any inclination to go beyond the walls of Castle Dracula – I was just happy being there, which makes this an early precursor to my ongoing experience with Silent Hill 2! We knew that the Spectrum was great at isometric 3D by this point, with the likes of Knight Lore and Batman (and I think The Great Escape had just appeared too), and this was another very fine example. The gaudy, monochrome colour sets that reflect the time of day or night as well as the location seemed to work in its favour, providing a real sense of discovery as you wandered the castle’s maze-like gothic corridors, filled with a surprising amount of everyday life amongst the grandeur – baths, desks, bookshelves, wardrobes and grated fireplaces. There’s a mass of detail everywhere, so even the most spartanly decorated rooms will have shadowed wooden panneling or flagstone floors, and where there is decoration, such as desks, you’ll find a writing pad or a lamp or some other flourish on them. Everywhere’s full of bats, dogs, rats and other stuff out to get you too, and like your own character, they look fantastic and full of similar levels of life through often simple but well thought-out movement.
Stage two, in the village, reminds me a lot of Ultimate’s isometric wild western Gunfright, albeit a bit more sedate. The castle’s splendour is replaced by wide avenues, and the introduction of bushes and outdoor architecture, although I have to say that by being more open it’s lost a little of the atmosphere here. That’s not helped by the fact that all the other villagers you meet are all the same sprite, either male or female, which apparently was a memory thing so it’s forgivable. The Nosferatu sprite is wonderful though, with his robes and bald head and pointy ears menacingly shambling around as he starts following you! The third stage is pretty much like the castle again, and there’s nothing really new to see here. Speaking of nothing new, all the way to this point you’ll have been listening to one of the most grating soundtracks to a game you’ll have ever heard! It’s a dense, shrill, repetitive chip-tune that has very little in the way of discenable melody, but manages to dominate audio proceedings from start to finish. At least there’s no chance of it getting stuck in your head though. Jim’ll Fix It theme tune this ain’t… And you’re welcome!
I know that the castle is where I’ve proportionally spent most of my time playing this, but having now experienced it all several times over the years, my feeling is that this is where most of the game is. And most of the game isn’t so much in dodging vampyres and their minions, but in knowing where you’re going as you dodge them; that said, dodging the bats is more of a blooming pain in the neck than Nosferatu himself! The castle is huge, and for quite some time intimidatingly so, until you’ve got that graph paper out and started mapping it! There’s masses of bedrooms and bathrooms to get out of before exploring the long corridors and balconies (which will help with those bats), the kitchen and dining room, library and graveyards, then there’s the food you need to find and puzzles that contain secret doors (though not that puzzling if you’ve ever seen a black and white horror movie!) or ladders or keys to find, or pitch black areas like the cellar which you’ll need to work out how to light up before you can negotiate it. I reckon the village in stage two is the same scale again, and here you’re going to be swapping between the men-folk to craft stakes by finding an axe then wooden things like chairs, then use them on vampires, and while you’re Lucy you’re going to be checking out two or three possible locations for Nosferatu before stage three and the sedate dodge ’em up north and east a bit towards her bedroom and the sun coming up.
I was about to say that I’ve never really got on with many isometric games, but thinking about it, I’ve never really gone out of my way to play that many. I have played a bit of Knight Lore, but was never really fussed by it, and I’d still like to try Batman, but not enough to have ever spent a fraction of a second over several decades downloading a ROM! Similar for Head Over Heels, Hydrofool and The Great Escape. Never fancied the dinosaur one or Movie or Alien 8 either. Gunfright and this are about as far as we’ve got! Given my love of Dracula in his many forms though, and Stephanie Beacham and Caroline Munro circa 1972, and just wandering around one of the best video game gothic castles we’d get until Castlevania came along, that’s just about far enough though!
There are a couple of other versions to mention before we close. It’s hard to tell the Commodore 64 one apart from the Spectrum, at least until you get to one of its more brown monochrome areas! All the same great attention to detail is there though, and while maybe it could have handled more colours on-screen, I actually think it would have lost some of the atmosphere that’s so important to the game, and it certainly would have ended up losing detail as the machine’s distinctive blockiness emerged to contain all of that missing colour! The animation isn’t quite on par with the Spectrum, but we’ll forgive that for the less terrible (but still generic) music! The Amstrad CPC also has inoffensive music going for it, as well as some weird animation, but I really can’t decide if I like what they’ve done with the colours here or not. It’s kind of monochrome plus one, in that you’ve got one overriding colour and black in each area, but your face, for example, or a tabletop might be white (or a light version of the overriding colour). It definitely works better in some places more than others, and where it works well it reminds me of some of the best looking BBC games. I’m sticking with Spectrum or C64 for atmosphere though – you really can’t go wrong with either version, whether you’re a Dracula fan, a Nosferatu fan, an isometric adventure fan or any variation thereof!