When it comes to stereotypical horror icons, vampires seem to be a major staple. From movies to television, we see vampires portrayed as tragic, devilish, childish or even sparkly, depending on the interpretation, allowing vampires more than any other horror monster to form a sort of subculture in its own right in the real world. Vampires in video games are no exception of course; as villains or even heroes, for generations vampires have had a major presence in many horror-themed games.
Of course, everyone is already familiar with Castlevania, which in and of itself is a video game classic in its own right. The entire franchise is one that is rife with rich lore and has numerous characters we can discuss of course. Since this is a series to highlight more obscure games, Castlevania is likely too popular to really dissect. Thankfully, there are a slew of other vampire-related games out there to mention, in particular one called Nosferatu for the Super Nintendo.
A SNES exclusive, Nosferatu was developed by the SETA Corporation. SETA, which stands for Super Entertainment and Total Amusement, was founded in October of 1985 and was one of the first game publishers to work on the Nintendo NES. Their titles were mostly Japan only, although several games developed by SETA did come to North America during that period, albeit with different publishers, such as 8 Eyes and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Other titles worked on by SETA include Chopper Attack for the Nintendo 64 and the cult hit Project Sylpheed for the Xbox 360.
Outside of their sports games and arcade cabinets, most games by SETA would get small releases. Nosferatu is one such example; released in 1994 in Japan, and a year later in 1995 for the U.S, the game had very little fanfare at the time. This perhaps is mostly due to the late release of the game on the Super Nintendo, as the Nintendo 64 was less than a year away from being released. Nosferatu was also very different from most platformers of the day when it came to consoles; instead of smooth sprite animation, the game attempted to employ a more cinematic quality in the same vein as Prince of Persia, a rarity on the Super Nintendo.
Cinematic platformers are a sub-genre of their own in the platforming world, attempting to create realism through animation. Many games, like Prince of Persia, used rotoscoping as a technique to mimic human-like movements for character sprites. This gave protagonists serious limitations to their abilities; often slow and less athletic when compared to typical platformers, so jumping, running, and other maneuvers were difficult at best and made impossible at worst. Despite this being a design choice, many of the most famous platformers in the world are fairly cinematic, including Another World, the first two Oddworld games, and more recently, Limbo.
The result is usually a game that is difficult to control, but gorgeous to look at. Nosferatu, is no exception. Going with a more “realistic” take, in some respects, Nosferatu takes its subject matter a bit more seriously than the standards of the day, offering fully animated characters and Prince of Persia style platforming and combat. You play the role of a man named Kyle, who is on a quest to rescue his girlfriend from Nosferatu the vampire, so you storm the vampire’s castle and fight your way through his horde of demons and monsters to rescue her.
Simple in terms of plot, but Nosferatu as a game makes up for it. From the first screen, you see how SETA is setting up their title to be more direct. The opening movie alone was a fair achievement by Super Nintendo standards, and is fairly dark and foreboding compared to most games out there. Even compared to Castlevania, Nosferatu is able to set a more sinister mood with its in-game CGI and visual treatment of the opening scrawl. Even the music, composed here by Masano Akahori, is able to set up a sense of foreboding before you begin the game.
If there is one thing Nosferatu does right, it is how it creates atmosphere. The music is often somber and low key, without the musical flairs you would expect from a SNES platformer. The graphics, while well animated, are also darker in tone and more realistic in their representation; you have secret doors where creatures can just simply crawl out of to hurt you. There are tons of traps and platforms you need to navigate, often at the risk of taking some damage. Even the backgrounds are often filled with little details that add to the atmosphere of where you are; only the static screens of the game's few boss fights seem to be out of place at times.
While the game is great to look at, much like everything else, the gameplay is a major setback at times. The learning curve is not necessarily steep, but it does take time to get used to the controls and physics presented. Nosferatu being a cinematic platformer means your character has major limitations when it comes to jumping and combat, so the player has to be aware and compensate accordingly; wild jumps and falling off ledges can mean certain death, and since Kyle uses no weapons throughout the entire game, the player will need to learn how to use combo attacks, especially when fighting enemies above or below you.
This actually made combat an exercise in strategy over aggression. The slow pace of the fighting made it quite unique compared to other platforming titles, and simply mashing buttons will get you nowhere against some enemies. Timing and coordination, even using combo attacks, were the key to beating these monsters with your bare hands, and with no password or save system, it provided an extra incentive to be careful, or else you will die. This also made combat arguably more rewarding, overcoming odds as an everyman versus a trained vampire killer, a sort of trope often found in many modern horror games today, such as the Silent Hill series and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Nosferatu compared to most horror themed games may not necessarily be the scariest title out there, nor is it truthfully one of the best games ever made. It is also criminally short compared to other platformers; a skilled player can defeat the game in less than an hour once they know the route through the maze-like castle, or if they master the controls. Despite any shortcomings it has in terms of design or even presentation, Nosferatu is again a perfect example of using a style of gameplay to its full advantage, differentiating itself from the stereotypical platformer of the day much like Another World and Fade to Black did around the mid-1990s.
Through this, SETA should at least be recognized for giving us a unique platformer with a horror theme to it. Unlike other titles, Nosferatu sticks out partially due to the cinematic platforming, but also due to how serious it takes the theme itself. It is doubtful that players will find Nosferatu scary, but it is not for a lack of trying as it tries to set up the tone of the game you are playing here. In that respect, it is arguably a better horror game than the likes of Castlevania, but that is still debatable.
If nothing else, Nosferatu deserves a moment, however brief, of recognition for what it did. SETA as a company no longer exists, closing in 2009, so unique games from SETA won’t be made soon, and it is likely their entire library of titles will slowly fade into obscurity over time, including Nosferatu. With cinematic platforming, slower paced combat and great presentation, Nosferatu does enough to be memorable, standing out among other horror themed titles on the SNES as a wholly unique creation.
Thank you for joining us on another horror game, boils and ghouls. Tune in tomorrow for the next title, and if you have any questions or comments, please leave them below!