Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a game where you play a hero who wields a magical sword, which happens to be the one thing that can permanently kill Frankenstein and put an end to his army of monsters. This makes it different from Castlevania, which is a game where you play a hero who wields a magical whip, which happens to be the one thing that can permanently kill Dracula and put an end to his army of monsters. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Konami must have been deeply moved by Bandai's Frankenstein game. They both follow the same formula, share similar enemies, and even use largely identical gameplay mechanics. But let's face it: this is a fight between monsters, and that means there can be only one victor. Today, DKOldies takes Frankenstein to our lab to see whether or not it holds its own against Castlevania.
The game's plot is set some time after the events of Mary Sheley's classic tale of gothic horror. Frankenstein's monster has been dead for some time, murdered by the townspeople it was so fond of attacking on a regular basis. However, despite all of this, the peasants were still nice enough to give the undead psychopath a proper burial. This act of charity comes back to bite them during the game's intro, when an errant lightning bolt strikes the monsters grave, reviving the creature once more.
Mere minutes after his latest resurrection, Frankenstein has already stormed a local settlement, kidnapped Emily: the town elder's beautiful daughter, and set fire to the entire town. Because if there's one thing Frankenstein loves, it's fire...yeah, I don't get it either. Maybe this new arson phase is part of some weird exposure therapy to get over his past phobias. If that's the case, then I guess it's working.
In any event, the player's character: a valiant swordsman, happens upon the burning town and is immediately recruited to hunt down the monster and put an end to Frankenstein for good. However, this will prove more difficult than usual. Apparently being dead for a couple of decades really gave Frankie time to work on some serious self-improvement. Because, he's now controlling his own army of subordinate monsters who only serve him out of fear. He's also a lot smarter than usual. Chattier, too. This Frankenstein loves to constantly mock you and point out your short-comings, ironically always while running away from you. It's amazing. Every level he's there to egg you on, like some kind of mustache-twirling ne'er-do-well.
Over the course of the game, you fight Frankenstein's inhuman legions across a ruined town, a haunted forest, a cursed castle, and finally: "The Evil Dimension." This final stage was created by Frankenstein's new and unexplained powers that allow him to rip tears in the fabric of space and time, where he may sculpt reality as he sees fit. The Evil Dimension is a twisted maze of fleshy corridors, populated by organic abominations: a perverse reflection of the same mentality that gave birth to the monster in the first place. From a design standpoint, it's actually kind of brilliant. However, it's also the last stage, meaning the game is only four levels long.
But don't let that fool you into thinking Frankenstein short changes you. Every stage is huge and comprised of several areas, with multiple detailed backgrounds. Additionally, each level features multiple unique boss fights. One of Frankenstein's accomplishments is that it actually boasts more bosses than Castlevania. Among this menagerie of monsters you'll face off against the Grim Reaper, Medusa, several Demons, Dryads, a Werewolf, a Vampire, a Creature from the Black Lagoon, and of course Frankenstein's Monster. Frankenstein is especially fun since he has two forms: his classic "brute-with-neck-bolts" look, and a Promethean giant. This final boss actually takes visible damage every time you land a hit on him. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it's still a cool touch for an 8-Bit game. And it really lets you feel like you're bringing the hurt.
Every one of these enemies is unique and requires unique strategies to beat, and in Frankenstein's defense it does a lot to keep the game feeling fresh. A normal play through could easily take you about as long as it would to beat Castlevania if it weren't for one major factor: Frankenstein has a password feature. This addition makes Frankenstein substantially less frustrating to beat than Castlevania. Being able to jump straight to level four, makes mastering the final stage far easier than the game which inspired it, which always made you start at the beginning, no matter how close you got to that final confrontation with Drac.
Another advantage for Frankenstein is that it's a bit graphically superior to Castlevania. Part of the reason for this is that it was released four years later than the game it was imitating. However, Frankenstein also uses larger sprites to represent the characters on screen, allowing for a greater amount of detail to be represented. Another nice touch is the addition of little cutscenes that play out between levels. They're nothing special, but it gives Frankenstein a leg-up when it comes to overall presentation.
Unfortunately, Frankenstein really drops the ball where it counts: Game Play. Like Castlevania, players can find items that upgrade their weapon. At full power, you'll be swinging a mace that shoots out multiple fire balls like the Spread Gun from Contra. Unfortunately, you'll lose an upgrade every time you get hit. This makes Frankenstein somewhat frustrating to play since every time you start to get some useful fire-power, it will be stolen away from you by one random projectile. To make matters worse, Frankenstein only features one real secondary weapon: a sling that offers a weak, ranged attack. But,the real deal-breaker is its controls.
Castlevania's controls are legendarily precise. Every attack connects with pixel perfect precision. Each of your movements can be performed with completely reliable accuracy. Every button input is astoundingly responsive, and it just feels great to play! Frankenstein by comparison feels a little sloppy.
Now, bare in mind I said "by comparison." Pretty much every game feels sloppy compared to Castlevania. But, when it's a game that shares so much in common with Konami's vampire-slaying masterpiece, those little issues start to feel so much bigger. Frankenstein would normally be a perfectly acceptable adventure game title, but it falls so short of what it's trying to emulate that it really can't get a free pass.
Similarly, Frankenstein's soundtrack is nowhere as good as Castlevania's. But again, it almost feels unfair to compare it to the gold standard. It's music suits the eerie tone nicely, and never becomes grating. So, even if there's only one halfway decent track in the game, its still good enough to not warrant any black marks.
Actually, that really sums up the entire game pretty well. Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a fun action game for the NES with memorable enemies, and a well implemented horror theme. It doesn't really excel at anything, but it doesn't fail either. On its own merits, Frankenstein is a fine title that more than merits being revisited. Unfortunately, this monster chose to walk in the footsteps of giants and became completely eclipsed in the process. If it weren't for Castlevania, it might have been a household name. However as it stands, The Monster Returns is a great game, but far from legendary.
But like I said, maybe it's unfair to compare Frankenstein so much to a game with Castlevania's monumental legacy. What do you think would be a better game to pit Frankenstein against? Or am I totally off the mark? Is it possible that I'm already giving Frankenstein: The Monster Returns way too much slack? Let me know in the comments below. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter.
And hey, if you like either Frankenstein or Dracula, you might get a kick out of these other ghoulish games on sale at DKOldies.com: