Instead of playing a random stream of retro games for Retro Weekend, every October I pick a handful of horror-themed games for a little more focused feature I like to call, “Retro Halloweekend.” This week, I want to discuss the SNES game Nosferatu and how it doesn’t quite live up to its name.
You can’t hear the word, “Nosferatu” without automatically picturing the bizarre and eerie facade of Count Orlok from the classic 1922 film of the same name. The name has become part of our culture and that particular movie has left its mark on the world influencing horror films, vampire lore, and nearly every form of art you can imagine. So when I went to play Nosferatu for the Super Nintendo, you better believe I had some preconceived notions as to what I’d be playing. However, to my disappointment, Nosferatu tries its best to comb out a section of video games somewhere between Castlevania and Prince of Persia, but completely leaves behind the power and ideas of what it’s named after.
The movie Nosferatu was born when a German director by the name of F.W. Murnau wanted to make a film adaptation of the Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When he tried to obtain the rights for the movie, Stoker’s widow denied him the license. Without the rights to Dracula, Murnau decided to make the movie anyway but change a few plot points from the book as well as replace the names of everyone in the book. It wasn’t quite enough. Stoker’s widow sued Murnau for copyright infringement and won the case, resulting in the destruction of all copies of the film. Thankfully, a few copies just didn’t want to die, lived on, replicated, and the movie has become a historic piece of cinema ever since.
Count Orlok is the star of the movie and one look at him shows a grotesque, horrifying monster with bat-like facial features and long, sharp, fingers. This flies completely in the face of the more romanticized versions of vampires we’ve come to expect from the movies and even of the refined version of Dracula found in the original book. The story follows Bram Stoker’s Dracula in a very similar fashion with only a few characters replaced, the lack of religious symbolism, and a few other minor things. And in doing so, creates an uneasy, haunting experience for viewers in the same way Dracula did for readers. Nosferatu on the Super Nintendo, however, doesn’t take any of this rich history and lore into account. It’s basically a big monster mash.
And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Castlevania is a fantastic series that doesn’t rely on horror to be memorable but high-level action with a robust cast of monsters. Nosferatu tries its best to stand out on it’s own by not being just another copy but ultimately fails to shine brighter than any of its influences. This game plays very similar to the original Prince of Persia. There’s plenty of challenging platforming and puzzles and traps to guide your way through and even the way your character moves feels right out of PoP. To me, that disappointing because I found the original game infuriatingly stiff and hard to control. While Nosferatu seems to be a little more responsive and a little less methodical, it’s still pretty stiff for me to really enjoy. I can barely run (double tap a direction) reliably even after playing for a few hours.
What I did find pretty fun in some instances is that you’ll be fist fighting with everything from zombies to werewolves to Frankenstein monsters. This hand-to-hand combat is actually way more immediate and fun than any of the platforming and puzzle-solving I’ve found so far. It’s almost like a 2D brawler in some senses and when there’s just a few zombies on screen, shoulder-charging them, punching them in the face, and spin kicking them is incredibly appealing. But like a lot of brawlers, the hit detection is not always great, which comes into effect badly during some boss fights.
So wait? Why are we running through a castle filled with monsters? Well because Dracula…erm, Nosferatu, has kidnapped your girlfriend. So it’s up to you to take her back! Just. Like. The. Movie. Okay, no, not really. In fact, I can’t find much of anything that lines up with the 1922 film, nor any other vampire film that I’m familiar with. It’s really just a generic side-scrolling action platformer with puzzle elements that happens to be dark and drab and full of monsters. It does look pretty good considering the animations in here all move smoothly and the environments are rightly ominous and foreboding, but the gameplay is just okay, and there’s nothing in here you haven’t seen before.
Even the name Nosferatu is misleading because the villain himself looks exactly like Count Dracula as we’ve come to know him, and not Count Orlok, the much more sinister-looking vampire. This is a video game after all and someone like Orlok would be a much more enjoyable villain to face than a seemingly handsome dude like Drac.
I guess I just wish they tried something with this game. Anything. Anything that would make use of that name, or the character that was born from it. Maybe try to replicate the old film with black and white scenes? Maybe not make the game so action heavy and make it a little creepier. Give it more dialogue? Have you play as the vampire himself!? I could think of a million ways that would have done more justice to the name but in the end Nosferatu on the SNES is most likely a game that was simply given a recognizable name that wouldn’t get them sued. It’s definitely a game that has some of it’s roots steeped in horror and monster movies, but the game is simply Prince of Persia X Castlevania and it doesn’t do either as well as I would’ve liked. I hate to bash the game so much here because I don’t hate it, but hey, don’t get my hopes up by calling your game Nosferatu!