Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein

Originally conceived by Francis Ford Coppola as a companion film to his own Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was another Hollywood revivalist piece with a comparatively large budget, moody acting, and an attempt to get back to the raw “core” of an original work that had been muddied in pop culture by so many previous filmic attempts. Here was a film with Robert DeNiro portraying The Creature, no bolts in his neck, and no groaning with outstretched arms. But despite how much artistic respect it seemed out to garner, it was a major Hollywood film in the 90s, so it was guaranteed that videogame adaptations were on the way.

“Grave importance.” (winks awkwardly) “…Cause I’m gonna kill him.”

Again, just like Dracula, the other consoles got a standard platforming title, while the Sega CD tried something a little different and significantly more “multimedia.” While the CD version offers a unique experience, the actual game isn’t terribly impressive. Much like Victor Frankenstein, the CD release cobbles together pieces of various genres into a patchwork whole. And just the The Creature, the result shambles along inelegantly.

I swear, these things write themselves.

You play as Frankenstein’s Monster, and awaken in a corner of the lab after Victor has imbued you with life. Believing he has failed, Victor has retired for a defeated nap. The solitude sets up an opportunity for you to get used to the controls, and the three distinct styles of gameplay. The first is a 2D adventure format. A puddle of electric eels blocks your progress out of the lab. A shelf holds a spray bottle of acid to dissolve them. Blocks of caption text reveal the Creature’s thoughts, often thinly disguising what your next move should be . The A button grabs anything in sight and tucks it into your inventory. B inspects your inventory through some static 3D renders. C deploys the object out in the world. These puzzles are not very taxing, and always fairly obvious in regards to what goes where.

Eels dissolved, you enter a supply closet and discover some kind of goblin (a previous failed experiment?). If you’re hoping for a dialogue system, you won’t get it. Instead, you’ve found the second gameplay style – a 2D battle straight out of Street Fighter; life bars for each combatant, awkward joypad specials, and all. A punches, C blocks, B kicks, with the D-pad offering some imprecise combos for head butts and leg sweeps. Once you’ve backflipped through the air and defeated the ghoul – gnawing on some bread in adventure mode to heal any wounds – you face Victor in his bedroom. Here, the troubled doctor denounces his horrible creation in a short, non-interactive sequence. Then he tries to use his black belt in Tae Kwon Do to kill you.

If this were based on the Boris Karloff flick, would you have to beat the shit out the little flower girl before tossing her in the river?

After claiming victory over Victor, you’ll leave the lab and enter the final gameplay style, an RPG-style overworld where you wander about town and look for buildings you can enter to grab items. The game switches among these three styles for the rest of its story – overworld to get to places, adventure inside buildings, and tourney fighter to replace the book’s moral conflicts and verbal debates between characters.

It’s… well, it’s a damned silly setup, but I can’t fault it for lack of variety. The adventure sections are certainly simplistic but work reasonably well. The overworld sections get you where you’re going without much fuss – except when you’re required to wander around a devious forest maze. It’s the fighting sections that seem most out of place, and at the same time, the most challenging. You’ll be knocking around various foes throughout the adventure, from innocent wolves to unsuspecting ship captains, but your limited set of moves never expands or improves. Meanwhile, there’s no difficulty selection, and all your foes pull no punches. They leap and roll, always press the offensive, and lay you out quickly if you don’t resort to cheap attacks (like crouching in a corner and punching, or doing an infinite bull rush special with quarter-circle + A).

The adventure side fares a little better, with puzzles that usually make sense, and few (really only one I can think of) hidden objects. Many are pointless adventure game tropes – you’ll go around Geneva doing good deeds, like finding an old lady’s missing cat, to earn enough coins to bribe your way into Frankenstein’s manor. But a few are solutions absolutely befitting The Creature, such as burning down an onerous shopkeeper’s home so you can enter his store in the confusion.

Arbitrary forest mazes – fun since… never.

Things look pretty great graphically. Artwork is a mix of hand drawn and CG backgrounds, with no apparent reason why they switch back and forth. They blend well though, and the background detail in both styles is impressive. Characters are always hand drawn, and the Creature takes on an almost rotoscoped look to the flowing of his robes. There’s not much martial arts mastery going on in the fighting sections, but each character has a special move or two to differentiate. Finally, descent CG renders form the critical plot cutscenes. There’s no footage from the film as in Sega CD’s Dracula, and while these videos are choppy and mostly silent, they work well enough.

While liberties are taken with the specific events, the basic frame of the story remains mostly unchanged. This means there’s only four locations – Ingolstadt, the German woods, Geneva, and the North Pole – resulting in a fairly short game. A knowledgable run will take about an hour. The fighting and forest maze are what will trip you up the most, and the cynic in me suspects this is intentional to draw out length. I do at least appreciate that there are no wild story tangents here, though the ending sees none of the tragedy of the novel. All things considered, the game’s finale actually works out quite well for the Creature.

The CD version certainly seems more interesting than the 16-bit platformers, and there’s no question it’s better than certain other attempts, but there’s still not much to it. The fighting sections feel outright ridiculous, with an unbalanced system reliant on cheap attacks to boot. The adventure sections are moderately interesting, but you get the sense the developers ran out of time or ideas. Why is the Creature suddenly delivering groceries, while no one is questioning his legendarily grotesque visage? And as this was only sold in a double pack with Dracula, it seems clear Sony didn’t have much confidence in this as a standalone product. Pretty, but flawed.


The Good

Both hand drawn and CG graphics look pretty great. With the exception of no real passage of time, the story’s fairly true to the novel and film. Adventure sections are fun, though not terribly challenging.


The Bad

The fighting sections are dumb, and not much fun to play either. Obvious sections of padding, like the mazes and returning to previous areas (but at night this time!). Pacing feels a bit slow. No saves, but I guess you wouldn’t need them.


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3 thoughts on “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein

  1. The reward for finding a good Sega CD is unique, it’s almost like being addicted to a drug – never quite as good as the first time, and yet your forever eager to experience more.

    Really dug these halloween reviews guys!

    1. Yup, that describes my feelings about Snatcher.

      I need to keep digging through the Sega CD library. Feels like it especially got lost in the shuffle here.

  2. All I can say is, you dodged a bullet not having to play the SNES version. As far as I can tell, I’m the first person who’s done so and lived to write a which-button-to-push-to-combine-items FAQ about it anywhere on the internet.

    (I really wish the SNES version was just Point-and-Click Adventure meets Mortal Kombat Smackdown; it’s just a lousy platformer with even lousy-er adventure-game-items interface)

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