The best Castlevania clone not called Ninja Gaiden.
PROS: Excellent graphics. Varied gameplay. Cinema screens.
CONS: One stage is almost Ninja Gaiden stage 6-2 difficult.
WTF?: Is Hart played by digital Mel Gibson?
Originally released for the NES in 1991, American Sammy published Vice: Project Doom. With excellent cinema screens, synthesized music, graphics that pushed the NES toward it’s limits, and combining 3 action genres into one beefy game, VPD was a recipe for victory.
Oddly, though not a lot of people played this gem when compared with other action platformers of the era. While one could be forgiven for this, as it does borrow quite heavily from gameplay introduced in Konami’s Castlevania Trilogy, and Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden Trilogy (Both on the NES), it is a shame. Because Vice: Project Doom is easily one of the best games on the system.
Not uncommon in the 80’s, and 90’s, game publishers often used movie covers as inspiration for package, and label art, sometimes even making their characters altered versions of a popular action hero. Power Blade’s cover donned a hero clearly inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Vice: Project Doom’s cover seems to resemble Lethal Weapon star, Mel Gibson.
Anyway, whatever you think of the cover or actors or movies, Vice is pretty awesome.
Vice focuses a large portion of the experience on its story. Much like Ninja Gaiden, stages are divided up by cut scenes. This game however, goes further into trying to make the experience feel more like an action, science fiction movie. It begins with a cinematic introducing the main character, Detective Hart. Hart gets into his car, and is forced to track down a trucker who is a known suspect. Right from this point the game puts you in a top down Spy Hunteresque stage where you will be driving around, gunning down ships, cars, and other enemies. Pressing A shifts gears, while B shoots machineguns. At the end of the stage you confront the truck, chasing it down as it shoots back. Upon destroying the truck (Essentially the game’s first boss) you are thrown into another cut scene in which you find the driver’s hands resemble claws. You find out the truck was hauling a mysterious gel, and as you ponder what will happen next , you then see the title screen before immediately being tossed into the second stage.
The story is the typical stuff you’d expect out of a B Movie. It will hold your interest long enough to complete it, but not everything in it adds up or makes sense. Hart goes from stage to stage talking with other characters, and stumbling upon evidence when at one point he finds an old friend named Reese has been turned into a cyborg. A scant few stages later his girlfriend, Christy is turned into a horrible creature, and somehow Hart ends up tracing this trail of drugs, and deaths, across the globe, then back. Finally it leads to a mysterious company called BEDA where he finds out it’s a front for an alien civilization that survives by cloning itself, and killing people with gel. The story culminates with one of the coolest bosses in all of video games. Yet it also culminates with one of the most unintentional jump the shark bosses in all of video games.
Hokey tales aside, Vice gets mostly everything right. There are around eleven stages to go through, each ending with an epic battle with an over the top boss. One boss is a wolf creature who throws giant steel girders at Hart. Another is a Korean Black Magician. There’s a tank like vehicle boss. A giant mech boss. A bluish-green Swamp Thing boss. Then of course, we have the earlier mentioned boss you’re not ready for. Even after you see the screen caps.
Most of the stages are side scrolling action levels. As I mentioned earlier the gameplay feels a lot like early Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden. Hart contends with all sorts of jumps in the midst of airborne enemies, including condors that act suspiciously like the crows Ryu Hayabusa fights. Enemies come at you from any direction. High. Low. It doesn’t matter. The stages really require those Ninja Gaiden skills you’ve honed playing that game. But there are differences as this is not a complete clone. Hart does not stick to walls, or do wall jumps. Instead he contends with floors crumbling beneath him while enemies from either side try to ensure he falls. In vertical stages he has to be sure to keep ground visible, for if it isn’t, and he falls, he dies.
Character designs are another high mark for this game (Even if some of the characters are sort of weird.) Bosses feel grand, and threatening. Regular enemies are mostly bad ass, from giant knights holding clubs, to soldiers with plasma guns, to clerics throwing fireballs, to Rottweilers, to giant robots there is something for everyone here. Stranger moments involve slime creatures, giant mutant rats, Pumpkin head (Really!), and oddly shaped mechs. Probably the strangest moment is going through a mansion filled with deadly ninjas everywhere but then being assaulted by a clown.
All of these baddies can be dispatched by your whip, but you can also fire a gun, as well as toss grenades. Part of the gameplay that differs from other action platformers though is the switching between these in certain situations. In most situations, the whip is more than sufficient. In sections with minimal jumping you will rarely use your other weapons because the whip has pretty great range. There will be times however where you will need to clear a platforming area with grenades because in these areas they will knock you into a bottomless pit 99% of the time. The gun is more powerful than the whip, but it also has a fairly short-range. As you progress, killed enemies also drop health potions, prime rib, to heal you, as well as ammo for the pistol in addition to grenades. All of which you will need for the final boss in this game. Like many games from back then he’s a two parter. Hard, and Nigh impossible.
The first form is the classic kill your evil twin boss fight. He has all of the same moves as you, and can anticipate what you are going to attempt to some degree. You’ll spend a lot of time figuring out just exactly what you need to do to bring him down. Much of it is hit, and run. It’s a lot harder than you probably expect going in. But as I said earlier, there is a second form. A form that is both very cool, and very silly at the same time.
This battle is going to take you several tries to learn the pattern. Even after you know what you have to do, things will still prove very difficult. It requires a lot of grenades, pixel perfect placement, and a lot of luck. But, if you can manage to kill the jumping shark, you will be treated to one of the better endings on the NES.
As you can likely tell from the screen captions, VPD is a very pretty game. It uses nearly every visual trick in the book to really push the NES to its limit. Stage textures do a lot to make each level feel different from the last too. You’ll see city stages, jungle stages, a military installation base, sewers (Because hey, they’re in every game right?), a science lab, and even a mansion. There is also a third game type in the game I didn’t go into yet. The other gameplay type that shows up a couple of times is a first person rail shooter. It plays a lot like Operation Wolf, or Mechanized Attack did when playing with a D-Pad. These stages, work exactly as those light games did. You’ll shoot enemies by moving the cursor over them, then firing your gun. You can also throw grenades. Shooting background objects sometimes reveals more ammunition, and health power ups. This is key, as you can run out pretty quickly. Fortunately both these, and the driving stages do fit rather seamlessly. While not the best parts of the game, they do keep the game from getting too repetitive.
Vice: Project Doom is a sleeper hit in every classic sense of the phrase. Anyone looking for a challenging action game that rewards them with a sense of accomplishment should definitely track down a copy. One can only hope it resurfaces on a digital download service in the not too distant future. As of this writing the NES Game Pak has recently started spiking in aftermarket value. Still, if you find a copy, at a reasonable price you should add it to your NES library.
Final Score: 9 out of 10 (Buy it now!)