The year 1886 marked the first publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is a story about a doctor, Henry Jekyll, who felt he was constantly battling between good and evil within himself. His solution to this was to create a serum that, once consumed, was to mask these desires. Once he tried it, he transformed into an entirely new person, Edward Hyde. Using this entirely new identity, Dr. Jekyll would commit various atrocities he wouldn’t have otherwise, reveling in the carnage he sowed. The novella was met with a warm reception, selling forty-thousand copies within the first six months of its publication in the United States. Mr. Stevenson’s work has since been declared a cornerstone of literature for its examination of duality in the human spirit, and it inspired countless authors to provide their own take on the subject.
Nearly one-hundred years later, an entirely new medium quickly started gaining popularity. What set it apart from any other art form that came before was direct human interactivity. People started calling these new works video games. In 1988, a little-known Japanese company known as Advance Communication released a game for the Nintendo Famicom whose name roughly translates to Dr. Jekyll’s Hour Of The Wandering Monstrosity. It was imported to North America in the following year under the name Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, making its inspiration more readily apparent.
Analyzing the Experience
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like countless NES titles, is a 2D side-scrolling platforming game. It is loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale. The protagonist, Dr. Henry Jekyll, has been engaged to the lovely Miss Millicent, and the goal of this game is to guide him to the church. Players will quickly learn that this otherwise mundane task is rendered exceedingly difficult, for the townspeople have taken it upon themselves to do whatever they can to ensure the good doctor does not reach his destination. Among their ranks are Billy Pones, a kid armed with a slingshot, men in purple tuxedos who periodically drop bombs, and a rotund woman whose cacophonous, tone-deaf caterwauling inspires anger in anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. There are plenty of non-human enemies as well, including birds whose droppings you must avoid, dogs, cats, spiders, and bees.
The game features two distinct meters: a traditional life bar and another one that reflects Jekyll’s psychological state. Whenever Jekyll is hit by an enemy, it either damages him or makes him angry. The angrier he gets, the more the second meter turns green. When it is completely filled, Jekyll undergoes a transformation into the nefarious Edward Hyde. Day turns to night, and the world becomes a decayed shadow of its former self. In this strange world, monsters roam free. All Hyde has to defend himself with are his fists and a powerful technique known as the “Psycho-Wave.” Killing a monster will relieve stress, reflected by the anger meter turning light-green. As soon as it’s drained, Hyde turns back into Jekyll, and he is transported to where the first transformation took place. You would do well to drain the meter as quickly as you can, for if you reach the same spot where Jekyll transformed, lightning shall rain down from the heavens, striking down Hyde. Whether you run out of life or Hyde overtakes Jekyll, the game ends.
The NES boasted a sizeable library in an age when information wasn’t as easily shared, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of many titles that fell into relative obscurity. This changed in 2004 when a certain independent film maker made a satirical video wherein talked about the impact this game left on him. When the video gained more viewership two years later, the game garnered a reputation among enthusiasts that will likely ensure it’s never forgotten. After playing it for myself, I can say without any hyperbole that it absolutely lives up to what other people have said about it. That is, this game is one of the most abhorrent experiences available for Nintendo’s famous 8-bit console.
As is the death knell of many a horrendous title, the controls are quite unwieldy. There’s a slight delay between the time the button is depressed and the action it’s meant to carry out occurs, and the animations are unbelievably choppy, making it difficult to gauge the character’s situation and respond accordingly. Even worse is that this flaw manifests in the screen’s inability to move with the protagonist without tripping over itself. It’s not a technical limitation either; one of the NES’s defining features, which was made clear with North American launch titles such as Super Mario Bros., was the presence of smoothly scrolling screens. Many PCs, such as the MSX, were incapable of performing this task well, and it was one of the reasons platforming games were almost exclusively console affairs in the eighties.
If the controls were unpolished, the game would be merely bad; unfortunately, this is only scratching the surface. This is a game where the enemies have an overwhelmingly large advantage over you. It’s not exactly that Jekyll is slow; he walks at the speed of a normal human. Jarringly, this doesn’t apply to the townspeople; the ones aiming to accost the good doctor are apparently mutants, for they can zip from one end of the screen to the other in a matter of seconds. Because they’re so much faster than your character, it makes their attacks nearly impossible to dodge unless you have good reflexes – and sometimes, even that won’t cut it.
It’s a given that in 2D platforming games, you have some reliable method of self-defense, be they guns, melee weapons such as swords, or even just the ability to jump on the enemies’ heads. Jekyll has a walking stick he can swing at his foes. You may be wondering just how effective this weapon is against the practically inescapable onslaught provided by the townspeople. The answer is: not one bit. The walking stick is only capable of killing bees and absolutely nothing else; you can’t even use it to kill spiders. If you hit anything or anyone else with the cane, it only fills the anger meter. To make matters worse, in order to kill bees with the stick, you need to have perfect timing and pinpoint accuracy; if you’re just a frame off, it doesn’t count. This is an incredibly difficult task given the bees’ erratic movements.
It bears repeating that the enemies in this game are absolutely relentless. You have to wait for the spiders to move out of the way, and like the bees, they have no pattern; they can randomly drop down and hit you or impede your progress at a moment’s notice. The notes sung by the tin-eared lady fly every which way. Somewhat mercifully, you can give her eight coins to make her stop, though getting close to her in the first place requires a lot of patience and luck. By far the worst enemies in the game would be the purple-suited men who drop bombs. It seems as though you should just simply walk back to avoid the blast, but there is very little correlation between how the explosion is depicted onscreen and its actual radius. To put it another way, you could be as far away from the bomb as possible and still get hit, owing to the fact that the game doesn’t allow you to backtrack.
How long you have to react to the bomb depends on the stage. On some you can simply walk past them, but most of the time, you have to change direction the minute it’s dropped in order to avoid being damaged. This wouldn’t be so bad except the bombers can reappear almost immediately after the explosion, forcing you to meet them halfway or risk getting trapped on the left side of the screen – a common occurrence when there are several other obstacles to dodge.
Those unfamiliar with the game are likely questioning why I’ve barely commented on the Hyde portions when it makes up half of the experience. There is an answer to this inquiry, but to start with, they’re barely distinguishable from any other generic run-and-gun platformers on the NES library. They do differ in that they scroll automatically, and feature a strange control setup. In order to shoot the Psycho-Wave, you have to hold up while pressing the punch button. However, the problems have only just begun, for anyone who tries to use these projectiles will realize just how difficult it is to hit anything with them. They travel in such an erratic fashion, the sole sensible strategy is to fire them constantly and hope they and the enemies collide into each other by accident.
As appallingly bad as Hyde’s sections are, they at least resemble something vaguely tolerable to a far greater extent than Jekyll’s – and this is where the fatal flaw of this game lies. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde rewards the audience the more they experience the absolute worst aspects about it. You lose if Hyde makes it further than Jekyll, so even though the former has slightly better gameplay, you don’t want to experience it lest you risk compromising your progress. This completely goes against the grain of how sensible artists would present their work – and not in a daring or avant-garde way.
Because of the game’s immense difficulty, the most persistent players are inevitably going to see the “game over” screen countless times before they find success. Rather simply starting you at the beginning of the stage, you have to wait for the game to cycle through the title screens before being given the option to either restart or continue where you left off. Annoyingly, the game defaults on the “start” option, so don’t mash the action button to speed up the opening credits because in doing so, you could inadvertently erase your progress. Luckily, you press down on the directional pad, rather than “select,” in order to choose “continue,” but this is an issue that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Good games that feature unlimited continues such as Ninja Gaiden simply allow you to continue with no questions asked once the death jingle has finished. Appropriately, the only way to restart is to reset the system.
As if the game wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that the North American port is inferior to the Japanese original. There are two stages that were completely excised when the game journeyed overseas. Although both versions have six levels, the one that debuted on the NES instead opted to repeat two of the stages rather than leave the original lineup intact. The Western port also removed a character named Rosette Ranright who restores Jekyll’s health, calms him down, and gives him several coins when he enters her house. This means the sole method of healing in the North American version is to transform into Hyde and then back into Jekyll whereupon three-quarters of his health bar is filled up. The only downside to visiting her is that in later stages, she has a chance of taking all of his money, causing him to become Hyde immediately.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Advance Communication saw fit to add multiple endings to their game. When taking into account that the game is so difficult, the number of people who have completed it without cheating likely doesn’t even break into triple digits, this was a baffling design decision. Receiving the first ending is a simple matter of getting Jekyll to the end of the game. To put the method of obtaining the second, better ending in context, it’s firmly established that you don’t want to progress too far as Hyde, a rule enforced under penalty of death. With this knowledge, it would be decidedly odd if he took an entirely different route than Jekyll in the final stage and this was the key to unlocking a different resolution. Normal people probably would have felt this way, and not a single one of them worked for Advance Communication at the time because that’s exactly what you need to do.
Upon reaching the final stage as Hyde, he begins to jump on the rooftops of the city, eventually culminating in this game’s only boss fight. This is arguably the best part of the game, but it’s not a distinction of which one can be proud. Once you’ve drained the anger meter during this encounter, Hyde transforms back into Jekyll, and all of the enemies have disappeared, allowing him to reach the chapel unhindered. Although including more than one ending in an era when this wasn’t common was somewhat commendable, this microscopic amount of goodwill is negated when one realizes that qualifying for the best outcome involves an action which completely clashes with the game’s own rules. Why would anyone think to overtake Jekyll’s location as Hyde when it’s clearly the wrong course of action for a majority of the experience? Even adventure games from this decade, cryptic though many of them were, had some kind of internal consistency; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is pure anarchy, which despite several proponents stating otherwise, rarely makes for compelling material.
Drawing a Conclusion
What’s particularly tragic about a game as legendarily awful as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is how much it tarnishes the work it takes inspiration from. A novella that has its rightful place in history will forever be synonymous with one of the worst video games to ever grace the medium. Its reputation is entirely deserved, however; any game which forces players to relive the most poorly designed sections over and over while pushing away the only parts that could possibly be considered fun is not one worth experiencing. It could be considered a spiritual predecessor to various games in the coming decades such as BioShock or Papers, Please which would include moral dilemmas wherein you can be a good person at the cost of making things slightly more difficult for yourself, but that’s being extremely generous.
Otherwise, the only reason any sane person would have to pick it up would be to marvel at just how incompetently made it is. Everyone else is better off skipping this one and watching other people play through it instead. I suppose it’s possible hardcore fans would be interested in getting a copy for themselves for no other reason than to complete their NES collection, but spending any amount of money on this game would be an absolute waste.Final Score: 1/10