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Reviewer’s Note: For review purposes, I played the original release Gameboy cartridge on a Retron5 (emulation) console. Because of this, the graphics presented in the screenshots are in a higher resolution than they normally would have appeared on an original Gameboy screen. It also explains why the images do not have that sickly green tint that all Gameboy games had.
Dr. Franken was released to Nintendo’s GameBoy system in December 1992 by Kemco, a developer best known for its Top Gear franchise of racing games, but also responsible for porting early horror gaming classics Shadowgate and Uninvited to the Nintendo Entertainment System just a few years prior. The game was developed by Elite Systems, a British studio known for home computer versions of popular 1980’s arcade games. A Super Nintendo version of the game was released the following year in 1993 by a small publisher named DTMC, Inc. DTMC only released a few other SNES games, including obscurities such as Lester the Unlikely and FireStriker.
NES and Sega Game Gear versions of the game were also developed and even advertised, but were later abandoned. I can not say if this was due to a lack of interest in the game by consumers or if due to a desire to pass on one system that was on its way out and another that never really took off.
While most readers know that Dr. Franken(stein) was actually the name of the scientist, the game clearly has you playing as the monster. However, it would appear that the monster has since passed medical school (hence the title of “Dr.”) and is now using his acquired knowledge to rebuild his girlfriend, Bitsy, whose body parts have, for whatever reason, been scattered throughout a large castle filled with various monstrosities (such as yourself?) and other perilous obstacles. After obtaining all of Bitsy’s bits, you can then reassemble her on Dr. Frankenbone’s “life machine”. I have no clue who “Dr. Frankenbone” is, but I assure you that such information is not essential to gameplay in the slightest.
Playing like a very rudimentary “Metroidvania”-style game (not that such a term really existed at its release), Dr. Franken takes place in 230 different rooms over 7 levels of the castle. The objective of the game is to travel from room to room looking for Bitsy’s various body parts.
The game starts simple enough, with your first objective displayed as a question mark on the in-game map. You lead Franky through rooms, shooting some enemies with a lightning bolt weapon, while dodging others that are impervious to your attacks. As you progress towards the room containing the book, you will pass through a room containing a grandfather clock. What you understandably may not be paying attention to is that the pendulum is missing, a hint towards a later objective.
After retrieving the book, you are lead back across the floor that you’re on, towards another question mark on the map. Here you find a “Level Key”, which allows you to access the castle’s other floors. What you don’t find are any further indications of where to progress from here, as well as limited opportunities to refill your health.
You’ll continue searching the castle looking for various items, most of which aren’t actually used towards rebuilding Bitsy. There is minor variation between the rooms, with a few clearly standing out from others, but the GameBoy’s drab monochromatic screen tends to make most rooms look fairly similar. Also, the fact that you can’t directly attack some of the enemies surely takes away some fun from the game, not that there was much to spare.
Dr. Franken does use a running loop of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, as well as Bach’s “Fugue No. 2 In C Minor” over the title screen, which initially adds a nice classic horror flair to the proceedings, but after hearing it played MIDI version for over an hour, it tends to get a little annoying.
It took me maybe just over 2 hours to complete the game, but that was with the heavy assistance of a walkthrough that I had found online. I can only imagine what kids that played this back in the early 90’s with no form of cheats or hints must have faced, and I assume that many gave up out of frustration and possibly boredom early into their attempts.
After collecting all of Bitsy’s bits, you must make your way to the lab, where you’ll have a final faceoff against…. nothing! Seriously, you just walk into the room and the closing cinematic plays. No final boss. What a ripoff!
Ultimately, Dr. Franken is a pretty subpar game, enough so that one has to wonder why there was an attempt to release 4 variations of the game, let alone the 2 that were actually released. There just isn’t anything to rave about here. Even the Franky character is dull and lifeless (pun intended). Objectives are highly unclear and gameplay too much of a drag to encourage much exploration. Honestly, other than the bizarre joy that I get from playing through a total obscurity (which in this case was not much), there’s really not much reason to remember that Dr. Franken‘s GameBoy adventure even exists. And quite frankly, most people don’t.