The Horrors of Early ‘Castlevania’ Handheld Games
Whenever people talk about early Castlevania, it seems that it’s always the console games that get the most attention, and rightfully so. But Konami did put forth the effort in an attempt to give fans of the old-school Game Boy some worthwhile entries in the series, even if they didn’t always match up to their console counterparts. Castlevania handheld games began life with some difficulty along the way.
It didn’t take long for a Castlevania handheld title to hit Nintendo’s little grey brick, with Castlevania: The Adventure hitting the system mere months after the Game Boy’s launch. What fans ultimately got with The Adventure shared the original NES Castlevania’s difficulty and premise, but surprisingly felt very different from what you’d expect.
The story for the game is your typical Castlevania fare: The player assuming the role of a Belmont who goes on a quest to defeat Dracula. Only this time, you’re playing as an ancestor to Simon Belmont in Christopher Belmont. The Japanese version of the manual details Dracula as a fanatical demon worshipper, who has summoned demons from another world to serve him in his quest to gain eternal life. None of that is in the North American manual, however.
As mentioned, there’s a lot of difference between this game and the two NES games that preceded it (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse hadn’t been released yet). For starters, you have no subweapons. The cross, holy water, dagger and axe are gone. Actually, you still have the cross, though it replaces the money bag for points. You also still have hearts, though they refill your life. And hey, the upgrades to your whip are still here… in the form of crystal balls. Once you’ve powered up your whip twice, it can shoot out a fireball, negating the special items (sort of). You still have to whip candles for items, though it mostly comes down to the cross and coins for points.
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Also, in lieu of stairs, Christopher must now scale ropes. Of course, much like what happens in other early Castlevania games, if you were to jump down instead of using the rope to move from once screen to the next, you die.
The Adventure also happens to share Castlevania‘s difficulty, though once again, not in the way you’d expect. That upgrade system? If you take a hit from an enemy, your whip goes down a level. Expect to be using your underpowered whip for much of the game. Also, Christopher moves painfully slow through the game’s long four levels. This results in times where you can often get caught between enemies, or in later levels, spiked traps and autoscrolling areas. The second stage also requires you to be pixel perfect with your jumps, which on the Game Boy’s tiny screen, is a chore. One might chalk up the slowness as a result of being an early Game Boy title, and you’d probably be right. Graphically, there’s not much in terms of detail, and the low framerate and the ghosting that occurs on several early titles in the Game Boy’s library are quite apparent here.
Needless to say, The Adventure isn’t exactly the most fun, due in part to the stripped-out pieces that made a game a Castlevania game, but also because of that sluggishness and increased difficulty. It’s not all bad, however. There are some unique enemies to the game, such as the rolling eyeballs that explode when you whip them, and the Punaguchi (the fist-looking creatures sticking out of the ground) that fire off the ricocheting fireballs. By far the biggest aspect of enjoyment from the game comes from the music by Shigeru Fukutake, Norio Hanzawa and Hidehiro Funauchi. And while the Game Boy hardware doesn’t quite match the stuff of the NES, it’s absolutely amazing the sound that comes out of the speaker. The first stage’s music, “Battle of The Holy”, still kicks ass to this day.
Konami realized their misstep with The Adventure, as they tried to fix some of the issues in 2009’s Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth for the Wii, but that’s another story. The same idea applied many years earlier with the sequel, 1991’s Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (which hits the big 30 this year). Belmont’s Revenge brought back some of the oddities from The Adventure, but also brought back familiar Castlevania staples.
Once again, players assumed the role of Christopher Belmont. Dracula was defeated but not destroyed in the first game. Instead, Dracula bides his time to regain his power. He finds it in Christopher’s son, Soleil, whom he kidnaps and turns into a demon. Using Soleil’s power, Dracula regains human form and rebuilds his castle. Christopher sets out once again to destroy Dracula, but also get back his son.
Continuing with the oddities for a Castlevania game, you now have a Mega Man style of progression in Belmont’s Revenge, where you must conquer four different castles before you reach Dracula’s castle. You can face these stages in any order, and the difficulty is nowhere near as punishing as in The Adventure. The subweapons are now back (for the first time). You have the choice of the ax or the holy water this time (though Japanese and European players got the cross instead of the axe, which made for a slightly different strategy), with the hearts fuelling their use. You also still have the upgrade system for your whip, though taking hits from enemies (save for certain ones) won’t knock you back a level.
Movement is still on the slow side, though Christopher is a bit faster this time. Stairs are still not in Belmont’s Revenge, though you can now zip down the ropes by holding the A Button. Taking a cue from Dracula’s Curse, you also now have a password system to help you in case you need to take a break.
Graphically, Belmont’s Revenge takes a huge leap over The Adventure. Christopher’s sprite is still on the small side, but there’s none of that ghosting or slowdown. Also, the backgrounds are much more detailed, and offer up some cool touches, such as in the Plant Castle where flowers in the background bloom as you walk past them. Enemies are a little more detailed in their sprites, but not by a lot. You also have more variety in your gameplay mechanics, such as having to refrain from whipping candles in the Stone Castle or risk navigating in total blackness, or using the spider silk as makeshift ropes to navigate across pits. Bosses are also given an upgrade, with the Angel Mummy and Kumulo and Nimbler offering up more variety than being chased by a giant bat.
And if you thought the music was great in The Adventure, Belmont’s Revenge blows it away. Hidehiro Funauchi provides several epic tunes such as “Ripe Seeds”, “New Messiah” and “Praying Hands” that does the job of elevating the game to be the epic adventure that The Adventure couldn’t attain.
Which brings us to the last Game Boy entry for the Castlevania handheld series in Castlevania: Legends. Released in the waning days of the Game Boy between Symphony of The Night and Castlevania 64, Legends again deviates from the Castlevania norm. For one, in a first for the series, the main protagonist is Sonia Belmont, who was originally set to return in Castlevania Resurrection for the Dreamcast before it was cancelled.
The story for Legends was meant to be the start of it all, with the incarnation of the original Count Dracula causing trouble, and Sonia being the first Belmont to take up the whip to stop him. Along the way, Sonia meets up with Alucard, who is seeking revenge against his father.
Sonia doesn’t take after Christopher in terms of movement, as she not only walks faster, but can also move while crouching and control her jumps in mid-air. She still has to deal with ropes instead of stairs this time. Sonia also has the upgradable whip that will shoot fireballs, but if you select Light Mode at the start of the game, it won’t downgrade if she’s hit. Once again, the subweapons system is changed. While the series’ trademarks are still present in the game, you don’t actually use them. Instead, they are mean to be found by the player as trophies that trigger an additional scene during the game’s ending. Instead, Sonia uses Soul Powers, which are obtained after each level, and can be switched between at any time.
The Soul Powers (which use hearts) also don’t function the same way as subweapons. You can use them to freeze enemies, heal yourself, attack all enemies on the screen at once, and fire off projectiles. Sonia also has an additional attack known as Burning Mode, which makes her temporarily invincible and gain increased speed and attack power. Burning Mode can only be used once per stage, however.
While the game’s graphics this time take on a style that’s more of what you’d expect from Symphony of The Night with its anime leanings, they’re ultimately a step back from Belmont’s Revenge. For one, apart from the portraits during cutscenes, any sort of anime-style is rendered moot thanks to the tiny screen. And given the time that this game was released, you would have expected Konami to have pushed the Game Boy to its graphical limits. Instead, backgrounds are barren and repetitive, sprites have very few frames of animation and lack details.
The gameplay is also disappointing. You’ll often have to backtrack through areas, but it’s made all the more egregious due to enemies having the ability to respawn. This wouldn’t be so bad in a different game, but because Sonia has the Belmont trademark of being knocked back when hit, you’ll often defeat an enemy, get hit and knocked back, and the enemy will have respawned. It gets worse, as the level design incorporates platforms that are arranged almost at random, resulting in you having to gamble to take the best route. Did I mention that enemies have a penchant for dropping from unseen platforms onto you with little time for you to react?
Surely the music must be good, right? Well, the opening stage has a rendition of “Bloody Tears”. But this version both lacks the punch of the NES original, and also sounds quite muddy. You could say that about the rest of the soundtrack composed by Kaoru Okada and Youichi Iwata. It sounds as if it’s trying to emulate Symphony of The Night‘s soundtrack in some cases, but can’t come close. It’s definitely not as snappy as the previous two games’ soundtracks, which is just another added disappointment to a game that really is just full of it.
Apart from the Soul Powers, the only other noteworthy aspect of Legends is its story, which has Alucard and Sonia becoming lovers. In fact, the extra scene at the end of the game (should you collect all of the trophies) implies that Alucard is the father of Trevor Belmont, meaning that the Belmonts derive their power from Dracula’s bloodline. It’s interesting, but flies in the face of every other Castlevania game that preceded it. Koji Igarashi disliked the idea so much that he retconned the game entirely with Castlevania: Lament of Innocence.
It’s unfortunate that fans didn’t quite get the best Castlevania handheld experience on the Game Boy, though the changes the handheld versions made for the system made them enjoyable in their own way. Quirks aside, Belmont’s Revenge is not only the best Castlevania entry on the system, it’s one of the system’s best titles. The Adventure‘s music admittedly is its only saving grace, while Legends is best forgotten. Obviously, the question of whether we’ll see another Castlevania entry anytime soon (let alone a traditional sidescrolling one) is up to Konami. Two of the three Game Boy entries are part of the Castlevania Collection, so if you’re in the market for a slight tweak to your traditional Castlevania formula, you’ve got options.