Friday, October 28, 2016

A Tribute To 'Castelvania' on the Game Boy!

Sure, everybody knows and loves Simon Belmont's exploits on the NES, but what about the series' less heralded, monochrome monster-slaying opuses on Nintendo's pioneering portable?

By: Jimbo X

By formal decree of the great, unwritten Halloween law, I'm pretty much beholden to writing about Castlevania, to some capacity, each All Hallows Eve season. Verily, the beloved Konami franchise is pretty much the video game equivalent of General Mills' monster cereals, in that they're both pretty much their respective medium's face of horror. And alike Count Chocula and Yummy Mummy, the Castlevania games of yore may not necessarily be terrifying, but they nonetheless port about everything we love about the subgenre. The creepy crawlies. The melodrama. The kooky atmospherics. Boo Berry is the entire Universal Monsters cinematic canon you eat, and Castlevania is the entire Universal Monsters cinematic canon you play, and both - without question - are definitely delicious, cavity-and-callous causing delights

By now, the original NES trilogy has been written about a million billion times. You can say the same about Super Castlevania IV (yet strangely enough, not the even better Sega Genesis counterpart Bloodlines) and Symphony of the Night, for sure. Alas, for many of the younger gamers out there, the Castlevania they know and love isn't a console-based franchise, but one relegated to the handheld sphere. Indeed, an entire generation grew up weaned on a triple shot of Super Castelvania IV inspired ports on the GBA, which naturally gave way to an even better triple shot of Symphony of the Night inspired games on the DS. But before that sextet hit Nintendo's portable gaming units, there was another trilogy of on-the-go Castlevania games released on the first wave Game Boy, and for some reason, even in today's sometimes nauseating web of ultra-nostalgia, nobody seems to ever talk about.

In honor of the All Hallows eve spirit/me meeting my article-a-day Halloween season quota, why don't we take a look back at the aforementioned Game Boy trilogy and see how the bite-sized Castlevanias fare a couple of handheld generations later? Hope you've got your AA batteries handy, folks ... we might be up all night long for this one.

Castlevania: The Adventure (1989)

This is easily one of the ten hardest things you'll ever do in your life and I'm not even joking. 

The first Castlevania game on the Game Boy was also one of the first Game Boy games ever, released a couple of months after the system first hit store shelves in July '89. In terms of presentation, the game looks positively stellar for its time, with very detailed sprites and some downright awesome chiptune music. When it comes to aesthetics, it definitely nails the vibe of the first NES game, for sure.

Admittedly, the stage set inside a haunted block of Swiss cheese was a bit underwhelming...

Alas, the big problem with the game becomes evident as soon as you start mashing the face buttons. The controls in The Adventure leave a lot to be desired, and the jumping mechanics feel especially floaty. Seeing as how so much of the gameplay revolves around time sensitive platforming (hope you kids really like blocks that start falling out of the sky as soon as you step on them!), the game can get very frustrating ... especially since the enemies have a nasty tendency to respawn, thus making the already irritating jumping segments even more teeth-grindinginly aggravating.

Yep. These fuckers aren't annoying in the slightest

Perhaps the biggest rub with the game is its length. There are only four stages in the game, and once you get the trial-and-error gameplay out of the way, you can definitely slog your way through this one in half an hour. To be fair, the level design is pretty nuanced and the boss fights are pretty entertaining (especially the grand finale against Drac himself, in a room littered with Stars of Davids instead of pentagrams), but on the whole? It's a game that feels just slightly above average - for a first-time foray, it's pretty commendable, but the clunky controls and ungodly cheap enemies definitely saps the title of a lot of its fun.

Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge (1991)

Oh, you do not want to fuck with a boss armed with a Gopher grabber, that's for damned sure
Going the Evil Dead 2 route, Belmont's Revenge is really more of a beefed up "re-arrangement" of the first game than it is a proper sequel. As in, the game uses the exact same level layouts as before, albeit with tougher enemies and bigger caverns to explore. Like in Mega Man, however, you have the ability to choose which castles you want to explore first, and unlike in Castlevania: The Adventure, you actually get to use the iconic "sub-weapons" from the console games, including the holy water and, uh, holy axe, I guess?

All I can say about these bosses is "ewe!" Get it ... because they're rams and shit?

From the get-go, you'll notice that - for whatever reason - the graphics are much less defined than in part one. Indeed, I had to turn my Game Boy around and double check to make sure that I hadn't played the games in reverse order - yes, the graphical downgrade is that bad. While Simon Belmont doesn't look anywhere near as decent as he did in the last outing, the backgrounds are certainly much improved, though, and the music - while not as catchy as in part one - is still fairly decent.

As you can see, there's a lot less anti-Antisemitism going on in this game's concluding battle against Dracula. 

The level design here is MUCH improved. Yeah, every stage, fundamentally, is just a rehash of the levels in the last game, but the stages themselves are just so much bigger and with way more stuff to trudge through. It's not quite horning in on MetroidVania territory quite yet, but oftentimes you'll find yourself with at least two different branching paths to make your way through each room. Really, this is a game that plays more like Mega Man than Castlevania, right down to the frustrating enemies that literally ride your ass until you are dead and the tricky vertical levels with fucking enemies just coming out of nowhere to bump you off a ledge into the abyss. And the boss fights, I'd say, are a lot less entertaining than in the first GB offering ... especially the final hootenanny with Dracula, which is essentially a carbon copy of the last boss battle in The Adventure (albeit, with all of the pentagrams scrubbed and Drac's "final" bat form, inexplicably, removed.) On the whole, I'd consider this one a slight improvement over the first Game Boy game in terms of general game play, although there are still some control issues and seriously, why the hell are the sprites so much shittier than they were in the game that came out TWO years before it?

Castlevania Legends (1998)

Note: you will absolutely fucking hate this part of the game.

Now this is just goddamned ridiculous. Legends is a game that came out in 1998, but it looks and sounds WORSE than a game that came out on the same hardware TEN fucking years earlier. Seriously, the first time I flipped on this game, I was gobsmacked. Compared to how good the sprites were in The Adventure, you're basically playing a stick figure with a ponytail in this one. 

No, this is the final Castlevania game to come out on the Game Boy, not the first. I promise you. 

While the visuals are irredeemably minimal (honestly, the backdrops are so sparse you'd might as well think the game took place in Antarctica), at least Konami finally got the controls right on this one. For once, it doesn't feel like your avatar is wearing a backpack with a 200 pound barbell in it every time you jump and combat is actually pretty smooth and intuitive, even when big black spooky turd monsters keep falling out of the sky nonstop (be forewarned, however, that this game has without question the cheapest enemies in the trilogy - the kinds that give you half a millisecond to react before they fly into you and send you jumping back 20 feet into the nearest insta-kill pit.) Perhaps the most interesting thing about the game, however, is its magic system. Yes, eschewing the "subweapons" hallmark of the venerated franchise, you instead equip and power up five different projectile forms - flame, ice, saint, wind and magic - all of which have specific strategic uses against certain enemies and in certain platforming conditions. And yes, I too love how they just ripped off the Planeteers' "powers" for the different magical abilities.

Hey, they finally gave us a showdown with Dracula worth a shit!

One thing that I really liked about this game - and ultimately, what I think puts this one ahead of the other two Castlevania games on the Game Boy - is the level layout. Although fairly bare-bones, each stage is very, very large, with plenty of different game mechanics (jumping, rope climbing, platform navigating, etc.) Although the stages are much more linear than in the last game, that actually benefits the core gameplay, giving it a more-straightforward "classical" Castlevania feel. That, and this game has what are easily the best boss fights of the trilogy, and it ain't even close. That said, the game does get points for utilizing one of the most irritating game play mechanics I've ever seen - these "trap" nooks that bait you with the promise of power-ups only to send you hurdling into an arena where you have to fight a hundred or so zombies (who keep respawning on top of you). That shit is just the worst thing, ever.

A woman saving the world? Psshh ... now we know it's fiction

Ultimately, all of the games more or less play the same, regardless of their minute mechanical quirks. In all three games, you're pretty much screwed if you don't get the whip "fireball" power-up and holy shit, is the "collision" detection ever spotty when it comes to the rope climbing sequences (for the love of god, if you have your thumbs anywhere near the directional pad, you'll drop deader than a burlap sack of door nails.) And of course, in all three, you will curse the skies every time you die and lose the million billion hearts you collected earlier, but then again, that is part and parcel of what the Castlevania experience is all about, I suppose. In terms of overall quality/replayability/being less likely to toss your Game Boy across the room out of unfettered frustration, I'd rank 'em in reverse chronological order (although, presentation-wise, the trilogy certain sounds and looks progressively worse from 1989 to 1998.) But before you haul off and declare Legends the greatest monochrome Castlevania of 'em all, there's one last thing I want to bring to your attention...


Kid Dracula (1993) 

And if you think fighting a Klan member is risque for a Game Boy game, remember: in the NES version, the motherfucker had a swastika tattoo on his forehead, too.

Hey, what is this right here? Is it an unofficial "fourth" Castlevania game on the Game Boy that nobody remembers, which itself is a port of an unofficial "fourth" Castlevania game on the NES nobody remembers? Aye, you would be right on both accounts, and to be frank, not only is Kid Dracula a really fun diversion from the "proper" Castlevania series, I actually think it's BETTER than any of the franchise's canonical appearances on the GB!

Needless to say, it's a WAY better Jason than the one we got in the official Friday the 13th game on the NES.

Eagle-eyed IIIA readers may recognize this game as a remake/reboot of the Japanese-only Famicom release Akumajou Special Boku Dracula-Kun, which was basically the Castlevania version of Parodius. While the scaled-down GB port obviously has to sacrifice a few things in the translation, it's still a mighty fun little platformer, with some of the best graphics you'll ever see on the handheld. The sprites are absolutely gorgeous and do a great job depicting its big, chunky, well-defined characters. Furthermore, the controls are just about perfect, and the big cherry atop the monochrome, battery-juice-chugging sundae? The gameplay is absolutely phenomenal, with well-designed levels, excellent platforming sequences and some truly inspired boss battles.

There are cool details, and then there's noticing the fucking Hindenburg in the background.

There are just so many great things about this game. In a way, it's sort of a combination of Wario World and Metroid, with your eponymous avatar gaining all sorts of new "attacks" - the ability to walk on the ceiling, shoot homing bats at people, etc. - after going to-toe-toe with shotgun-toting chibi Jason Voorhees and, uh, humongous chickens. The stages are also very inventive (my favorite is probably the roller coaster sequence) and the mini-games are an absolute hoot and a half (I'm still not sure which I enjoyed more - the one where you pop balloons while wearing a kaiser helmet on a pogo stick one or the rock-scissors-paper contest where the loser gets whacked over the head with a baseball bat.) Even with a couple of levels excised, this is an absolute must play for all Game Boy enthusiasts and Castlevania hounds alike - yes, even if they did soften the first neo-Nazi Klan member boss into a ghoul who looks slightly less like a white supremacist...


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