Released: 7 March 2012 Originally Released: 4 December October 1997 Developer: Konami Original Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Also Available For: Game Boy
A Brief Background: In the hierarchy of videogame characters, you would be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Goemon, the spiky-haired protagonist of Konami’s Ganbare Goemon series of adventure games. Loosely based on the legendary Robin Hood figure of Ishikawa Goemon, Goemon was first introduced to gamers back in 1986 as “Mr. Goemon” and was best known outside of Japan for his critically acclaimed Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) title, The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (Konami, 1991). While the world was waiting with baited breath for the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time(Nintendo EAD, 1998), 3D adventure fans were treated to Goemon’s bizarre Nintendo 64 jaunt, Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka, 1997), my first exposure to the character and the franchise and still one of my favourite N64 games of all time. Mystical Ninja was accompanied by this release for the original Game Boy, a divisive adventure title that was criticised for its high difficulty and for being a poor knock-off of The Legend of Zelda(Nintendo R&D4, 1986). Regardless, Mystical Ninja made its was to the 3DS Virtual Console in 2012 and, based on my enjoyment with the N64 title and desire to play something akin to the SNES game, I snapped it up before the service was shut down.
First Impressions: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is a top-down action/adventure game far more in the style of The Legend of Zelda than its sidescrolling SNES predecessor and third-person N64 jaunt. The game’s story is split into chapters, with story text, dialogue boxes, and map screens depicting the efforts of Goemon, Ebisumaru, and Sasuke to rescue their friend Yae from the malevolent Black Ship Gang. Before each chapter, you can pick from one of the three protagonists, who all essentially control the same way and have the same abilities; each character has a weapon to attack with by pressing B and can jump by pressing A, though each has slightly different attributes. Goemon is an all-rounder, for example, while Ebisumaru’s jump isn’t quite as good as Sasuke’s. Like Link, you character will fire a projectile from their weapon when at full health, though you still have access to a projectile in the form of a limited supply of shurikens, which you can switch to by pressing ‘Select’ and each character has a different range to their shot. The pause screen brings up a rudimentary grid-like map that gives you some idea of where you are, where you’ve been, and where you need to go, though the game is pretty linear and it’s not especially difficult to find your way around. Each chapter starts you out in a town of some sort, one either ruined by enemies or that’s a port for the Black Ship Gang, and you can explore, chat to non-playable characters (NPCs) for some vague hints and lore, and visit shops and inns to replenish your health and ammo. This is the only way to refill your strength gauge outside of collecting Crystal of Life items from chests, which add an extra hit point to your bar and, as you only get one life and the game’s passwords make you start from the beginning of the chapter, this can make for an incredibly difficult gameplay experience.
You’ll wander through the town, taking out enemies (who don’t drop anything useful and respawn when you return, making backtracking a chore), and finding stairs down to underground passages, ant hills, castles, and through the Black Ship Gang’s ship. Exploration generally amounts to finding chests that contain a life or weapon power-up, extra shurikens, and coins to spend, but you’ll occasionally find shops and inns in here too and you’ll pretty much always be tasked with finding an NPC with a story-specific item (bamboo, a bomb, the symbol of the Black Ship Gang) that you need to progress further. Graphically, the game really isn’t anything to shout about; considering we were seven years into the Game Boy’s life span by this point and we’d seen an incredibly detailed and layered adventure game in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo EAD, 1993) about four years prior, it’s hard to not judge Mystical Ninja, which more resembles Super Mario Land(Nintendo R&D1, 1989) than Link’s Awakening. The sound is pretty good, but the sprites are small, lacking in detail, and the environments all become very samey very quickly. Add in the fact that some locations are veritable mazes and include hazards like pits, water, and lava that take a whole chunk off your health and send you back to the beginning and you have a game that just looks dated and lacks all of the visual charm I associate with the Mystical Ninja franchise. By taking advantage of the 3DS’s save state system, you don’t really need to explore all that much as you can just reload if you make a mistake, but that won’t help you when you come across the various mini games that accompany the game’s bosses!
My Progression: Mystical Ninja’s enemies aren’t really all the difficult to get past; you’ve got samurais, ghosts, giant ants, bats, and pirates scattered throughout but also some trickier enemies, like teleporting ninjas, ink-spitting squids, and these weird…I dunno…golems? Walking tree-things? Most enemies can be defeated in one hit, but some take more, and it can be tricky lining up your shot or blow because of the game’s rigid grid system and the character’s weapons not having a wide arc like Link’s sword. The hardest thing about the enemies, though, is that they all respawn when you return to where they were meaning that it’s usually easier and faster to just jump around and avoid them, especially as you don’t get any health or coins or anything for beating them. Some areas include mini bosses, like a sumo, a flying queen ant, a hook-handed pirate captain, and a large octopus, but most of these are pretty easy to pummel into defeat from afar. When you explore Skeleton Island, defeating the club-wielding ogre-things opens up a new part of the area to explore and brings you one step closer to the final boss, but it’s actually highly unlikely you’ll even get past the first boss without using the password system. My playthrough was going pretty well; I was disappointed by the graphics, lack of power-ups, and the inability to switch characters on the fly, but the game wasn’t too much of a challenge to figure out. I beat the sumo, got the bamboo, and used it to cross the water to a castle, where I eventually reached this rocket boss…thing.
It was a little sporadic but I managed to defeat it but Baron Skull, leader of the Black Ship Gang, challenges you to a 100-meter race afterwards that is, frankly, impossible. You need to tap A as fast as possible to beat him but, no matter how fast I was, I couldn’t even get close so, technically, my run ended there. I used the password to jump to the next chapter, though, to see what else was on offer; here, you battle this big stone boss in a cave that constantly throws boulders and its extending arms at you and, when you beat it, you have another impossible tapping game to complete, this time a tug of war! I couldn’t beat that either, so I jumped to chapter three; here, you need to answer five out of ten questions right in a timed quiz to board the Black Ship Gang’s ship, which isn’t too hard, and the big octopus has you quickly select which lantern doesn’t match to finish the chapter, so I was actually able to beat this one! Things properly broke down in chapter four, where you cross a bridge to another ship and are challenged to a number of mini games; the first isn’t too bad (especially with save states) and simply has you matching pairs of cards, but the second was, again, impossible as no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get all of the images to match the main picture. I skipped ahead to the final chapter, where you easily defeat Baron Skull’s ogres and rescue Yae, then hop over some lava and battle him to the finish in a first-person mech fight. This sees you summoning the giant robot Impact (though you only see him from inside his cockpit) and punching Baron Skull when he pops up, following the helpful arrows to prepare your attack. Unfortunately, you can’t block or fire projectiles and I couldn’t even see what or when Baron Skull was firing at me, and this is a multi-stage fight, with Baron Skull getting faster and harder to hit, so this was where I officially gave up.
To say I was disappointed by Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon would be a massive understatement. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting it to be anything like the Nintendo 64 game of the same name that’d so massively captured my attention and imagination, but something more akin to the SNES game or even more in line with Link’s Awakening would’ve been fine. I was expecting the game to be hard because it was a long and involved role-playing adventure game that had you going from town to town, exploring dungeons and castles, and acquiring new weapons and items…not because of nigh-impossible button mashing mini games with absolutely no margin for error! The game is stupidly simple 99% of the time, coming across as a kiddified version of the original Legend of Zelda and barely presenting much of a challenge as long as you remember where you’ve gone in the maze-like areas. The bosses are pretty simple to beat as well, but those mini games, while quirky and in keeping with the series’ bizarre sense of humour, are such a brick wall that I honestly have no idea how you’d get past even the first one! Add to that the dated the graphics, the lack of variety between the playable characters, and the disappointingly bland locations and you are basically left with a forgettable Game Boy experience that I can’t say I’ll be motivated to try and finish any time soon. But maybe you think I’m being too harsh? Maybe you’ve beaten this game without issue? If so, I’d love to hear about it, and your thoughts on the Ganbare Goemon series, down in the comments or on my social media.
Released: 8 February 2012 Originally Released: 4 March 1991 Developer: Backbone Entertainment Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Arcade, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
The Background: The Simpsons began life as a series of short cartoons created by Matt Groening for The Tracey Ullman Show, with Groening hastily naming each of the family members after himself and his own family and the characters coloured yellow by colourist Georgie Peluse simply because it was deemed amusing. In 1989, Groening was approached by a team of production companies to produce a series of half-hour episodes focusing on his dysfunctional family for the Fox Broadcasting Company. Groening jumped at the chance to produce an alternative to the “mainstream trash” that was currently airing and The Simpsons eventually premiered in late 1989. The show became a multimedia juggernaut after “Bartmania” gripped the nation; in addition to the long-running series, The Simpsons featured in every piece of merchandise imaginable, from action figures and comics to videogames.
While the majority of these early videogames are notoriously poor, one stoodout for its high quality graphics and addictive beat-‘em-up gameplay and that was the arcade game produced by Konami. It was surprising how well the developers adapted the Simpsons concept to a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up however, while the game was somewhat restricted by the relatively short run of the show at the time, what really gave the game its prestige was its obscurity. I’ve been lucky enough to play this out in the wild over the years so, naturally, I jumped at the chance to get it when it was finally re-released on the PlayStation Network in 2012; sadly, the game has since been delisted, meaning there is no easily accessible way to play this classic beat-‘em-up title, but Whacking Day seems like a great excuse to revisit it nonetheless.
The Plot: Whilst out shopping, the Simpsons accidentally bump into Waylon Smithers as he is stealing a giant diamond for his employer, the greedy and malicious Charles Montgomery Burns. When the diamond lands in Maggie’s mouth, Smithers kidnaps her and the Simpsons are forced to pursue him to rescue her.
Gameplay: The Simpsons is a 2D, sidescrolling beat-‘em-up in which up to four players travel from the left side of the screen to the right through a variety of familiar Simpsons locations while pummelling wave-upon-wave of goons and other assorted enemies. Unlike some four-player beat-‘em-ups, any player can select any character and you’ll even be able to pull off unique double team moves with each member of the Simpsons family. There are four characters to choose from (Bart, Homer, Marge, and Lisa) and, though each one controls exactly the same, it does seem as though each one has slightly different pros and cons and each one attacks in a slightly different way.
For example, Bart and Lisa are smaller and faster, making it easier to manoeuvre around the screen and to avoid enemy attacks, while Homer and Marge are much taller and slower. Bart glides along on his skateboard, which he also uses to attack enemies; Lisa skips around using a skipping rope (which she also uses to attack); Homer attacks with his fists (and seems to have the shortest range as a result); and Marge whacks enemies with her vacuum cleaner, giving her the longest reach but a slightly slower attack than, say, Bart or Lisa. Gameplay couldn’t be simpler: you just move to the right and attack enemies until you reach the end of the stage where you’ll battle a boss. There are no special moves or complicated button presses and combos to worry about here; X jumps and Square attacks and that’s pretty much it. You can perform jumping attacks and each character has a unique combo attack (Bart whirls around like a spinning top and Homer flails his fists in a frenzy, for example) that is performed by simply mashing X but you can’t grab or throw enemies and there’s no dash function but you can pick up and throw items and objects at enemies.
While 99% of the game is a mindless, monotonous beat-‘em-up, The Simpsons livens things up not just with its bright, cartoony graphics, quirky features, and sound bites but also through its level variety and a couple of Bonus Stages. The first of these has you mashing buttons to pump up a balloon and the second has you doing the same thing to slap your character back to consciousness. It’s not much, and the computer-controlled opponents are ridiculously hard to beat, but it helps to break things up a little bit. The quirkiness of the game helps with that, too. Since the game was made so early in The Simpsons’ lifespan, much of the show’s characterisations and format had yet to be properly established. As a result, Smithers is a maniacal villain and many of the obscure and fleeting inclusions from the show (such as the bear, Homer’s dreamland, Princess Kashmir, and Professor Werner von Brawn) are much more prominent over characters like Abe Simpson, Milhouse Van Houton, and Otto Mann (who all show up in brief cameos to drop off weapons or health items) and some (like Kent Brockman) are missing entirely in favour of numerous cameos by Groening’s rabbit, Binky. Still, similar to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles(Konami, 1989), cartoony slapstick and a vibrant aesthetic keep the game enjoyable to look at and play: characters will fly at the screen when smacked by doors, use speech bubbles to shout at you to wriggle the joystick when enemies grab them, and the game does a decent job of recreating certain locations from the show even if some are a little more obscure than others (such as Krustyland and Springfield Butte).
Graphics and Sound: The Simpsons is a bright, vivid, and lively beat-‘em-up full of big, colourful sprites, cartoony effects, and a decent amount of detail packed into every animation and location. Each character has several frames of animation, even when standing idle; they’ll quickly grow impatient with you if you leave them too long and often speak using both sound bites and word balloons. Additionally, when attacking or being attacked, each character has many frames of animation that allows them to attack in a flurry, be sent tumbling backwards, or return to life in the guise of a superhero.
Considering, as I mentioned before, how early into the show’s run the game was produced, stage variety is commendable…if a bit wacky, at times. Stage one is, naturally, the streets of Springfield but, while you’ll pass by the Noiseland Arcade and the Rusty Barnacle, other prominent locations from the iconic Simpsons introduction and various episodes are missing. Similarly, Krustyland is quite different to how it appears in the show and appears to be more like an amusement part, Moe’s Tavern is greatly expanded into something more like a casino and a strip club, and Springfield Butte appears to only be included because a handful of early Simpsons episodes occasionally ventured into the wilderness outside of the town. Things get really surreal when you visit Dreamland on stage six, which features all kinds of weird background elements and brief inclusions of what I would consider to be more prominent Simpsons landmarks (like the school and the Simpsons’ home).
While many of the stages are quite short and relatively barren, the game packs in a bunch of cameos and little details here and there: Howie walks out of the arcade (and will smash you into the screen if you get too close); frogs hop around in the cemetery; and various supporting characters (from Sherri and Terri to the original design for Sideshow Bob and even obscure characters like Doctor Marvin Monroe) show up to drop off health or power-ups. The Simpsons does a great job of recreating the look and feel of the early episodes of the show and this is helped all the more with the game’s commendable recreation of the iconic Simpsons introduction (which includes a brief rundown on each playable character) and theme tune. The game’s plot, such as it is, is told through the use of both motion comic-like cutscenes and in-game graphics, with a few sound bites thrown in here and there. This allows for a surprising amount of non-playable characters (NPCs) to briefly appear onscreen at once and a few amusing little animated sequences to play out, such as your characters getting swept over a waterfall, Smithers blowing himself up, and Maggie placing her dummy into the unconscious mouth of Mr. Burns.
Enemies and Bosses: As you embark on your journey, you’ll battle against a seemingly endless wave of men in suits whose sole mission in life is to pummel you to death. Some of these also throw their hats at you or wield brooms or other weapons; they’re also capable of grabbing you to drain your health and get progressively aggressive as the game goes on. You’ll also battle fatter enemies, who can attack in teacups or throw boulders at you, and enemies will drop from trees dressed as ghosts and toss bombs at you in the cemetery. There are also a handful of unique and quirky enemies to contend with, some of which act as mini bosses of sorts: in stage one, for example, you’ll have to fight past a fireman, Binky and fake Krusty the Clown’s regularly crop up in Krustyland, zombies burst out from the cemetery grounds, you’ll encounter Bigfoot a number of times at Springfield Butte, and Channel 6 even has you fighting ninjas and a laser-spewing robot!
Easily the most surreal enemies are found in Dreamland; here, you’ll encounter anthropomorphic donuts and saxophones, Marge heads made of clouds, and nuclear technicians who continue to attack you even after you knock their heads off! As mentioned, most of the game’s stages end with a battle against a gigantic boss; these are generally pretty easy and all come down to a simple case of dodging and piling on the attacks. The first boss, Professor Werner von Brawn, fills most of the screen and attacks with punches and belly flops (but his trunks have a nasty tendency to fall down, leaving him vulnerable to your attacks) while the second boss is a gigantic Krusty balloon that tries to slap at you and rains bombs down onto the arena. In each case, though, victory comes from simply utilising any weapons dropped off before the fight, using your jumping attacks, and relentlessly pounding away until they are defeated.
Stage three doesn’t actually have a proper boss battle but, at the end of Moe’s Tavern, you’ll have to fight a cracked-up DJ who punches at you and breathes fire! However, his tendency to stop and taunt makes him an easy fight, as is the giant fake bear that awaits you at the end of Springfield Butte. The hardest thing about this boss is that it surprises you by bursting out of a cave, which can cause you to get hit by logs, and boulders rain down into the area, which can be annoying. Similarly, the large Kabuki Warrior who awaits you at the end of the Channel 6 stage is made more cumbersome by his long reach (thanks to his spear) and the fact that he conjures a ninja or two to distract you during the fight.
Dreamland, however, ends with a particularly annoying and tough boss battle against a huge anthropomorphic bowling bowl that attacks in four different phases: in the first, it simple rolls and bounces around; in the second, it grows arms to bounce higher; the third sees it grow legs and shoot bowling pin missiles; and the fourth and final phase sees it grow one large, stretchy arm to swipe at you. It’s quite a laborious boss battle, especially considering that every boss before this was relatively short and simple, but is just a taste of things to come.
When you reach the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, you’ll simply walk right through the stage and into Mr. Burns’ office for the final battle, which is preceded by a fight against Smithers. Smithers attacks with his cape and maniacally dashes around the office tossing bombs at you. Thankfully, you can throw some of these back at him and he goes down relatively quickly as long as you can get near him and avoid being chargrilled by his bombs and death animation. Defeat him, though, and Mr. Burns bursts through the wall in his mech suit for another four-phase boss fight. At first, Burns attacks with retractable pincer-like arms and spits out the odd nuclear bomb, then he rises up onto treadmill-like feet and starts shooting missiles at you. In his third phase, he switches to a hovercraft-like base and adds a spiked rod attack and, in the fourth phase, having had his exosuit smashed off throughout the fight, Burns simply resorts to bouncing around the screen and scattering bombs everywhere. This is definitely a fight made easier with another player or in Free Play mode as Burns is a damage sponge and can easily smack the life out of you in just a few hits.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: As in any self-respecting beat-‘em-up, the Simpsons have a variety of options when it comes to restoring their health; NPCs will drop off burgers, hot dogs, donuts, pie, and roast chickens and you can also shake apples from trees, each of which will allow you to keep fighting a little longer. Some of these can also be found right before boss areas so, if you’re low on health, it’s worth picking them up.
Similarly, you’ll find and be gifted a variety of weapons throughout each stage; one of the most prominent is the slingshot, which allows you to fire a limited number of projectiles at your enemies, but you can also grab bowling balls, a hammer, bar stools, brooms, bottles, drink cups, and even Snowball II, Santa’s Little Helper, and the original design of the Space Mutants to launch at enemies.
Additional Features: The Simpsons has twelve Trophies for you to earn, each of them actually requiring a bit of skill and effort on your part as they task you with reaching certain stages, acquiring a certain number of points in specific game modes, or teaming up with other plays on- or offline. The difficulty of these varies quite a bit; it’s not much to ask you to finish the game four times, once with each character, but finishing the game in thirty minutes or less or on the “Expert” difficulty with limited continues is a bit of a tall order. When playing this version of the game, you are presented with a variety of gameplay options. You can choose to play in “Free Play” mode (which gives you unlimited continues), “Survival” mode (which gives you one life an no continues), “Team Quarters” (where you share forty continues), and “Quarters” mode (which gives you ten continues).
You can then select between Easy, Normal, Hard, and Expert difficulty modes (with enemies increasing in number and difficulty the higher the setting), select any stage you like (though, as I finished this game a long time ago, this may need to be unlocked so I forget if it’s available right from the start), view characters and artwork in the gallery, apply different borders and screen settings, and have access to a sound test. You can also choose to play the Japanese version of the game, which differs somewhat from the worldwide release. For one thing, it adds the nuclear bomb item to certain stages, which allows you to clear the screen of enemies. It also allows you to use weapons in mid-air, ups the power of the slingshot, adds a “Vital Bonus” score at the end of every stage, allows you to increase your health beyond its limit, and adds a number of different enemy, item, and NPC placements within every stage which can help mix up subsequent playthroughs.
The Summary: The Simpsons is not an especially deep or feature-laden arcade title; the lack of special moves, relative emptiness of the stages, the enemy variety, and the short length of the game all, arguably, make it somewhat inferior to other arcade beat-‘em-ups released around the same time. Yet, thanks to its colourful graphics, quirky animations, and simple pick-up-and-play formula, it’s a classic of its genre through and through and easily one of the most enjoyable beat-‘em-ups out there. Of course, much of its appeal comes from nostalgia and its rarity but none of that detracts from the fact that it’s a blast to play and never outstays its welcome. A sidescrolling beat-‘em-up may not necessarily be the first genre that springs to mind when you think of The Simpsons but it works really well here; even though the show was still in its early days, the game does a great job of capturing the spirit of The Simpsons and including a number of cameos and call-backs to the show. It’s a shame that The Simpsons wasn’t more commercial available through ports to home consoles and that this particular version has been delisted from online stores as it’s a great way to waste an hour or so and the additional features and options help to spice the experience up. It was a great little package for a long-forgotten game and I can only hope that, one day, it’ll reappear on the Xbox so I can experience it all over again.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Are you a fan of The Simpsons? Have you have played this game out in the wild or did you first experience it through emulation or the PlayStation and Xbox ports? Which of the playable characters was your favourite? How do you feel the game holds up today, especially compared to other beat-‘em-ups? Would you like the see the game re-released again or do you think it’s better left in obscurity? What is your favourite Simpsons game? Do you have a favourite character, episode, or moment from the show? How are you celebrating Whacking Day today? Whatever your thoughts on the world’s most famous yellow family, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in for more Simpsons content!
Released: May 2010 Developer: Climax Studios Also Available For: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox One
The Background: Mate, how absolutely brilliant was Rocket Knight Adventures (Konami, 1993) back in the day? Back when cute, anthropomorphicmascots were all the rage, Sparkster (the titular “Rocket Knight”) really stood out thanks to some absolutely gorgeous graphics, kick-ass music, and fast-paced, rocket-based combat. I used to play that game so much as a kid but never actually managed to finish it (maybe one day); the game did well enough to receive two sequels, one for the Mega Drive and one for the Super Nintendo, but Konami’s long-forgotten and short-lived little franchise went dormant for far too long after these releases. Then, out of nowhere, a revival of the franchise was thankfully put into production thanks to producer Tomm Hulett. A 2,5D, digital-only title, I first played Rocket Knight on the PlayStation 3 but I didn’t hesitate to snap it up once it went on sale on Xbox One so I could get into it again. It’s not an especially long or difficult game but, as one of my favourite franchises that has been sadly lost to the mists of time, I could never not jump at the opportunity to charge up Sparkster’s signature rocket pack once more.
The Plot: Fifteen years after bringing peace to the Kingdom of Zephyrus, Sparkster has been living a quiet life as a family possum. His peaceful life is shattered when the Wolf Army suddenly invades the Kingdom; heeding the call to adventure, Sparkster dons his trademark armour and rocket pack and returns to the fight to defend his home once more.
Gameplay: Rocket Knight is a 2.5D action/platformer in which players take control of Sparkster, a “rocket knight” who seeks to defend his land from invasion. All of Sparkster’s moves and abilities from his debut game return here, meaning he is armed with a large sword for some basic close-quarters action and which is also capable of blasting enemies from a distance as well.
Sparkster’s unique selling point was his rocket pack; by holding the B button and pointing Sparkster in a direction, players can blast ahead, mowing down enemies and ricocheting off walls to reach higher areas. Sparkster can also drill through certain breakable elements by tapping B again and briefly hover with a tap of the A button to aid with tricky platforming sections. However, Sparkster’s rocket pack isn’t finite in most stages; you’ll have to keep an eye on the energy bar in the top-left of the screen as you won’t be able to blast away if it’s empty. Luckily, this bar refills quite quickly, meaning you never have to wait too long to burst into action and Sparkster can also blow his energy reserves on a cartwheel-like attack that is super handy for bouncing dynamite back at enemies. Sparkster can also clamber across vines and bars with his tail; sliding down these will allow you to jump higher and further and you can also attack enemies by whirling around in a rocket-powered swing.
Stages are generally a simply case of moving Sparkster from point A to point B, with a smattering of enemies and platforming segments to contend with, but every so often you’ll be thrust into a sidescrolling auto-flying stage where you can fly indefinitely. In these stages, enemies, obstacles, and mines will try to slow your progress but you can blast at them with Sparkster’s energy shot. You can also hold X to charge up your shot and unleash a screen-clearing beam of energy that is perfect to taking out tricky enemies. Eventually, stages introduce more complex elements, such as when Sparkster finds his rocket pack affected by extreme cold. Your rocket fuel won’t regenerate in these stages unless you pick up a fuel icon or find a burning torch to defrost Sparkster.
Other stages have you dodging and ducking fireballs, blasting from airship to airship while massive cannons try to knock you from the sky, hitting switches to open doors or lower energy fields, jumping from precarious moving platforms or navigating short, simple mazes to progress further, or outrunning a massive explosion. Rocket Knight is not an especially long or complex game but it’s simple, easy to play fun that challenges you by increasing the difficulty of its enemies and stage hazards over time. Fortunately, checkpoints are plentiful throughout the game’s stages; Sparkster can replenish his health by collecting hearts, which are sporadically found throughout each stage, and earn extra lives by collecting 1-ups and earning enough points. Points are accumulated by collecting blue and red gems, finding power-ups, and building a combo by defeating enemies in quick succession. Each time you clear a stage, you’ll earn additional points for how fast you completed a stage, encouraging speedrunning and a degree of exploration as you hunt down hidden gems.
Graphics and Sound: Rocket Knight is not an especially ground-breaking game in terms of its graphics but it has a simple, adorable charm; favouring a 2.5D aesthetic over the gorgeous sprite art of its original games, the game resembles a cel-shaded cartoon more than anything. Characters pop out from the background and are lively enough (though Sparkster could be a little more animated when left idle), appearing big and chunky and almost anime-like in their appearance.
The game’s simple plot is told through pantomime-like cutscenes, as in the original game, with a brief synopsis greeting the player as each stage loads. These cutscenes are amusing and quaint, getting the point of the game’s uncomplicated narrative across easily enough and are thankfully not bogged down by copious amounts of voice acting (they are also entirely skippable if you prefer to just jump right into the action). The game’s music is just as good; Rocket Knight wisely opens with a remix of the memorable and catchy “Stage 1” music from the first game (still one of the greatest videogame tracks of all time, in my opinion) and takes its cue from there, punctuating each stage with plucky tunes that could maybe have a bit more oomph behind them but are nevertheless enjoyable.
Enemies and Bosses: For the first portion of the game, Sparkster will have to contend with the Wolf Army; these are generally little more than cannon fodder, running head-first into your sword and attacks and easily dispatched of. Soon, they start tossing dynamite at your head (though these are easily knocked back with a swipe of your sword) or clinging from walls and ceilings to toss throwing stars at you. They’ll also pop out of the background or try to overwhelm you with sheer numbers, attack with bazookas, or drop bombs on you but are, for the most part, pretty easy to deal with.
However, after taking out Ulfgar the Merciless, the King and leader of the Wolf Army, Sparkster is betrayed by former-enemy-turned-ally General Sweinhart and must contend with a renewed invasion from Sweinhart’s Pig Empire. These swines are far more dangerous enemies, taking multiple hits to defeat and blasting at Sparkster with energy pistols, hiding behind shields, erecting electrical force fields, and piloting intimidating mechs to try and squash Sparkster flat.
Since Rocket Knight is only a short game (it’ll probably take about an hour to finish on the “Normal” difficulty), you only have to contend with three bosses and two sub-bosses. The sub-boss battles are a one-on-one duel against Axel Gear, Sparkster’s hated rival; Axel has many of Sparkster’s abilities, including his energy beam and rocket pack-based attacks, but also circles the screen leaving damaging clouds in his wake and tosses grenades Sparkster’s way at any opportunity. These are some of the most fun bouts in the game, though, as it’s thrilling to go against Sparkster’s dark opposite; however, they can be frustrating when attempting the game on “Hard” mode.
The first true boss you’ll encounter is a giant mechanical forest shredder that tries to stamp, swipe, skewer, and explode you at every opportunity. The boss’s weak spot is the big, red metal “mask” on its head and you can choose to either rocket yourself into this or try to reflect the dynamite it tosses your way back at it but you’ll have to dodge its rockets and giant, scenery-destroying buzz saws as the fight progresses.
Ulfgar the Merciless is a slightly less straight-forward opponent; impervious to your attacks, you must instead bait Ulfgar into charging head-first into blocks, knock dynamite back at him, or destroy the platforms he is standing on to damage him all while dodging his charging and melee attacks and the debris he causes to come crashing down from the ceiling.
The final boss is a battle against General Sweinhart himself and is also, fittingly, the toughest and most frustrating battle of the game. Sweinhart hides inside a titanic mech shaped in his image for most of the battle, randomly trying to squash you (or cause bottomless spits to emerge) or fry you alive with his laser eyes. When he leans in close, you have to quickly land an attack on his metal nostrils; take too long and he’ll spawn an enemy or three into the arena, which is only going to cause you more headaches. Land three hits and the mech goes down, spitting Sweinhart out. Here’s where it gets really tricky; you have to dodge Sweinhart’s laser and bombs all while trying not to touch the electrified parts of his downed mech and using Sparkster’s rocket pack to knock Sweinhart from the sky in such a way that he gets fried instead. If you’re quick about this, you can significantly knock a lot of Sweinhart’s health off but it’s so fiddly and tricky to dodge his attacks and get him to land in the right place that you’ll have to contend with his giant mech at least two times in a standard battle. To make things worse, the game is really stingy with health in this battle; when fighting the other bosses, a couple of health power-ups are available in the arena but, here, it seems completely random when one will drop from the mech’s nostrils, making this far more frustrating than it needs to be at times.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: In keeping with the first game, there’s not much on offer to help boost Sparkster’s performance throughout Rocket Knight; gems will add to your score to help you towards earning extra lives, 1-ups are occasionally found in stages, and certain stages will see you get an instant refill of your rocket fuel but that’s about it. There’s no invincibility or speed up, no shields or damage increasers, and no upgrades to get or worry about; it’s just you, your sword, your rocket pack, and your wits.
Additional Features: As you might expect, Rocket Knight comes with a handful of Achievements for you to earn; sadly, there’s not very many and they’re not especially varied in their content. However, while clearing every stage and beating the game on “Normal” might be easy enough to get, others, like beating every stage below the par time or finishing the game on “Hard” mode, can be a mite trickier. You can select “Hard” mode at any time; however, staying in “Hard” mode is easier said than done. The only way to stop the game from automatically dropping the difficulty back to “Normal” is to land a special attack on each of the game’s bosses (such as damaging the forest shredder with dynamite or causing Axel to fly into his own bombs). Once you manage it, though, you unlock two additional skins: one that lets you play as Axel Gear (which is awesome) and the other is Gold Sparkster, which is also an even more challenging gameplay mode. You can input the famous Konami code on the title screen to unlock these at your leisure but I don’t think that allows you to earn the Achievements associated with them.
The Summary: Rocket Knight is an extremely enjoyable, if all-too-brief, return to form for one of Konami’s more forgotten franchises. Fast paced and simple to play, there’s not much here to really test your skills or have you pulling your hair out as even the game’s trickier moments are fun to play through thanks to the appealing aesthetics of the game’s graphics and soundtrack. The controls are tight and responsive, stages are short bursts of action and enjoyment, and the gameplay is simple yet easy to get to grips with. It would have been nice to see the three original games included as unlockables or bonus content but maybe one day Konami will remember Sparkster and give all four of his titles a bit of a spruce up for a new generation.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
What did you think of Rocket Knight? Were you happy to see Sparkster randomly return from obscurity or did you have issues with the game’s length and presentation? Did you ever play Rocket Knight Adventures on the Mega Drive or either of its sequels? If so, what did you think of them and would you like to see more games in the franchise? Either way, whatever your thoughts on Rocket Knight, leave a comment below.
Released: May 2019 Originally Released: October 1990 Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Game Boy, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, PC, and PlayStation 4
The Background: Well, this is it; over the past few weeks, I have been reviewing each of the titles of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection and we’re finally at the end with perhaps the most obscure title in the collection. By 1990, Konami was pretty much knee-deep into establishing Castlevania as a successful franchise; Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (ibid, 1989) had released the previous year and both Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (ibid, 1991) and Super Castlevania IV (ibid) were due to come out in the following year. So, naturally, this was the perfect time for a chibi-style, super-cute parody platformer starring Dracula’s son. No, not Alucard (or, at least, not explicitly…); this title would, instead, be a spin-off starring the titular “Kid Dracula”, a mischievous little imp with a super-deformed, cartoony aesthetic. His self-titled games released exclusively in Japan until the release of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, which included the original NES version for the first time, in English, but was Kid Dracula worth the wait or is it just another example of a wacky Japanese title that never should have seen the light of day in the West?
The Plot: After waking from a long sleep, the self-proclaimed “Demon King”, Kid Dracula, is challenged by the demon Galamoth. Arming himself with his father’s cape, Kid Dracula sets out to destroy Galamoth and his minions and retake his throne as the Demon King.
Gameplay: Kid Dracula is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer that, in a change of pace, has players take on the role of Dracula’s son, Kid Dracula (also called “Lil’ Drac” and, presumably (given their similarities), a super-deformed version of Alucard), and journeying across a number of levels defeating Galamoth’s minions.
Rather than using a whip, Kid Dracula attacks with a fireball-like projectile, just like his Dad. You can blast enemies in the direction you’re facing, shoot upwards, and shoot downwards while jumping, making Kid Dracula a relatively versatile character. You can also hold down the attack button to charge up a shot, which will allow you to collect Medals that you can use to play one of the game’s four mini games at the end of each level. Rather than collecting the traditional Castlevania sub-weapons, you’ll acquire new attacks after defeating each of the game’s bosses; you can switch between them by pressing the “Select” button to assist both in disposing of enemies and your traversal through the game’s nine brisk levels, though there is a significant delay in switching between attacks and there’s no option to mix and match them.
Unlike the protagonists of other Castlevania games in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, Kid Dracula is a floaty, slippery little devil but no less sluggish in his movements. When you jump, Kid Dracula gets some serious height (even more so when jumping underwater) and floats his way downwards slow enough for you to make sudden course corrections to avoid instant-death spikes or attack enemies. However, he also comes to a dead stop when jogging, meaning it’s pretty easy to slip off platforms to your death, especially in the ice world, which has some of the worst slippery ice physics I’ve ever encountered.
Kid Dracula’s health is represented by hearts; you start the game in Dracula’s Castle and with three hearts but very quickly upgrade to four and, eventually, five, by picking up bigger heart containers. Regular hearts will replenish Kid Dracula’s health and he can earn as many extra lives as he needs by playing the mini games at the end of each level.
Kid Dracula features a fair amount of level variety and gimmicks; in level one, you’re tasked with escaping Dracula’s Castle, a journey that takes you from the throne room (traditionally the end of most Castlevania games) and through the obligatory clock tower. It’s a very vertical opening level but the game quickly switches it up in level two, which sees you hopping over clouds across a bottomless pit of death and riding a track. A significant portion of level three is underwater and, after jumping around on rooftops in level five, you’ll end up riding a subway train, dodging low-hanging ceilings and fighting off monsters as the level auto-scrolls you forwards.
Generally, Kid Dracula balances these different gimmicks pretty well but you’ll be faced with the same issues that have plagued all of the Castlevania games in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection: wonky physics, tricky jumps, and knockback from damage. As a result, a lot of Kid Dracula’s levels can be more frustrating than enjoyable and the game can be a bit of a chore to get through thanks to some dodgy enemy placement and instant-death traps; in level six (a desert), you have to jump around falling spiked blocks (just brushing the edge of these instant-death spikes will kill you), are chased by a giant boulder that will kill you the moment it touches you, have to out run a collapsing spiked ceiling, and then have to battle the boss on floating hands, meaning that one hit will send you plummeting to your death.
Graphics and Sound: Kid Dracula has an amusingly charming little art style; it’s hyper deformed, turning Castlevania’s traditionally gothic and horrific aesthetic into a chibi, over-exaggerated, cartoony style that is pure Japan through and through. Kid Dracula himself stands out at all times thanks to his massive head and cute little face but each of his enemies hold their own as cutesy-fied monsters that seem more adorable than threatening.
It’s a good job that the sprites are so large and cartoony and expressive as the game’s backgrounds leave a lot to be desired. It all kind of falls apart after you leave Dracula’s Castle, which is when Kid Dracula throws such cliché level designs as a pyramid, an ice level, and a city at you. Though there are some interesting level designs outside of the first level (the second level being set in the clouds and the airship are quite interesting), a lot of the backgrounds are criminally plain and uninteresting at times which you would think would allow Kid Dracula to run quite smoothly but you would be wrong.
Instead, Kid Dracula suffers from the worst slowdown and sprite flickering in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection so far…and I’m struggling to see why. It’s not as if the game is overly complicated or full of that many moving elements but you’ll stutter and jitter about during critical moments, slipping to your doom or making fatal errors when fighting the game’s various bosses because the game slows to a crawl and the sprites start bugging out on you. Thankfully, the game has a whimsical soundtrack and loud, cartoony sound effects, all of which add to Kid Dracula’s quirky nature, but none of which can help reduce the frustration the slowdown and sprite flickering brings to the title.
Enemies and Bosses: Kid Dracula has to battle a whole host of wacky enemies in his debut game; level one features all of the staples you’d expect from a Castlevania title (bats, zombies, spear-throwing knights, and Frankenstein’s Monster) but, from level two onwards, you’ll come up against such enemies as a broomstick-riding witch, cloud-riding imps who throw lightning bolts at you, Olympic swimmers, axe-welding maniacs who wear hockey masks, aeroplane-throwing apes, and even aliens dropped from flying saucers.
Each of these is rendered in the same exaggerated, cartoony style as the kid himself, which can often undermine the very real threat they pose to your health. Sure, the skeletons in Kid Dracula look funny but they can still be a pain in the ass when they throw their heads at you, and the enemies still respawn once you leave the screen. Luckily, most can be put down with one of Kid Dracula’s regular fireballs and those that are trickier can be done in with either his charged shot or Bomb technique.
As for bosses…well, you fight a giant chicken at one point so what does that tell you? The first boss is a little ghost who runs off and gets his bigger brother after you’ve damaged him enough and most of these encounters are a pretty simple affair where you just dodge their attacks or run underneath them and blast them with your more powerful attacks until they are defeated. However, when you reach the end of level five, you’ll encounter Lady Liberty who challenges you to a quiz rather than battling you, which is an amusing twist.
Things get a bit trickier with level six’s sphinx head boss; you have to jump precariously from its disembodied hands and avoid the bubbles it shoots out all while floating over a bottomless pit that spells instant death. Once you reach level nine, you’ll have to run a gauntlet of sub-bosses including an massively annoying, teleporting dragon who can only be damaged in a small window of opportunity by your Ice Shot and a giant mechanical drill and is so big that it’s difficult to defeat it without taking at least one hit.
Eventually, you’ll go one-on-one with Galamoth himself not once but twice; the first time, you battle “Demon Lord Galamoth” at the end of level seven and he attacks with both a sword (easily jumped over) and a stream of fire (easily ducked). The second time, you battle “King Galamoth” at the end of level nine but, despite being the game’s final boss, he’s not much of a threat. He’s completely immune to all damage except in the small window where he opens his mouth to drop a fireball on your head; just stay between the lighting bolts he shoots down and keep as far left (or right) as you can and be sure to fire a charged (or Bomb) shot upwards before you miss your window and you’ll be back as the King of all Demons in no time.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: Every time you defeat a boss, Kid Dracula learns a new technique; you can learn the Homing Shot (which fires a spread of projectiles that home in on enemies, but isn’t particularly strong), a Bomb Shot (which deals explosive damage and one-shots every regular enemy), and an Ice Shot (which, apparently, freezes enemies in place but I only ever used it against the aforementioned dragon boss).
Kid Dracula also learns two useful techniques to help him progress further through levels and past hazardous obstacles; the first is the Bat transformation, which turns you into a bat, and the second is the “Up Up Down Down” technique that allows you to walk on ceilings. Both of these only last for five seconds so you have to be quick when using them and, while you can fire a standard projectile when on ceilings, pressing the attack button when you’re a bat instantly turns you back into Kid Dracula (and, generally, sends you falling to your death). It’s also worth noting that you’ll lose the bat transformation if you hit a wall and won’t be able to perform it at all if you’re standing too close to a wall, and it’s pretty difficult to control Kid Dracula when he’s in this form, so it’s best to have a route figured out before attempting this transformation.
At the end of each level, you are asked to pick a route and, depending on how Kid Dracula makes his way downwards, will play one of four mini games: Roulette, Cancan, Garapon, and Jab ‘N Pop. In each, you must pay to play with your Medals, so it’s advisable to hit as many enemies as you can with your charge shot so you can collect a lot of Medals, and can win extra lives if your luck is in. These mini games aren’t especially difficult, just based more on chance than skill, and the instructions for their play can be a bit vague; I still don’t really get how Roulette works and I just tended to randomly select stuff and hope for the best and still walked away with at least one extra life each time.
Additional Features: Like other Castlevania games, Kid Dracula features a password system that allows you to return to (or jump to) any of the game’s nine levels whenever you want. The Castlevania Anniversary Collection also awards you an Achievement after you clear the game, allows you to make liberal use of the save state feature, and apply different frames and display options to customise the game’s appearance to your liking as standard.
The Summary: Kid Dracula is a quirky, amusing little title; the way the characters talk in cutscenes is charming and the game is clearly meant to be a fun little spin-off of the traditionally dark, broody, and gothic Castlevania series and I can appreciate its humour and artistic direction. Indeed, it’s hard to deny that the sprites look great; everything has this hyper deformed, chibi-aesthetic to it and it’s like playing a peculiar Japanese anime rather than a horrific battle against bloodstained monstrosities. Yet all the humour and artistic charm in the world can’t change the fact that Kid Dracula is a laborious experience; the controls are slippery, the level layouts frustrating, and the slow down and sprite flickering absolutely maddening. Maybe I’m just burned out on the series by this point, especially the issues that dogged the 8-bit Castlevania’s (and many other titles, to be fair), but I feel like Kid Dracula really doesn’t have any excuse to struggle as hard as it does to run at an appropriate speed and level of quality due to its more simplistic nature.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Could Be Better
What are your feelings about Kid Dracula? Do you feel it was a worthy attempt at expanding the franchise or do you think it was maybe a bit too “out there” as a concept? What other Castlevania characters would you like to see get their own spin-off? Are there any other genres you think Castlevania could try to fit in to, like racing or a first-person shooter? Whatever your thoughts on Kid Dracula, or Castlevania in general, feel free to leave a comment below and, if you have followed along with my marathon of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, then thanks for showing up and be sure to come back for more reviews and articles and rantings in the near future.
Released: May 2019 Originally Released: December 1993 Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Mega Drive, Nintendo Switch, PC, and PlayStation 4
The Background: For the longest time, Castlevania was a series synonymous with Nintendo’s home consoles; handheld or otherwise, Castlevania was generally played on a Nintendo-branded product, meaning those of us (like me) who were playing SEGA consoles missed out on the chance to slay Dracula like those Nintendorks. Castlevania: Bloodlines (also titled Castlevania: The New Generation) changed that…or, at least, it would have except for the fact that Castlevania: Bloodlines is still one of the rarest and most expensive videogames these days. Luckily, the title was not only included as part of the Mega Drive Mini but is also available on the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, being only one of two 16-bit titles available in that collection following Super Castlevania IV(ibid, 1991).
The Plot: It’s 1917 and the dark countess Elizabeth Bartley seeks to resurrect her uncle, none other than the evil Count Dracula. To facilitate his resurrection, she sends her minions across Europe to cause chaos and bloodshed, only to be opposed by two young vampire hunters: John Morris and Eric Lecarde.
Gameplay: Castlevania: Bloodlines is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer and the first game in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection to not include one of the legendary Belmont family. Instead, players can choose to control either John Morris or Eric Lecarde right off the bat, making it only the second game in the collection to include another playable character and the only one where this character can be selected from the main menu rather than switched to mid-game as in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (ibid, 1989).
Choose John Morris and you’ll be in for a traditional Castlevania experience; like his forefathers, Morris wields the Vampire Killer to fend off the forces of evil. Morris isn’t quite as adept with the whip as Simon in Super Castlevania IV, though; he can only attack diagonally and upwards when jumping and can’t let the whip hang loose to freely aim it or block incoming projectiles. Similar to Simon, Morris can use his whip to swing across gaps but the mechanic is noticeably more clumsy and tricky to pull off here as, rather than swinging from hooks or metal rings, Morris dangles from ceilings and, while you can alter the length and speed of his swing, it’s far easier to just drop to your death than clear the gap.
Pick Eric Lecarde, though, and you’ll get a fresh, new Castlevania experience; Lecarde wields the Alucard Spear, giving him a greater attack range (if slightly reduced attack power). Lecarde can also attack in all eight directions, swinging his spear in a flourish to quickly attack enemies both in front and behind. Lecarde is also slightly faster and can leap higher thanks to his super jump, allowing him to reach platforms and levels Morris can’t, though I actually found him a bit clunkier and his attacks to be slower than Morris’s.
Both characters have access to all the classic Castlevania sub-weapons (and even a few new ones), which are now used thanks to the acquisition of jewels rather than hearts. You have no idea how happy this makes me; like the hearts replenishing health in Castlevania: The Adventure (ibid, 1989), having jewels rather than hearts just makes so much more sense. Unlike Super Castlevania IV, there’s only one piece of meat available to replenish your health, but you can still upgrade each characters’ weapon by collecting orbs and even perform an “Item Crash” manoeuvre; this unleashes a more powerful super attack for each sub-weapon at the cost of a substantial number of jewels.
Both characters are noticeably faster and more manoeuvrable than their predecessors but still fly backwards upon receiving damage, often to their doom. Thankfully, Castlevania: Bloodlines finally ditches the limit limit of the previous games and is light on the instant-death traps and spikes; often, when you jump or fall into water, your health will be slowly drained as you take damage (presumably to represent the character drowning) rather than immediately dying. That’s not to say that bottomless pits and instant-death spots aren’t present, or that you won’t find yourself just slipping or walking off a ledge when you meant to jump thanks to a slight (but glaring) delay in the game registering your button presses, or that you won’t be tasked with making some difficult jumps or awkwardly swinging across gaps while fending off projectiles or enemies.
After two games focused more on rope climbing, the staircases are back! And, what’s more, it’s super easy to climb up and down them, and to stop and attack enemies while on them; there’s no sudden dropping to your doom here…unless you’re stupid enough to jump through the staircases. Like Super Castlevania IV, Castlevania: Bloodlines also uses the power of its 16-bit hardware to render some impressive graphical mechanics; you’ll jump up rotating platforms, traverse the Leaning Tower of Pisa as it sways alarmingly, and hop across floating platforms as the screen auto-rises and auto-scrolls. Yes, auto-scrolling is a thing in Castlevania: Bloodlines but, for the most part, its far less stressful or annoying than in previous Castlevania titles; not only are there are more opportunities to save yourself from death and far less enemies to contend with, you also don’t die from touching the top of the screen, which is always useful.
Castlevania: Bloodlines operates using a simple six-stage formula; you progress across Europe via an automated map screen and, in each unique area, you’ll face different platforming requirements, obstacles, enemies, and, of course, a boss. Of all the Castlevania games I’ve played for this marathon, Bloodlines has the most variety in terms of its graphics, stages, and enemies; rather than simply ploughing your way towards, or through, a gothic castle, you’re exploring a munitions factory or exploring the ruins of Atlantis. Some of these locations have been hinted at before, or served as inspiration for the aesthetic and atmosphere of the Collection’s other games, but nowhere have they been more fully-realised than in Castlevania: Bloodlines.
That’s not to say that the game is flawless though (but then again, few games are). Sometimes, the game takes its new mechanics and features a bit too far, asking you to jump across platforms while upside down or your vision is distorted by mirrors. While this wouldn’t be too bad, the developers also threw in erratic Medusa Heads and constantly-respawning skeletal demons to make these sections more frustrating. It doesn’t help that I found myself just as likely to simply walk off a platform to my death or pointlessly hop in place rather than make a successful jump, or that you’re seemingly destined to jump right into the path of an enemy or projectile if they’re onscreen but, thankfully, these sections are few and far between and, for the most part, Castlevania: Bloodlines is a crisp and visually impressive experience.
Graphics and Sound: Super Castlevania IV set a high standard for the series, dragging it out of the 8-bit era and into the glory of full-colour, arcade-style 16-bit graphics and Castlevania: Bloodlines only builds upon that foundation. Sprites aren’t as big as in Super Castlevania IV but they’re no less detailed for it; both Morris and Lecarde stand out from the game’s many and varied detailed backgrounds, popping out at you thanks to their unique colour palette and sprite art, and enemies are easily spotted and fantastically animated thanks to the game’s 16-bit engine.
Simply put: there is a lot going on in this game’s stages. Not only do they slant or flip upside down, they’re also filled with some fantastic blood and gore as corpses and hanged victims litter the background of a lot of the stages. You’re also required to pull off some tricky jumps from rotating platforms, gears, and moving platforms and stages are filled with variety and teeming with life and danger alike. Konami borrowed a trick from another of their fantastic titles, the criminally under-rated Rocket Knight Adventures (ibid, 1993), for the water reflection effects seen in stage two, where (as in Rocket Knight Adventures) you’ll use the reflections in the rising and falling water to jump safely across the ruins of Atlantis.
You’re also tasked with attacking the crumbling, ancient pillars to create new platforms and jump from others as they collapse beneath your feet and jumping from platform to platform up the swaying Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is a cakewalk compared to having to negotiate the small, annoying, rotating platforms in stage five. Given its more modern setting, you’ll also have to content with conveyor belts, pistons, massive gears, and razor-sharp circular saws in stage four, all of which only add to the game’s more steampunk-inspired aesthetic.
The danger in the stages is compounded further by the way Bloodlines incorporates enemies into each stage; Minotaurs break parts of the marble pillars off and attack you with them in stage three, Fish Men leap from the depths below, Medusa Heads swarm around you as you hop from wooden platforms while the water level lowers, skeletons throw bones at you from behind a chain-link fence in stage four (they also jump over the fence and pop out of barrels without warning) and form (and re-form) from a bloodied water fountain in stage five, where skeletal monkeys wing at you from vines, tossing explosives at you and trying to cut you in half.
The game returns to its gothic roots by the time you storm Castle Proserpina, the game’s final stage, which sheds the more steampunk-driven aesthetic for a traditional, stone castle familiar with anyone who has ever played a Castlevania before. All of these graphical and gameplay elements, while impressive, do lead to some noticeable slow-down in many areas of the game, however, which can (literally) drag down the otherwise thrilling experience Castlevania: Bloodlines has to offer. This is accentuated further by the game’s impressive and atmospheric soundtrack; the 16-bit games really did put all their power and benefits to the best use possible, allow this game to not only look fantastic but, thanks to Michiru Yamane’s fittingly gloomy soundtrack, sound amazing as well.
Enemies and Bosses: Castlevania: Bloodlines offers one of the more diverse and varied bestiaries in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection; unlike many of the other titles, which simply recycled the same enemies with some minor tweaks or alterations, I felt like Bloodlines actually put some effort into really giving even the most basic enemies some life and vigour. Sure, all the usual suspects are here (skeletons, bats, ravens, the Pillar of Bones, etc) but even some of these have been spruced up to offer more of a threat. Skeletons wield swords, shields, and whips and there’s a variant that swings a massive axe and another massively annoying one that swings at you from vines.
You’ll also encounter Harpies (who attack unevenly from the sky with spears), Mummies (who both float their bandages at you and try to whip you with them), man-eating plants, plants that screw up your controls (which is always annoying), mace-wielding barbarians who leap right in your face, and charging Minotaurs. In keeping with the game’s more steampunk-inspired aesthetic, you’ll also face a wide variety of knights; there’s knights that sprint at you, ones that brandish swords (as well as that old favourite, the Axe Knight), ones that fire arrows at you in an arc, and even ones with giant mallets, gatling guns(!), and on wheels! The level of detail in each enemy is impressive and even the most small and seemingly-insignificant enemy can be a threat thanks to their placement, attack patterns, and the limitations of Morris’s whip.
Castlevania: Bloodlines also stands out by its use of sub-bosses; you’ll face the likes of Hellbound (a bloodied, half-skeletal beast that haunts the ruins of Dracula’s Castle), two large, armour-plated heavies (one with an axe, one with a mace), sentient faces brought to life by some kind of poltergeist and even a Castlevania custom, Frankenstein’s Monster. Some of these are, honestly, a bit more creative and visually interesting than the stage’s actual bosses, such as the giant suit of armour that barely poses much of a threat at the end of the first stage.
Things pick up considerably once you reach stage two’s Golem, however; in this fight, you have to first whittle away chunks of the creature’s mid-section before you can attack its vulnerable head and actually do some real damage, all while dodging falling rocks from the ceiling. Stage three’s Gargoyle can also be a bit of a pain without the right sub-weapon (…unless you use Lecarde) as it buzzes around your head, trying to whip at you with its rock-like tail, all while the top of the tower you’re on (and the background) excitingly rotates. The mess of gears and cogs that acts as stage four’s boss is probably the wildest and most ill-fitting of all the Castlevania bosses I’ve fought so far; don’t get me wrong, I love a good bit of steampunk but this…thing…was not only kind of boring to fight (despite its multiple forms and attacks) but also needlessly frustrating. The Princess of Moss from stage five is marginally better but ridiculously easy even after she transforms into a giant…moth…?
Once you get to Castle Proserpina, the shit really hits the fan as you have to face a gauntlet of sub-bosses and bosses, each with different forms and attacks at their disposal. First, you’ll battle the Grim Reaper once again; this time, Death surrounds himself with tarot cards and, as you attack, you’ll either spawn a whole mess of health-restoring food, get attacked by a fireball, or be warped to one of the game’s previous bosses. Luckily, these guys are much weaker the second time around but, once you’ve defeated them again, you’ll have to face Death himself once again. Fortunately, Death isn’t anywhere near as formidable or daunting as in previous titles; he glides around above you throwing sickles at you, tries to rush you with his scythe, and sits in the corner throwing his scythe like a razor-sharp frisbee but all of these attacks are easily dodged or avoided and he’ll go down pretty easily (especially if you have the axe).
After that, you’ll battle Medusa; this isn’t like the floating, snake-haired head from previous titles, though. This Medusa is a horrific, snake-like creature that blasts at you with two different types of fireball, tries to whack you with its tail, and then awkwardly crawls towards you to try and throttle you. Each attack is predictable and relatively slow, meaning you can deal massive damage even while the Medusa is attacking, to say nothing of when she shuffles towards you like a slug. Once she’s dealt with, you’ll have to fight Elizabeth Bartley herself; ol’ Liz likes to teleport from one side of the screen to the other and throw a fireball at your head and, if you don’t damage her enough times (the number of hits is determined by the different elemental orbs she summons, though these can’t hurt you), she’ll unleash a powerful attack upon you. This shouldn’t happen, though, as it’s ridiculously easy to duck under her one projectile and hit her no matter which side she choose to spawn on, meaning she will fall without much bother at all.
Finally, you’ll face Dracula himself who, despite your efforts, once again awakens from his coffin. Initially, Dracula attacks very similar to Super Castlevania IV, teleporting in through a column of light and tossing fireballs at you with a sweep of his cape. However, his teleport cannot damage you and, while you only have a small window to hit his head, it’s pretty easy to land a hit and still dispose of his projectiles without taking a hit.
After you’ve drained his health, Dracula transforms into a floating, cloaked sorcerer form and darts around the screen above your head in an inconsistent pattern. Being as he’s often just out of reach, this can be tricky with Morris as jumping to hit Dracula may cause you to make contact with him and take damage, so it’s best to keep a safe distance and use the axe. Dracula blasts two fireballs at both sides of the screen in this form (these travel down the screen and across the floor and can be tricky to avoid thanks to the game’s janky jumping physics) and drops columns of energy into the arena that can deal massive damage if you’re not standing in a safe area. Still, this form isn’t especially difficult and I found it more than doable to destroy him before he could unleash this more devastating attack.
Once bested, Dracula transforms into his largest and more horrific form yet: a massive, Devil-like creature with a fanged stomach, huge devil horns, wings, and claws. As intimidating as it looks, though, this final form isn’t much of a threat; it lumbers around in a clear and identifiable pattern, first throwing sickles at you in a spray, then trying to roast you with fireballs that are easily ducked (in the far corner) or jumped over, and, finally, spewing bones at you. These can be tricky to avoid if you’re caught on the wrong side but there’s a clear gap between them you can dart into and, even with Morris’s difficulty in attacking upwards and diagonally, it isn’t long before Dracula is done in once more. What makes Dracula so difficult this time around is the fact that you have to face all three forms in a gauntlet, with no healing in between and only the health, ammo, and weapons you have on you.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: All is standard in Castlevania titles, you can upgrade the Vampire Killer and the Alucard Spear to increase their reach and damage output. When you fully upgrade the Vampire Killer, it takes on a glowing, plasma-like appearance that looks more like energy or lightning than the usual fire, while the Alucard Spear glows with an ethereal magical power. Sadly, though, you’ll lose an upgrade when you take damage, meaning that you may be left with you bog-standard weapon by the time you reach the stage boss.
As always, this means relying on the game’s items to help turn the tide when things get rough; you can grab 1-Ups on the rare occasions that they appear, briefly become invincible, and wipe out all onscreen enemies and grab one of the three sub-weapons: the axe (which travels in a high arc and is perfect for aerial enemies and bosses whose weak points are out of reach), the Holy Water (which travels along the ground in a fiery path), and the boomerang (here an actual boomerang rather than clearly being a cross, this time being razor sharp and travelling high and low to return to you, which is perfect for dealing additional damage). Additionally, as noted, you can perform an “Item Crash” with each of these weapons and each character has a specific “Ultimate Item” they can pick up: Morris has the Water Dragon (which fills the screen with a powerful, homing orb) and Lecarde has the Thunderbolt Spear, which unleashes a torrent of thunderbolts and lightning.
Additional Features: Castlevania: Bloodlines features thee difficulty levels (Easy, Normal, and Expert) and the ending you get depends on which character you use and which difficulty setting you pick. Finishing the game on Easy takes you straight to the credits, while Normal only gives you a brief glimpse of your character’s ending and challenges you to try the game on Expert in order to earn a more complete ending. The game also employs a password system to allow you to return to the stage where you left of, jump to different stages with different characters, or start the game with extra lives.
Castlevania: Bloodlines has two Achievements tied to it; you get one for beating the game as Morris and another for beating it as Lecarde. With the features available in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection you can also save your progress at any time, apply different display filters and effects, and play with one of three different frames around the game screen as with the other titles available in the collection.
The Summary: Castlevania: Bloodlines is easily one of the top three titles available in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection; you should purchase this collection for this game alone and see the others as a bonus as it really is a tight and well-crafted videogame. Despite some issues with slipping off platforms and mastering Morris’s awkward whip-swing mechanic, the controls are smooth and generally responsive; Morris and Lecarde both move at a far faster pace than their predecessors and, between the two of them, offer as much versatility as seen in Super Castlevania IV. Bolstered by its incredibly detailed graphics and atmospheric soundtrack, Castlevania: Bloodlines is probably the darkest and most foreboding title collection thanks to the inclusion of blood and gore. This really lends to the game’s atmosphere and the franchise’s tendency towards macabre horror that it is so often stunted by the localisation and restriction these early Castlevania titles had to endure. The steampunk aesthetic is married with the series’ trademark gothic styling which, while it does include in some weird and ill-fitting enemy designs, results in some amazingly detailed sprites and environments and makes Castlevania: Bloodlines a solid successor to Super Castlevania IV.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
What did you think of Castlevania: Bloodlines? How do you think it compares to Super Castlevania IV? Were you lucky enough to own an original copy of this game back in the day or did you pay out through the nose to get a copy of it only to find it much more affordable in this collection? Whatever your thoughts on this title, and other Castlevania videogames, leave a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
Released: May 2019 Originally Released: July 1991 Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, and PlayStation 4
The Background: So far, since I started working my way through the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, I’ve realised two things: first, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (ibid, 1987) was easily the worst of the Castlevania titles released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and, second, Castlevania: The Adventure(ibid, 1989) was a disappointingly frustrating debut for the series on the Game Boy. Yet, despite this, Konami returned to everyone’s favourite monochrome handheld in 1991, just a few months before the release of the fantastic Super Castlevania IV (ibid, 1991). By this time, the Game Boy had finally made the jump to colour and developers were actually able to put its limited capabilities to good use, even as its lifecycle began to wind down, but does Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge manage to outperform it’s handheld predecessor or is it more of the same, exasperating gameplay?
The Plot: Fifteen years after defeating Count Dracula in Castlevania: The Adventure, Christopher Belmont, of the renowned Belmont family of vampire hunters, is forced to take up his legendary whip, the Vampire Killer, and confront Dracula once again after the Count’s evil spirit corrupts both Christopher’s son, Soleil, and erects four castles to consolidate his power once more.
Gameplay: Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer in which players once again take control of Trevor and Simon’s ancestor, Christopher Belmont. Luckily, age has actually improved Christopher’s performance rather than slowing him down as, while he still limps along in the trademark Belmont shuffle, his jumping mechanics are vastly improved over those seen in Castlevania: The Adventure. Now, when you jump, you no longer plummet like a stone or feel as though you’re constantly fighting against gravity in a losing battle; he still jumps backwards (often to his death) when hit and platforming can still be a tricky business, but it’s far better than in the last game, finally bringing the controls back on par with…the first Castlevania (ibid, 1986).
Christopher once again battles with his whip, the Vampire Killer, which can again be upgraded to be both longer and to shoot fireballs as in the last game. Unfortunately, he can still only attack in the direction he is facing, meaning you’ll have to jump or use ledges to dispose of airborne enemies…or make use of the game’s sub-weapons. Yep, conspicuous by their absence in their last game, sub-weapons return here and, while we only get two of them, they’re the two I’ve used the most in the series thus far (the Holy Water and the axe).
As always, you can whip candles to collect hearts, which once again act as the ammo for your sub-weapon due to the debut of meat into the Game Boy series; however, in my playthrough, I never actually found a single piece of health-restoring meat and had to settle for cheesing save states and having my health bar refilled after besting each of the game’s bosses. Like in the last game, you can also grab coins to increase your score and 1Ups to earn extra lives, and this game also features the debut of the traditional door transitions from one area to another, again bringing it more in-line with its NES counterparts.
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is a notable return to form for the Castlevania series in that, of the two Game Boy titles, it is the one that most closely replicates its NES counterparts. Yet, like its predecessor, the game is still short on stages; you’ll visit four castles (Cloud, Rock, Crystal, and Plant), each of which can be selected in any order from the main menu. While it doesn’t really matter which order you take on the castles, each has different enemies and gameplay mechanics to overcome.
Take on the Plant and Crystal castles, for example, and you’ll be tasked with travelled from the right-side of the screen to the left, which goes against almost every instinct in my body. I found Rock Castle to be the best one to start with as it has the easiest boss, enemies, and level layout, while Cloud Castle was one of the hardest takes to the inclusion of the Night Stalker enemy. Regardless, once you’ve cleared the four castles, a fifth, Dracula’s Castle, rises up and presents the game’s toughest challenge.
Like its predecessor, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is an extremely vertically-orientated videogame; Christopher clambers up and down ropes, rather than taking staircases, to reach higher and lower areas of each castle. Luckily, as he’s often once again faced with walls of spikes looking to impale him, he can now quickly slip down a rope to quickly clear these obstacles, but he’ll also be tasked with jumping from one rope to another, which can be a tricky task. The biggest hindrance to this is that Christopher won’t jump from his rope if he doesn’t have a clear path so you’ll have to make sure to manoeuvre Christopher beyond the edge of the stage or risk taking damage.
As part of this, Christopher can now use spider webs to clear gaps; spiders will descend and ascend down a web line and you’ll have to use your weapons to kill them, leaving yourself a series of lines to jump to. As with all Castlevania games, the enemies respawn, so, if you mess up, you can just respawn the spiders by walking a little off-screen so you can try again. The breaking and collapsing platforms of Castlevania: The Adventure also make a return; you’ll again have to contend with Big Eye’s exploding and destroying bridges though, for the most part, you’ll simply drop to a marshy layer below. While this does slow your forward momentum, it’s still preferable to dropping to your immediate death. Rather than hopping from one collapsing platform to another, as in the last game, Christopher is now faced with blocks of crystal; when he lands on them, the block starts to crack; wait too long to make your move and the block will shatter, dropping Christopher to his death, meaning it’s best to plan ahead a bit and hop to safety as soon as possible.
Thankfully, the auto-scrolling sections and abundance of instant-death spikes of Castlevania: The Adventure have been ditched; you’re still asked to make some difficult jumps, will have to contend with spiked platforms, and you’ll have to frantically slide away from some spiked walls but it’s nothing like in the last game. Instead, you’ll now be faced with massive weighted spikes that must have their central column destroyed in order for you to pass by safely; a similar mechanic was present in Castlevania: The Adventure but its far more prevalent here and you’ll have to risk taking some damage to use the weight’s height to reach a rope before the weight drops too low.
Plant Castle also uses a blackout feature at one point; whenever you destroy a candlestick in this section, the entire background and foreground will go pitch-black, meaning it’s usually best to avoid destroying the candlesticks unless you’re confident of where you’re walking and/or jumping. Cloud Castle tweaks the rope-based mechanics of the title by having gears turn the ropes up and down in intervals; since touching the gears is liable to drain your health quite quickly, it’s best to jump from rope to rope as quickly as possible. You’ll also jump to ropes weighed down by spiked balls; as you jump to these, the weights will shift and you’ll also be at risk of taking damage from spikes or the gears unless you jump to safety.
All of these gameplay mechanics and obstacles are ramped up to eleven by the time you reach Dracula’s Castle, fitting as this is the game’s most difficult level by far. However, despite some tricky platforming and the presence of some truly annoying enemies, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is far less merciless than its predecessor. Since Christopher no longer drops like a stone every single time he tries to clear even the smallest gap, it’s far easier to navigate through the game’s handful of castles which, while still limited compared to other Castlevania titles, are also much bigger than in the last game.
Graphics and Sound: Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is still a Game Boy title so you can’t expect too much here but, unlike the last game, this title actually features a decent level of detail in each of its environments. Crystal Castle features a Greco-Roman aesthetic in the background and an abundance of semi-transparent crystal platforms and blocks, Rock Castle is dotted with cracks and holes for rats to leap out at you and resembles a cave-like dungeon, Plant Castle seems coated in moss and/or slime and features a quagmire-like swamp beneath its destructible bridges, and Cloud Castle (fittingly) has mountains in the background and is full of gears and pulleys.
Dracula’s Castle begins with a fairly elaborate gated courtyard filled with statues, progresses to a rock-like dungeon, and culminates with a stained-glass throne room lined with chandeliers, portraits, and large paned windows. It’s all very elaborate and nicely detailed, giving each area is own unique look and feel, yet not being so detailed that you can’t see the sprites. Speaking of which, both Christopher and his enemies look pretty much the same as in the last game; classic, blocky little 8-bit sprites are the order of the day but, thanks to the game better balancing its limited colour palette and backgrounds, it’s much easier to see where Christopher is at any time…except when you’re forced to travel right to left, which always confuses my line of sight. Similar to Castlevania: The Adventure, the Castlevania Anniversary Collection only offers a black-and-white, monochrome, or colour filter rather than the more detailed gradients offered by the original Game Boy Color version but, despite this, the game is noticeably faster and suffers from less (if any) sprite flickering.
Unlike its predecessor, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge also features a few limited cutscenes; after clearing the four castles, Dracula’s abode dramatically rises on the map screen and, each time you visit a castle or an area of Dracula’s Castle, you’ll be treated to an animation of Christopher heading there. Additionally, after defeating later bosses, you’ll actually get some dialogue boxes pop up that give some context to the game’s events, which was a nice (and surprising) touch. Similarly, the game features a fairly decent and catchy soundtrack; not only does each castle have its own theme, when you progress far enough into the castle the music will switch to a more ominous tune to help keep things interesting as you play.
Enemies and Bosses: Every enemy from Castlevania: The Adventure makes a return in this sequel, meaning you’ll still be going up against giant eyeballs, sloppy Mud Men, annoying crows, and pizza-spitting globby monsters. The Under Mole boss from the last game is recycled as the regular rat enemies, which leap out at you from holes just like that boss did, and the last game’s worst enemy, the Night Stalker, returns more frustrating than ever as it is nigh-impossible to dodge his flying sickles without taking damage.
There are some new enemies on offer here as well, though; there’s a giant bat that, when destroyed, results in two smaller, regular bats buzzing around you until you take them out as well; skeletons make their Game Boy debut, here clambering up and down and jumping to and from ropes erratically whilst throwing bones at you, and you’ll also have to contend with jellyfish-like enemies who soak up damage like a sponge and drain your hearts when touched. Perhaps the most interesting new enemy is the Cave Snail; these are dormant until you make the lights go out in Planet Castle, when they’ll unfurl and plod towards you. They’re not the most difficult, exciting, or sexy enemy but it’s an interesting gameplay mechanic, if nothing else. Aside from the Night Stalker, you may also have difficulty whenever you face off with the dagger-throwing Lizard Men but, once you learn their pattern, it’s pretty easy to safely avoid them as they hop around chucking daggers at you.
Bosses in Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge are a step up from the last game in terms of their size, variety, and threat; while the armoured Iron Doll, statue-like Twin Trident, and teleporting wizard Dark Side aren’t too much of a challenge, you’ll also face the two-headed Angel Mummy, which is a skeletal creature that has fused to a wall, takes up the entire right-side of the screen, and launches both boomerang-like energy waves and fireballs at you, making it perhaps the most difficult of the regular bosses. The Bone Dragon can be a bit of a bastard as well; this is where the auto-scrolling comes back with a vengeance and you’ll be forced to lumber ahead so that you can avoid the dragon’s bony body, spiked tail, and land a few hits to its big ugly head.
Once you reach Dracula’s Castle, you’ll have to battle Christopher’s son, Soleil, who has been possessed by Dracula’s corrupting influence. The toughest boss of the game so far, Soleil not only throws daggers across the screen that can rain down on you, he attacks with his own whip and can absorb a great deal of punishment. Luckily, his pattern is quite easy to predict so you can pre-emptively toss Holy Water at him to damage him when he’s standing still and get a few hits in with your whip at the same time.
After freeing Soleil, Christopher goes on to battle Count Dracula once more in an area strikingly similar to the one they fought in in Castlevania: The Adventure (another nice call-back). While Dracula only has the one form this time around, he’s far tougher than before as, this time, he surrounds and protects himself with a series of spheres, blasting them out in a spiral pattern as he teleports around the spiked-lined arena. As always, you can only damage his head and, due to the nature of his teleportation animation and the aforementioned spheres, you have a very limited window to land a hit and get to safety. As a result, the axe is a must-have item for this boss as it allows you to get into a safe position and still hit Dracula without risking the jump to a higher platform but, even then, this was one of the hardest of the 8-bit Dracula boss battles for me.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: Everything for the last game makes a return here, meaning the Christopher can still throw fireballs out of his whip once it’s fully powered up. These do feel slightly nerfed than in Castlevania: The Adventure, though, as they’re slower and can’t be thrown successively (this, however, does seem to have improved the game’s sprite flickering and performance). You also get the axe and the Holy Water as sub-weapons, which is a welcome return, and, while you could complain about the lack of other Castlevania sub-weapons, they’re not needed thanks to the versatility of Christopher’s whip.
Additional Features: Like pretty much every Castlevania videogame, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge features a “Hard Mode” that, as the name suggests, offers a greater challenge. Unlike its predecessors, though, the only way to play the game’s Hard Mode is by inputting a password as beating the game simply leaves you in the “The End” graphic. Passwords can also be used to jump to the game’s various stages and bosses and grant extra lives, but don’t offer any other benefits; there’s no way to play as Soleil, for example, which is a bit of a shame.
Furthermore, the Castlevania Anniversary Collection bestows upon you an Achievement after you clear the game, allows you to make liberal use of the save state feature, and apply different frames and display options to customise the game’s appearance to your liking.
The Summary: Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is a dramatic step up from its predecessor; featuring far more detailed and varied environments, the return of classic Castlevania tropes like the doors to new areas and sub-weapons, and proving that the Game Boy is more than capable of producing a worthy counterpart to its NES cousins. Honestly, this is the Castlevania Game Boy title we should have gotten in the first place as, rather than being a frustrating, subpar experience, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is actually relatively decent to play simply due to the fact that you don’t plummet to your death every time you jump. With far larger and layered stages, more visually striking and challenging boss battles, and a difficulty curve that is based on your level of skill and ability rather than simply (literally) weighing you down with slowdown, sprite flickering, and sloppy physics, it’s still far from surpassing its NES equivalents but Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is a decent enough Castlevania title, especially for a Game Boy game.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Could Be Better
What did you think about Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge? Do you agree that it showed that Castlevania: The Adventure was capable of so much more or do you still rank it low on the totem pole of Castlevania titles? What was your favourite Game Boy title? Whatever your thoughts about Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, or Castlevania, in general, drop a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
Released: May 2019 Originally Released: October 1989 Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, and PlayStation 4
The Background: Understandably, it seemed like Nintendo had a rule of sorts back in the day: If a title was successful on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) then it was getting a port, or some kind of sister release, on the Game Boy…and Castlevania (Konami, 1986) was no different. Back then, of course, Nintendo’s Game Boy was quite the popular bit of kit; even after SEGA released their technically superior Game Gear in 1990, the Game Boy was still the go-to handheld gaming device. However, Castlevania: The Adventure (not The Castlevania Adventure, as the title seems to suggest) was an early Game Boy title and, as such, is largely subpar even compared to the NES Castlevania but is it still capable of telling a halfway decent Castlevania story or does it crash and burn in all its monochrome glory?
The Plot: A century before Simon Belmont’s adventures in Castlevania, his ancestor, Christopher Belmont, took up the legendary whip, the Vampire Killer, and went on his own journey to confront the dreaded Count Dracula.
Gameplay: Castlevania: The Adventure, despite its title, is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer in which players take control of Christopher Belmont. However, just like Trevor and Simon in the series’ NES titles, Christopher is a clunky, heavy lump of meat; he trudges forwards as if walking through soggy mud, has very slow reaction times, jumps backwards upon taking damage, and has some of the most awkward jumping mechanics I’ve ever seen, to say nothing of in the Castlevania series.
When you press the jump button, Christopher does a pitiful little hop; holding it allows him to jump higher and, when combined with a direction, theoretically allows him to clear gaps…but he has a hell of a hard time doing this. Generally, when you try and clear a gap, Christopher prefers to drop like a stone to his death, meaning you can burn through your limited lives quite easily just trying to jump across a small gap. Like his counterparts, Christopher wields the Vampire Killer, a whip that you can upgrade to first make it longer and then, revolutionarily, spit out a fireball. Each time Christopher takes damage, he loses a portion of health and his whip downgrades one level, meaning you may struggle with later enemies and bosses if you take too much damage.
Due to the limited power of the Game Boy, Christopher cannot pick up sub-weapons in this game, meaning that you’re heavily reliant upon the whip’s fireball mechanic. This also means that, for the first time in the series, picking up a heart actually replenishes your health! Whipping candles also allows you to pick up coins for extra points (being granted an extra life upon every 10,000 points) and, on the rare occasion, a 1Up that gives you an extra life. And you’ll definitely need to grab these when you see them as Castlevania: The Adventure is one tough cookie, probably the most difficult of the 8-bit Castlevania’s so far. This is primarily due to three prominent gameplay mechanics: the first is the game’s use of breakable and falling platforms. In one particular area, you can destroy Big Eye’s, which explode upon being attacked and take out a section of a bridge. In many other areas, Christopher must jump from one platform to another but, upon landing, the platforms will almost immediately drop, meaning you have to have pitch-perfect timing to even attempt a clumsy jump to the next platform.
The second is the game’s use of looping sections; at times, you’ll be faced with the choice of taking a higher or lower path, usually using a rope. Castlevania: The Adventure loves to have you climbing up and down ropes, for some reason, rather than climbing stairs, making for the most vertically-orientated Castlevania title thus far. Sometimes, though, you’ll simply loop around again and again because you’re supposed to take the other route; this isn’t so bad but it’s compounded by the game’s timer, which continually counts down at the top of the screen, and, of course, the fact that the game’s enemies respawn when you leave an area.
The third and most annoying element is the game’s use of auto-scrolling sections. The game only has four stages so, to make the third stage more difficult and annoying (and, no doubt, to pad the game out by sapping you of all your lives), the stage sees Christopher being inexorably chased by a wall of spikes. You have to climb up ropes and make tricky jumps across gaps (and on to falling platforms) to escape the rising spikes and then rush to the left past enemies and jumping from rope to rope as the spikes chase you from the right. It’s a tense, frustrating section of the game that pretty much lasts for the entirety of the third stage; the fourth and final stage might be lined with instant death spikes but at least they don’t force you to plod along as fast as Christopher’s heavy ass can take him (which is not very fast at all).
Unlike every other 8-bit Castlevania title, Castlevania: The Adventure is a cruel, mercilessly cheap little platformer; no matter how good your skills are, the game’s plodding pace and insistence on having Christopher drop like a stone every time you press the jump button means that you are, more often than not, going to die at least once per stage when playing this game. Perhaps this is the reason why the game doesn’t have many enemies (well, that and the Game Boy’s lack of processing power…) and is quite generous with its health and 1Ups because the moment you try and hop across a gap, you’re probably going to plummet to your doom regardless of your skill level.
Graphics and Sound: As a Game Boy title (and a very early Game Boy title at that), Castlevania: The Adventure is, understandably, quite bland. Each of the game’s four stages is unique in its presentation, which is honestly surprising as it would have been so much easier for the developers to have the entire game take place inside Dracula’s Castle. Instead, you’ll journey through a gloomy graveyard, a haunted forest, and different areas of the Count’s spike-filled castle, which helps keep the game visually interesting stage by stage.
As for the game’s sprites, Castlevania: The Adventure actually does a pretty decent job of replicating the aesthetics of its 8-bit counterpart; unfortunately, the Castlevania Anniversary Collection only offers the original, black-and-white version of the title, which is a shame as the Game Boy Color version is much easier on the eyes. Even with the Collection’s colour filter, Christopher struggles to stand out from his surroundings and enemies and the game suffers from slowdown and blurriness, which leads to some noticeable sprite flickering, all of which only makes the difficult platforming even more frustrating. Surprisingly, the game has quite a decent little soundtrack; each area has its own catchy themes (with the first stage’s “Battle of the Holy” being a standout track), which, again, is surprising as I would have understood if the developers had just used one or two tracks throughout the game.
Enemies and Bosses: Castlevania: The Adventure manages to separate itself from its 8-bit counterparts by featuring a few different enemies; sure, you’ll still have to contend with bats and variations of the crows and fireball-spitting bone pillars, but, rather than being faced with waves of skeletons, zombies, and axe-throwing knights, you’re faced with some unique foes. Christopher battles giant eyes that explode on contact, the shuffling Creeper, variations of the mud men (who don’t split into pieces and are more like the old zombie enemies), annoying little worms that can curl into balls to attack you, and perhaps the game’s most annoying enemy, the Night Stalker. Like the axe knights, the Night Stalker tosses a projectile at you (in this case a sickle) either up high or down low; what makes this guy so annoying, though, is that the sickle will circle around and you’ll have to either awkwardly try and jump over it or desperately try to duck under it in time, meaning the fireball whip is highly recommended against these guys.
As the game only features four stages, you’ll only have to battle four bosses, none of which are particularly difficult. The game throws a wrench in the works by having Gobanz, the armour-clad boss of the first stage who can repel your fireballs (they won’t hurt you though) and wields a retractable spear, pop up as a regular enemy in the final stage but, as long as you attack his head from a distance, he’s not much of a threat. The game even cheaps out a bit by having the Under Mole simply be a gauntlet against a near-endless wave of the creatures but it’s pretty simple to stay completely safe from danger and destroy them as their pattern is pitifully predictable.
The game’s most difficult bosses are easily the Death Bat and the two-stage finale against Dracula. After you destroy Dracula’s human form, he’ll transform into a giant bat and send three smaller bats out to damage you; this battle also takes place over a pit of spikes but, for the most part, its pretty simple to camp out on a platform for both bosses and deal some decent damage before dodging or switching your position, meaning their actual threat is minimal, at best.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: Whip at candlesticks and you may produce an orb; collect one to make the Vampire Killer longer and another to have it shoot fireballs. You can also grab a Cross to receive a generous invincibility but that’s about it for power-ups. Collect coins for points; you’ll get an extra life for every 10,000 points and, the more enemies you destroy, coins you collect, and faster you beat a stage, the more points you’ll receive as a bonus. Otherwise, that’s pretty much all there is.
Additional Features: As is a tradition in the Castlevania series, once you defeat Dracula and sit through the game’s credits, you’ll be deposited back into the first stage only, this time, you’ll be playing in “Hard Mode”. Every time you beat the game, you replay it again and again, with the enemy’s dishing out greater and greater damage each time for an added challenge.
Unfortunately, there is no password system for this title, though you are given an infinite number of continues if (well, when) you run out of lives. As with all titles in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, you can earn an Achievement for clearing the game, use save states to cheese the game’s difficulty save your progress, and apply different frames and display options (but, sadly, there’s no colour option).
The Summary: Castlevania: The Adventure does a decent enough job of recreating the look and feel of the first Castlevania while doing just enough (literally the bare minimum) to stand out as its own title. However, most of the features that make this game unique are the most frustrating parts of the game; omitting the sub-weapons makes the game so much tougher as you really need the fireball whip but you’ll lose it the moment you take damage and the game’s janky controls and insistence on making jumping as difficult as possible means it’s very difficult to jump and whip and clear a gap while collecting an item that much harder. With only four stages, a handful of bland enemies, and four of the franchise’s easiest boss encounters, Castlevania: The Adventure clearly struggles to get the most out of the Game Boy. As an early release, though, it was clearly hampered by the fact that other developers hadn’t yet found ways to working around the handheld’s limited capabilities and, as we have seen, the Game Boy isperfectlycapable of producing decent 2D sidescrolling titles so it stands to reason that Castlevania: The Adventure could have been so much more than a slow, clunky title with a penchant for having you plummet to your death at every press of the jump button.
Rating: 1 out of 5.
Did you ever play Castlevania: The Adventure on the Game Boy? Do you give the game a pass (or, at least, some slack) because it was a Game Boy title or did you think Nintendo’s handheld was capable of producing a much better Castlevania title? What was your favourite Game Boy game back in the day? Whatever you think about the game, or Castlevania, in general, leave a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
Released: May 2019 Originally Released: October 1991 Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, PlayStation 4, and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
The Background: So, thanks to the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, I recently found out that Super Castlevania IV is actually a remake of Castlevania (Konami, 1986), though the US version of the game positions itself as a sequel to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (ibid, 1987). Either way, though, Super Castlevania IV (a grandiose title I adore as it implies there was a “regular” Castlevania IV), is widelyregarded as one of the best (if not the best) entries in the entire Castlevania series thanks to its tight controls, gameplay mechanics, soundtrack, and, of course, sporting some of the most impressive 16-bit graphics ever seen. Despite the fact that I grew up playing the Mega Drive, I’ve probably played Super Castlevania IV the most out of all the classic Castlevania games thanks to emulators and the SNES Classic Edition. Of all the games available on the SNES Classic, this is one of the only ones I actually took the time to play and beat so I was excited to jump back into it as part of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
The Plot: When the immortal vampire Count Dracula threatens the land, Simon Belmont, of the legendary Belmont family of vampire hunters, takes up the feared whip of his ancestors, the Vampire Killer, and journeys into Dracula’s castle to end this threat.
Gameplay: Super Castlevania IV is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer that once again casts players in the role of Simon Belmont. Unlike every Castlevania I’ve played as part of this marathon, though, Simon actually controls well in this game. And not just “well”; his control is superb and unparalleled to his predecessors thanks to the 16-bit power of the SNES.
For the first time, you can properly control Simon as he jumps and he doesn’t feel like he has weighted lead in his boots. As always, he attacks with the Vampire Killer, a whip that can be upgraded to a chained variant within the first few minutes of play. However, unlike in all previous Castlevania games, players can now attack in eight different directions! This means Simon can attack airborne enemies much easier thanks to his upwards and diagonal attacks and while also making short work of those beneath him. Additionally, by holding down the attack button, the whip goes limp, acting as a shield of sorts and can be manipulated by the player to damage enemies.
Simon can also use the whip to swing across gaps and, of course, to destroy candles to acquire the traditional Castlevania sub-weapons, hearts (the ammo for his sub-weapons), and bags of gold for extra points. In a nice change of pace, he can also acquire a small health boost from chicken drumsticks also found in these same candles (as well as being able to find the odd pot roast by smashing breakable walls). While you can break through some walls to find hidden areas, or will often find power-ups and bonuses hidden away in the game’s stages, the branching path system of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (ibid, 1989) is gone, replaced by a far more linear progression system, but the game’s various stages are so large and varied that I wasn’t even bothered. The game also does away with the frustrating auto-scrolling sections of Castlevania III and replaces them with far simpler (though no less exhilarating) sprints across crumbling platforms and walkways.
The majority of Super Castlevania IV is spent fighting your way towards Dracula’s Castle rather than journeying through it as in the original Castlevania. This takes Simon through some stunning and varied environments, each of which is populated by the usual traps, ghouls, and ghosts of the Castlevania series but also bolstered by some impressive graphical elements. You’ll go through gate doors in chain fences to explore the background of a stage, swing across gaps, leap across swinging chandeliers, and contend with a rotating background thanks to the SNES’s “Mode 7” capabilities. This graphics mode was further employed not only to rotate certain parts of levels in dynamic fashion, but also bolsters some of the boss battles; Simon will encounter the biggest, most complex bosses of the series so far in this game and they’re made all the more impressive by the way they expand or contract thanks to the added power of the SNES.
As always, a lot of Simon’s quest will involve him travelling through gothic environments; luckily, platforming has never been better. Simon still flies backwards upon being attacked, which can still send him careening down bottomless pits or into deadly spikes, but the flexibility of Simon’s attack range makes it far easier to strike enemies while making tricky jumps. Additionally, it’s much easier to ascend and descend staircases in this game than in Castlevania III; there was no accidental plummeting to my death when trying to do something as simple as going down stairs in this game and, even better, Simon can even “moonwalk” and is far less open to attacks when on stairs thanks to the flexibility of his whip.
Graphics and Sound: Unsurprisingly, Super Castlevania IV was the best the series had ever looked at that point. Crisp, highly detailed sprites and environments are the order of the day as the game takes full advantage of the SNES’s vastly improved graphics power and colour palette. Backgrounds are alive with animation and additional elements, enemies pop out from behind background obstacles, and Simon and his gothic surroundings are finally fully realised in fantastic detail.
Thanks to the added power of the SNES and the Mode 7 graphics, the game can handle multiple enemies and projectiles on screen at once; though there is, admittedly, some slow down in some areas with more graphical effects than others (the rotating corridor springs to mind), it’s nowhere near as bad as in the 8-bit titles and there’s never any sprite flickering here. As for music, Super Castlevania IV has some of the most memorable tunes in the series. Even better, by the time you reach Dracula’s Castle, the game will bust out 16-bit renditions of classic 8-bit tracks like “Vampire Killer” and “Bloody Tears”. The added power of the SNES really bolsters the creepy, gothic atmosphere of the game, allowing for weather and sound effects to punctuate the catchy, energetic soundtrack.
Enemies and Bosses: Being as it was intended as a remake of Castlevania, all of the classic and traditional Castlevania enemies make their 16-bit debut in Super Castlevania IV. Simon primarily contends with skeletons; some will just walk back and forth, some pop out from the background, some throw bones at him, some leap at him and attack with whips, the red variants can reform after being destroyed, and the gold variants are tougher to destroy. He’ll also be swarmed by bats, Medusa Heads, knights who attack with lances or throw axes at either Simon’s head or crotch, and mud men who break into progressively smaller variants the more you attack them.
There are some new enemies to content with here, however; the amusingly named “Mr. Hed” (which is a bloodied, disembodied horse’s head that attacks like a Medusa Head), ghosts, floating, severed hands, possessed caskets and dinner tables, and swarms of vipers that spontaneously spawn at Simon’s feet at the most inappropriate times. You’ll also contend with frogs and bothersome little gremlins, who jump around erratically, annoying little hedgehog-like creatures that roll into spiked balls, dogs that rush at you at high speed, and even enemies that emerge from the walls and scenery to grab or injure you.
Super Castlevania IV’s bosses that range from ridiculously easy (like the skeletal horseman from the first stage and the giant bat made entirely of gold coins from the ninth stage), the visually impressive (the massive golem Koranot, which grows so large it fills the entire screen), and the down-right frustrating (I’m looking at you, Slogra!)
You’ll also notice that a lot of the bosses from past Castlevania games return here, rendered in all their 16-bit glory: we’ve got twin-headed, fire-breathing dragons, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa Queen and, of course, the Grim Reaper. Unlike in the 8-bit titles, though, while Death is one of the more troublesome bosses, it is much easier to attack and dodge his scythes and he has a clear attack pattern this time around, making it a challenging encounter but not one I wanted to rage-quit over.
Before you can even face Dracula, you’ll have to endure a gauntlet of three bosses: Solgra (who is a massive pain in the ass until you learn to dodge, duck, and jump out of his wide-reaching attacks and hit box), Gaibon (a gargoyle-like creature who, despite having a second, faster form, is a joke compared to Solgra), and the aforementioned Grim Reaper. While you might think that this will leave you at a disadvantage for the final boss, there is a well-known hidden staircase just before this battle where you can refill your health and hearts to give you a fighting chance. As always, Dracula’s weak spot is his head; this time, however, he initially teleports across this throne room in beams of light and attacks with a spread of fireballs. With the boomerang, you can increase your chances of hitting his weak spot and concentrate on using Simon’s limp whip to block these projectiles; once you’ve done enough damage, Dracula spawns two flaming skulls that follow Simon around. You can destroy them relatively easily but still have to be wary of their splash damage; luckily, though, unlike other Dracula fights, you’ll be able to pick up a little bit of health during this battle, increasing your chances.
You’ll also need to use the limp-whip technique to shield yourself from a smaller fireball that blasts projectiles in a circular motion and, after you’ve damaged Dracula enough, he’ll assume a more demonic visage and try to fry you alive with four columns of lightning. Standing between them, you can attack his head and, when his health is depleted, the morning sun will break through the castle windows and destroy the Count.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: All the standard Castlevania power-ups and pick-ups are available here; you can upgrade Simon’s whip three times, acquire the ability to throw two or three sub-weapons in quick succession, destroy all enemies on screen with the Rosary, and briefly turn invincible.
All the same sub-weapons return in Super Castlevania IV in exactly the same way you’d expect; this time around, I favoured the axe and the boomerang and had little use for anything else. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that Konami didn’t take the opportunity to bring in some new sub-weapons or Simon’s fire whip but I guess they were more concerned with tightening up Simon’s controls and gameplay and taking advantage of the SNES’s increased graphical power than changing their tried-and-true combat mechanics.
Additional Features: As with previous Castlevania titles, Super Castlevania IV employs a password system to allow you to return to a saved game after a game over; additionally, once you finish the game, you’ll automatically return to the first stage with your score, lives, hearts, and last-used sub-weapon intact to take on the game’s “Hard Mode”.
You can also earn an Achievement on the Xbox One Castlevania Anniversary Collection for finishing the game and apply the same frames and display options as the other games in the collection. In a way, it’s disappointing that Super Castlevania IV doesn’t offer more in terms of replayability (there are no additional characters or even helpful codes to input beyond the level passwords), but I would still rather come back to this title again and again than any of the previous 8-bit games (with, perhaps, the exception of Castlevania III).
The Summary: With its tight controls and impressive 16-bit graphics, Super Castlevania IV finally allows the series to live up to the ambition it was striving for in Castlevania III and the game more than earns the its reputation as an absolute classic of the 16-bit era. I enjoy the first and third Castlevania’s but it was obvious that Konami had ambitions for their franchise that Nintendo’s 8-bit consoles just couldn’t realise; thankfully, the SNES changed that and we finally got a Castlevania game that looked, sounded, and (crucially) controlled the way they always intended. Every bit of praise you’ve heard for Super Castlevania IV is deserved; graphically, it’s on another level. It builds atmosphere brilliantly thanks to its gothic, moody environments, music, and aesthetic and the game’s difficulty builds just as naturally. All the familiar tropes and mechanics that made the Castlevania series work prior to this game are present, meaning you still have to watch out for sudden tumbles to your doom and the game requires only your very best platforming skills, making for a rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable romp through the haunted hallways of Dracula’s infamous castle.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
What did you think of Super Castlevania IV? Where do you rate it in the Castlevania series? What were your favourite games on the SNES? Whatever your thoughts on Castlevania, drop a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
Released: May 2019 Originally Released: December 1989 Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Family Computer Disk System (Famicom), Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, and PlayStation 4
The Background: After dramatically altering the straight-forward action/platforming of the original Castlevania (Konami, 1986) with the awkward and frustrating Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (ibid, 1987), Konami went back to the drawing board for the third outing and, thankfully, opted to return to the formula that worked so well in the original game. What resulted was one the more well-regarded titles in the series; Castlevania III made up for a lot of the failings of the second game by not only ditching the role-playing elements of Castlevania II but also featuring the unique ability to ally with one of three other additional characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and being able to switch to them on the fly, and also offering branching paths for the player to take.
I was primarily aware of Castlevania III’s due to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 1997), which continued the story of Alucard and directly referred to the events of the third game, and its influence on Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Inti Creates, 2018), which was, basically, a spiritual successor to Castlevania III. After being unimpressed with Castlevania II, however, I was happy to just return to the tried-and-true gameplay of the original Castlevania.
The Plot: A prequel to the original Castlevania, Castlevania III sees Simon Belmont’s ancestor, Trevor, arming himself with the legendary Vampire Killer whip and battling the dark forces of Count Dracula. On the way, he teams up with one of three new characters, each with their own motivations for confronting Dracula and, together, they journey to end Dracula’s curse.
Gameplay: Ditching the role-playing elements of the second game, Castlevania III is, once again, a 2D sidescrolling action/platformer; this time, however, players assume the role of Trevor Belmont, Simon’s ancestor. This doesn’t really alter the core gameplay that greatly, though; it seems clunkiness runs in the Belmont family tree as Trevor is just as stocky, weighty, and cumbersome as his successor, and also attacks enemies with the same whip and sub-weapons as Simon.
What is new, however, is that the game offers the player the chance to take different paths at various times; the path you choose leads you to encounter not only different enemies and obstacles, but also an encounter with one of three additional playable characters. Trevor can team up with the sorceress Sypha Belnades, the acrobatic Grant DaNasty, or the dhampir Alucard and, at the press of a button, the player can (sl-ow-ly) switch over to controlling this character. While none of them can use sub-weapons, they each have their own abilities that, like the Vampire Killer, can be upgraded to deal more damage.
Unlike in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, you can only team Trevor up with one of these characters and they all share the same health bar and heart counter. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, as well: Sypha attacks with a magic wand and can, eventually, unleash magical attacks upon her enemies but isn’t much for jumping; Grant can cling to walls and ceilings but is limited to stabbing at enemies from close range; and Alucard tosses fireballs and can transform into a bat to avoid enemies and obstacles entirely but this drains your hearts considerably.
Yes, the hearts are back once again; luckily, there’s no need to waste them buying weapons and upgrades this time. Instead, you once again use hearts as your ammo and replenish your character’s health by breaking walls and finding pot roasts. As in the original game, the player is also fighting against a time limit, though I found this to be quite generous and never actually experienced a time over.
Castlevania III offers far more instances of auto-scrolling than its predecessors; more than once, you’re tasked with out-racing a rising or falling screen, all while respawning enemies wait to swarm you at a moment’s notice. Jump too soon and you’ll die, either from plummeting to your death or touching the equally deadly top of the screen, but you’re not always safe on platforms either as Castlevania III loves to have blocks crumble beneath you or flip around to stab you with deadly spikes. Such areas are often accompanied by broken staircases and fireball-spewing pillars; rather than taking the time to destroy these, its far better to watch their patterns and time your jumps to avoid them entirely. This is made all the more troublesome by the fact that it seems far more difficult to climb up and down stairs in this game; previously, I experienced no real issues with this mechanic but, in Castlevania III, I constantly found myself slipping down a bottomless pit rather than going down stairs as I intended. It doesn’t help that going down stairs seems a lot more troublesome than going up, and Castlevania III is far more vertically layered than its predecessors.
There’s a couple of other obstacles to contend with here as well, most notably the rotating gears in the clock tower and the swinging pendulums that you must jump to (while avoiding erratic bats) to reach the final staircase to Dracula’s throne room. The path you choose will determine which enemies and obstacles you’ll come up against, lending the game a much greater degree of replayability than its predecessors as you can experiment with different paths and different characters on each playthrough.
Graphics and Sound: Castlevania III is a far more ambitious title than its predecessors; there are a variety of environments here, and even Dracula’s castle has received an upgrade in its details, obstacles, and colour palette. This makes the game far more detailed and ambitious than previous Castlevania titles, which can make it difficult to spot your character’s sprite against some of the more meticulous backgrounds, especially as some areas of the game start you on the right-hand side of the screen, rather than the traditional left.
Thankfully, the game seems a lot more stable than its predecessor but is still, clearly, pushing the limits of its 8-bit hardware. There is far less slow down and sprite flickering than in Castlevania II but it is still present, mainly because the enemies constantly respawn in most areas and, when these areas are filled with other obstacles or moving elements, the game can struggle a bit with rendering everything but it’s nowhere near as noticeably or obtrusive as in Castlevania II. Castlevania III features easily the most ambitious soundtrack of the series so far; composer Hidenori Maezawa helped to create a custom VRC6 coprocessor to provide the game with five extra sound channels, effectively doubling the sound channels available in the Famicon version. While this had to be downgraded slightly for the NES version, Castlevania III still features some of the most memorable tracks and versions of Castlevania’s iconic themes, resulting in one of the most impressive 8-bit soundtracks of the time.
Enemies and Bosses: Like Simon, Trevor will battle a slew of gothic and supernatural enemies and bosses, many of which featured prominently in the first game; he’ll come up against skeletons (who throw bones, wield swords, or reassemble themselves), the always-annoying bats, crows, and Medusa Heads, and giant spiders (who spit out smaller spiders this time, rather than webs…) Trevor also battles against swarms of zombies, fishmen (who hide underwater and attack with fireballs), and axe-throwing knights but he’ll also encounter some decidedly tougher enemies; flying, shield-wielding gargoyles, hunchback-like goblins who bounce around the screen, and mud men, for example.
While Castlevania II largely abandoned boss battles, Castlevania III brings them back in full force…but makes the equally disappointing mistake of repeating many of these battles. You’ll battle the Cyclops and Mummy more than once (which is a shame as these are relatively simple or annoying fights, respectively) and battle new versions of the Queen Medusa, Giant Bat, and Frankenstein Monster. However, you’ll also battle against the Skull Knight and the two Water Dragons; while this first battle is easy enough, the latter is made all the more difficult by the fact that it’s pretty easy for your character to take a hit and be sent careening to the deadly water below.
To recruit Grant and Alucard, you’ll first have to defeat them in battle. Similarly, you’ll also have to fight against a doppelgänger of your character; even if you switch characters during this fight, the double switches accordingly, meaning you can’t just tank Sypha with Trevor’s superior attacks. I found this to be one of the more difficult boss battles in the game, easily up there with Death’s first form and the gauntlet against two Mummies, a Cyclops, and the demonic Leviathan.
After being a pitiful shell of his former self in Castlevania II, the Grim Reaper returns with a vengeance here; not only do you have to battle him and his maniacal scythes in a startlingly accurate repeat of the fight in Castlevania, you’ll also have to fight Death’s second form. Luckily, however this is simply a giant floating skull that spits scythes at you and isn’t too difficult…providing you survived Death’s first form with enough health!
Similarly, Dracula is now a far more formidable foe; this time, you’ll face the Count in a three-stage boss battle. In the first, he surrounds the player with pillars of fire, spawning a third right underneath you; in the second, Dracula’s becomes a floating mass of blood-spitting heads; for his final form, Dracula becomes a gigantic, demonic background element who zaps at you with laser bolts and manipulates the ground. As in the first game, Dracula’s only weak point is his head, meaning it’s best to have the axe for this boss fight; the most difficult thing about Dracula’s first form is making sure you have enough room to manoeuvre between the pillars of fire to avoid the third pillar. The second form isn’t too bad but it’s best to run underneath it so you don’t get cornered. The final form is pretty simple but, like the Water Dragons, is made more annoying and difficult by the presence of bottomless pits. Despite this, though, it’s pretty easy to dodge the Count’s attacks and lob axes at his head until he’s finished.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: Each character can upgrade their attacks to deal more damage, as is the Castlevania tradition; it’s worth noting that, if you’ve upgraded the Vampire Killer and switch to your partner character, the upgrade won’t carry over and you’ll have to grab the upgrades for your partner as well.
This is very much encouraged; I partnered with Sypha for my first playthrough and never upgraded her attacks, meaning she just uselessly smacked skeletons with her stupid little wand. When I switched to Alucard, I upgraded his fireball and it became a very handy spread of fireballs, so it’s best to upgrade each of your characters. All the sub-weapons from the first Castlevania return as well; this time, I found the axe the most useful as there seems to be more flying enemies, or enemies placed above you, or more uses for this compared to the Holy Water.
Additional Features: Like its predecessor, Castlevania III features a password system, which allows players to continue their game after a game over. Inputting certain player names and passwords will also grant you extra lives, allow you to skip to certain levels with different partners, or jump to the game’s “Hard Mode”.
Yep, like the first game, once you clear Castlevania III and view one of the game’s four different endings (each of which is pretty positive, in comparison to Castlevania II’s endings) and the game’s credits, you’ll be plonked right back into the first stage in Hard Mode. As you’d expect, enemies deal more damage to you in this mode and, while some are missing, you’ll encounter tougher enemies a lot sooner. The Xbox One Castlevania Anniversary Collection has four Achievements available for this game, one for finishing the game with each of the game’s partners and one for finishing it with just Trevor, and the same features available for the other games in the collection (save states, frames, and display options).
The Summary: After Castlevania II turned the franchise on its head with its annoying day/night system, barren castles, and reliance on obscure clues and role-playing elements, Castlevania III is a fantastic, and much welcome, return to form. Unlike the sequel, this prequel takes everything that worked in the first game and improves upon it; there are branching paths, more playable characters, more options available to you, and vastly improved environments. It’s clear that Castlevania III is pushing the NES to its limits and is an extremely ambitious title for an 8-bit system; Konami would go on to improve upon many of these elements in later, graphically-superior games in the series, but it all started here. The bosses are better, the environments are more interesting and varied, the characters add some much-needed variety and, despite the same janky controls that plagued these earlier Castlevania titles, this is clearly the best of the 8-bit Castlevania games and, thanks to the different paths and character options available, offers far more replayability than its predecessors.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
What did you think about Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse back in the day? Did you play it on the NES back in the day? Which of the four characters did you prefer? Whatever you think about the game, or Castlevania, in general, leave a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
Released: May 2019 Originally Released: August 1987 Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd Original Developer: Konami Also Available For: Family Computer Disk System (Famicom), Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, and PlayStation 4
The Background: If Castlevania (Konami, 1986) has a reputation for being one of the more difficult games of the days of classic 8-bit home consoles then Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest has an even more infamous reputation for being, perhaps, the most frustrating and confusing title in the entire series. Famously lambasted by the Angry Video Game Nerd for its obscure hints, non-linear gameplay, and frustrating gameplay mechanics, Castlevania II stands as the black sheep of the franchise.
Castlevania II follows a trend in NES series of the late-eighties in that, rather than improve and define the gameplay mechanics and structure of the first game, it takes a dramatic right turn; in this case, into a more non-linear, adventure-style role-playing game (RPG). We saw a similar thing happen with Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo EAD, 1988) and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (ibid, 1987), which both featured deviations from the gameplay styles of their predecessors. Rather than being a relatively straight-forward action/platformer, Castlevania II places far more emphasis on grinding for experience points (EXP), levelling up, purchasing items, talking to non-playable characters (NPCs), and using key items in obscure ways. Because of this, and the game’s dodgy reputation, I can’t say that I was too excited to delve into this game; to make it easier, I’ll admit to using a guide so I would know where I was going and what I was doing, which was enough to make this a more annoying experience than playing the first game.
The Plot: Seven years after defeating Count Dracula in the original Castlevania, Simon Belmont finds himself suffering from a fatal curse placed upon him by the evil Count. To break the curse, he must “prossess” Dracula’s five body parts in order to resurrect, and defeat, the Count once more.
Gameplay: Castlevania II is a sidescrolling action/adventure platformer; players once again control the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont, who controls largely the same. Once again, Simon is a slow, plodding character with little control when leaping from platform to platform, and suffering from the same annoying trend of throwing himself backwards into bottomless pits or deadly bodies of water when hit with attacks.
Simon primarily attacks enemies with his trademark whip, the Vampire Killer, and can throw a variety of sub-weapons at his enemies. As before, the whip can be upgraded to deal greater damage but, in a twist, this must be done by purchasing the upgrades from NPCs. Similarly, the sub-weapons are acquired either by defeating one of the game’s handful of bosses or buying them from NPCs, placing a greater emphasis on the collecting of hearts.
As Simon defeats enemies, they will drop hearts; these can then be used to buy new weapons and upgrades, as well as being your ammo for using sub-weapons. As items and upgrades come at a high price, you will be finding yourself farming for hearts a lot throughout the course of the game.
This is helpful, in one way, as Simon now gains EXP for dispatching enemies; with enough EXP, he will level up, further increasing his health bar. However, working against him is the fact that, at regular intervals, the game will suddenly succumb to the curse of night. When night-time falls, the enemies deal greater damage, take more hits to defeat, increase in number, and even swarm the game’s usually safe towns. The towns also close up at night; the normally-vague and fearful NPCs hide indoors, the church (which is the only place Simon can refill his health) and other buildings shut their doors, and Simon is forced to sit and wait for the sun to rise and dispel the curse. This night-time mechanic has, rightfully, drawn the ire of many commentators over the years and rightfully so; it’s an annoying, frustratingly awkward mechanic that takes way too long to load up, lasts for far too long, and generally results in you either standing around like a moron waiting for the night to end or battling tougher enemies to gain more hearts.
Compounding the matter is the fact that the game’s translation leaves a lot to be desired; NPCs dish out incredible vague and obtuse “clues” that really don’t help your progress through the game. You’re given items with little explanation as to their purpose and are required to use them in some really weird ways; without a guide, I really don’t see how anyone would be able to figure out that you need to kneel down by a body of water or in front of an impassable wall with a certain gem in order to access new areas.
All this might be bearable if the game made up for it with some interesting levels and dungeons but it really doesn’t; the bulk of Castlevania II’s enemies are found in the overworld and all of the castles look and feel the same. You’ll jump across the same spiked pits, attack the same enemies, and acquire Dracula’s accursed body parts in the same way (throwing a wooden stake at a glowing orb, of course). Hell, the final castle doesn’t even have any enemies; it’s just a minor inconvenience of a maze leading to an anti-climatic battle with the Count himself. Depending on how long you take to beat the game, you’ll be treated to a variety of endings; sometimes, Simon prevails but succumbs to his wounds, others he will triumph unabated. This is probably where Castlevania II’s replayability comes into play as you’re encouraged to get the best ending but, considering how annoying it is to slog through this bland adventure, I can’t say that I’m too interested in trying to beat it any faster or better (or play it ever again, for that matter).
Graphics and Sound: Castlevania II doesn’t really improve upon its predecessor much; it looks, feels, and sounds pretty much exactly the same, with the same limited sprite animations and colour palette.
If anything, Castlevania II is a graphical step down as there are often so many enemies and sprites on the screen at the same time that you’ll notice some sever sprite flickering and super annoying slow-down. As if Simon wasn’t slow enough, he’ll now jitter through the air and, often, it feels like you’re walking through wet mud; it can massively affect your trajectory when trying to clear deadly pits or spikes and mean the difference between a decent health bar and struggling to progress. At the same time, the game does feature a soundtrack to rival its predecessor; “Bloody Tears” has since become a recurring theme in the franchise and I like that the music changes when the game shifts from day to night but, as good as the music and sound effects are, they’re not enough to really increase the appeal of this game.
Enemies and Bosses: Once again, Simon will battle against a slew of gothic and supernatural enemies; he’ll mostly encounter skeletons and spear-wielding knights in the castles and areas he visits but will also battle mummies, bats, floating eyeballs, and Medusa Heads as you progress.
Boss encounters are few and far between and a pitiful inclusion compared to the battles you endure in Castlevania; there are only three boss battles in this game, two of which can be bypassed completely (though you’ll miss out on two of the game’s stronger sub-weapons), and all three are pretty pathetic compared to the first game. This is best exemplified in the battle against the Grim Reaper, which was an annoying test of my endurance and skill in Castlevania; here, Death is slow, predictable, and easily dispatched after a few hits.
Similarly, Dracula is renowned for his ludicrous ease in this game; granted, this battle is potentially harder if you didn’t acquire the Golden Knife sub-weapon but even without it, you can land a ridiculous number of his as Dracula spawns into the arena and defeat him before he can even launch a single attack. It’s a dismal end to a dismal title and as though the developers knew that gamers would struggle with the game’s level-up system, day/night cycle, and more obscure elements so over compensated by significantly reducing the number and difficulty of the game’s bosses.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: As before, Simon can upgrade the Vampire Killer as he progresses to new towns and visits new areas. Certain NPCs will sell you an upgrade that turns the whip into a chain and its eventual strongest form, the Flame Whip. However, to acquire these upgrades, you’ll need to not only locate these NPCs (usually they’re hidden behind blocks or walls that must be destroyed with Holy Water) but also have enough hearts to purchase the upgrade.
Similarly, the first game’s sub-weapons return but must be purchased with hearts, which are also necessary to use these items. However, perhaps because of his pivotal the Holy Water is for checking for illusionary blocks, the Holy Water is free to use so you can spam it as much as you like. There’s some new power-ups here as well, though, like the powerful Sacred Flame or the Laurels, which make Simon invincible for a short time, and cloves of Garlic (which, when used in the right place at the right time, spawn an NPC who will provide Simon with free upgrades).
Additional Features: Castlevania II features a password save system, which was probably very useful back in the day when most gamers were renting the game or, lacking a guide, were unable to finish the game in one sitting. Unlike the first game, though, there is no “Hard Mode” awaiting you; the game is hard enough as it is and you’ll need to be really good at it in order to beat it fast enough to get the game’s best ending.
If you’re playing the version featured in the Xbox One Castlevania Anniversary Collection, as I did, you can earn an Achievement for completing the game and make liberal use of the save state feature to chart your progress and come back to where you left off whenever you want. There are also a number of frames and display options, though they don’t really do much to improve the appeal of this game.
The Summary: No matter how you look at it, Castlevania II is a poor follow-up to Castlevania. I was expecting a lot worse but I can’t deny that the game is far less fun that the original; it’s a slog to get through, even with a guide, and just a far more boring experience. Perhaps if the game made better use of its castles and included challenging bosses it would have more appeal. The day/night cycle is annoying but I like the added challenge it provided; the problem was that, most of the time, I just stood around like an idiot waiting for the sun to rise so I could heal up and continue. Any game that means you have to stand stationary for minutes on end is a bad game for me, and Castlevania II asks way too much from players; I get that a lot of RPGs and games back then were vague and non-linear, but this game takes the piss with its terrible “hints” and massively obscure item usage. I can’t see myself returning to this title again any time soon.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Could Be Better
Did you play Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest back in the day? Do you agree with the reputation is has for being one of Castlevania’s weakest titles or do you feel it’s an under-rated gem? Which of the titles in the series do you consider to be the best, worst, hardest, or easiest? Whatever you think, drop a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.