Nostalgia can be a very powerful force. It can make adults look back fondly on all sorts of things that, viewed objectively, probably aren’t as great as we remember them. For a child of the 80’s, that can be almost anything. From VCRs and teased hair to classic cartoons and our favorite movies and video games, there are times when it’s hard to take a step back and look at those old favorites with a more critical eye. Sure, that one Poison album might be one of your favorites of all time, but musically, does it still hold up? What about your favorite childhood cartoon…could you watch it today without cringing or thinking it’s nothing but pure cheese?
Now think about your favorite video games as a child. Sure, some of them probably stand the test of time. But for every Super Mario Bros or Contra, there’s always a handful of games that we may still hold in high regard and still have much affection for. If we could set aside our own memories and youthful experiences, would we still hold those works in the same esteem? For me, one of those games is Konami’s Castlevania: The Adventure on the Game Boy.
I probably mentioned this in my first article, but I’ll recap for context. My parents wouldn’t let me own a games console, because they said (rightly so) that I would monopolize the TV, as the family had just one. Thus, if I wanted to play something other than simple early PC games, I needed to save my money and buy a Game Boy. I dutifully saved my allowance, and upon my 13th birthday, my parents took the money I saved and bought me the Game Boy, and then bought Castlevania: The Adventure as my birthday present that year. 1990 became a seminal year for me as a gamer, and cemented the love for the hobby as I poured all my free time into playing on that little grey brick. Much of that time was spent on Tetris, to be sure, but Castlevania: The Adventure got a lot of play that first year, and for good reason. Having played a couple of the NES Castlevania games, it was a marvel to me that they could take that experience, and downsize it for the Game Boy screen, albeit somewhat reduced in terms of game mechanics. Even so, it was a wondrous thing to 13-year old me.
Looking back at those times, I have fond memories of visiting my grandparents at their house, taking the Game Boy with me, and sitting between my grandfather’s rocking chair and the bookcase against the wall, huddled in the corner underneath his reading lamp, playing Castlevania: The Adventure while listening to my grandparents and my parents talk. I would occasionally steal away to the kitchen for a jelly bean, or gladly turn it off for a bowl of homemade ice cream, but I whiled away many a Friday evening in just that way. I remember the feeling of victory every time I would make it past Stage 2, and the even greater sense of accomplishment when I had bested Stage 3. I also fondly remember beating Dracula at my grandparents’ house, and gleefully showing my parents that I had finally beat the game, after months of chipping away at it. Not that they cared, but as a young gamer, it was a triumphant moment.
On the surface, the game looks excellent. The development team that handled this game certainly got a lot out of the Game Boy during its formative first few months, with good graphics that included nice layered backgrounds, a good use of the Game Boy’s 4-shades of green in terms of shading, background elements, and enemy/item recognition, and an overall atmospheric aesthetic that recalled earlier games in the series, but having its own unique flavor. The sprite for Simon Belmont’s predecessor, Christopher Belmont, is recognizable in its basic form, and animates well enough, in similar fashion to the NES classics it is loosely based upon. The familiar candles flicker in a simple, but effective 2-frame animation, and when you whip enemies, they die in a satisfying little burst of flame.
The soundtrack is one of the highlights of the game. Hats off to composers Shigeru Fukutake, Norio Hanzawa, and Hidehiro Funauchi for their work on the game, because the music here, particularly that of the first 2 stages, is impeccable. The melodies are memorable and stay with you, long after you power off your Game Boy. The sound effects are also well done, with a nice whip sound, and a satisfying little “crunch” sound when you destroy a candle or vanquish a foe. The coin pickup and power-up sounds are all familiar, and hearken back to the halcyon days of 8-bits and game design teams using basic hardware to make excellent sound. This game is truly one of the highlights of early Game Boy titles when it comes to sound design.
Game play is basic, with you controlling Christopher Belmont, running (or sauntering, more on that later) right to left, or sometimes left to right, whipping floating candlesticks for power-ups, and enemies in your path. Unlike the first NES Castlevania game, there’s no sub-weapon here, so rather than hearts giving you ammo for a secondary attack method, they restore life, like you would normally see in other games. Coins are strictly for points, and littered around the game, you’ll stumble upon the occasional 1up, as well as strategically placed whip upgrades, in the form of a dark sphere. Your basic whip is a thin, stringy thing, and often takes 2 or more uses to kill anything. Upgrade once, and it’s a thick, braided powerhouse with a ball at the end. Upgrade a second time, and your whip can suddenly throw fireballs. It’s an interesting twist to the 2-upgrade system introduced in the first game, and it gives the player options in terms of eliminating obstacles, as well as reaching some candlesticks. Each time you get hit, you lose one level of whip upgrade, so two hits and you’re back to the thin whip. Get hit enough to drain your lifebar, and it’s a trip to the woodshed for Mr. Belmont. Thankfully, you get 3 lives to start with, and you can earn an additional life at 10,000 points, and more after each successive 20,000 point total. You also get a small handful of continues, in case you die. Let’s face it: unless you’re a Castlevania wunderkind, you’ll die – a lot.
The chief complaint leveled against this game is its speed, or rather, the lack thereof. As I mentioned previously, Christopher Belmont saunters along at a snail’s pace, and everything in the game seems to follow suit. Granted, for the game’s difficulty, that helps a little, but it certainly counts as a negative. I don’t happen to think it’s quite as sluggish as some would say, but I will concede that it hampers the game somewhat. Secondly, the game’s difficulty is quite high. This is offset somewhat by there only being 4 stages, but there are moments where you’re almost guaranteed to get hit by an enemy projectile (like those wretched bouncing balls spit out by the Punaguchi). Some spots require near pixel-perfect jumps, and to expect that on the DMG’s tiny screen is pretty harsh. It can be done, but it sours the experience. In addition, the aforementioned Punaguchi’s make things very difficult in Stage 2 and 3, and if you don’t have the timing down of when they spit out the large attack balls, or know where to stand so you can whip them, you’ll almost certainly take at least one, if not two hits, as there’s no way to avoid taking damage otherwise. Worse yet, if you take a hit or two, and are relegated back to the weakest whip, it takes 4 whips to kill them. These vile creatures rank up there with the bats in the original NES Ninja Gaiden as some of the most annoying, hard to avoid enemies out there.
Playing this game again, I start to see my love and nostalgia for it slowly erode as I’m batted around by bouncing balls (yes, the game has knockback like its predecessors), expected to make pixel-perfect jumps, and in a constant state of frustration due to the game’s less than stellar design. I still contend that it’s not quite as horrible as some make it out to be, but I’m beginning to see that this adventure isn’t quite the paragon of early Game Boy action platforming that I originally thought it was. Konami eclipsed this later with the sequel, as well as the Contra game Operation C, as well as other later Game Boy releases. The game becomes a blurry mess on the original Game Boy screen, and it makes me wonder how I ever endured playing it with all that blur. I tried to play it again on the DMG recently, and was shocked at just how blurry it was. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled with the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance all the years I’ve owned them, but the system this game was designed for certainly shows its age when you play a game like this that requires a sharp eye and great timing and reflexes. It makes for a very difficult experience.
Ideally, if one is to play this game today, it’s via the Super Game Boy or Game Boy Player, or perhaps even on the 3DS via the Virtual Console. Not that I’m recommending that course of action. Sadly, I can’t even give this a casual recommendation, even as much as I played and enjoyed it as a kid. It’s fraught with too many design and execution flaws that the game’s good graphics and excellent soundtrack can’t rise above. Loose carts aren’t expensive, by any means, and you could pick this one up for under $10, but unless you’re nostalgic for when games kicked your butt 10 ways from Sunday, or are a complete masochist looking for a short challenge, I’d skip this one. Definitely a “try before you buy” game in today’s context. Sadly, I must own up to having seen this game through “nostalgia goggles” for the last couple decades, and admit that it’s just not that good.
Originally published on the official Game Boy Guru blog: