Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge

a review of Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge
a videogame developed by konami
and published by konami
for the nintendo gameboy
text by Ario Barzan

3 stars

Bottom line: Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge is “black and white and sort of great all over.”

We’ve seen it before: someone is checking out of the supermarket, and the conveyor belt is chaotically loaded with Pop Tarts, Frosted Flakes, everything. Look a little farther, and notice a plastic bar is placed behind it all, allowing a little room for a person in back of them. And there is a person who has taken advantage of that bit as best as they can, neatly organized the stuff from their basket into the compact space according to how that box fits next to that package.

 

Handhelds sometimes have a way of doing this to developers – of making them squeeze as much tight, consistently flowing set-pieces into each space as possible. The result: better craftsmanship than a lot of products freed from sticky-note sized screens. It’s kind of a funny situation when reflected upon: these are things being made for easy consumption, for “on the go” entertainment, and yet they’re dancing around their brethren fluff.

Link’s Awakening does this. Where A Link to the Past’s overworld was good, but not great, LA is simply more of a videogame. It feels more architectural, more purposeful and crunchy. Subjectively, yes, I prefer ALttP, mostly due to atmospheric reasons and its lack of &^#$#ed dialogue, but ask me objectively which is the better man in terms of gameplay, and I’ll poke LA’s suit (jerkin?), say, “He’s the gentleman you’re looking for.” Mind you, this isn’t the fault of ALttP’s designers. It just came out earlier, was the thing that got the ball rolling by designating a return to the original setup.

And, so, we come to Belmont’s Revenge, a humble blip that beats the tar out of the oft-mentioned Dracula’s Curse, a stretched-out big bang running on the fumes of our frothing reactions when we thought “tubular” was an awesome word. You are Christopher Belmont, underappreciated member of a cursed bloodline, and protagonist of prequel Castlevania Adventure. Knowing this, comparisons are inevitable. And…Adventure was not so hot. Line the two up, though, and you start to see Belmont’s Revenge ironing out its parent’s niggling smudges.

There’s just a crisper reaction to Christopher’s movements, how he attacks with the Vampire Killer whip with proper judicious vengeance, how there’s no dumb stutter after landing from a jump. If you want to descend a rope – the replacement from stairs, in case you didn’t know – inching your way down it isn’t the only option. Simply hold the D-pad down and the A button, and he’ll slide like a fireman on a pole. And, hey, the dude’s grown a big enough pair to whip while climbing. There are these improved, and greatly needed, nuances all over.

Viewed in relative terms, the game is really one of the few Castlevanias to hold itself to the first’s flow of clever setpieces: the action that quickly satisfied and had you going on because, hey, there was more where that came from, right? Instead of providing meandering size, Belmont’s Revenge‘s situations are in the moment: rooms click into one another with a crisp progression, and the action feels hands-on and husky. It’s especially impressive, considering how few enemy types there are. All that stupidly pixel-perfect platforming hassling its ancestor has been toned the hell down, too. With each tick of the clock, you feel active. In a good way. During one stage, huge, rolling eyeballs are coming at you on a bridge. Do you attack and make them explode, leaving holes in the bridge? Do you risk a hit and leap over them? In another, spiders descend from a ceiling. You must kill them, and then use their strings of silk to jump across gaps.

By the time Castlevania is breached (four elemental castles need to be cleared before it rises – whatever that means), environments have turned bitchingly challenging. Take heart: it’s not Dracula X, which was the equivalent of hitting your head against a steel wall. And it’s not Castlevania 3, whose levels were so long, staircases so tortuously populated, all endurance was drained. The rooms and learning process are short, and sharp. You learn a way to do things, a peculiar rhythm, and it all fall into place like Tetris. Graciously, that horrid icon password system has been shortened, making going on all the more accessible.


Like most things on this planet, bumps emerge here and there. One involves a couple rooms which lighten and darken. Your only clue as to where you’re going in the utter blackness is paying attention to where these luminescent worms are. Neat in concept, sure, but the light-to-dark switcheroo’s arbitrariness can lead to deaths that have you flinging a hand out demandingly. A couple bosses are oddities, too – the Rock Castle’s can be taken down to half its health without hitting you once, yet its second form can kill Mr. Belmont in a matter of seconds. Walking and jumping are still oddly stunted, like Adventure. Now, the game does work in light of the heavier atmosphere (outside of the occasional goddamn crow), and Christopher is a bit faster, though you have to wonder: was this necessary? It’s…kind of transparent – the whole “SLOWER MOTION for LONGER PLAYTIME!!” reasoning. Unfortunately, all of us sharp, gorgeous, self-respecting people want our action completely honest and fitting.

 

I’ve gone this far without mentioning the aesthetics. They are rather lovely. Visually, everything is laid out in a frozen state, sometimes flickering like a classic movie. The designers didn’t pound away until the presentation was detailed but dead. Rather, they took that sort of block-by-block simplicity of the NES trilogy and transferred it over to the Gameboy, lending it an appealing, modern sheen. And, of course, the music, which is dreamy, and kind of jagged, and kind of really good. Think one-hit wonder Soshiro Hokkai’s work for Harmony of Dissonance, though…more spacious and melodic. Hearing a tiny thing bursting with such power is startling. There’s even a crazy rendition of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue for the fight with Christopher’s possessed son, Soleiyu.

Speaking of battles, the last ones are…well. I can clear Devil May Cry 3 on Dante Must Die, and it’s impossible for me to defeat Soleiyu without using an emulator and save states. I still haven’t killed Dracula. Heaven’s grace shines upon you, spirited adventurers, who have found a way.

The journey is challenging – too challenging at the very end, I’m afraid – but eminently playable. Yes, the the control department needs more confidence; really, just the first installment’s physics. Yes, it can be a screw-up. Still, behind this, behind the unassuming status, something works pretty darn well, and it comes down to definition in design. The series itself is an oddity in various ways, and one of them is how the treasures tend to be obscured by the coins. As Rondo of Blood is cornered by devotees who are drooling a bit too much, I’m holding a conversation with its monochrome relative. Pop the cartridge in, and see how it conducts you along with bright, interconnected constructs; how if there is a moment of nothing, you can probably whip a chunk of stone off to reveal a 1UP or meat. How one inch picture frames form a stimulating canvas. Experience the quaint air of mystery from its artistic side. Yeah, there is something here, and it has a heart beat.

–Ario Barzan

Comments

7 Responses to Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge

  1. That game was hard yes. For some reason, (maybe I was just younger? I doubt it- it feels I was a much better action game player when i was a kid), a flurry of game boy games were insanely hard. I remember playing gargoyle’s quest and some other game that looked like Ghouls and ghosts (can’t remember the name. it was a serie, there were some nes games as well. the guy had an armor. he’d go inside trees in the first levels), pausing litteraly every five seconds, my heart pounding like crazy and hoping for some type of divine intervention right on the screen…

  2. I quite readily admit that Belmont’s Revenge is considerably superior to both the previous Adventure game and Castlevania Legends (which is kind of sad little mess of a game), as well a notable number of the action games available for the handheld, but for some reason, I have a hard time accepting it as one of the higher class Game Boy games. I recognize it’s quality, I find it enjoyable, but I have vague misgivings about it (besides the difficulty and my general reluctance to celebrate Game Boy games) that I can’t express clearly.

    That said, I for the most part agree with all your points, especially on things like the clever usage of a fairly small selection of enemies/obstacles (which is, of course, a considerably different school of design than we have seen in recent Castlevania games). I’m not the best person to judge your comments on the set pieces and level design, though – I find such things hard to properly analyze in games as visually primative as this. Although, in retrospect, the mere fact that – aside from bosses – you can reasonably play through it as it were a regular game (as opposed to the guessing and estimtating you need in a lot of Game Boy games) should tell me quite a bit.

    (music nerd mode on) I find your comparison of the music to the Harmony of Dissonance score kind of interesting. I always saw the Belmont’s Revenge music as the spirit of many early Kukeiha Club games, but pushed through a process that intensified the impact at the same time as it was adapted to the Game Boy. Harmony of Dissonance seemed more like it was paying tribute to both the old and the new of the series, which I think I could point to in a lot of the songs if I wasn’t trying to keep that kind of thing under control. However, I can definitely see now how the two intersect, and it’s given me a bit to think about.

    also: obligatory mention of how great Praying Hands is. And an obligatory nostalgia comment about missing the days when teams of ten or less people could make a quality handheld game that was commercially viable.

    one thing: don’t you mean “monochrome” instead of “monotone”?

  3. Yeah. Rondo and Symphony are to a large extent the children of the guys behind this game. I think it sort of shows.

  4. praying hands is incredible. at once, i wish they’d remix it already – god knows we’ve got enough bloody tears and vampire killers on our hands – though the remixes nowadays tend to be thrown in for the sake of it, and aren’t often done with much gusto. so.

    also, thanks for the word correction, dais.

  5. I managed beat Soleiyu (what kind of name for a Belmont is that?), but it does requires obsessive practice. The one that really gives me nightmares, though, is that damn bone dragon that comes before. Oog.

  6. it’s supposed to be soleil.
    kind of like how fernandez got turned into belnades.
    or something.

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