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How Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge Avenged The Adventure

Castlevania: The Adventure stumbled so Belmont’s Revenge could soar. 

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Castlevania The Adventure gameplay - image courtesy of gyfcat

Castlevania: The Adventure is a hard game to love, let alone like. The series’ first Game Boy outing lacks the polish and soul that defined Castlevania’s 8-bit years while sporting a much worse gameplay loop. Basic actions feel unintuitive thanks to a stiff control scheme. The difficulty curve is more concerned with punishing you through trial & error over offering a reflex or thought-based challenge. There’s little in the way of replay value. There aren’t any branching paths or alternate characters, and the level design just isn’t strong enough to warrant repeat runs on its own. These are all issues the NES trilogy avoids, but they plague The Adventure throughout. Which makes it all the more surprising that the game spawned one of the series’ finest entries — Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge

Belmont’s Revenge is a textbook example of how to do a sequel right. Protagonist Christopher Belmont no longer controls like he’s wading in swamp water. The difficulty feels more in line with what’s expected of the franchise — a bit easier and scaled back technically, but still recognizably Castlevania. Levels are rounded out by thoughtful enemy placement and clever platforming gimmicks. Progression also follows a Mega Man-esque loop where you play through the first four stages in any order before tackling the last set linearly. This encourages replay value while keeping playthroughs fresh. The trade-off is that the early-game never escalates in difficulty since any stage can be your first, but Dracula’s Castle kicks things up a notch. All that said, appreciating Belmont’s Revenge to its fullest requires an understanding of where exactly The Adventure’s design philosophies went wrong.  

SHEER TERROR IS AT HAND.” 
Castlevania: The Adventure, English Manual

Christopher Belmont Concept Art for Castlevania The Adventure - image courtesy of Castlevania Wikia

Castlevania: The Adventure was released just half a year into the Game Boy’s life cycle in Japan and in late 1989 in North America. While not quite a launch title, The Adventure was released early enough to offer audiences a more substantial experience akin to Super Mario Land at a time when there wasn’t much on tap. Or so they thought. Where Super Mario Land successfully pares down its gameplay loop for a handheld, The Adventure stumbles hard. There is a fundamental difference between how Mario plays in Land compared to Bros., but it feels similar enough where you can play them back to back without feeling much of a disconnect. The same can’t be said for The Adventure

It’s easy to tell something is “off” when you play the original Castlevania and TA back-to-back. You go from a very deliberate and refined experience to a game that looks and feels borderline bootleg. The NES titles complement their methodical movement with deliberate level design and enemy placement. Simon moves slowly, but gameplay isn’t so slow that it feels like nothing is happening. There’s a rhythm to walking, whipping, and platforming that moves things along at an almost cinematic pace. The control scheme is tight enough that every aspect of the gameplay feels second nature with some practice. The Adventure never finds this rhythm, plagued by bizarre design decisions and unrefined controls. 

Castlevania The Adventure Game Over - image courtesy of Game Over Wiki

Where the NES Castlevania games use their level design to teach mechanical skills and ready you for future obstacles, The Adventure is more interested in tripping you up. This is most evident by the fact that the whip downgrades itself every time you get hit. Considering how important whip upgrades are to maintaining an edge in combat, players are either forced to strive for perfection or suffer the consequences of even a single hit. Worse is that Christopher’s sluggishness makes it a challenge to properly dodge. Unless you get good, you’re going to spend most of the game with the worst whip just by the nature of enemy placement. There are some screens where the only way of avoiding damage is to already know what’s coming. 

Which is par for the course in a series like Castlevania — a big part of the gameplay loop boils down to learning the level design and figuring out how to adapt — but so much trial and error becomes exhausting. Just as importantly, the first Castlevania, Simon’s Quest, and Dracula’s Curse all give you enough time to react to attacks or enemies coming in off-screen. The Adventure doesn’t give you the mental space needed to process most challenges as they come. And when the game isn’t hard, it’s either boring or poorly stitched together. The first stage is an uninspired start that immediately highlights TA’s design flaws. 

The last major stretch of the Forest before the boss features two platforming sections: one without bottomless pits and one with. In both, you need precise jumps to keep your footing and make it across the screen. Logic would dictate that the screen without bottomless pits would show up first in order to prepare players for what’s being expected of them. Castlevania I and III do this often: introduce a challenge in a safe setting before taking off the training wheels. In this case, the ground. The Adventure doesn’t follow this logic. Instead, you transition from a screen with bottomless pits that demands precision to one with none that lets you practice tight jumps indefinitely. The second screen serves as little more than a pace-breaker when you’ve already conquered the hardest platforming challenge the stage offers. 

Castlevania The Adventure Level Design Forest - image courtesy of Spriters Resource

Reflex-based gameplay needs coherent pacing to thrive. Tight platforming set pieces are supposed to test your mechanical mastery, but they just end up testing your patience if they’re not built up properly. The best Castlevania stages gradually escalate the difficulty while intuitively teaching you to play better. Stage 15 in the first game is a three-tier gauntlet where Bone Pillars, Red Skeletons, Axe Armors, and Medusa Heads stand in the way of Death himself. Getting to the boss with enough health to spare is a genuine ordeal, but the stage essentially functions as a trial by fire to make sure you’re good enough to beat Castlevania. Building up to the boss with increasingly harder enemies also gives you time to mentally prepare and refine your skills. There’s nothing in The Adventure that even remotely compares. 

It doesn’t help that the game itself is only four stages long. There’s never any time for things to get better. At the same time, “only” four stages is a mercy in their own right. Yet despite being so short, TA wears out its welcome fast. What’s especially frustrating is that the level design could at least have been serviceable if the controls were closer to the NES Castlevania trilogy — not impressive or anywhere near the quality of the NES games, but playable. At the end of the day, a game is only as good as it is fun to actually play.

Castlevania The Adventure - image courtesy of gyfcat

Black and white suits a horror-inspired series like Castlevania well, but two of the four stages settle for negative space as their backgrounds. The Forest and Dracula’s Castle are the only levels that make the most of their settings, yet they need to rely on repetitive visuals to do so. The Adventure’s only saving grace is an inexplicably catchy soundtrack composed by Shigeru Fukutake, Hidehiro Funauchi, and Norio Hanzawa. The Castlevania franchise is no stranger to great music, but such a high-quality score can’t help but stick out when paired with such a low-quality title. Battle of the Holy is one of the best opening tracks in the series on par with Beginning from Dracula’s Curse and Death Fair is the only thing keeping Stage 3 from being a nightmare. 

The Adventure is just a hard sell compared to other Castlevanias. It’s a fine way to kill time if you love a challenge regardless of fairness, but it’ll never immerse you in the way the NES games can and do for most audiences. There’s nothing offered that Castlevania I, II, and III don’t handle significantly better — from level design to basic game feel. The Adventure was an obvious downgrade in an era when Super Mario Land and Tetris already proved handheld gaming didn’t have to be. Castlevania on Game Boy just didn’t reflect the level of quality the franchise was known for, but that all changed in 1991. 

DRACULA HAS ARRIVED.” 
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, Prologue

Christopher Belmont brandishing his whip against a pink backdrop from the Castlevania Belmont's Revenge Japanese Manual - image courtesy of Castlevania Wikia

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is a gem of a Game Boy game. All of The Adventure’s kinks have been ironed out and the game’s design practices have more in common with the NES trilogy than its direct predecessor. Christopher moves quicker and controls smoother. His jump isn’t as stiff. The whip no longer downgrades every time you take damage, only when hit by Punaguchis. Sub-Weapons, which were conspicuously absent in The Adventure, make a comeback. There are three altogether, but only two per region of release — Holy Water in all regions, the Axe in the US release, and the Cross in the Japanese and PAL versions. Even in a limited capacity, Sub-Weapons help add necessary variety to the gameplay loop. Belmont’s Revenge simply feels more like a Castlevania game. The controls have that pick-up-and-play quality handheld gaming inherently demands. 

As far as level design goes, Belmont’s Revenge fixes The Adventure’s mistakes without ignoring what it was trying to bring to the table. Stairs are still replaced by ropes, but function far more naturally in practice. Christopher climbs faster and can use his whip to deflect enemy attacks mid-grip now. The enemy design benefits from better placement along with greater variety. Night Stalkers throw scythes with boomerang properties that arch upwards on the way to you and downwards on the return (or vice versa). Lizards jump back and forth non-stop until you kill them, tossing knives at you every time they leap. The humble Ghoul Mouse waits for the right moment to jump out of its hovel, manically bouncing right at you. You can’t brute force enemies, but they’re fair enough where learning their patterns is all you really need. 

The same methodology applies to boss fights. Some bosses are as puzzle-based as they are skill -ased, requiring you to pay close attention to attack patterns. The Bone Dragon moves up and down a scrolling screen that’ll push you into damage if you don’t position yourself carefully. Soleiyu actively follows you during your battle, giving you a brief window where you can actually deal damage. All the while, you need to dodge a barrage of knives and a rival whip. Dracula is outright a traditional puzzle fight. He only uses one attack which covers most of the screen, but he switches positions after each use. This means there’s a fixed spot where Christopher won’t take damage that keeps changing. It’s up to you to deduce where that’ll be while also dealing damage. 

Belmont's Revenge Stage Select - image courtesy of Super Adventures in Gaming

Levels themselves aren’t progressed linearly but selected from a Mega Man-esque menu. You have access to more than half the game right away, which lets you take basic progression at your own pace in your own order. This does mean the difficulty curve remains fairly static for most of the game, but the level design gets much harder once you reach Dracula’s Castle. The first four stages make use of their own individual gimmicks, hazards, and traps which come back into play for the last three. 

The Plant Castle makes extensive use of rope climbing in the first half to get you used to the mechanic. Come the second half, you have to climb on webs that spiders thread and then retract. While you can safely kill most spiders after they’ve spun their web, a few are positioned carefully enough where you’ll need to quickly climb as they retract towards you. The Crystal Castle features crystal blocks that start to shatter once jumped on. You need to quickly platform from block to block before the crystals cave in from underneath. The Cloud Castle is littered with ropes that work on a conveyor system. They move up and down automatically, but the catch is that ropes swap directions every few seconds and will eventually drag you into rotating saw blades if you don’t keep steady. 

The Rock Castle is the most trap dense of the lot, cycling through a few different gimmicks that Dracula’s Castle picks up on. Several rooms are adorned with spikes that launch out of the wall right. Your only indication that you’re about to be impaled is a light that flashes next to each spike. You have to be observant and jump as soon as the spike comes at you so Christopher can scale them like a makeshift staircase. Mechanical pillars lift the ceiling up and down to crush you in different rooms. Although you can carefully maneuver below most, you have to destroy the last one’s mechanism to use it as a platform. Between trap-heavy level design and a “Mega Manianapproach to progression, Belmont’s Revenge ends up with a unique gameplay loop for a Castlevania game. 

Castlevania Belmont's Revenge Rock Castle - image courtesy https-::rq87.flyingomelette.com:

The presentation is also a big step up from The Adventure. Sprites have more detail to them, but backgrounds, in particular, look fantastic. Hieroglyphs and cracks cover the walls of the Rock Castle. The crystals in the Crystal Castle have a glossy sheen as temples can be seen sitting on mountaintops in the distance. Flowers sway in the Plant Castle and bright black candles christen your entrance into the Cloud Castle. The second stage of Dracula’s Castle is covered in stained glass windows and marble columns that help bring the setting to life. 

Hidehiro Funauchi is the only composer to return from The Adventure (and the only composer credited on Belmont’s Revenge period), but the score is just as good if not even better. New Messiah is an energetic track that gets the adrenaline pumping as you make your way through the Crystal Castle. Praying Hands starts out as a dreary melody that morphs into a triumphant tune. Original Sin is a proper headbanger. Castle #2 is a haunting theme that perfectly sets the tone for the last set of stages while Road of Enemy builds up to each boss fight with a foreboding track. Funauchi’s 4-bit rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is an absolutely inspired choice for a confrontation between father and son. There’s not a single weak song in the soundtrack. 

Belmont’s Revenge is a sequel that does right by its predecessor. It takes what didn’t work in The Adventure and gives everything a second chance for success. Whip downgrades make for a decent risk when only one enemy in the whole game can cause the effect. Ropes are an interesting alternative to staircases, offering some more natural verticality to the level design. Even bringing Christopher back for a direct sequel almost endears the audience to him. He didn’t have much of a character the first go around, but the fact he’s trying to save his son does lend him a uniquely compelling motivation no other Belmont has. The game just has that Castlevania charm the Game Boy couldn’t handle in 1989. The Adventure stumbled so Belmont’s Revenge could soar. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

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