Saturday, December 20, 2014

Castlevania: The Adventure - Falling Short
Skeletons, Hunchbacks and Wolfmen? What Dark Lord needs 'em when he has the greatest ally of all: Incompetent game designers.

It was an improbable comeback for a video-game series I once categorically deemed unworthy of any further attention. It all started when the previously disregarded Castlevania III:Dracula's Curse somehow found its way into my home, as if guided by destiny, and took control of my life, deeply engrossing me in its wonderfully portrayed, hauntingly rendered world of myth, magic and monsters. With newly trained eyes, I gave the original Castlevania a second look and began to finally recognize its genius, the NES classic becoming another object of obsession. I bounced back and forth between the two, my lust for all things Castlevania unable be satiated.

What a bit of good fortune it was, then, that the next Castlevania game had already seen release and happened to be available the Game Boy, whose role in my life was also ever-burgeoning. My thoughts still dominated by the endlessly absorbing, imagination-tickling world of Dracula and friends, I decided that the key to my continued fulfillment just might be the monochromatic Castlevania: The Adventure, which I knew little about outside of what had been mentioned in passing by Nintendo Power, whose ambiguity on the matter I mistook as a ringing endorsement. If it was going to be mine, then all that was left to do was beg my mother to take me to Toys R Us after school so I could pick it up.

Now, Adventure would be the first Game Boy game I'd purchase with my own money, so there was of course a bit more in the way of hesitancy. After all--it was still an unknown quantity to me, since I missed all of the original coverage, and I was still stuck in the mindset that the Game Boy was only ideal for specific types of types of software like puzzle games and simple platformers. I had my doubts that the system could play host to a Castlevania game that boasted the expected level of quality. "But what am I worried about?" I reasoned. "It's made by Konami, which is on an absolute roll lately, and it has 'Castlevania' in the title? What could go wrong?"

Well, everything it seemed. 

I didn't like how it felt from the start. For one, I'd never played an action game that moved so sluggishly; the hero, Christopher Belmont, pushed forward as if he were wading through quicksand with 50-pound weights tied around his ankles. Also, the controls felt stiff and unresponsive, with Chris sometimes refusing to swing the whip when prompted, and there was this constant blurring effect that would strain my eyes if I focused too squarely. "What's going on here?" I wondered. I was almost convinced that my copy of the game was somehow defective.

Superficially, it resembled the NES games, but so much of it was weird and unfamiliar. I didn't know what to make of the enemies, for instance, and particularly those amorphous blobs that would plop down from above before taking humanoid form. The game's manual identified them as "Madmen," but I hardly found that to be a descriptive label. "I mean, are they supposed to be Zombies or Mudmen or maybe some combination of the two?" I speculated. To call someone a "madman" usually implied psychotic behavior, but these slime-soaked spooks were limited to slowly stalking forward as bound by the game's usual wind-tunnel resistance. It filled me with the sense that the game's creators were working without any knowledge of the script.

"Where are the fan-favorite Skeletons, Knights and Fishmen?" I wondered. Instead you had walking globs of goo, these annoying, featureless "goblins" (as best I could identify them) that would snap back whenever you'd strike them, and giant rolling eyeballs that would explode when whipped ("The what now?"). Also, none of candelabra items functioned traditionally, which only confused me. Now, I didn't have a problem with designers making changes in an attempt to keep things feeling fresh, but here the modifications were cosmetic, with morning stars, pot roasts and money bags being swapped for crystals, hearts, and coins that functioned the exact same way. And why use hearts for means of health regeneration? Oh, right--because there were no sub-weapons for them to power. "How did they forget those?"

If ever an interesting idea surfaced, its flame was soon extinguished by the game's punishing limitations. I thought it was a great idea to have the level-3 whip spew fireballs, adding a ranged element to Chris' offense in light no complementary sub-weapons, but then they went and ruined it by implementing this ridiculous whip-regression system, the whip's power downgraded one level following any enemy contact. Ropes replacing staircases wasn't a great offense, but naturally they took away the ability to whip while climbing, leaving me a dead duck in any of those scenarios where I'd ascend to the next screen and clam up at the sight of an enemy that was lingering too close to the entry point.

I'd only been playing Adventure for a few minutes, but it had already made enough of a poor impression to give me pause. It seemed that my original fear had been realized--that Castlevania on the Game Boy might not measure up.

I wasn't completely down on Adventure, though. I was actually very impressed with its background work, which I observed to be crisp-looking, surprisingly detailed, and possessing of a certain characteristic that worked to capture that mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere I always appreciated. This was a visually appealing game, the opening woodland and the graveyard's oppressive mountainscape appropriately tapping into my sense of wonder (the latter backdrop representing one of my favorite video-game visuals). At the least, the quality of the game's imagery was a big factor in my reconsidering the Game Boy's graphical potential.

Likewise, Adventure featured strong musical accompaniment, its small collection of spooky, sinister-sounding stage tunes providing the perfect augmentation to the haunted game world. There were a few nice touches, too, like that creepy, ghostly wailing sound ravens would make whenever they'd appear onscreen. For as disappointed as I was with the gameplay, I had to give the game's sound and graphical designers a lot of credit; they really nailed the atmosphere and setting. It was just too bad the rest of the team had trouble keeping up.

I knew Adventure would be tough, but I couldn't imagine how it would go about providing its challenge. Such a questionable approach was evident by view of the game's first major hurdle--three darkly colored platforms located in the latter portion of Stage 1. I just knew they were going to collapse when I boarded them, but I had no idea they were going to drop like a sack of wet bricks, affording me no time to gather myself in preparation for the next jump. The 8-bit Belmonts weren't exactly known for their great leaping ability, and the sadistic, self-aware Adventure felt inclined to craft its platforming challenges with that physical weakness in mind; the problem was that it disregarded the processing lag that wasn't so much an issue in the NES games. I learned this lesson the hard way when I leapt off the precipice a tad too early and couldn't generate enough momentum to carry me over to the third platform, which seemed observably within reach.

It quickly became clear that I'd have to engage this sequence by jumping from the cliff's very edge, its last pixel, and continue doing so across the three collapsing platforms in following if I hoped to clear the expanse. Since I hadn't yet adapted to the game's sluggish speed and the particular timing it demanded, my first couple of attempts entailed everything from walking directly off the cliff, panicking and leaping off a collapsing platform too quickly, and coming up short because I jumped too late despite properly positioning myself.

The thing about bad games is that they tend to inflict their scars early. Forget the collapsing platforms; they weren't even the worst of it. Rather, the most traumatic mental image I took away from Adventure in this first session was of the platforming sequence found just beyond them--two sets of thin splinter platforms whose assemblage stretched on for miles. The previous section had only provided me a small taste of the game's cruel, unrefined jumping mechanics, and now the game was ready to serve me the main course.

Foremost, it was another instance where required was pixel-perfect precision, lest I'd come up short on jumps, often falling through platforms even though it appeared I'd covered the distance. If I missed any of the jumps along the way, I'd have to backtrack to that section's starting point to try again. It didn't help that those obnoxious fluttering bats were positioned right around the section's midpoints, where they'd suddenly spring to life and crash into me from unwhippable angles, knocking me into gaps; and if that wasn't punishment enough, the requisite screen-scrolling would allow for these bats to repeatedly respawn, adding a considerable energy-draining factor to an already precarious platforming sequence. This entire segmet made for what was legitimately one of the most infuriating experiences in my long gaming history.

In addition to my being frustrated, it was likely that I'd make it to the stage boss, Gobanz, with a base-level whip, which was too short in length to counter his range and too wimpy to justify a close-quarters slugfest. The Game Boy's lower resolution made for smaller battlefields, which made Gobanz' mass all the more troublesome: He could limit my tactical maneuvering by stabbing his long spear weapon both forward and diagonally upward, essentially covering half the screen, and he had the propensity to crowd me into corners, where I'd inescapably suffer repeated hits. In reality, it only took me three or four attempts to vanquish Gobanz and complete the stage, but the challenges insofar, though not overwhelming, were substantial enough to where I had to stop and wonder, "If this is only Stage 1, just how bad is this going to get?"

If only momentarily, I could always fall back on admiring the game's aesthetics. Stage 2's chilling theme and eerie setting delivered, providing instant personality to this tattered, neglected cavern that now stretched out before me. Otherwise, I wasn't a fan of the uncomfortably cramped level design and how the designers mischievously positioned several bats directly overhead where I couldn't initially reach them; it became obvious that there was no point in trying to combat the fluttering menaces, since the collective chaos of their movements left no angle for counterattack, so it became my strategy to simply rush forward and hope to avoid the storm. Sometimes the plan would work, but it was normal that I'd get caught in their net and bounced around, taking far too much damage for this early in the stage. I was starting to think that the designers had a limited number of nasty tricks and were intent to repeat them again and again, well past the point of reason.

Surprisingly, the areas in following had actual creative elements, starting with the introduction of the boomerang-tossing enemy called "Zeldo"--the series' first "mini-reaper," as I'd termed it; I was certain that his name was some type of reference to The Legend of Zelda, since both he and Link shared similar taste in weaponry. You had the appropriately grotesque, hand-shaped Punaguchis, which spit rebounding balls of globule. And there were also these cool bridge sequences where the explosions resultant from a Rolling Eye's death would destroy sections of their docks, leaving large gaps--a dilemma that added an interesting pick-your-poison element to the action. Though, the fallout from choosing violence was having to execute worrisome jumps or potentially cutting off further stage access if the gap created was too large (which would be the case if I destroyed two overlapping Rolling Eyes with one blow), so I instead adopted the tactic of simply jumping over them.

Even though I'd never again give the Rolling Eyes a chance to show off their explosive propensity, I still thought it was a neat effect and the first of which to make Adventure stand out from the NES entries. At the least, I started coming to terms with some of the game's divergent qualities. I mean, I continued to be disappointed by the lack of Skeletons, Bone Pillars, Medusa Heads, and the like, but I couldn't think of any good reason to resent the game for striving to carve out its own niche. Truly, Adventure was trying new things and succeeding in creating a unique identity for itself.

Of course, none of this made playing the game any more fun. No--dodging reverse-trajectory boomerangs and the balls of globule that just seemed to appear of nowhere was still just as maddening as any other challenge the designers could conceive. And what was worse was that all of this extra activity was only causing the action to slow down even more and causing all kinds of unintended input.

Naturally, the path in following had more in the way of those standard collapsing-platform sequences at which I'd routinely fail, forced to start the stage over from that nightmarish bat-infested cave opening. And because Adventure had to have at least one terribly designed sequence per stage, I was forced to discern a rather opaque maze element--two consecutive split paths that if incorrectly navigated would loop me back to either the start of the section or, more cruelly, the previous bridge area. The trek back to this point wasn't too great in length--merely a few screens--but the enemies that populated this section were efficient at draining health, so I couldn't afford to endure too many loops. 

It was all too much. After failing in the same spot too many times to count, I turned off the game, slightly miffed, and wouldn't return to it for a few days. Adventure didn't seem like the kind of game I'd want to take with me on the road, so I only played it at home and mostly in our quiet, sun-drenched living room, which lacked a more convenient light source but made up for it with a permeating feeling of warmth and an atmosphere that was perfect for playing portable games. 

I'd get farther into the game each time I'd return to it, but I wasn't really having fun; rather, the whole experience felt more like a painful grind to which I was only subjecting myself because I was a Castlevania fan and felt a sense of obligation. I'd constructed a warped philosophy whereby you had to complete every game from your favorite series if you hoped to continue extracting maximum value out of it. For me, leaving a game unfinished was akin to missing out on a pivotal part of a grand story, which could only dampen my future enjoyment of the series. Moreover, since I was now spending my own money on games, I felt I had play Adventure to completion to justify my sizable monetary investment.

The eventual completion of Stage 2 was a matter of figuring out the correct path through the maze segment and learning how to position myself to best counter the crevice-lurking Undermoles, which I felt made for the most unbecoming Castlevania boss ever. A pack of indistinguishable rodents, I thought, was a disappointing pick for a stage guardian considering Adventure was said to have so few of them. 

My story with Stage 3, which I'd mistakenly labeled a "Clock Tower," is one of fear and loathing. This absolute horror of a stage impeded my progress for months. The opening section, with its compacting, spike-lined surfaces, was nothing to sweat, but that in itself was the trap; as a comparative leisurely cruise, it gave me no indication of the hideous, godforsaken challenges I'd find waiting for me just beyond: Two painfully torrid, excruciatingly slow chase sequences where I'd be tasked with using inconveniently placed ropes to outrun vertically and horizontally moving spiked walls. And I'd have to do this while dealing with (a) these irritating, cruelly positioned worms that would unavoidably roll into me whenever I'd strike them with a low-level whip, and (b) and an unending series of nerve-wracking platforming challenges and perilous jumps. It was a bad idea to move deliberately, but it was also detrimental to move too quickly, since it was possible to hit Chris' head against the the invisible boundary as formed by the top-most screen barrier.

It didn't take long for me to learn how to fear this third stage, whatever it was supposed to be, and I can't even find the will to sift through the traumatizing thoughts to recall how many times I died and how many hours I spent trying to fruitlessly outrace the spikes. I maybe made it to the boss one time and got destroyed, paralyzed by the enormity of what the game was asking me to do here. I don't think I scored a single hit, nor did I have time to identify a clear pattern. One defeat at the claws of this beast was all that was necessary for me to realize that this was as far as I was going to get; I switched off the Game Boy and pulled out the Adventure game pak, convinced that I would never achieve ultimate victory. 

For a year in following, my lasting image of Adventure was that of a slog through a brutally designed scrolling segment and an unassailable flying creature--the "Death Bat," whose terrifying shape continued to resonate with me even though I couldn't fully recall its actual appearance. I just remembered it as that stage boss I had no chance of defeating.

As Super Castlevania IV neared its release date, my enthusiasm for the series started rocketing back toward its peak. Though, if I was to be prepared for the arrival of a new series entry, I'd first have to attend to some unfinished business; that is, I'd have to snap Castlevania: The Adventure back into my Game Boy and this time play it to completion! Now, I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I remember that one of my multiple attempts resulted in a flawless run that carried me straight on through to the Death Bat, my health maxed out and my whip fully powered; I managed to defeat the thing, but it still boiled down to a battle of attrition, since I seemed incapable of dodging its swooping attacks.

I was excited to finally set my eyes on the final stage, to walk upon the sacred ground that for so long alluded my boot-steps. I wasn't feeling too confident, considering what the game had put me through, but I was happy to find out what surprises this final stage had in store for me.

Continuing the trend, this final stage welcomed me with appropriately ominous music, and its main visual, an assemblage of knight statues and connected pillars, communicated a palpable air of finality. Those Knights that popped out from the background? I saw it coming, but I liked the idea and was pleased to see a familiar-looking enemy. For a moment, I was pleased with how things were unfolding. Though, my excitement soon turned into apprehension and then despondency as what came into view reminded me of past hardships: "Oh, no!" I thought to myself as I watched Gobanz march into the frame. "Bosses recycled as normal enemies, just like the Phantom Bats in Castlevania!" This Gobanz went down pretty easily compared to the one in the first stage, but I still interpreted his reappearance as a dire warning that the difficulty was about to spike to obscene levels.

The stage, itself, was nothing more than a lengthy endurance run featuring narrow passages packed with the game's most resilient enemies, moving platforms amidst spike-lined rooms, protruding spike columns whose surfaces had to be utilized as platforms, and every cheap trick the designers could still muster.

My ultimate roadblock was a single room as patrolled by three Gobanzes. I could never make it here with decent whip power, which was all but required at this point. Sure--there was plenty of space to take out the first Gobanz, regardless of the whip's power-level, but the encounter would often entail me having to constantly retreat until I was almost pinned in the corner. The problem was that I couldn't employ the same tactic against the second Gobanz, because too much in the way of backward motion would only respawn the first Gobanz, effectively sandwiching me, and there was no way in hell I was going to be able to fend off two of these big boys at one time. There were times when I'd try to tank past them as a last resort, but my energy meter would never hold up. 

The only thing I could "achieve" here with any regularity was death, the same outcome repeating over and over again no matter my approach.
I'd quit, try again a few days later, and meet my end in a predictable manner. No matter how many times I replayed the game and improved my skill--to where I could complete the first three stages without much struggle--the Gobanzes' spiky arms were certain to puncture my gut and decisively end my quest to destroy Count Dracula. This was a far as young me ever got in Castlevania: The Adventure.

Under normal circumstances, I probably would have never returned to Adventure. The only reason I went back to it in 1999--the reason I had to go back to it--was because I needed to capture some screenshots if I hoped to provide sufficient coverage of the game on my newly debuting website. I had to cheat my way to the finale, force to use save-states due to the fact that I still found the Gobanz room to be untraversable. From what I saw of the Dracula battle that awaited me only a few rooms beyond, I had no earthly idea how the developers expected me to legitamately endure that insane gauntlet and then survive a two-phase battle against a final boss that was by far the series' most formidable. 

That's how I played Adventure in following--on an emulator using copious amounts of save-states. I felt that I had no choice; I couldn't fathom any possible scenario in which I was capable of retaining enough health to stand up to that monstrously difficult second form, a seemingly unassailable giant bat, and finish the game.

Though, I never felt good about having to resort to such unsavory methods, and my inability to lay claim to legitimately completing Adventure continued to stick in my craw. I mean, I'd beaten just about every other series game, but Adventure's existence prevented me from being able to boast that I'd conquered all of them, which I thought was a real shortcoming for a guy who was allegedly a super-fan of Castlevania and even made a dedicated website in tribute. So I returned to Adventure in early 2002 and played through it on my Game Boy Advance, swearing that this would be the occasion when I'd finally beat the game that had tormented me since childhood. The story of triumph ended much like the ones I've told for Zelda II, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, Ninja Gaiden, and all those other terribly difficult games--with me finally exercising those long-lurking demons by eking out a victory after a marathon session that left me on the brink of emotional exhaustion. I've repeated the feat only one or two times since.

Currently, I have no plans to ever give it another go, since I can't find space for a game that's just too too slow, too plodding, and too taxing on my patience.

Now, I maintain that Castlevania: The Adventure is a "bad" game, but there's something about it that prevents me from outright dismissing it; as I'm apt to do for games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES), I can wade into Adventure's muddy waters and keep my goggles clear of sludge long enough to spot the solid product buried beneath the hateful level design, the poorly implemented platforming mechanics, and the nagging processing issues. As I suggested in the review on my Castlevania site, Adventure has a lot of fine ingredients--striking graphics, a worthy soundtrack, a great sense of atmosphere, and a classic Castlevania vibe--but the developers just weren't able to whip up something edible, which is a shame.

And that's how I can best describe Castlevania: The Adventure, a game that so rattled my brain that I wasn't even able to figure out its correct title until just a few years ago ("Castlevania Adventure? The Castlevania Adventure? The Adventure Castlevania TM? WHAT THE HELL IS IT?"). Ours was an abusive relationship that never improved. I'll continue to speak of it as if I were an escapee from its torture camp, the scars permanently embedded in my soul. I don't like it, and I don't miss it, but I can't forget it. It'll continue to haunt my memories for all time.

All of this is to suggest that there's no chance of the two of us ever reconciling our differences and creating newer, happier memories, but I trust that I'll surely recall images of Castlevania: The Adventure during any of those special moments in life when I attempt to take a big leap forward but instead fall flat on my face.

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