Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge - The Successful Rescue Effort
Christopher Belmont came out of retirement to salvage his good name, and my car trips were all the better as a result.

Really, there was no logical reason for me to have any interest in a direct sequel to Castlevania: The Adventure--a trudgingly slow nightmare of a video game whose level of frustration was comparable to anything I'd experienced in some of the most punishing, hatefully designed games of all time (Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts 'n Goblins and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles among them). Even by the summer of 1991, months after purchasing Adventure, I still couldn't claim to have seen Dracula's mug, nor was I convinced that I possessed the skill or the patience necessary to make it to him in one piece. It got to a point where it was no longer worth the aggravation, so I gave up trying.

Frankly, mine were experiences so miserable that I'd pretty much closed the book on the idea of a Castlevania game being viable on the technically deficient Game Boy.

That sentiment extended to the recently revealed Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, the excitement for which seemed somewhat muted compared to the kind of attention I assumed a big-name series like Castlevania could reliably command (I missed all of the build to Adventure's release, so I had no real sense for how the games media originally felt about miniaturized Castlevania sequels). I don't remember there being any meaningful pre-release coverage in Nintendo Power, and what I'd read in general gaming magazines was a combination of unenthusiastic and uninformed; theirs was an investment so minimal that the best commentary they could muster was the inaccurate, falsely exuberant declaration that "Simon Belmont is back!" and a plot description that painted Belmont's Revenge a rehash of Castlevania-- as if every entry since then had been nothing more than a spin on Simon's original NES adventure.

Now, I could protest the fact that the press, annoyingly, was misrepresenting the game's plot elements, but I could offer no defense for what I was seeing in the accompanying screenshots--each frightening pea-green depiction recalling scarring mental imagery as left by Castlevania: The Adventure ("You have to climb ropes again?!"). 

Needless to say, I had no plans of subjecting myself to that kind of horror a second time.

Yeah--you know how this story goes. For however off-putting those previews were (from a few different angles), I wasn't exactly prepared to ignore the existence of Belmont's Revenge. I mean, I was a huge fan of the series, after all, and couldn't deny my interest to at least learn about the game's storyline implications and the depth of its enemy cast. So it wasn't going to do me much harm to read through Nintendo Power Volume 29's feature coverage, whose title page was dominated by an admittedly-attractive-looking rendering and specifically the game's packaging artwork wherein the hero, Christopher Belmont, could be seen standing near a castle entrance--a darkened orifice through which unwelcome guests were no doubt disgorged en route to being dropped off the nearby mountain cliff--preparing to unleash a backhand whip-strike on what looked to be the "Iron Doll" boss depicted later in the piece.

I was honestly intrigued by what the feature was advertising; it spoke of a portable Castlevania game that was both focused and very much cognizant of its predecessor's shortcomings. In fact, it was prefaced right there in the opening text that (a) you could now "slide down ropes" and (b) the controls had been refined. Furthermore, Belmont's Revenge was said to boast a greater variety of content via four alternately themed castles and a Mega Man-like formula that would allow me to tackle them in whichever order I so pleased! Talk about a marriage made in heaven!

Also, the classic sub-weapons--or at least two them--would be returning, their mere presence working to add a sense of authenticity to the experience. There would be a handy password system, alleviating the need for me to have to continually play through the game from the start whenever I'd briefly abandon it following any failed run. And boss characters like the lightning-harnessing Darkside and the embedded goat twins Kumulo and Nimbler (who I always thought were incorrectly assigned as the guardians of Plant Castle, since the etymology of their names suggested more of a "Cloud" Castle connection) made for a compelling cast--a bravely creative assortment of foes when it would have made sense for the designers to safely retreat and recycle a more-dependable ensemble of phantom bats, mummies, gorgons and reapers. I'm glad they didn't.

I picked up nothing but good vibes from the magazine's portrayal of Belmont's Revenge (which was strange considering how strongly it resembled a game I hated) and could now envision a future in which a successor to Castlevania: The Adventure was part of my growing collection. It was my biggest turnaround of opinion since, you know, the last time.

Apparently, Belmont's Revenge had arrived in stores well before the Nintendo Power issue reached my mailbox--in the September month following my birthday--but I balked at the notion of spending any of my newly unearned riches on a Game Boy game, since I'd already decided to invest most of it in a little thing called the SNES. Also, I was still rightfully fearful that Belmont's Revenge could still potentially turn out to be another Castlevania: The Adventure despite its alleged improvements. The best solution, then, was for me to include Belmont's Revenge on my Christmas list for that year, since getting the game for free would go a long way toward negating any doubts I had about its quality.

Belmont's Revenge had one thing going for it from the start: It clearly inherited Adventure's propensity for high-quality tunes. I liked in particular the intro theme, which succeeded in embellishing the scrolling plot description (Dracula unknowingly survived the previous battle with Christopher and eventually recovered enough energy to possess his son, Soleiyu, who would now be unavailable for vampire-hunting duty) with an agonizing sadness that framed the entire adventure for me; at the least, it touched me enough to where I  would frequently attempt to reproduce the tune on my Concertmate-1000 keyboard--probably more so because it was simple in composition and I possessed no actual piano-playing skill (though, I could play a mean Halloween). I remember when I performed it for a few of my visiting friends, including our freshly naturalized South Korean classmate, Young, who summed up my musical talents with confused laughter and the single utterance of "What the hell?"

From that point on, Christopher's adventure was as much about redemption as it was revenge--an exercise in wiping away the bad taste of Adventure and better-realizing its concepts. The game's action, for instance, moved more briskly due to wiser allocation of resources--mainly the graphical designer's effort to avoid overloading the system's processor with overly detailed backgrounds and instead defer to a restrained approach of providing important touches only where necessary; this resulted in backgrounds that were sparsely decorated but still featured loads of delightfully atmospheric touches like horse-riding, spear-wielding warrior statues (whose helmets looked more to me like frog hats), kneeling skeletons, stained-glass windows, distant temples, carnivorous plants, and, of course, imposing mountainscapes. (It wasn't my intention to condemn Adventure's graphical design by comparison, since I thought it was the better-looking of the two, but it was obvious that its over-ambitious background work was the chief reason why the Game Boy was constantly struggling to render its world.)

The level design was fully coherent, offering none in the way of those obnoxious screen-mapping mazes, and featured well-implemented split paths and creative challenges like navigating across the spindles of dangling spiders and pulleys whose moving cables could reverse direction in a snap. Rope-climbing still wasn't an ideal means of travel, but the quick-slide maneuver and the ability to whip while rope-bound made it less of a nuisance; the mechanic was actually used quite cleverly in some instances, like in a series of rooms where I had to tactically descend down ropes to work around and outpace undulating spike-lined surfaces.

And the enemy cast, though small in scope, featured a nice mix of returning Adventure miscreants and a fun selection of new enemy types like dagger-throwing lizards, rope-climbing skeletons, and initially dormant mollusks that would spring to life whenever the screen would go dark as a result of Christopher cutting off the insulated Rock Castle's lone light source--the candelabras, whose tempting accessibility was the bait.

Above all, though, I continued to be impressed by the game's outstanding soundtrack. Adventure fared well in this category, too, but Belmont's Revenge blew it out of the water with a superior selection emotionally ambient, stage-defining tunes. Each piece told a unique story, its composition imbued with a depth and complexity that captured my imagination and allowed me to form powerful mental images of the castles' settings--mine richer in color and scale than any of those grainy images being output by the Game Boy's monochrome screen. These were the kinds of tunes that would continue playing in my head for the rest of the day following, their resonance carrying with them the spirit of Belmont's Revenge.

I don't believe I'm unique in saying that my favorite tune belonged to Cloud Castle (Praying Hands or "Background Music 2," according to the English version's sound test). Its elaborate introduction sequence, alone, had the ability to trigger an invasion of goosebumps, and every amazingly composed section in following--including every sustained note and intertwining strain--could rouse my fighting instincts and evoke feelings of determination and righteous fury. It was the perfect augmentation to a Cloud Castle I envisioned being flanked on all sides by those flickering mountains as seen at its entrance, their tight grasp ensuring that none of its undead occupants could escape my wrath.

In future play-throughs, I couldn't wait to wait to reach Cloud Castle (it was always my final selection, since I felt that its aesthetics strove to create an air of culmination) only for the purpose of parking the Game Boy at my side and listening to its invigorating theme for several minutes before advancing forward, time-limit be damned. That Belmont's Revenge contained a hidden sound test was a nice bonus, since its presence allowed me to turn on the system at any time and listen to the Cloud Castle music without having to force poor Christopher to stand there at the castle's entrance for an hour.

I was also a fan of that quietly foreboding, jazzy pre-boss music, which functioned well to swiftly bring me back to reality and appropriately shift the moon to concerning and cautious in light of the boss' proximity. 

Belmont's Revenge was a musical feast from start to finish, and that's likely to remain how I'll best remember it.

The rest of the game was pretty great, too. It didn't turn out to be as challenging as Adventure (that is, it didn't present any challenges quite as infuriating as the graveyard's toothpick-platform sequence or the scrolling Death Tower; also, the bosses' patterns were predictable, and it was easy to overwhelm them with sub-weapons), which was fine by me; being able to competently manage what the game was throwing at me was the main reason I enjoyed it so. I mean, it took me a while to endure my way through the three Castlevania stages and particularly the Soleiyu and Dracula battles, but I could never grow angry with Belmont's Revenge; it was just too much fun to play!

Actually, I chose to tackle the game's final trials from the backseat of my father's car. A big part of those car trips was my learning and relearning the positioning for avoiding Soleiyu's dagger storms and Dracula's rotating-orb attacks. It's not that I didn't want to seriously play it at home as much as it felt most appropriate to experience a portable Castlevania game on a Long Island or New Jersey highway, where the most prevalent visual was the endless woodland whose mysterious, wondrous influence permeated the leather confines of that car and provided what I considered a fantastic atmosphere for some Dracula-slaying.

In time, Belmont's Revenge became my ultimate "road game"--the main event of any rush whose entrants included the Super Mario Land titles, Tetris and Mega Man II. It managed to retain that rank right up until the year I retired my Game Boy (sometime in the mid-90s, when I wasn't traveling with my parents as much). Whenever faced with the prospect of a boring 2-hour car trip, I could always rest easy knowing that Belmont's Revenge would be there to supply me all of the Castlevania-branded fun I could possibly need; I could genuinely refer to it as one of my favorite entries in a series that boasted all-time classics like Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Super Castlevania IV. It meant that much to me.

Belmont's Revenge has the misfortune of being sandwiched between two intensely mediocre games, which might be part of the reason why it's so painfully overlooked by the games media and series fans alike. And that's a shame, because I think it would still rate as a quality portable action game even by today's standards. I'd like for its creators to give it a chance to make that case by re-releasing it for, say, the 3DS Virtual Console--in a format where its quintessential Game Boy aesthetics would be best appreciated. The small screen is where it belongs, and I hope to see it there again one day.

In the end, Christopher Belmont's second effort expanded well beyond simply saving his son. He was also able to clear away the specter of Castlevania: The Adventure and rescue the series' good name from the rotting depths of the portable graveyard.

May time choose to remember him as the redeemer and forefather of a cherished portable legacy.


  1. I agree that Belmont's Revenge was a HUGE improvement over Adventure (although I actually do like the first Gameboy Castlevania installment). Legends was such a step backwards from Belmont's Revenge though. Adventure --> Legends --> Belmont's Revenge would have been a more logical evolution, in terms of overall quality, in my eyes.

    I also had the same impression that Kumulo and Nimbler's names suggested Cumulus and Nimbus clouds and that they belonged in the Cloud Castle because of it However, it's really just localization garbage, because, in the Japanese instruction manual, their name is given as "Twin Trident" which makes a lot more sense, even if it's less exotic. There's a fair amount of name-swapping tomfoolery in the first two Gameboy games (Zeldo is really Nightstalker, Gobanz is Zeldo, Death Bat is Gobanz, Evil Knight is Metal Ghost, Dark Side is Lightning, etc.)

    I disagree that Adventure's background graphics are what caused the slow/unresponsive gameplay, rather, I think that Konami's developers just didn't have a firm grasp on the Gameboy hardware yet (and/or they rushed it out the door) and Christopher's poor handling in his debut game was reflection of that. There are any number of Gameboy titles with highly-detailed graphics than have smoother, more responsive gameplay.

  2. I figured the Kumulo and Nimbler mix-up was the result of flaky localization, but I didn't know about all of the name-switching that went on. And I have a "Translated Manual" document on my site, too, so you'd think I'd be aware of this stuff.

    So thanks for that info--it's something I should definitely mention on the site (with the proper credit given, of course).

    About "Adventure": Well, I guess I should note that what seemed "obvious" to the younger me wasn't necessarily the truth. The more wise and aware version of me (when I'm not reading translated game manuals that feature pertinent information) was able to deduce that the game's slowdown was caused by a combination of factors.

    Had I seen something like "Gargoyle's Quest" in action, I might have thought different at the time.