Castlevania Legends – Game Boy
Platform: Game Boy
Release Date (NA): March 11th, 1998
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
Legends would be the third and final Castlevania title released for Nintendo’s Game Boy and suffered somewhat of a tragic fate being released so close to the end of the handheld’s life. With the Game Boy Color only a few months away, many fans wondered why Konami didn’t hold off on its release. It is, however, notable for being one of the few Game Boy games that received “enhancements” for the Super NES add-on, the Super Game Boy. Although also known for having the series’ first female lead character and one of the oldest conflicts in Castlevania chronology even 15 years later, it’s still often regarded as the black sheep of the family and remains scarce on the used market due to its unpopularity.
Is Castlevania Legends a horrible game? Not really, but it fails to make an impression, and it’s easy to see how players were less-than enthusiastic about its release on an aging handheld. Even the Super Game Boy enhancements weren’t much of a draw as the SNES had long since been replaced by 5th generation systems. Judged on its own and against the other Game Boy titles, The Adventure and Belmont’s Revenge, it is at least a passable if not underwhelming game. It’s certainly a step in the right direction from the choppy and sluggish The Adventure, but it fails to match Belmont’s Revenge improvements and creativity.
The game begins in the year 1450 and alludes to Count Dracula’s first tenure as Transylvania’s threat. At the time, Sonia Belmont (the main character) was the first Belmont to go up against the threat and only Lament of Innocence is set earlier. The ending refers briefly to her son, assumed to be the Trevor Belmont of Dracula’s Curse. There isn’t really much more to tell; again it’s the struggle between man – or in this case mankind – and vampire.
Gameplay mostly follows that of Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge though it doesn’t seem to be designed quite as well. Sonia is frequently rushed by unrelenting enemies who take several lashes to destroy. Fans of Castlevania’s earlier years will be used to the respawning of enemies, but in Legends the concept is taken far beyond an acceptable level. Foes and monsters literally reappear even if the player has just defeated them, walked barely out of sight, and then turns around. It leaves Sonia in a perpetual state of seemingly meaningless combat, makes the game needlessly harder, and discourages exploration.
Indeed one element that does make its way into Castlevania Legends is the opportunity to explore. The preceding Game Boy titles may have had the player constantly moving up or down or left or right, but the path was almost always linear with no chance of divergence. Legends contains several forks in the road, some of which lead the player to valuable items while others are nothing more than dead ends designed to run down the clock. Trekking around this iteration of the castle would be a high point of the game if it weren’t for the masses of enemies awaiting on each screen.
Controls are least on par with what they should be. There’s nothing remarkable or improved about them, but those that found the controls in Belmont’s Revenge enjoyable are likely to find these at least adequate. Jumping mechanics are smooth and responsive as is combat, and navigating moving platforms, hanging ropes and chains, and running across bridges is easy enough. One advantage that Sonia has is not bumping her head on an overhead platform when leaping through the air, allowing for much more freedom of movement and a lot less frustration.
Sonia is able to upgrade her whip first to a chain whip and then to a projectile-shooting flame whip just like in the other 2 games, however she does not always lose it when getting hit. Whether this was a developmental oversight or not I can’t be sure, but it makes it hell of a lot easier to clear rooms from the safety of ropes or strategically handle the hordes of uber-tough, armor-plated enemies that abound. Sub-weapons still exist, albeit in a different form. Instead of semi-randomly picking up knives and vials of holy water along the way, Sonia gains a new ability each time she defeats a stage boss. Generally these consume quite a number of hearts and are designed for clearing difficult rooms in one fell swoop rather than acting as an auxiliary offensive capability.
Level design is composed of a good mix of vertical “shafts” and horizontal corridors. There’s a good variety of jumping, walking, climbing, and avoiding, but when enemies are factored into the equation many areas seem small and cramped. Indeed almost the entirety of the last 2 levels takes place in underground caverns which allow very little space for accurately planning enemy kills. It’s way too easy to get stuck in a narrow tunnel and to be pummeled with bats so hard and fast that there’s almost no way to whip at them, run away from them, or avoid them.
With all this talk of Castlevania Legends’ “unintentionally difficulty” as I call it (where the difficulty appears to stem from poor level design, overly simplistic computer AI, etc.), I almost forgot one of the most immediately noticeable differences from every other Castlevania release. As the game starts, the player has a choice to play through “Standard” or “Light” mode. Standard Mode is the game proper, while Light Mode permanently equips Sonia with the flame whip (the one that shoots a fireball). Stronger enemies seem to be a little weaker sometimes though I haven’t carried out an exhaustive analysis. I was also able to run across food slightly easier whereas it’s a tad scarce in Standard (like every Castlevania game). There doesn’t seem to be a reduction in the number of adversaries, though I’d go as far as to say that at least in some instances they are less aggressive. I’m basing these “findings” on years of video gaming experience, not a scientific study, so it could be the effect of having played through the game already. Whatever the case, the invariable flame whip is the real kicker here.
One feature I looked forward to the most in Legends were the Super Game Boy enhancements. Granted this might not have held much appeal to gamers back in ’98, but as a purveyor of everything I can get my hands on when it comes to hardware, my interest was sufficiently piqued. After playing on the GBA for awhile and enduring a few crashes, I moved over to the Game Boy Player on the GameCube to finish things up. Now, a few hours later, I’ve dug out the Super Game Boy and flipped the switch on my ready-to-go SNES. Unfortunately, the physical shape of the add-on doesn’t allow me to use the GameShark Pro. I could probably chip away or sand off some chunks of the plastic casing, but that would be stupid (maybe). It’s also completely possible that even if the units did fit together the older Game Boy architecture in the Super Game Boy wouldn’t be able to process the GameShark Pro anyway. This could, however, be a worthy reason to look into a dedicated Game Boy GameShark. (The GameShark Pro is technically for the GBC, but I’ve had no trouble inputting and using codes for original Game Boy games.)
At any rate, the so-called “enhancements” are rather dull. I guess I was expecting too much; a full colored masterpiece maybe, but even still I never realized the upgrade would be so trivial. To start with, there’s a nice castle-esque border around the screen’s playing area, ornate and appropriate for the game’s theme. The title flashed up in full color with reds and yellows. And then the actual game starts. The player stats in the bottom use a range of color; yellow for the clock, pink for the hearts, and so on, but the main game is still little more than two-tone. By pressing X on the SNES controller the user can toggle between green-tinted and orange-tinted, but that is all. Even the imposition of blues and greens for static elements and reds for moving ones on the GBC / GBA look better than what’s offered here. I suppose some credit should be given for what an improvement it is over the original Game Boy screen. It is, after all, bigger and devoid of that horrible blur effect found on the Game Boy.
The graphics of Castlevania Legends are decent enough once you get over the “been there, done that” first impression. Church-like windows, dead trees, and tombstones are a few of the nice touches dotted around. There’s also a number of clock-like, gear geared rooms (again with Castlevania and clocks!) rendered in surprising detail, and the caverns below the castle excel at evoking claustrophobia and dread. Though effective and well-done, they don’t quite match the splendor and awe of Belmont’s Revenge.
The music and sound are typically considered stand-out elements of Castlevania’s run on the Game Boy, and the same can be said of Legends. With strong pipe organ-ish synth tunes befitting of the subject matter, it’s easy to see how impressive it was to hear this kind of music on such an old system. The attention given to crafting eerie yet majestic background music for such a low-tech game is perhaps even more admirable.
Sadly, Castlevania Legends has become little more than a footnote for most fans, though it is a coveted collectible for some. Time is Legends’ greatest enemy; released a whopping 7 years after its predecessor, casual fans were uninterested in an offering for the waning Game Boy. It’s easy to see why this release didn’t garner much attention in its prime, and either Konami had a trick up their sleeve that they never used or were oddly unaware of the impending Game Boy Color. Legends should probably best be appreciated as “just another Game Boy game,” and in that respect it succeeds. Though not an exceptional Castlevania entry, it is a competent game even if the execution misses the mark in a few areas.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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