Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, no series could sell me on a platform like Castlevania. I loved the NES trilogy, and when early screens of sequels for Game Boy and Super NES began to materialize, those systems shot right to the top of my must-have list. Once I finally got my hands on a Super NES, I immediately sought out Super Castlevania IV, and it was everything I had hoped for.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing for the series’ Game Boy incarnation, Castlevania: The Adventure. By all appearances, The Adventure should have been nothing short of portable perfection. It captured the detailed, iconic look of Castlevania brilliantly. Not only with its hunched whip-wielding Belmont protagonist, but with the scenery, too. Konami had a knack for crafting utterly gorgeous miniature worlds on NES with the same colors and limitations as everyone else, and their Game Boy artists somehow achieved the same effect without even using color. Likewise, the company’s insanely talented musicians squeezed the best tunes out of the Game Boy sound chip that the system had yet produced. Castlevania: The Adventure should have been great… right?
Unfortunately, there’s more to a game than looks and music, and The Adventure fell short in every other area. But foremost among its failings, the game was unbearably sluggish. Every single action in the game ran at what appeared to be half-speed, and that same lack of celerity trickled down to affect every element of the game. Christopher Belmont felt like he was ignoring the player’s commands much of the time, failing to respond to button presses in the heat of action. He slogged ploddingly through the Transylvania landscape, puttering with all the urgency of a pensioner on the way to a picnic.
Somehow, though, the world around Christopher didn’t seem to be affected by those same limitations. Enemies moved about as quickly as they did in the NES games. Moving platforms would drop rapidly from beneath Christopher’s feet. The series’ already rigid expectations of pixel-perfect play took on a miserable new dimension here as players founds themselves grossly overmatched and forced to rely on a combination of memorization and sheer luck. Castlevania: The Adventure proved guilty of the gravest offense a Castlevania game could commit: It failed to recapture the series’ innate sense of rhythm and reflex.
If anyone had been paying attention, they would have recognized a pattern in Castlevania releases. The series had a wild hit-or-miss dynamic, with releases alternating between excellence and miserable failure. Yes, the NES trilogy was top-notch (even if Simon’s Quest stumbled with some unintuitive design), but all the other games were thudding failures. Haunted Castle was an abomination of hideous visuals and sloppy, arbitrary level layouts; Vampire Killer gang-pressed the original Castlevania‘s design into a wandering, frequently unfair mess of non-linear corridors and cheap hits.
The reality of the Castlevania series is that great Castlevania games are insanely difficult to make. Konami has missed as often as it’s hit, and tiny details can cause an entire entry to go awry. Just look at the difference between Super NES Dracula X and Rondo of Blood: They’re largely the same game, but Rondo feels almost indescribably superior to the American release for its fine details and more expansive layouts. The Adventure could have been to Castlevania III as Super Mario Land was to Super Mario Bros. 3: A quirky take on the concept that nevertheless succeeded on its own merits. But the fundamental magic of the series, present in Super Mario Land, failed to materialize for Castlevania: The Adventure.
The game offers weird, off-putting takes on series standards. You don’t climb stairs, you shimmy up ropes. There are no skeletons, just armored hulks who throw boomeranging scythes and look like Ninja Gaiden rejects. You don’t collect sub-weapons; instead, Christopher’s whip powers up a couple of times, ultimately gaining the ability to fire a ball of destructive energy from its tip. But his whip power suffers from the same degradation as the gun in Blaster Master, shedding a level of power each time an enemy connects. Hearts therefore don’t function as sub-weapon currency; they work like hearts in every other action game and restore Christopher’s health. The only other power-up takes the form of holy crosses, which grant Christopher brief invincibility.
The crosses really throw the game’s design failures into sharp relief. They’re often used as a free pass in area where platform layouts or enemy placements are so poorly arranged that you can’t possibly squeak past without taking a hit unless you rely on invincibility: The very definition of awful game design. In many cases, enemies and hazards are arranged in such a way that you have to play just so in order to avoid taking damage; there’s very little room for improvisation or player agency in Castlevania: The Adventure.
And in any case, there’s little motivation to bother. The game is so clumsy, so deliberately antagonistic, that the only reason you’d want to play the game more than once is you were a kid with a limited allowance and the poor fortune to have bought The Adventure as your sole new game pickup for the season. And my heart goes out to you if that describes you.
Like most Japanese publishers of the ’80s, Konami didn’t bother crediting its designers for The Adventure, so it’s difficult to say who exactly worked on the game. According to MobyGames’ unsourced credits list, no less than Nobuya Nakazato (of Contra and Rocket Knight fame) and Masato Maegawa (who would establish Treasure a few years later) were leads on The Adventure. If true, this would rank among the lower tier of their creations — making its lack of credits a blessing of sorts. Edit: Oops, I lied. Thanks to Rey from VG Museum.
In any case, given the officially stated involvement of several long-time Konami in-house composers (including future Treasure co-founder Norio Hanzawa) clearly point to this as an internal project. But clearly it wasn’t the work of the standard Castlevania team, who were occupied with designing Castlevania III at the time. Many of The Adventure‘s more awful design choices were smoothed over for Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, only to resurface nearly a decade later in Castlevania Legends, developed at the short-lived KCE Kobe.
Whatever the case, Castlevania: The Adventure may well be the worst game we’ve seen on Game Boy to date. Sure, there have been some bland or dull titles, but none that so utterly squandered a world-class property like we see here. The discrepancy between potential and outcome here is truly breathtaking and a sign of further missteps to come on the platform.
Castlevania: The Adventure
Japanese title: Dracula Densetsu • ドラキュラ伝説
Release date: 1o.27.1989 [JP] | 12.1989 [US] | 1990 [EU]
Genre: Action (platformer)
Super Game Boy: N/A
Previous in series: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest [NES, 8.18.1987 [JP]]
Next in series: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse [12.22.1989]
Similar titles: Kid Dracula [Konami, 1993], Ninja Gaiden Shadow [Natsume/Tecmo, 1991]
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. packaging
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. package contents
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. box front
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. box back
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. cartridge
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. manual front
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. manual back
Castlevania: The Adventure | U.S. ad insert