I don't know about you, but I've got my own set of Halloween traditions. I buy some of the year's spooky tat from Poundland, I play through Night Slashers again, I watch horror movies until I start mentally assigning a specific monster-slaying role to each of my garden tools and, it seems, I tend to write about one Castlevania game. Well, this year is no different, so here's 2015's Transylvanian whip-em-up - Konami's 1997 Game Boy release Castlevania Legends!
This represents something of a personal journey of discovery for me, because Legends is one of the few Castlevania games I've never finished. I'm not sure why: maybe it's because by 1997 the Game Boy hardware was feeling a little too decrepit to endure, or maybe it's that I'd played Symphony of the Night by then and thought to myself "well, I guess there's no point playing any more Castlevania games because there'll never be one as good as this." To be fair, there hasn't been, although some of the handheld ones come close. Whatever the case, it's a gap in my CV CV that I'm going to fill today.
This is the hero of Castlevania Legends, and she's a heroine. Her name is Sonia Belmont, a young woman blessed a sensitivity to magic and a very aerodynamically streamlined face, with a nose like the prow of a mighty seafaring vessel. Until Konami erased Legends from the Castlevania canon and started anew with Lament of Innocence, Sonia Belmont was in fact the very first of the Belmont clan to take up the whip - there must have been a shortage of swords, axes and polearms in her hometown - and head into the night to face Dracula, who is up to his usual shenanigans. Although I suppose at this point they weren't "usual." He was just getting into the swing of this whole "dark oppressor of mankind" bit, which might explain why Castlevania Legends is not nearly as difficult as some of the other games in the series.
O'course, back in the olden days the moon was a lot closer to the Earth.
Thus Sonia grimly trudges toward her date with destiny, but at least it will be a romantically candle-lit date. One thing that works in the favour of the Belmonts is that it's never hard to find Dracula, is it? If I was the Lord of the Night, I'd rent a cabin in the mountains and leave a note on my throne that says "nice try, losers!"
The action begins, and from the outset it's clear that Legends is firmly in the traditional Castlevania mould of walking across the screen and using your whip to beat back the infernal horrors of the night, here represented by the ghost of a slug. There's none of the levelling up or swappable equipment found in most later Castlevania games - a genre shift precipitated by Rondo of Blood and finalised Symphony of the Night, which was released a few months before Legends - and I'm fine with that. The methodical, rhythmic action of a NES-style Castlevania game is a better fit for the limited Game Boy hardware than most other platforming series, so I've got relatively high hopes for the gameplay.
Some things are a little different from the traditional Castlevania games, though. For one thing, when Sonia powers up her whip twice it not only gets longer and more powerful but also gains the extremely useful ability to launch fireballs from the tip. Another is that the series' trademark diagonal staircases are replaced by ropes - as they were in the two earlier Game Boy Castlevania games - that Sonia can climb up and down, presumably to save screen space on the Game Boy's cramped display. The more things change the more they stay the same, though, and Sonia continues (or possibly begins) the Belmont family tradition of restoring her health by eating chicken legs she finds laying around in a vampire's castle.
The first stage starts as a forest scene before shifting to a graveyard setting backed by the imposing gates of Castlevania itself, and before long you'll be firmly in the hop-and-whip groove. I know I was, and then I spotted this candle. "Hark," I thought to myself, "a lone candle tucked away in a remote location, this is sure to contain something useful for Sonia's quest!" So I whipped it, which turned out to be a mistake.
Whipping the candle caused the floor to collapse, dropping Sonia into a pit filled with respawning zombies that she cannot escape without killing enough of the shambling ghouls to populate the next six or seven Walking Dead spin-offs. There's no reward or anything, it's just a trap, a trap that feels fiendish even for the work of Dracula himself. It's a Castlevania game, whipping candles is roughly fifty percent of the action! I know the trap candles are white while the normal candles are grey, but on the Game Boy screen, when the action is getting frantic... I can see myself falling into a lot of traps, is what I'm saying.
The experience of playing Castlevania Legends after the console editions of the franchise is a conflict between familiarity and change. The gameplay is generally the same, but the addition of the whip projectile takes some getting used to. The first stage's music theme is the classic Bloody Tears, but with a slightly different arrangement. These enemies are the the same spearmen that were forever poking the later Belmonts, only here they appear to be artist's mannequins pretending to be spearmen. They're not doing a great job, if I'm honest. The extra range afforded to them by their spears, usually a problem for a vampire killer, is negated by your whip's projectiles, and they don't seem to be able to stab straight up or down through platforms. I tested this extensively, by standing on the ledge above them and dancing about, mocking their lack of combat skills compared to their later brethren. I've played enough Castlevania over the years that I felt I'd earned a victory dance.
A ways further in, Sonia finds an axe, staple sub-weapon of the Castlevania series, allowing the wielder to throw axes in a high, arcing trajectory to deal with flying foes. Except in Castlevania Legends, where it doesn't do that at all. It's not a sub-weapon - I hadn't found a sub-weapon yet and I was starting to get full on hearts - but if you pause the game you can see the axe under the heading Collection Items. There are five Collection Items to find in total. I wonder why Sonia's collecting them but not using them? I suppose if you have a whip that shoots fire a regular old axe doesn't seem that exciting. I guess we'll find out!
Ah ha, we've nearly reached the entrance to Castlevania itself. How can I tell? Because this bridge is falling apart. If there's one thing Dracula loves more than the screams of the innocent, it's shoddy masonry work.
And now, a boss. A big flappy-winged bat creature, in fact. Yep. One of Dracula's minions, presumably. He swoops from one end of the screen to the other, breathes fire at Sonia and then flies back. He's not a great innovator in the field of vampire killer killing, that's for sure. Mind you, this being so early in the Castlevania timeline he's probably not used to people fighting back, bless him, it was mostly an existence of picking off humble peasants until now. Sonia most definitely did fight back, however, and so the monster was slain.
The slain monster left behind a cinnamon roll. How delicious! More importantly, it means that there's no-one standing between Sonia and stage two, so let's get moving.
I've taken only a couple of steps into the castle and already I've found what will undoubtedly be my favourite enemies in the game: giant flying skulls! Not just your average, common-or-garden flying skulls neither, the kind of flying skulls you're always shooing away from your bins or rescuing from trees: no, these skulls work like the Boos from Super Mario Bros in that they won't move if you're looking at them. They're shy! How adorable. Until they start stripping the flesh from Sonia's bones with their tombstone-sized teeth, anyway. That's always going to lose you points on the adorability-scale, just ask Cujo.
Less adorable are the hunchbacks. They don't care whether Sonia's looking at them or not, they've got more self-confidence than that. Fortunately Sonia can stop their shuffling advance with the help of her new power. You see, that cinnamon roll that the previous boss dropped was no mere pastry - it also granted Sonia the power to freeze time (and enemies) by consuming a few hearts. Instead of the usual sub-weapons, Sonia gets a new magic power after defeating each boss although, yes, this one is essentially identical to the stopwatch that appears in many other Castlevanias. I never usually bother with the stopwatch, preferring the direct approach of throwing cutlery or religious icons at the monsters, but in Legends I used it a lot. This is partly because it was the only use I had for my hearts at this point, but it is genuinely very handy because the Game Boy screen's lack of width means that enemies are often very close to you - and to each other - so stopping time buys you some precious, well, time to defeat them.
On the other hand, one of my biggest problems with Castlevania Legends is again a problem born of the narrow Game Boy screen, and it's that enemies very frequently attack from directly above Sonia, where she can't hit them. If only she had access to some kind of bladed weapon she could throw upwards in a high arc, that would be great.
For the most part, the stages are as linear as the NES entries in the series, but there are a few alternate paths and some doubling-back to be done. This almost always boils down to a choice of routes, one of which leads to that stage's Collection Item and a dead end and the other being the "correct" route, but there are a few other sections of note. For example, Sonia can't get across these spikes until she's been to the screen below...
...and defeated this large knight. Sir Pituitary Gland Problem here has an interesting fighting style: he stomps back and forth not doing much of anything before randomly lunging sword-first at our hero. Of course, she's flicking fireballs at him from across the screen so it's not that effective, and the whole thing comes across as him trying to scare the hiccups out of Sonia rather than a genuine attempt at murder.
Past the now-deactivated spikes is stage two's boss: this rather impressive dragon. It's a big sprite and surprisingly free of flickering, although his combat skills leave a lot to be desired. He spits fireballs, and you simply have to duck the high ones and whip the others while slapping the dragon in the face when the chance presents itself. Go on, he's not going to feel it. He's a zombie dragon, he's falling apart already. He's probably yearning for the sweet embrace of eternal rest anyway. You're doing him a kindness, really.
Stage three is distinctly more vertical, with Sonia climbing the many pulleys to be found within Castlevania's clock tower. The pulleys don't move when Sonia's hanging from them, which makes them pretty crappy pulleys, honestly. Here you can see what I mean about enemies attacking from above, and there's very little you can do to protect yourself without using your spells. Trying to move past the enemies or lure them backwards until they're at a more manageable height is tricky, too, because enemies respawn when you move back onto a previous screen and they respawn fast - you don't have to backtrack more than a couple of steps before all the monsters you just killed are back for round two. If you've got the hearts, it's definitely better to use your spells. Speaking of, the spell I got for beating the dragon allows Sonia to refill her entire health bar, which feels astoundingly generous for a Castlevania game of this type. Sure, it costs a whopping twenty hearts to use, but on the plus side you can switch between spells on the pause menu whenever you like rather than having to hold on to the one you want when it falls out of a candle.
This stage has a midboss. I think the bosses of stage one and two got together, had an intense physical encounter and then nine months later this little miracle was born. He clearly shares many traits with his parents, like dragon wings and being terrible at defending Dracula's castle. It's beginning to feel like these bosses aren't even trying, and I think I know why: they have grown complacent over the centuries, these many years during which no-one has opposed Dracula and the bosses could spend their time doing very little and collecting a fat paycheck. The Sonia turns up and this wyvern thinks "I'll just fly to the other side of the screen and spit some fireballs, that's always worked in the past," but things have changed, dragon-man, and if you don't move with the times then you'll be oh, Sonia's killed you already. Never mind.
At the top of one of the spires is the dagger, another Collection Item. Last stage it was the stopwatch, so Sonia's obviously collecting all the classic Castlevania sub-weapons, but to what end? As home decor? A memento of her journey, which will be cast aside the instant she find a t-shirt bearing the slogan "I endured the terrors of Dracula's castle and all I got was this lousy t-shirt"? Just out of petty spite, because she doesn't want Dracula to have them?
Do you think Dracula spends a couple of days every year using a special scraping tool to remove the ground-up bat carcasses and ectoplasmic leavings from the gears of his needlessly complicated clock, or does he get someone in to do it for him? I can't imagine there'd be many human contractors willing to take the job on. Maybe there's a special demon for cleaning clockwork.
At the top of the clocktower is the Grim Reaper, the harvester of souls, Death himself! That's to be expected, the clocktower is usually where you find him in any given Castlevania game. I think he likes surrounding himself with a visual metaphor for the relentless march of time, the big drama queen. What is less expected is Death being an embarrassing shadow of his usual terrifying self - often the toughest boss in a Castlevania game, here Death moves across the top of the screen in curve before lazily chucking out a sickle. It's so gentle and relaxing compared to a normal battle with Death that I'm surprised a rainbow trail doesn't pour out from under his robes as he arcs across the screen. If you stand in the middle he can only hit you with his sickles, and they aren't exactly in a hurry to embed themselves in your flesh. It's sort of heartening and sad at the same time, like the first time you realise you're better than your dad at something.
Stage four is more castle, made up of assorted parts of the earlier castle stages and as such there's not much to say about it. These large and fairly phallic - I'd give them a six out of ten on the dong-o-meter - worms are new. They tunnel under the ground towards you, but oddly they'll never pop up right under your feet. They always emerge just in front of you, so the only way they'll ever hurt you is if you're not paying attention and you walk right into them. They might as well be lampposts or extremely clean French doors.
Halfway through the stage Sonia is thrown into battle with Medusa. The dread gorgon of legend has lost her ability to turn people to stone just by looking at them. She has a sword instead. It is not a good replacement, especially because the sword's length means that Sonia can crouch in the far-right corner and Medusa can't hit her. Well, I can't say Dracula didn't learn from his mistakes, he had really whipped (no pun intended, for a change) this bunch of terrible bosses into shape by the time Simon Belmont turned up. Castlevania Legends' boss fights are a big let-down, and probably the most disappointing thing about the game, and you know if I'm complaining about boss fights being too easy then they must be exceptionally easy.
Oh, and when you kill Medusa her severed head flies away, presumably to start a brand-new species of sine-wave-shuffling Belmont murder machines. Thanks, Sonia.
I found the Holy Water item up in the rafters, but by now I'd gotten used to Sonia's unique skills and so I didn't feel like not being able to splash holy water around was a big loss. Her latest magic power lets Sonia land one weak hit on all on-screen enemies, which is incredibly useful for taking out the many, many bats that are packed into every crevice of the castle. I know Dracula is a vampire and bats are kind of his thing, but I'm going to put my foot down and say that there are too many bats in this game. I know, I know, I feel bad about uttering such a statement during the Halloween season but there are so many bats it's making me wonder why Dracula doesn't conquer the world financially, through the legal method of getting super-rich on all the guano that must be coating his entire goddamn castle.
It's time for the boss of stage four, and here's a familiar face: it's Alucard, Dracula's son who fights on the side of good, sleeps a lot and is not good at picking pseuodonyms! No, calling yourself "Arikado" isn't fooling anyone either. I suppose I can't blame Alucard - if my real name was Adrian Farenheight Tepes I'd probably consider changing it too.
It is revealed that Sonia and Alucard already know each other - and that they're more than just friends, given that Alucard calls her "my beloved," unless that's just the kind of thing it's mandatory for brooding men in frilly shirts to say. Then why are they trying to kill each other? Well, it's the usual set-up - Alucard wants to beat Dracula himself, and he doesn't think Sonia is strong enough to get the job done. Sonia says she is strong enough, Alucard says "prove it" and Sonia beats the crap out of him.
Alucard could have been the game's first interesting, challenging boss. He's got a wider variety of moves than the others, with fireballs and rapier thrusts, and he moves around quite quickly. Yes, Snoozy McCoffin here could have posed a threat if Sonia didn't have access to Burning Mode. Press the attack and jump buttons together and, once per life (or stage) Sonia will become completely invincible until the "B" gauge under her health bar runs out. Burning Mode lasts more than long enough for her to back Alucard into a corner and just whip and whip and whip until he is fully convinced that Sonia is the woman for the job.
Yup, I think Sonia's work here is done. Good hustle, though, Alucard. Real stoic in defeat there.
Woke up, got beat, went back to bed for a century or three. Why couldn't my dad have been a vampire lord? This is the life I was born to live!
I'm not sure I understand the geography here. I walked through a castle, climbed up a clock tower and now I'm in a flooded underground cave? I know Castlevania is supposed to be magical and ill-defined but I can't stop worrying about all the water damage in the lower chambers.
Making my way through the caverns, trying out my new soul power - a projectile attack that's practically useless if you've got a powered-up whip - I have to confess that that is more of the same. Platforms, monsters, hanging from ropes, only there's more of it and it's more difficult. That's not a complaint in the slightest, however, and as Game Boy action games go Castlevania Legends is firmly in the upper tier. I can't think of many better in the genre that aren't from the Super Mario series, and while Legends has its flaws, chiefly the dumb bosses and Sonia's tendency to sometimes get her head stuck in the ceiling when she jumps, it's a good, solid Castlevania title.
On the subject of dumb bosses, here's another one: a unique minotaur who is part bull, part frog. I can think of no other explanation for his constant hopping. He hops over here, he hops over there, he hops so high that Sonia has plenty of time to walk underneath him and slash at his ankles.
Hmm, a suspiciously empty room that leads to a dead end. I'm sure there's nothing to it... or is there? Yes, there is. I wouldn't have mentioned it otherwise. Before that, though, let's see what waits at the end of of the stage, I'm sure it'll just be another incredibly stupid boss.
Oh, it's Dracula. Wait, already? Yeah, yeah, kneel before you, blah blah, I'll get to you in a minute. First I've got to figure out where I went wrong, because if this is the end of the game and I've only got four of the five Collection Items then I've missed something along the way. I tell you what, Vlad, you wait here and practise the teleport-and-shoot-fireballs routine that we both know you'll be using in our climactic battle while I go back and try to find this item.
The key to the hidden item is this hole. This simple, unremarkable hole that looks like every other hole in the game. Turns out you're supposed to throw Sonia down this hole, despite the fact that falling down any other hole in the game will kill you immediately and this hole doesn't have any special markings or anything saying "jump down this one specific hole, it's totally safe I swear, love, your pal Dracula."
The hole leads back down into the suspicious room, so I guess you're supposed to realise that this hole is directly above the suspicious room and completely disregard the lethality of falling down holes in nearly every previous iteration of the Castlevania series. I don't generally consider myself intelligent or insightful enough to provide deep criticism of a game's design, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is bloody awful game design.
Falling down the hole leads you to an entire hidden stage, which takes place in the dungeons. It's a lot like the "castle" stages, only with more rotting corpses hanging from the walls. Oh, and the final Collection Item, the cross (or presumably "the boomerang," because this game is on a Nintendo console) is waiting within.
And so, these mighty weapons were passed down by Sonia to all her descendants who took up arms against the darkness, their cries of gratitude ringing through the ages. If you listen closely, you can almost hear them whispering "Thank you great-great-great-grandma Sonia, but couldn't you have taught us the healing magic or the spell that kills everything on the screen?" What ungrateful little shits they are.
Before I can get back to Dracula, I have to deal with this imposing executioner. I really like the way this boss looks, I feel that the hooded, axe-wielding executioner is an underused source of videogame monsters. It's a shame that Burning Mode makes such a complete mockery of the fight, really. I mean, it's not a difficult fight without Burning Mode, because the executioner is just as predictable and as fond of hopping around slowly as all the other bosses, so you might as well become invincible, pin him in a corner and aim for a new Guinness World Record in speed-whipping.
Okay, after all that it's back to fighting Dracula. Oh look, he's decided to go with the teleport-and-shoot-fireballs strategy. It's a classic, what can you say? In Dracula's defence, he has mixed things up a little: instead the usual horizontal fireballs, these ones move in a spread pattern and are consequently much more difficult to avoid. Plus his cape turns into a bitchin' bat-wing, what more could you want?
So, as always with this game the key to victory is learning Dracula's teleportation spots and the set order in which he switches between them. Once you've figured that out, it's a simple matter of whacking him until he gives up.
Dracula's always got a back-up plan, though, and in true Castlevania tradition he immediately morphs into his final, most powerful form after beating clobbered. I say "immediately," he gives the usual "oh, I was just toying with you" speech beforehand. Straight out of the villain handbook, that one. Gives you time to get your breath back.
Dracula's second form, then. It's certainly something. The cow-snake hybrid skull is the obvious target, and as it bobs around in front of the Dracula's new body - made from a mass of wailing souls at the bottom and fizzy bubbles around the wings - something becomes clear: This is the same as Dracula's previous form, except there are holes in the floor and only his head teleports around. His fireballs are more difficult to avoid, but if you saved your Burning Mode then you don't have to avoid most of them, and of course you're far too savvy to have used your Burning Mode up on Dracula's first form, right? Right. So you jump, you whip, you forget that there are holes in the floor and fall to your death (hey, the game being easy doesn't stop me being an idiot) and in the end Dracula is vanquished again or for the first time, depending how you want to look at it.
On his way down, Sonia burns the sass right out of Dracula with some high-grade condescension. There's no way you can read that as anything other than sarcasm, right? "Aww, poor widdle bitty vampire, got beat up by a human, wah wah! Why don't you cry about it, grandad!"
Thus, the fear of darkness that continued to envelop the world was lifted single-handedly by a young girl. Not my words, friends, but the words of Castlevania Legends' ending text, which scrolls by as Sonia watches Castlevania sink into the sea. It's a Konami game, what did you think was going to happen? It's only in the past couple of years that "hilariously inept business decisions" has replaced "the enemy base blows up at the end" as my overriding mental image of the company.
But wait, there's more - your reward for finding all the Collection Items is an extra scene in the ending, that reveals Sonia became a mother and founded a long line of bad-at-jumping, whip-snappin' vampire killers. Now, I know Legends has since been "removed" from the Castlevania timeline and I suppose Sonia may well have met someone else after the events of the game, but given that she and Alucard were clearly in a relationship I have to assume that this ending is implying that Sonia gave birth to Alucard's child. This means that in every subsequent Castlevania game, Dracula is getting his shit wrecked by his own grandkids. Now we know why Dracula keeps trying to take over the world - it's the only time he ever gets to see his family.
Having finally played though Castlevania Legends, am I glad I made the effort? Yeah, I'd say so. Obviously it suffers when compared Symphony of the Night, but then what action-platformer doesn't? Legends is a fun game in its own right: a little rough around the edges, sure, but technically impressive and with a good soundtrack, well worth a spot in the upper echelon of Game Boy action games. Just don't go in expecting any epic boss battles. I never thought I'd feel bad about whipping an executioner to death, but these battles are so one-sided you almost feel cheap afterwards. But what has it earned on the Halloween-O-Meter?
Seven out of ten seems fair, although I'll admit it was pushing eight - this is a Castlevania game, after all. Too many of the classic Halloween monster are missing for it to push into the highest scores - no witches, no Frankensteins, no mummies - and the lack of colour, with most of the backgrounds being (unavoidably) white and light grey, doesn't help. Still, it's all about fighting a vampire and the music is sufficiently sinister, so you're not going to leave completely un-spooked.