by Jed Pressgrove
Castlevania: The Adventure is an ode to toughness and simplicity. It’s the Casino Royale of the Castlevania series, the only game to boil the Belmont concept to its core: whipping monsters. Unfortunately, critical reception to Castlevania: The Adventure has significantly soured since its release on Game Boy in 1989. You might see a critic like Tim Turi let the hammer down easy: “This handheld experience pales in comparison to its console brethren.” But it’s not unusual for the verdict to be more damning, as when Nate Ewert-Krocker calls the game “objectively terrible” and something one might play due to an “obsessive series completion syndrome.”
Before I explain why Castlevania: The Adventure is better than its reputation, I should mention two things that everyone would probably agree with:
1. Castlevania: The Adventure is for Castlevania fans. The game’s uniqueness or weirdness is only apparent if one is familiar with the classic series. In the classic Castlevania tradition, you walk up and down stairs. In Castlevania: The Adventure, you climb up and down rope. In the classic Castlevania tradition, hearts function as ammunition, allowing you to use various secondary weapons. In Castlevania: The Adventure, hearts heal you (which kind of makes more sense), and there are no secondary weapons. In the classic Castlevania tradition, your whip length and strength only go away when you die. In Castlevania: The Adventure, your whip length and strength decrease when you get hit — and in a strange twist, your whip shoots fireballs when completely powered up. I have a theory that some Castlevania fans, maybe unconsciously, dislike Castlevania: The Adventure because it lacks traditions that, while a bit weird anyway, have the quality of a trusty coat.
2. Castlevania: The Adventure is slow. The game’s slowness inspires writing like this: “It’s like someone tried to fit fifteen pounds of bologna into a ten-pound bag, and you, the hapless player, are the flea larva trying to squeeze your way out.” This is where I diverge from the pack: the game’s not that oppressive. For one thing, Castlevania: The Adventure doesn’t make you question why you bother playing video games in the first place like the frustrating Castlevania III (the best Castlevania ever made, by the way). For another, Castlevania: The Adventure was rereleased in 2012 on the 3DS Virtual Console, which allows you to create save points. Despite this sanity-preserving feature, the game is still maligned for being too slow and difficult.
Castlevania: The Adventure simply requires precision and trial and error. The gameplay is what it is due to the limitations of the Game Boy as well as the fact that the game was an early title on the famous Nintendo handheld. These technical limitations nonetheless result in very focused action; the hyper-deliberate pacing makes being a Belmont grittier and more suspenseful. Contemporary critics imply the game is monumentally unfair, but the first stage is a training ground suggesting that Konami was aware of the game’s demands. For example, the first stage has a series of thin platforms you have to cross in order to advance. If you fall during this section, you hit the ground and must start over. This section is meant to prepare you for the jumps later in the game that kill you when you mess up. To make tough jumps, the front half of your body must be hanging off the side of a platform. If you can make one of these jumps, you should be able to make any of them in the game.
The level design is more interesting after the first stage. In the second stage, rolling eyeballs blow up sections of a bridge if you kill them, and later you have to figure out which rope you should climb, as sections of the level will repeat if you don’t choose the right path. The third stage is when Castlevania: The Adventure gets brilliant, sending spikes at you from almost every direction in a slow-mo marathon of intense “I just barely survived that” platforming. This stage made me realize that Castlevania: The Adventure was ahead of its time. Consider that in the non-handheld Castlevania series, you couldn’t jump on or off of stairs until Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (or Dracula X on the SNES). Since you can jump on or off of rope in Castlevania: The Adventure, the game essentially innovated the series years before Rondo of Blood.
I wouldn’t call anything else in the game “innovative,” but the changes to the Castlevania formula amplify the game’s distinctive take on the Belmont way. As mentioned earlier, Castlevania tradition involves secondary weapons, such as knives, axes, holy water, and boomerang crosses. When used correctly and at the right time, secondary weapons can make levels or bosses really easy. In contrast, the lack of secondary weapons in Castlevania: The Adventure forces you to confront the challenges presented by enemies and bosses head-on with a whip. You have to become a whip master to beat the game. There’s also something relieving about no secondary weapons: you never have to worry about losing a weapon you prefer by accidentally picking up another weapon icon. All power-ups in Castlevania: The Adventure help you no matter what.
Castlevania: The Adventure isn’t a “take what you can get” Game Boy product. Critics have talked so much about what the game doesn’t have that they have overlooked a unique distillation of the Belmont concept. You know this is a serious entry when you hear the music and its terms: if you can’t get it done with a whip, you’re not getting it done at all. In a gaming world where “more” has come to mean “better,” there’s something attractive in such uncompromising simplicity.