I made a pretty tall claim a few months ago, saying that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate was the worst handheld Castlevania game besides Castlevania: The Adventure (The Castlevania Adventure? I can't figure out this box art). Thinking I'd be happy with my stinging remark, I walked away from the game and started goofing off with other things. I kept coming back to that comment over the months since I posted the review, as something about it just bothered me. It's not that I felt like I was too hard on Mirror of Fate, but that I'd actually been unfair to Castlevania: The Adventure. It's been many years since I'd played it for the last time, so I thought I'd pop it back in and refresh my memory. I was sure after a couple of minutes I'd be confident in my comment and could go right back to being overtaken by every other alien race in Stardrive.
The results both shocked and horrified me.
It is quite clear from the moment you start Castlevania: The Adventure that it is slow. Painfully slow. I'm assuming that Christopher Belmont has some sort of hip problem, given that almost every other creature and trap in the game moves at a healthy, normal pace. He must have something wrong, because he moves as if he weighs a few thousand pounds, jumping slowly as if it causes him pain to toss his mass around. Maybe he's arthritic or something. The point is that the man moves like he's stuck in quicksand and not too upset about it, but the rest of the game moves along at a normal pace for an extremely early Game Boy game.
What does that mean for you, the player? Death. Lots of death. Given Christopher's complete inability to maneuver faster than anything, you'll have to plan out your strategies in advance if you expect to survive for any amount of time. If something catches you by surprise, there's just no way you can hope to escape it. This is even worse in areas where there are cliffs or moving traps because a few wasted steps are often enough to get you killed. This is especially terrible in level 3, as the game has you jumping from rope to rope as you try to climb your way out of the stage. Given that Chris doesn't jump from a rope so much as let go and plummet, you may find yourself spending a lot of time testing the aerodynamic properties of your Game Boy.
It sounds awful, but at least Chris followed my button commands unlike a certain group of other characters from Mirror of Fate. To cling to a rope, all I had to do was hold up while moving over top of it. This was the most complicated thing I'd have to do while traversing most areas. In Mirror of Fate, if I had to traverse a swinging area I'd have to hit R, use the stick to keep moving, then press R again to let go, but not B because that would just make me fall like a moron. Every once in a while I'd have to hit R one more time to cling to the next hook, but sometimes that wouldn't work because the game hadn't highlighted the next hook spot properly and I'd fall to my death. Even more annoying was the magnetic slides I'd have to move along, as I'd have to hit the release button for them while also hitting jump with very specific timing in order to get past some of the hazards or I'd die again. Why couldn't I have just hit the jump button instead of hitting this conglomeration of buttons in order to get through? It made me wish for the simplistic controls of Castlevania: The Adventure. At least in that game a fall to my death was my fault and not because I'd forgotten how they'd set up the buttons for swinging or because the game hadn't realized what I wanted to do.
Now that I'm talking about death, Castlevania: The Adventure managed to do it better as well. If you fall to your death or take too much damage in Castlevania: The Adventure, you go back to a specific checkpoint that can be a good distance back from where you were. It can suck when you're moving so slow that you fall into a death trap or take one too many hits, but at least the game has an expectation that you'll learn from your mistakes and play better next time. On top of that, you're only allowed to screw up so many times before it's back to the start screen; better luck next time. Sure, the game sabotages your every move with its slow speeds and level design that didn't take Chris' pokey movement into account in the slightest, but at least it demands that you get good at it anyway.
Mirror of Fate just lets you die over and over again, never really penalizing you but just hoping that the threat of seeing its stupid loading screen will make you want to quit. You die all the time in Mirror of Fate, but it doesn't really mean anything beyond a small inconvenience when you have to go back a move or two before what you just did. Oh no, I dropped into an electric trap and died, it's so terrible that I have to play for about five seconds to get right back to where I was. It takes what should be a soul-crushing failure and makes it...inconvenient. You can also do this as much as you want, so if you want you can just start throwing your guy down into those pits out of pure frustration. Don't worry, the game doesn't mind, and that will teach the character not to listen to you. The jerk.
The graphics don't even compare. The stark, barren world of Castlevania: The Adventure just isn't on the same level as Mirror of Fate. You just have to spend a couple of minutes with Mirror of Fate before you'll be blown away by all of the jagged edges on all of the polygons and amazed by the great monster design of the shifting color mermen and the evil books. Castlevania: The Adventure is a bleak, empty place by comparison, filled with lonely halls and woodlands of dead trees. Even Christopher's face seems to have been worn away by some sort of early industrial accident. The whole place is just a barren wasteland filled with monsters, the sort of place that's perfect for a vampire hunting video game.
Who is doing all of the work in the castle in Mirror of Fate? It's huge and full of details! All of the chandeliers have their candles lit, the toymaker's workshop is filled with inventions and gadgets, and even the kitchen has a full working staff! Am I supposed to believe that the monsters have put together some sort of functional employment system? Did they team up to set up all of these mining carts and pulley systems? Also, who here is paying the electrical bill for all that junk in the workshop? On top of that, why is there electricity? Doesn't this game take place in 1072? The whole game's graphical premise is ridiculous, and just fills the game's hallways with junk that either doesn't fit with the era or would need a whole trained monster staff to upkeep. Is this Hotel Transylvania or something?
Castlevania: The Adventure is bleak and perfect. The backgrounds in the moving spike section aren't blank because any detail here would probably cause such criminal slowdown that it would grind the game to a near-halt, but because they drive home the sense that this is a stark, empty place. The monsters aren't here because they enjoy interior decoration beyond the grave, but because they are trapped in the small holes in the floor that don't make any sense from an architectural standpoint. As for the traps, I myself have fashioned a large pit in front of my spare room so that guests feel that I am worried about their personal fitness enough to provide them with a running and jumping workout before they can spend the night. Everything about the way that Castlevania: The Adventure has been set up rings true, creating a world that is engrossing because there is nothing in it.
Thinking of Christopher's face makes me realize what the game was doing with his slow movements. Only now do I realize the genius of the developers who built a game around demanding precision jumps from a character who moved as if both of his legs were broken. His blank face is like that of the first person shooter guy, an identity that will never be revealed despite all of his heroic acts. That blank face was left that way as a narrative device, helping the player settle into the role of being a hero. Christopher's face isn't a complete blank because no one cared enough to program one, it's because the game is working on making you feel immersed in a world of evil boomerang guys and cloaked guys who turn into bats who might be Dracula but it doesn't ever say so and nothing in this game looks like what it's supposed to because it's a launch Game Boy game. It's trying to make you feel his pain.
Forget that the game punishes you for taking a hit by downgrading your whip even though it's extremely difficult to avoid damage. Forget about how most of the game's jumps require you to be on the absolute last pixel or else you'll fall into a pit and have to repeat huge sections. Forget about how it's impossible to get to certain places because you don't move fast enough to actually cross the dropping platforms to get to them. Forget about how the developers realized they could make the game harder by building the game around punishing the player for Christopher's slow movement speed. Forget everything that would make it difficult for me to make my point. Done? Ok, here we go.
Christopher Belmont's slow movements are built to reflect those of a dying vampire hunter, a man crippled with age but still filled with a sense of duty. Sure, he may look young and strong on the cover, and sure, his next game takes place 25 years later so he couldn't be that old, but none of that matters. All that matters is that we go along on a journey with this aging vampire hunter, that we feel his pain with every arthritis-crippled step, that we share in his sorrow as he gasps and wheezes while dropping down from a rope when you told him to jump. This isn't a great hero's journey, but the last (well, second to last) days of a tired old hunter who's been called to duty once more. Therefore, the slow, clunky movements that seem to make the game into unplayable garbage only enhance a narrative that the developers were trying to develop. Once you dismiss those troubling facts that disprove my theory, you can see the beautiful, moving game about an aging hunter that the developers were trying to create.
This is vastly more important than some stupid story about some creepy vampire family squabble taking place in a historically inaccurate castle. This is true pathos, the kind that will make you shed tears in a manly way. Despite the fact that every aspect of Castlevania: The Adventure points to it being an obviously terrible game, one of the worst in Castlevania history, it is not. It's a touching game about an old man making his way through an abandoned castle to kill some guy in a cloak who turns into a bat. It's the kind of tale I'd be proud to tell my children if they asked me where babies came from or some crap like that. It's not the complete tripe that is Mirror of Fate, and I sincerely apologize to anyone and everyone who worked on Castlevania: The Adventure for daring to imply that your work was of the same caliber as Mirror of Fate.