This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
When you’re working with an established series that has a set canon that the fans defend rigorously, you have to be careful. Any time you potentially mess with that continuity, you risk two things: either angering your fans or having your work retconned, which is like saying that a year or more of your life’s work has no meaning whatsoever. Someone made the conscious decision to eliminate your efforts from acknowledged existence, almost as if they put it into an Orwellian memory hole. They still exist in the physical form—I held this week’s game, in my hand, and played it in a real Game Boy Advance—but they’re like zombies, all but dead, wandering the landscape as a perverted avatar of their original form.
Koji Igarashi was asked once about Castlevania Legends, the Game Boy game telling the story of Sonia Belmont, the matriarch of the Belmont family. He was rough, stating that it was an “embarrassment” for the series, and criticizing the work done by the development team. That’s like rubbing salt in the wound that you just pissed on. So when RGP had this game, I had to pick it up and give it an honest go. The Game Boy Castlevania games weren’t classics, but with a few years to master the hardware, it was possible that Legends was worth something beyond being a pitiful rarity case for collectors. Is Legends worth its lofty price tag ($40 at RGP), or is it nothing more than a curiosity forgotten by time?
HOW WAS IT THEN: By the time Legends came out on a dying handheld, the Castlevania series had already shown where it was going with the previous year’s revolutionary PlayStation title, Symphony of the Night. Due to this, an underpowered, linear game like Legends was similar to a dinosaur, one that was decidedly omnivorous compared to the meat-eating Super Castlevania and Dracula X. It featured somewhat tedious jumping and whipping, with some decidedly cheap traps (some candles lead Sonia into trap doors that are seemingly impossible to get out of), and a different system for weapons and magic. The second whip upgrade gave a projectile weapon, and instead of being able to switch between axes, daggers, and the like, there’s a “soul weapon” system that allows different weapons to be used after they’ve been acquired.
These were good, ambitious ideas and made for a somewhat enjoyable time for those who still played Game Boys or Super Game Boys. However, Symphony of the Night pulled the curtain on the stage and showed that games like Legends were a little outdated. The Super Game Boy improvements were little more than colour enhancements, and Castlevania on a blurry Game Boy screen has never worked well. Add in cheap deaths and rather pedestrian gameplay by Castlevania standards, all of which were exacerbated by the Game Boy’s notoriously poor screen, and this was largely forgetable.
HOW IS IT NOW: When Castlevania Legends came out, the best gamers had was the Game Boy Pocket, which was just a slightly less crappy Game Boy than its predecessor; the Colour was still a year away. Since then, we’ve had the Colour and three variations of the Advance. This actually benefits a game like Castlevania Legends because the issues that made precision action games so unpalatable on that system have been mitigated by technological improvements.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a simplistic game by Castlevania standards and doesn’t hold up well to other linear Castlevania titles. Even the original Castlevania for NES blows this away as a game. However, those who play the game will be able to get some enjoyment out of it, even if it’s fleeting and not something people will go back to once they’re done.
Because it’s essentially a novelty item, the price of the actual game has been driven up by rarity. For trustworthy eBay sellers, the game is running about $50. As noted before, Retro Games Plus sells the cartridge for $40. For anyone who isn’t a collector, this isn’t worth the price. Anyone emulating this will have a better time. It’s still not great, but playing on that type of screen will help gameplay immensely.
Castlevania Legends is like a pitiable child in a large family who tries to be noticed but is ultimately given less attention in favour of its siblings, both talented (Circle of the Moon, Order of Ecclesia) and beligerent (Harmony of Despair, Castlevania 64). A look at it lends one to believe that it’s the standard middle child. It’s neither outstanding nor terrible; it’s just there. It’s up to the player to determine if it’s a diamond in the rough or just more flotsam on a system notorious for it, but either way, $40-$50 is too high a price for most to find out.