Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge is the direct sequel to Castlevania: The Adventure and the second of three titles for the classic Game Boy, and it's by far the finest offering of the bunch. Konami's challenge here was to create a game that builds upon Adventure's style of play and actually make it playable while improving upon its many deficiencies. By tweaking the controls, rethinking its strategy in producing an action-adventure platformer, and deferring to common sense and working formulas, it succeeded in finally delivering to the world of portable gaming a true Castlevania title. In short: While Belmont's Revenge looks and plays very similarly to its predecessor, it's a much more improved and polished game.

Our hero is Christopher Belmont, who until this game's release had no name or distinction amongst his Belmont brethren. Sixteen years ago, Christopher defeated Dracula in a duel--or so he thought. Dracula lived on and waited until the perfect opportunity revealed itself. The night before Christopher was to hand down the Vampire Killer whip to his son, Soleiyu, who was the next hunter in line, Dracula used his remaining power to possess the offspring and harness the boy's life-force in hope of raising his castle from the underworld and, in effect, goad Christopher into a rematch. In the meantime, four other castles have mysteriously appeared (a cloud castle, a rock castle, a plant castle and a crystal castle), and they present a mystery that must first be solved. So the aging Christopher has no choice but to once again don the battle gear and the whip, vanquish the four castle guardians, save his son, and destroy the Dark Lord before he regains enough power to raise Castlevania from the depths.

Christopher's goal is to tackle seven stages of madness in order to reach Count Dracula's domain for the final showdown. The adventure isn't quite so linear: You can choose to play through the initial stages, the four elemental castles, in any order you so please. This is a welcome addition, a nice touch in using a gameplay element as borrowed from the Mega Man series. Once you destroy the four castle guardians, you'll venture into Castlevania, which is the site of the final three stages, and then it's all straightforward through Dracula's house of horrors. You can tell from the story and this execution of it that Konami simply had more fun with the concept.

Belmont's Revenge continues the Adventure healing process in the area of gameplay. Christopher starts with the standard leather whip, and he can increase its power by utilizing the crystals earned by whipping candelabras--the first transforms it into a chain whip, and the second allows it to spew fireballs. This time, there is only one instance where the whip regresses, and that's when Christopher makes contact with the projectile attacks of the hand-shaped demons known as Punaguchis. Otherwise, things are this time around a lot more fair. In all its generosity, Konami even saw fit to bless Adventure-scarred yet still hopeful consumers by providing two familiar sub-weapons (the axe and holy water) that Chris can command and power by collecting big and small hearts. Filling out the list of other, more traditionally used magical items are the pot roasts that restore your energy, the coins used to build up your point-total and thus earn extra lives, and the 1-Up symbols that automatically increase your stock.

Other issues addressed include the stage design and mechanics therein. While many of Adventure's ideas are recycled here, they're done in a much more realized way. To name a few instances: Where Adventure flooded you with enemies, Belmont's Revenge confines the action and doesn't overwhelm you. Where Adventure frustrated you with jumps dictated by unresponsive controls and bad sprite-detection, Belmont's Revenge gives you wider platforms, better detection, and a decreased amount of wacky jumps. And they also give you two new maneuvers which you can use while climbing ropes: The ability to swing your whip left and right, to fend off enemies as you climb, and the ability to slide down ropes at hyper speeds, which lets you escape from dangerous areas more quickly. While I still prefer stairways to ropes, Konami took what was a nemesis in Adventure and made it second-nature here.

What makes the game truly shine is its use of unique ideas in complementing the improved stage design. While there was clearly an earnest attempt to better emulate the titles that it follows, Konami's strategy in taking this route is more akin to Dracula's Curse and Super Castlevania IV: They really want to impress you by showing off what they can do with the hardware. You have your pools of water that reverse their flow as you tread through them; floors that break away as you travel over them; the climbing of spindles created by spiders when they drop down; the negotiating of series of ropes that are wrapped around pairs of spinning gears; rooms that darken when you whip away all of the candelabras contained within; and those instances of having to quickly slide down ropes while spiked surfaces move to and fro all around you. Sometimes it's just the most simple things that separate an effort from the rest of the generic action-platformers, and Belmont's Revenge knows how to do it.

Because of their patience and better knowledge of the hardware, they were able to create a graphically superior follow-up to Adventure in regard to speed and in the overall package. While it doesn't have the artistic detail of Adventure, which, granted, was a much shorter game, Belmont's Revenge is a great-looking title. The trick was to provide somewhat-less-detailed backgrounds where the action was most hectic, so as to not overload the processor and slow the game down to a crawl. Everywhere else, in all the right places, they hit the proper notes: Temples dominate the background of the Crystal Castle. Ominous mountains shadow Cloud Castle. Large statues of horse-riding warriors garnish the castle entrance. And giant sickle-wielding skeletons, foreshadowing death, kneel atop pillars on the final path to Dracula. Things tend to get a little repetitive as a result, but two purposes are served: (1) Any blurring encountered is kept to a minimum, and everything moves generally faster, and (2) while not perfect, its presentation gets the job done in manufacturing the atmosphere you'd expect.

Konami brings back some of Adventure's foes and mixes them together with many other familiar and new cast members. While most of the characters' sprite designs, including Christopher's, border on ugly--that's to say unfinished and pixelated--the ample selection of monsters more than makes up for it. Belmont's Revenge also introduces you to all-new bosses and challenges you with some of the more fun, interesting and inventive battles you'll have in a Castlevania game. I'll always remember Kumulo and Nimbler, two Minotaur-like twins that are embedded onto the walls, who must be defeated using a moving center pillar; the Angel Mummy, a two-headed monstrosity that shares and exchanges bones off of its separate spinal columns; and our old friend the Bone Dragon King, which reinvents itself to partake in the fun. What they accomplish is to keep the slugfest-type battles to a minimum in favor of boss fights where the surrounding environments must be utilized in certain ways to attain victory.

When it comes to the musical score, Belmont's Revenge's soundtrack is by far the best out of the three existing Game Boy titles. There's no Vampire Killer or Bloody Tears, but they again manage to conjure up that classic Castlevania feeling without relying on remixed tunes. The newly created selection is very inspiring--it's what I'd call "heroic and gritty," matching the theme of the game, which is "Belmont's Revenge." And as we know by now, matching up themes with particular stages and environments is Konami's specialty. The appropriate themes heighten the mood and atmosphere, and they exude over all seven of the game's stages (the stirring Praying Hands, heard throughout Cloud Castle, is the best example of their work). You'll always get a cold chill when you enter a final chamber of a castle only to be greeted by a low-toned, haunting tune that signals a boss' presence. Unfortunately, we're still lacking for any real sound effects beyond just "splat" for every conceivable action, but it's clear that the Game Boy's limitations wouldn't allow for the quality fare heard even in average NES titles.

The control scheme from Adventure left nowhere to go but up, and Belmont's Revenge does just that. I've mentioned adjustments made to the platforming and rope-climbing aspects of the game, and they certainly make such scenarios a lot more tolerable, and frustration is no longer the rule. Chris is now a more responsive fellow: He whips quickly while standing, ducking or climbing, and he dispatches sub-weapons (up plus attack) in much the same way. The use of sub-weapons overrides traveling by rope, which causes minor confliction while slowing Chris down, but climbing upward while under assault is hardly a repeated theme; it's mostly downward, and your sliding move will always counter the problem. Plus Konami has done a better job with hit- and proximity-detection, which will help you to (a) fight off in-close enemies without always taking damage and (b) just make long jumps rather than clipping through surfaces and accidentally falling to your death. You'll still notice a little sluggishness in the way Christopher walks, yes, but the improved action-flow is still more than capable of making up for the hardware's limited processing power.

If Belmont's Revenge is not considered "challenging," that's only in direct comparison to Adventure. This time around, the challenge is actually decided by the right things--the minor enemies and bosses, your methods in fighting them, your patience, and your platforming skills--rather than flawed controls and torrid graphical issues. The stages frequently drag on for long periods, testing your mettle, but this is made fair by the increased number of secret rooms and energy restores that can be found packed within each. If the early bosses don't challenge you in regard to their fun-over-hectic skirmishes, then Soleiyu-Demon and Dracula surely will. It also helps that you now have unlimited continues and a password system which with to work.

There are so many intangibles that make the game stand out--you can see the attention paid to detail, which was the key factor to making Adventure's formula work the second time through. I'd like to think of Belmont's Revenge as the Game Boy titles' Dracula's Curse, that lone entry where all of its factors came together to offer a classic "Castlevania" experience that tops even those that come after it.

They've created in Belmont's Revenge a very inspired handheld game. I may hold a special place for it because it's almost an amalgamation of Castlevania and Mega Man, another of my favorite series, in that you can choose your early path before entering into the big castle. More personal is that on our long trips to Atlantic City, when I was younger, this was my always my favorite game to whip out and play, to pass the time as we would ride along the highways and past endless woodland that always matched the experience--this made it that much more a part of my memories.

It's longer than Adventure, offers a more balanced challenge, and it's enjoyable without being frustrating. It's the perfect example of what a handheld action game should be. So if you're going to buy only one of the Game Boy titles, be sure to make it Belmont's Revenge. For its accomplishments, I give this classic title four out of five Medusa Heads, leaning slightly toward four and a half.

While not as detailed as Adventure, they're more polished due to better use of the engine
Here the formula is better realized. Mega Man-style stage selection is a nice touch
The music and sound effects here represent the best out of the three Game Boy titles
Though still a bit rough, adjustments made to Adventure's scheme alleviate frustration
Its challenge isn't as insane as that found in Adventure, but it's still typical of this series
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