Review by SethBlizzard

"Atmosphere in Video Games 101"

It's nice when a game series gets to make up for a misstep, because often, the result is something truly wonderful. The second Castlevania game for the Game Boy is such a case. The first Game Boy title in the series, Castlevania the Adventure (or The Castlevania Adventure, for you fellow JonTron fans), is still infamous for how sloppily put together it was. Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge makes up for all of the original's shortcomings, ironing out most of its crippling flaws and turning into a stellar platformer, and one of the quintessential Game Boy games.

The title of the game doesn't really make sense. How about Dracula's Revenge, or Belmont's Quest? Both of those provide the gist of the story. Fifteen years after the events of Castlevania the Adventure, Christopher's son Solieyu comes of age and becomes an official vampire hunter. However, Dracula wants revenge after being defeated by Christopher and kidnaps Solieyu, turning him into his obedient demon lackey. To prevent his spell from being broken, Solieyu's dark power is transferred to the heart of four castles that suddenly emerge. In a lake in the centre is Castlevania, which will only appear when all four powers of darkness in the castles are broken. And so, just like Godzilla before him, Christopher sets out to save his son. This is a very touching story (even if the little dialogue the game features is stilted and awkward as per this time in video game history), and provides an interesting twist to what we've seen so far.

One of the defining features of Belmont's Revenge is the non-linearity. The four castle shrines can be played in any order you wish, just like Mega Man. Calling them shrines is not that inaccurate a description, as each castle is themed, and each has its own unique characteristics and atmosphere. Plant Castle is definitely easier to call a shrine, as the very terrain seems alive and practically crawling under your feet. Crystal Castle is full of Atlantean and Greek imagery, while Cloud Castle (my favourite) is a colossal tower stretching high up into the sky. Such things have always struck a chord with me. The simple Game Boy graphics convey all this beautifully; there is lots of imagery and enemies to tickle your aesthetic senses.

One of my favourite things about Belmont's Revenge is how thick its atmosphere is, and how it almost plays with it. The levels are divided by door passages, and each level culminates in a boss. When you pass through the last door before the boss, the music fades away, to be replaced by a tune that tells you something lies ahead. This is just one example of Belmont's Revenge's considerable atmospheric elements. The game plays with its own tropes as well as its atmosphere. There is a particular sequence where the candles you whip turn out to be a room's only light source, and if no lit candle is on-screen, the room will plunge into darkness. More importantly, in darkness, the previously immobile enemies will awaken and attack. The stable gameplay elements of the series are thus played with, and it's delightful. Of course, some of the old flaws of the series still reign here. The rarity of health items is still an issue (in fact, I have not managed to find one piece of meat in Rock Castle), and Christopher's jump arc is still limited to one predetermined distance. Thus, staying alive is as much a challenge as ever, though Christopher Belmont isn't cast back as great a distance by enemy attacks as Simon and Trevor were.

There are no stairs in Belmont's Revenge. Christopher is clearly the gymnast of the family, for his mode of transport to ascend and descend the castles are ropes. Unlike stairs, he will automatically grab onto any rope he jumps on. Holding down the A button can make him zoom down on the rope, but when it comes to climbing up, you'll just have to deal with his slow climbing speed. At times, you will need to quickly descend in order to avoid danger. Often, jumping between ropes features as a level challenge. You see, when you jump between ropes, you will always end up a bit lower on the adjacent one. In a particular challenge, you need to destroy spiders descending from their webs at just the right times for their webs to leave a workable path for you to get across. There are bags of quirky challenges to be found in Belmont's Revenge.

The boss battles are some of Belmont's Revenge best touches. Every single boss is memorable and engaging, from a weather-controlling spectre to the lethal Bone Dragon King. My favourite are the twin gargoyle guards Kumulo and Nimbler. There seems to have been some mixup in the production of the game, because the manual states that they were supposed to be the boss of Cloud Castle. Don't I wish that had been the case, with my fave bosses being in my favourite castle. Instead, they're the bosses of Plant Castle. It makes sense that they would be the bosses of Cloud Castle, as their names are Latin words for clouds. Oh well. One of the most challenging is the Iron Doll, who has two forms, the latter of which is very dexterous, and in both cases he wields a deadly scimitar with an extraordinary range. Christopher Belmont upholds the Belmont family tradition of never going more than 30 km per hour, so you will have to find other strategies than speed to emerge victorious.

If there is one particular criticism I can make it's that the four castle bosses are not as challenging as they could have been. There are two bosses that consists of two separate enemies, yet in both cases they share the same life meter, meaning that you can essentially beat them by focusing on one enemy. Had they had a different life meter, the challenge could have been increased. Another thing I would have liked fixed is the game's length. Admittedly, its fine challenge is likely to keep you on your toes, but the game still is only 6 or 7 levels long. These two criticisms touch upon each other, as the difficulty of the first four bosses makes passing through the first four worlds in a flash really not that difficult after you've played the game a few times. Then again, the game's final two bosses have difficulty levels that are completely over the top. Fortunately, you start again halfway through the second Castlevania stage should you lose all your lives, and the game has unlimited continues. Additionally, there is a simple password system, so the game is certainly user-friendly and merciful.

With the game's strong atmosphere, it is more than fun to tackle the castles. All of them, and Castlevania itself as well, are quite challenging, largely thanks to the enemies, some of which can drain your powers. But no matter how frustrated you become, I for one never get too discouraged, as the game packs such a fascinating world. Not to mention do you actually get a choice of some sub-weapons to speak of (unlike in Castlevania Adventure). The Axe and Holy Water will make your life a lot easier a lot of times. Then in some levels, like the Plant Castle, these items can have a direct impact on the level itself. Unless you use Holy Water on enemies in the form of giant rolling eyeballs, they explode and often take out the bridge they're on, leave you no choice but to pummel into more dangerous terrain below it. Indeed, the enemies are a wonderfully varied bunch, ranging from bats (of course) to cloaked ghouls throwing boomerangs, and super-annoying hand-shaped enemies whose hits will cost you a whip powerup. Asides which, the levels themselves are extremely clever and often force you to think creatively as to how get past certain challenges, whether getting past a giant weight of spikes or when it seems like you're going in circles.

Putting the dot over the 'i' is the breathtaking music accompanying the game. The themes for all the castles are catchy and motivating, if not just plain moving. My favourite is Cloud Castle's theme, possibly the most haunting piece of music I've ever heard for the Game Boy, original or no. The first tune on the second leg of your journey is fabulously catchy, and a lot more accessible than its somewhat maverick follow-up, which can sound a bit annoying at first. One boss battle late in the game is even an 8-bit rendition of J.S. Bach's “Chromatic Fantasy”, to eerie effect. Such a strong soundtrack has rarely found its way into such a small package. All courtesy of "sound creator" H. Funauchi.

Atmosphere, inspiration, great music, intriguing worlds – all that I love about video games is here and more, making up for the fluctuating challenge and number of levels. Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge is on all account a stellar sequel, full of atmosphere and challenge. It's a beautifully crafted game that's very easy to get into, and it rewards you for investing time in it with an adventure with a truly epic feel. It's nice to see how a company can make up for a disappointing title with a spectacular sequel.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 02/26/10, Updated 10/07/14

Game Release: Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge (EU, 11/26/92)

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