Review by DConnoy

"A li'l history lesson for Castlevania fans."

Konami's American branch, oft-maligned by gamers for stubbornly keeping some of the company's best games in Japan, has delivered a second surprise by localizing another obscure remake of one of their most popular franchises. Following Gradius III & IV for PlayStation 2, Castlevania Chronicles is a bargain-priced look into Castlevania's past, with its Arrange Mode giving it a facelift that brings it near today's standards.

The Castlevania contained in Chronicles was originally released on the Sharp X68000, a PC-like machine that didn't get much exposure outside Japan. While it was prominent around the time of the NES, its hardware capabilities were more in line with 16-bit machines like the Genesis. As such, the game doesn't look quite as old as it really is--there's an unexpected amount of parallax and detail in the backgrounds, enemies are larger and more detailed than in the NES Castlevania games, and our hero Simon Belmont animates quite smoothly, even if he is wearing what look like hot pants. ''Not as bad as I thought they'd be'' would be the backhanded praise I'd give the graphics, and it should be no surprise that graphically, this game is utterly shamed by 2D spectacles like Symphony of the Night and Metal Slug X.

Sound is unimpressive as well, at first. ''Thin and ''tinny'' are two words that come to mind in describing these ages-old renditions of classic Castlevania tunes; after I was done chuckling to myself, I switched over to Arrange Mode and never looked back. Arrange Mode provides versions of the music spooled directly off the CD, and the audio effect alone is enough to catapult the package forward about ten years. ''Vampire Killer'' (first stage of the original Castlevania, for those unfamiliar) is remixed with driving percussion that almost trespasses into a dance style, which may turn off some purists, but the interpretations become more traditional as the game goes on. ''Bloody Tears'' (most recognizable as the overworld music from Castlevania II) and ''Theme of Simon Belmont'' (think the first stage of Castlevania IV, though this game came first) are reborn in spectacular fashion. This will be the first time that most US fans of the series will hear such favorite tracks with CD-quality instrumentation--none of them were present in Symphony of the Night.

Arrange Mode makes two other improvements to the original code--a new look for Simon, with a more edgy, less dated costume, and the ability to adjust the difficulty. Castlevania X68000 is renowned for being obscenely difficult, but the means used to that end are downright silly. The big, tough, ball-busting thing about the game is this--get ready for it: enemies do a lot of damage to you. A simple bullet from a Bone Pillar soaking up a quarter of your lifebar is not difficulty by design, it's just difficulty by stupid. Again, the goofiness is solved by switching to Arrange Mode, which lets you set the difficulty to one of three levels, as well as adjust how many lives you start with. Damage is balanced so that enemy projectiles do less damage than enemy contact, and as long as you play it old-school style (in one sitting, not abusing the built-in save function) then Arrange Mode provides a decent amount of toughness without feeling cheap.

So what are the unique features of the game itself? Well, it's a classic Castlevania--for the uninitiated, a side-scrolling action-platform game in which our jumping, whip-wielding, dagger/axe/boomerang throwing hero invades Dracula's castle. Standing in his way is an adversarial horde culled from a hundred different myths--Medusa, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein's Monster, to name a few. It's an ages-old franchise, and perhaps the most amazing thing about Castlevania Chronicles is that there's actually some new stuff here, despite the game itself being over ten years old! A surprising number of cool, unique enemies and stage types are present here that somehow didn't make it into any other Castlevania game. There's a haunted decorative water fountain, a trek through a cave of ice, an assault by a stained glass window... longtime Castlevania fans will be repeatedly wondering aloud why Konami didn't blatantly re-use some of the bad-ass gimmicks of such a forgotten incarnation of the series.

So what's this whole package add up to? Well, that's the short end of the stick. There are ten stages, so this game is longer than the original Castlevania on the NES, but it's much shorter than Castlevania III or IV. Pictures in an art gallery are unlocked by completing stages in Arrange Mode, and finishing Arrange Mode opens up a stage select, but there's not much else to extend the playability. With competing packages like Metal Slug X offering two-player mode and more robust selections of goodies, it's probably necessary that you get a kick out of Castlevania itself to make Chronicles worth a purchase.

So there it is. The appeal of Castlevania Chronicles to folks that aren't already fans of the series is questionable because of its dated look and low play value, but the gameplay design is as good as it ever got in the 16-bit era, with stellar updated music and re-balanced challenge rounding out the bargain-priced package. Longtime Castlevania followers will find it an enlightening glimpse into the series' history, so if this all sounds interesting, get it while it's still around--I suspect many will be hanging on to this one as a keepsake, regardless of its shortcomings.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 10/18/01, Updated 10/18/01

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