Before we plough headlong into this review, a short history lesson is probably in order. As the title denotes, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge isn’t the first instalment of Konami’s vampire-slaying franchise to reach the monochrome Game Boy. Castlevania: The Adventure – launched alongside the machine in 1989 – was a largely forgettable affair with crude visuals, ropey music and jarring gameplay. The overwhelmingly average nature of this title didn’t do much to inspire confidence when Konami decided to release a sequel shortly after, but Belmont’s Revenge is a stratospheric improvement in absolutely every respect.
Firstly, the visuals are stunning for a Game Boy title. Whereas many games on Nintendo’s popular portable suffered from bland, featureless stage designs (a conscious move by designers to reduce the issue of screen blur), Belmont’s Revenge has locations that are positively bursting with detail, yet they manage to retain their beauty even when the on-screen action is hectic. The graphics are also as varied as they are impressive, with a wide range of different level themes running through the game.
Instead of following the traditional Castlevania blueprint of linear level-by-level progression, Belmont’s Revenge allows players to choose how they tackle the first four stages – a similar system to that employed in Capcom’s Mega Man games. The opening quartet of castles is a diverse bunch; for example, one is set in the clouds, another is situated in a swamp and yet another contains an interior that wouldn’t look out of place in a pyramid. Konami’s designers clearly let their imaginations run riot and had a blast creating this game, and it shows.
The core gameplay will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of the NES Castlevania titles. You control Christopher Belmont, who brandishes the traditional whip of his clan. The whip – which starts out as a short length of leather – can be upgraded by collecting magical orbs; three of these will fully enhance the weapon, at which point you can hurl fireballs from its tip. Those of you that have suffered through The Castlevania Adventure will be pleased to know that contact with an enemy no longer powers-down your whip.
As usual, whipping the many candles that dot the landscape will reveal other useful items. Sub-weapons such as Axes and Holy Water are present, and using these requires hearts which can also be collected from broken candles. Just like in the NES versions, you access your sub-weapon by pushing the attack button along with up on the D-pad.
While the gameplay might not be a radical change from the norm, the way Christopher Belmont reacts to your commands certainly is. Compared to the infuriatingly sluggish manner in which he responded in the first Game Boy title it feels like he’s had a shot of steroids in Belmont’s Revenge; split-second timing is needed to navigate some of the more tricky levels and thanks to the silky-smooth controls you only have yourself to blame when things go wrong.
Elsewhere, the game is packed with moments of surprising innovation. For example, there are sections where you must successfully move through rooms that are literally packed with moving objects; compared to often sedate nature of the NES versions, Belmont’s Revenge feels like an uncharacteristically busy game. In one of the castles, whipping the candles actually proves to be a negative thing as it plunges the room into darkness, thus allowing the previously immobile enemies to attack. There are several similar examples of startling originality here that are absent from later entries in the franchise.
All of this is underpinned by one of the finest Game Boy soundtracks in existence; the music to this game has to be heard to be believed. Quite how Konami’s sound engineers managed to coax such a gorgeous symphony from the Game Boy’s feeble speaker is a mystery. Needless to say, you’ll be playing this game with the volume dial jammed as high as it will go.
The only negative aspect of this otherwise exemplarity game is the challenge. Playing through in one sitting is pretty demanding but there’s a password option to make it a little more manageable. The only trouble is that this system reduces the game’s difficulty somewhat, but then there’s always the choice to ignore it, if your willpower is strong enough.
While it’s certainly true that many monochrome Game Boy titles haven’t aged particularly well, playing Belmont’s Revenge today is a humbling experience. Like so many games of the era, the gameplay is pure, unhindered by modern concerns such as plots, 3D visuals and other fripperies. With superb level design, tight controls, engaging gameplay and a soundtrack that is so good you’ll seriously consider obtaining it on CD, Belmont’s Revenge ranks as one of the utterly essential Game Boy games and is as enjoyable today as it was twenty years ago.