The odds were stacked against Castlevania Legends almost from the start. When it was released towards the end of the '90s, it had the near-impossible task of following Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - a game which had revitalised Konami's gothic series and won widespread critical acclaim.
To add to the heady level of expectation, it was one of the first games from Konami's fledgling (and now defunct) Nagoya studio, which would later code the commendable but ultimately inferior Sega Saturn port of Symphony of the Night. Another reason fans had to be excited was the game's status as the sequel to the fantastic Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, arguably one of the best action titles on the console. And finally, it was one of the last big-name monochrome Game Boy games before the system was usurped by its successor, the Game Boy Color.
Given this combination of circumstances, it's perhaps unsurprising that Castlevania fans expected something big, but they were left feeling bitterly disappointed.
Positioned as an origin story and notable for being the 'first' Castlevania adventure in terms of chronology (until the release of Castlevania: Lament of Innocence in 2003, at least), Castlevania Legends sees a female Belmont assume the lead role for the first time in the history of the franchise. Sonia Belmont makes a positive first impression - she's capable of changing direction mid-jump and can even crawl whilst crouching - something that was only previously possible in Super Castlevania IV. Equipped with the trademark whip - which can be powered up by collecting special items - Sonia feels like a true Belmont, at least.
Another neat touch is the fact that Dracula's troubled offspring Alucard makes an appearance as an end-of-level boss, his intention being not to harm the heroine, but to test her mettle to ensure she's up to the task of taking on his villainous father. Something which is rather less welcome is the insinuation during the end credits that Alucard is Trevor Belmont's father, and therefore the entire Belmont bloodline is actually part-vampire - arguably one of the key reasons that Castlevania Legends has since been removed from the official timeline of the franchise.
Visually, Castlevania Legends is a mess. From the barren and repetitive backgrounds to the unimpressive sprites (only a handful of which possess more than two frames of animation), the game looks downright amateurish. Compared to the brilliant presentation of Belmont's Revenge, the drop in quality is shocking - even more so when you consider that a staggering seven years separates the two titles. Given the amazing advancements made in Game Boy development by companies like Rare during the middle of the decade, it's almost unforgivable that Castlevania Legends was released in the Game Boy's twilight years.
Despite some tight and responsive control, the gameplay doesn't do much to win you over, either. Castlevania Legends appears to have been created by somebody who has only the vaguest grasp of game design. Levels are constructed in such a manner that enemies often fall off high, unseen platforms and land directly onto your character, giving you no time to react. Elsewhere, platforms are arranged almost at random, which makes picking out a safe route a case of luck rather than skill. Couple these problems with some crippling slowdown and the game becomes even harder to enjoy.
Also, for some inexplicable reason, Konami Nagoya decided to include special 'trap' rooms, which can only be escaped by defeating a series of re-spawning enemies. Your reward for surviving this frustrating onslaught? Freedom from the room, and nothing else. By the time you've fallen foul of these traps (some of which are unavoidable, while others are triggered by whipping candles which look identical to all the other candles in the game) for the third or fourth time, you'll be close to hurling your Game Boy at the nearest wall in disgust.
The frustration doesn't end there, though. Enemies automatically re-spawn, so if you back-track (as you often have to do, as the game features many dead ends) you'll have to battle them all over again. In the interests of keeping you on your toes, this could be seen as a benefit. However, there are moments when you'll have to fight the same enemy repeatedly because it knocks you backwards, and by the time you're killed it and are ready to advance again, it has re-spawned right on the edge of the screen.
To counter this terrible game design, Konami Nagoya took a drastic approach. Instead of rebalancing the difficulty, the studio simply added an 'easy' setting in the form of the Light Mode. Here, your whip is permanently at its fullest power, making things a little easier. If you ever feel the need to ignore this review and experience the game for yourself, Light Mode is the way to do so as it's slightly less likely to give you high blood pressure.
While the game itself is generally shoddy, Konami Nagoya should at least be commended for attempting to factor in some new elements. In a controversial move, the sub-weapon system has been removed entirely, replaced by a spell mechanic. These 'Soul-weapons' consume hearts - just like the traditional sub-weapons - but you get a new one upon the completion of each level. The iconic sub-weapons haven't been completely forgotten, however - they're hidden as collectable items throughout the game, and are one of the main reasons the stages have so many branching pathways and dead ends.
Another addition in Castlevania Legends is 'Burning Mode', which can be activated once per level and temporarily turns Sonia into an invincible, flame-covered harbinger of death. Best saved for the tricky boss encounters (which are made even more challenging by the fact that you can never see how much health the boss has remaining), Burning Mode is a neat feature, but it feels like it's there to balance out the unfair challenge more than anything else.
The Castlevania series is famed for the high standard of its music, but aside from a stirring variation on the classic Bloody Tears for the opening level, Castlevania Legends' soundtrack is one of the most jarringly discordant we've yet witnessed on the Game Boy. Again, this is in stark contrast to the music featured in Belmont's Revenge, which managed to overcome the limitations of the hardware to deliver classic, toe-tapping tunes. Regrettably, Castlevania Legends is one of the few titles in the lineage that you'll want to play with the volume turned right down.
When Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi expunged Castlevania Legends from the 'canon' timeline in 2002, he admitted that the game was something of an embarrassment. While one could assume his stance was largely due to the fact that he didn't personally oversee the production of the title, it's hard to disagree with his opinion. Castlevania Legends is a shambling mess of a game which very nearly plunges to the depths previously charted by the equally hateful Castlevania: The Adventure. Don't be sucked in by the name; this is best avoided.
After the sublime Belmont's Revenge, Castlevania fans deserved something really special to see off the series on the Game Boy. Sadly, they got Castlevania Legends instead. Poorly-designed, atrociously scored and generally lacking any of the polish we've come to expect from Konami's famous vampire-slaying series, its an inauspicious end to a portable trilogy that only has one worthwhile entry: the aforementioned second title. Don't be fooled by the game's steadily-increasing value on sites like eBay - this is collectable solely for its name alone, not for the game itself.