When the Game Boy hit store shelves in 1989 it didn’t take long for a vast swathe of third-party publishers – many of which had grown fat on the profits generated by Nintendo’s astonishingly popular NES – to sign up to produce software for the device. Konami was one of the first to pledge its allegiance to the new portable format and naturally mindful of the potential sales that might be available, it picked one of its most famous franchises to lead the charge. Sadly, Castlevania’s first handheld entry is an aching disappointment – so much so that Treasure president and founder Masato Maegawa (who worked on the game) apparently wishes he'd never worked on it.
Castlevania: The Adventure focuses on Christopher Belmont’s quest to rid the world of Dracula’s army of darkness. As you might expect for an early instalment in the series, the plot holds little in the way of surprises but the execution will be jarringly unfamiliar to anyone who holds at candle for the three NES titles.
For starters, there are no staircases to ascend, which makes this feel very different from other ‘classic’ Castlevania titles. Instead, you have plenty of ropes to climb. Also missing are the sub-weapons (such as the throwing axe, holy water, etc., but to make up for this Christopher is able to upgrade his Vampire Killer whip so that it hurls projectiles from its tip. This is done by collecting special power-up items, but as soon as you take a hit the weapon drops a level in strength. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly annoying experience, especially on some of the later levels where the fully-power whip is almost a requirement for success.
This frustration is compounded by the fact that the game feels like it’s being played in slow-motion. Christopher moves with all the grace and speed of a sasquatch with sprained ankles and as a result guiding him through the unremittingly dull levels quickly becomes a chore. This sluggishness isn’t helped by the fact that the game suffers from crippling levels of slowdown whenever there are more than two sprites on-screen at once. Granted, this is a very early Game Boy release, but even so the game engine should really be able to handle three enemies attacking the player simultaneously.
The shoddy level design is also responsible for some truly face-slappingly terrible moments. For example, on the first level there are several sections where massive eyeballs roll towards you from a hole in the ceiling, which also happens to be the only way out of that particular room. Rather than make it possible to avoid this threat via skill and canny timing, the designers instead placed an invincibility power-up in the middle of the room. You simply grab the power-up and advance up the screen, acting as if the previously-deadly eyeballs aren’t even there. When you first experience this, it’s hard to believe that the programmers resorted to such shockingly poor level design, but then a few minutes later you enter a room that has the exact same layout and solution. It’s almost as if they couldn’t be bothered to create levels that would tax the player’s skill through challenge instead of cheap tactics.
However, elsewhere things are less straightforward. Later stages require near-perfect jumps to succeed, and these leaps of faith often have to be made whilst under sustained enemy attack. Make a mistake or hesitate for even a second and the usual outcome is that Christopher plummets into a bottomless pit and you have to start over. At least the 3DS Virtual Console's restore point feature makes it easier to overcome these frustrating moments, a luxury the original cart didn't have.
Visually Castlevania: The Adventure is one of the better-looking Game Boy launch titles, but that’s not saying much when you look at what was available at the time. Developers were clearly experimenting with the platform and in the early days they favoured simplistic graphics that wouldn’t blur into a horrible mess when everything was in motion. Konami should at least be praised for trying to create something with a little more detail, but in terms of aesthetics Adventure isn’t an outstanding game by any means. Passable is a more accurate description; some of the enemies are well-drawn and the backgrounds at least display some semblance of variety, but the overall presentation leaves you feeling a little underwhelmed. At least on the 3DS console's LCD screen it all appears clean and clear, though the crude way in which the clock timer, health bar and score are simply overlaid on the screen makes it look like an unfinished prototype.
The music fares better, though. The first level features a decent enough tune and while the musical standard doesn’t get better as you progress, these are some of the better tracks you’ll hear from any early Game Boy title. Sound effects are typically poor, with the usual scratches and beeps we’ve come to expect from the humble hardware.
Konami’s first stab at bringing the Castlevania legend to a portable console isn’t exactly pretty. Some fairly obvious design blunders have been perpetrated here, with atrocious level design, poor control and a crippling lack of attack options all combining to create a pretty hateful piece of software. Konami atoned for its sins with the sublime Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge – which rectified pretty much every issue and is easily one of the best Game Boy games in existence – so the obvious advice is to leave this well alone and wait for the far superior sequel to arrive on the 3DS Virtual Console instead.