Konami recently kicked off its trio of Anniversary Collection compilations with an assortment of arcade shooters that, while certainly classics, were let down by limited emulation options (though since then Konami has confirmed it’ll be fixing most of our concerns with a patch). Now it’s time for the second helping, this time aimed at the Castlevania series: specifically, most of its 8-bit and 16-bit entries. Happily, it’s an improvement over the last offering, but there are still some areas where it could be better.
The eight games here cover (with one exception) the early Castlevania games on Nintendo systems. Naturally, the original NES version of Castlevania is the first on the list, and it still holds up brilliantly well 33 years after its initial release. The same can’t be said for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, the NES sequel notorious for its decision to switch things to a more open-world RPG style similar to Zelda II. Although its attempt at a deeper adventure was a noble one, the horribly translated clues and clunky day/night cycle make it a real chore to play today (not that it was a dream back in the late ‘80s or anything).
This is remedied with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, the final NES ‘vania and the result of a wise decision by Konami to keep things simple again and focus solely on the original game’s style of action platforming (albeit now there are multiple routes through the game, meaning different playthroughs will see you taking on different stages). When you’ve run out of NES games the next logical step is to move to the SNES, and sure enough Super Castlevania IV is the fourth game in the collection, its fantastic music and lovely gimmicks (like a Mode 7 spinning room) all present and accounted for.
A pleasant surprise follows in the shape of Castlevania: Bloodlines, known in Europe as Castlevania: The New Generation. This Mega Drive title is relatively rare and its inclusion here actually marks the first time it’s ever been re-released since it first came out in 1994 (beating the upcoming Mega Drive Mini, which also includes it, by a few months). It’s great to have it on here too: it’s a hugely underrated Castlevania with a slightly darker and gorier tone to the Nintendo titles.
At this point the collection takes an odd turn. We’d hoped it would have moved onto the likes of the PC Engine game Rondo of Blood (or, if that’s too obscure, its SNES remake Castlevania: Dracula X / Vampire’s Kiss). Then, daring to dream, we wondered if Konami would actually go far enough to include the legendary PlayStation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Sadly, if you were expecting this you’re out of luck: the collection hits a chronological dead end at the Mega Drive game and then goes backwards, which is both good and bad.
Let's start off with the bad. Next up is Castlevania: The Adventure, the first Game Boy outing for the series which serves no real purpose here other than to remind us that it exists; it's a technical disaster, clunking and stuttering all over the place and running at about half a mile an hour (and yes, that’s how it played back in the day too – it was one of the very first games for Nintendo's monochrome marvel). It was superbly remade by M2 for WiiWare, and why that version wasn't included is anyone's guess; after all, M2 is the team responsible for this collection and Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth is no longer available following the closure of the Wii's online services. Talk about a missed opportunity. Thankfully, the Game Boy sequel Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is a different kettle of fish entirely and ranks as one of the best action titles on the Game Boy – it also has an utterly amazing soundtrack.
Finally, rounding things off is an interesting little game that many will dismiss as a ludicrous decision but is actually a fairly big deal for the wider Castlevania series. Kid Dracula (or Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun, to give it its proper Japanese title) was only ever released on the Famicom in Japan, and while the West would later get a Game Boy remake, the original was never released over here. This marks not only the first time Konami has released it round our (bitten) neck of the woods, it’s also localised it with an English ‘Kid Dracula’ title screen and changed all the Japanese text to English. A nice effort, and it’s a fun little game with charming cartoon sprites. You may sneer at its inclusion over other titles, but try it first: you may be surprised.
This isn’t the only surprise in the package. Upon launching the game you may be startled to see the aforementioned M2 logo appearing. Whereas the previous arcade collection was developed by Hamster Corporation using its Arcade Archives emulation system, for the Castlevania collection Konami has instead wisely enlisted the help of the talented chaps responsible for the stunning Sega Ages retro releases. It’s a smart move and one that ensures the emulation is as accurate as it possibly could be.
That said, options are still a little thin on the ground, as they were before. There are now a total of six display filters for most of the games: as well as ‘original’ 4:3 (which sometimes creates a very slight shimmering effect when scrolling), pixel perfect and 16:9 widescreen, you can also choose a ‘scanlines’ version of each of these which does the trick if you’re into that sort of thing.
Those who like their games to fill their screen will be disappointed: unless you choose 4:3 with scanlines or the god-awful super-stretchy 16:9 filter, every other option puts the game in a window in the middle of the screen, leaving noticeable borders at the top and bottom. Presumably, this is to make sure the pixel scaling is perfect, but we wouldn’t have minded the option to stretch the screen out a little and get a slightly softer picture as a result.
It should be noted that the Game Boy games are at least treated to their own special display filters: standard black-and-white (in both 4:3 and pixel perfect), a ‘dot matrix’ effect (which emulates the gloriously sickly green-and-yellow Game Boy screen, complete with a very faint grid), and a ‘color’ filter which makes everything a strange brown in that lovely way a Game Boy Color used to half-heartedly attempt to add colour to non-GBC games.
Screen filters aside, there are no real other options to choose from. You can’t change button assignment, can’t choose the Japanese versions of the games (though that’s on the way, according to Konami) and can’t really do much else beyond a single basic save state feature for each game. It also appears that the version of Castlevania (NES) used in the English language version of the game is the original PRG0 release which occasionally crashes after you beat Death in the 15th stage: Konami will probably need to patch this and swap it out for the PRG1 version, though if the patch with Japanese versions does eventually turn up that’ll be a workaround (the Japanese game doesn’t have that bug).
As in the arcade collection there’s also a bonus digital book that breaks down each game, includes interviews with the developers and the like. This is much better than the previous attempt, with more interesting sketches (a personal highlight being a rough sketch of what would become the famous rotating room in Super Castlevania IV). It’s a great addition and one that fans of the series will appreciate.
The overall package, then, is a relatively strong collection of vintage Castlevania titles. There will undoubtedly be questions asked about how some games were chosen over others: the majority of today’s gamers don’t look too fondly on Simon’s Quest, and the first Game Boy game was already considered average 30 years ago, so we aren’t sure exactly who thought it would make for a worthy inclusion here. Even the third Game Boy game – the much-maligned but now highly-collectable Castlevania Legends – would have been a better choice.
Many will rightly wonder why Dracula X and Symphony of the Night are missing, and if we were allowed to dream for a minute we’d have loved to see the aforementioned WiiWare title Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth on here. Still, there’s more good than bad in here, and Castlevania I, III, IV, Bloodlines and yes, even Kid Dracula should keep you entertained for a long time.
Despite the sheer volume of solid gold hits in the series, Castlevania Anniversary Collection is a somewhat mixed bag from Konami, with stone-cold classics sharing the spotlight with a couple of undead clunkers that really should have remained dead and buried. Still, even with the questionable inclusion of Simon's Quest and Castlevania: The Adventure, the 'highs' on offer are among the highest points in the entire franchise, and a Western debut for Kid Dracula is a lovely treat for retro gamers looking for something new. As long as you’re willing to ignore the lesser titles in this package and you're not too bummed out by the omission of other classic entries, then you’re going to have a very good time with what’s left – and there's always room for Castlevania Anniversary Collection 2, we guess.