I dreamed of owning this from the instant I saw those giant rolling eyeballs buried in the pages of what I assume was an ancient issue of C&VG magazine – it had a sort of mysterious air to it, a dangerous horror-themed quest into unknown territory captured inside an unassuming grey slab. Unfortunately for me I never did get a chance to buy it back then or even at a later date – I don’t actually remember ever seeing it on shop shelves now I think about it – and over time the desire and the memory faded. Thankfully when I made the effort to get reacquainted with my good old Game Boy I remembered the aching need I once had for the game and it became one of the first to arrive as part of my handheld retro renaissance, a little piece of childhood wish fulfilment encased in bubble wrap and parcel tape. As I get older I find these heart-led purchases to be my favourites because whether the game itself turns out to be good or bad you can at least say for certain you’ve done something your child-self would have approved of, and having a collection that impresses yourself – even if it’s the smaller version of you who once wore pastel-pink Bermuda shorts when they were briefly fashionable (they were – honest!) – is the most important thing of all.
Which is a roundabout way of saying I didn’t go anywhere near the game until it was around thirty years old (!!) and I was even older, which meant by then I’d spent several decades being dazzled by Castlevania’s highest highs, humming along to its most memorable tunes, and later on gazing in awe at Ayame Kojima’s spectacular artwork. This backwards approach to the series was never going to do Dracula Densetsu (or Castlevania: The Adventure if you prefer) any favours – the game’s creaky and sluggish and virtually unplayable as it is… or so the story goes. It turns out that like a lot of the other supposedly iffy-vanias (64, Lament of Innocence, Lords of Shadow 2) I love it to bits, tortoise-paced walk speed and all.
This is a game that came along so early in not only the Game Boy’s life but gaming itself that prior to this the name “Castlevania” covered the first two NES games, the deeply unpopular arcade attempt Haunted Castle, the MSX’s Vampire Killer and absolutely nothing else – this disjointed mix of titles were all the series had. So all of those now much-loved details that would find themselves revisited and reused over and over as the years went by were still very much in their first formative stages at this point – if they had even been created at all – and exactly what was or wasn’t authentically “Castlevania” or a series outlier was very much still up for debate. Even so Densetsu still stands apart from the others as a game determined to march to its own beat, trying to mimic the essence of the console releases yet never failing to ask itself if those features would truly work on-the-go and on the Game Boy’s smaller and less detailed screen. The complete lack of stairs seems obvious if someone points out to you, but when you’re in the middle of a level and clambering up a rope it doesn’t feel like anything’s been lost at all because the game’s design incorporates this new element not just into the physical shape of the stage layout but works them into the fundamentals of the game’s design, using them to create unique puzzles and problems for players that can be found nowhere else in the series. The staff were also bold enough to outright discard anything that wouldn’t – or couldn’t – work in this new monochrome format, with some expected features not given a Game Boy alternative the way ropes were to the NES’ stairs but just gone – and although I’m pretty sure I should never say this out loud I’m glad to have a break from them. As fun as it is to reach the climax of a Dracula-whipping adventure and say “Oh look, it’s the clock tower bit!” then fall off some sodding cog for the hundredth time it’s nice to arrive at Dracula’s lair after surviving a different sort of gauntlet, even if it’s spiky platformed replacement isn’t really any easier. I’m also not in any rush to mourn the absence of Medusa heads either: outside of Symphony of the Night‘s stunning little secret those meandering waves of snake-hair are nothing more than an annoyance if you ask me.
So there are no Medusa heads. Bone-chucking skeletons are out too. As are fireball-spitting skulls, leaping fishmen, floaty ghosts, zombies, and even Death himself.
So what does Densetsu do instead?
It’s got fantastic mud men for starters: indistinct blobs that fall from the ceiling before coalescing into human-ish form once they’ve hit the ground. It’s an impressively fluid effect for such a low-tier enemy running on the humble Game Boy, and as if to prove that this introductory animation wasn’t just for show if you can master the skill and timing needed to whip them out of the air you can take them out before they’ve even hit the ground. I’m obliged to mention those enormous eyeballs – enormous exploding eyeballs – that aren’t shy about turning up whenever it would be most inconvenient for this monochrome Belmont. As with the mud men what could’ve been an empty bit of visual flair is used to make the gameplay more interesting, and their death-explosion is used during a lengthy bridge setpiece to create a one-off hazard for the player – do you try to leap over these large obstacles, or do you destroy them and take out a chunk of the bridge with it? Just think about that for a minute – this is essentially a freeform destructible environment being used as a gameplay hazard – on the Game Boy! In 1989! There’s no doubt that for all the struggles this is a game that’s doing its very best to squeeze every last drop of inventiveness out of its bestiary right the way through to the end, with the final stage pulling a little trick I always enjoy seeing when it comes up – reusing the first boss as a slightly-above standard enemy. To me it’s a great sign of not just of how much trouble you’re in but how much you’ve grown too – you’ve gone from nervously taking on one in a specific arena at the end of a level to casually battling several of them as you deal with everything else at the same time. Yes they’re recycled, but the sense of accomplishment that comes from defeating them so easily feels fantastic.
As much as fun as Densetsu’s monster menagerie may be there’s no getting away from the fact that whenever the game has to display more than a single enemy on screen it all slows down to a very noticeable crawl – and that’s when judged by the standards of someone trained since birth to tolerate PAL-speed gaming. However while the hobby at large may have branded Densetsu as “slow” the sparse enemy placement – yes, born out of the practical need to not have the game run at a snail’s pace all the damned time – actually makes it feel more methodical than anything else. Because the game’s so rigid, the mechanics so clear-cut, and the speed so slow it becomes an almost meditative experience: You’ll never be overwhelmed by enemies so each encounter almost becomes a little self-contained puzzle – wait for the bird to fly overhead then stop, turn, and whip when they dive-bomb you, or crouch as the fireball passes overhead before moving in for the kill – every enemy fulfils a specific purpose and forces you to tackle it on its own terms. There’s a similar rhythm to be found in the end-of-level clashes with each stage’s boss creature too: The first few times you’ll feel overwhelmed and if you do survive you’ll come out battered and bruised, but after a few goes you’ll start to anticipate their limited behaviour and not only gain confidence in yourself but learn exactly how far your whip reaches and where you need to stand to make the whole process look completely effortless.
Getting to these bosses is another matter: On the whole it’s the enemies that’ll cause you trouble on your journey, but the stages themselves have a few life-sapping tricks up their sleeves too. There are multiple-choice routes that can lead you round in time-wasting circles, rooms lined with instant-kill spikes, and bottomless pits that will all need to be navigated along the way – and none of this is made an easier by your portable vampire-botherer’s decidedly “lumpy” jumping skills. He may be able to take on the forces of darkness single-handed but gravity remains something of a problem for Christopher Belmont as you watch him fall like a stone and to his death perhaps one too many times for your patience to handle: In a genre filled with Tigger-like bouncing this short and mostly downward trajectory definitely comes as something of a surprise, but there’s a sort of realism to it that stops it short of being unreasonable. Not that realism counts for much in a game that has you fighting vampires armed with nothing more than a whip that shoots fireballs (but only if you find an orb in a candle first, of course), but what’s here is consistent and reliable, even if it’s not much like anything else you’ve played before or since. Another reliable and far more pleasantly game-y bit of behaviour is his ability to suspend himself in mid-air using just the last few pixels of his back heel – and you’ll need him to do this a lot if you want to consistently make your way past the game’s incredibly unforgiving jumps. But again these aren’t the great problem you might think they’d be because your Belmont’s sprite and the teeny-tiny platforms he’s leaping between are always easily distinguished from their surroundings, even on the original Game Boy’s blur of a screen – when the display keeps itself together, that is. Densetsu’s a game that constantly feels like it’s one unforeseen behaviour away from a full crash: Brief graphical glitches come up all the time, a chunk of your score might not show if there’s an enemy and a projectile on screen and as mentioned near the top it’ll slow to a speed best described as “wading through treacle in iron boots” at the slightest hint of action. But I can’t help but see these things happen and smile, there’s a sense of raw honesty to this sticky-tape-and-hope performance that you only get in games that are trying really hard to impress – like seeing the scenery build before your eyes in the Mega Drive version of Virtua Racing for the first time – you can’t ever seriously say it’s the best example of its genre, but you can see the effort that’s going on under limiting circumstances on what was then not just a new format but a whole new concept too.
So it looks old. And it feels old. But even without the assistance of any childhood memories for this game to me it feels a sort of Saturday morning cartoons and toys in your cereal packet kind of old – it’s the living embodiment of no homework, long weekends playing Amiga games, and “Can we please put the slide in the padding pool?”. It’s a prime example of not only how far we’ve come but also how hard developers had to work to get games this impressive running at all, of how much thought they had to put into the placement of every last pixel. I can’t claim the game’s misunderstood: It is slow and it only gets slower, a lot of the hyper-precise platforming required of you under life-ending pressure borders on the ridiculous, and it lacks the gothic grandeur of the games before it and the handheld sequel that would follow it. But I still love it because it’s a game that fails and succeeds at everything it’s trying to do all at the same time: For better or worse Dracula Densetsu dares to be it’s own thing and demands I recognise it as its own adventure, not a shrunk-down adaptation of its bigger and more colourful alternatives, and I admire its ambition.