Konami's Castlevania series is one of gaming's most venerable and enduring titles. Spanning years, innumerable sequels, and appearing on nearly every major platform, you'd be hard pressed to find a gamer who hadn't played at least one of the games at some point in his life. From the early NES incarnations on through to the PlayStation's classic Symphony Of The Night, Castlevania has thrilled gamers with its rock-solid platform gameplay, horror aesthetics, and in many cases, wonderful 2D graphics and amazing music. As a series, its managed to tweak the core elements that made it successful (adding RPG elements to Symphony Of The Night and Circle Of The Moon, for example) without compromising the things the fans love. Aside from a disastrous attempt to make the game 3D for the N64, this is a title that's always stayed true to its roots.
This desire to stay true to its roots, coupled with the fact that the game itself is roughly 8 years old, is what makes Konamis newest release, Castlevania Chronicles, such an interesting anachronism in this age of 3D polygon worlds and nearly lifelike character models. Chronicles is a game that the kids would christen old skool the graphics, the gameplay mechanics, and just about everything else to do with the game harkens back to another era, an era that many of us look back on with nostalgia.
Castlevania Chronicles features the US debut of Akumajo Dracula, one of two Castlevania games that had never seen a stateside release (the other being the much lauded Dracula X: The Rondo Of Blood). Akumajo Dracula originally appeared in Japan on the X68000 PC, an early personal computer. While many look at Rondo Of Blood as the best of the Castlevania games (often even edging out Symphony Of The Night), most look at Akumajo Draculaa's one of the lesser entries in the series, notable for one reason its insane difficulty level.
To say that the original version of Akumajo Dracula featured in Castlevania Chroniclesis hard would qualify as a severe understatement. Hard doesn't begin to describe the difficulty of this game in its original form. The phrase so difficult it could cause you to hurl your controller across the room before ripping your hair out at the roots is probably a better description of the difficulty level. Fortunately, Konami has been kind enough to offer two versions of the game the original X68000 version, with the extreme difficulty intact, and an arrange mode which offers the less masochistic amongst us the option of adjusting the difficulty level. Even with the difficulty lowered, the game is still pretty tough. Gamers often wonder if new games have gotten easier or if they've just gotten to be better gamers. Chronicles proves the former true.
The inclusion of the arrange mode not only makes it so you can adjust the difficulty of the game, but it also offers up graphical and musical enhancements to keep those of us who need eye and ear candy at least somewhat satisfied. The character sprites in arrange mode are more detailed (Simon Belmont is larger and has a flowing mane of red hair), the bosses better looking, the backgrounds sharper, and the music remixed. While the graphical enhancements are noticeable, they're not going to convince anyone they're playing Symphony Of The Night. The graphics in the arrange mode are serviceable, but not likely to blow you away (although there are a few nice parallax effects featured in some levels). The music fares better, with the remixed versions of classic Castlevania tunes like Bloody Tears and Vampire Killer sure to please longtime fans of the series.
The games plot is essentially the same as its always been. You control Simon Belmont of the vampire-killing Belmont clan as he infiltrates Castle Dracula in order to destroy the newly resurrected lord of the vampires. Armed with your trusty whip, you'll journey from the outer edges of the castle through to the interior where Dracula himself awaits you. You'll encounter many enemies along the way, including bats, zombies, floating eyes, flying heads, and more. In some ways, Castlevania could be viewed as one of the progenitors of the entire survival horror genre of games.
Gameplay is platform-based, with lots of jumping and climbing. Simon will acquire hearts by whipping candles and enemies. He can also use a number of special weapons, including holy water, boomerangs, throwing knives, and so forth. These weapons have been around since the first Castlevania games, so everyone should be familiar with them by now. Unfortunately, Super Castlevania IV's multi-directional whip isn't featured in this game, nor is the ability to jump while on the stairs, two more facts that add to the games already high difficulty level.
The game is broken up into a number of levels (8 in total) with each one comprised of several stages. Moving through the levels is a very linear affair. Unlike some of the other games in the series, Castlevania Chronicles offers no branching paths to explore or necessitate a replay. The progression from start to finish is extremely straightforward and a bit of a disappointment overall. Within each level, you'll fight a multitude of enemies before finally encountering a boss then moving on. The bosses are challenging, well-animated, and one of the better parts of the game most are based on archetypal horror monsters, which adds to the mood of the game. And, just like everything else, they can be difficul teven at the lower settings.
Aside from the arrange mode, Chronicles also offers up some extra goodies for fans of the series. The most interesting of the bunch is the interview with the games producer, wherein he discusses the series in general and hints that Rondo Of Bloodis the next game they'd like to release. That news is good news as far as I'm concerned I only wish they'd have released that game first.
Other extras include an art gallery that's unlocked as you progress through the game, and the option of playing a time mode after you've beaten the adventure. Unfortunately, the lack of branching paths hurts the replay value of the game significantly, and only the truly hardcore Castlevania fans will be interested in seeing how fast they can beat certain stages.
In the end, Castlevania Chronicles is a solid game. While younger gamers who've only experienced the more recent incarnations of the series (Symphony Of The Night and Circle Of The Moon) might find the game too plain looking and the gameplay mechanics too limiting, those who've been around since the series started will no doubt find Chronicles to be something of worth. The enhancements offered in the arrange mode keep the game from looking too dated, and the adjustable difficulty setting alleviates some of the problem with the games challenge level. If nothing else, Castlevania Chronicles demonstrates that while rich, 3D polygon worlds may be nice, there's still something to be said for great gameplay and 2D sprites. Castlevania Chronicles is a satisfying trip down memory lane.