This review originally appeared in E51, November 1997.
As the majority of PlayStation developers venture out into the overcrowded 3D marketplace, the 2D platformer is fast becoming an extremely rare breed; a situation, no doubt, that will be to the chagrin of its most dedicated and loyal followers.
With this in mind Konami’s latest PlayStation release will be welcomed by hardcore platform fans the world over, and not simply as a consequence of its retro feel. This series still commands a healthy degree of respect. PlayStation Castlevania was released into the Japanese market back in March but made little impact on the UK import scene because of its intrusive Japanese text and speech. It’s an unusual game in as much as it goes against the grain of prevailing PlayStation development trends but succeeds regardless.
Staying true to the lineage and perhaps owing more to the four-year-old PC Engine title Dracula X (E4) than Castlevania IV, the game is daunting in both size and scope. In fact, it’s far bigger than the 8bit Engine version and positively dwarfs its esteemed 16bit forefather. But it’s the non-linear, open-plan game environment and the vast array of characters, weaponry and magic items that makes this an interesting diversion from usual platform fare. In fact, a more accurate reference point would be Nintendo’s 16bit classic Super Metroid to which this latest saga pays almost religious homage. Witness the gradual opening out of the map, the uncompromising puzzles and, perhaps most significantly, the burning of copious amounts of midnight oil in playing it.
This time the quest sees the player adopting the role of Alucard (the pseudonym Dracula used in Hammer horror flicks when travelling incognito) and avenging not only Dracula himself but Richter, the hero of the series’ 1991 flagship SNES title Castlevania IV. In some respects this latest trip represents a departure, housing a variety of elements absent from the framework of a traditional platformer. However, players must be prepared to put in the effort to get the most from this. The first hour or so of play reveals a curiously dowdy 16bit-style platformer that is only brightened by some subtle 32bit graphical accomplishments. The game’s later stages, however, reveal some surprisingly deep RPG-based play mechanics that reward enough to keep the player sufficiently interested. Weapons and spells become more devastating (there are even hidden special moves), environments become more impressive, and, above all, there’s a greater feeling of atmosphere than in previous episodes.
However, on a purely aesthetic level, there are some odd disparities in quality. For some reason (probably related with the game’s hiatus-ridden development cycle), some of the visuals are surprisingly crude – looking for all the world as though they were originally destined for the Mega Drive or SNES but halfway through production ended up being saved for 32bit. Some sprites shuffle along unconvincingly with just a couple of animation frames, backdrops occasionally suffer from dreadful shading, and some of the character design is simply laughable – the breakdancing lizards and Ninja Turtle lookalikes look like the unfortunate by-products of Konami’s lesser-skilled artists.
In some areas, though, it’s clear that the team’s designers have made a conscious effort to embrace 32bit hardware. While scrolling backdrops are conspicuously flat and largely devoid of 3D effects they do employ subtle, multi-layered parallax and shadowing effects, with occasional Mode 7-style zooming. Though PlayStation Castlevania will draw few onlookers, what innovations do exist are unlikely to go unnoticed by the player.
The music, too, is perplexingly varied: quite why Konami’s team chose to implement jerking segues from impressive, haunting classical compositions into cheesy lift muzak and screeching rawk is anybody’s guess.
Those looking for a quick fix or more immediate, arcade-style thrills are unlikely to grasp Castlevania’s intricacies. On the surface it looks archaic, but tucked just beneath is a game that throws the majority of PlayStation eye candy into sharp relief. Hardcore gamers will relish its classical sensibilities.