Wednesday 31 October 2012


How topical.

Praise the lord for this miracle bestowed upon us. It's gimped Castlevania for the IBM PC, here to enlighten and enthrall the masses with its thought-provoking tales of video game wonder.

I'm a fan of Castlevania. I don't share the same childhood attachment as many of my internet peers, but you'd be hard pressed to find a group of people who whip things better than the Belmont family. It was, however, unreasonable to expect my younger self to come into contact with the original game, as aside from the fact I had yet to be conceived when it was released, in 1988 you required a government grant to purchase a NES console in the UK.

The only realistic way of little Squirrel playing the first Castlevania game would have been this IBM PC conversion, released in 1990 by Unlimited Software. It's one of three western home computer ports of the game to be licensed by Konami, but along with its Amiga and Commodore 64 siblings, mention it online and you'll likely lose a metaphorical leg or two. The internet accepts only the NES version as the one true faith - everything else will lead to the death of firstborns.

Of course if you look past the surface you'll find it's the Famicom Disk System version which stands as our saviour, but that's besides the point - neither of the western-made Castlevanias are pure bloods, and twenty years ago that would be a cast-iron guarantee of failure. But here's a startling revelation for you - I don't hate the IBM PC Castlevania. I actually find it quite pleasant.

Before you get out your knives, take into account Konami's crazy policies of the day. When tasked with a IBM PC port, contracted developers would often receive a bog-standard retail NES cartridge and a time frame in order to complete the work. Expecting physical assets and design documents from Japan? Think again - all you get is blurry TV screens to work with. Get cracking.

So when you consider that most of this release is built around estimation and guesswork, coupled with the fact it's a conversion game for a lesser platform with a limited budget, it's far easier to forgive its failings. We're re-building a top-class NES release from scratch for a machine not designed for games, so you should expect to take sizable cuts in quality.

But there's equally no point denying there are problems. Controls are the biggest issue in DOS Castlevania - odd key mappings aside, you could cook a Sunday roast in the delay between pressing a key and getting a response. Simon Belmont only moves if the planets are aligned in your favour, which is less than ideal for a product based around on quick reactions and pixel-perfect accuracy. Surprisingly stairs aren't as big of an issue as I thought they'd be, but the horrendous latency makes surviving through some sections a game of chance, not a game of skill.

But yet, there seem to be concessions. Castlevania is a series notorious for forcing characters to dive backwards when hit - here Simon's reactions seem more subdued than on the NES, which is always a plus. Simon is unusually resilient in this version of the game - colliding with bosses isn't necessarily instant suicide, and despite being far from a Castlevania connoisseur, I breezed through the first two levels without any trouble at all. The game is by no means unplayable like many would have you believe - it's just a bit wonky.

Audio is a mixed bag. It's one of the few recorded cases in history where the Tandy speaker is preferable to Adlib cards, which is a frightening thought. The PC speaker tries to offer music but generally fails, and all three options have questionable ideas on sound effects, so while things are kept afloat by Konami's excellence in composition, it's not an unreasonable decision to turn the sound off altogether.

Graphically it's also a mess, though the more I compare these screenshots to their NES counterparts, the more I tend to forgive Unlimited on this one. The DOS version seems to be on the fence about what artistic direction to take, with some sections attempting to emulate the NES aesthetic, and others being re-imagined to please the IBM PC hardware. The game is often needlessly ugly (particularly in CGA mode), but had it deviated too far from the original we might be complaining for different reasons. I mean, surely nobody can go on record saying the Amiga version is pretty, so perhaps it's better this way.

Due to its obligations to remain close to the NES version of the game, Castlevania on DOS is forced to have backgrounds which scroll, which for a pre-Commander Keen IBM PC game, tends to lead to extremely choppy visuals. Even though it's easy to get used to clunky camera after a while, it will no doubt be disorientating for Castlevania veterans at first. What's worse is that even the Commodore 64 version manages smooth scrolling, despite the hardware being eight-years-old at this point in time.

Sadly there is no denying that this version of Castlevania is flawed, but in a sense this is to be expected - few IBM PC ports were great back in the day. You wouldn't hunt down this version for obvious reasons, but I wouldn't be quick to dismiss it as garbage either. For one, it has a save system, which the NES version lacks, and above all else, it's optimised for Herclues graphics cards, so it can look terrible in monochrome too!

Still, this is a fair port and doesn't deserve the flak it gets. It's a good game in a bad coat of paint.

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