Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth (2009)
Platform: Nintendo Wii
The recent trend of retro updates is trickier than it initially seems. Since they're obviously built to trigger a sense of nostalgia, they really need to put some effort into the actual design so it doesn't smell like a cash-in. For example, Mega Man 9. It was intentionally patterned after Mega Man 2, since that release was largely considered the pinnacle of the series, even though it lacked some of the features from the later games. The end result was pretty decent.
Konami's Rebirth series hasn't been quite as consistent. Contra Rebirth took after Contra III on the SNES - again, usually deemed the high point of the series - and turned out excellent. On the other hand, Gradius Rebirth felt more like Gradius II - a decent game in its own right, but pretty much everyone agrees that Gradius Gaiden was its pinnacle (at least, as far as classic Gradius is concerned). As a result, it just felt like a step backward.
No one can really agree about the "best" 16-bit Castlevania game. Some prefer the moody atmosphere and friendly controls of Super Castlevania IV. Others like the griminess and setting of Castlevania Bloodlines. Still others like Dracula X, with its bright anime graphics and expansive branching paths. You'll even find a few sadomasochistic people that love the X68000 Castlevania/PSOne Castlevania Chronicles because it's so damned challenging.
Well, none of that actually matters, because Castlevania Rebirth patterns itself after The Castlevania Adventure, the first Gameboy game. Kind of. The Castlevania Adventure was an oddity, removing the traditional stairs and replacing them with ropes, and removing subweapons altogether. Castlevania Adventure Rebirth has stairs and subweapons, and six totally new levels with completely new bosses. The only elements it retains are a few of its distinctive enemies, particularly the rolling eyeballs, and the ability to upgrade to a flame-shooting whip. In the Gameboy games, this was downgraded if you got hit, but here it's just powered up for a limited time, regardless of how much damage you take. The only real reason it's associated with this title, probably, is so it can fit easily into the Castlevania timeline, something which IGA seems to take very seriously, and the original Castlevania has already, technically, been remade four times. (The original NES game, Super Castlevania IV, Haunted Castle, and the X68000 game. Other than some similarities between the NES game and the X68000 one, these are all entirely different games.)
It's weird, then, that the Castlevania Adventure Rebirth is a step back from the 16-bit games. These go beyond the little things, like the inability to pick up dropped subweapons or jump on or off stairs. The only real concessions to progress are the ability to change directions mid-jump (which can be disabled) and the branching paths, which offers slightly different ways through certain parts of each level, in some cases avoiding mid-bosses.
In many ways, it feels like a regression even back before the 8-bit games. The original NES Castlevania certainly isn't as feature rich as its successors, but it still remains not only extremely challenging, but also very tightly designed. Like all of the other Rebirth games, this game is pointed more towards a casual audience, and is therefore quite a bit easier than any average Castlevania titles. It requires more skill than your average Metroidvania, but only barely.
You can sort of fix this by bumping up the difficulty level, but even that doesn't solve the larger problem. The stages themselves aren't poorly designed, but they all tend to blend together. Each usually has some kind of theme - the first stage is outdoors, the second has an underground segment, the third is full of dungeon-style traps, and so forth. But because they're so long, and the graphical design so similar, it never feels like there's much distinction. The boss battles are at least reasonably well designed, with the Coat of Arms ghost (originally appeared in Dracula X and has shown up in other games) finally being promoted to full boss status, as well as a new vampire chick, appropriately fulfilling the "sexy bad girl" quota started around Dracula X.
Since the older Castlevania were designed to be tough, the levels themselves were fairly short, so replaying them didn't become too tedious. Not here, though. The levels are fairly long, and most have a mid-boss too, but they become quite tiring upon multiple plays. You probably won't run out lives often, but it's more of a chore to replay them, not because they're tough, but just because they're dull. Although it seems like there's no password or save system, the game does secretly track your progress, as there's a code to activate a level select to hop back to any level you've reached.
This creates a dilemma - if it doesn't have the features of the later classic games, and doesn't have the tight level design and the challenge of the earlier classic games, then what does it have? Not much, as it turns out.
Like the rest of the Rebirth titles, the graphics are vaguely above 16-bit quality, utilizing more colors than the SNES could but featuring the same type of artistry. It actually looks pretty decent, not as flashy as Contra Rebirth, but with better pixel work. Most of the sprites are new, although there are some tiles obviously taken from portable games sprinkled throughout. Parts of it look remarkably sloppy though, especially in areas where parts of the background are clearly at a lower resolution than other tiles, like they were slapped haphazardly from the portable games.
The soundtrack is the real treat, though. Like the other Rebirth games, it picks out various themes from the series, with a preference towards the more obscure ones, and remixes them in the style of late 80s/early 90s Konami arcade synth. (Lots of people seem to mistake this for sounding like the Genesis, which also uses FM synth, but is pretty weak with digitized samples.)
The first stage theme uses Reincarnated Souls for Castlevania Bloodlines, one of the most underrated songs in the series (the secret best song, in Retronauts parlance), the second takes Lullaby of the Night, the high score theme from Haunted Castle and re-appropriates it as a stage theme. The third stage uses New Messiah, the amazingly excellent song from Belmont's Revenge, and the only piece of music (sadly) to come from the Gameboy lineup. The fourth stage uses the File Load theme from the X68000 game - not a bad song but it doesn't really feel suiting - the fifth uses Aquarius (from Castlevania III, and later, Circle of the Moon) and the sixth uses the classic Vampire Killer theme. Outside of the music, at least it does push some of the right nostalgia buttons. How long has it been since we've seen those between level intermissions where the hero walks across a map screen, showing the next destination?
Castlevania Rebirth is not a terribly designed game, just kind of a boring one. For years, the fanbase has been wishing for a classic-style Castlevania game with modern sensibilities, and this feels more like a tease than anything, because it skirts around it before delving into blandness. Maybe one day.
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Castlevania Games - Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth