Game Boy Castles from the past – Castlevania: Legends

As the last of the Castlevania titles for Nintendo’s monochrome Game Boy, the game also boasted the Super Game Boy Game Pak badge on the front. The Pak was an expansion cartridge that allowed Game Boy titles to be played on the Super Nintendo. Games that allowed it also had additional embellishments drawn from a limited palette of colors adding a little sizzle to the otherwise black and white screens when played on the system such as Castlevania: Legends’ colorized title banner.

The Game Boy’s run was almost over by the time 1997 rolled around, but its amazing run would root Nintendo’s spectacular dominance of handheld gaming devices for nearly two more decades, a position that it has never really given up despite challenges from technically superior options from rivals ranging from Sega and SNK to Sony. Even with color and superior sound such as that found in the Atari Lynx which released later in the same year (1989) that the Game Boy was, Nintendo’s maxim of software-over-hardware had proven itself time and again to yield dividends for its miniature moneymaker.

But not all of the games for the handheld were great hits and Castlevania’s history on the device had something of a rocky start with Konami’s Castlevania: The Adventure which had come out only a few months after the Game Boy did. The next game, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge in 1991 made a number of significant improvements (as well as confusing a few fans with its numbering scheme) that made it an exciting entry into the series and a fan favorite.

Unfortunately, the series’ final farewell to the Game Boy wasn’t quite as awe inspiring.

Released in 1997 several months after Symphony of the Night had arrived, Legends surprisingly took a few steps backwards from Belmont’s Revenge. Part of the reason may have been that a new team at a new subsidiary was put in charge of developing it — Konami Computer Entertainment Nagoya, or KCEN. It’s as if the Game Boy version of Castlevania had reverted to the bad old days but it did have a few neat features.

The biggest was that this Castlevania featured a female protagonist — a distant ancestor of the Belmonts, Sonia Belmont, who would become the first of that fabled family to do battle with the evil known as Count Dracula. Apparently, her story takes place in 1450 A.D. and was intended as Castlevania’s origin story. But when Koji Igarashi took over as the producer of the series, the game was written out. The reason was evidently that, according to him, the game “completely ignored Castlevania’s look” and went on to say that the game exists in an alternate world outside of the official one. Not only that, but that it was “something of an embarrassment for the series”.

Playing the game on an SNES embellished the screen with colors and a brick border. Here's Sonia in her first, and only, game.

The game as it looked via the Super Game Boy attachment for the SNES featured a few colors and a brick border, a stark change from the black and greenish tinge of the Game Boy’s monochromatic screen. Here’s Sonia in her first, and only, game presented in the anime style here and in the manual. It also wouldn’t be the last time that Konami would opt to use the anime look for Castlevania’s characters instead of Ayami Kojima’s gothic style as seen with Symphony of the Night.

It’s almost too bad that that was the case, but given the game’s shortcomings, he probably thought it was better for the series as a whole. Legends went back to the largely linear design that Castlevania began with although its levels featured a few branching paths for extra exploration opportunities. At the same time, it also eschewed some of the series’ core concepts such as having a sub-weapon fueled by heart points found by smashing candles. Heart points are still collected, but they now go towards something else in Sonia’s mechanics.

One feature that was great was Sonia’s jump controls. Unlike in Belmont’s Curse, players can actually turn and whip in mid-air and control the distance of her jumps to some extent giving her a world of ability that her descendant, Christopher, and later, Simon, along with a few others, didn’t have. Instead of sub-weapons, she had “soul weapons” earned by defeating powerful monsters at the end of each stage that did use heart points. She also has a “burning mode” that doubles her attack power for a limited time as measured by a second gauge beneath her life meter. It doesn’t recharge unless she dies, though, making it a weapon of last resort. The traditional sub-weapons, like the axe and Holy Water, do turn up as collectable icons that apparently alter the ending enticing players to explore every nook and cranny that each level has to offer.

One of the infamous trap rooms where zombies respawn over and over and reward you nothing but pain and tears.

One of the infamous trap rooms where zombies respawn over and over and reward you nothing but pain and tears.

The game also had a number of brutal issues. For one, there are booby trapped candles that drop the player into kill rooms filled with respawning enemies that they have to survive in a sort of “horde mode”. If they make it out alive, players get nothing for their trouble. Even worse, if they think the candle that had triggered the trap would drop anything good once they got back, it only drops them back into the mix.

Bosses also didn’t have health meters so it was a crapshoot on guessing whether or not you were doing any real damage to them. The visuals were a mixed bag, even on the Game Boy, with enemy sprites looking a little worse for wear and poor Sonia moving as fast as someone who had concrete boots. Enemies also had a nasty tendency to respawn just by scrolling the screen back across areas you had just left behind.

At the same time, it also isn’t quite as bad as The Adventure from so many years earlier. The game even has a “light” mode which starts Sonia’s whip out as a fully powered weapon instead of having to find crystal balls to power it up through its two levels to give players something of a break. A password save system helps keep your progress and the music isn’t bad, either, especially when fans recognize the iconic theme of Bloody Tears remixed in the first stage. Alucard even shows up later on as a boss fight. And if players get the “good” ending, they’ll witness Sonia becoming a mother with her child destined to be a hero, carrying on the Belmont bloodline.

Sonia’s adventures apparently ended with Legends, however she was slated to appear in another Castlevania under development for the Dreamcast (Castlevania: Resurrection) until it was abruptly canceled. She wouldn’t be the last femme fatale to bring the fight to Dracula’s doorstep, either, by starring in her own game as Shanoa joins the fight later in 2008’s Order of Ecclesia for the Nintendo DS. As for the game itself, it never found its way to any other platform beyond the Game Boy and with Igarashi’s housecleaning of Castlevania’s history, it probably won’t ever escape it, either. It’s probably why it’s something of a collector’s item today as the first, and so far, only game, to feature a female Belmont in a starring role.

It’s hard not to wonder whether or not another incarnation of Sonia will take on a starring role somewhere down the line, though with Castlevania’s relatively unpredictable comings and goings in each generation on whatever platform Konami decides to bring it back on, it’s probably not something to hope for in the near future. In Castlevania’s world, this story doesn’t even “officially” exist. At the same time, there’s always room for more side stories embellishing the Belmont legend. With an enemy like the Count, they need all the help they muster.

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