Castlevania Anniversary Collection (Switch eShop)- Review

Title: Castlevania Anniversary Collection
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Price: $19.99
Release Date: 05/16/2019


Prelude

It should be noted that this review is of the Japanese Version of the collection, instead of the US one. Thus, all major differences will be noted, but the compilation quality is identical to the US one, so everything that I mention about features or performance will equally apply to the US collection unless I note otherwise. The US version is set to receive all the Japanese versions in a future update, so thankfully the lack of the alternate versions won’t be as problematic as it was in the Arcade Classics collection.

Presentation

Being a M2 project, Castlevania Anniversary Collection has had a lot more love put into the menus and UI than in the Arcade Classics Collection, with a vertical game select list that displays all eight games in a tidy fashion, while also providing descriptions going over each of the games’ plots. Upon selecting a game, you can bring up a menu with the ZL button, which is where the save state, display and replay options are, a menu not unlike the ones used in the old Sega Ages PS2 Collections.

Considering how this is a compilation of games from several different platforms, the display options differ slightly depending on what system the game came from. NES/SNES games three options available, with an “Original” display setting that’s almost 4:3, a “Pixel Perfect” setting that displays everything in the intended aspect ratio, and an awful 16:9 mode that fattens up the display to take the entire screen. These three displays also have a scanline option that you can turn on, with the option for “Original” also stretching the image to a proper 4:3. Castlevania Bloodlines also uses these same display settings, but since that’s a genesis game the output is slightly different in how they scale, to the point where “Original” looks better here than Pixel Perfect!

The two Game Boy titles also look pretty crisp, with two of the display options being the same as before, but with a new “Dot Matrix” display replacing the 16:9 option. This changes the display from the original black and white to the green coloring that the original Game Boy used. The scanlines have also been replaced by a color option that uses the default Super Game Boy palette, for those who remember playing those two titles in that fashion. While Original and Pixel Perfect hardly look any different on handheld mode, they do differ when playing on the big screen.

I’m also happy to report that just like in the Arcade Classics Collection, the sound emulation is spot on, with only one instance of any sort of error that I noticed when playing the eight titles included in this collection. Yes, this means that Bloodlines and Akumajo Densetsu (per my Japanese version that I’m using for review) sound just as high quality as they did on original hardware, which in the case of Castlevania III/AD is absolutely vital due to how that game’s special chip allowed for some of the best quality music on the entire system, so the sound glitch doesn’t apply to those games. Rather, the glitch comes from the original Castlevania game, which in the Japanese compilation is the 1993 Famicom Cartridge version, and in the US one is the original PRG0 version. This means that the error isn’t really due to one particular ROM, but rather due to something wonky with the sound channels, which causes the theme for the second act (Stalker) to have this high-pitched beep that plays every now and then. It’s not too noticeable, but it’s definitely not right and hopefully this gets fixed in a patch.

Gameplay

When it comes to the overall emulation quality, M2 does it again by making all eight games run absolutely flawless, with really good emulation that’s to be expected from them by this point. There’s the option to save a single session replay for each game, the inputs are super tight and on par input-lag wise with their SEGA AGES lineup, and the controls are just the same as ever, for better or worse. You see, while these controls are totally fine on the Switch, (A to jump, B to attack for all 8 bit games, and B jump/Y attack for the 16 bit titles) they aren’t customizable, meaning that they’re the exact same on every other system. For people outside of Japan, this means playing the 8-bit titles with a Playstation controller and using O to Jump and X to attack is beyond clunky, and it just doesn’t feel right at all, which makes the lack of button customization really baffling.

You also cannot use the ZR button for anything, meaning that if you preferred mapping the weapon button to ZR on the Wii U VC version of Super Castlevania IV, then you’ll have to make do with R or whatever else the SNES controller had. Here on Switch the defaults are perfectly usable, but considering how this is a multiplatform collection, it really makes me wonder if M2 just designed with Switch/Japanese PS4 controllers in mind and nothing else, which is unfortunate.

When it comes to the actual games themselves, they’re just as good/bad as you remember, and I ended up finding some new favorites that I haven’t played before, while also going back to some gems I haven’t played in ages, and appreciating the differences between the Japanese and US versions of a few games. Like with the Arcade compilation, I’ll look at each of the eight games separately and give my personal verdict on each of them, both US and Japanese versions when applicable.

Castlevania/AKUMAJO DRACULA: 1986/1993 This first entry in the Castlevania series holds up just as well now as it did back then, and offers a tight, yet satisfying challenge of trial and error that’s a lot of fun to overcome. At first, I found it very odd that Japan went for the 1993 reissue of the game, considering how the original title was on Famicom Disk System and had a save feature. However, upon playing through the 1993 version more, I’m pleased to say they picked the definitive version of the game, since it not only includes the original game with some more bug fixes and quality of life changes, (such as a super fast countdown for hearts at the end of stages) but it even includes a brand new easy mode that’s super accessible and is a perfect way to get the hang of this game, as it removes all knockback and lets you keep your weapon after death.

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Unfortunately, the US version included in the US compilation includes the PRG0 version of the game, which is mostly fine save for a very bad bug that can occur in the final two acts of the game. If too many sprites flood the screen, such as in the Death Battle or when fighting the final Dracula form, then the game will soft crash, meaning that you can still access the menus and load a save state (indicating it’s not an emulation issue, but rather something wrong with the actual ROM that will happen on a real NES), but it’s beyond dumb that this is even a problem. Why? Because they released a revision shortly after the original that fixed this issue, which is somehow unused in the US version for whatever reason. The 1993 version fixes this bug as well, but I’m just confused as to why they didn’t simply include the same version that’s been used in literally every other rerelease to date for the US collection.

Castlevania II Simon’s Quest: 1988 This sequel to the original Castlevania shakes things up by making it an explorative adventure game, but for some baffling reason the Japanese version of the collection does not include the original FDS version, Dracula II, which had a superior soundtrack, a better script and a save feature, but at the expense of a lot of annoying loading times. While the first game had a reissue on a Famicom cartridge in Japan, Dracula II was FDS exclusive. I honestly don’t know why the Japanese collection includes the US version of the game outside of it being the only one on a cartridge, since FDS emulation has been done before with no problem. My guess is that it has something to do with the Famicom Disk System BIOS being owned by Nintendo, which they can’t scrub as easily as the copyright notices on the title screen, but it’s still a very annoying exclusion for Japanese fans.

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Still, the US Simon’s Quest is a very good game with a better quality of life experience than the Japanese version, as the passwords save more than the save files of the FDS version, and there’s no loading to deal with whatsoever! The only irritations that come from this version being included in the Japanese version come from the lack of Japanese text and the superior soundtrack, and how much of a sore thumb the game sticks out compared to the other Japanese versions in this collection. Both versions of the game have their weird cryptic moments, although the Japanese version is more truthful with NPC dialogue than the US script which is filled with grammar errors, and the game is still a fun predecessor to the Metroidvania titles that would come later.

Castlevania The Adventure/DRACULA DENSETSU: 1989 The first Game Boy Castlevania, there’s almost no difference between the two versions besides the Japanese version having a prettier title screen, and unfortunately that means this game has nothing to save it. To be brutally honest, The Adventure is the worst game in this entire collection, solely due to a bunch of technical flaws and bad design choices that make this game unbearable to play. From an abysmally slow walking speed, a stupid powerup system where any hit of damage turns your weapon into the default whip, and a framerate that feels as if the game could implode at any moment, this game is just really, really bad.

While I can easily get through the first stage and a half with little trouble, the third stage is delivered straight from hell itself, and intensifies every major issue this game has. It’s just bad, bad, bad, and this is the one that you shouldn’t bother to play outside of completion’s sake. Still, I feel it was important to include Adventure in this collection for historical purposes, since it would lead to a gem later on…

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse/AKUMAJO DENSETSU: 1989 The pinnacle of the series to some, Castlevania III is a game where the Japanese version easily wins over the US one, and is also the one that inspired the latest Netflix TV series. In fact, the Japanese version has so many quality of life improvements over the US version, that it’s the main reason I imported this collection before the announcement of the patch, and it’s also well worth switching to the Japanese version when that patch hits for the US collection, not just due to the superior music thanks to the VRC6 chip, but due to not having the irritating difficulty changes that the US version implemented.

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Including a bunch of alternate paths and several playable characters to join Trevor Belmont on his journey, Castlevania III’s level design really shines, with a lot of solid platforming and replay value thanks to the different character pairings. Being closer to the first Castlevania rather than the sequel, Castlevania III also feels like a much refined version of that game, which may upset a few people who liked the different look of Simon’s Quest. While the pacing is enjoyable in both versions up to a point, the US version is a badly balanced mess that pales in comparison to the Japanese version for the same reason Bayou Billy does, in that Konami USA made the game way too cheap when bringing it over to the west, all thanks to enemies doing an absurd amount of damage the further along in the game you get, along with the checkpoint system getting screwed up. Compared to the Japanese version and most of the other games in this compilation, it’s just not that fun to play, and this is the one to wait for the Japanese patch on before you give it a go.

Kid Dracula/Dracula Kun: 1990 This oddball spinoff gets translated for the first time ever in the US version of the collection, which is very noteworthy for several reasons, but besides that helpful tidbit Kid Dracula is a seriously underrated gem. Playing more like a Mega Man for young children, Kid Dracula is a relaxing time with a lot of fun powerups to mess around with, while also adding some elements of challenge so that it’s not an insultingly easy experience either.

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You can still die a lot, but if you maintain trial and error this becomes a really easy game to breeze through, with the hardest part of the game being the stupid bonus games at the end of each stage. Definitely a gem worth including, although I kinda wish they threw in the Game Boy sequel as an added bonus.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge/DRACULA DENSETSU II 1991 The sequel to The Adventure, Belmont’s Revenge destroys everything bad about the original game by improving literally everything. The level designs are vastly superior, the control is much more responsive, the game isn’t at risk of exploding, and the music is godlike, leading to one of the best sequels I’ve ever played in my entire life. Criminally ignored from the 3DS Virtual Console, this game finally gets the rerelease it deserves and is a super fun game to play. The only major difference between the US and Japanese versions come from how one subweapon was replaced by another, (Cross in the Japanese version, for Axe in the US version) so this is absolutely a must-play even for the most die hard detractors of The Adventure.

Super Castlevania IV/AKUMAJO DRACULA 1991 Not a sequel to Castlevania III or even a sequel to Simon’s Quest, this oddball is a retelling of Castlevania, and even shares the same Japanese title as it. Playing a lot like Castlevania, this game adds some fun gameplay mechanics with an eight directional whip and excellent boss battles, but also suffers from some aspects that haven’t aged well, namely the emphasis on brown and gritty sprites and a soundfont that pale in comparison to Castlevania Dracula X.

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A few awful vertical stages can make this game a bit inconsistent with the difficulty too, since outside of those annoying climbs the game is pretty enjoyable and not that tough at all. Still a great game worth playing through, but unfortunately I feel it’s not nearly as good as other games in the series, and the weakest of the main four (at least, compared to the other Japanese versions. SCIV is still better than US Dracula’s Curse!). The Japanese version has a bit more blood in spots and a less annoying sound for the whip, but it’s pretty much the same.

Castlevania Bloodlines/VAMPIRE KILLER 1994 Last but not least, this Sega Genesis rarity has also been rereleased for the first time ever, taking elements from both Rondo of Blood and the X68000 Castlevania while also trying a bunch of new things as well. Bloodlines easily became my favorite game of the entire collection, all thanks to some brilliant level design and two very fun characters to play as, along with customizable options to tweak the difficulty to your liking.

 

This game does have limited continues, but it honestly isn’t that bad if you prepare accordingly or choose the easier settings to warm yourself up with the game, plus the save states can help in a pinch if you feel like you need it. Not only does the game shine in the gameplay and fun department, but it also has one of the best soundtracks in the franchise, and the Sega Genesis sound chip really shines here.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Castlevania Anniversary Collection is a really fantastic loveletter to the Classicvania era of the series, including seven fantastic games (and one bad one) emulated well for a new generation. M2 strikes gold again with this compilation, and while it doesn’t include any crazy new features save for the Kid Dracula translation and a cool eBook that includes a bunch of box art and concept designs, the games still all run exceptionally well, with the only gripes I have being the (current) lack of a region select option, the total lack of Dracula II from the Japanese collection, the sound channel bug for Castlevania 1, and the lack of a button configuration. (considering the multiplatform nature of the compilation)

Still, for newcomers to the series brought in by Simon’s inclusion in Smash Bros, or those who are curious in checking out a particular game that you may have never played before, (unless it’s Adventure, where in that case, DON’T) this collection is easily worth the $20 or 3000 yen, and I really hope the Contra Collection is done with a similar quality. (and includes Operation C!)

I give Castlevania Anniversary Collection a 9 out of 10.

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