Castlevania for Cellphones

Review by Mike Finkelstein

Considering the fame and long history of the original Castlevania, it is no surprise that Konmai ported the game to multiple platforms. One of the most curious, though, were the editions released for the J2ME mobile platform (often used for Nokia cellphone games). The ports are interesting for two reasons: one, because a game such as this had to be made to work on a form-factor not really designed for Castlevaia's controls, and two, because there were multiple editions of the game made.

The earliest edition is also the hardest to find any details about. In fact, aside from knowing it exists, you'd be hard pressed to find a trace of the oldest version online. It featured the very basic game (with whipping, jumping, and sub-weapons, as you'd expect) but with a limited play window and sub-NES graphics. It also, reportedly, very choppy to play and hard to control. Remember, this was made for a cellphone which had a number pad for the main body along with a couple of extra rows of buttons at the top and bottom. Not an idea controller, so getting Simon to do anything was a bit of a pain.

The second edition of the game was an improvement over what came before. The graphics (as shown in the one screenshot we could find at full-size) were cleaner and crisper, much improved over the NES edition even. Footage of the game, though, still showed the same issues that plagued version one: namely, the gameplay was still very choppy. Simon controlled like molasses and it was very hard to get the hero to do much of anything. While prettier, this was still a mess to play.

It was with version three of the game that "Castlephonia" became a much more playable game. Bear in mind that this edition is dated to 2008 (for the Japanese release -- some screenshots do show a version of the game with English words included, which makes us assume an edition came out overseas, outside Japan, although we still can't find verification of this). The first iPhone came out in 2007 and, with its huge screen and different form factor, essentially remade the entire cellphone market (now, years later, everything resembles an iPhone and forms like the classic Nokia phones, with their tiny screen and big buttons, are relegated to budget, throwaway phones). As such, the last edition of the game could use better hardware, and larger screen real estate, to show an improved game.

While finding and playing an edition of version three isn't easy, it's not impossible. If you can find a copy online (and get the emulation working properly), you'll be greated by a very pretty game (that loads, still, in a fairly tiny window compared to modern screens and phones). The graphics are nothing short of spectacular considering the era it came out in, with lush, finely-crafted details. The creators used the increased pixels available to make one of the prettiest editions of the game I've yet seen. If not for the limited play window in comparison to what we're used to, you'd be hard pressed to think this was a cellphone game from looks alone.

It also plays much better, with smooth movement and tight controls (all things considered). Simon has been given more maneuverability, noticable in not just an overall speed increase for the hero -- he trucks here in comparison to the original NES game -- but also with a floatier jump and faster attack speed. This Simon here can easily mow through enemies and even melt the health off of bosses quite easily. I can understand why they did this -- the original game is already hard enough, so making Simon control better helps to make the overall game easier.

Other modifications help the package as well. Enemies don't respawn, for one thing, so if you kill a beast and then scroll the screen back, you never have to worry about them reappearing. The levels seems similar, but many of the jumps have been made a touch easier (again, aided by the floaty jumps) and it doesn't feel like there are as many enemies in the stages. Overall, the difficulty feels lighter, easier than other editions, making for a very agreeable package.

The one place where you really notice the fact that you're on a phone (or, at least, emulating one) is in the construction of the stages. Specifically, the platform could really only load one section of a level at a time, so any time Simon hits a screen transition (going through a checkpoint door, moving up or down stairs between areas), the game has to load the next section. There will be a long pause, with a loading screen, before the game comes back. It slows down the pace a little, and does get a touch annoying sometimes, but it's not the end of the world.

All things considered version three of this game is a remarkable package. I don't know that I'd play it more than once or twice for the novelty of it -- "look! I'm playing a game ported to a cellphone years after it was meant to be played!" -- but at the time, if I could have gotten my hands on this game, I probably would have enjoyed taking another trip through Dracula's classic castle.