Haunted Castle II

Review by Mike Finkelstein

The original Haunted Castle is not a game screaming out for a remake. A ultra-hard, little loved arcade game, Haunted Castle was Konami's way of trying to milk a little more cash out of the concept of the original Castlevania while missing the mark horribly. The game did poorly enough Konami never revisited it, all but ignoring it for all but the most fan-service-y of compilations. It exists, and that's as much as the company wants to say on the matter.

Fans, though, often have their own ideas about the path the series could take (we at the Inverted Dungeon haven't been without our own flights of fancy), so while Konami might not have wanted to revisit Haunted Castle that doesn't mean fans might not want to take a stab (in some cases literally) at the game and it's "potential" future. The game is a curiosity in its own right, so what if Konami had decided to make a sequel to the original Haunted Castle further inspired by the main Castlevania series.

The seems to be the prevailing idea behind Haunted Castle II (creator's website), the first Castlevania fan game created by future prolific game maker Migami. It is, from style to substance, exactly as it says on the title screen: a proper sequel to Haunted Castle, which is a noble idea in its own right. Of course, the very fact that it's a sequel means the game comes with its own baggage, and that's before we even get into the issues the game has because it's a fan game. I like the idea of Haunted Castle II much more than I like the actual game.

Although billed as a sequel, the story of Haunted Castle II could be taken as a prequel instead. Bouncing into the past we get to play as Trevor Belmont and he whips (and eventually sword-slashes) his way through a collection of stages all to, of course, get to Dracula and defeat the evil vampire in the depths of his lair. To get there, naturally, Trevor has to brave hordes of monsters that come out of the wood works, take down a collection of bosses, and survive long enough to have a chance of seeing the end of the game. It'll be a marathon, not a sprint.

To the game's credit, and its detriment, the game is not short. This wasn't some small idea that Migami decided to create but, instead, a lengthy adventure that sees Trevor go from outside the castle, through to the ghostly halls, down into the dungeons, and then climb his way towards the castle keep across eight or so lengthy stages. Expect to die a lot, but even if you somehow could make it through in a single life the game will take you probably and hour to complete. For those looking for a lot of Haunted Castle, this game does deliver on that score.

That doesn't mean its fun, though. Once you've gotten through the first couple of stages you've basically seen all the enemies the game has. The only twist it can really bring out is to just add more and more enemies to the stages, often taking enemies that were bosses in a previous level and turning them in just another enemy to spam at the player. It really does start to become a slog even by the halfway point and, were I not reviewing the title, I probably would have stopped there having seen what the game had to offer (and appreciating the effort that went into the creation) without feeling the need to go any further.

In part that's because the game is hard. Beyond just the enemy spam there's also the fact that the hit box on your weapons (first the whip before you get a sword) is pathetic. Meanwhile the enemies can barely graze you and send you back, leading to quite an imbalance between your abilities and how quickly the monsters can take you down. There aren't any lives in the game so even a single death will lead to a "Game Over", but at the same time you can continue as much as you want (certainly an improvement over the original arcade game). If you're persistent enough you will get through the game, it's just a question of if you want to.

Frankly the game isn't much to look at. It uses a collection of sprites from across the breadth of the Castlevania series, but they all look like they've been run through an "MS Paint" filter in the process of making the sprites the right size for the Haunted Castle scale, leading to some really horrible, chunky, eye-searing enemy designs. It's garish and, well, just not good. Sometimes it comes together, with the right background (all of which seem to have been drawn by Migami) and a few sprites that don't look bad, but for the most part the art in this game just isn't good.

That's not to completely trash Migami, mind you. Having seen his later works, such as Castlevania: The Lecarde Chronicles 2, he is capable of cleaner, nicer looking artwork. It's just more indicative of where he was with his game design chops back in 1998 when this game came out. And, really, for a game made in 1998 by a fan, this really doesn't look that bad. It just hasn't aged well in the years since, at all.

I do find the weapon upgrades interesting as Trevor goes from a leather whip to chain, then red chain, a sword, then a magical sword, increasing his power each time. The upgrades are appreciated too as some of the final bosses (Dracula especially) are given layers upon layers of health bars and trying to complete these fights with just the dinky whip would seem all but impossible. You feel like a proper warrior god by the end of the game, which can be fun in and of itself, certainly.

On the flip side, the game has one pretty major flaw: the soundtrack. The music is taken from other, Konami-made games in the series and that's fine -- if he can't write music at least he chose a few solid tracks to take for this an game. The issue comes from when one of the soundtrack selections has to loop: the game literally pauses, like it's had a crash, before eventually restarting again. This throws off the pace and makes it very difficult to stay in the flow of combat. This is a flaw that really needed to be fixed before the fan game was released.

I appreciate the effort that went into Haunted Castle II -- the ideas, the fact that it's a sequel to a game that no one liked, the sheer chutzpah of it all -- but this is a very early fan game from a creator that's gone on to make much better. This is a title that's interesting to view as it's own curio, a first step into a game makers eventual evolution. But as a game in its own right, Haunted Castle II just isn't enjoyable. I played it once and I doubt I'll ever want to go back.