Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Castlevania Anniversary Collection Review

“It was not by my hand that I am once again given flesh. I was called here by humans who wish to pay me tribute.” Castlevania fans, like me, have been asking for this for a long time. I honestly didn't think it would happen any time soon only a few months ago. Not with Iga gone and Konami focusing on gyms and pachinko machines. Yet here it is, a Castlevania collection by the masters of retro releases, M2. They're the ones behind Sega Ages, a few Virtual Console emulators, and the upcoming Sega Genesis Mini. This collection includes Castlevania 1-4, Castlevania: The Adventure and Belmont's Revenge for Game Boy, the first ever re-release of Castlevania: Bloodlines, and an English version of the previously Japan only Castlevania parody spin-off, Kid Dracula. It also includes a small ebook featuring an interview with Michiru Yamane, design documents, and concept art. I played it on Switch for this review, but it's also available on Steam, PS4, and XBO for $19.99.

I think the most important thing to consider when looking at these retro game collections is whether or not the games run well. Options and art galleries are nice, but stuff like input lag and accuracy is much more important to me. I played these versions back to back with the 3DS VC and NES/SNES Classic versions, and I was pretty impressed. These games feel just as responsive and run just as accurately as on Nintendo's emulators, flickering and slowdown included. The biggest difference I noticed was a brighter and slightly warmer color palette on the NES games in the Anniversary Collection. If you are worried about performance after some of those Mega Man collections, don’t be. These are great versions of these games.

Your options are as empty as your soul! Sadly, this collection is lacking in terms of options and features. You only get 1 save state per game, there is no button remapping outside of the in-game options in Super Castlevania IV and Bloodlines, there's only 2 border frames for all the games, there is no rewind, no CPU overclocking, and the display options leave a lot to be desired. There is a Save Replay feature, which is pretty cool, though. It allows you to save a video of your current game starting from the last save state you made or from when you booted the game up. That means you don't have to hit record before you start playing, you just hit Save Replay after you've done something you want a video of. You'll still need a capture device to get the video off the system, though. This is nice for speedrunners and people making walkthrough videos.

There are some annoying issues with the display options for the NES and SNES games. The “Pixel Perfect” aspect ratio option in Castlevania 1-3, Kid Dracula, and Super Castlevania IV makes things wider than the 4:3 aspect ratio instead of narrower (8:7) when docked. The Pixel Perfect option is displayed correctly when undocked, though. Bloodlines always looks how it should in every setting. It should look wider in Pixel Perfect than in Original because that’s how Genesis games were made.

Besides Original and Pixel Perfect display options, we also have 4:3 Scanlines, Pixel Perfect Scanlines, 16:9, and 16:9 Scanlines. 16:9 stretches the image both vertically and horizontally to fill the entire screen, and 16:9 Scanlines does the same, but with scanlines. 4:3 Scanlines gives you a 4:3 aspect ratio scaled unevenly to fill the screen vertically with scanlines while docked and undocked. Pixel Perfect Scanlines is too wide on the NES games and Super Castlevania while docked, just like regular Pixel Perfect, and stays evenly scaled for whatever reason.

Another weird thing is that game automatically scales from 1080p to 720p when switching to handheld from docked, but it will not scale to 720p while docked, even if you manually switch to 720p in the system settings. A 240p image scaled to 3 times its original size fits evenly into 720p (like on the NES and SNES Classics), so it would cover a little more of the screen than a 240p image scaled to 4 times its original size in 1080p, like it is in this collection.

The 2 Game Boy games have completely different display options. While docked, “Original” gives you a Super Game Boy black & white palette with an unevenly scaled image that fills the screen vertically. “Pixel Perfect” gives you the same black & white color palette with an image evenly scaled to 6 times its original size. The “Dot Matrix” option gives you a 6x scaled image with the original Game Boy green color palette and a filter that emulates the look of the original Game Boy's dot matrix screen. It's cool for a bit, but it makes everything look like it has giant pixels that don’t connect to each other.

There's also 3 options that use the default Super Game Boy color palette, which is 2 shades of orange with black outlines and purple shadows on a light orange background; Color Filter, Color Filter (Pixel Perfect), and Scanlines. Color Filter and Color Filter (Pixel Perfect) are just like Original and Pixel Perfect, but with the SGB color palette, and “Scanlines” is the same as Color Filter, but with scanlines. I guess it makes sense to put scanlines on a Super Game Boy game since you played it on a TV, but I would have rather had another SGB color palette there instead. The only difference between playing docked and undocked is that all display options are scaled evenly to 5x and fill the screen vertically while undocked because the GB's vertical resolution of 144p x 5 = 720p, which is the same as the Switch's screen. That means you have 2 options that do exactly the same thing as 2 other options in handheld. I wish they would have used better color palettes. The orange SGB color palette is okay, but I wish they would have used the palette from the GBC/SGB enhanced versions of the games they released in the Konami GB Collections, or even GB green without the dot matrix screen effect.

The border frame options in this collection are just pathetic. There are only 2 borders and the option to turn them off and play with black borders, which is what I did because these borders are lame. There's one with a thick red oil painting texture and one with a thick brown oil painting texture on one side and the original Castlevania artwork that was used on the cover on the other side. The original artwork with Simon Belmont in front of the castle is awesome, but the oil painting texture is not so cool that it should cover a whole side of the screen or be its own border. I could have made better borders with some boxart and 20 minutes in Photoshop.

This collection did not have button mapping when I originally wrote this review, but it has been patched in now. (See the 6/18/19 Patch Update section below)
The lack of button mapping is not a big deal to me, but I know some people prefer the Y + B configuration for NES and GB over B + A or X + A. All the NES and GB games use the same button configuration; B and X are whip, and A and Y are jump. It's exactly the same as when using a 4 face button controller on the NES Classic. You can't whip with Y and jump with B, like on the SNES games, but I think X + A is fine, too. But then again, I don't have a problem with B + A either. Bloodlines and Super Castlevania have in-game button configuration options, so there shouldn't be too many issues there. Bloodlines maps the 3 button Genesis controller's buttons as A to Y, B to B and X, and C to A, so you can play with 3 buttons in a sort of arc or in the more SNES-like way.

Having only 1 save state is a real bummer. The NES and SNES Classics give you 4 save state slots per game. Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles gave you 1 save state and a suspend feature, so you could switch games and come back to the same spot later without even making a save state, essentially giving you 2 save states. If you switch games in this collection, you lose your progress unless you made a save state. Thankfully, all the old codes and passwords work here, even the Bloodlines infinite continues trick that requires you to reset the system, so getting back to a specific level isn't a problem in 6 out of the 8 games. Nobody actually wants to play Castlevania: The Adventure; though, so this is really only a problem with Castlevania 1.

The book is pretty small and half of it is filler, but it does have some interesting stuff in it. It has old design documents for all the games in English, and interviews with Adi Shankar, executive producer of the animated series on Netflix, and Michiru Yamane, composer on Bloodlines, SotN, and many other Castlevanias. It also has the 1 page manuals made for the collection, a chronology of the games in the collection, a Belmont family tree, and some weird articles about knockback, stairs, and why the holy water is the best weapon in Castlevania 1. The design docs are the best part. Did you know that Simon Belmont was originally called Peter Dante? No relation.

This book is kind of hard to navigate, though. I don't like how the zoom controls are so sensitive. It feels like it zooms in preset amounts because it does so really fast and doesn't let you make small adjustments. It also doesn't have any touchscreen support at all, which would have been nice. Just give me a PDF I can put on my tablet or something.

6/18/19 Patch Update
With this patch, Konami has added the Japanese versions of every game included, except Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and button mapping to all the games, except Castlevania: Bloodlines, to this collection. I’m guessing the lack of Japanese Simon’s Quest is due to the fact that the game was originally released on the Famicom Disk System and Konami not being able to emulate the game without infringing on Nintendo’s FDS BIOS copyrights. The Japanese version of Castlevania I they’ve added is also not the 1986 Famicom Disk System original, and is instead the 1993 Famicom cartridge re-release version. So we still don’t have versions of Castlevania I and II with save files, and all we’re really getting with these Japanese versions are uncensored and unedited versions of some of the games, button mapping for all but 1 of the games, and Castlevania III’s real soundtrack. They still have not fixed the Pixel Perfect display option while docked for the NES and SNES games.

What is a Castlevania Anniversary Collection? A miserable little pile of ROMs! But enough talk… Have at you! This collection is lacking in options, and some of the options that are there are buggy, but 6 out of the 8 games are good, and the emulation is on par with Nintendo's own. It's only $20, too. Finally having a re-release of Bloodlines and an official English version of Kid Dracula is worth that at least. I question the inclusion of the GB games over Chronicles, Rebirth, and Rondo of Blood, but I guess those will be in the second collection.