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Revamping C64 Castlevania

You probably didn't know this – hell, I'm sure there are at least a few Commodore 64 fans who don't – but back in its heyday the C64 got a conversion of the NES classic, Castlevania. And it actually plays okay! The tunes are tinny renditions of the beloved themes and don't really give a good idea of either the power of the C64's sound chip or the potency of the NES originals, but all in all there are worse things to load onto the old breadbox for rainy afternoon play. Here, check it out:

Being a designer, the thing that's always made me wince a little (and it may be your first reaction as well) is the visual side of things. I always look at the graphics in the C64 version and wonder why they're so rudimentary and only casually trying to capture the style of the NES original. I say this, of course, as someone who can't program for anything outside of C64 BASIC (although I used to be a beast in that); it's certainly very possible the limitations of the hardware meant that this was the best that could be done all around. And knowing the video game industry at the time, the tiny group of people charged with making this conversion probably had a very tight time frame and scant resources to use as reference when trying to recreate the NES elements.

This is CREATURES. The title is actually a long and forced acronym, if you care to look it up. The game itself is an adorably cutesy and violently gory romp.
This is CREATURES. The title is actually a long and forced acronym, if you care to look it up. The game itself is an adorably cutesy and violently gory romp.

But when you look at other games released in 1990 around the same time, Castlevania is up against legendarily gorgeous C64 games like CREATURES, Flimbo's Quest, Last Ninja Remix, and Turrican. Smaller games of the year, like Gremlins 2, Rick Dangerous II and Dan Dare III also eclipse Castlevania in looks.

1990 also saw the Amiga behemoth Shadow of the Beast shuffle its way onto C64, complete with the title's trademark over-the-top parallax effects (and also its dubious gameplay depth). C64 Shadow of the Beast wasn't the best looking game, but it still did everything it could to try to jam the Amiga's look and feel into the C64's limited palette and pixel count.

This is something that Castlevania on the same machine doesn't do. It functionally has all the same elements from the NES original, but there's something about the way the graphics are employed that make it seem like the C64 visuals are not always interested in being a totally spot-on translation. Sometimes it's little things like the shading on a brick or Simon looking less nimble than his NES counterpart; other times it's the whole colour palette being out of whack or things being so splodgy as to be unrecognisable as anything at all, let alone as something that appeared on the NES. It also doesn't help that no allowance has been made for the pixel dimensions of the C64, with a pixel twice as wide as it is high, resulting in everything looking squished and cartoonish.

(A quick aside in the name of being fair and balanced: 1990 also had a lot of rubbish C64 games, both in looks and general being-a-video-gameness; Castlevania being based an established favourite just makes the disparity more annoying and slightly less forgivable.)

Again, I want to stress that I'm no programmer on C64 or otherwise, and I never thought I'd be the kind of person who would look at video game graphics and say I could do better. I'd always make a face at the online reaction to initial screens of things like Diablo III or the Doom reboot. It would annoy me to see people lunging for Photoshop so they could noodle about with the contrast and colour saturation of something that was very much a prerelease image, then go SEE THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD LOOK YOU'VE GOT IT ALL WRONG AND YOU'RE RUINING MY FAVOURITE FRANCHISE AND QUITE FRANKLY MY ENTIRE MY LIFE AS WELL.

And yet here I am, about to do the same thing as those know-it-alls. I've sure made a short story long with all that preamble and quick history lesson guff, so here's the skinny: I've had a crack at redoing a level in Castlevania for C64. In my eyes, the standout offender in Castlevania's wobbly visuals is that first castle interior, after Simon battles his way to get inside from the start of the game (43 seconds into the above video, for those playing at home). That level is just so freakin' white. It doesn't contain the dank, moody atmosphere of the NES; instead it's lit like a sitcom with no nuance or spookiness to it. Moreover, due to the aforementioned difference in pixel widths between C64 and NES, everything's so chunky and wide, at odds with the elegantly sinister tone it's supposed to evoke.

So I set to work on the "what if" project of trying to make everything look more like the NES. Here are the results...

(Sorry for the weirdness of it going through the whole thing in reverse and me mucking about in menus. I could have edited the video, but then figured ehhh sod it, good enough.)

Because I'm not a programmer, I made this in the Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit (or SEUCK). This is a neat little suite of creation tools I've been using since I was a kid, so my fluency in using it really helped in the project. It's normally used to help people (like me) who can't program to create scrolling shooter games, with a variety of applications to make sprites, animations, backgrounds, attack waves, sound effects, and even a spartan title screen (you can see I quickly whipped one up for this video, but ran out of character tiles for the logo's dynamic V, dang it). SEUCK was originally only for vertically scrolling games, but in 2008 a fan tinkered with the software to produce the horizontally scrolling version I've used here.

While I tried to make things as NES pixel-perfect as I could, I had to make some compromises due to the nature of both the software and the hardware. Obviously those wider C64 pixels meant I couldn't always get the finer details spot on. SEUCK also has some tight limitations in the amount of colours you can use for level art, and how and where it you use the hues you settle on. Without getting into too many specifics, the quirks of how SEUCK handles colour have meant I had to omit the blue of the sky seen in the main windows. I simply couldn't have green and blue in the same background tile, so I had to ditch one or the other, but I'm pretty sure I made the right choice. As a trade off (and this is really the only place I deliberately diverged from the NES design) I placed a couple of grey pixels into the window frames that weren't in the original, just to give them a tiny bit more depth and interest.

There are some some other differences here and there I couldn't avoid – a couple of those red floor stones are elongated to make platforms the correct length and the staircases generally have 1 more step compared to the NES – but overall I've come pretty close to rebuilding the stage as it appears on the NES. It's been interesting coming to some realisations about the compromises and design decisions people might have made back in the day when converting a game from one platform to another.

Now that this level art is done, I may to revisit the project later with a view to populating the environment with some sprites, like doors opening and closing as they scroll by, and bats and zombies whizzing about as they do in the game proper. At the moment there are only a few candles featured the start of the scroll, popped in to test the way they look.

To be totally honest, the existing C64 version does an okay job of retaining the look of the NES stages in later levels - it's certainly not a complete disaster across the board. For the most part, everything's at least recognisable from the NES version, and there are sections which are more or less bang on in comparison. But it's just that I know the C64 was capable of more, especially for the official conversion of a big NES title. I'm not saying my efforts here are the pinnacle of what could have been achieved for the C64 incarnation, and I'm definitely not saying what I've made would be easily handed to a coder to turn into a comfortably functioning game. I'm not even really saying it's the fault of the people who made the 1990 C64 iteration - I don't know the story behind the game's creation and release.

What I do know is this has been a project that's been burning away in me for a while now, so I'm glad I ended up with something that turned out to be fairly true to the look of the original game, considering the many unique peccadillos of SEUCK and the C64 in general. Really, I'm just glad this is out of my system. Well, until my brain remembers what Contra on the C64 looked like.

P.S. How is there not a Giant Bomb wiki page for either of the C64 CREATURES games? Man, I gotta fix that.