Life often seems cyclical, particularly when it comes to trends in media. Despite the passage of nearly four years, it feels like only yesterday that I was steeling myself for a comic book adaptation of my favorite video game series. Now, I find myself once again trying to set my expectations appropriately for another attempt at adaptation. Fortunately, I am armed with a mild beverage to calm my inner video game cynic.
Dark Horse is an English mild ale from Oliver Brewing Company. This dark ale was originally produced for American Mild Month, when brewers and drinkers in the US indulge in mild ales (typically dark colored beers with an ABV of 3% to 3.6%). Dark Horse pours a hazelnut brown color with amber hues and a frothy bone white head. Aromas of wheat bread dough and grassy hops rise from the glass. This brew has a slightly bitter start of roasted coffee beans which expands into a malty body of toasted wheat bread with buckwheat honey. A rich, nutty finish complements the body of this beer, closing with a mild grassy hop aftertaste.
Flipping through The Belmont Legacy once more, I was glad to have such a delicious mild ale to soften the reminder of this poor adaptation. Since I have avoided any reviews on Netflix’s new show, I will be coming into this production with only Dark Horse and my own hesitation to keep me company. I can only hope that the Castlevania animated series doesn’t fall into the same category of subpar cross-media translation as The Belmont Legacy. In the meantime, please enjoy a look back at an earlier printed attempt to adapt the world of Castlevania.
Whenever I encounter a comic book that has been adapted from a video game, it feels like there are two sides of me, arguing in the background. One side is the comic book fan, who is excited to get his hands on a new issue or series. While not every comic will be his favorite, he appreciates the time and effort that went into each panel, and it certainly gives him something to discuss with his friends. On the other side of the fence is the video game purist, who scoffs at any piece of media that falls short of the original gaming masterpiece. He has set an extremely high bar for adaptations of his beloved pastime, and anything that doesn’t live up to this standard is immediately dismissed and derided.
Normally, my two halves will balance one another, leading to a critical yet appreciative view of video game comics. However, there are certain game series that cause a total fracture between these two sides; beloved franchises that give me a case of rabid fanboyism. As a series that shows up several times on my “favorite games” list, Castlevania tends to be one of those franchises. So when I first heard that there was to be a five-issue comic series of my beloved Castlevania, I was filled with the cautious optimism of a man divided.
It was in 2004 when IDW Publishing released the first issue of The Belmont Legacy. At the time, Castlevania was one of several video game series from Konami that was being adapted by IDW. Founded in 1999, Idea and Design Works was initially known for their strong horror titles such as 30 Days of Night, but the company rapidly focused on creating comics for licensed properties. Now a publishing powerhouse, IDW has produced comics based on numerous properties from several media forms, including Doctor Who, Transformers, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. For their Castlevania comics, IDW approached Marc Andreyko And E.J. Su to handle the story and art respectively.
When writing The Belmont Legacy, Andreyko decided to focus on the protagonist of the first two Game Boy games, Christoper Belmont. As a character with very little impact on the main Castlevania timeline, Christopher and his adventure provided a mostly blank slate from which a new story could be told. The comic begins in 1576, at time when the Belmont clan is already established as accomplished vampire hunters. Christopher Belmont is soon to be married while yet another group of would-be blood groupies conspire to resurrect Count Dracula. After a successful ritual, the ancient vampire proceeds to take revenge on the Belmont line by terrorizing the nearby villages and kidnapping Christopher’s new bride. Determined to fulfill his role as vampire killer and save his bride, Christopher sets out to slay Dracula and his evil minions.
As a single piece of media, the comic is a satisfactory horror tale in the vein of classic Hammer films. The characters have sufficient motivations and personalities to move the story along (family-related destiny, ancient vendetta, desire of power at any cost). Some of the dialogue is a bit clichéd, but it serves the purpose of keeping the story light in spite of all the dark subject matter. There are some solid action scenes, most of them involving battles with the undead, and plenty of dramatic moments to keep readers engaged.
But for fans of the video games who are looking for traditional Castlevania elements, this comic is rather lacking (save for the whole, “Belmont versus Dracula” thing). Nearly all of the recurring enemies are absent from the comics, with only zombies and vampires showing up as obstacles on the way to Dracula. The castle itself, which is normally has a strong presence in the video games, just serves as a bland horror set-piece for a brief final battle. Dracula is quite different from his usual overly-dramatic court nobleman. Instead, he is portrayed as a demonic, half-bat creature, who never wears clothes and maniacally feeds on anyone who gets in his way. Save for the title and a handful of quick references, there is nothing to distinguish this as a Castlevania story rather a random horror comic.
For the artwork, E.J. Su follows a more traditional comic book style, using a shading technique that would be right at home with classic DC works. The character designs are well done, with plenty of practical costuming and realistic weaponry for your average vampire hunter. The character proportions are reasonable, which is a nice change from the usual hulking beast men and hourglass exaggerations that pass for women in most horror comics. Bright, single color backgrounds are used to highlight each character’s actions, and there is quite a bit of comic book onomatopoeia at play in the panels (lots of “whap” “snap” and “thunk”). Overall, the art style fits the look of older Castlevania games quite nicely, looking rather similar to the front covers of the NES and Game Boy titles. But for fans who are more used to the hyper-detailed work of Ayami Kojima on the newer games, the comic book art may seem a bit plain by comparison.
As I expound on my frustrations with The Belmont Legacy, I do appreciate the difficulty in adapting a video game to comic book form. As a writer, why would you want to retread the same old story in the exact way that an established game already has? It makes sense to take an older video game, which was limited in its narrative by the technology of the time, and expand the tale into a detailed work that can stand on its own. Unfortunately, even on its own, The Belmont Legacy is an unremarkable comic that relies on horror movie tropes to build a work that is mostly unlike its source material. I guess my Castlevania purist side was right to be alarmed by the lack of reanimated skeletons and floating Medusa heads.