by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

& r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & appy birthday, Castlevania. At 20, you've matured a lot. You still have the bland anime look you started sporting in last year's Dawn of Sorrow. It's an improvement over the wan pall you affected during your years on the Game Boy Advance. And anything is preferable to the Conan-with-a-whip image with which you debuted. But slender gents who run with mincing gaits do not the most convincing vampire hunters make.

Vampire hunters are made by the whip. A whip is the single most efficient means of killing fish men, flying Medusa heads and the ever-persistent skeletons. In the first Castlevania, no matter how clever I was at throwing axes or boomerangs, I would invariably find myself caught between a castle wall and an advancing horror icon, defending myself with a flurry of whip strokes.

That tense, close-combat tendency persists in Portrait of Ruin. You've even mixed it up by allowing me to play as a girl who attacks with spell books. (Using Don Quixote as a weapon, replete with a spectral fire-breathing charger popping out of the book, is charmingly original.)

You've come up with a tidy conceit for divvying up your roster of monsters, as well. They've now been spread throughout themed paintings. Hanging in Dracula's castle (itself still a nest of treachery), these paintings whisk me away to sub-levels, each with its own locale and cast of unnatural foes. It's crude, but it breaks the game into segments in a way that recalls how Castlevania II sent me trekking from castle to castle.

You've kept your musical standards high. The first game's throaty soundtrack was a rock-influenced rundown of the best that videogame music had to offer in 1986. A few years later, you topped everything with Castlevania III's (somebody please remix it) epic of layered electronica and feedback-induced beats. When you later moved to the PlayStation, Symphony of the Night lived up to its name. That title's composer, Michiru Yamane, returns to score Portrait of Ruin, and she shows a creative whimsy with your best themes, drawing on a wide range of harmonization and instrumentation for the paintings.

You're no longer displaying the pretensions that you had a few years ago. You've intensified what you do best: enemies are difficult to fight, often requiring precisely timed attack, jump and dodge combinations in packed and creaking spaces. It's a lot more active than you've been in a while, and it's made you more maddeningly fun than ever to pick up and put down.

THE GOOD: Portrait of Ruin joins a small group of DS games that take full advantage of all the machine's buttons. This brings a corresponding increase in complexity to the game's challenges. There's very little incorporation of the touch screen, which is good after the cumbersome trace-a-symbol magic that clogged the action in the series' last DS entry.

THE BAD: The game doesn't use the DS's second screen for anything other than displaying a map of the castle and the statistics of my characters. While this facilitates monitoring the game's role-playing, it doesn't add any graphical finesse.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A divertimento in the Castlevania franchise, Portrait of Ruin is nevertheless a showcase for the series' virtuosic and moody gameplay.

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