Castlevania

Contrary to Konami developers, this castle’s architects had no idea what they were doing.

Game Name: Castlevania (1986)
Developer: Konami (Gyrus, Gradius, Contra)
Platform: Family Computer Disk System (original), NES, Arcade, C64, Amiga, MS-DOS, Windows, Game Boy Advance, Mobile Phones, Nintendo DS, MSX2, Atari 2600  (reviewed on NES emulation)
Categories: NES Classic, Side Scrolling Platformer, Pitfalls, Power-Ups, Meticulous Level Design, Multi-Stage, Catchy Soundtrack, Medieval Castle Dungeon, Delayed Player Input, Life Bar, Hidden Items, One-Hit Minions, Vampires and Universal Movie Monsters, Overlapping Enemy Patterns, Infinite Tries, No Saves, Punishing Difficulty

May Appeal To: leather wearers, 17th century tailors, S&M enthusiasts, lion tamers, and those that chow down on pork chops discovered in the very walls of gothic castles.
May Repulse: sun shunners, neck biters, atheists, anti-reflectionists, those with a garlic allergy, and anyone requiring explicit permission to enter a domicile or who felt compelled to cart a coffin of dirt from their country of origin.

Comparable To: its descendants. Castlevania II has inferior design, pacing, art direction, music, and level layout. Symphony Of The Night empowers the player instead of crippling them, though it showcased a complex map and bestowed personality upon the very environment with attractive sprites and surprises. Castlevania 64 reeks of the early push to convert popular side-scrolling platformers into 3D, low-poly, shitty-camera shadows of their former selves. Lament Of Innocence and Curse Of Darkness successfully hone this newer perspective, added more to the strategic RPG experience with customizable summons or inventory management, and offer spatial reasoning challenges as well as a new focus on exploration. Portrait of Ruin was considerably easier for me, though the loads of maps and the dual-character system prove to be fun, diversionary mechanics in hindsight.

Learning Curve: Jumping, whipping delays, and enemy pushback takes 20 minutes or so to get the hang of. Boss knowledge is acquired after 5 minutes exposure to each.
Game Length: 30 minutes
Difficulty: High. Bosses are exploitable with just the right sub-weapon and pattern memorization though the Grim Reaper and Dracula are still tough without speedrunner style hacks. The later levels would be a nightmare without infinite continues.
Mastery: It’s a straightforward game but there are a staggering amount of secret items (food, points, and 1-UPs) behind destructible items or spots to stand on. Nevermind the fact that the fastest completion time I’ve witnessed is 11 minutes. That’s insane.

Find forgiveness in your heart for the awkward walk cycle. It gets weirder the more you look.

Story:
“You’ve arrived at Castlevania, and you’re here on business:
To destroy forever the Curse of the Evil Count.
Unfortunately, everybody’s home this evening. Bats, ghosts, every kind of creature you can imagine. You’ll find ’em all over the place, if they don’t find you first.”

Aside from this mischievously-worded manual blurb and an ominous riff as the character arrives at its gates, Castlevania’s storytelling is done through the rigors and pacing of the action itself. Since every milestone of the trek into and out of the castle’s bowels is catalogued by a slow-crawling map that details areas conquered and the mysteries ahead, this plays out like an epic tale. No monologues, no pretense, just the visual cadence of the Hero’s Journey playing out through your fingertips.

Outside this game, Castlevania’s lore sprawls an impressive amount of centuries and its self-defined tropes have become timeless in their own right – a protagonist, a castle, a vampire, a magical whip. These are the elements that resurface in the continuous cycle of curse and sacrifice, of adversity and conquest. It may be unfair of me to superimpose experience and expectations from my sordid past with the entire series, extrapolating excellence when only the bare minimum of story is hinted at beyond a superficial level.

To this I’d argue that the original Castlevania captured and cultivated those budding feelings of scope and grandeur, of hope and futility, of death and rebirth with no more than a few sweeping pans and intimidating boss battles. To that end, what more is present in the gaggle of modern titles in this series that isn’t present here in these humble beginnings? The grand-daddy of them all didn’t need paragraphs of text, merchants, side characters, inventory screens, and special abilities to deliver what would become the base experience to build upon later.

But this legacy didn’t just happen – it was engineered. How am I so certain that the history and scale of Castlevania was intended from the start, given so little material to go on? Well, it’s right there in the manual’s introduction:
“The Count has waited 100 years for a rematch.” This is the very first game, actually.

Presentation: Unlike the graphical representations of the crumbling pillars themselves, the pillars of good castle architecture aren’t represented in the best light. From start to finish, the player roams a nightmare world where flagstones, gaudy carpet, incessant stairways, flying buttresses, a private sewer system, and gauche statues pave the way to the master bedroom in the most obtuse way possible. Can you just imagine the lord of the manor coming home, dropping his keys on an end table, and subsequently traversing the main foyer, scaling the nearest tower, alighting through the flooded basement, strolling across the decrepit and narrow walkways to adjacent castle wings, diving headlong into a subterranean cavern, crawling amidst the mobile gears of a giant clockwork mechanism, then finally schlepping the final hops past the bat infestation remaining to be exterminated – all in order to kick his slippers off and get to bed?

For every segment I described, there exists its own tileset – typically with an appropriate introduction to a new foe in highlighting their particular attack pattern, isolated from the rest of the blood-thirsty throng of Halloween rejects. Ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, ravens, bats, snakes, Frankenstein’s monster, mummies, hunchbacks, and a vampire. Zero points for originality but kudos for integrating the tropes in a thematic and uniform way. All look great, are recognizable at a glance, and have unique approaches despite being one-hit kills aside from the bosses. Colors are bright, vivid, and discernible (outside a literal mis-step when the catacomb’s background skulls pop as if they were a platform). I despise when Nintendo sullied its palettes for a ‘grim’ aesthetic *cough, the sequel, cough* so these graphics pass my inspection with flying colors.

The audio is incredible, primarily the energetic musical tracks for each of the 6 distinct areas. Bitter, resounding chords give rise to bright, lilting choruses that transcend into baroque-style MIDI bursts for the bosses. There are triumphant trills and damning down-notes, all culminating into one of the quintessential soundtracks of the decade. I can close my eyes and recall most levels’ ditties, it’s that iconic.

The frogman falling through the skull tiles is a clue, but how’s a brash gamer supposed to know to wait for a solid platform to arrive?

Unique Features: Before it branched into anime trappings, the Castlevania series drew inspiration from monochrome American horror flicks and staged identical monsters as its bosses. You may have noticed the series of squares along either edge of the title card, reminiscent of perforations found in physical film reels. Even the credits refer to real-life movie actors, “disguised” with or without the intention of being punny, it’s hard to tell. Here are a few, some obvious and others just plain eccentric:

Screenplay by Vram Stoker; Death – Belo Lugosi; Frankenstein – Boris Karloffice; Medusa – Barber Sherry; Fish Man – Green Stranger;  Armor – Cafebar Read

Gameplay: Honestly, this is a tried-and-true platformer with not too many surprises. Despite the visual meta-map (which reminds me more of Twin Eagles or Doom than any Metroid I’ve played) your path is undeniably straight, with one or two hairpins where you must parade across the top half of a screen you had just slogged past.

Some baddies have pre-selected positions such as axe-throwing knights while others spawn in waves of ones and twos, such as the ghouls, fish men, and medusa heads -all in the first level! Most lighter, randomly-spawned enemies can be defeated in a single hit though many will simply overshoot the player and fly off the other side if avoided correctly. Others will require 5+ hits from any strength of whip to dispatch – several of which remain stationary but fire projectiles in singles, a burst pattern, or even have their weapon return to them. No enemy moves too fast to predict but there are often more then three or more on screen with drastically different patterns. At any given moment you might have a foe kiting you with projectiles as an immortal red skeleton ambles up behind you, refusing to stay down after repeated blows.

Castlevania pulls no punches and is well-known for its difficulty. However, whereas lesser games spawn a swarm of ill-conceived baddies in ambush points -cascading upon a helpless player- this game has a slow and deliberate MC matched with slow, deliberate enemies. What with the delayed, committed jumping arcs and the stutter from the time the button is pressed to the moment the whip is at full extension, this game is about as Dark Souls as it gets for this era. It ain’t Ninja Gaiden, for sure, but the hallmarks of the genre took root in this and similar games. Sub-weapons are where this title deviates from expectations and indeed it is the variable that causes playthroughs to have different outcomes. Bosses are decidedly weak or immune to certain attacks and a sub-plot to find the weapon that complements your style adds a thin veneer of depth while blitzing through levels you’ve already beaten a few dozen times. (Just don’t think the logic of bringing a cross to the final Dracula fight is going to do you any favors.)

All combat is purposeful and pre-meditated as if actual craftsmen tested their creation before final release, as if a team spent hours playing this thing to perfection. A balance of initial difficulty vs ending skills, a guantlet/crucible to train the neophyte for the punishing upper echelons to come. Unique gameplay? No. Refined design? Yes, it is.

Demonic hippos are immune to religious symbology. That’s where I went wrong.

I whip. You whip. We whip.

Additional Comments: When doing rudimentary research for this article I noticed that the manual cites the main weapon as a “morning star”, depicts it as a long-handled “flail”, and states that the power-up would add additional links to the “whip” chain. “Ah ha!”, I exclaimed a little too fervently, “I caught an inconsistency. Wait until I correct fans with the knowledge that the Belmonts have been lugging around long flails this whole time!” Fast-forward 20 minutes and a few martial arts videos and I’m here to say that “chain whips” are a real thing and they’re God-damned brutal.

What I Liked: The rollicking beats, the sprites, the colors, the mystique, the lore, the legacy, the attention to detail, the pacing, individual enemy intros, the whip, the weapon variety, the bosses, the level design, the difficulty, the approachability, and the accomplishment of finally beating this sucker after three decades.

What I Disliked: Unlike Zelda and other NES mainstays, hearts don’t represent health in this game. Instead, they function more like ammunition, which confounded my dumb childhood mind at the time. You do have a health bar but it’s dependent on pork chops that have received a ‘Cask of Amontillado’ treatment. Igor…. the perp was Igor wasn’t it?

The enemy knockback effect is by far the most frustrating thing, despite it being a common convention in platformers of the era. I mean the force of the instigator isn’t even considered, it’s the direction you’re facing. This ends up in a forwards-flying motion if you happened to jump facing backwards and get nailed in the ass by a medusa head.

The game is relatively short so the lack of a saving mechanism isn’t much of an issue, but having three lives and infinite continues is awkward design that can easily burn up an afternoon. You can eventually bludgeon your way through any area given enough trials and the player is never incentivized to actually turn the system off and return later -resulting in a frustrating string of attempts without terminus.

Lastly, sub-weapon immunity or ineffectiveness against certain bosses is arbitrary and frustrating. For example, Dracula II vs the cross and the Mummies vs the stopwatch.

Belmonts have been known to leap backwards in a fit of joy after being grazed by hostile forces. It’s like those goats that get paralyzed out of fright – except I’d rather do that than commit pit suicide.

Glitches Experienced: Emulated; nothing beyond normal NES stuff. A glitch in the player’s favor can occur if you reveal enemies like the hunchback and quickly scroll back the way you came. In many cases, hunchies will just disappear altogether.

Hours I Played: ~10 as a kid, ~4 as an adult. Of those playthroughs, I’ve only ever completed the game without cheats a single time.(That damn Dracula is hard!)

My Personal Reaction: Castlevania holds up as one of the most iconic, well-made, and challenging titles the NES ever had to offer. The professionalism in crafting the adventure is evident in every facet of gameplay and one can truly appreciate the nature at which they expose new players to its elements. Case in point: the way the castle’s driveway allows for whip familiarity, the lobby encourages jumping attacks or stacking targets, and platforming is explored in the next segment. Furthermore, each enemy introduces themselves in an isolated experience where you have time to experiment and familiarize yourself with their specific patterns.

Anyhow, this game doesn’t have use for ‘frills’ like saves, alternative modes, and a slew of levels. What it offers is a distilled and amazing gaming experience that still beckons me for a quick and casual playthrough, a challenge for how far I can get with 3 lives.

Noob Tips: Proper sub-weapon usage is king in this game and primarily useful for the bosses – which I emphatically encourage saving up your hearts for. In most cases, try to stun-lock enemies with a vial of holy water as you wail on them with the whip. There are a surprising amount of secret items, but in general: destroy specific blocks for health and weapon boosts. Hold still on certain spaces to reveal hidden loot.

Depth and Replayability: Mid-depth, High replayability (it’ll take a few attempts)

Suggested Value: $5, $25 for a physical cartridge

Where to Buy: eBay, local classic gaming store

Subjective Categorical Ranking:
(Platform capabilities are considered for Graphics and Sound)
                                                                                                        
                                | poor  ||  bad   || average || good || great |
            Fun Factor |██████████████████████████
Unique Gameplay |█████████
       Controls & UI |████████████████
         Story & Lore |██████████████████████████
  Graphics & Style |██████████████████████████
    Sound & Music |██████████████████████████
                                                                                                        

Ah ha! I caught another inconsistency! Oh, the family name is “Belmondo” in Japan? Well shit.

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