#29: Castlevania

Konami’s bloodsuckingly brilliant franchise is born

This review was originally posted to Twitter on January 6, 2019

Initial release: 1986
Developer: Konami
Platform: Famicom Disk System, Nintendo Entertainment System

Up until they shat the bed with the lights on, Konami’s had a pretty long reign as one of the top video game developers in Japan. There’s not a NES fan alive who hasn’t played at least one Konami game, and it’s usually a Castlevania.

The franchise has evolved over the years, going from a series of action sidescrollers to Metroid-inspired action RPGs. There’s been comics, a Netflix TV series (with a sequel on the way) and once even a planned movie (before a writers’ strike killed it.) But it all started with a loving horror pastiche. For a game so focused around Dracula it’s even in the Japanese name (Akumajo Dracula, which translates as “Demon Castle Dracula”) it can be a bit of a surprise to see all manner of movie monster, unless you take note of the film-reel title screen. (Several sequels would utilize the “old monster movie reel” motif in some way or another, but by now it’s all but abandoned.) They’re all here: Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, the Fishman, even Medusa (based largely on Hammer horror classic The Gorgon and the 80s Greek mythology flick Clash of the Titans.) All borrow heavily from classic mid-20th-century horror cinema, and even Dracula on the box art is clearly inspired by Christopher Lee’s depiction!

Box art for NES version of Castlevania

To drive the movie theme home, the ending credits are thinly-veiled parodies of classic horror actors, directors, and even Hammer’s composer. And, strangely, there’s even a choose-your-own-adventure book about a 1950s film crew trying to make a movie about the game’s events!

In any case, like most of its early sequels, there’s not much of a plot, nor does there need to be one. The US manual doesn’t even tell you the story; the Japanese manual at least hints at what would be Castlevania: the Adventure and explains how Dracula is resurrected. It doesn’t even really give you a time — “the middle ages” was later retconned to 1691. None of that really matters, of course. All you need to know is Dracula is fucking shit up, so vampire killer Simon Belmont goes in, beats up a bunch of movie monsters, and knocks Dracula’s block off.

As it’s the first game in the series, one could be forgiven for assuming the gameplay is clunkier than Castlevania III. And to be fair, there’s some clunk. The jump physics are the death of many a player, for example — you can’t turn or slow your momentum at all. But the controls take very little getting used to, and it’s just a matter of dodging, managing your health, and knowing when to jump or strike. The classic subweapons are all here, of course: crosses, holy water, axes, the dagger, the stopwatch, and all have their uses.

Six levels are presented, each with their own vibe; from the gloomy, dilapidated front halls to the crumbling walkways along the walls, to deep caverns, a dungeon, the clocktower, and finally Dracula’s tower itself. Some pose more challenges than others; all are lovingly rendered. The cool thing about the design is how platforms are carefully placed in logical positions; floating platforms are such a staple of early platformers and Castlevania avoids it entirely, with columns or walls or whatever supporting everything you can stand on. It’s a neat detail.

Of course, like most of its contemporaries, Castlevania is that old “Nintendo hard” we’re all so familiar with. You’ll die a lot, get game overs a lot. Compared to some games, it’s not SO difficult, but it’s definitely a game that requires mastering the controls and levels. It’s worth it though; the game is short enough that a skilled player can get through in maybe 90 minutes or less. This takes some of the sting out of the fact that there’s no save points — though you can continue when you lose all your lives.

While the franchise is, at this point, nearly unrecognizable from the original game (following a major stylistic shift that began with Symphony of the Night and Koji Igarashi’s ascension to the franchise’s lead producer) it still owes everything to this utterly fun little title. And hey, if the dated NES graphics bother you, there’s always the six million remakes and weird alternate releases! (And that’s not even counting the ports.) In order:

Vampire Killer
Initial release: 1986 (Japan/EU only)
Platform: MSX

Not really a port, and only superficially similar to the NES version. It plays rather differently, with each level having to be explored in a non-linear fashion to find the key to the next level. Might be seen as an early version of the “metroidvania” (which in Japan is called “search action,” a name I actually prefer.)

Haunted Castle
Initial release: 1988
Platform: Arcade

The arcade version of Castlevania. Unusual for the arcade in that you can’t continue when you die, so you better be real damn good, because this game doesn’t fuck around. I’m not really a fan of the look of it, to be honest.

Castlevania
Initial release: 1990
Platform: Commodore Amiga

This is a weird one. Outsourced to Novotrade, the game has been completely redrawn, the music redone in MOD format, and the controls… made worse. It’s cool-looking at least. Fun fact: Novotrade later made the Ecco the Dolphin games, then the (abysmal) Contra games for the original Playstation as Appaloosa Interactive.

Super Castlevania IV
Initial release: 1991
Platform: Super Nintendo

Now we’re talking. This is my favorite of the Castlevania remakes; it’s a greatly expanded version that, much like Castlevania III, has you traversing the countryside before you even get to the castle. Amazing music, a controllable whip, it’s got it all.

Akumajou Dracula
Initial release: 1993
Platform: Sharp X68000

The Sharp X68000 was a Japan-only home computer system, at the time quite powerful. Akumajou Dracula for the X68000 was the other famous remake of the original Famicom classic, though due to its Japan-exclusive platform it was a Japan-exclusive game (hence my referring to it with the series’ Japanese name.)

When Igarashi took over the franchise he ported the game to Playstation, updated Simon Belmont and Dracula’s sprites to be more in line with the newer post-Symphony aesthetic, and introduced an incredible new soundtrack (and the original was already pretty good.) This new version was released in the US as Castlevania Chronicles, one of the very last Playstation 1 releases. Some consider it to be the best of the remakes; I almost agree, but I’m still partial to Super Castlevania IV.

Oh, and I guess there’s a couple old Java-based phone games, but nobody cares about that.

There’s one more version I have to talk about, though…

Castlevania: Simon’s Destiny
Initial release: 2017
Platform: PC (GZDoom)

The Doom community has long been a source of creativity and innovation; with the popularity of the GZDoom source port, which greatly expands the modding capabilities over what the original game offered, a slew of inventive mods and original games have been coming out over the last decade, some of which actually reached commercial status with their own pages on Steam! Early on in this modern renaissance of an old shooter was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Castlevania mod, intended to be a retelling of Simon Belmont’s original adventure. It’s all here: subweapons, whipping things good, movie monsters, great music, all done up in a retro-FPS style. All you need is a copy of the totally free GZDoom as well as the mod itself, also free (for obvious reasons.) You should not need a copy of the original Doom or Doom II as far as I know.

Castlevania has had a long legacy, from the early days on the Famicom and NES to its revival with Symphony of the Night to the Netflix adaptation, but it all started here. And honestly, you couldn’t ask for a better beginning.

-june❤

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june gloom

june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [they/she]