Review – Castlevania

Castlevania NES Header
Cover provided by MobyGames

When I bought my NES as a young teenager around 2003 (maybe) one of the games that was sold to me with it was Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. My first attempt at getting into the console was a failure, because the games I had to work with were like Kid Icarus and Total Recall. I didn’t explore much further at the time, because I believed, like some mistakenly do, that this era of games was just too antiquated. I didn’t actually catch the retro bug until I was in college years later and a friend introduced me to Punch-Out!! and River City Ransom.

So, I’m not sure how I wound up playing Castlevania, but that probably would have been around 2010. I beginning to discover the joy of completing the more difficult games in my library, and Castlevania seemed like the next step. When I finally felled Dracula using that grey rectangle, I was extremely proud of myself.

I’ve done it many more times since then. Each time, my appreciation for it grows. Every new sidescroller I tackle on the console makes me value its solid and fine-tuned design. The more historical context I learn about the time period adds to the immense girth of my respect for Castlevania.

It’s an underrated game. Not because no one likes it; it’s definitely one of the more popular titles on the NES. It’s because too few people realize it’s the best 8-bit platformer ever created.

Castlevania NES throwing Holy Water on Frankenstein's Monster
This holy water is nice and warm from being in my pocket for so long.

DADA DUN DUNNNN

Castlevania was released as Akumajou Dracula in 1986 on the Famicom Disk System. That year was perhaps the most important year in the direction of the NES and console games in general. 1986 also gave us The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Quest; landmark titles that would define their genres. However, they’re also good indicators of where the NES was the year Akumajou Dracula was released.

North America wouldn’t get Castlevania until the next year in 1987. Not having the advantage of the Famicom Disk System, the version we got doesn’t have saving, but it doesn’t really need it. Castlevania consists of six stages and can be completed in less than an hour if you know what you’re doing. My last playthrough took longer because I got stuck on Dracula. For some reason, despite having frequently returned to the game for another run, I had forgotten you need to whip his second form in the face to do any meaningful damage. I am so humiliated. It even makes a “ting” sound when you’re not doing damage. What is wrong with me?

Castlevania is the story of Simon Belmont, vampire hunter, storming Dracula’s Castle to put down the dark lord. The series would become a generational story depicting various Belmonts (and adjacent characters) slaying Dracula every 100 years, but the NES manual tells none of that story. On the other hand, the Famicom manual does set up all that background. That includes Christopher Belmont being Simon’s predecessor in harassing Dracula, the 100-year cycle of resurrection, the importance of the whip, and even the fact that this whole ordeal happens every time “Christ’s power wanes” and some dick decides to resurrect the king of vampires. It’s a shame we didn’t know that until Castlevania 3 in North America.

Castlevania NES crushing ceilings that kill you in one hit.
Pictured: An early place to die a stupid death.

WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE ARTHRITIS

Of course, this being 1986, none of that story is really depicted in the game. The only introduction we get is Simon strolling up to the gates of Dracula’s Castle and looking over the menacing terrain. The gameplay, however, follows him as he climbs to the highest tower. While the level decoration is abstract and sparse, you still get the trek through the front door, the initial climb, a fall to the dungeons, and back up through the laboratories and clock tower before reaching the vampire’s domain. It’s an impressive amount of environmental storytelling for the era.

Actually, quite a bit about Castlevania is impressive for the era. As I stated, 1986 was pretty early by video game standards, but it was an era of extremely quick progress. The continuously scrolling platformer gameplay and even the chiptune style of music, in general, hadn’t had much time to really develop. Perhaps the closest game at the time was 1985’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins, which shares similar horror themes and progression. Castlevania, in a way, feels like the next step forward.

Like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Castlevania features stiff controls and no mid-air control during jumps, but with a less fragile protagonist. Simon Belmont moves slowly and deliberately, marching through the hordes of darkness rather than sprinting like so many of his contemporaries. He can take quite a few hits in consideration of this since it’s more difficult to react quickly. Despite this, much of the challenge is derived from pattern recognition and strategizing against individual enemies.

The level design is based entirely with this in mind. Enemies and hazards are built around Simon’s limitations, with enemies popping up near pits to take advantage of his tremendous knockback distance and foes that follow undulating patterns to force you to carefully consider every jump. It can be extremely taxing at times, but never unfair. Except maybe when it comes to Death. The level boss, I mean, not the existential concept. Though, that isn’t fair either.

Castlevania NES The battle against Death with Simon Belmont recoiling from a hit.
Oh crap!

NOT VERY GOOD AT HIS JOB

Death’s main attack is to summon a bunch of sythes that spin through the air. It’s a lot to keep track of, and since the controls include so many limitations, it can be difficult to react in a meaningful way. The most reliable way to beat him is to have the Holy Water sub weapon and upgrades that allow you to throw more at one time, then stunlock him until he expires. The level only contains a single consistent drop of Holy Water at the beginning of the level, and you then have to ensure you don’t accidentally pick up a different weapon as you proceed.

Depending on whether or not you consider this method to be “cheesing” the boss, this is either a masterfully conceptualized strategy or, well, cheese. Personally, I love Holy Water. I’d wash my hair with it if I could, though it would probably eat through my unconsecrated scalp.

No, Castlevania isn’t perfect, but it’s damn near it. Beyond its tightly designed gameplay, it also has a wonderful aesthetic. Though the time period and hardware limitations are felt, the game’s graphics pop with creative use of the restrictive colour palette. Rather than force you through drab grey hallways and expanses of darkness, the artists dipped into the brightest colours. Oranges, blues, browns, and greens play off each other to create an impactful image without sacrificing the horror themes.

The soundtrack, too, is monstrously effective. Many of the game’s tracks are (or maybe were) still standard for the series. Rarely do you approach Dracula’s Castle without Vampire Killer playing in the background. The woefully underused stage 3 music, Wicked Child, is my favourite, however. The whole thing just makes the game feel like more of a struggle against evil while still providing something to bop your head to. All the 1986 games that I listed have retained portions of their original soundtracks, and Castlevania is similar in that regard.

Castlevania Simon Belmont climbing up the stairs to Dracula with a crescent moon and clock face in the background.
This feels familiar.

PEERLESS PIXELS

On the rare occasion I’m asked what my favourite NES game is, I take no hesitation in saying Castlevania. I don’t make that statement lightly, either. The NES is a console close to my heart. I’ve explored a great deal of its library, and extended my exploration to its Japanese counterpart, the Famicom and Famicom Disk System.

What does cause me hesitation, however, is trying to name a similar platformer that even compares with Castlevania’s tight design. It makes missteps of its own but far fewer than you’d find in any of its contemporaries. It’s top-to-bottom, wall-to-wall, tits-to-toes outstanding. I really couldn’t tell you if this was the result of intense consideration, planning, and thought or if it was just mostly luck in the way all its parts came together. Maybe even a bit of both.

Castlevania spawned one of the most sprawling video game properties of all time. It was a mainstay in Konami’s catalogue before the company decided they hate video games and buried it. It also contributed the best character in the Captain N cartoon. I can’t say enough good things about the game, and I’m also not much of a poet. So, I’m just going to whip up a word that I think will summarize it. Let’s go with “radmungous.”

9/10

This review was conducted on an NES using a cartridge version of the game. It was paid for by the author.

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About Zoey Handley 243 Articles
Zoey made up for her mundane childhood by playing video games. Now she won't shut up about them. Her eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer. A lover of discovery, she can often be found scouring through retro and indie games. She currently works as a Staff Writer at Destructoid.

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