One of the longest running and most well known series from Konami, Castlevania was an icon for the company. Now the series seems to have vanished into its own obscurity (and no, I am not counting the Pachinko-machine), so what better time to revisit it and see how it developed all the way from its first start to now.
“Step into the shadows of the deadliest dwelling on earth, Dracula’s castle has emerged after 100 years yet again. You are put in control of Simon Belmont, a vampire hunter wielding the holy whip known as the Vampire Killer, a fitting name for what you will do if you can reach the top of the castle. There are however plenty of other familiar and terrifying creatures, lurking within Dracula’s home that also wants to see you dead.” This is at least what the manual covers. It has a tad more flavor-text to it, but the game itself just puts you outside of the castle and after a short scene, you start the game. This is a typical way for an NES-game to start: show you the basics and then let you play the game, while making the manual tell the story. So… let’s play!
Castlevania is a linear, sidescrolling, action-platformer. You will move from point A to point B, fight bosses and collect orbs as tokens of your achievements. There are 18 stages, divided into 6 levels, containing stage-layouts appropriate to their theme. Caverns have moving platforms on the water, the clocktower has spinning gears you will jump around on and so forth, all being creative and memorable. But the stage-layout isn’t the only thing that will test your skills, the enemies are quite varied and will be a dangerous threat: from jumping hunchbacks and bats, to the ghouls, skeletons and the infamous Medusa-heads. Each follows a movement pattern, making them a challenge that can be overcome, but demands dedication. Each level ends with a boss-fight against a familiar horror-creature. Like the Frankenstein-monster or mummies; all are fierce and dangerous, making it so you have to be ready for anything. Some can be a harsh challenge, testing your skills to the max, but none feels overpowered or unfair.
Making this even harder, is our hero’s movement or rather: the lack of it. Simon can whip left and right, duck away from enemies or to attack smaller enemies with his whip and jump. Let’s start with your attacks: you can use the whip to attack at a decent length, destroy plenty of projectiles and power it up two times by collecting whip-upgrades from candles that you destroy or enemies you kill. The first power-up will give the whip more strength and the second will make it longer. These are luckily often found at the beginning of your next life/continue, so they are easy to upgrade, and you only lose them when all of your health is gone.
This is not your only weapon however: from these candles and enemies, you can also get daggers, cross-boomerangs, holy water, an axe, stop-watch and hearts to replenish ammunition for these weapons. The daggers are the weakest and my least favorite, but at least fly pretty far off the screen, the cross-boomerang goes a quite long distance, is strong and comes back for additional damage to enemies, holy water can stun and inflict multiple hits on your foes, but can only be thrown to the ground, the axe is really strong and the only weapon that Simon tosses over his head and finally: the stopwatch uses more hearts, but can stop just about everything for 5 seconds. Picking any of these weapons up will exchange what current sub-weapon you have, so be aware of the daggers if you have a weapon you enjoy a lot.
Also hidden in the castle are brief invincibility-potions, health-restoring pork chops, necklace-crosses that kill everything on the screen when picked up, double and triple shot power-ups which make it so you can use secondary weapons 2 or 3 times in a row and a bag of money for points. Points in this game do give extra life, but that’s it.
Our hero has a lot to support him, which is good, but now onto the jumping and platforming: Simon Belmont has a stiff jump, making it so you can’t move freely like in say Megaman. Included with this is also the infamous knockback that can kill you instantly if you fall into bottomless pits or water, and the stairs can also get you stuck and are frustrating to use secondary items on, since you must press up and attack. As you can tell: this game is hard for many reasons.
The enemies can be devastating, the controls are stiff and to give a good example: the second to last stage can be insane with one hallway making you dodge 2 knights throwing axes, Medusa-heads that constantly attacks and at the end of the hallway, you fight the Grim Reaper. But despite all of this: it never feels impossible. Enemies have a certain pattern or movement to them as mentioned before, making it easy to learn how to react, the levels are designed around your movement, so you never feel ill-equipped, you have unlimited continues with a generous checkpoint-system, and you have a life-bar that is fairly big so dealing with the enemies isn’t too shabby. It’s luckily also between 1 and a half to -2 hours long, depending on how good and determined you are.
It definitely has its faults, but I am really surprised with how well it holds up.
Gameplay Score: 8/10
Architectures like an old movie
The game has some really well-designed creatures, especially the bosses are a sight to behold with, while somewhat dated, detailed pixel art and containing a huge variety in the bestiary. The environments are colorful, yet grim and gothic, making for a visually pleasing game that makes me remember and appreciate every stage. The main-character is however the weakest part, with his blocky design making for a bit of an eyesore. Not bad, but definitely the weakest part of the visuals.
The music is iconic, setting the mood and being some of the most memorable works from its era that are still recognizable today. Having many of the tunes revisited in future installments should be a testament on how well they hold up and the chip-tunes are clean and a pleasure to the ears. The sound-effects are also well done, with water-effects, whipping enemies and the small grunts when Simon is hit, all being nice. However, the ear-grating, high pitched noise when the game counts the amount of hearts you have after you killed the boss is terrible and while it is not common, it will never be missed.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Ready for Dracula’s next resurrection?
After the pun-tastic credits, the game starts again on hard mode. So if you are a glutton for punishment, by all means. It is certainly a challenge and will definitely test your skills to the max. However, I assume that after the first time around, many will feel ready to call it quits and be satisfied with their first encounter with the count. While there isn’t much to the post-ending, this is definitely a game that is quite entertaining and short enough to be easy to revisit more than once, even if the harder difficulty might never be touched.
Extra Score: 6/10
Castlevania for the original NES is still a classic and works with its mechanics as well as it should. While it certainly has aged, it still holds up with its hard, but (mostly) fair challenge and still is a tradition for me every October. There is also a remake for the X68000, that was ported to PS1 with more extras called Castlevania Chronicles, but it will eventually get its own full review, due to having redesigned levels. In the meantime, enjoy this NES-classic and test your skills.