Released: May 2019
Originally Released: September 1986
Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd
Original Developer: Konami
Also Available For: Amiga, Arcade, C64, Family Computer Disk System (Famicom), Game Boy Advance, Mobile, MS-DOS, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, and PlayStation 4
Castlevania (known as “Akumajō Dracula”) is notorious for its reputation as not just inspiring an entire sub-genre of videogame (the “Metroidvania” genre) but also its punishing difficulty. Back when Castlevania was first released for the NES, videogames (especially those on Nintendo’s ground-breaking platform) were built to last. As many gamers simply rented titles, and videogames were still heavily influenced by the pay-to-pay formula of the arcades, it wasn’t conducive for home console titles to be easy to complete and few titles exemplify that mentality more than Castlevania and its sequels.
Given that I grew up mostly playing SEGA consoles, my experience with Castlevania has been understandably limited; I tried to change that with Castlevania (Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe, 1999) on the Nintendo 64…but that was shit. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Inti Creates, 2018) was such a fun experience that I jumped at the chance to play through one of Castlevania’s most celebrated titles, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 1997) which, in turn, led me to playing through its spiritual successor, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (ArtPlay, 2019). Though I have also finished Super Castlevania IV (Konami, 1991) on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Edition, I leapt at the opportunity to buy the Castlevania Anniversary Collection for Xbox One and play through these classic titles and see if I can conquer their notorious difficulty.
With the immortal vampire Count Dracula threatening the entire land, Simon Belmont, the latest in a lineage of legendary vampire hunters, takes up the feared whip of his ancestors, the Vampire Killer, and journeys into Dracula’s castle to end this threat.
Castlevania is a sidescrolling action/platformer in which players control the vampire killer Simon Belmont. Being an 8-bit title released in the early days of the NES, Simon is a bit of a slog to control; he’s stocky, heavy, and very awkward. Simon does okay when walking in a straight line but isn’t so great at jumping or changing direction on the fly, which can make for some tricky jumps.
Simon attacks Dracula’s minions with his whip, the Vampire Killer; Simon can attack standing up, while ducking, and while jumping but can only attack in the direction he’s facing, which can make hitting flying and more active enemies very difficult. Luckily, Simon can also acquire a number of different sub-weapons, which can make it easier to attack the more awkward enemies or to attack from a distance.
Speaking of which, while you’ll collect a whole bunch of hearts during the game, these won’t refill your health. I’ve never understood why the developers decided to have the hearts essentially be the ammo for your sub-weapon rather than health as it goes against every piece of videogame logic I know. Instead, you’ll have to break open walls and blocks to find food, which will replenish your health. Simon also starts the game with three lives and can earn more through earning enough points; once all your lives are spent, though, you do get unlimited continues so it’s not a complete loss.
As you journey through Dracula’s castle, you’ll battle not only a whole slew of gothic-inspired enemies but also the clock; each of the game’s eighteen stages carries a time limit. If you don’t manage to reach and defeat the boss before the timer counts down, you’ll lose a life. You’ll also have to deal with the game’s finicky controls and devastating knock-back, which can easily send you careening down a bottomless pit, into water, or simply to the previous screen. Either way, it’s usually instant death for Simon. You’ll also have to climb a number of stairs during the game and, while Simon can defend himself on the stairs, he can also walk right through them and fall down them, which means certain death.
As a result, it’s not really advisable to barge in all guns blazing; enemies all have a specific pattern that you must learn, and exploit, to defeat them. Many times, it might be easier to simply dodge the enemies with a well-timed jump, duck, or simply walking past them as they swoop by; whatever it takes to reach the boss with as much health and ammo as possible.
Graphics and Sound:
Being that it’s an 8-bit title on the NES, Castlevania obviously looks rather pixelated and dated by today’s standards. There aren’t many frames of animation used in the game and, yet, there’s a surprising level of detail. Though limited by the NES’s colour palette, sprites still manage to pop out from the surprisingly-detailed backgrounds; rendered in a reddy/browny hue, Simon always sticks out compared to his surroundings and enemies, making it easy to see where he is. Some enemies can blend in a bit, as they’re mostly black or red against black or red backgrounds, but they’re easily recognisable once they start their attack patterns.
Considering the majority of the game takes place in a castle, the game’s environments are quite varied; Simon journeys through standard brick-and-mortar gothic architecture, across the outskirts of the castle’s rooftops, and through the grimy dungeons and flooded tunnels of the castle. Each levels is punctuated by some of the most iconic videogame themes ever realised; Castlevania introduced gamers the world over to such catchy tunes as “Vampire Killer” and “Nothing To Lose”, which would become staples of the series. There’s also some unobtrusive in-game sound effects, too; Simon’s whip makes a satisfying “Whoosh!” as you swing it, you always know when you’ve picked up items, and there’s even an indication of when you’ve landed a successful hit on a enemy or boss.
Enemies and Bosses:
Dracula’s castle is chock full of all manner of gothic and supernatural enemies, many of which have since become cliché, especially in NES titles. You’ll encounter zombies, ravens, skeletons, and mermen and ost of these bog-standard enemies are simple enough to get by or take out but the game soon starts placing them in awkward locations, having them throw projectiles at you, and also has them respawn when you go off-screen.
Things really begin to ramp up once you encounter the Medusa Heads; these float around the screen in a predictable arc but seem never-ending, and are at their most deadly whenever Simon is climbing stairs. Personally, I had the most trouble with the hunchbacks, who randomly just hop all over the place and are a pain in the ass. Axe-throwing knights and fireball-spitting dragons also add to the game’s challenge, particularly in one notorious corridor that has three knights and a near-endless slew of Medusa Heads.
The gothic influences continue with the game’s bosses; you’ll battle a giant bat, the Medusa Queen, two Mummies, Frankenstein’s Monster (with the hunchback-like Igor), and the Grim Reaper himself. While most of these aren’t too much of a challenge with the right sub-weapon (generally the Holy Water), the Grim Reaper was probably the most frustrating experience of the game thanks to his sporadic attack pattern and constant spawning of scythes.
Eventually, though, you’ll do battle with Dracula himself in a two stage final battle. Dracula initially attacks by teleporting around his tomb and firing a spread of projectiles at you and, while Simon can destroy these with his weapons, Dracula can only be damaged by hitting his head and he has a nasty tendency to warp right into your path.
After defeating Dracula’s first form, he’ll transform into a demonic, gargoyle-like bestial form. While he deals heavy damage in this form, he’s actually a lot easier to whittle down, especially if you have the Holy Cross Boomerang sub-weapon; once again, Dracula can only be damaged by hitting his head, so it’s best to run underneath him as he leaps at you, toss the Boomerang and also attack with your whip to damage Dracula and dispel his fireballs. Overall, the difficulty spike in the bosses is noticeable once your reach Frankenstein’s Monster but inescapable when you battle the Grim Reaper; how players managed to trump that asshole with no save states is beyond me.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As mentioned, you can upgrade the Vampire Killer to increase the damage it deals but you can also pick up items to increase how many of your sub-weapons you can throw. These are pretty much essential to defeating the game’s tougher bosses, especially Dracula, as it allows you to spam the more effective sub-weapons rather than relying on the whip.
There are a number of different sub-weapons available in the game, each with their pros and cons: the axe travels in an arc, for example, allowing you to better hit flying enemies and the knife allows you to attack from a safe distance. The stopwatch can briefly freeze all onscreen enemies, but this isn’t really that helpful when you’re surrounded by enemies or battling certain bosses, and the Rosary will eliminate all onscreen enemies. Perhaps the most useful weapons are the Holy Water, which stuns enemies and deals successive damage, and the Boomerang, which flies back to Simon and thus deals twice the damage.
Once you complete the game and sit through the laughably-bad credits, you’ll automatically return to stage one with all of your upgrades, score, and remaining lives. However, you’re now playing in Hard Mode! Hard Mode places different enemies in different places and ramps up the difficulty significantly as enemies move faster and do more damage.
If you’re playing the version featured in the Xbox One Castlevania Anniversary Collection, as I did, you can earn an Achievement for completing the game and can even cheese it using save states; this may be frowned upon by some but there’s nothing stopping me (or you) not using this feature if you wish. There are also a number of frames and display options, though they can’t do much to improve upon the original’s pixelated goodness.
In the end, Castlevania more than lives up to its reputation; even using save states, the game is a tough experience as you can only hold one sub-weapon at a time and having the wrong one at the wrong time can make bosses and certain sections near impossible and the time limit means that you can’t dawdle too much waiting for an opening.
Yet, the game is fun; the challenge comes from learning enemy attack patterns, attacking every block and candlestick holder looking for health, upgrades, and hearts, and a bit of trial and error in getting past some of the game’s tougher sections. With the exception of the Grim Reaper boss battle, which I found a tedious and frustrating experience, and a few annoying times where the game crashed on me, I enjoyed myself from the beginning to the end and am glad that I finally got the chance to play Castlevania.
Did you play Castlevania back in the day? Which of the titles in the series do you consider to be the best, worst, hardest, or easiest? What did you think to the Castlevania Anniversary Collection? Do you agree with the tactic of manipulating save states to win at games? Whatever you think, drop a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.