It’s funny how some of the most legendary franchises in gaming got their start. Werewolves, mummies, vampires, these are all classic movie monsters that people are familiar with. Basing a game on fighting these creatures doesn’t seem all that exciting at first; plenty of games by that point had at least dabbled with with the idea. But the Castlevania series thrived on that classic horror vibe and thanks to the power of the NES over prior consoles like the Atari 2600 and Colecovision was able to deliver the level of horror necessary to make these classic monsters a credible threat.
Castlevania was released in 1987 by Konami. You are Simon Belmont, the latest in a long line of vampire hunters tasked with destroying Dracula. Whipping Dracula’s ass is the family business you see, and business is good. Armed with the trusty family whip you begin the journey to Dracula’s castle for the fated battle. Up until this point most NES games had been noticeably light and cheery with very few adapting a dark atmosphere. Castlevania is seeped in it, from the graphics to the music. This wasn’t Super Mario Brothers, and Konami got that point across perfectly.
A platformer like many of its contemporaries, Castlevania is definitely its own beast. Unlike Mario and Mega Man Simon moves at a very slow pace; the control is overall very rigid in the sense that once you perform an action you are locked into it. You start out with a basic leather whip that can be upgraded twice to a Morning star with considerable length. This is your primary weapon and thankfully it’s very powerful, giving you the ability to take out most foes long before they reach you. Every level is littered with candles or some variant that contain hearts, bags of money for points, and the numerous sub weapons that complement your whip. These range from holy water to the cross and each require a set number of hearts to use. Learning which weapon to carry in each stage and when becomes key as one of the defining traits of the game, and maybe even the series is the difficulty.
There’s no sugar coating it, this game is fucking hard. I cannot stress that enough. I mentioned that this is its own monster and that fact is absolutely true. You either adapt to the game’s pacing or play something else. Any attempt to treat this like Contra or Mario will result in abject failure. Because of the enemy placement you had better be damn sure you can make that jump as once you start there’s no turning back, success or failure. There are a considerable number of platform jumps to be made and you can be sure that a fucking Medusa head or random bat is waiting to knock you back into a pit. The knock back is the most infuriating aspect of the game in that you can only pray there aren’t any spikes or bottomless pits behind you when it happens.
And it will. Repeatedly. The difficulty jumps very quickly early on, to the point where by stage 4 or 5 you can only sustain 4 hits before death. The bosses are absolutely brutal in this game with very little margin for error. Bringing the wrong sub weapon will make these fights impossible. You either play the way the designers intended or get to enjoy frequent visits to the game over screen.
If you can make it far enough to see these bosses you are a God among men.
But the amazing thing is it still remains fun. Even when you fail you’ll generally see exactly why it happened and can work to correct that mistake. There are a large amount of secrets hidden behind random blocks to track down for those with OCD. The presentation doesn’t hurt either. The graphics capture the macabre vibe perfectly and for its time this game was definitely a notch above everything else. The soundtrack is creepy and atmospheric, complimenting the graphics. The Castlevania series is renowned for having some of the best OSTs in gaming; that legacy started here.
Age hasn’t been kind to the Castlevania’s blemishes. It was released at a unique period in gaming where most developers were still finding their legs, so to speak. We were willing to overlook the flaws to get to the creamy filling underneath. If you were to release a game like this now it would get savaged, and rightfully so. Play this with that mindset and you’ll be able to enjoy it for what it gets right.
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