Going by the cheeky credits at the end, where all the boss characters are listed as “performed” by one-letter-off versions of classic horror movie actors, Konami had absolutely no idea of what Castlevania would become. It represented a rare move for them – starting on the Famicom first instead of porting over a proven arcade title – but I think it’s fair to say that this turned out to be a smart gamble. Konami may have just been making a fun, one-shot home game based on classic creature features, but they unintentionally found one of their flagship titles.
Castlevania has a simple premise based on old Universal or Hammer Films horror tradition. You are legendary monster hunter Simon Belmondo (it was either changed in the translation, or he doesn’t become “Belmont” until later in the series), a Professor Van Helsing sort of fellow with a magical family heirloom known as The Vampire Killer. This is a whip that can be upgraded and somehow kills vampires and other supernatural nasties real good. Your quest is to traverse multiple rooms and towers of Dracula’s castle, dodge his undead minions, and slay him.
Along the way, you will fortuitously run into just about every classic title monster ever created (with the notable exception of The Wolfman). The reason for this is not explained, so I made up my own story: You were knocking back a few at the local pub, when you got a tip that all these villains were meeting together at Dracula’s that night to form some plot against you, identical to a similar villain get-together in the Adam West Batman movie. But you’re Simon fuckin’ Belmondo, and you’re not gonna let that shit stand. You down a pint, break down the gate, and preemptively go a’slayin’.
Part of Castlevania’s legacy is that it had a fair hand in defining the action scroller. Super Mario Bros. wowed everyone with its screen-scrolling abilities under a year before, and marked the first time people got a real sense of smooth scrolling platforming across multiple, seamless screens. But Super Mario wasn’t entirely an “action” title. The phone lines were thus open for all who wanted to take advantage of the technology. Castlevania would be one of the first to notably take Mario’s technical achievement and build a unique experience around it, with an enjoyable supernatural theme and a lot of action game additions.
You sling your whip with the B button. It’s a pathetic, short-range weapon, until you get two upgrades to increase its strength and length. Most enemies will disappear in a spot of flame with one hit regardless, but the upgraded weapon can hit from a greater distance and knock down most fireballs and supernatural attacks. Secondary weapons, still a fairly unique idea for a platformer, can be picked up by whipping candles mounted on the walls. You can only hold one secondary weapon at a time, and these range from straight-shot daggers to arcing axes, and even a pocket watch that freezes enemies for a short time.
Your whip is free to use, but secondary weapons derive their ammo from hearts you also find by whipping candles, and there’s always enough hearts to use the weapons without much discretion. Powerups for the secondary weapons also exist, decreasing the down time between throws, and encouraging you to find a favorite weapon and hold on to it. That is not to say that there aren’t sections where a certain weapon will be of much greater use, and that weapon is usually offered to you just before that section.
Enemies are a varied group of horror icons, including ghosts, bats, skeletons, and zombies. They look easily distinguishable, and you’ll encounter new, increasingly stronger enemies as the game progresses. The greatest difference between them is in their movement patterns, which require a relatively unique approach for each foe. Zombies and bats charge right at you, but skeletons keep their distance and rain bones down on you, fish-men pop up out of the water under you or beside you, and knights retreat from your attacks while heaving axes. The worst are the flying Medusa heads. I’m sure that someone, somewhere out there, has a perfect mastery of the timing required to hit them during their sine wave flight pattern. That person is not me.
Castlevania’s difficulty – and it is a pretty difficult game – comes mostly from the limits of your attacks. Simon can only whip at a straight angle in the direction he’s facing. You cannot whip up or diagonally, while your enemies do not share this handicap. Certain enemies can arc their attacks down on you, others can angle them up through the ground, some (like the later ravens and fire-breathing snakes) even seek to your current position and adjust their level of attack accordingly. Your response can either to be to run and sometimes be able to dodge the attack, duck, which rarely works, or to perfectly time a whip attack to deflect whatever pain is coming. It’s tough to get right, and the game doesn’t let you slip up too often.
You have a multi-bar life meter, but this offers a false sense of security. Tougher foes later in the game can remove multiple bars in one hit, leaving you to absorb maybe four total hits per life. You have limited lives, which move you back to a checkpoint, and unlimited continues, which move you back to the beginning of a level, but you will still have to traverse gauntlets of enemies while retaining enough life for the boss fight at the end.
Secret blocks do exist, and can be whipped open if you happen across them; they look identical to other blocks, so they can’t actually be spotted. The most frequent secret is a turkey leg that fills your health. This helps, but even if you want to patiently work out the exact timing for a certain sequence and avoid damage altogether, you’re rushed by a timer. You have a set number of seconds to get through all of the screens in a certain “level,” and if time runs out, you lose a life. Unlike your health, there is no way to refill the timer. The time limits are pretty generous, but they do prevent you from moving cautiously through the level and repeatedly sitting in wait for the perfect time to make your move.
The bosses are a tough lot, made worse by forcing you to fight through a long hallway of various life-sapping baddies before you get to them. You also have to use whatever precious time you have left from your other escapades in the level, forcing you to think ahead and rush through the levels even more. The boss’ life bar is as long as yours (usually longer when you factor in damage you have received along the way) and they all carry projectile attacks which can apply a lot of hurt. Like any other platform boss, discovering their predictable patterns is the key to taking them down. It also helps to have the right secondary weapon. I killed Frankenstein in seconds, with zero effort, simply by spamming him with holy water bombs that both paralyzed and damaged him. I was lucky I had those apparently, as I only found out later that he’s one of the hardest bosses in the game. Sometimes Castlevania can be nice to you.
The game takes place entirely within a castle, and the look is appropriate. There’s a lot of gray stone areas, but also a red brick tower, and a cool blue (marble or moonlit stone) courtyard. Curtains and windows adorn the walls of the inside areas, while statues, tower spires, and a crescent moon make up the background of the few outdoor areas. The areas never directly change your platforming or provide any challenges themselves – with the rare exception of a handful of floating elevator jumps – and mostly just serve to offer some new scenery each time.
As an early NES title, the detail is not astounding, and for a monster game, shadows are few. Your character is colored entirely with shades of brown, which seems odd at first, but serves the purpose of always separating you from the background no matter where you are. Enemies sometimes blend in, but as they’re always in motion, they never do for long. In an appreciated move, some enemies like black bats have a purple halo to separate them from the black background areas they fly against. It turns them into “ghost” bats, but they’ll never be impossible to spot.
The music here once again shows Konami’s general skill with making “classic” tunes with the NES hardware. It’s spooky when it needs to be, fun and actiony when it needs to be, and always turns serious as a perfect setup for a boss showdown. The rest of the effects are sparse – a typical pickup chime, a quick, scratchy noise for your whip, some very good NES bat wing flapping. In all, its quite appropriate.
Castlevania is interesting, as it somehow got the reputation of one those “must-play” titles. If you haven’t played it, you apparently have no credibility as a classic gamer. It’s not the best game, certainly not the best in its own series, but it is a fun, nostalgic title. It’s difficult and challenging without being overly so, and set up many of the platforming staples that would serve the industry well for over a decade. If you’ve played it before, you’ll bring your own opinions to the table. If you haven’t, it’s a little overhyped, but worth checking out as a great early NES adventure.
Nice early graphics, challenging, classic Konami tunes.
Overhyped, but an enjoyable, defining game.