Retro Review: Castlevania

Castlevania Box Art

Content Warning:

Game contains violence, demons, and mild horror themes.

Opening:

Castlevania was developed and published by Konami and released on the NES in May of 1987. It is the first game in a legendary franchise that has seen many evolutions over the years. From 3D action-adventure, to 2D Metroid-style exploration, and even one-on-one fighting games, it seems that this vampire-slaying series has done it all. Let’s take a look back at the action platformer that launched this franchise and see if it still holds up today.

Story:

The year is 1691. The castle of the evil vampire, Count Dracula, has just emerged asDraculaBattle it does once every century. Simon Belmont, of the storied Belmont Clan (who have been in the vampire-slaying business for 600 years), must battle his way through Dracula’s treacherous towers to put the Count back in his grave.

The entire Castlevania franchise actually has a very deep timeline that follows the Belmont family over the course of two thousand years. This timeline is fleshed out fairly well in later entries to the series, but not so much in the original adventure. For the type of game Castlevania is, however, a deep and enthralling story doesn’t completely make or break the experience, so I can give it a bit of a pass on not having much of a narrative.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Gameplay:

Simon’s main attack is with his whip. It’s the Belmont Clan’s main tool of monster destruction, and is easily upgraded . Along the way, Simon can find a variety of sub-weapons that use hearts you pick up as ammunition. The axe is thrown in an arcing motion, the boomerang flies across the screen and comes back, the holy water is thrown to the ground, the watch temporally stops time, and the throwing knife… is useless. The levels and enemy placement are designed to perfectly cater to the arsenal at your disposal, and that is where the true genius of this game shines through: strategy. If you try to just run through the game Leroy Jenkins style, flailing your whip like a maniac, Castlevania will crush you. But if you take your time, analyze your surroundings, and understand what sub-weapon will work best in a certain situation, you just may stand a chance at surviving this horror story.

And that is exactly what you have to do in this game: survive it. Beating this game takes equal parts patience and surgical precision. This isn’t the hardest game ever, especially on the NES, but it is still tough as nails. Boss battles are generally simple once you understand the best way to attack, but some of the regular enemies are just infuriating. You can just say the phrase “Medusa Heads” to anyone that has put in hours on this vampire hunting expedition and they will shudder. Although frustrating enemies like the Medusa Heads and Flea Men are challenging to dispatch, they themselves don’t seem to be unfair. The pitfalls, on the other hand, are quite unfair, which brings up the one big problem with the gameplay: controls.

The movement, attacks, and jumping are tight and responsive, but the medusa headsissue is the jump itself. In most games, especially platformers, you have at least a little bit of control of your character after you jump. In Castlevania, you have absolutely no control after your little pixelated legs leave the ground. It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t sections of the game that rely heavily on precision platforming, but when you’re trying to land on a moving platform, with bats and Medusa Heads flying at you in different patterns, it’s unnecessarily difficult. It definitely doesn’t help that every time you get hit by an enemy, you fly backwards uncontrollably.

“Just made that jump over a death pit? Sweet! Here, have a skeleton chucking its own bones at you to make sure you fall back in!”

“Thanks, Castlevania. You’re a bro.”

The jumping mechanic may be a nit-pick, but you can get used to it after some time and patience. Other than that gripe, the controls are smooth and it’s just a blast to whip your way through Dracula’s castle.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Presentation (Includes Graphics and Audio/Music)

For its time, Castlevania was incredibly detailed and surprisingly colorful, especially considering the subject matter. One would assume a vampire’s castle would be dark Castlevania Medusatones of black, brown, and grey, but Konami gave the scenery a shot of bright colors that really work for the setting. The pallet choices in every level of the game are vastly different from the last, and really lend credibility to the idea that you’re making progress and working your way through the castle. The choice to make Simon’s sprite orange seems odd, but it really makes him pop against the backgrounds and somehow works to make everything seem exciting and epic with just visuals alone.

It’s widely known that the Castlevania series has some the best music in the history of video games, and the first in the franchise is no exception. Kinuyo Yamashita crafted the soundtrack perfectly. The music manages to successfully fit flawlessly with the atmosphere of the levels and have hints of a central, classic horror theme throughout. Not many retro videogame soundtracks make you feel something, but the tunes in Castlevania make you feel everything you should at the right times; creepy, frantic, dark, victorious… The soundtrack takes you on as much of a journey as the actual adventure does.

Rating: 10 out of 10

The Good:
  • Striking visuals
  • Amazing soundtrackCastlevania Stage 1
  • Incredibly challenging
The Bad:
  • Fixed jumping arc
  • Frustrating enemies
  • Falling back when hit by enemy
The Ugly:
  • The credits contain corny plays on the names of classic monster film actors. It’s cringe-worthy.

Conclusion/Overall:

The first entry into the Castevania series is simply a masterpiece. Its groundbreaking level design, stunning splashes of color in visual detail, and outstanding use of music to convey feeling laid the foundation for many 2D action platformers to come, and set the bar very high for future games in the franchise. But, most of all, this game is just fun to play. I often find myself still popping it in the NES to this day to have one more go at dethroning Dracula. If you have an NES, Wii U, or 3DS, pick this up or download it from the Virtual Console. You won’t be disappointed in this monster-slaying monument of retro gaming.

Final Rating: 9 out of 10

The Bottom Line

 

 

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Jon Hill

I'm a 28 year old husband, father of 3, Christian DJ, PlayStation fanboy, and retro video game collector from Chesapeake, VA.

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