Halloween is very nearly upon us, and what better way to celebrate than by looking back on the original entry in gaming’s ultimate Gothic experience. Originally released by Konami in 1986 on the Famicom Disk System, before being re-released the following year on the NES, Castlevania is one the most memorable games in the 8-bit catalogue, and not without good reason. Its whip-cracking, bone-smashing action has entranced gamers for nearly 30 years, thanks to engrossing gameplay, fantastic presentation, and a setting that’s worth being resurrected time and time again for.
Borrowing heavily from Bram Stoker’s iconic novel Dracula, Castlevania’s story places us in late 1600s Transylvania, at a time when Count Dracula himself has risen once again. Resurrected by an evil cult along with his infamous demonic castle, it’s up to Simon Belmont, the latest descendent in a long line of Vampire hunters, to take down the “Lord of Darkness”. This setting really is second to none, and sets the premise for the whole franchise. Yet here, the story actually isn’t the game’s strongest aspect, and aside from the opening animation, there’s no extra cutscenes or story elements.
This quest into Dracula’s heavily fortified, yet ruined castle, will see Simon take on a range of monsters, all inspired by the classic monster movies of old. Along the way you’ll meet Frankenstein’s Monster, Mummies, Medusa Heads and even Death himself, who acts as Dracula’s right hand man. How strong must Dracula be to have Death as his lackey? Importantly though, having such a diverse range of classic Horror monsters, really breathes life into the story, nullifying the need for any additional plot. Both the story, and the array of villains, is in and of itself a true testament to the quality of the game and its legacy, as all of this has become the basis for the Castlevania franchise as a whole.
The overall presentation of the game is another factor that has allowed the title to become cemented in gaming folklore. Whilst the story may take a back step, the presentation is what will really drag you into Simon’s descent into the darkness. Right from the opening animation, you really get a feel for both the crumbling Gothic relic that is Dracula’s castle, and for the horror that awaits inside.
Everything is presented immaculately through some one of the strongest graphical displays on an 8-bit console. From the inside to the outside, and from the basement to the castle walls, all of the environments have been created with great care and attention, immersing you into the experience. This really creates quite an isolating feeling, making you really believe you’re the only person in the castle. The same can also be said with regard to the game’s villains, with every enemy easily recognisable, as is Simon himself and the weapon of his ancestors, the “Vampire Killer”.
This care and attention is also present within the game’s highly respected soundtrack, something which adds to the immersion, and really cements the Gothic feeling by being both uplifting and unnerving at the same time. To put it simply, this really is one of the most iconic soundtracks from the 8-bit era, and that’s saying something. Like with all of the classic chiptune tracks, you’ll find yourself humming along to track after track.
Yet despite all this, the most important factor in the success of Castlevania, lies within its gameplay. This may not be one of the later “Metroidvania” games that most will associate with the franchise. However, without the classic platforming action of the original titles, there arguably would be no Symphony of the Night.
In “Classic” Castlevania style, gameplay takes the form of a side scrolling action game, akin to other 8-bit classics such as Ninja Gaiden. As I mentioned earlier, Simon’s main weapon is his trusty whip, the “Vampire Killer”. This weapon is both responsive and easy to use, whilst can also be upgraded through power-ups. Most enemies will go down in a few hits, whilst bosses predictably take multiple attacks. The whip isn’t your only weapon though, as Castlevania features an array of special items. These include Holy Water and daggers, and trust me you’ll need them when trying to complete Castlevania’s six multi-tiered stages.
It’s said that nothing but evil awaits in the castle of the Dark Lord, and if we’re basing that solely on the difficulty, then they’d be right. Whilst not as mind shatteringly infuriating as Ninja Gaiden, don’t think Castlevania’s hordes of enemies are any kind of push over. In classic retro style enemies will come from anywhere and everywhere, just when you least expect it. You can also expect to face enemies who attack from air, land, and yes the sea too, well water actually but close enough.
Additionally, whilst Simon can take multiple hits before he is defeated, there is one thing that will take him down in one…. falling off a ledge. Yep you guessed it, just like in Ninja Gaiden, there are occasions when you’ll wonder just what exactly was the point of the lifebar. Just like Ryu, every time Simon is hit, he’ll fall backwards, and if that happens to be into a gap, then say goodbye to all your life. This really is an annoying aspect of the game, and you can find yourself being bounced from pillar to post by the game’s vast array of enemies and bosses.
Yet, despite Simon’s annoying tendency to fall backwards when hit, there really isn’t anything wrong with the way in which the game controls. Yes, in comparison later games in the series the controls can seem somewhat restrictive and stiff, something that is evidenced through the inability to move whilst jumping. However, this really doesn’t make the game any less enjoyable. Treated in isolation, combat is fluid and responsive, with the defeat of every single enemy being satisfying, especially the bosses. Furthermore, you’ll always feel like you’re in control, something which is vitally important when a game has a difficulty level such as this.
Quite simply, Castlevania is one of the most iconic 8-bit titles, and at the same time one of the most essential. It may be short, and the NES version may lack a save function, but this is a game that you’ll want to return to time and time again. What’s more, not only does Castlevania live up to its repetition, but it still feels as enjoyable to play today as it did all those years ago. Other games in the series may have improved on the mechanics over time, but none of this would have been possible without the foundations of the original title. Long may Dracula rise again.