When it was released in 1987, Castlevania became the game that started a phenomenon, and it quickly became one of the most popular game series of all time. Konami had originally released a similar title in Japan for the MSX known as Vampire Killer, and initial ideas presented in that game eventually led to the release of the original Castlevania. Most U.S. gamers recognize and acknowledge Castlevania on the NES as the beginning of the saga that pits a lone hero against Dracula and his forces of darkness. Over many years the game has spawned several sequels as well as retellings. Yet, through it all, the original, despite its dated graphics, gameplay, and sound, still stands the test of time as an extremely good action game, which is well worthy of any gamer’s collection.
In Castlevania, you take control of vampire hunter Simon Belmont in a side-scrolling adventure through the dreary landscape of a medieval Transylvania. Simon is bestowed with the unfortunate burden of slaying the newly resurrected Dracula. To do this he must face many of Dracula’s minions, including – but not limited to – ghosts, zombies, demons, and bats, using only his trusty whip. Also at Simon’s disposal are whip upgrades and sub-weapons, including a cross, a knife, holy water, an axe, and a clock, all of which can be picked up along the way by slashing candles placed throughout the game’s many haunting levels.
The play controls are as simple as they come. The ?A’ button jumps while the ?B’ button attacks enemies with your whip. Pressing up on the control pad and ?B’ accesses the sub-weapons. The action is always fun and addictive; and when you run out of enemies to kill, there are always plenty of candles to hit, which drop hearts that determine the amount of sub-weapons you can use, as well as other sub-weapons and treasure bags.
Picking up sub-weapons adds some strategy to the game experience. You can only carry one at a time, so when you come across another you have to decide whether to take it, or keep the one you already have. Each has its own distinct advantage. The cross hits an enemy once, then hurtles back towards Simon for a second hit; the knife is long ranged; the holy water continuously hits an enemy in its path before dissipating; the axe arches high in the air to hit enemies above; and the clock stops time for a few seconds. They all add to an interesting mix, giving the player many ways to handle certain stages and situations. This is particularly true in boss battles, in which having the right sub-weapon can provide just the right edge in beating the stage.
Though the controls are easy to master, they still have their own quirks, which can be somewhat troublesome. Jumping can be a hassle at times because Simon has very little maneuverability while airborne. Stairs are also a problem in the game; if you walk towards some stairs leading downward and forget to press down while at the top of them, your character will plummet to his death. Stairs also cause some concern when using sub-weapons. Using sub-weapons while near stairs may inadvertently make you climb them and put you in even more danger than you are meant to be in. While this may seem inordinately picky, there were several times when I died simply because I tried using a sub-weapon, which then made Simon climb stairs into harm’s way.
Castlevania is neither the hardest, nor the easiest game in the world. The game is divided into several stages and once you complete a stage, which means beating its boss, you will not have to play back through that stage again. This is, of course, while the machine is still on. That is to say that there are no saves in this game and no passwords, either – both of them were implemented in the later games of the series. The game does give you infinite continues. However, you will have to begin at the very beginning of the stage when your lives run out. This can be particularly frustrating during later levels, in which enemies attack with more power, sometimes killing Simon with just a few hits. Many players will find themselves finally getting to the end of a stage with only one life left, and little health, only to be cheated out of victory by a tough boss battle and sheer bad luck.
Enemies can also be very annoying at times. If Simon stands in the wrong place, the enemies seem to keep coming in an endless supply. Medusa heads can be particularly troublesome, especially on small platforms. It also doesn’t help that enemies knock your character back when he’s hit, meaning certain death when jumping from platform to platform. What will frustrate people the most is that, when Simon dies, you lose your whip upgrades, sub-weapon, and hearts, and must find these all over again. The bosses aren’t particularly hard until near the end of the game, when they may seem almost impossible. But all it takes is a little determination and possibly several continues, and anyone will eventually beat this game.
A nice addition to Castlevania’s gameplay is the hidden treasure that can be found if one explores the game’s stages. Money bags, meat (which replenishes health), and large hearts can be found by striking brick walls with Simon’s whip or just landing and standing in a particular place makes them sprout up. Also, achieving certain score criteria will reward you with an extra life. While not much by today’s standards, it is still fun to try to get as many items as you can while playing through the game.
For its time, and considering the hardware, the graphics in Castlevania are very impressive. The backgrounds are well detailed and have a medieval/gothic appearance. The presentation can appear very blotchy with the attempt at detail, but this is only a fault with the limitations of the NES. The enemies and bosses are also done well and easily recognizable. The use of browns with regards to Simon is rather questionable, as he sometimes gets lost when set against the dark tones of the backgrounds. Simon also animates like a hunchback. But, overall, the graphics are exceptional for their time and certainly succeed in setting the mood of the game.
Sound effects consist of your standard set of NES sounds; those found in so many games of old. There is the sound of the whip, and the sound of struck enemies, the sound of Simon being hit, and the sound of picking up items. The music, however, is excellent. Though not orchestrated and consisting of NES midi sounds, the soundtrack consists of some great compositions, which have later been rehashed in many sequels and are easily recognizable for Castlevania fans. The music is haunting and very convincing when creating the eerie atmosphere of the game. Of course, the old NES has technical limitations, but the tunes are still good and quite catchy. One’s imagination can easily fill in the gaps and begin to see where the creators were going with this series.
Castlevania is a rather linear side-scroller, which doesn’t offer much more than the basics. There are no multiple paths, like those found in Dracula X for the Turbo-Duo, and very little exploration, like that found in Symphony of the Night and the GBA incarnations, save for the hidden items mentioned above. Castlevania does, however, happen to be a fun and challenging action game; it is easily one of the best that the NES has to offer. Though the story has been redone many times (a.k.a. Super Castlevania for the SNES), the original on Nintendo’s first console is still a classic. Though, Symphony of the Night, with its Metroid style gameplay, it is not. It is, however, the roots of the series and well worth a pick up for any fan that would like to see how it all began. It is also worth picking up for any fan of old-school gaming, too. And since most used copies range from $6-20USD, you are not going to be out of much money. That said, it is an old title and very dated, but still a credible addition to any game collection.