Castlevania – NES
Release Date (NA): May 1st, 1987
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
After playing through the second, third, and fourth entries in the series, I figured the original was long overdue for my attention. Add to that my failure to receive Bloodlines in the mail today, and it seemed only right that I get my Castlevania fix by exploring where it all started. Though not as strong as its descendants, I can only imagine what an impression this game would’ve made back in 1987 (I was 2!) as the industry began to come of age.
The story of the Belmonts and their struggle with Dracula begins here. Future games add all sorts of characters and jump through various points in time, recalling Dracula to the earthly plane for who knows what reasons. During Castlevania however, it’s plain ol’ man vs. vampire. With a whip.
Castlevania introduces what would become standard in later games: the whip (I mean, um, the Vampire Killer), whip upgrades, sub-weapons, dreadful jumping, flying back several feet when hit, and those goddamned staircases. Easily one of the hardest Castlevania games to be found, you have my full permission to attack this with a Game Genie in hand. Enemies are abundant and relentless, though the level design isn’t quite as unforgiving as later games. Still, there exist a number of areas where waiting for an opportune moment or carefully plotting a course through the perils at hand won’t be enough to make it through unscathed. Sometimes the best one can do is jump and furiously flail the whip. Food (which restores health) is difficult to come by and usually hides in walls requiring the whip to break. Extra lives are awarded through the accumulation of points and with health being so scarce, it’s best to grab every point and money bag within reach.
Castlevania may not be easy to finish, but it is a relatively short game. With Game Genie codes on (including a clandestine “infinite health” code causing glitches with sprites), it took me just over an hour to move through all 18 stages, presented in strictly linear form. Cutscenes showing a map pop up after each boss fight, but otherwise the game moves through stages seamlessly. One minute it’s stage 11, the next screen over stage 12 begins. Roughly every 3 stages a boss is encountered, and in true 8-bit fashion most of them launch a barrage of projectiles while zipping across the room. Luckily falling off platforms isn’t a constant concern and with a little bit of patience the patterns of these horrors can be understood. Most of them only have a narrow window where optimally available for Simon to deal damage and then the problem becomes one of time. A ticking clock forces the player to make risky moves to score hits and discourages against slow and methodical strategy.
Once completed, one has the privilege of watching a shadowy castle crumble followed by bizarre credits with shit like “Belo Lugosi as Dracula” (yes, Belo) and after a minute or two the game begins anew. Strangely enough, the stage numbers continue, so although Simon is now back at the beginning of the game the screen reads “Stage 19.” Along with several other games during this general era, Castlevania throws the player into “hard mode” after completion. “Hard mode” doesn’t appear to be rife with substantial differences from the main game, though one will surely notice the massive number of bats diving at Simon on what feels like every other screen.
As in the other Castlevania entries for the NES (Simon’s Quest and Dracula’s Curse), the most problematic and frustrating gameplay element in the first installment is that of control. Fortunately the controls aren’t any worse than those of II and III. Simon is unable to change the direction of his jump in mid-air, a mechanic that many of us take for granted. This makes precision jumping a difficult feat, especially when avoiding foes or other obstacles. Although it appears to have a limited range, Simon’s leap is surprisingly effective at crossing gaps. As I mentioned earlier, the generally simplified level design means that gaps and pits aren’t as much of a concern, which also means that the lack of jumping ability isn’t as much of a drawback. In fact, it’s much easier to overlook the inadequate jumping mechanics in this game because level design isn’t constantly exploiting these shortcomings.
Sub-weapons are another major source of consternation throughout the 3 NES titles. Requiring the player to press both Up and B simultaneously, it is extremely easy to launch these at inopportune times. For those who don’t already know, throughout the game Simon can pick up various weapons to be used in conjunction with his Vampire Killer. These include vials of holy water, daggers, boomerangs/crosses/bladed things, axes, and other helpful projectiles. Indispensable at certain junctures, it costs hearts to use these weapons. Strangely enough, hearts are unrelated to health and are to be found en masse with enough candle-whipping and monster-slaying. While the specifics of gameplay and combat never make for a situation where it is absolutely distressing to launch a sub-weapon instead of the whip (or vice versa) it is an annoyance that we won’t see corrected until Super Castlevania IV for the Super NES.
Lastly, staircases are the bane of any Castlevania fan’s existence. Simon can’t jump on them, can’t jump off of them, and will go up or down if Up or Down is pressed anywhere near them. If Simon falls or gets knocked back onto stairs, instead of landing on them as would be expected, he manages to fall through them and subsequently dies. A thorn in the side to be sure, but it is something one can acclimate to. The good news is that when standing on a staircase enemy hits don’t knock Simon around all over the place.
The Castlevania series has always been known for its graphics, and the original doesn’t disappoint. Rich backgrounds perfectly convey a creepy world of creatures. From the forgotten rooms of ancient castles filled with bones to the backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains, there’s an ample sense of mystery, fantasy, bewilderment, and terror. Details are abundant and will certainly serve to set Castlevania apart from other games of the mid to late 80’s. Character sprites are slightly less inspiring but still worth an extended look. Simon himself may be rather bland, but the enemies, especially the bosses, are a fine 8-bit sight to behold. From the evil giant vampire bat at the beginning, to the ever-intimidating scythe-wielding Death, all the way up to the final battle against Dracula’s second form, these simple yet effective graphics always win me over.
The music, while sometimes out of place, is some of the most atmospheric to stem from these early titles. Jaunty, synth-driven tracks dominate roughly half of the score but the music manages to breed adventurous melodies with a moody, slightly dread-inducing tone that does a reasonably good job of matching the rest of the game.
A perfect game? No, not even particularly close. But it is a hell of a start for what would become one of the most enduring and most recognizable franchises of all time. Following installments may be more fun to play but that’s a good thing; it means the series has improved over time and not succumbed to its own shortcomings. Konami would continue to experiment with the mold and keep the franchise fresh, and because of the constant change, most of these games have an identifiable place among their brethren. Castlevania on its own stands as a fine specimen on the NES and though it may be too old and too hard to garner much notice nowadays, fans of old platformers will definitely want to keep this one around.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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