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Haunted Castle – Arcade

Haunted Castle – Arcade

Haunted CastlePlatform:  ArcadeEmulated on MAME

Release Date (NA):  September 22nd, 1988

Project ObscureDeveloper:  Konami

Publisher:  Konami

Genre:  Action-Adventure, Platformer

Nerd Rating:  5 out of 10


Haunted CastleHaunted Castle, along with Vampire Killeris easily one of the most forgotten Castlevania games in the franchise’s storied past.  And like Vampire Killer, it was known only as Akumajō Dracula in Japan, though the arcade cabinet was released in several parts of the world.  Why was the game given such a generic title?  Why did Konami feel the need to retell the story of the original Castlevania yet again?  Why have we never seen a proper physical release of this in North America despite the popularity of the series?  I have no idea, but I’d love to know the answers.

Originally released between Simon’s Quest and Dracula’s Curse, Haunted Castle is officially the fourth installment of Castlevania.  In 2006, the game would make it to Japanese PlayStation 2’s as part of sort of an “arcade classics” series under the name Oretachi Geasen Zoku Sono 15: Akumajō Dracula.  Although anyone playing this would suppose that the story references a discrete incident, Konami has only ever described it as a retelling of the first game.  This entry begins with a short cutscene of Simon and his bride Selena walking down the aisle, complete with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March in all its MIDI splendor.  Suddenly, the skies darken, Dracula enters, and a wolf howl that you’ll become all too familiar with interrupts the soundtrack.  Seconds later, it’s time to start kicking ass and rescuing your bride.

Haunted Castle

Simon, do you take Selena to b…shit.

What was little more than a forgettable arcade game designed to eat your quarters has become something of a personal rite of passage for some fans. Haunted Castle is notoriously difficult, mostly due to the strength of enemies, the lack of health items (there are none), the rarity of useful items, and strangest of all, the enormous size of Simon’s sprite.  Is it worth your time?  Probably not, but it has its own style not to be found anywhere else in the series and looks quite good for something so old.

Haunted CastleAny of those “in the know” will be familiar with both a “Version M” and “Version K” of Haunted Castle. In my opinion, the differences aren’t extensive enough to talk about them as two different games.  Version M is considered more difficult, but both feature the same level layouts, enemy patterns, graphics, music, and even the items and weapons are located in the exact same spots.  The biggest difference is the amount of damage doled out by the creatures of the night.  At least it’s short; the entire game consists of only 6 stages and proficient players can go from beginning to end in about 16 minutes.

Haunted Castle

It’s not just Simon, all of the human-sized sprites are huge.

Let’s get back to Simon’s sprite for a moment.  His sheer size makes him an easy target for enemies and severely limits his maneuverability.  I can’t say I’ve had a lot of experience playing arcade games of this sort over and over to the point of mastery, but I imagine the process and logic to be similar.  This is not a game of endless variation and unfettered freedom.  Making it through Haunted Castle requires strict discipline, memorizing where each and every enemy is going to come from, and knowing exactly how many times they need to be hit.  To be successful, one must engage in a carefully orchestrated set of moves.  It’s about consistency, calculation, and precision.

Sound unfun yet?  Once I understood what it was going to take to progress in Haunted Castle, I tried to look at it like Guitar Hero or Rock Band: a specific set of buttons pressed at the correct times.  Like Guitar Hero, some sections are fast, frantic, muddy, and in flailing around you’re bound to land some hits.  Also, one or even two mistakes doesn’t make for an automatic fail; you’ve got a little wiggle room, but the name of the game is to get as much of it right as possible.

Haunted Castle

In a few seconds, plates and forks will start flying all over the place. Sometimes the stopwatch is the only answer.

That said, gameplay can get frustratingly challenging at times.  Sometimes the difficulty is so outrageous that it’s impossible to figure out how to “correctly” emerge unscathed (or relatively so) from a situation.  The average gamer will be tempted to start jumping around and treating this like a more traditional platformer, but jumping in Haunted Castle is merely a way to get from point A to point B and serves little useful purpose when trying to dodge or combat foes.  The controls will come off as slow and inadequate until you get used to the way that levels and enemy patterns are designed.  I can’t be sure if it was by accident or design, but in nearly every encounter during the game there is one “right” way to progress and several wrong ones.  The controls don’t allow for much deviation beyond “the right way” unless you plan on losing a ton of health.

Haunted Castle

Literally 3 to 5 hits to Frankie’s knees with the cross subweapon is all it takes.

Haunted Castle uses an underdeveloped yet crucial systems of items throughout its six stages.  As usual, Simon has access to a handful of subweapons, some of which haven’t been seen before or since.  Although he starts the game with a simple leather whip as his main mode of attack, it can be upgraded twice (first to a morning star and later to the Holy Sword), but these upgrades aren’t just laying around.  Instead they’re hidden in a couple of specific enemies, and if you miss one, you might as well go ahead and kill yourself.  The upgrades don’t appear again and you’ll need the extra power.  The good news is that the same bat or skeleton or whatever will always spit out the same item on each and every playthrough, so if you find one useful item, you’ll at least know exactly where to focus next time.

Haunted Castle

You’ll be forced to eat a few hits during this battle, but these bosses go down easy.

Generally the bosses found at the end of each level would be cause to get anxious, but I found them to be substantially easier to defeat than navigating the stages.  All of them have an easily exploitable weakness.  It may not always be obvious, but in many cases a particular subweapon will be highly effective, even if it involves nothing more than using the stopwatch a couple of times and beating the hell out of the big baddie for the low price of 4 hearts.  I found it to be rather gratifying that after all the hard work of getting to the end of a level, I wasn’t immediately obliterated by the boss.

Some qualities inherent to an arcade machine allow for a few “tricks” in Haunted Castle that, depending on your skill level, may give you the push you need or simply prolong the inevitable.  Like any arcade game, it wants your quarters.  If you have access to an actual Haunted Castle machine, you have both my admiration and envy; if you don’t, your arcade emulator should be able to replicate some of the machine’s mechanical qualities.  Simon possesses 16 hit points.  How far these 16 stretch depends on 4 things: being hit with a projectile vs. bumping into an enemy, whether you’re playing Version M or K, the DIP switch setting for “game difficulty,” and the DIP switch setting for “strength difficulty.”  Beware; any way you slice it, it’s still super tough.  Lowering the difficulty may make your mistakes less costly, but it doesn’t really change the core experience.  If you can successfully navigate a cluster of enemies on the lowest difficulty, you’ll be able to do the same on the highest.  However, where as a run-in might cost you 2 to 4 hit points with easier settings, you can say goodbye to between 6 and 8 on the hardest.  You can feel good about yourself no matter what settings or version you’re using.

Haunted Castle

I love this poster. I want it on my wall.

After death, one can either insert an actual quarter or use the emulator the emulate the act and start back either at the beginning of or in the middle of the stage, depending on where death occurred.  It makes sense, but kicking things off in the middle of a level greatly disturbs the rhythm of the game.  It’s harder to jump back into the dance than it is to start at the beginning in most situations.  There’s also a neat trick that can be done if one were to put in a dollar’s worth of quarters – Simon’s hit points are increased 4-fold.  Energy is refilled at the end of levels based on how many hearts you have, but you can never regain the full 64.  It will only increase once below 16, however, this is a good way to keep hearts from stage to stage.  The major drawback is that continues are unavailable in this mode.  Essentially, you’ve got 4 lives wrapped up into one and a single shot at completing the game.  If you die after any version of this uber-Simon has been activated (by “inserting” either 1, 2, or 3 additional quarters), the game immediately restarts.

Haunted Castle


The decision is yours, but I found a no-death playthrough to be easier in a way.  When you continue, your hearts are gone and so are any new weapons and subweapons.  Since these items are remarkably scarce, any attempts to continue render the rest of the game that much more difficult.  As mentioned before, Simon’s 16 hit points are refilled at the end of the level based on the number of hearts remaining – if he’s down to 8 hit points and has 7 hearts, the hearts will restore all but one point and he’ll begin the next level with 15 hit points and zero hearts.  By “spending a dollar,” one can stave off having so many hearts eaten up and have more to use while moving forward.

Haunted Castle

Something about this visual style compelled me to fight ’til the end.

Graphically I found Haunted Castle to look pretty damn good for 1988.  The use of detail and color makes for memorable visuals and the style is truly unique.  Big, bold animation is part of Haunted Castle’s allure and part of what got me so interested in seeing each and every detail for myself.  The music is full of in-your-face synth with some memorable pieces, largely influenced by the compositions in Simon’s Quest.

Finishing Haunted Castle is rewarding, but unless you’re an avid Castlevania fan or happen to be interested in arcade-only games, you might not be willing to put in the requisite effort.  I found the game to be enjoyable in its own right, but it’s simultaneously too complicated and too simple to stand as a good game.  There’s some fun to be had even if it isn’t immediately obvious, though it isn’t the kind of game that most people are going to be able to pick up and excel at right away.  It’s also necessary to keep in mind that Haunted Castle wants to eat quarters at its core, so some of the difficulty is understandable to that end.

Check out this amazing playthrough of Version M on the hardest difficulty.  Many times I had to watch this carefully in order to best learn how to clear an area.

It would be awesome to see a re-release of this with some updated mechanics, or even a quick unchanged version for a couple of bucks on the Wii Virtual Console, but it seems unlikely.  The 2006 PlayStation 2 release in Japan is probably as close as we’ll get.  I suppose there is always the possibility of owning a real arcade cabinet.  Somewhere, somehow, there’s got to be a few of these left…right?

Reviewed by The Cubist

Written by The Cubist

The Cubist

Co-founder, Head Author, & Site Technician

Find out what these ratings mean and how I rate video games.

I collect as much video gaming paraphernalia as I can get my hands on, especially when it comes to hardware. With over 40 systems including oldies like the ColecoVision and Intellivision, obscurities like the CD-i and 3DO, and the latest and greatest including the Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and PS Vita, I get easily overwhelmed. Most of the time you can find me firmly nestled sometime between 1985 and 1995 when it comes to my games of choice, but I’m also having a great time seeing what the 8th generation has to offer.

Currently in love with: Mortal Kombat

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  1. Ignore “Haunted Castle” entirely. The export versions are significantly harder than the Japanese versions for no particular reason. The Japanese versions are much more reasonable and are highly recommended. Konami did this with a number of arcade games.

  2. Pingback: Project Obscure - Nerd Bacon Reviews

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