Welcome to Origins, a new player affinity feature where a writer will introduce or reacquaint our readers to the history, games, greatest hits and spectacular failures of a classic video game series.
With Castlevania: Lords of Shadow coming out next week, I figured we’d run through the 25 year history of Castlevania; from its platforming 8-bit origins, to its masterpieces and follies, laying down some knowledge about some of the more notable editions in the horror title’s history.
Like Mario Brothers and Metal Gear, Castlevania was one of the titles from the NES era where they got everything on the ground level correct the first time out • The atmosphere, set in a castle populated with familiar and new creatures of the undead is one of the best premises in videogames; survival horror comes from these roots. • The music. One of the great 8-bit soundtracks ever. Eerie and ominous. • The lead character, Simon Belmont. Other characters would come in later chapters, but the idea of a whip swinging vampire hunter is dead solid perfect. • The gameplay. It was a two button, left to right (sometimes right to left) weapon-attack platformer, but Konami figured out how to install a secondary weapon (players pressed B and Up) effectively doubling the depth of the attacks. Simon’s whip was also upgradable, setting the roots of the character building in later games.
The game had six levels that all followed a similar pattern: moderate to challenging levels with ground and air enemies, a couple of jumps, and each setting culminated with a rather challenging boss fight. To this date, most old school gamers will still bitch about the Grim Reaper of stage 5, but the best legacy of the game was it’s concept of the multiple stage boss fight. After Dracula’s first form was slain, out emerged a brutish Vampire beast-complete with a fully recharged health bar--for the player to defeat. Its aged decently, but due to the basic nature and age of the game, it’s arguably the least interesting major title of the series.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Partly due to a heavy dose of nostalgia, this is my favorite of the 8 & 16bit edition of the series, I still quote the onscreen line when the game had the day to night changeover; “What a horrible night to have a curse.” That said, I will be the first to admit: it’s a complete mess of a game.
One of the first games to feature a night-to-day changeover, Simon’s Quest also featured an overworld level map instead of continuing a linear, beginning to end level design. Players would track back and forth through towns (each with shops to buy whip upgrades and villagers to give clues) looking for the items and events that would trigger dungeon sequences. Now, I know the curse refers to Simon, but I don’t know what the deal is, but come dusk, the people in the town become malicious ghouls, the creatures outside of the city walls are more vicious, and there are a few night time only sensitive triggers. The game also had a built in experience rating, which raised the players HP and skill set, RPG style. All pretty impressive evolutionary jumps for a platformer.
The problems all stem from finding the next dungeon: Unless you had a friend walk you through the levels and showing you what to do, there was no telling how to progress through this game. Even by 1980's standards, the translation was horrible. The NPC’s in the towns would give the player false clues (in the Japanese edition, there was a bit of wordplay that was lost in the English conversion), giving the player no real idea as where to go or what to do. The idea of the game was to collect the body parts of Dracula that were hidden in every castle. Getting there was the hard part, requiring the player to go to certain locations, take a knee, and equip a certain item… and I stress, nothing in the game alluded to this series of events.
The branching over world and the cleverly designed dungeons helped to make this an improvement over the original. That said, it is perhaps due to the confusing nature of the game that Konami returned to the more level oriented progression for the third game in the series.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
I’ll start by mentioning the music. As a series, Castlevania is up there with Actrasier, Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger/Cross and Secret of Mana for epic soundtracks. Dracula’s curse has the best of the 8-bit scores, maybe not as good as SOTN, but still better than almost everything since. It’s funky, moody, and all kinds of awesome.
While this installment is less of an open roamer than #2, it does use branching level paths and multiple characters (who are symbiotic assistants, and not just NPC’s). Given the gameplay, the music, and the improved graphics, Castlevania III is usually listed as the best of the pre-CD games in the series, and rightly so. It is a sequel that innovated and expanded upon the gameplay in place, fixed the problems from earlier versions, and was worth the money and the hype.
I played both Castlevania Adventures for the Game Boy. The first one featured some of the trickiest platforming I can remember and the margin for error was punishingly low. The second was a bit better, but as with every Game Boy title that isn’t Metroid 2 or Link’s Awakening: there’s a reason no one talks about them. Imagine paying $45 bucks for the worst looking iPhone app you can imagine. That’s the Gameboy era pre Pokemon.
Super Castlevania IV
Ahh, the SNES games; the historian in me loves the fact that 98% of all Nintendo developed games were prefaced with SUPER before the rest of the title, as if, in addition to the completely different looking cartridges and consoles, we needed titular reinforcements that these were for the SNES. They still do this occasionally (See Wii Sports, or SMB Wii) but if they followed the SNES marketing model, it would be Wii Kagemusa, Wii Mario Brothers, Wii Metroid, ETC. These things make me terribly nostalgic, because damnit, these SNES library is a treasure trove of great games, almost all of which had SUPER at the front of the title.
So, Castlevania IV, I’m sorry, SUPER Castlevania IV… it’s an something of an expanded reimagining/remake of the first game. The plot and premise are the same, so are some of the levels and bosses. There are added levels, and the developers took control of the improved graphics engine to expand the movement rules of ground floors, i.e. the platforms in platforming (this was a huge deal at the time, and the chip that allowed the Graphical FX was potent enought to be given a trademark: Mode 7 technology. It had a vague technical term followed by a number... so you know it was good)
After 3 lessons through trial in error, IV is built upon effective, while stagnant, combat and exploration. This is a beefier, more muscular chapter in the series, which is why it is something of an also ran. It’s too familiar, it hasn’t aged well, and there aren’t many innovations in the game. It was fun, but it is now forgettable compared to some of the others.
Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (and Castlevania 64)
Timeline wise, I am skipping SOTN, which I will address at the end. I will mention the SOTN and the rest of the Metroidvania games because those became a subgenre after SOTN was released in 1997. The N64 games came along in 1999, and it’s almost like Konami knew they needed to branch out. SOTN is and was a perfect 2-D Castlevania game; there is no where to go but down. It was time to go 3-D, and at the time, the games were moderately successful at attaining that goal.
There were some problems though:
Graphics: The N64 inadvertently turned a bunch of gamers onto the term “draw distance,” because they all started to have way too much fog as the system reached its technical boundaries. C64 was no exception. The body models are jaggy and the textures-like the atmospheres in all 64 games-were smoky.
Gameplay: The 3-D platformer genre didn’t really get going until God of War. We had OK games for the systems, but never a fully 3-D action masterpiece that featured multi-directional weapons, jumping, exploration, etc, until 2005. I could be wrong, but I can’t think of any before God of War. The Castlevania 64 games play like Shadow of the Empire; good at times, but riddled with problems (camera, hit detection, etc) that developers hadn’t figured out yet. I enjoyed playing the games at the time but remember deeming it “rental only.” It’s almost a logarithmic scale for odds of playing a so-so game, i.e. one has a 50% chance of playing a “rental only” game from this year, 5% from last year, .50% chance 2 years ago, etc.
But, if you are so inclined, watch a Youtube video of a Let’s Play Walkthrough of a boss fight… you’ll understand why I’m so down on it:
There were two PS2 3-D games that improved the battle mechanics and the graphics, but it's on the same level as Heavenly Sword on the PS3. Visually interesting, yet boring to play.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
In my review of Harmony of Despair for XBLA, I found it impossible not to glowingly mention SOTN because of my admiration for the game. As I mentioned there, it’s on my list of 15 best ever made. I’ll spare the hyperbole about its perfection and just list some of my favorite parts.
• The bosses. Always one of the strengths of the series, this one had multiple screen high baddies with changing weak spots and brutal attacks. The massive ball comprised of corpses remains one of my favorite boss fights ever. • The item collection. It doesn’t get as crazy as Diablo, but there are hundreds of weapons, armor, and accessories in the game, all which have unique uses and are fun to find. • The Exploration: This took the best parts of the early Castlevania (weapons, fights, creatures) and expanded upon the branching maps of II, III, and IV a la Metroid. Power-ups and alternate forms allowed for players to reach new areas previously hidden, blocked, or seemingly impenetrable. It wasn’t that it was new, its that SOTN does the map so well and all of the best elements play off of the exploration of the castle. The library, the caves, and the gear room are some of the more memorable stages/levels. • The RPG elements. Aside from gaining XP, Alucard's weapons and armor were now customizable, he also now had MP points for spells, and he could transform in alternate forms (wolf, mist, bat). Even his familiars had experience levels. • The horrible voice acting. So bad, it’s great. I have to mention it; it’s that memorable. Youtube has many videos devoted to the best lines. • The 200%. I know it’s actually something like 203%, but this ties into the exploration factor. It’s possible to only play half of the game and still beat it; only by equipping a special set of glasses is the player able to find the true nature of the boss and unlock the second, upside-down castle and the true boss (Dracula… who else).
The game was immediately heralded as one of the best ever, and the dubbing hasn’t been rescinded. After SOTN, many Metroidvania sequels were released onto the Game Boy Advance/ DS systems. They are fun, often great, sometimes familiar rehashes of a familiar adventure, but SOTN got everything right, so who cares if they are merely making copies.
There are a few others available via import, emulator, or those that simply are also rans in a lengthy catalog. Castlevania’s legacy can be seen in multiple game styles, not just horror themed adventures. Konami’s team always seems to build extremely sturdy foundations and then innovate on top of them; Castlevania and Metal Gear are there best examples of this. If you haven’t discovered Castlevania yet, picking any one of the non N64 games on this list would be a great place to start. For those hoping to avoid retro games, we will have a review of Lords of Shadow coming next week. This is a series not to be missed.
Wii Arcade has the NES and SNES editions of Castlevania for those who are interested, and both XBL and PSN offer SOTN for $9.99. It’s worth every penny. It’s held up all these years graphically and still plays fresh.
David Turner is the host/producer of playeraffinity.com’s gaming podcast, Digital High. You can find it on this site, or via iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @ineverlovedyou3 or ask him questions at formspring.me/radiofreedave.
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