Castlevania is yet another game this year celebrating a milestone. Released in Japan in 1986 and in the US in 1987, Castlevania is now 30 years old. Simon Belmont’s first daring adventure into Count Dracula’s castle wowed NES owners back in the late 80s. It was another platformer released for a system whose library is full of memorable platforming games.
However, to quote the 80s classic This is Spinal Tap, it goes to eleven.
It’s one of the few games to fire off on each cylinder in each category. The graphics, the sound, the controls, the enemies, and bosses etc.. are all remarkable. It’s impressive the game has been unforgettable after all these years, despite being the first game in a long-running series.
For those who haven’t experienced fighting the evil vampire and his minions, they are missing out on one of the quintessential side-scrolling games.
The first battle against Dracula is one of the best, and more difficult, games on the NES
A shadowy, forbidding castle, followed by a gigantic bat greets players at the title screen. Pressing start will show one of the most memorable introductions to any video game. There is no dialogue or any indication of what is going to happen.
It’s Simon Belmont, confidently walking up to a gate. He is armed with the famous Vampire Killer whip and ready to take on Count Dracula and vanquish the evil inside the castle.
One of the reasons why Castlevania is such a unique game is the world created by Konami. The game itself started out as a tribute to both the classic Universal Monster films, as well as the Hammer Dracula film series. Taking one look at the variety of enemies and bosses in this game it is not hard to see why. Besides vampires, there are mummies, the gorgon Medusa and even Frankenstein’s monster designed after Boris Karloff’s iconic portrayal.
The game may not seem scary, but that was not Konami’s intention. They wanted to give players a creative universe, one that is set apart from the typical platformer. A spooky castle with dozens of horror homages is certainly what gives Castlevania its identity. No better example of this than the first game.
One characteristic of the game players will immediately notice is the graphics and the quality of detail. For an NES game only released one year (two years in North America) into the system’s lifespan, this is nothing to brush off. Backgrounds and stage graphics are incredible. Players will know they are in a fancy hall, broken down tower or a complicated laboratory. Simon himself is a well-animated sprite himself and actually resembles a person. A person made of eight bits, but a person nonetheless.
The controls are simple. Jump with A and whip with B. Getting that down is not hard for any newcomer. It also makes for some intense, yet strategic, gameplay.
An infamous feature of Castlevania, and the series as a whole, is the extreme difficulty. It is not a cheap game, although certain bosses are pretty difficult. However, the jumping controls are incredibly strange. Simon Belmont needs to gain a good amount of momentum in order to make certain jumps. It allows for players to not get careless and having to plan their jumps. Climbing stairs are strange too since you can’t jump onto the stairs in. Instead, players press up on the control pad. Finally, there It takes a little while to get into the setup.
Once a player finds their rhythm, jumping and climbing stairs is nothing. In a bizarre way, it actually adds to the game itself.
Impressive level design and a memorable soundtrack add to Castlevania
The levels are well detailed in a cosmetic sense, but the actual designs are intricate. This comes from Konami’s technique for designing levels during this era in gaming. The team behind several of their games, including Castlevania on the NES, strictly used graph paper in order to map out the stage.
This method kept the levels of Castlevania organized, but it also makes the levels flow better during gameplay.
Finally, there is the soundtrack. Castlevania showcases one of the greatest collections of music on the NES. Tracks like “Wicked Child” have a spooky, urgent tone behind them. “Stalker” sets up an atmospheric groove. Of course, no Castlevania game is complete without a version of the song “Vampire Killer.” The NES version of the song is still the best and most addictive to listen to.
My personal history with the first Castlevania
I first played the original Castlevania, not on an NES, but on a computer. Even more strange is the catalyst for how I got into this franchise. The game in question was Super Smash Bros. Melee.
It was February of 2003 and I was scouring the Internet for classic Nintendo games to play for free. I would research the games after getting a trophy of a particular character in Melee, and would want to play that particular game.
I stumbled upon a website which played NES games… nearly its whole library! I forgot which game I was intending to play, but I accidentally clicked on a completely different one without realizing it.
The game in question was Castlevania and I became hooked on it the second it booted up.
There was something about this horror-themed world that drew me in. I was, and still am, a fan of the classic Universal Monster films, which certainly helped. I always enjoyed platformers, so that is another aspect as to why I enjoyed the game. Most importantly, I was having fun. Whipping the zombies in the great hall of the castle, to jumping over Madusa heads, to finding all the classic horror monsters being represented it made for one of the best first impressions for a game.
From that point forward, I became obsessed with Castlevania and the franchise as a whole. I excessively researched the history of it; what all the bosses looked like, what other games were like in the franchise, and if anyone else had
I tried playing nearly as many games in the series as possible. I became incredibly giddy when the NES classic was re-released on Game Boy Advanced, downloaded Super Castlevania IV on my Wii as one of the first Virtual Console games, and I bought a PS3 to play the Lords of Shadow reboot.
An incredible and enduring game 30 years later
The Castlevania series has been haunting gamers for three decades. Even after numerous sequels, spin-offs and reboots, the original Castlevania is still a perennial classic. In my eyes, Castlevania is a bona fide classic and deserves to be seen as one. I also love the entire franchise so much to the point where I consider it my personal favorite gaming series.
It broke ground for platformers in level design. It introduced the world to a new type of atmosphere. Most importantly, the game was just flat out fun and manages to succeed on every single feature that makes it a video game.
The Belmonts, their allies, and others will always have their eternal struggle with the evil Count Dracula.
Fans of the first Castlevania will always have their eternal appreciation for it.