Release Date: September 26, 1986
Genre: Action, Platformer
I love October. Leaves changing color, then falling. The blowing wind, the cooler temperatures, topped off by the perfect holiday for any fan of scary films. For myself, I use the entire month of October as an excuse to indulge in my predilection for ghost stories, haunted attractions, horror films and creepy video games. Luckily for me, horror, supernatural and monster themed video games are plentiful. Whether I’m playing Haunted House on the Atari 2600, Splatterhouse on the Turbografx-16 or Silent Hill on the PlayStation, the genre leaves fans wanting for nothing. In my opinion, the most successful in this genre is the long-running franchise, Castlevania. Konami’s flagship series has seen its ups (is Symphony of the Night the best game of all time? Maybe!) and downs (Castlevania 64….tried to take the series into 3D, but the game is just….ok), but the truth is that for the last 30+ years, the series has been one of the most consistently excellent that we’ve ever seen.
The original Castlevania, released in 1986 on Japan’s Nintendo Famicom Computer Disk System and subsequently in North America on the NES in 1987 and in Europe in 1988, may often get overlooked for the standout title that it was at the time. Subsequent Castlevania titles have tended to overshadow the original thanks to their advanced controls, Metroid-vania game mechanics, enhanced graphics and deeper storylines, but without a strong foundation of source material, the rest of the franchise would have crumbled like its namesake’s rotting castle.
Generally speaking, the Castlevania franchise has a Gothic horror theme reminiscent of the old Bram Stoker based, Bela Lugosi starring, Dracula novel and films of the ’30s and ’40s. To strengthen this connection, the title/menu includes perforations on the top and bottom of the screen, providing the look of an old reel of film stock. The opening cut scene shows the game’s protagonist, Simon Belmont, walking towards Dracula’s castle, which is lit ominously in the background by a bright crescent moon. Bats, possibly of the vampire variety, flutter above you as you walk through the gate. Quite the set-up for this moody action-platformer.
The story is simple and concise. Simon Belmont is a vampire hunter who sets off to defeat the baddest of the bads, Count Dracula. Dracula has recruited a number of classic movie monsters such as mummies, Frankenstein’s monster, Queen Medussa, zombies and the Grim Reaper to help protect him from Simon’s quest (not to be confused with the sequel, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest) to rid the world of his evil presence. A classic story of good vs. evil with characters nearly everyone recognizes. Simon must traverse a total of 6 levels, each with 3 stages, en route to the final showdown with the Count. Once Simon reaches one of the stage checkpoints, he will be able to re-start from that point if he perishes. If Simon loses all of his lives and his game is over, he must then re-start at the beginning of that level, not stage, using one of his unlimited continues.
Each level ends with a boss fight that must be won before Simon can advance onto the next challenge. Simon starts off with a short leather whip to protect himself but can obtain morningstar whip upgrades (up to 3 total) which make his whip longer and stronger, as well as secondary weapons such as axes, holy water, daggers, boomerangs & stop watches. All of these sub-weapons utilize hearts as a means of weapon currency. Simon collects hearts by defeating enemies and whipping candles strewn about the castle. Once he runs out of hearts, he loses his ability to use his secondary or sub-weapon until more hearts can be obtained. Besides hearts, Simon can collect a number of other items by whipping candles, walls or even kneeling down (and praying to the Nintendo gods) in specific spots. Some of the key power-ups he can collect are ones that look like Roman numerals which allow him to use sub-weapons 2x or 3x faster than normal, one that clears the entire screen of enemies, temporary invincibility, money bags or treasure that provides additional points used to earn extra lives, and most infamously, wall-meat!
Simon starts the game with a full life meter that will go down if touched by an enemy or enemy projectile. The life meter will go down slower when touched by a weaker enemy like a zombie or water monster, or more rapidly when hit by a big boss or one of their projectiles. Wall-meat is really the only way that Simon can replenish his life meter during the course of completing a stage. These pork chop-appearing power-ups are always hidden inside walls, hence the not so clever colloquial name they have been given. Thankfully, if Simon can make it through an entire level and defeat the end-level boss, his life meter is completely replenished before the next stage begins, but there are also a number of hazards that will instantly kill Simon, regardless of his life meter status. These include falling down chasms, into water, or getting crushed by moving spikes. These instant deaths tend to be the most frustrating aspect of Castlevania, especially when you consider that enemies will cause Simon to fall backwards when hit, often adding insult to injury when his backward momentum causes him to plunge off a platform into the abyss.
Excelling at Castlevania requires near perfect timing & an understanding of which sub-weapons are most effective against the level bosses. The timing aspect comes with practice and memorizing where the enemies will pop up and when to jump. The flying Medusa head sections of the game are the perfect example of when timing and practice are mandatory. Sure, you can probably get through a medusa head section of Castlevania with some luck, but if you want to consistently jump-whip-duck your way through, memorization is an important skill. The second part of the key strategies mentioned, managing your sub-weapon inventory, requires trial & error and a recollection of where the sub-weapons are located in order to avoid accidentally collecting an unwanted implement right before you fight a level boss. Inadvertently switching from your boomerang sub-weapon to a dagger right before you fight the dual-Mummy attack at the end of level 3 could be the difference between game over and advancing.
Castlevania does get many things right. The music is iconic 8-bit symphony. The gameplay is simple and easy to learn, but complex enough to provide players a learning curve to master. The enemies and stages are varied in their layout, presentation and general feel. The further you progress into the castle, the stronger and more relentless the enemies become. The decrepit castle appears to be crumbling around you, giving you the feeling that this is truly Dracula’s last attempt at relevance. The controls are smooth and tight. Jumping takes expert precision and never feels floaty or loose. When you leap, you can more or less predict exactly where you will land; an underrated game mechanism. Simon will never be mistaken for Michael Jordan so leaping over chasms is a control limitation that one has to quickly master unless you like seeing Simon plunge to his death time after time. Additionally, the whip mechanism has a bit of delay to it and is another key gameplay mechanic that players must adjust to off the bat.
Holy Water. Technically, the holy water weapon is called the fire bomb but literally no one ever calls it that, myself included. Holy water is the most versatile weapon you can obtain in the game and its usefulness against a multitude of difficult bosses, such as the Frankenstein monster/Igor, Skele-Dragons, Axe-Men and the Grim Reaper, make it one of those weapons you try very hard to hold onto. What makes it so powerful is its ability to stun enemies, allowing you to then whip them. It essentially enables you to damage enemies using two weapons at once while they are stunned and stationary — a huge advantage for Simon. Additionally, you can toss holy water onto the ground in the paths of enemies and then retreat in order to stay out of the path of their attacks. This can be a very helpful technique against the super strong Axe-Men in level 5. The primary flaw in this strategy is that once you die, you lose your sub-weapon! And you will die in Castlevania…..a lot. If you have no additional opportunity to retrieve your sub-weapon of choice before fighting any of the bosses, you better have a damn good plan B.
There are plenty of extremely difficult stages in Castlevania, as this is considered one of the more notoriously hard NES games, but two stages in particular seem to give me problems time and time again. The first is the 15th stage (3rd section of level 5). It is filled with Axe-Men and flying Medusa heads, so figuring out the timing to avoid the latter while simultaneously battling the tough-as- nails Axe-Men feels like putting out a fire with your saliva. It’s overwhelming to say the least. If you can employ the proper strategy (hint, see my favorite weapon above), you may stand a chance.
The other extremely harrowing stage is 17, the second to last stage in level 6 before fighting Count Dracula. This stage is particularly rage-inducing because you not only have to watch out for Eagles dropping the always annoying Hunchback enemies that leap at you in erratic patterns, you’re also in constant worry about falling to your death. This stage takes place inside a clock tower filled with platforms which anyone familiar to Castlevania knows are simply magnets for your extra lives. Getting through stage 17 intact is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in 8-bit gaming history, considering how close you are to the game’s final battle. It can be particularly disheartening to fall to your death repeatedly and have to start the entire stage over.
Yes, Dracula and his two forms are extremely difficult. There’s no debate there. However, Grim Reaper, the stage 5 boss, is arguably more difficult. Part of his difficulty lies in the gauntlet of the game’s toughest enemies you face just before you reach his lair. There are the unbeatable skeletons, the dragon skulls that shoot fireballs, and Medusa heads floating around you as you face off against the Axe-Men. These Axe-Men, who I’ve mentioned before, can take over a half dozen hits of your strongest whip to defeat.
Once you make it through, you face off against a beast of a boss. Thankfully, there are a couple of strategies you can use that make the battle against the Grim Reaper winnable. You can grab a boomerang in this level which is useful for taking out his sickle attacks while you use your whip on his form, or vice versa. Keep your wits about you and defend yourself against the sickles and Grim Reaper’s presence equally. You cannot lose sight of either or else he will make short and quick work of Simon. The other key strategy involves the use of the holy water and perfect timing but only a YouTube playthrough video can offer this particular technique any justice.