Top 100 Retro Games: Castlevania
Nintendo Entertainment System
I did not play Castlevania until some time after Simon’s Quest came out. I know a lot of people today have noted they had a hard time finding Castlevania II, but in my area the opposite was true: We were able to get Simon’s Quest fairly easily, but the first Castlevania was the game that was hard to come by. Eventually, one of the kind of sketchy kiosks in our county mall, run by a Comic Book Guy kind of dude, got some copies. I think I was the first person in my neighborhood to acquire the game.
This is a hard game, one of the hardest in the series, but a lot of the scaffolding of the series is here in this game. It is done much better in other games on the NES like Dracula’s Curse, and then taken to another level in Super Castlevania and Rondo of Blood, but Castlevania stands on its own as a classic game and one of the best in its genre.
So, the plot of Castlevania goes something like this: Simon Belmont is the descendant of a vampire hunter and must defeat Dracula exactly 100 beautifully rounded off Birdemic style years after his last appearance. It’s all just kind of there right away, isn’t it?
The game did come out a bit before Nintendo Power, but the only mention of Castlevania in any issue of Nintendo Power is actually in issue #1 in the Counselor’s Corner and it’s a bit of an odd question. Someone, uh huh, asks “no matter how many times I try, I can’t seem to beat the five boss characters. Can you give me some pointers?”
Wait, what? How could you need help with Dracula if you can’t beat Medusa or the mummies? I get that this is an amalgamation of likely tons of calls to the hot line, but it’s worded in a way that makes no sense if you think about it for a moment. There are also a few terrible typos.
As a kid I thought a lot of how Nintendo Power’s claim that a boomerang to the head, while they show Simon whipping him, would “cool his jets.” Huh?
The cover art for Castlevania is one of the best game covers ever. Simon, whip raging, faces down Dracula’s castle while the vampire’s image hovers in the back. When I bought my house earlier this year, one of the things I bought for it was a huge poster of the Japanese version of the cover. It is right above one of the televisions in my game room.
The Castlevania soundtrack lays the ground work for some songs that will be used over and over in the series, but has some exclusives that, as far as I know, have not been reused. The vibe is perfect.
Castlevania has been reissued a few times over the years, but I am surprised that it has not been more often. The game was reissued on the Gameboy Advance. It is also on the NES Classic and a number of Virtual Consoles. I replayed the game via the Anniversary Collection on my Steam Deck.
In 1993 Castlevania was reissued in Japan. It looks like there weren’t many changes, but an easy mode was added. If you play the Japanese version on the Anniversary Collection, this version is what is on it. This is a game that gets harder and harder as it goes, so that was very useful for purposes of replaying the game for this project. Adding all the Japanese versions to that collection was such a good idea.
I replayed Castlevania via the Anniversary Collection that came out a few years ago. I own this collection on a bunch of systems because it is constantly on sale for under $5, and I appreciate having easy access to these games.
For the record, this replay was on my Steam Deck, a system I have become very fond of recently. I played the Japanese version of the game from the 1993 reissue on easy mode, so I could work through the game at a slow pace. About around the middle of this game, the difficulty definitely increases a lot and even on easy mode there are some tricky parts near the end.
The first thing that really stands out to me about Castlevania is how so many aspects of the series are already here, and some things that would become major parts of other games in the series. Much as Simon’s Quest feels like a demo version of Symphony of the Night, Castlevania also previews the need in Simon’s Quest to find different places to kneel to open up secrets.
In this game, kneeling offers bonuses which can eventually add up to extra lives. In the old days, I can remember spending a lot of time in different levels trying to find those platforms and sharing these secrets with others. This became a bigger part of Castlevania II and then was mostly dropped from the series.
Wall meat, delicious life sustaining wall meat, is already here too. Again, what a great idea to offer health bonuses to careful players who sought out such things. Given the difficulty of some parts of this game, they are helpful and memorizing where they are, or becoming able to spot where wall meat likely will be, is essential to success with the game. I had all the locations written down in a notebook, and I am sure I was not the only one.
Something I really like and appreciate about Castlevania is the generous time amount given for each stage. When we covered Super Mario World a few years ago, I spoke of finishing a number of levels with seconds to spare. In this game, you can be patient, move slowly, essential in some stages, and really pace yourself without much worry about the ticking clock. The older I get, the more I really resent games that have timers.
This gets perfected in later games like Symphony of the Night, but I love how backgrounds are used in this game. The shot of Dracula’s castle in the background of early stages as you march towards the first boss is one of the most iconic images in video game history. It really gets you hyped up for what is to come. I am also very fond of seeing castles in the distance in games and wondering what they will have in store for me. Newer games like Dragons Dogma and Skyrim have done this very well.
The first handful of stages in this game are pretty straightforward, but around stage 10 is when the difficulty is amped up. The march to Frankenstein’s monster is a tough one. You need the watch to freeze enemies in the part of the stage where you are jumping across different rafts. You then dodge flea men and if you can survive that you get to the monster, which is a battle, like the one with the Grim Reaper later on, that can be beaten quick if you get a jump on them, or it ends up being of a slog.
Speaking of the watch, that and the boomerang are super overpowered in this game. You can make a lot of progress if you acquire, and then hold on, don’t jump into candles folks, the watch. What a quality of life upgrade it is in Rondo of Blood and other games in the series moving forward.