Sunday, June 11, 2017

Castlevania Review

Castlevania is a sidescrolling action platformer developed by Konami. It was originally released on the Famicom in 1986 and later on the NES in 1987. I played the 3DS Virtual Console version for this review. You can also get the game on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console, GBA, and it is one of the 30 games in the NES Classic Edition.

Castlevania was the first game I ever rented. It was this game that made me take notice of Konami. After playing Castlevania, I checked out Contra, Life Force, Blades of Steel, Double Dribble, and Castlevania II. The silver NES became a sort of seal of quality for me. And then I bought Bayou Billy and stopped thinking that.

When I think about Castlevania these days, I don’t think about the classic monster movie theme in the original trilogy, but that’s what stuck out to me as a kid. The title screens in the first 3 games have film sprockets around the edges and the games are full of classic horror movie monsters, such as Frankenstein’s monster, phantom knight armors, and the Mermen, which looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I had not watched the movies those monsters came from at the time, but I was big into Scooby Doo, so I pretty much knew who they all were. The horror movie theme went away after Castlevania III, but the monsters became part of the Castlevania bestiary.

Castlevania is pretty light on story. There is no story text or dialogue in the actual game. The only story is found in the manual and it’s not much. It sounds like the developers had some kind of plan for the series already, though. In the manual, we learn that Castlevania is the name of Dracula’s castle. It also says that “The Count has waited 100 years for a rematch”. Castlevania takes place 100 years after the events in Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge for the Game Boy. The protagonist of that game, Christopher Belmont, is the one who killed Dracula 100 years earlier.

This is a pretty early NES game and sometimes it’s hard to tell what it is they were trying to make, but I think they did a great job creating environments that told a story and fit together in a way that made sense. You start off in the courtyard and make your way into the main hall, which might look familiar, since it has been remade for nearly every Castlevania game. The entrance is on a smaller, lower section of the castle, so you then go up the castle, cross over a bridge, and go into a tower where you can drop down into the catacombs below. These catacombs lead you into the dungeons in the lower part of the main castle. You can then make your way up to Dracula's throne room from there. The castle looks overgrown and in ruins. There are broken statues and cracked walls everywhere. It looks like a war was fought there. A war against a long line of vampire hunters.

The game has 18 stages split up into 6 blocks of 3 and you fight a boss at the end of each block. The bosses are all straight out of old movies and books. There’s a giant bat, Medusa, The Grim Reaper, and of course Dracula. They start off with simple and easy to avoid patterns, but they get a lot more difficult in the second half of the game. I thought the last 2 bosses, The Grim reaper and Dracula, were very difficult. They are not so cheap you can only beat them if you get lucky, though. There are actual strategies you can follow for them. Some of the best strategies revolve around using the sub-weapons.

The Castlevania series is well known for its awesome music and the first game has some great tunes in it. The classic “Vampire Killer” made its debut in this game. Some other great tunes in here include “Wicked Child” and “Stalker”. Not a lot of these songs made it into the other games in the same way “Vampire Killer” did, but the style of the music definitely carried on and you can still hear the influence this game’s soundtrack had in the later games.

The gameplay of Castlevania is the definition of methodical. It’s all about knowing how Simon is going to react before you even press the button. It’s about memorizing the game by playing, dying, and doing better the next time. Your whip attacks aren’t like the instant attacks in other games. Simon actually has to pull back the whip and then attack, so your timing has to be just right. Unlike modern Castlevanias, you can’t control Simon after he jumps, so you need to be sure your spacing is right. And if you get hit by an enemy, you’ll be knocked back, so you really don’t want to get hit right after jumping over a pit.

Your main weapon in the game is the holy whip passed down within the Belmont family, Vampire Killer. You start off with a normal looking whip, which you can upgrade it into a morning star, and then upgrade it again into a morning star with a longer chain. You can get whip upgrades by whipping candles.

Who knew candles were full of so many goodies. You can whip candles and find bags of money, which give you points that will get you a 1up when your score reaches a certain amount. You can get rosaries that kill everything on the screen and potions that make you invincible for a few seconds. There’s also five sub-weapons. The sub-weapons are special items you can use by spending your hearts. There’s a cross boomerang, bottles of holy water, throwing daggers, throwing axes, and a pocket watch that freezes minor enemies for a few seconds. In Castlevania, hearts don’t give you health, they work more like MP or mana in other games and allow you to use your sub-weapons. Hearts also drop from candles. There’s also the double (II) and triple (III) shot upgrades for your sub-weapons. These upgrades allow you to use your sub-weapons (except the pocket watch) 2 or 3 times in rapid succession. Usually, you have to wait until the sub-weapons is gone from the screen to use it again.

There are secrets hidden within the walls of Castlevania. You can whip blocks and walls and find hearts, double and triple shot upgrades, and health refilling pork chops. I know it looks like chicken, but the manual says they’re pork chops, and who am I to argue? It seems like some later Castlevanias forgot about this aspect of the game, which is a shame, because it makes you want to whip every block to see what you can find. Finding secrets like that was part of what made exploring in Castlevania games so much fun.

There is a timer in Castlevania, but you can pretty much ignore it if you want. You get 300, 400, or 500 seconds for each block of 3 stages and you can get extra time added to your starting time depending on how many enemies you kill in the previous block. If you run out of time, you will lose a life, but you probably won’t, unless you put the game down and forget to pause. I don’t know why they bothered with the time or the score. They don't really fit the game. I guess they were just things developers put in games, because they were in a lot of other games back then.

Castlevania isn’t just a relic of a time before there was Metroid if my Vania. This game is a real classic and still a lot of fun to play. I think every fan of the series should play it. Even if you only like the Metroidvanias, it's fun to see how it all began. I thought it was very interesting looking back at this game and seeing how it influenced the later games and even games from other developers.