Castlevania Retrospective : Classicvanias

It’s Halloween and time to revisit one of my favourite game series.  Nothing reminds me more of Halloween than Castlevania.  It evokes a time when Konami crafted extraordinary titles.  There’s an incredible number of these titles so it’s impossible to cover them all in one article.  I’ve chosen to focus on what I term as the ‘Classicvanias’ focusing on the NES and SNES era. These are the 2D sidescrolling entries that had an emphasis on arcade action. So sit back, relax and enjoy this spooky retrospective on some of the best games to ever grace the 8 bit era.

Castlevania : AKUMAJOU DRACULA 

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This was released on several systems, such as MS-DOS and even the humble Commodore 64.  The only version you need to play however is the NES version.  The other ports generally look and sound awful.  There is an arcade version but it features an artificial difficulty due to lowering the time limits present in the NES version and increased the damage enemies can inflict.

The original Japanese title – Akumajou Dracula translates as the Dracula : The Devils Castle.  The title was changed as Nintendo was concerned that various religious groups may misinterpret this and become outraged.  The new title was coined as a mix of ‘Castle’, where the main action takes place and ‘vania’ as a reference to Dracula’s home of Transylvania. The first in the series was an powerfully evocative gaming experience.  There was an incredible detail which went into the presentation.  The scenery and the backgrounds were all immaculately crafted. Most NES titles of the era featured rather empty and monochrome backgrounds.  Castlevania brought a sense of progressing through a terrifying castle from it’s dining room to the crypts. Each stage was memorable and captivated the player from the moment Simon Belmont walked through the rusting iron gates.

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The music was also used to set the atmosphere, who can forget the famous ‘Vampire Killer’ riff which was upbeat and energetic and ‘Stalker’ which featured in the second level was conversely more ominous in nature.  There was no real progressive plot to the story of the game but the music presented a combined narrative along with the background graphics.

The level design projects a form of strategic gameplay.  You would be advised not to rush forward, I have been able to rush through the first level of the game.  However once you encounter the flying enemies in the form of the Medusa heads and jumping hunchbacks you will be forced to develop different strategies while dealing with them.

The boss encounters are modelled after famous Universal horror films with a dash of Hammer Horror sprinkled in as well.  Enemies include a giant flying bat, twin mummies and Frankenstein’s monster.  It’s thrilling to face off against these star of the creepy silver screen and of course at the end of the game you must defeat Dracula.

This is a fun title but does have issues with it’s control system, it’s far to easy to become caught by enemies while going up stairs.  It can also be awkward attempting to fire your secondary weapons at moments. Nevertheless I highly recommend revisiting this title in the series.  It still has the power to hook you.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

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This is one of the most interesting sequels in the history of game franchises.  It attempts to do something completely different to the original title.  Blending RPG elements with the familiar side scrolling arcade action from the previous title.  This instalment is universally recognised as having some serious issues.  One of the standout moments that this title produced for the franchise is the introduction of the now classic ‘Bloody Tears’ soundtrack.  This title also set a foundation for the Metroidvania elements which occurred much later in the series history.

To really enjoy Simon’s Quest you must remember that this is an RPG first and an action game second. Some elements of this combination worked and others didn’t .  This design choice was a form of innovation at the time and it was a highly innovative title. Nintendo aficionados might argue that Zelda II predated this title and was superior in this sense.  It contained more fluid movement and less unnecessary grinding but Simon’s Quest does have some strong points.

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There was a progressive day / night cycle, which although it had the tendency to annoy was also innovative.  Townspeople disappeared into their homes at night and enemies in the action sections became much stronger. You could choose which mansion to visit and in which order in your quest to capture Dracula’s bones. The off putting nature of the cryptic clues and the confusion which ensued (if you didn’t have the issue of Nintendo Power dedicated to this game open) has given this fairly enjoyable game a bad reputation.

Castlevania III : Dracula’s Curse

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This is the pinnacle of the 8-bit titles in the series.  Featuring an increased amount of presentation.  We actually have a plot narrative displayed in the form of an introduction this time.  There’s an evocative opening scene which features our hero kneeling before a cross before casting off his cloak as lighting flashes and readying his whip.  This was jaw dropping at the time and really set the tone of the game.

The music has been improved and the graphics feature even more detail than the previous two titles.  This was a game which pushed the NES to the limits of it’s hardware and really drew the player in with it’s heavy atmosphere.  You knew as you travelled through the castle that this was the fight to end all fights.

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There was also the innovative approach of allowing the player to choose between various characters. When discovered, you can swap between them at will.  Each character has their own particular strengths.  The stages were also designed to be played through multiple times with different characters.  My favourite has to be Alucard, Dracula’s son who has the ability to fly and can discover hidden areas barred from the other characters.  There’s also the ability for the player to choose their path through the castle at the end of each stage.  This dramatically increased replayability and shows forward thinking game design.  This is a game to be enjoyed by fans time and time again.

Hopefully you enjoyed this trip down memory lane at one of the best spooky game series of the 8-bit era.  If you haven’t tried any of these titles, please check them out.  They are fairly easy to find and really worth a playthrough.

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