So there is this video game series called “Castlevania.” I’m sure you never heard of it as it’s quite obscure like everything else I cover. In all seriousness though there was a time when Koonami actually made good games and wasn’t obsessed with Pachinko machines and Soccer games. They had many influential and beloved series such as Gradius, Ganbare Goemon, Metal Gear, Contra, Suikoden, and Silent Hill, and not to mention plenty of other cult hits like Shadow of Destiny, Azure Dreams, Zone of the Enders, and other series that I never actually played but will still get weebs riled up by mentioning since no one else knows they exist.
The last time I did a retrospective, it was on Namco’s Splatterhouse series where I reviewed each game individually. I only needed to cover five games so that was more manageable, but the Castlevania series has over 40 of the bastards to cover and I kinda want to do other shit. As a compromise I decided I would start by covering multiple games per article so I don’t need to write a full review for games most of you already have played or know you should play. This does still allow me to touch upon the more obscure and lesser known entries in the series and compare them to the ones everyone likes and mock how inferior they are or make you feel bad about having not played them (mostly the former in this piece).
I will be starting this off with what I have deemed the “Classicvanias.” These games are the linear 2D sidescrolling entries that had an emphasis on strategic action, although I am still going in order of release date so I am giving a bit of leeway with what will be counted. It turns out that there are more of these than you thought there were so I will need to split the Classicvania portion into two articles. Also if it wasn’t obvious, this is my first time playing through all of these games so it may be some time until the second part is posted. But anyway let us begin.
Castlevania/Akumajou Dracula (FDS/NES/Arcade/DOS/C64/Amiga/GBA, 1986)
So one thing I want to get out of the way; ignore every version of this game except the original FDS/NES version (and the GBA version since it’s literally the same). The other ports of the games look and sound awful from what I have researched. The arcade version is the same as the NES version except with artificially increased difficulty via shorter time limits, shorter point values, and increased damage from enemies in an attempt to wring out as many quarters it can. Each of the computer ports looked and sounded awful since ports back then were made from scratch, and it’s pretty much a game of “pick your poison” when it comes to them. The DOS version has the sound effects and audio play on the same sound channel which turns the music into a cacophonous mess, the Commodore 64 version has slightly better music but serious control issues, and the Amiga version has the same control issues along with having the music playing on the wrong stages and zombies that look like little girls.
Anyway the original Japanese title was Akumajou Dracula, a title that I imagine would be accurately translated as “Dracula: The Devil’s Castle” but they can’t mention devils and religious shit because Nintendo of America were censor happy bitches back then… I mean even more than they are now… so it was named Castlevania as a portmanteau of “castle” and “Transylvania.” So there you now know what was up with the name unless I turn out to be completely wrong about that. Anyway the original Castlevania was awesome… what you really need me to tell you why it was again? It’s bad enough that I didn’t get around to playing it until now so you need to quiz me on it to make sure I properly understand the brilliance of it? It’s a good thing I always did well on writing assignments.
One of the most striking factors of the game was just how much detail went into the presentation. You have short intro cutscenes between levels and the backgrounds are immaculately detailed. The scenery and backgrounds are all well crafted and there’s none of those blank black backgrounds that you see in a lot of NES games. The music was used to set atmosphere and was varied in its nature. The first level theme “Vampire Killer” was upbeat and energetic yet the second level theme “Stalker” is more ominous despite containing some of the same melodies. The music of Castlevania was excellent at setting atmosphere despite the lack of any real plot, and that’s always something that deserves major credit.
As for the gameplay, I am sure enough have talked about how well crafted the level design is and how it prevents either kids or idiots from rushing forward without any sort of strategy. You might be able to push your way through the first stage using the Leyroy Jenkins method but don’t expect that to last you too long. However, if you know what you are doing then you can bend this game to your mercy and show your peers how much better you are at games than they are before they laugh at you and go back to Fortnite or whatever it is normies are currently playing. The only complaints I have are some slight control issues in regards to needing to press both the attack AND up button to use subweapons which lead to me getting caught on stairs a lot, and that ONE corridor that is so much harder than everything else in the game. Castlevania 1 gets 5 Holy Waters out of… YES I’M USING RATINGS FOR THIS RETROSPECTIVE WHEN I DON’T USE THEM FOR MY ACTUAL REVIEWS SHUT THE HELL UP I DON’T TELL YOU HOW TO LIVE YOUR LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!
Vampire Killer/Akumajou Dracula (MSX2, 1986)
“Wait a minute, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest wasn’t the second Castlevania game? How can that be? Isn’t that what the title was supposed to signify? Why did the game lie to me?!!!” Assuming that was your reaction… you’re going to be pissed when you hear that Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is a thing. But yes, there was another game in the series before Simon’s Quest that was only released in Japan and Europe. Granted said confusion would be justified since in Japan, it has the same title as Castlevania 1 and in Europe it doesn’t even have “Castlevania” in the title. It was actually the first game in the series to be released in Europe since the original Castlevania wasn’t released in Europe until 1988. Don’t celebrate your victory too quickly though because Vampire Killer… kinda sucks.
In concept the game could have worked. It uses the same graphics and setting as the first game, but it has a more nonlinear approach to its levels. Instead of functioning as linear levels, each stage serves as sort of a mini Metroidvania where you find keys to open doors and chests and collect items by farming hearts. For those of you that were saying how Simon’s Quest was nothing like the first game, little did you know that it wasn’t the NES game they used as a basis. You also didn’t know that Simon’s Quest was a significant improvement over it. You think losing all your hearts upon a game over is bad? Try losing them upon EVERY DEATH. You think that long ass password system was tedious? Try having three lives and NO CONTINUES!!!
Those are not the only problems with Vampire Killer either. The music is slowed down and sounds way off compared to the the original Castlevania and this type of game does NOT control well with a Keyboard. Oh wait, the MSX2 has a controller… but i couldn’t get my emulator to sync with my PS3 controller… oh what did you honestly think i was playing this on a real MSX2? Do you think I have that kinda money? I have so many things I could better use that money on, like gender reassignment surgery, or a time machine that I can use to give Donald Trump’s dad a condom. Anyway Vampire Killer gets 2 vials of holy water out of 5.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest/Dracula II: Noroi no Fuuin (FDS/NES, 1987)
We’ve all seen the AVGN episode by now. We know there are problems with this game, some of us just have a greater tolerance for said problems than others. I actually quite enjoyed Simon’s Quest despite its issues, but I do recognize the flaws present. The Japanese title of the game is Dracula II: The Seal of the Curse, which indicates that the Japanese name of the series was intended to be simply “Dracula” and that the “Akumajou” part was intended as the subtitle. Does that technically make this series based off Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel? Apparently Bloodlines had some connections with said novel so it could be a possibility.
Either way, a major difference between the two versions is the music. The BGM sounded identical in the Famicom Disk System and NES versions of the first game, but the FDS version had higher quality instrumention than the NES game. Unlike Castlevania III unfortunately, the Japanese OST for Simon’s Quest sounds piercing and grating. The NES OST I have already established was fantastic and very high quality, and it introduced Bloody Tears as well (and from the games I’ve played in the series, which only includes the games featured in this piece and the first two Lords of Shadow games, it has the best rendition). There was an ambitious attempt with Simon’s Quest to expand upon the nonlinear gameplay of Vampire Killer that set the foundation for the Metroidvania subgenre that would later be perfected with Symphony of the Night… at least from what I heard.
To really enjoy Simon’s Quest, one needs to remember that it is an RPG first and an action game second. It tried to combine both of them and it… kinda worked… but kinda didn’t. There were not many of this type of game around at the time and it was a highly innovative title. Granted Zelda II came out slightly before and did the concept infinitely better with more fluid movement and less forced grinding and backtracking, but Simon’s Quest does have its strong points. A lot of people hated heart grinding but most RPGs at the time were grindy and you could practically get your hearts maxed out within about 10 minutes. The ability to visit the mansions in any order you feel like was pretty cool as well. But most of all I just liked the atmosphere of the game and the exploration, and I didn’t mind the backtracking due to having dealt with far worse from games released far later.
But one still can’t forget about the several flaws present with the game mostly in part due to the game’s abysmal localization. The cryptic nature of the game will likely be off putting to a lot of potential players and if one is looking for a fast or fluid game then SImon’s Quest likely isn’t going to cut it. Simon’s Quest gets 3 and half holy waters out of five.
Haunted Castle/Akumajou Dracula (Arcade, 1988)
And here is another game in the series that you didn’t know existed. Similarly to Vampire Killer, it did not have Castlevania in the title in its US release. A likely theory is that it was to avoid confusion with Vs Castlevania, as well as the fact that two of the three entries in the series thus far were non linear so it was given a different title. The game was billed as a remake of the original Castlevania which is why the Japanese title is the same as Casltevania 1 and Vampire Killer. The Japanese title scheme for this series has been a mess. Another thing that this game has in common with Vampire Killer is that this game was good in concept but designed horribly.
Gameplay wise, Haunted Castle has more in common with Altered Beast or Splatterhouse than any of the previous games. You have a much bigger sprite and gameplay is based around memorizing enemy and obstacle locations. The difference between this and Castlevania 1 is that you have far less room on screen and enemies do a fuck ton more damage. The problem is that the difficulty is absurdly high. For those that thought Castlevania III was the hardest game in the series, you were off by quite a bit. Haunted Castle is not only the hardest game in the series, it is the hardest game I EVER played; yes, even more so than Attacking Zegeta. It took days for me to even see past the first level of this game, and I didn’t even manage to beat the second one.
The problem is that A: the game is designed with a shit ton of untelegraphed instant death trap, B: Most enemies will take off half your health bar if they so much as touch you, and C: You have limited continues. You only get four lives to play through the entire game. Oh but you can also increase the size of your health bar by combining your four credits together… but that also means you get NO extra lives. The only strategy in Haunted Castle is to memorize every level layout and know what you need to do to avoid getting hit.
The only good things about this game are the music and graphics, and even then that’s stretching things a bit since there is a catch with both of them. The graphics look nice artistically but I know for sure that Arcades could have done quite better. Both Splatterhouse and Altered Beast were released the same year and the graphical AND sound quality of both games were immensely superior to Haunted Castle. Music wise, there are some badass tracks such as the first level theme “Cross Your Heart,” but the arrangement are piercing and loud and it has an even worse rendition of “Bloody Tears” than the Famicom Disk System version. Haunted Castle gets 1 and half holy waters.
Castlevania: The Adventure/Dracula Densetsu (Gameboy, 1989)
I really hope that this is the worst game in the series, because otherwise I am screwed. Castlevania: The Adventure is flat out terrible. While Vampire Killer and Haunted Castle could have been fun with a few tweaks, Castlevania: The Adventure was dead on arrival. To scrounge for positives with this game, I can point out that the music is awesome and that the graphics are pretty cool when they remember to include backgrounds. Other than that, this game is a fucking mess.
Castlevania: The Adventure is an attempt to be Castlevania 1 “on the go” like many gameboy installments in their respective series. While games like Super Mario Land, Metroid 2: Return of Samus, and Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge were among the weaker entries in their respective series, they were at least remotely competent games in their own right. Castlevania: The Adventure is flat out unplayable and I got next to no enjoyment out of it. Due to it being on the Gameboy, there are no subweapons and only four levels, but those do not come even close to being the worst problems with this game.
The real killing blow dealt to this game would actually be how unbearably slow your character moves and just how much lag there is in conjunction with the atrocious level design. I ragequit halfway through the game once it insisted on making an entire stage where a spiked wall chases you and you need to have the timing for all the jumps down to the millisecond… in a fucking Castlevania game! Your character already moves painfully slow, but having to redo the last five minutes of gameplay because a slight delay 4 screens ago didn’t let you make the final jump and needing to start at the beginning of this level again with only three lives makes for a tedious experience typically reserved for Steam Greenlight indie trash. Castlevania: The Adventure get’s half a bottle of holy water out of five, and that half is only cause of the music.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse/Akumajou Densetsu (NES, 1989)
Just to get one thing out of the way, PLAY THE FAMICOM VERSION!!! There are many noteworthy advantages to the original Japanese version of the game over the US version. The most obvious is the music is of much higher quality AND is arranged much better than the NES soundtrack. Given that the NES has less sound channels, the localization team did the best they could arranging the tracks to fit NES hardware… but the original is still hella superior. The NES version of the game also had many methods of artificially increasing the difficulty such as changing it so that damage dealt is based on the stage rather than the enemies, making bats spawn in more annoying areas, making Alucard’s bat transformation drain hearts a lot quicker, and replacing Grants standard attack. If there was one thing that Dracula’s Curse did NOT need any more of, it is infuriating mechanics. The only disadvantage to using a fan translation is that the one I used called the player character Ralph instead of Trevor, and that just makes me picture the fat guy from The Honeymooners wielding a whip and fighting vampires.
Anyway, the advantages to Dracula’s Curse include its presentation and the amount of variety in gameplay mechanics and levels. The music is fantastic of course, but the graphics are also very finely detailed even more so than the previous games. You also get three other characters to play as, all of whom have their own advantages and that you can swap in and out with Trevor at will. It is impressive that all the stages were meticulously balanced to have multiple play styles taken into account. Depending on which partner you use and what subweapons you have equipped there are ways to totally break the levels and bosses. The catch is that this is only if you know how.
The downside to this game is its absurd difficulty level and lack of checkpoints. While it is nowhere near as frustrating as Haunted Castle, I did eventually just get tired of all the repetition and used save states. Unlike Haunted Castle or Castlevania: The Adventure though, I likely still would have finished the game if I had no option for save states because of just how good this game is otherwise. The difficulty is the only thing keeping this from getting a perfect five but it still comes highly recommended.
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge/Dracula Densetsu II (Gameboy, 1991)
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is what Castlevania: The Adventure SHOULD have been. The game is still a bit simplistic and easy compared to Castlevanias 1 and 3, but it also is a much more fluid experience and is actually fun to play. There are only 7 stages similarly to the first Castlevania game, but of note is that you can play the first four stages in any order you wish since Koonami forget they weren’t the developers of Mega Man. A mechanic where your whip fires projectiles while at full health carries over from The Adventure, which was one of the few decent ideas that game had. Unlike Castlevania: The Adventure however, you also have subweapons… but no double or triple shots. Can’t win em all I suppose.
Anyway the levels are below the usual threshold of difficulty of the series yet aren’t too easy. There’s enough challenge that you will need to pay attention and strategize. Also of note is that the graphics are very finely detailed for a GB title even if there are still some areas with no backgrounds. The music and sound effects are quite good as well. There is a nice atmospheric effect where the music changes in the area leading up to the boss. Also you don’t need to start the entire level over from the beginning if you get a game over and only need to go back to the halfway point, which greatly cuts down on a lot of the repetition.
The main downside of Belmont’s Revenge is that it is more simplistic than most entries in the series, but it really is a major improvement over The Adventure. It still comes recommended despite not being particularly original or unique.
Super Castlevania IV/Akumajou Dracula (SNES, 1991)
And here it is. The second most worshiped game in the series after Symphony of the Night. The one everyone loves. The one that cured cancer, ended world hunger, and threw a shoe at George W Bush. Okay it didn’t do those first two things but I do know it did the latter and got some other guy blamed for it. But anyway does this game deserve all the praise it gets as one of the best games in the series… yeah, pretty much.
Presentation was definitely this game’s strong point. It was one of those titles in the first few years the SNES was out that really tried to show off what the system was capable of. Of course, this meant that Koonami tried to remake Castlevania 1 again and gave it the same title in Japan, which means that four of the eight games featured in this article share the same Japanese title. It also means there are no additional playable characters but the game more than makes up for it. The graphics and music are amazing and there are so many creative levels and mechanics present.
I do seriously need to ask why later entries did not have the option to whip in all eight directions? I get that it’s more to animate, program, and to design levels around but they’ve shown that it can be done here. I have heard some claim that Super Castlevania IV was the easiest Castlevania game, but I have to disagree with that assessment considering that both Simon’s Quest and Belmont’s Revenge exist and that some of the later levels in this game got close to Castlevania III Tier difficulty. The plus side is that a lot less of this will be the player’s fault due to improved controls mapping subweapon to the R button as opposed to needing to press up and B thus preventing the cheap deaths caused by attempts to use subweapons on or near stairs.
I’m not quite sure what to say about Super Castlevania IV that hasn’t already been said. Everything about it is superb and the only negative is that it’s going to be difficult for the subsequent games to top this. Well anyway, Super Castlevania IV gets five bottles of holy water out of five, and I will see you in the next part after I played the remaining Classicvanias.
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