Review by UltimaterializerX
"You can't go wrong with awesome retro gaming! One of the best series ever began right here."
Castlevania's original title was a fairly big deal when it first hit shelves. There was little if anything else out there that was quite like it, and the Castlevania series would eventually go on to become one of gaming's finest niches as a result of the initial popularity of the first game. There aren't a whole lot of gamers out there that don't know the name "Castlevania", although the series will never reach the star power of a Zelda or a Final Fantasy.
And why would Konami decide to make Castlevania a full-on series after just one game? Because the first title kicked ass, that's why.
Everyone knows the story of Dracula. Beginning with Bram Stoker's 1897 novel and continuing all through present-day storytelling, Dracula has become the most famous vampiric character of all time. He's been in many stories (almost all of which portray him as a villain, though he has his moments where God grants him forgiveness and honor) and has generally always played the same role --- Dracula is the most powerful vampire known to mankind, and he seeks vengeance and death upon the living.
Many heroes have come forth to battle Dracula and end the vampiric threats to mankind. In the Castlevania series, this honor goes to the Belmont Clan --- specifically, one Simon Belmont. With your trusty whip and an arsenal of special attacks that are all specifically designed to combat the vampiric forces of evil, you alone stand before Dracula's desires to rule mankind's world as we know it. To do so, you'll infiltrate Dracula's stronghold of Castlevania (a spoof off of the name Transylvania, a city that not only actually exists in Romania, but a place that plays a huge role in many stories featuring Dracula) and play one-man army until you either defeat the forces of evil or die trying.
Your main weapon will be a whip that you'll only be able to swing straight ahead. Early on your whip will be very weak, but destroying various parts of the environment will allow you to upgrade the whip twice. You'll go back to the default whip if you die, but you'll be able to upgrade it fairly quickly regardless of what part of the game you die in. Most normal enemies will go down with one hit from the level 3 whip, though the tougher enemies and bosses will obviously take some effort to bring down.
Simon will also have various special weapons at his leisure, which are found either by destroying various parts of the environment such as candelabras, or dropped by enemies themselves. Your whip doesn't have a ton of range, but this is rectified by your special weapons. Throughout the game, Simon will be able to launch axes, daggers, boomerangs, and various other vampire-killing weapons at his leisure. It's also not unheard of to stop time or to lay waste to every enemy on the screen all at once. The catch is that Simon doesn't know how to carry more than one special weapon at the same time, so you'll have to choose wisely when you come across more than one.
For the most part, the enemies in the game aren't too difficult to kill. If by chance you play this game after some of the more recent Castlevania installments, you'll know how to tackle most of them as soon as they pop up on the screen. The enemies get more difficult and annoying as you progress through the game, but that's how platformers are supposed to work. Don't be too surprised however if you play this game after Symphony of the Night or Dawn of Sorrow and get your ass handed to you by Medusa Heads or Axe Knights. Certain enemies that were difficult in the early days of Castlevania were greatly toned down, and you'll see why when you try to jump over a pit or climb a staircase in the vicinity of Medusa Heads. Prepare for hell.
The level design, or lack thereof in the case of the first Castlevania, is wholly linear. There is virtually never an alternative path to take, and the first game in the Castlevania series is absolutely nothing like the "Metroidvania"-style games that the Castlevania fans of today have come to know and love. From the very beginning of the game until the very end, you'll literally be on a singular path through the entire game. This isn't to say that the level design makes the game bad (Ninja Gaiden will attest that a game can be just fine with this type of level design in it), but don't expect anything dramatic or overly difficult on your quest to slay Dracula.
This actually gets offset somewhat by the excellent soundtrack and graphics (for its time, anyway) in the game. Castlevania does an excellent job of putting you in the game; most of the settings are done very well, and most of the music tracks fit the theme of the game perfectly. There are a few black sheep here and there, such as one of the later levels being white and the music for the final boss being horrendous, but overall the soundtrack and graphics are well-done.
The only major issues in Castlevania come from the gameplay itself. A lot can be forgiven given how old the game is, but there are a lot of flaws that have caused Castlevania to age horribly since its release. If you jump, don't even think about not giving it your all. Simon will finish his jump in full, regardless of whether or you left, right, or straight up. He can't move in midair.
Speaking of jumping, don't even think about trying to jump while on stairs. The world of Castlevania considers that cheating, regardless of how badly you want to avoid those enemies that are bent on tearing out your limbs. They just love when you try to climb stairs.
Don't get too attached to your weapons, because you lose them all and go back to your basic whip if you die. The game doesn't even give you a break by waiting until you're out of lives before pulling this one on you, either. Every death means losing it all. And if you go up one floor, the floor below you will no longer exist; magically, all pits on the current floor will have no bottom.
Granted the gameplay isn't all bad --- it's actually pretty damn fun if you can see past all of the little annoyances and glitches --- but said annoyances are what prevents Castlevania from being one of the more elite titles on the NES. It's fairly influential in its own right (Ninja Gaiden was essentially a Castlevania ripoff, right down to many of the aforementioned glitches being in the game), but you'll almost never hear Castlevania mentioned in the same breath with such games as Super Mario Brothers when it comes to influential titles on the NES. Too many things hold it back.
Though with this said, Castlevania would eventually go on to be an excellent series, with Konami deeming many features from the original as being worthy of standing the test of time. After all these years, your magic points are still charged by breaking things and getting hearts. After all these years, you'll still get healed to full health after killing a boss via stealing the energy from its soul. We're still fighting the same enemies and are loving every second of it. We're still using the same special weapons, and never get tired of throwing an axe up two floors to kill some weak enemy that we could easily dispatch face to face. After all these years, the Belmonts are still kicking ass and taking no prisoners.
And after all these years, Dracula's favorite attack is to hold open his cloak and launch three fireballs --- and we're still too stupid to not get our asses whipped before figuring out how to avoid them. Long live Castlevania!
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 07/24/06, Updated 09/29/10
Game Release: Castlevania (US, May 1987)
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