Review by Algus
"8-bit action-platforming at its finest"
The reason for the Castlevania franchise's longevity is immediately apparent upon playing the first entry in the series. This phenomenal action-platformer combines excellent atmospheric music with excellent level design, spot-on controls and a terrific visual aesthetic. The game provides an excellent difficulty curve that assures even novice players a chance at cracking the early stages of the game while providing a significant challenge to gamers who are able to successfully progress to the final level. While Castlevania is considerably primitive compared to modern action games, it is still easy to see why this game was heralded in its time.
The player takes on the role of Simon Belmont, a vampire hunter out to tackle the imposing fortress of Castlevania and defeat Dracula. Simon brings no more than his trusty whip to deal with Dracula and his host of horror icon minions. Fortunately, however there are weapons aplenty in Castlevania for Simon to augment his skills with. Numerous different sub-weapons such as a dagger, a throwing axe, and even a time-stopper allow the player to tackle enemies in a variety of different ways that manage to keep the game interesting. This system isn't perfect: if Simon picks up a new sub-weapon his old one is gone permanently (unless you are able to find said sub-weapon again) and uses of the sub-weapon are limited by the number of hearts the player is able to correct, with more powerful sub-weapons consuming a greater number of hearts. As a result, you'll likely be using Simon's whip to deal with most of the enemies in the game. Fortunately this is an imposing weapon that slings out quickly, allowing the player with speedy reflexes and good control over the trigger button to deal considerable damage in a short amount of time. The whip can be upgraded as well, and the game is frequently generous in providing these upgrades if you have not collected them yet. Simon can be a little sluggish, particularly when jumping, but by and large his offensive capabilities are considerable and you'll find that this is most welcome as Castlevania is a heavily guarded fortress. Enemies are often relentless and have tenacious movement patterns that will frequently call upon you to kill every enemy in your path rather than attempt to avoid them. Enemies deal increasing amounts of damage as you progress through the stages as well, making it doubly important that you master the different offensive tools you have available. Bosses can be quite challenging, though due to the player's ability to deal damage quickly with the whip, it is possible to quickly defeat them with speedy reflexes.
Game progression occurs over a series of six levels, divided up into several stages. At the end of each level, you'll fight a boss ranging from a relatively easy vampire bat to the frustratingly difficult Dracula. After completing a level, your score will be tallied up and you'll move onto the next area. When defeated in combat, you respawn at the beginning of the stage you died on, meaning that even if you die several times you still have a shot at clearing a level. These stage checkpoints are most welcome considering death can be a frequent occurrence, whether it be from a missed jump or a constant drain on your health from enemies. If you exhaust your supply of lives, and get a game over, you are allowed to continue your game from the last level you were on. Continues cannot be exhausted so as long as you continue to play you won't have to repeat levels you've already beaten. Unfortunately, Castlevania provides no continue or save functions so if you want to beat the entire game, you'll have to go through it in a single sitting (unless you plan to leave your game on while you take a break). Castlevania is not a very long game though, so the prospect of beating it in a single session is not unreasonable, provided you are up to the challenge the game provides.
The early Castlevania games are somewhat notorious for their high difficulty curve and while this reputation is perhaps somewhat justified, the game never seems completely unfair. As mentioned, the deeper you progress into the game, the more damage enemies are able to inflict upon you. This certainly makes things difficult, and ensures that foes like Dracula, who can defeat you quickly and mercilessly, provide for extremely challenging battles. However, the curve is a balanced curve. The initial level is quite easy and even the most novice or unskilled players will find that with a bit of practice they are easily able to clear the first level. From that point on, the game frequently becomes one of memorization: remembering where certain enemies are in an upcoming level, recalling proper timing on jumps in order to avoid enemies that could knock you into an instant death pit, and so on. Essentially the game expects you to fail, but it also expects you to learn from your failures and come back for more. Unfortunately, this means that even a veteran gamer may expect more than their fair share of game over screens.
Aesthetically the game is both pleasant to look at and easy to listen to. The background music is appropriately moody and sets the tone well for the horror inspired action-platforming within. Sound effects are remarkably good as well, from the whoosh of Simon's whip, to the inevitable sound of taking damage. The game provides a good mix of colors, though often more specific detail is absent from enemy sprites. The game also, unfortunately, suffers from the NES's notorious flicker problem when to many things are on the screen at once. Occurrences of the flicker are relatively infrequent, though more noticeable than later games in the franchise. Visually, most enemies are immediately recognizable, though again detail is limited by the NES's relatively primitive graphic capabilities. Bosses, in particular Dracula and the Medusa Head, look quite impressive and while Castlevania was visually surpassed both by later NES games and subsequent titles in the Castlevania franchise, it remains a very good looking NES game, particularly because its darker color palette augments the atmosphere created by the music.
In many ways Castlevania is an extremely simple game: no continue function, easily conquerable in a single play session, and strictly linear stage progression make for a short and simple game. This game has style though and that style is a welcome refreshment from the constant barrage of Mario clones, licensed filler and frequently uninspired platformers that make up a large segment of the NES library. By keeping things simple, and not yet introducing the tedious and often convoluted anime-inspired plots of its successors, Castlevania manages to be a game that is fun to pick up and play and repeatedly challenge until you eventually become skilled enough to beat the entire game. It may not provide the length or depth that a modern game is able to provide, but what it does give is a heck of a lot of fun thus despite the fact that its immediate follow-ups substantially improved upon the formula, the original Castlevania remains a terrific game to play and certainly one of the best action-platformers on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 11/08/10
Game Release: Castlevania (US, 05/31/87)
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