Review by Mariner
"Fear the Reaper"
The heavy wooden door slams shut behind you, locking you in. Only the flickering candles liberally scattered around the halls light your way. The air is thick with dust, and the floor creaks ominously. Out of the corner of your eye you see a skeleton charge towards you, heaving its own ribs at you in an attempt to bring you down. Your arm swings out; you flick your wrist. Crack! Perfect aim - the whip snaps the skeleton, and now only a pile of decaying bones remain. But there are far more dangerous creatures here, and there are only two ways out of this forbidden castle. The first is through Count Dracula, the vampire demonizing the land. And the other is death. Your heart pounds furiously, but you allow the fear to pass through you. You are Simon Belmont, and there is no room for error in your task.
An odd introduction to a review, perhaps, but Castlevania is best known for its gothic atmosphere and feelings of gloom and dread. The tradition begins here on the NES, a console known more for cheerful platformers and colorful mascots. And it's worth singling out this atmosphere, as it almost single-handedly makes the game great and saves it from its severe gameplay errors.
This idea is exemplified by what I consider to be the best part of the game - the first two minutes. After pressing start, you are greeted to a beautiful picture of the rusted front gates with the spires of the castle silhouetted against the night. Ominous music (yes, still ominous despite horrible NES sound quality!) completes the scene before you enter the courtyard and begin playing. One of the greatest tunes in the history of gaming greets you there. It is upbeat yet reserved, action filled yet suspenseful, and foreboding yet promising. Torches line your walk up to the castle; whip them to receive several upgrades. By now, you're feeling pretty confident. You've suddenly become well equipped and feel ready to take on the world. It's a wonderful introduction, and perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the game.
You enter the castle. The bland color palette of the NES barely mars the overall sight. The curtains are ripped, the plaster is peeling from the walls, and twilight is seen through the windows. Your quest will bring you through equally stunning sewers, outside walkways, and abandoned dungeons. Perhaps more impressive is castle itself. You never feel like you're running through random maps; you feel as if this were all truly inside one building. Perhaps the map in between levels helps with the illusion, but it's darn convincing all the same. Unfortunately, the sprites are not quite up to par. Everything seems blurry and unrecognizable - not uncommon on the NES, but slightly disappointing anyhow. Fortunately, you'll be too busy appreciating the surroundings and the music, not to mention whipping monsters, to notice.
So you move on, easily stepping into the groove of things. Whipping ghosts ain't hard at all. The black panthers might pose some challenge, but they too fall to your might. Bats? Pshaw! Hey, it's all good. The level design is fantastic, and you're now ready to descend to the depths of the sewers. Those fish men don't look too tough, right? So just jump over those pits nice and easi... oops. One of those fish men jumped up, and you quite simply couldn't dodge it, and thus plummeted to your death. You suddenly realize that you have no control over your jumping, and every pit automatically becomes a mortal danger. But you find that your whip is quickly upgraded after your untimely death (although you lost your secondary weapon, sigh...). And with a little more patience, you make it through the sewers. The first level falls to your might. You got the hang of this game, right? It's pretty fun!
Now meet one of the most infamous sections of the entire game. You will soon find yourself above yet another series of pits, but no fish men are here to hurt you this time. Instead, an infinite supply of Medusa heads fly towards you in a sinusoidal pattern. If they hit you, you fall backwards into a pit. If you try to dodge them, you may inadvertently jump into a pit. And if you try to whip them, you could easily miss, get hit, and fall into a pit. Have fun! Oh, don't worry, it's beatable. Frustrating, but beatable. This isn't the least of your problems though. Later on, you'll find similar situations, only with crows flying towards you, and on the final level giant bats. And the first of our design flaws become readily apparent - poor jumping abilities plus falling backwards when hit makes for very treacherous platforming elements.
But that's just one of the hurdles you'll face. Just wait until you meet up with some hunchbacks. They jump all over the place, knocking you out before you have a chance to set up your attack. You better aim carefully, or your health will be gone before you know it. Then watch as albatrosses drop them down on you in your long march to Frankenstein. It's like a nuclear missile defense - you have to hit them before they touch the ground. And like SDI, if one gets through, you're toast. And there's yet another one of these guys at Frankenstein, except that he can't be killed in one hit. And if you survive all that, you'll have to face them over the deadly pits in Dracula's chamber. Or perhaps you prefer crows, who will often fly where none of your attacks can reach it (yet it can still hurt you!). Or how about axe-throwing knights? They're not all that bad themselves, except you often have to walk down a stairwell to get to them. And, while slowly lumbering down these stairs, you have no way of hitting them, while they can wipe you out easily. Honestly, most of the enemies in Castlevania are fair, but these guys are just too cheap.
And then there's Death.
The aptly named boss of level 5 will certainly reap your soul. You must worry about three flying scythes swirling throughout the room as well as the Reaper. Your whip or cross barely dent Death's health, yet each hit on you takes away massive life. And all of this after you make your way through this bloody difficult level. You've got no chance other than pure luck here. Seriously. Making matters worse, the flying scythes stay around after you kill him, so you can still die even after winning (thus forcing you to fight him again). That's the furthest I ever got on this guy - a tradeoff. Despite playing this game forever, I could never beat Death (at least not without cheating). That's just not fair. And although I said it's possible to beat him through sheer luck, that only applies if you have close to full health (requires getting past both the axe-throwing knights and the Medusa heads!) and the triple shot cross.
And the chances of that happening are nil. See, these secondary items are scattered throughout the game. Most are fairly useless actually, but the cross just takes the cake. It single handedly turns Simon into a friggin weapon of mass destruction. Add in the ability to throw three of these, and you're set. The Mummy and Frankenstein will fall to your might in seconds with the triple shot cross. But... you lose it when you die. And although there may be plenty of crosses you can find to gain that weapon back, good luck finding both it and the double/triple shot. It just ain't gonna happen, and you'll find yourself coming to Death woefully unequipped. Sure, you can easily keep them if you don't die (or accidentally pick up a new weapon, which happens far more often than you would think). But you will die, I guarantee it. Likewise, the turkeys that restore your health are also far too rare to be of much use. This is a design flaw, no question about it. If one is to make being fully equipped almost mandatory, one should make it much easier to obtain this requirement.
Despite the fact that you almost certainly didn't beat the game, or at least spent many frustrating and harrowing hours practicing until you did beat it, you still enjoyed it, right? Yes, there are major problems with the gameplay, namely, being frustratingly hard. The awkward jumping doesn't help any, and the game often feels downright cheap. But it's still a classic, and still well loved. The gloomy atmosphere and excellent tunes give the game a life of its own, regardless of its quality. And the fact that the problems don't start to become apparent until later on in the game allows one to enjoy it for the first few levels. It is a triumph of artistry over technical details - the flaws cannot completely turn one off to the game. Despite its problems, it still deserves to be played and deserves its lofty status.
Final Score - 7.6
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/03/01, Updated 01/20/03
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