Review by Halron2

Reviewed: 05/31/02 | Updated: 05/19/03

Wooden stakes. Garlic. Sunlight. Add a whip and a triple cross-boomerang to the ways of vampire-slaying.

Castlevania doesn’t really need any introductions. Anyone that has played console games since the NES has most likely faced themselves with the ungrateful task of bringing down Dracula, the universal vampire popstar. Probably not paying a dime of copyrights to Bran Stoker’s family (this guy created Dracula, for those who don’t know), Konami took the character and mixed it with such disparate elements that could and would only be accepted in videogames: a whip-using hero that collects hearts which enable him to use special weapons, of which he can carry only one at a time, invades Dracula’s castle and, to find the evil count and kill him, he must face the vampire’s minions: mummies, zombies, giants bats, the Frankenstein monster and so on. Here, even Death takes orders from this guy.

But actually, it worked pretty well and still does to this day. One of the seminal side-scrollers in gaming history, Castlevania not only introduced one of the longest-running gaming series ever (that appears in most important systems), but also a darker, more serious type of game that was, in a way, the opposite to what games like Mario had to offer. Although the explicit violence and strong images that we see in today’s horror-oriented games were nowhere to be found in Castlevania, the whole feel of the game was so different than everything available at the time, that it was a sure hit. Match that with good gameplay, graphics and music, and you have a classic.

As said above, you play the part of Simon Belmont, vampire-slayer (ages before Buffy came along), who uses a whip to beat enemies up. He faces all kinds of monsters inspired in 30’s to 50’s horror pics (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein and, obviously, Dracula) until he finally meets up with the count himself for the final battle. Pretty standard story given the fact that ‘playing the role’ here means using your weapons to kill as many enemies as possible. For an action game, no more depth was expected at the time and no more was needed.

The setting of the game is what made this game unique at its time. Probably the first game for the NES to bring this B-horror-picture-style along, Castlevania appealed to a really wide audience because it was unique. Also, by using monsters that are part of everyone’s imaginations as enemies, the developers succeeded enormously. Although the whole feel of the game sometimes loses its horror character to a more classic adventurous film (a la Indiana Jones), specially in the music department, the horror elements are dominant and clear for everyone to see, appearing in a B-movie sort of way. They aren’t really scary, but they provide real fun.

The basis of all games, gameplay was also well-explored in Castlevania’s making. The controls are really, really easy, almost instinctive (at least it seems that way now) and have good response. The up+B command for use of special weapons was also a wise decision, making the game’s controls quick to learn. The controls may seem to be quite rigid at first (for instance, you can’t change direction of the jump in mid-air, when you get hit you are thrown back quite a distance – making you fall into those dreadful pits), but after a while, you get accustomed to it. The inclusion of various extra weapons (besides the whip, that is) also adds quite a lot to the gameplay, each working best in a situation, even if the cross-boomerang is generally the best option. Apart from that, you can find a ‘secret’ item that enables you to throw two or three of the specials at one time, maxing out your attack power. Basically this game has the traditional side-scrolling gameplay, but really well-done, really solid and with some features of its own that actually made the game a little harder.

Castlevania actually offers quite some challenge and unexperienced players will have a hard time at first. The long levels and few (and always hidden) healing items added to the game’s challenge, apart from the rigid gameplay. Some of the bosses in this game can give the player a hard time, specially if he doesn’t know the best weapon to use in each case. Anyway, you could always go for the boomerang that you’d be (almost) guaranteed. The game has its deal of challenge, but it wasn’t at all impossible and most players will beat the game after a while.

The graphics in Castlevania are an essential element to build the horror mood of the game. Instead of bright, colored backgrounds, inhabited by cute creatures, you had dark, sinister-looking places in which the adventure took place. The backgrounds were also quite varied and different from each other, giving each level a distinctive feel. The enemies were particularly well-designed and looked menacing and monstrous. Simon’s design also wasn’t bad, although his walking animation was a bit odd (the beginning of a true Castlevania trademark). In general, the graphics define the whole feel and setting of the game, which was one of the its strongest and unique points, no doubt.

The music in the game, however, created another kind of impression. The tone of the music was definitely adventurous and didn’t create a tense mood at all. One of the main elements why the game’s horror-pictures influence didn’t generate a scary or terrorizing game, it is nonetheless one of Castlevania’s strongest points. An excellent work for its time (heck, it’s better than most gaming music we get these days), it introduced classic Castlevania themes, the most well-known being ‘Vampire Killer’, the first stage tune, which would reappear later in many other games of the series. Towards the end of the game, the themes seem to be less memorable, but they retain a certain amount of quality, never becoming boring. Castlevania’s soundtrack is definitely one of the best and most classic in the NES catalogue.

Castlevania is, by all means, a definitive classic and one hell of a side-scroller. The game’s mechanics may be similar to others in the same genre, but the originality in the setting and approach, matched with addictive gameplay and a good deal of difficulty, made this game an instant hit and it’s no wonder it spawned a series that lasts until today and that has a huge number of fans. Back then, it was impossible to own a NES and not have played Castlevania, one of those few case of almost unanimous products.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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