Review by Captain Steel

"Castlevania = Good times."

Castlevania is doubtless one of the most successful franchises in electronic gaming history. With three games on the original NES, three on Gameboy, two on SNES, one on Genesis, two on N64, two on the original Playstation, and three unique titles released on Gameboy Advance in merely the last year and a half... not to mention a PS2 Castlevania slated for this upcoming November (2003), it may be enlightening to trace this series back to its primogenitor - the original Castlevania on the NES!

Though the series has undergone numerous facelifts and upgrades as technology and gaming tastes have evolved, the original 8-bit Castlevania honestly is the essence of the series boiled down to its truest nature - pure unadulterated action. In fact, it could be said that the gameplay contained within the NES's introductory Castlevania is the source for most of what we expect from action games today. It is, in a way, the prototype for most modern action titles. True, that is a big claim to make for such a little game. (Castlevania only sports 6 not-particularly long stages) However, when the gameplay is analyzed it is discovered that this may actually be the case. This is a game of distinct historical significance and is held in a somewhat mythic regard. And deservedly so, despite the fact that it is, without question, not with out its flaws.

Castlevania, as I said before, is a short game, comprised of six stages, neither complex, nor particularly challenging, though in defense of them each one's design is quite unique from the others, at least to an extent that the game is saved from being overly repetitive. (Of course, a bit of repetition can be forgiven, after all is that not what lies at the core of the action game?) The game's challenge is mainly derived from the bosses in the second half on the game, which as many know, are infamously difficult to conquer. Addmittedly it took me upwards of 10 years to finally figure out how to best the Grim Reaper boss. (Of course my playing could be AT BEST described as intermittent - in fact only recently did I start attempting to complete Castlevania again... and take down said Grim Reaper boss.)

Though most video game aficionados know well the story of Castlevania, here it is: You take on the role of the mighty Simon Belmont, wielder of the vampire hunter's whip. Count Dracula's darkness is creeping across the country side of eastern Europe and all of Transylvania has fallen under his dark spell. The undead stalk the night, and everyone waits in terror as Dracula's empire prepares to deal its final blow to humanity and plunge the world into eternal darkness. ''Ah...the chiiiiildren of the night! Mwa ah ah!'' A hero, the great Simon, must enter the dark crypts of Dracula's sinister abode -the terrifying CASTLEVANIA- and confront the Count himself in a duel to the death.

I'm sorry but Simon WAS the mightiest Belmont, despite the somewhat mundane name. Just take a look at all these Baldwins and Cruzes and Graves of today - the supposed descendents of the Belmont bloodline. Give me a break. Sure I love the games but just look at these guys. Simon was no pansy-looking effeminate-gothic-anime-pretty boy that you see displayed on the cover art of today's Castlevanias. Simon was a man's man. A HE-MAN if you will. He looks like he stepped right out of a cast call for Master of the Universe. Anyway...

Castlvania when viewed out of context is a fun, challenging little game which surprisingly few have successfully completed. However, when viewed in context it is revealed to be the great mold for action games that it is. Lets examine it.

GRAPHICS -8- The graphics in the original Castlevania are surprisingly good. They were naturally superior to that of the games of it's time. However, the best part is that they still don't feel all that dated when viewed today. I mean, sure, they're only 8-bit so you can't expect all that much, but seriously, they're really good graphics for the limitations of the NES. Castlevania boasts some of the best graphics ever seen on the original Nintendo system, and it was one of its first third party license games! The backgrounds are detailed, and appropriately gothic-looking, all without being overly drab and muddled. Excellent use of color employed by those Konami programmers. The sprites are crystal clear. The skeletons, bats, Axe-Armors, skele-dragons, and of course the infuriating medusa heads are all there and look great. The bosses are simple in appearance, but are large and still manage to intimidate. (This is probably more due to the fact that they are so durned tough rather than because of their spooky looks). There are even a few visual effects here and there like the flash of holy light when Simon seizes the cross power-up. Simon is kind of mustard colored and faceless, but is fairly well animated. He did look better in later Castlevania games but we'll just let this one slide.

SOUND -10- Oh yeah. Castlevania still sounds great today. I mean seriously, I hear that they sell remixed soundtracks of this stuff. The Vampire Killer song (the level one track) is a video game music classic right up there with the overworld theme from the original Zelda (And several subsequent Zeldas, just to be fair). Every level in Castlevania has its own unique music, and every track is memorable and catchy. Very bassy and funky, and totally capturing the whole ''Ah.. the chiiiildren of the night!'' atmosphere of the Dracula theme. (Especially Vampire Killer). Each level's theme perfectly reflects the surroundings. The parapets of level 3 have a fast and desperate sound to the accompanying melody, where the dungeon is right-on with it's ominous tone. As a child, one of my friends always said that it looked like the skeletons in the level 5 laboratory were dancing the boogie along with the funkified sound track. The sound effects are also superb. The sound of the holy water smiting the ground doesn't exactly sound like glass shattering but it sure is distinctive. I don't know, but I bet you'll like it. There is a spooky effect for you're initial entry into the castle which later sounds again when you finally cross the threshold into Dracula's secluded tower. And of course there is the sound effect of when Simon grabs that cross and snuffs out every enemy on the screen. Good stuff, folks. I kid you not.

GAMEPLAY -7- A bit of a mixed bag here. First I will briefly explain the basics of the gameplay itself, then I will point out the flaws, (which aggravatingly enough went on to curse several follow up Castlevania titles). Following I will go on to discuss the good points, along with why the original Castlevania's gameplay was groundbreaking.

You control Simon who's primary weapon is the (now) legendary vampire hunter's whip, which certainly seems an unlikely weapon. It makes Castlevania pretty unique, though. I can't really think of too many games where you use a whip. You can gain power-ups that improve your main weapon by whipping candles and even sometimes by dispatching enemies. The first time you pick up a power-up it turns the whip into a morningstar, increasing it's damage, and the second time it increases the length, making it a far more effective weapon. In addition to the whip, Simon can collect ''sub-weapons''. These include the dagger, axe, stop-watch, holy water, and boomerang. By pressing up and attack on the control pad you can unleash one of these useful items. The sub-weapons are powered by hearts. (The hearts you collect in Castlevania function a bit like your magic points as opposed to giving you health. To regain health, you need to find meat.) The sub-weapon you are using determines how many hearts are expended per use. Hearts appear when you whip candles and destroy enemies. You can also collect the ''II'' and ''III'' marks which are double and triple shots. These will allow you to have up to 2 and 3 sub-weapons flying on the screen at once. Much more useful than it sounds, trust me. There are also money bags and treasures to obtain, and those give you points which can add up to an extra-life. The game design is simple. You progress through each strictly linear stage whipping enemies and candles (and an occasional wall or two) as you go, collecting various power-ups until you ultimately reach each levels boss. Defeat the boss and you are treated to a view of the map of Castlevania, denoting your progress. You then move on to the next level.

And now, a shadow falls...

Simon is sluggish. I guess a lot of people have pointed this out, and nope, they're not wrong. The playcontrol to Castlevania, while I would certainly not say that it is bad, is, well...unique. Simon seems heavy, like he is weighed down. Who knows? Maybe this was an intentional effect - as if to give the player the impression of wearing heavy armor. If so, then it was executed brilliantly. It certainly was distinctive of the earlier Castlevania games. There seems to be a split second lag between when you press a button on the controller and when Simon does his thing; whipping, jumping, chucking a sub-weapon. You really have to get used to the timing when it comes to Castlevania. When you fall from a great height you kinda really do feel like you are falling. Simon drops like a stone. You can't change direction at all in mid-air. That doesn't just mean when jumping around, that means that when you drop off of a higher platform, Simon is going to plummet straight down. If your intention was to drop to a very close platform, but you decided to just walk off rather then jump for fear that you may unintentionally head butt a hovering enemy, I got some news for you, you ain't gonna make it. While falling you won't budge a millimeter left or right no matter how hard you lean on the that little controller. And when you jump, you better have wanted to jump in that direction because once you press that button you can't change your trajectory. You can't whip very rapidly either. And to make matters worse, the enemies are placed about the levels quite deviously. You kinda have to memorize what's coming. Other wise, you're timing won't be perfect and you'll be knocked into the same bottomless pit over and over again.

But yeah, there are tons of games where the enemy is placed as a trap right next to the pit to knock you in, right? But Castlevania may just have been the first. Granted there may have been a game to come before this one that featured that now-tried-and-true platform game obstacle, but can you name it? The point is, Castlevania made it famous. If you ever find yourself annoyed at another game for knocking you into a pit, don't get mad at that game, get mad at Castlevania, because, more or less, that's were it came from.

If one puts it that way, it really doesn't sound like a good thing. But in a way it is. I said before that Castlevania is like a prototype for all action games to follow. While that is definitely a blanket statement and sure, there are plenty of action games that really don't resemble Castlevania, the building blocks are definitely there. And I mean, WAY beyond the above mentioned enemy-next-to-the-pit trap. Take sub-weapons. Castlevania really made the idea of sub-weapons famous, too. Now, Ninja Gaiden might be a superior game, but it is more than loosely modeled on Castlevania! Its got sub-weapons powered by ''ninja-magic point'' and enemy-next-to-the-pit-traps galore, and similar boss structure. What I mean by that is that every boss has a technique that will work particularly well on that boss and the challenge is that it is up to you to figure that trick out.

And you might say, ''But there are TONS of action games that have stuff like that.'' And I'll say, ''Sure are! AFTER Castlevania came out, that is!'' Okay, okay, I know, I'm getting a little bit intense here. But look at it: Castlevania is the game that introduced us all to these concepts, for better or for worse.

CHALLENGE -6- First let me note that when I rank challenge, a 10 doesn't necessarily mean mondo difficulty, nor does a 1 indicate that a game is a pushover. The challenge score reflects how balanced the challenge is, and how it effects the overall enjoyability of the game. The fact of the matter is that Castlevania is just not all that balanced. The first three stages are pretty much cake, and the last three are really tough but only because of their nasty bosses. In fact, the levels themselves, once you learn where the traps are, contain relatively no challenge at all. That really isn't how its supposed to be. At least, that's not how its supposed to be if the designers wanted the challenge to greatly enhance the overall gaming experience. I guess you could say that there is somewhat of a learning curve, but its not much more than a straight, low line until it spikes violently upon your battle with Frankenstein and Igor. The sluggish playcontrol doesn't help either, when confronted with situations that demand precision timing. Still, finishing this game is very satisfying, and it is not impossible at all. You just really got to know what you are doing when it comes to the bosses. Also, although there are no passwords or saves, the game really doesn't need them and moreover you do get infinite continues. A great plus is that once you reach Dracula, you can continue infinitely at the final boss fight! I really dug that.

OVERALL -8- Castlevania is, no doubt, a solid action game that deserves a place in everyone's collection. Truth be told, if it were a different game, I most likely would have awarded it only a seven. However, as it has lofty historical significance, as well as displaying break-through aspect when viewed in context with the games of its age, it merits that extra point. To sum it up succinctly: Castlevania equals good times.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 07/24/03, Updated 07/24/03

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