- Konami, 1987 -
|+ VS. -
|IF YOU LIKE...
|SECRETS & TIPS
A Classic In Horror Immortalized
"GOOD EEEEVENING!" bids your royal host. But, unlike so many early games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, these words aren't uttered from the lips of a princess. And no — she is not in this castle, either.
Rather, this castle is inhabited by a different type of aristocrat. One who is not so arresting, but instead, much more menacing. This count has ruled over evil and has cast his spell over generations in fictional folklore.
Irish author, Bram Stoker, pictured with his most famous work: Dracula
Dracula was borne out of the nightmares of Irish writer, Bram Stoker, back in 1897. Due to the success of the book, the undead antagonist and namesake of said novel found extended life by swishing his cape to creep out of the pages and onto the stages of the big screen. Now, he is reborn yet again in the classic video game by Konami: Castlevania.
First released as Akumajô Dorakyura (or Demon Castle Dracula) in Japan in 1986, the title reached the shores of North America the following year as Castlevania — a tamer portmanteau for American audiences: Castle + [Transyl]vania.
Vlad Tepes or Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, better known as Vlad The Impaler... real-life inspiration for Dracula
From its opening, film sprocket holes crank across the screen foreshadowing the source material that the game sank its fangs into: those creepy creatures that headlined the marquees of early theatres, beginning in the 1920's and seeing their heyday slow into the 1970's.
Like the unshakable spell that Dracula cast upon his unwitting victims, campy, horror classics from America's Universal Studios (often referred to as "Universal Horror" or "Universal Monsters") and Britian's Hammer Films (delivering its own brand from the 1950's through 1970's) left their tight grip on Castlevania's creators, guiding their hands through the project.
Such bogeymen as the Mummy and Dr. Frankenstein's creation have been revived from the silver screen and assembled in live, 8-Bit color to bring chills and thrills to the Nintendo generation. Of course, they serve as mere scary, stepping stones to the tower that houses the vilest villain of them all: the Victorian-era vampire of all vices — Count Dracula!
In Stoker's novel, the primary protagonist is Professor Abraham Van Helsing. He summons assistance from a tight group of characters (Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray and others) to depose the blood-crazed Count. In Konami's version of the tale, the sole hero, Simon Belmont (or Simon Belmondo), only has you to call upon.
Simon Belmont approaches the entranceway to the Count's haunts — Castlevania
. Maybe he should have reconsidered and come back under the safety of blazing daylight?
The numbers may not tip in Simon's favor, but still and all, he is a strapping warrior of the night, traveling the countryside by foot. Unfortunately, all of that walking may have taken something from our hero's abilities to combat the creatures of the evening.
Heavy-footed, yet moderate in step, what he lacks in speed and agility, he makes up for with high leaps (either up or diagonally); low crouches to escape in tight jams; and fast wrist flicks of his Magic Whip, a uniquely-new entry into the realm of slaying the undead.
Whereas Van Helsing and scores of other vampire hunters carried holy water, sacramental wafers, garlic, wood stakes and crucifixes close to the vest, Belmont prefers to do his fighting from a safer distance. He cracks his legendary whip to stay well out of fang's length from Castlevania's creepy crew. By collecting the Morning Star power-up twice, the Magic Whip can reach across three blocks on the screen!
That's not to say that other sub-weapons aren't for the taking. A fierce fistful of fighting items can be found in the most peculiar places in Dracula's Gothic abode. Thrashing candles, stone walls and ledges can and will reveal a potpourri of potent protection that would make the good Professor Van Helsing reexamine his techniques.
Axes and Daggers are a carry-over from Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins. But, Konami introduces the cruciform Boomerang that flies true and returns for extra insurance. And the flaming Fire Bomb singes enemies to their last undying breaths.
Perched high above in his castle's keep, the climb will be long and hard as Simon Belmont will have to topple movie monster after movie monster before confronting the Count.
Not to be limited by the laws of nature and science, Simon Belmont can even stop time with the Watch or vanish away from sight by finding the golden decanter of Invisibility Potion. (Perhaps, this is a way that the creators of Castlevania pay homage to the Invisible Man, another popular persona of the Universal Horror scene and a surprise exclusion from this title.)
And finally, in the toughest spots, if a Cross is picked up, the surrounding servants of Dracula disappear in a blinding flash!
These mighty sub-weapons aren't unlimited; they do come at a cost — after all, Castlevania is no vacation destination for the squeamish or lightweight gamer.
As was previously-stated, there are no stakes to be found near these castle grounds, but there are hearts aplenty to go around. Small and large Hearts that are left behind by defeated enemies can be collected to power-up the special items. Simon can even earn Double Shot and Triple Shot capability to keep the castle's passageways clear. [Click here to learn how to get these.]
Money Bags and hidden treasures (like crowns and treasure chests) literally bring good fortune. They reward Simon with bonus points and additional lives. (Simon earns his first 1UP at 20,000 points, then at every additional 30,000 thereafter.) The cherished gift of lives brings him a little closer to the Count's everlasting status, but never quite close enough. [Click here to learn where some of these are.]
And when Simon is feeling famished, there's nothing more lip-smacking than discovering a hot platter of turkey (referred to, quite humorously, in the game's manual as a Pork Chop) tucked away, behind the dank, crumbling stones of Castlevania's walls! [Click here to learn where to find these.]
The Double Shot (pictured here) can give Simon two times the attacking power for his sub-weapons, while the Triple Shot triples the fun.
Stylistically, Castlevania carries the NES' gaming torch of terror through the darkness where Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins mishandled and fumbled it. [Click here to check out our Scary — But For All Of The Wrong Reasons! Ghosts 'N Goblins NES review.]
Holding onto some of Ghosts 'N Goblins' finer selling points (like the Axe and Dagger; its cast of fearsome characters and its Map Screen), while lightening the load on other deadweight (poorly-designed platform play and level design; bad hit detection; repetitive soundtrack; etc.), Konami illuminated the way with a new dawn (much to the dismay of Dracula) in gaming concept and execution.
Through the magic of movies and some talented programmers and designers, Simon gets to face down an all-star cast of monstrosities, all played-out within the somber set of this Gothic playground of pain. Most of the legends are here, and if Simon can find the strength to keep completing stages, he'll encounter them all, starting with the Vampire Bat.
Belmont's epic battle for humankind, quite innocuously, starts by crossing the Count's courtyard and trespassing upon the profaned grounds within. From there, he learns his basic moves by moonlight, polishing his controls, getting his timing down and feeling out the style of play. Exercises in easy jumps, climbing staircases, foraging for hidden goodies (a personally-gratifying aspect of the game) by busting open the candles that seemingly provide glow every few feet/meters and upending the unwelcoming party that awaits his invasion warms the gamer up for the heat of battle to come.
Movies, like the one pictured above (↑), House Of Frankenstein
(1944), probably fed the imaginations of the future Castlevania
The Vampire Bat that rests at the end of Level 1 - Stage 3 readies Simon for tougher battles at later junctures. Simon learns to recognize patterns, develop strategies quickly and how to bring the ideal weapon to the fight — these early drills will serve him more than he knows for the fateful fights ahead.
After each main boss is crossed off, an aged map on time-worn parchment pans across the screen, letting Simon ponder his pace forward. There are six Levels, each segmented into three Stages (for a total of 18 sites to fight through). When a stage is completed, Simon passes through a doorway. Bat sprites denote where each iconic beast boss awaits.
As he takes the castle's territory, the scares come with more risks and challenge. Level 2 intensifies with real hazards. Now, Belmont must strike down Black Knights who block the stony stairwells. Levitating platforms lurch back and forth to ledges too far away to leap. Medusa heads fly in sine wave patterns directly at you. Spiked ceiling mechanisms that try to skewer Belmont make for more calculated movement.
Beyond these tests, Queen Medusa, who rests in a cathedral-like chamber of stained glass, represents for the under-represented female fiend in the 8-Bit era. She petrifies more with the snakes she sends Simon's way than from her gasping gaze.
The third leg of Simon's trials have him continuing his treacherous tour across a bridge where whole chunks of the deck are gone and where stairwells lead nowhere. Dragon Skull Cannons and Ravens attempt to push Simon from the path and send him airborne. Beware of the pair of imposing Mummies that close in on you. Their hurled strips of wrapping will try to seal Belmont's fate, long before his time.
After a terrible tumble to the watery caverns far below (See our handy table that shows other Similarities and Comparisons between the NES' Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania), Simon has to negotiate sliding scaffolds, jagged stalactites and Vampire Bats and Fish Men (that look very similar to Universal's The Creature From The Black Lagoon) flinging themselves from the still waters for the first third of Level 4. Again, beware: the deep pools here are as deadly to Belmont as splashes of holy water are to the vampire class.
Once back on dry land, creatures from the sky show their unwanted company the same manners that their water-dwelling compatriots showed below. Large Eagles let loose Hunch Backs that hop about helter-skelter hindering Simon's progress. They are a precursor to Stage 12's final foe.
Standing in a tall room of grandiose columns, the equally-imposing Frankenstein stomps forward with a surprise accomplice — the nimble Igor, supposed leader of the Hunch Backs. This is the ultimate test, as the two compete for Simon's attention, splitting his efforts against an equally-lethal slow and swift attack.
Level 5 is made up of four floors of dungeon and laboratory space. Manacles dangling from walls and rusted, steel-trap grates that criss-cross these stages intensify the dire, imprisoned feel, while hanging sets and piles of bones from poor souls serve as reminders of the cruel Count's misdeeds. Hulking Axe-Men, restless Skeletons and other disagreeable deterrents wander the stories of this curiously-wicked area, trying their best to add Simon's fossilized remains to this desecrated ossuary.
What's a bigger metaphor in life than fighting and defeating Death in the form of the Grim Reaper? For Belmont, not even overcoming death guarantees life, especially when he has to still battle the undying Dracula!
Of course, the not-so-subtle collection of coffins, skeletons and bones point to one thing: Belmont's impending collision with death, or in this instance, the personification of Death in the form of the Grim Reaper.
Sickles slice through the room, as Simon does his best to elude these instruments of death. Well-placed Boomerangs and whiplashes will tear away at Death's tattered form until there is no more. Pallor-blue stones form a makeshift stage with large, sweeping, red curtains drawn aside to present this battle with a theatrical tone.
It seems very ironic to defeat Death, yet still have to face someone or something that is undying. But, that is just the improbable task that our mortal hero must face. The final Level and its stages symbolically-challenge Simon to the very end.
Stage 16's delapidated bridge seems to show the decay that Dracula's touch leaves upon everything it touches. The inner tower of Stage 17 resembles an epic clocktower, with its gears grinding on... time is important, urgent and its countdown cannot be ignored. And finally the iconic climb to Count Dracula's chamber... the moon, splashing the stonework of the ancient structure with light, shining the way... not a full moon with the terror that The Legend Of Zelda - Majora's Mask implied, but the insinuated idea that its waxing crescent will bring a new moon and a new day of darkness soon, if Dracula isn't dealt with immediately.
The Count awaits you: will Simon's holy war on the greatest evil be won or will the Count rule on indefinitely? It's up to you to guide Belmont to victory!
Who knows what awaits Simon Belmont as he climbs his last flight of stairs to duel by moonlight?
Konami approached a burgeoning genre and artfully-injected fun elements of horror to add a fresh thematic take on platforming. Its influence was immediately-impactful — other classic titles, like the NES' version of Ninja Gaiden are veritable replicas of Castlevania. [Click here to check out our Delights... Cameras... ACTION! Ninja Gaiden review.]
From the programming side of things, Castlevania's framework for a satisfying action game is still a strong reference point. Simon Belmont's very human attributes of slow running and climbing would normally not hold up during gameplay in an enemy-intense environment like this. However, the designers and developers were able to avoid so many of the missteps that ruined its closest rival in comparison — the frustratingly-flawed thriller, Ghosts 'N Goblins.
Realistic expectations with fair controls, manageable enemy speed, good hit-box work, reasonable time limits and the incentive to find hidden power-ups and bonuses on the stages just go to prove how Castlevania's team earnestly pre-tested and perfected their classic — probably learning a lot along the way from the buggy aggravations that Ghosts 'N Goblins are still remembered for.
With the game's mechanics clicking in time and place, the art department added its sheen and shellac to the project, preserving its legacy by filling in minute details with the sprites of the game's monsters (see Frankenstein's visage or the wrappings around the Mummy Men or the skull that is shaded beneath the Grim Reaper's hood).
In a limited choice of colors, they were able to paint in pixels that added an overall, delightful gloom to the environment/stages (see the statuary and the broken Venus de Milo-like statues of Level 8 or the smooth movements of the pouncing Black Leopards on Stage 1). The logo and title screen are superbly-crafted: a mahogany plaque, ornamentally-carved with glaring green script floating above — a prominent "C", reminiscent of the turrets of a great castle and the "v" - a jagged stake of a letter piercing through.
The game's aural experience was not to be outdone by the visuals. The sound personnel and composers were collectively remembered as James Banana in the game's ingenious ending that drew the curtains down on the movie monster metaphor with flair. [Click here to check out Castlevania's famous ending credits.] The real-life James Banana (James Bernard) would have been proud of the wonderful audio experience presented.
The breaking of glass vials (Fire Bombs) and door slam sound effects are convincing sounds that the audio team were able to fabricate to good effect. And the music really helped to push other game companies to seek out talented composers and programmers who could transcribe rich compositions into warm, fuzzy chiptunes that resonate still.
In Castlevania, memorable, miniature masterpieces done in minor keys amplify the atmosphere of each level. And what is a hero without a theme song? In this case, the growing legend of Simon Belmont is equaled by the grand "Vampire Killer", a tune that roars his triumphant arrival, not only in Transylvania, but across the gaming sphere.
After Castlevania, it was not enough to just fill your game's stages with meaningless blips or long-playing single tracks that looped from stage to stage. The gamer expected more from the music department — a tracklist of songs that heightened the gaming experience by emotionally-connecting that game to its visuals, play and design, and with the player's heart and mind.
The other contributors to Castlevania did their parts to ensure that they would not be embarrassed either. The writers of the manual injected the wry humor that fans of Konami and its games' instruction booklets have come to love and expect. Not many companies of the 8-Bit and 16-Bit days consistently-upheld such a witty, tongue-in-cheek style.
All of this collective effort helped cement the overarching success of Castlevania, and guaranteed that it would be the forerunner in one of gaming's premier franchises.
Its sublime soundtrack, ingenious level and boss design, hidden rewards and bug-free play have helped the game to live on in the hearts of many fans throughout the years.
And unlike its dreaded main foe, Dracula, Castlevania will live on in revered immortality!
b. jones © Halloween 2017
RETURN TO TOP