The Vampire’s Inn: Castlevania

By George Bachaelor

No other video game franchise screams Halloween more than Castlevania. 33 years of Dracula whipping fun, quirkiness and extreme frustration has spanned more than 30 game releases of hunter versus vampire killing across various arcade, console and handheld machines.

Castlevania brought to life gloomy horror filled 17th-century gothic graphics, with some of the best soundtracks that could be heard on an NES machine. It was an  integral part of the Nintendo success story, helping drive sales of the machine worldwide, providing another exclusive hit in the competitive 8-bit gaming market, further increasing its intellectual proprietary characters already boasting the likes of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Mario Bros, Kid Icarus, Legend of Zelda and Metroid.

In  all started in 1986. Hitoshi Akamatsu and Konami introduced Castlevania to Japanese gamers of Nintendo’s Family Computer Disk System console (FCDS). However, it would be eight months later in May 1987 when it was ported to cartridge on the NES in North America, that the ongoing war between the Belmonts and the Lord of Darkness – Dracula, that Castlevania’s world wide popularity and legacy would begin. Such was its success, by 1990, versions of the game were released for the IBM, the Commodore 64 (both developed by Unlimited Software), and the Commodore Amiga (developed by Novotrade).

The coolest looking and most bad ass horror character of all time, Dracula, appears in almost every Castlevania game ever made. Most games in the series are set in Dracula’s castle located in Transylvania, Romania, although, before Castlevania Symphony Of The Night, the original games had added gameplay set in cemeteries and forests as well.

The video game series loosely based on the mythology of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, incorporates a variety of horror cliches within each game – mummies, monsters, bats, Frankenstein, hunchbacks even the Grim Reaper! These monsters serve to obstruct the path to Dracula but are rarely tied to game plots in the series.

Legend describes Dracula being resurrected every 100 years. The Belmonts are the chosen ones to whip Dracula and his horror horde to their gruesome deaths in a final cataclysmic battle to send Dracula’s castle crumbling to the ground. Simon Belmont is the original whip wielding warrior of Castlevania. The whip used by the Belmont clan is as important to the game franchise as the rest of its history and has remained the weapon of choice from the outset. The whip, a relic called the Vampire Killer, has been blessed with the power to destroy vampires and other creatures of the night.

Simon Belmont features as the hero in as many as eight Castlevania games – Castlevania (FCDS and NES), Vampire Killer (MSX2), Haunted Castle (Arcade), Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES), Super Castlevania IV (SNES), Castlevania Chronicles (PS1), Castlevania Judgment (Wii), and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (PS3 and Xbox 360).

Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse (Konami, 1990), would introduce new members of the Belmont family. You were now able to play the game as Trevor Belmont, Simon’s ancestor, along with Sypha Belnades, a young sorceress with poor physical attack power but powerful elemental magic spells; Grant Danasty, a pirate with the ability to climb on walls and change direction in mid-jump (a rare ability in earlier games of the series); and Alucard, Dracula’s son, a dhampir with the ability to shoot fireballs and transform into a bat.

As the game evolved over the years onto other machines so did the characters and their abilities. None more so than in Super Castlevania IV. The Super NES game allows Simon Belmont to slash his whip in as many as eight different directions. He can moonwalk along stairs, move while crouching, perform whip tricks and swing on his whip to get to higher platforms. 

The word “Castlevania” was created by Emil Heidkamp, Konami of America’s senior vice president at the time. He believed the game’s Japanese name translated as “Dracula’s Satanic Castle”. He chose to change it to Castlevania based on religious grounds. The word is something of a misnomer, presumably being a word play on Transylvania.

Creator, Hitoshi Akamatsu, was an admirer of cinema, approaching game projects with a “film director’s eye”, and said the visuals and music for Castlevania were “made by people who consciously wanted to do something cinematic”. With Castlevania, he wanted players to feel like they were in a classic horror film – which it captured quite brilliantly with the first three games, as well as Vampire Killer, featuring a film reel motif on the title screen. Other games in the series would also include movie like cut scenes and storytelling.

Castlevania was among the first video games to feature a Gothic horror storyline, that has remained part of its identity to this very day. While the platform gameplay is considered to be amazing, what is even more amazing about the game is its quirky elements and very high difficulty levels that plagued it especially during the earliest games of the series.

Gameplay of the first Castlevania involved the player to whip candles in order for hearts to be dropped to the ground for the player to collect. In most games a heart will replenish health or restore lives but in the original Castlevania game hearts are ammunition for whatever weapon you are holding. To replenish Simon’s health you must slash the walls with your whip to find food behind them, its bonkers logic. Perhaps this weird humor appealed to the mostly younger NES audience? Maybe because of its many weird quirky differences ‘to the norm’, they added more to its appeal and have brought back many nostalgic memories for gamers to remain in love with the series ?

Castlevania is renowned for being one of the hardest video games ever made. In the first game, the main reason for this is because when Simon gets hit by a monster he instantly jumps backwards. You could have full health but if you happen to get hit and fall backwards into a pit behind you then you’re dead. If that wasn’t bad enough, boss battles such as the one with the Knight are impossible. There are no wave patterns to learn to actually have a chance of defeating it. You can only take 4 hits from flying objects before you die in a heap on the floor but to kill the Knight boss it requires 9 hits, it’s just frustrating as hell gameplay.

Castlevania the series is nothing short of a classic, that’s a fact. Graphics and music in Castlevania games are often of the highest quality. But the early games were dogged by playability issues and were very difficult to play to say the least. The main culprit was the controls. These problems made your gaming experience totally and utterly a nightmare worse than being bitten by Dracula. It took five years and eight different games for the unfair fight against Dracula and his family of horrifying monsters to finally be a fair fight.  The sluggishness and awkward movement found in the early games was rectified in Super Castlevania IV. In this game you actually have control of your character, you aren’t frustrated by ridiculous difficulty or cheaps deaths and 100% perfect jumps. The fluidity of movement made the game so highly playable that it felt like Simon Belmont could do anything. Super Castlevania IV is highly regarded in the Castlevania series as well as the platform gaming genre.

Not all the games in the series were great to play, or fondly remembered by Castelvania enthusiasts.  Castlevania Dracula X (SNES, 1995) and two N64 games titled Castlevania and Castlevania Legacy of Darkness (1999),  were shockers that saw the series go backwards in its development.

Instead of keeping the gloomy horror themed atmosphere and music from Super Castlevania, Castlevania Dracula X went back to the basics of the originals giving the series a comic feel which meant the game lost a bit of its soul. Control of your whip slashes and jumps are unlike the awesomeness of the previous game, and the game is relentlessly difficult. The problems may have occurred because Dracula X was actually a port of the TurboGrafx 16 CD-ROM game, Called Devil’s Castle Dracula: Rondo of Blood.

Then came the 3D Castlevania universe on the N64. Both of these games suffered control problems and the gameplay made no sense at all. The 3D camera itself was terrible, it pointed wherever it wanted so you couldn’t situate your character where you wanted to go, rendering the game almost unplayable. The fantastic music scores found in earlier games was non existent in these N64 versions, it was plain awful a real blight on the series as great music was part of the Castlevania identity. The puzzles you are required to complete certain tasks were bewildering. Searching in game items for clues provided no real understanding as to what you needed to do and if you were carrying an item you could not simply drop it. What this meant was that if you had picked up the wrong item first you couldn’t complete the task, you would have to start the game again. If a bit of the Castelvania soul was lost in the Dracula X game then it was sent to the graveyard in the N64 games of the series.

The two standout games in the Castlevania series are Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Both games are considered to be fantastic games in their own right, but both shaped the direction of the Castlevania series in different ways.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (Konami, 1988) the second game in the series, demonstrates what the franchise would eventually become. Breaking away from convention with a day / night cycle, quest lines and character leveling, it showcased that platformers in this era of gaming could be more than just linear adventures. The gameplay mechanics were changed as it extended to a more open world feel, opposed to the linear style seen in the original Castlevania. This open world and non linear style would go on to become one of the cornerstones for future castlevania games.

Simon Belmont sets out on a journey to undo a curse placed on him by Dracula at the end of their previous encounter. With Dracula’s body split into five parts, Simon must find and bring them to the ruins of his castle and defeat him. Similar to the non linear gameplay of Metroid, Simon’s Quest features RPG elements such as a world map which the player is free to explore and revisit. Simon can also interact will local villagers who offer him clues or lies. Merchants will sell items, either for fighting enemies or for traversing to otherwise unreachable areas. To pay for them, Simon must collect hearts, which are dropped by defeated enemies. In addition to the ordinary items in Simon’s inventory, he can also purchase new whips in certain locations of the game. He begins with a standard leather whip, and can upgrade to stronger ones with each new purchase. Simon’s Quest introduces an Experience Rating (ER) system, which is increased by collecting hearts. After he finds a sufficient amount, his level and maximum health will increase with his ER.

The period of time in Simon’s Quest cycles between daytime and nightfall, which has a prominent effect on the game and Simon’s encounters. During the day, the enemies outside of villages in the game are weaker. At night time, they gain strength and inflict more damage to Simon’s life points, though when defeated, they drop more hearts. The villagers and merchants in their respective locations are no longer available to talk to during night time, and are replaced by zombies.

Despite the departure from the previous game, there are elements from it that have remained. This includes the magic weapons, which are secondary weapons to Simon’s whip. Each of them have a different use. Like most games in the series, some of these require the usage of hearts. One of them returning from Castlevania is the holy water, a small glass which can disintegrate walls that conceal hidden items. Some magic weapons make their first appearance in Simon’s Quest, such as the diamond, which attacks enemies while bouncing off any surrounding walls.

The objective of the game is to travel to the five mansions to find the body parts of Dracula’s corpse, and an item known as the magic cross. The body parts can be utilized to support Simon in the game. For example, Dracula’s rib can be used as a shield to block any projectile attacks fired from an enemy. Finding all of the required items will allow Simon to clear the blockade in front of Dracula’s castle to fight the last boss. After the player defeats Dracula, there are three possible endings based on the time taken to complete the game. The best ending is achieved when the player beats the game in eight game days.

There is a far greater world for Simon to discover. Simon’s Quest is more involved. The game takes place in various backdrops – graveyards, rivers, forests, and castles in whatever order you decided to go. New items open new paths, exploration and experimentation replaced timing and memorization of the first Castlevania.

The origins of Simon’s Quest began with a lesser discussed version of the game. In 1986, Konami brought Castlevania to the MSX2 personal computer called Vampire Killer. It kept the general atmosphere while transforming the levels into branching mazes. On top of dodging devil-femurs and whipping bats, players had to hunt down keys, deal with merchants, and explore everything thoroughly. The first Castlevania limited its secrets to breakable blocks and hidden treasures, but both Vampire Killer and Simon’s Quest pushed the idea in new directions.

Simon’s Quest is not the best platform game in the series yet it does provide gorgeous gfx and awesome sounds. It keeps the soul of the original game adding some cool upgrades, however it boasts many quirks and flaws just as its predecessor did.

Collecting hearts this time around are used for currency purposes to buy things. But as mentioned above the stores only open in the day not at night so this makes it difficult to play while the game is in night mode, it becomes rather tedious waiting for daylight to reappear. It makes little sense that you might be out slashing demonic creatures in the forest then all of a sudden get told it has become night and be transported to the castle to keep fighting but still have to wait for morning to be able to complete tasks. What is more annoying is that the message boxes appear on screen too frequently, taking away your enjoyment of the game.

Simon’s Quest is riddled with spelling errors throughout the many messages popping up like spam on the game screen. The translation from Japanese to English coupled with the many misspelled words make understanding the clues within the game almost impossible, much of it just doesn’t make any sense. The gameplay is just as difficult as the first game, this time bouncing blobs are an irritating frustration that you can’t get away from, even when you are on the stairs. Your mechanic for jumping is ridiculous. This is the major frustration of the game. Jumping from ledge to ledge appears impossible and the space between them just doesn’t appear to have enough room at times. Then when you are tasked with jumping from block to block over water if you are not standing at the very edge of a block when you must jump long distances you just fall into the water and die, it’s tear your hair out craziness!

The boss battles in Simon’s Quest are a real walk in Dracula’s castle – literally. The first game boss battles were super hard but in Simon’s Quest, it’s totally the opposite. I have never ever seen an easier boss battle in a game than walking past the Grim Reaper to defeat him – it happens in Simon’s Quest, unbelievable but true. The final boss battle against Dracula is just as easy – throw a few fireballs and it’s all over.

Simon’s Quest, though, would heavily influence and be the inspiration for future titles in the series such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Symphony of the Night’s assistant director, Koji Igarashi, said the critical reaction to Simon’s Quest and its gameplay allowed them to pitch Symphony of the Night to Konami. The plot of Simon’s Quest would also be directly referenced in later Castlevania games. In the Game Boy Advance version, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, the protagonist, Juste Belmont recounts when his grandfather, Simon, had to search for Dracula’s body parts. In the game, the player must also find them again.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami, 1997) is considered to be the best game in the vampire hunting, horror themed franchise. It is the sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on the PC Engine’s Super CD-ROM (Konami, 1993). It was the first game in the series appearing on Sony’s Play Station and the second game in the series to use CD technology after the PC Engine version mentioned above.

Symphony of the Night was considered a huge risk at the time of its release. Using hand drawn artwork at a time when 2D popularity had been overrun by game developers pushing 3D worlds onto nearly every big name game seemed as weird an idea as some of the series previous game ideas and characters, but it worked! Played as a side-scroller, it no longer featured Simon Belmont as the lead hero, instead it brings back Dracula’s dhampir son, Alucard, introduced in Castlevania III, (Dracula spelt backwards is Alucard). The objective of the game is exploring Dracula’s castle to defeat an entity who is controlling Richter Belmont, the self-proclaimed Lord of the castle and hero of the events which took place in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.  The entity can only be seen with a particular item obtained during gameplay. Once it is defeated, the second portion of the game is revealed, eventually leading to the final battle with a newly awakened Dracula.

Storytelling became a main point of difference between Symphony of the Night and other Castlevania games before it. While not groundbreaking and the voice overs telling the story may have sounded off key, the use of the Play Station’s CD technology added incredible music, sounds, and more depth to a game that would introduce even more complexity to its gameplay.

Heralded as a major turning point in the Castlevania series, Symphony of the Night changed the direction of the Castlevania series, as it was the dominant game style that other games in the series would follow. It is also credited with defining an entire genre of gaming. Drawing equal inspiration from its own predecessors and from landmark action RPGs like Zelda II and Metroid, Symphony of the Night became identified as a classic “Metrodavina” game.  Metroid had popularized the idea of non-linear level design ten years prior, but Symphony’s game style saw the word “Metroidvania” associated with it everywhere.

Most Metroidvania games owe Symphony of the Night a great deal of debt. After all, without it, it wouldn’t exist at all. Symphony of the Night is a perfect amalgamation of RPG gameplay infused with extensive exploration, incredible pixel art, music, and, above all, a sense of fun. The game has an incredible replay value and unforgettable boss fights. Some of the moves were incredible. Now you could perform sliding attacks, run faster, shoot more weapons, jump higher, kill bigger enemies with one attack, it was leaps and bounds ahead of the other games in the series. 

In a Castlevania first, Alucard outfits himself like an RPG hero. He gains levels by defeating enemies, and he progresses further by equipping armor, items, floating familiars, and varied weapons from swords to nunchucks. Instead of linear stages, the castle unfolded before him like a Metroid map, offering a complexity well beyond the minor detours of Simon’s Quest and Rondo of Blood. New abilities opened up new areas, secrets abounded in the walls, and a reversed version of the entire castle awaited players who found the proper secrets. Alucard also broke from the Belmont model with his more fluid control and greater repertoire of moves, resulting in a game that wasn’t quite as stringently hard as past Castlevanias.

The game is not without its problems. You start off as Richter Belmont battling Dracula but for the rest of the game you play as Alucard. Maybe that’s not so bad, but it would have been great to play as different characters during the game, you can only unlock Richter once the game is completed. Alucard is a real destroyer of anything that moves, he has super capabilities, strong as an angry rhino, but when you meet Death, he takes away all of Alucard’s weapons, now the game is a real grind to get back upto the level of Alucard kicking supernatural monster butt.

To start the game with amazing powers but then take them away from you just doesn’t seem fair play at all. Games aren’t supposed to give you nightmares, but the act of dying and restarting in Symphony of the Night is its worst characteristic. In other games in the series you are given a continue screen but in Symphony Of the Night you must go through a series of events that takes forever, then reload your saved game, it truly is the stuff of gaming nightmares.

Having said that, the game is huge, it takes hours and hours to get through the whole castle. When that is done, you must complete the map upside down. Boss battles in Symphony, are the most incredible battles in the series. At the end you face off against a dark priest named Shaft before you enter the epic final battle against Dracula.

Castlevania is a series of games that has evolved over time, some great, some not so great. The amount of games released on so many different machines is testament to its incredible fan base and cult status among gamers world wide.  As a series of games, Castlevania is not without its faults. There is one thing Castelvania has done, and done very well – it has changed the way we play platformers. From basic linear to nonlinear, from 2D to 3D, from RPG to the Metroid connection. It has been a hell of a Vampire killing ride. All of these events have enhanced our love for the game, it’s taken us in many directions over the 30 plus years and has ingrained its popularity among gamers across all age groups making the game series an all time classic.

If horror and Halloween are your thing, if you get enjoyment from pitting yourself against the supernatural, the creepy, the eerie, the strange, the downright gruesome and even the unexplainable, then the Castlevania series of games will fill that void more than any other game in the horror gothic genre. If you are searching for a horror themed game to play this Halloween, Castlevania should be on your go to games in your collection. 

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