Castlevania
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Platform:
    • NES
  • Developer:
    • Konami
  • Publisher:
    • Konami
  • Released:
    • JP 09/26/1986
    • US 05/01/1987
    • UK 12/19/1988
Score: 80%

This review was published on 08/02/2013.

Castlevania is a 2-D, side-scrolling platform game developed by Konami and originally released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This is the very first game in the long running Castlevania franchise, so it's kind of a big deal. It was one of the biggest third-party games on the NES, up there with stuff like Contra, but probably even more popular than that. As a result of that, it's now a fondly remembered game far and wide. You'd think an old 8-bit game like this wouldn't have aged too well, but Castlevania still holds up. Sure, the graphics are a little rough around the edges, but the music and stellar game design carry it through. The game design is particularly advanced for a game made in the late 1980s, which is why it's heralded as a hallmark game of that era. In some ways, this game could be considered a very early form of the survival horror genre, as it's got a horror theme to it. Back then, games like these would actually be somewhat spooky. That's not really the case anymore, what with how advanced game's graphics are these days, but Castlevania is still a great game for great people.

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The game of Castlevania takes place in Transylvania, circa 1691. A terrible curse is terrorizing humanity with its terribleness. That curse is Count Dracula, the immortal lord of vampires. Every one hundred years, Count Dracula is revived by the wickedness that is in men's hearts. When that happens, the castle of evil that Dracula calls his own home reappears. This is the castle that is referred to as Castlevania. You know, because it's a castle in Transylvania. Nothing can stop the Count, except for a particular whip. Legend speaks of a whip imbued with the power to extinguish such a ravenous foe. This whip is known as the Vampire Killer, and it not only is adept at killing vampires, but also anything that's undead. The Vampire Killer is passed down in the Belmont family from generation to generation, eventually making its ways into the hands of Simon Belmont. The Belmont Clan have been preparing for just such an occasion, so Simon Belmont gets ready to whip it out. It's now up to the only man good enough to wield the sacred Vampire Killer whip, Simon Belmont, to whip Count Dracula into shape. What's interesting about Castlevania's story is its setting. You've got all the good horror tropes, like vampires, zombies, and even werewolves. It's a cool setting for a platform game that has stood the test of time.

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Simon Belmont is the man you control for this horror themed adventure. He can causally saunter around like there's no danger anywhere, jump a fixed distance, and slowly swing his whip. For anyone not used to the controls, they will seem quite bad, as Belmont will come off sluggish and unwieldy. However, that's the main challenge to the game; mastering the controls. Once you do, you'll find that they're very precise. The fixed jumps are what will take the most time to get used to, because they force you to be strategic about your jumping. Any jump you make is final, so you can't alter the trajectory of the jump while in the air, like you can in most Mario games. The same could be said about Belmont's trusty whip. There is a slight delay whenever you swing the whip, meaning it takes a nominal amount of time before the whip hits its target. You have to account for this delay whenever you're attacking enemies. Even though Castlevania is an action game, careful planning needs to go into everything you do, before you do it. If you just jump into situations all gung-ho, you'll almost always meet with an untimely demise. To make matters worse, Simon gets some nasty knockback whenever he's injured, and levels are designed to exploit that as much as possible. You may find yourself shouting expletives whenever a small enemy knocks you into a bottomless pit, which is something that happens often in the Castlevania series. Thankfully, the first Castlevania on NES is actually somewhat forgiving, because it gives you unlimited continues. It's still pretty difficult, but at least the game gives you time to learn. And learn you must, for the challenges of Castlevania can't be overcome any other way. The controls aren't for everyone, but they are extremely satisfying once you master them.

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Despite the story placing a huge importance on the whip, it's actually not very good. Sure, it kills the undead, but it has lots of issues. It's got a short range, it has the aforementioned delay, and it doesn't do much damage. You can upgrade it a few times by getting some power-ups, which extends its range and damage, but the whip will always remain a gimped weapon. That's where the sub-weapons come in. There are various sub-weapons that can be used in different situations where the whip just isn't making the cut. The first and least useful is the throwing dagger. It can be thrown for a long range attack, but it's weak and only travels in a straight horizontal path. The second one is the throwing axe, which can be thrown in an overhead arc. This one is a bit more useful, though it's very situational. One of my personal favorites is the boomerang cross. Yes, you read that correctly. It's a cross that can be thrown around like a boomerang. If that's not cool, then I don't know what is. The most useful sub-weapon, however, is the holy water. Bottles of holy water can be thrown in a downward arc, and will burst into flames upon hitting the ground. This sub-weapon is a little overpowered to be honest, as it makes short work of almost every boss in the game, save for the aerial bosses. When in doubt, douse it with holy water. Castlevania teaches you some important life lessons. To limit your usage of sub-weapons, you have hearts. For whatever reason, collecting hearts doesn't replenish your health. Instead, hearts act as the ammunition for all the sub-weapons. This is something that's in many of the early Castlevania games, and it's never made any sense to me. I stopped questioning it after a while. Anyway, besides the holy water being overpowered, all the sub-weapons are pretty cool and they further add to the strategic feel of the game.

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Structurally, Castlevania is a simple platform game. It's got a number of linear levels that have you going from point A to point B, with a boss at the end of each level. What separates it from other conventional games is its smart game design. Almost every inch of the game feels deliberate, right down to the clunky controls. Enemies are positioned in such a way as to provide the maximum amount of inconvenience to the player, providing the brunt of the game's challenge. You'll really hate Belmont's knockback by the end of the game, what with how bats and birds will constantly swoop in from strategic locations to knock you into pits. Because of how strategic the developers were in designing the levels, you have to be equally as strategic to beat them. Like a lot of old NES games, memorization is important, but there is a sense of experimentation and discovery here, as well. You need to try out all the different sub-weapons in every situation to figure out which one is good for a particular section of the game. For example, the first boss of the game is a giant bat that flies overhead. It's really difficult to hit this guy with your whip. Luckily, you'll find the axe not too far from him, and the axe is the perfect weapon for hitting aerial foes. A lot of the stuff in the game is pretty logical, so you just have to take in the situation and come up with a plan of attack. The philosophy behind Castlevania's level design is to work smarter, not harder. After you figure out how to deal with everything, the game is actually not that difficult. The hard part is figuring it out. Mastering Castlevania is a long and difficult road, but a satisfying one.

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Castlevania is another classic in the long list of NES classics. The graphics are reasonably good for an old NES game, the music is absolutely fantastic, the level design is top notch, and the bosses are great. Castlevania strikes a good balance in difficulty, in that it's very challenging, but never to a ridiculous degree. You have unlimited tries to beat any given level, which is a rarity for games back then. The main thing that will prevent some people from enjoying this game are the stiff controls, but that was a deliberate part of the game's design, in order to force you to put more thought into your actions. Castlevania is an action game that favors being smart over quick reflexes, making it unique among action games. If you're a fan of the series but have yet to try the first one, give it a shot sometime. You might be surprised.

Word Count: 1,535

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