Retro Review – Castlevania

I am currently short on both time and cash. Time stops me from a substantial post on Batman Arkham Origins or Microsoft’s event, and cash stops me from trying out any recent games. Because of this fund scarcity of late, I’ve been screwing around with some of the 3DS’ virtual console releases, and I figured, since I’m playing through some of them, it would be appropriate to write a review. Unlike regular reviews, I will not be providing a score, as it’s pretty much impossible to accurately review a game from many decades ago due to the fact that what was groundbreaking then, may seem completely unoriginal now. Today, I want to look at Castlevania, which, as you might have guessed, is the first game in the prestigious Castlevania series. Now, there are two kinds of people. There are those who played the game when they were a child and are mostly lost in the nostalgia of it all, and there is the more detached approach of someone playing the game for the very first time. I land somewhere in the middle. I played this game as a child, but merely as a rental and I don’t think I ever got more than one or two stages into it. As such, the bulk of the game is new to me, and I’ve been treating it as such, even though, at this point, the ground treaded by Castlevania is incredibly familiar.

Don’t let Simon fool you. You’ll never see that sword in action, and there are hardly any butt shots.
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Castlevania was a popular series, but it really didn’t hit mainstream appeal until the release of Symphony of Night. This game completely changed the Castlevania formula, making it more open world, and being significantly inspired by the Metroid game series. This has led to a whole series of Castlevania games being dubbed Metroidvania, which has now even gone as far as to be a genre of platformer. The original Castlevania bears little resemblance to the much more free environments of the Metroidvania games, and RPG gamers as well as completionists may feel a bit left out because of the barebones nature of the game. The original Castlevania is a pure action platformer. There are no new pieces of equipment to collect; you don’t get stronger as you go through the game; enemies do not give you experience; the money you collect is for score only and cannot be used for actually buying anything; and the focus is on combat skill and persistence instead of exploration and collection.

If you go in expecting this, you’re going to have a bad time.
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The original Castlevania comes from a long-forgotten era that even the retro gaming craze has a difficult time getting back to. There is no story in the game. Sure there’s some flimsy tale of Simon Belmont going to kill Dracula, but, in reality, there’s nothing here at all. The game is about a man and his whip going up against a bunch of traditional ghouls and monsters. Like the much later Darkstalkers, Castlevania represents an obsession with what some people refer to as the “groovy ghoulies,” which are the Monster Mash-type classic monsters from western folklore and cinema. As such, expect to see mummies, Frankenstein’s monster, skeletons, and the big man, Dracula, himself. Unlike Darkstalkers, these appearances weren’t played up for camp. There is no camp in the same way that there is no story. The premise of a man going through a castle to kill Dracula with a whip is insane, but it doesn’t even begin to stretch the insanity of console games at the time, so it’s really easy to never question the madness, so you shouldn’t.ou aren’t supposed to. What you’re supposed to do, is try you best to get though the stages, and nothing else.

Simon cares about plot as much as he cares about that skeleton, which is not even enough for a kill.
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The gameplay of Castlevania is dated. You can’t change directions of your jump in mid-air; you’re constantly going through the game in a linear fashion; and you obtain lives by passing completely arbitrary score thresholds. However, the gameplay that is there is very tight. Enemies are vast and dangerous, but a skilled player can get through the entire game without taking a single hit. This requites very skilled developers and level design in order to balance difficulty in such a way. There is little to no slowdown, and all of your actions are very precise, meaning that a player actually will become more skilled as they throw themselves at Dracula’s castle over and over again, which is something that is absent in many modern games. Also, unlike classic Mega Man’s constant enemy respawning, many enemies will not simply reappear if you walk two feet away, meaning that there is a lot more permanence to your actions when dealing with monsters, particularly the dangerous and quick ones.

Trust me, there’s a lot of satisfaction when you finally kill this guy.
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The game’s core mechanic revolves around Simon and his whip. By pressing one of the two buttons available to you, Simon will throw his whip out in front of him (The other button is for jumping, duh). There is no way to change the direction and the animation is the same if you are in the air. The whip may be powered up twice, giving you a chain whip and a longer chain whip by breaking candelabra throughout the castle and finding specific powerups. Also hidden in various lights are various sub-weapons, ranging from knives to vials of holy water. These sub-weapons require hearts to use (candelabra again), some more than others, and provide a significant amount of variety to how you can approach situations. A player with an axe sub-weapon will have little problems with flying enemies, as the axe flies in an upward arc. Players with holy water don’t have much of an advantage against regular enemies, but they can stun lock bosses, making it invaluable for many of the game’s toughest encounters. You lose your current sub-weapon and most of your hearts if you die, as well as requiring for you to power up your whip again, so there is a strong incentive to stay alive in order to be at your top game, especially when you want to keep a vial of holy water in reserve for a boss.

There’s Simon up there with his totally not awkward animation.
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As mentioned, the game is linear. You will proceed through stages that are made up of three parts, culminating in a boss fight at the end of each stage. When you die, you will lose a life and restart at the most recent part of the stage you have made it to. If you lose all of your live, you don’t have to restart the entire game like other NES classics. Instead, you will simply restart the level you are on. As a blessing, Konami has also made the last boss fight a checkpoint, so you can die as many times as you want there and you’ll never have to restart the level. These aspects of the gameplay are definitely forward thinking, and Castlevania, though still tough as nails, is considerably more accommodating to casuals than the vast majority of the NES’ catalogue. Don’t get me wrong, Castlevania will still likely demolish players who’s hardest game ever consists of Dark Souls, but compared to contemporary games such as Battletoads, Super Contra, or the dreaded Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania is a game far more accommodating to the unskilled.

The little one’s called Igor… get it?
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In the end, Castlevania is much like any other NES action platformer. It’s really short, relying on its difficulty level to pad the game out. A skilled player could probably beat the game in a hour, or two hours at the max. However, in order to get skilled, you’ll likely drop five to ten hours at the game, varying with skill level, throwing yourself impotently against Death (the boss) over and over again. This is NES gaming at its finest. And, while Castlevania isn’t a game that did a lot of innovating in the industry, it is definitely one that deserves your respect. It is one of those games that has held up very well, and is worth chucking your time at, even if it laughs at your feeble corpse. For those with 3DSs or access to any of Nintendo’s virtual consoles, it is definitely worth picking up even if you care nothing about the history of the franchise or gaming itself. The game stands on its own, and that is pretty impressive these days.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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One thought on “Retro Review – Castlevania

  1. Pingback: Retro Review – Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse | Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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