This week I’m going to look at the first game from one of the most well recognised franchises spawned from the NES library: Castlevania. Released in 1988 in Europe it’s a frequent entry into top lists of games from the era and is featured on the NES mini classic. The game was the beginning of a franchise that has over 30 titles currently as well as multiple cancelled titles and compilations, manga, graphic novels, concert, a netflix animated series and a potential live action movie it’s safe to say that Konami must have done pretty well with the first game. That is not to say that every game in the franchise is great as there are some quite bad games out there in the Castlevania series, but for today we will be focusing on the original NES title.
So onto the gameplay and once again it’s another platformer like so many other NES games. But fortunately this time around the game is so much more than your average, generic title. The game is noticeably designed much better than a large portion of the games from around the same time. The amount of work and care put into the game is evident from the start and this theme continues throughout the game. You start the game as Simon Belmont from the Belmont family on your quest to defeat Dracula. To reach Dracula himself you must take on a slew of enemies including skeletons, floating medusa heads, eagles, ghosts and a whole host more. Each enemy attacks differently and feels unique and carefully made, which some games don’t even manage to get right today. Every section of the game typically has a boss as well and these also have an impressive amount of uniqueness and care put into them with Dracula being the final enemy. It’s impressive that Dracula manages to get everything from bats to mummies to even death himself as protection and makes him seem quite ominous especially during the final fight where he shows how powerful he really is and it feels like a great achievement to defeat him after everything else you’ve faced throughout your journey.
The levels are all great to play and look wonderful. The horror theme works incredibly well and the clever use of having the background consisting primarily of silhouettes creates a spooky atmosphere but also shows the creativity used when faced with system limitations at the time. Every enemy and boss you face looks great if sometimes a bit goofy, but this just adds to the charm. When thinking about the levels and the actual gameplay the only real criticism I remember hearing about Castlevania is that it can be unfair in places but I don’t feel this is necessarily true after playing it through again. Yes the game can be frustrating in places, as can all games where you have to be able time time your attacks and there can sometimes be more than one enemy to take on at once, but it doesn’t ever feel unfair to me. Once again, all enemies have their own unique styles of attack and this makes it easy to plan out your attack/defence once you get used to each pattern and as you replay through sections and levels after making a mistake it becomes easier each time. This come naturally and doesn’t feel like a chore and doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyability of the game and, to me at least, makes it feel more rewarding when you complete a section you previously had issues with.
Castlevania rewards you for exploring the limited environment around you. Firstly to upgrade your whip or gain hearts which allow you to use your secondary weapons you have to break the candles present throughout the level. It’s pretty obvious in the opening scene that they look different and are not part of the background and it’s entirely likely that just by trying to learn the controls in this portion that you may destroy a candle and find that it’s beneficial to your adventure. If not it won’t be too long before you do this by accident. And by seeing that you can destroy candles for a reward you wonder if there’s anything else you can do to get an edge in the game. Hit the walls in certain areas of the game and you’re rewarded with a cooked chicken on a plate which helps Simon regain some of his health. It’s probably not the best idea to eat chicken that you find in a hole in the wall, but when you’re desperate you’ll try anything. Another hidden bonus that I hadn’t noticed until playing recently is that in some places you can kneel down and a money bag with bonus points will appear nearby. This actually plays a larger role at one point in Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest, albeit in a more cryptic and frustrating way and I’ll delve into the deeper when I come to Simon’s Quest.
The final point to talk about then for Castlevania is the music. I have to take into account that there is only really so much that can be done to create music on the NES and that compliment the aesthetics of Castlevania would be a challenge. Thankfully, the music turned out incredibly well. It fits the mostly spooky atmosphere and has a lot of darker elements thrown in and feels gothic. Despite this it also manages to retain catchy melodies and surprisingly upbeat and bouncy elements. The music has so many layers to it and is more complex than a lot of the soundtracks I’ve heard from the NES library. As far as composition goes every track is interesting and well thought out and the incorporation of different musical styles, especially the neo classical moments could not be better and this shows with the track Vampire Killer being an often reused piece in future installments of the series.
If it wasn’t already obvious, yes I would recommend this game. It’s one of the best games from the NES library and easily one of the best platformers. The game was unique and felt very different at the time with there being very little horror themed games that were so well executed around it’s release. The game stands the test of time easily ad the legacy it has left has been, mostly, pretty good. If you haven’t already played this give it a go and then invest in other titles from the series such as Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, Symphony of the Night and pretty much any of the handheld titles from the gameboy advance releases onwards.