[Retrospective] ‘Castlevania’ is Still Vampire Killing at 35

It’s ironic that we’ve only now gotten around to diving deep into the original Castlevania after delving into retrospectives for its two sequels. At 35, the series has seen its up and downs. The current trend seems to be to lament over “the good old days” of when Konami first bestowed greatness on Nintendo’s Famicom Disc System back in 1986, then porting it over to the NES. And given the current prospects of many of Konami’s classic series, it’s not out of the question. But hey, instead of mourning for what could have been, reminisce instead over what we’ve gotten in the original Castlevania.

Directed by Hitoshi Akamatsu, Castlevania (known as Akumajō Dracula in Japan) was approached with film in mind. Akamatsu wanted Castlevania‘s visuals and music to feel “cinematic”, with the idea that players would feel as if they were in a classic horror film. And while it’s not exactly horror, when the question arose as to why Simon wields a whip, Akamatsu replied simply that he was a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indeed, when you boot up Castlevania for the first time, the title screen mimics the sprockets you’d find in film reels. Pressing start to begin your journey presented a scene with Simon walking to up to the gates of Dracula’s castle in an iconic scene that’s since been replicated many times in the series.

Once the game truly begins, players truly experience the series’ iconic music for the first time with “Vampire Killer”. Kinuyo Yamashita worked with Satoe Terashima on the game’s soundtrack, which still remains one of the best soundtracks to any video game ever. As all good music does, Castlevania’s soundtrack enhances the gameplay experience, touching on a variety of emotions and feelings through each stage. Of course, in keeping with Akamatsu’s cinematic feel, Yamashita was credited as under the pseudonym James Banana for the North American version, which like many of the game’s end credits, is a play on real people’s names associated with the horror genre. In this case, James Banana was a reference to James Bernard, who composed the score for 1958’s Horror of Dracula.

Graphically, while Castlevania doesn’t quite hold up as well as the later NES sequels, the quality of the art is still readily apparent even today. There’s a lot of detail that’s been put into each stage, with each having its own colour scheme (limited as it is) to give each area its own unique look and feel. Obviously, there are no turning gears or swinging pendulums for you to jump on as in Castlevania III. But again, the journey through Dracula’s massive castle, through the claustrophobic caverns underneath, up into the clock tower and up castle tower steps is just as exhilarating, thanks again in no small part to Yamashita’s soundtrack.

One of the common themes at the time for many video games was the concept of “NES hard” difficulty. While Castlevania is no easy playthrough, it’s nowhere near the frustration of what something like Ninja Gaiden would produce. Part of the perceived difficulty is Castlevania’s control scheme, which admittedly feels stiff. Of course, you could counter that with players who have no problem with Mario’s slippery control in the original Super Mario Bros., which is perceived as being “easy”. Simon is admittedly slow and deliberate in his movement, with the inability to control your distance or direction once you commit to a jump. There’s also a “wind-up” for when Simon attacks, either in the air or on the ground. For novices, this can admittedly be a frustration. However, looking closer, Akamatsu and company have deliberately built the game around this limitation for players to learn the mechanics of the game.

Take the candles, for instance. Yes, they hold the whip upgrades and hearts for your subweapons, but their placement is the key. Castlevania forces you into a rhythm of sorts when it comes to jumping and attacking. It’s all a matter of timing. You’ll have to learn how and when to jump, whip a candle, grab the item, and continue onward. This is also adapted into enemy spawns in the later stages, where the platforms they reside on leave little room for you to land. You’ll have to again jump, whip, land, and in some cases whip again to defeat your enemies. Castlevania is not a game where you stroll through the levels. You’ll have to actively be thinking, and memorize when and where to jump. Eventually, it all becomes second nature.

Another component to the controls (and gameplay) is the use of subweapons. Much like with the whip, you’ll have to learn which subweapon is best for the situation, and hold onto it (don’t accidentally pick up another one!) while maintaining your heart supply. The other strategy is to kill enough enemies with your subweapons to pick up the multipliers that will drop from candles, or find the multipliers that are sometimes hidden in the levels. Each subweapon has their own uses. The Dagger (which Akamatsu intended players to use first in order to get around the concept of the subweapon) flies fast and straight across the screen hitting once, while the Boomerang (or Cross, as it’s shaped) can be thrown and can hit multiple enemies with a single throw, even hitting on return trips back to Simon. The Axe is primarily used for hitting enemies above Simon, given its arcing flight path. The Stopwatch freezes time, giving you opportunity to move around enemies. Lastly there’s the Holy Water, which can be tossed in front of you, erupting in a small flame. While it might not seem like much, grabbing the multiplier and learning how to stunlock enemies with the Holy Water can allow you to “cheese” your way to victory with some bosses, including Dracula himself!

However, to downplay the difficulty in Castlevania would be foolish. It’s not an easy game. After the first few stages, the difficulty spikes upward, with enemies being more resilient and dealing more damage. In fact, in the final stages, you can only take four hits from enemies at most before dying. Returning to the idea of actively planning your moves, you’ll have to recognize and learn the enemy patterns, especially with the more annoying foes such as the Fleamen or Medusa Heads. Boss fights likewise scale up in difficulty, culminating in Death and his continual spawning of scythes that randomly fly at every angle, requiring you to have stocked up on hearts and the appropriate subweapon. In fact, Death presents more of a challenge than Dracula if you play your cards right.

In fact, when you think about it, the final battle against Dracula foretells the events of Simon’s Quest! After defeating Dracula’s first form, his head flies off and his body splits apart to reveal his demonic form. When asked by a former coworker as to the reasoning behind Dracula’s head flying off, Akamatsu replied that it was foreshadowing Dracula’s resurrection. As for Dracula’s demonic form, Akamatsu stated that it was not Dracula himself, but an “incarnation of the curse of man”. Hence, why after defeating Dracula, Simon is cursed. And we know what happens after that.

It’s certainly a testament to Castlevania and Konami that we’re still talking about the first game to this day, and how it’s still very much revered by critics and fans alike. Without Castlevania, there’s little doubt that Konami would have been as big of an influence in the following decades. Nor would we have had things like the recent Castlevania Netflix series, or the eventual concept of “Metroidvanias”. While Konami seems content with releasing collections of past glories for the present time, one hopes that one day the series will be back in a meaningful way. Action-platformer games like Castlevania are still very much popular today, as is the idea creating a “retro throwback” that expands upon the classic mould while adding modern touches. Whatever the case, Castlevania remains the epitome of the genre, and one of the greatest games ever.