Revisiting the Classics – Castlevania
The Castlevania series is one of the handful of non-Nintendo franchises that was able to survive after the NES and SNES. Like the first Mega Man and Super Mario Bros. titles, tight controls, an interesting premise, and challenging, but fair gameplay is what separated Castlevania from other early NES games. With a much anticipated 3DS title on the way, the series is still going strong and owes its success to its early roots. In the spirit of Halloween, I thought it was the best time to revisit the Belmont clan in the first of the vampire-slaying action platformers.
Every time I see Simon Belmont shuffle to those familiar front gates, as Castlevania looms nefariously in the background and that haunting 8-bit tune plays, I get a small adrenaline rush. That beginning eight seconds gets you ready to kick some serious vampire ass and keeps the momentum going as you are instantly transmitted to the action of the game.
To me, this beginning eight seconds is probably the most important piece of the game because if you were a video game designer back in the old days of the NES, you had two options to start off your game: 1) Throw the player immediately into the action (like Super Mario Bros.) or 2) Use a text screen to tell the story to the audience (like Final Fantasy). Most developers went with the first option unless story was really essential to your game (which back in those dark ages it rarely was) but the way that Castlevania separates itself with its short, eight second cutscene is brilliant.
First, it is short (only eight seconds) and even in replays I am not thinking about how I just want to skip the cutscene and delve immediately into the gameplay like in most other games, because it is only asking for eight seconds of my time. Most games today I have to wait five, ten, even fifteen minutes before it lets me play the game, but Castlevania keeps it short and sweet. Second, it is simple. There is no text that you need to digest and there is no true spectacle to behold, it’s just a guy walking to the left while a big spooky castle lays in the background, but because it is so simple, it really allows the player just to soak in the environment. Your eyes jump around as you watch Simon shuffle along the well-lit foreground, up to the gloomy sky and the shadowy bastion, back down to Simon and then up to the cloud-covered pale crescent moon. Your eyes and brain are not overwhelmed and eight seconds is the perfect amount of time for you to submerge yourself inside the ominous landscape. The simplicity of the scenery is what brings us to our third point: it conveys two conflicting emotions.
As I said above, the opening scene really gets the player engaged and ready to play the game, but there is a second emotion I feel every time I see that opening screen: despair. There is really no context to the first Castlevania, so there is no text telling you who you are or what your mission is and unless you read the manual or the back of the box, those questions would never be answered. Despite this, those first eight seconds are able to add context and really communicate to the player the weight of the overwhelming challenge that awaits Simon inside those castle walls. The mix of the thrilling excitement and the chilling despair only motivates me to finish my challenge and really makes me think that I am the chosen Son of the Belmont clan, ready to confront my destiny to extinguish the pure evil that waits.
Trust me, you are going to need this motivation if you want to beat this game. Its relentless and challenging gameplay is what’s going to keep you on the edge of your seat and sweating through this 8-bit crucible. It’s designed to make the players use their wits as much as their whip and confront each contest with careful calculating. If you run and jump through the game, you will die fast and you will die a lot, but if you take the time to digest your surroundings and plan your jumps and attacks accordingly, you will succeed.
What’s nice about Castlevania’s gameplay is it’s hard, but fair as checkpoints are provided throughout the level to take some of the tension away and if you get a game over, you are returned to the beginning of the level, not the beginning of the game. I can’t imagine the frustration I would feel if every time I got a game over from Death I would have to work all the way back up from the beginning of the game. It is a smart design plan that helps alleviate some of the frustration without taking away from the challenging gameplay.
Speaking of Death, most of the time you will die in this game is because of a boss or a flying medusa head. The game is centered around these epic boss battles from Creature Feature’s past at the end of every level. The boss battles are fun and interesting, with each boss offering unique challenges based off their movie-monster persona. For the most part, all can be beaten with a steady hand and a sharp mind, except for Death and Dracula. The final two bosses are so unfair and frustratingly hard that luck is as big as a factor in your triumph as skill is. They will test your patience and abilities and conquering these goliaths only make victory that much sweeter.
The medusa heads (and bats) are also a big proprietor of resentment. Most of the enemies in the game are standard creeps that die in one hit and you never see again, but medusa heads separate themselves from the rest of Dracula’s goons because of their infinite number. The onslaught of medusa heads and bats you will face punctualizes the challenge as you have to maneuver over and under their predictable yet perplexing movement patterns. These guys love to hang out in areas where you have to jump from platform to platform and because of the way you fly back when you are hit, a single touch from one of these vast adversaries could mean death.
You can take about three or four hits before dying, depending on the enemy. You can heal yourself in the game by finding roasted chickens hidden beneath walls throughout each level which, but you have to find this out through self-discovery. If you’ve played Castlevania as much as I have, you know which walls contain the healing poultry, but if you haven’t you could go through the entire game thinking there is no way to heal. This creates a gigantic amount of tension as you go from each checkpoint maintaining your survival. Even if you do know their locations, they are few and far between that you will be feeling the high stress situation of reaching the checkpoint with only one health left.
Simon comes with an arsenal of weapons to help him take down the Count. His main weapon is his trusty whip which can be upgraded twice through power-ups: once for damage and the other for range. You gain these power-ups fairly early in each level, almost making you dependent on the maxed out whip which makes dying and losing those power-ups all the more meaningful. The player’s dependence means that when you die, your first priority is getting your whip back up to level three and you back into your sense of familiarity. This shakes things up in the game and can make the challenge and tension feel fresh.
Simon also acquires a plethora of different items from Holy Water, to a pocket watch that stops time. The items add novelty to the game and specific items can help you get out of a sticky situation, but for the most part, your whip is going to be most used and what you are most thankful for.
What really sets Castlevania above the rest and the reason I believe this is still a timeless classic is its tone. From the opening eight seconds, to the creative color pallet, and its haunting and exciting music, Castlevania is a very well-crafted game. The excitement and adrenaline rush and the daunting despair of the task at hand are kept with me through the entirety of the castle. Not a whole lot of games today can keep feelings like this ongoing through its entire course. You can argue that because of the limitations of the technology, nostalgia, and the fact that it’s a shorter game make it easier for Konami, but I will always believe it’s due to Castlevania’s well-designed aesthetics and crafted gameplay. The tone is what really has kept this game alive and what makes it so memorable from the early days of gaming.