Archive for September, 2012

Phantom of the Opera

The Castlevania series is known for many things. From the unforgiving difficulty of early installments to the androgynous appearances of heroes in its later iterations – and the fact that the main series never quite made a successful jump to 3D – there is one category that Castlevania always certainly excelled in, and that was having a stellar soundtrack. The centuries-long saga of the Belmont family working to whip Count Dracula into submission has always been accompanied by great music, right from the beginning.

The first stage of the original Castlevania opens with one of the series’ most iconic themes, “Vampire Killer. Not only is it infernally catchy, but remixes of it have reappeared throughout the series. And “Vampire Killer” isn’t the only tune to get this treatment Bloody Tears and “The Beginning”, popularized by the second and third NES games, have also risen from the grave in numerous incarnations of the series.

The Full Bloodworks

But simply mentioning names is going to get us nowhere.  Let’s dig in deeper to this unhallowed soil and talk about just what made the music so great. Always a balance between gothic atmosphere and neoclassical rock, the Castlevania series has put forth music that consistently matched the crumbling ruins and ghoul-filled halls of its titular castle.

When Castlevania made the jump to 16-bit, its entries on each system had a divergent style. Super Castlevania IV (widely considered the best in the series by fans of the original style) for the SNES amped up the atmosphere, using the Super Nintendo’s powerful sound chip to provide moody organ runs and chilling synthesized strings.  Meanwhile, Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis continued the traditions of its predecessors while being the first game in the series that Michiru Yamane – perhaps the series’ most well-known composer – worked on. Like Super Castlevania IV, Bloodlines was heavy on the synthesized pipe organ – and considering the games are firmly in the gothic horror genre, can you blame Konami? Finally, the PC Engine game Rondo of Blood (which only recently made it out of Japan in its original form) used the capabilities of its system to provide higher quality CD sound and voice acting.

Even the Game Boy – not known for its great sound quality or epic musical scores (although both Zelda: Link’s Awakening and The Final Fantasy Legend have terrific music) – features at least one iconic Castlevania tune, which opens the first Game Boy title, Castlevania: The Adventure. How well known is it? Well, when the Wiiware remake of Castlevania: The Adventure arrived, many fans were disappointed that a remix of Bloodlines’ opening track was featured in the first level rather than Adventure’s “Battle of the Holy”.

Castlevania: The Adventure

And, of course, the elephant in the room that I can’t talk about Castlevania without mentioning: Symphony of the Night. The Castlevania for the 32-bit age, and the game that popularized the Metroidvania format, also happens to have a great soundtrack – this one being the aforementioned Michiru Yamane’s most well-known work, and is a very diverse offering featuring everything from the prologue’s screaming heavy metal guitars augmented with a wordless chorus, to the waltz of eternal damnation you hear in Olrox’s Quarters. There are a couple of letdowns, however – in inverted castle (the second portion of the game) there is very little in the way of musical variety. Most areas repeat the same tracks, as opposed to each part of the castle having its own distinct sound. As well, the ending theme, which is best described as Celine Dion hanging out with Kenny G, is laughably, hilariously awful.  So whenever I reach the ending I imagine the much better ending music of the first Resident Evil, “Still Dawn”. That makes it a lot better.

The Castlevania series’ soundtracks have also experienced new life in the hands of remixers and game-centric rock bands. Various tunes from the Castlevania series (in particular “Vampire Killer”, “Bloody Tears” and “The Beginning”) have been recorded by bands like the Minibosses, The Advantage and MegaDriver. There are numerous excellent remixes to be found on the internet (Konami’s own remix CDs, including one spelled Remixies, are not really recommended unless you’re in the mood for a good laugh, although their in-game remixes of earlier tunes are usually quite good). Why such a legacy? Well, the tunes are infectiously catchy, along with being nostalgic, and they’re generally very good songs, too. Not every NES game can claim to have really memorable music.  The Castlevania series sticks with people.  And I stake my reputation on that. HA HA HA. Ah. Terrible vampire joke. Couldn’t resist.