Some games are popular during the generation they’re released in, and then fade into obscurity. Then there are others that strike such a chord with players and leave such an impact that we still talk about how great they are, even after a plethora of sequels. Castlevania is one such game that is so revered.

The debut of whip-swinging vampire hunter Simon Belmont occurred in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Born from a mashup of classic monsters, gothic scenery, and more than a little inspiration from Vampire Hunter D, Castlevania distinguished itself from its contemporaries with its horror imagery. While most games of the time stuck with the trappings of 80’s action movies or generic fantasy settings, Castlevania took you to the crumbling battlements of Dracula’s castle for a grueling battle.

Just looking at the cover gives you a feel for what you’re in for. Dracula’s castle looms menacingly atop an isolated precipice as the Count himself bares his fangs in a mocking grin. Simon Belmont stands in the foreground, brandishing the Vampire Killer whip and pointing a finger as if to say “I accept your challenge, you bloodsucking punk.” Seeing it on the shelf in the mid 1980’s must have evoked the word “rad”.

After pressing the Start button, we see Simon marching up to the gates of the castle, and the game begins. The first level sets the stage for what became and entire series. These humble beginnings offer us many elements that would become repeated often- the approach to the castle, the entry hall, and of course, the ever-familiar Vampire Killer tune.

The level design is fantastic- although ingenious isn’t quite the right word. Fiendish is more like it, as Konami seemed to deliberately program the game to murder you again and again. Hazards are all over the place- water, spikes, malevolent architecture that takes advantage of Simon being knocked back whenever he’s injured- Castlevania is a place that tests your patience and reflexes at the same time. In addition, enemies become stronger as you proceed in the game, so that knight that took a few hits early on will become a damage sponge in the final corridors of the castle. In addition to the tough enemies, there are the deadly nuisances like the Medusa Heads, the Hunchbacks, and the Bats. They’re annoying because their patterns make them hard to hit and hard to avoid- and they usually show up in those precarious places where you’re going to be knocked back into a death drop. This is responsible for a good portion of Castlevania‘s legendary difficulty (the other portion tends to come from having so many enemies on the screen at once).

I think one of the interesting things about Castlevania– a factor that Metroidvanias abandoned, is that you get to see the boss’ energy meter. In a game like Castlevania, knowing the amount of hit points the boss has left can let you tweak your strategy- if you’ve got plenty of health and the boss is down to one or two blocks, then you can just get in there and throw everything at him and get it over with.  The bosses themselves mostly run a gamut of classic movie monsters- obviously you’ve got Dracula, but he’s also employing the Frankenstein monster and a hunchbacked assistant, mummies, giant vampire bats, and Medusa a la Clash of the Titans. You’ve also got the Grim Reaper, although I don’t know if he’s made that many movie appearances. If I have one complaint it’s that Dracula’s final form resembles something from a more superdeformed game like Ghosts & Goblins.

Castlevania‘s music is the stuff of legend. I’ve written a full article on the series’ music in the past, and the original game starts the series off spectacularly. Just about every track in the game is memorable. It sounds like action oriented video game music of its era, but at the same time it often has a rock beat to it and a gothic or neoclassical sensibility about it. The drum intro for the beginning of the 3rd Level (the music called “Wicked Child”) is impressive and memorable enough that most covers of the song implement it. It’s kind of interesting that for a long time video games had been mostly silent affairs (with the exception of Pitfall 2 and Ultima IV). During the latter half of the 1980s, improved sound hardware meant that games could deliver recognizable music that didn’t make your ears bleed. While earlier games like Mario had memorable music, it was games like Castlevania, Zelda, and Final Fantasy that began to add layers of complexity to the compositions.  Most NES games had music- and that in itself is a milestone.

Castlevania is one of the best remembered games for the NES, and rightly so. It has a far reaching legacy that continues to this day, and it still triggers immediate memories for multiple generations of gamers. If you haven’t tried it…I don’t really know what’s stopping you.

PROS: Divine challenge. Great music. The beginning of a legend.

CONS: Hellish difficulty. Medusa Heads. The corridor before fighting Death.

Castlevania is currently available on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service.

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