By Louis Polite / October 18th, 2014
|Release Date||JP: September 26, 1986
NA: May 1, 1987
EU: December 19, 1988
|Platform||NES, Wii, 3DS, Wii U|
As a Castlevania fan, I’m proud to revisit the origins of the series. I love many of the newer Castlevania titles, but let’s take a moment to reflect on its roots. This is before the Metroidvanias, before the awkward 3D transitions, before it found comfort in the God of War-esque Lords of Shadow games. Before all that, there was the Castlevania on the NES — known for nothing but its brutal platforming and reflex-demanding whip action. What more do you need?
Castlevania for the NES was an early horror game based loosely on the lore of Dracula. The story was straightforward and simple. You play as Simon Belmont, of the legendary Belmont clan of vampire killers. Your mission is to kill — err, sorry, you can’t say “kill” in a Nintendo game (it’s the 80s, it’s against Nintendo of America’s policy) — conquer Dracula, who resurrects every 100 years. The appearance of Dracula in those increments thus determines the current Belmont tasked with taking down the fanged icon.
The spooky and iconic imagery of Simon Belmont walking up to the front gates struck a ghostly chord. You should probably play this game with the lights off, as it sets the mood well. Even better is to play it the month of October! The concept of Castlevania is to use your whip in a sidescrolling faction to combat your enemies, which can be temporarily upgraded twice — once to do more damage by becoming a chain whip and once again to get a longer reach. How do you get these upgrades? You whip the candles on the wall. Yes, you whip candles to find items. Items like sub-weapons and hearts fall out of them.
These hearts are not health, either; they’re ammunition for your sub-weapons. Your possible sub-weapons range from throwing Daggers to the iconic, but cheap tactic of Holy Water bottles that constantly burn an enemy, giving several points of damage at once with a flickering flame that also freezes them completely in their tracks. Then, there are Axes that are thrown in an arc and, finally, the Cross Boomerang which hits enemies after it is thrown and when it is on the way back to you. There is also the Stopwatch which requires five hearts to use and stops enemies from moving temporarily. Only one copy of a sub-weapon can be on the screen at a time (meaning that you cannot throw another shot of any sub-weapon until the previous shot leaves the screen). You can, however, upgrade all items (except the Stopwatch) to let you throw more than one on screen, with the double shot and then the triple shot. If you run out of health, you lose whatever items and upgrades you may have had. The trick for this game is to not die and keep all your items through the variant enemies in the game, such as Bats, Ghouls, flying Medusa Heads and Spear Knights.
Good luck with that feat, though. It’s not an easy one, especially when you have Medusa Heads in an squiggly formation of lines coming at you while knights are throwing axes. Then you die, lose that awesome Holy Water and now you’re back to a wimpy leather whip — all because you couldn’t find a pork chop hidden in a crusty, dirty wall (Why is food for your health buried in a dirty, stone walls? That’s disgusting!). It’s similar to Super Mario Bros. where you could keep a Fire Flower throughout the whole game and then lost it due to one costly mistake. Prepare for the 18 “stages” of Castlevania to put you through constant perils and the classic “Nintendo Hard” design. This game will make you learn that the best way through it is to master all enemy patterns and master the desired reflexes while simultaneously platforming to do so. Oh, and try not to get hit. It’s not fun to be hit and then gravitate towards the nearest pit while being knocked back!
I say “stages” because most of you, especially modern gamers, will probably think that there are only six stages. This is because these “stages” are more like checkpoints for losing a life. You actually have to go through three “stages” and beat the boss at the end to make it to the next level. Bosses consist of spooky icons like Medusa, Frankenstein’s Monster and Death himself. Losing all of your lives will result in you going back to the beginning of the set of three (except the final boss, whom you have infinite tries at it). This is often the result of the very well-crafted, but demanding level design. The platforming in this game is fairly tough, as the timing for your jumps must be perfect.
That is due in part to the deliberate design flaw of having to find an engagement ring for your jump arcs. It’s pretty baffling as to why Konami decided to restrict your jumps to a single line of motion and rendering your D-pad useless until you either land on the ground or fall to your doom in a bottomless pit. Not being able to control yourself in mid-air like Mario begged a lot of questions. This oddity and another, such as being knocked back every time you take a hit, still pains many installments of the series. Castlevania never did have as fluid of controls as Super Mario Bros., but Konami took the alternate double-edge sword route of gimping the player, but turning the gimp into a very clever mechanic. When you think about it, can you control yourself in mid-air in real life? No, although, one could strike back with a retort that placement and timing was also part of the tactics that made platformers what they are. Regardless, this is not an aging problem as it was a deliberate design discovered some time after its release. (Thank you Grant from Castlevania III!) Thankfully, you have infinite continues, so it’s only Game Over when you say it’s Game Over and turn off the system. Personally, I felt the game was entirely fair and I never (and never will) use any save states. Thankfully, there is a Virtual Console version for you folks out there who may need that extra crutch to avoid pulling your hair out!
Castlevania still boasts very impressive visuals for early 1987. Many games before this used nasty-textured blocks for graphics. This was one of the first NES games that was able to design curves at the time that began to separate the NES from the square graphics of the Atari 2600. The sprites are also more hand-drawn than using pixels to create shapes. This doesn’t sound too big of a deal now, but perspective is needed to see the impact of this game. The soundtrack shouldn’t take much explanation, it contains iconic tracks like Vampire Killer!
Looking back at the first game of any series is always a fundamental thing, such as this review. How much can you analyze inventing the very first spoon and see how it holds up to newer spoons? Sorry for the bad analogy, but you’ll easily have more fun with this game than any spoon, even new spoons. The graphics were very well polished for the time, and the gameplay is fun and challenging, despite some deliberately restricted designs. The game may only take you a couple hours to beat (if you don’t struggle too much), but, for 1987, this was considered pretty lengthy. The music stands iconic today and still gets used in further installments. It is what it is — it’s just Castlevania for the NES! It’s better than a spoon.
Game was purchased by the author, and is based on the Wii U version