It seems everyone is doing a Castlevania bit at the moment. Angry Video Game Nerd did his excellent marathon spanning the first 7 odd games and Egoraptor did his amazing Sequelitis episode on the differences between Castlevania 1 and 2. Irate gamer has done one or two, RPG fanatic did his, basically Youtube is full of people expressing their love for the series but most of them only talk about the old ones and I find that funny because it’s one of the longest running video game franchises and the series has taken so many turns from it’s original formula that there is ample material to rant about for both positives and negatives. So why break tradition?! Here’s my personal history with the Castlevania series.
My first encounter with Castlevania was about 3rd grade. A friend of mine had a NES with about a half dozen games. We’d usually play Mario, Duck Hunt or Excite Bike but every now and then, we’d chuck in Castlevania. It wouldn’t stay in there long since the game was so damn hard that we’d get sick of dying before even seeing the first boss battle. I had another friend I used to swap black and white Gameboy games with for a week and through him I got to try Castlevania Adventure but I didn’t get very far in the first bloody level without running out of lives. Those of you that remember the part near the end of the first level where you have to dodge or kill the flying bats while jumping from brick to brick at that precise moment otherwise you fall down, have to trek back and the bloody bats respawn again will know what I mean. So it stuck with me that Castlevania basically meant FUCKING HARD GAME!
Fast forward quite a few years to when I got my Super Nintendo for christmas. With it, I got 3 games : Street Fighter 2, Super Ghouls and Ghosts and Super Castlevania 4. So yeah, my video game experiences in 16 bit were pretty spoilt from the get go. I remember many months of attempts of beating Castlevania 4 with only once defeating the last boss, Dracula, only to watch as his exploding body let out a bunch of bats which killed me in the final seconds of my last life. Oh the swear words I created that day… Even with all the frustration that came with it, I kept throwing it in the old SNES from time to time, but mainly just to listen to the music. Oh the music. Castlevania 4 with forever go down as the best 16 bit soundtrack ever. It was so good, even the game creators knew it, they put a “sound test” in the options menu that let you listen to all the tracks from the game’s levels and I have spent HOURS just listening to those tunes over and over.
From here, I jumped to Castlevania 64 on the Nintendo 64. I can’t even rightly say what it was that drove me to buy it. I had only played 1, 4 and one of the Gameboy outings by this point and I wouldn’t say I was a fan of the series yet and my first encounter was not a pleasant memory. Even the reviews at the time said it had issues but hell, there are some downright SHIT games that I get huge entertainment from so it really must have been purchased on a whim. As must have been the game’s development team. Castlevania 64 is a steaming pile of crap. The attacks were impossible to aim, the enemies were stupid and there was NO MUSIC! None! The opening sequence has a beautiful violin rendition of a previous Castlevania song but then gameplay is silent except for a few noises and sound effects. I never had the patience to finsh this one, even today, the game is just too shit for me to put myself through it. So now the name Castlevania had a big black mark next to it. To me, these games were either completely shit or too fricken hard but one of them had a great soundtrack.
There were many Castlevania games I had missed and, because of my extreme prejudice, there were some I avoided upon their release so the next Castlevania game I would touch would be Castlevania: Circle of the Moon on the Gameboy Advance. The reason I even tried this one was because it was early in the GBA’s life and there was a dry period where there just were no new games for the system so anything new would seem like a blessing. Luckily though, this one wasn’t a bad game. The animation on the main character was, literally, 4 frames of animation and kinda worried me about how much power the GBA actually had but at least the cool music was back. It wasn’t mind blowing but it was memorable and catchy and fittingly gothic and since Circle Of The Moon, the music has become a big part of how I judge all Castlevania games. These tunes are iconic and don’t require huge processors to get results. I even went back and listened to the old NES Castlevanias and even the Gameboy versions and their music fits the feel too. So to this point in the story, Castlevania 64 is the only game that did not deliver on the auditory level.
Now Circle of the Moon left a big imprint on me. It was so different from the other Castlevanias that I had played. It had RPG elements in it where beating enemies gave you experience points that leveled you up. With each level, you got stronger, did more damage and had more health. There was even a weapon system where you matched up certain elemental cards and it would change your whip attack and now they had a map system with backtracking like in the Metroid series. Of course, I would find out much later that this wasn’t a first for the series but this was where I experienced it first. Then they released a second GBA Castlevania called Harmony of Dissonance. The crappy 4 frame animation was back but now it had this cartoony glow and somehow they had forgotten how to make cool sounding music like in Circle of the Moon. This one just sounded gross. The songs weren’t bad per se, it just seemed that their choice of instrument was wrong. Like trying to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a piano, it’s just messy. There was a third GBA Castlevania released called Aria of Sorrow but I swear it didn’t come out in any video game stores I went to because I didn’t know of its existance until quite sometime later.
I remember grabbing the next Castlevania which was released on Playstation 2. It’s called Lament of Innocence but the full title is only known to the fans of the series since it’s not printed anywhere on the case or even in the accompanying booklet. The game isn’t totally shit but it is dull and easily forgettable. The music was just melodic wash with nothing of memorable note but they did a much better job of the combat than Castlevania 64 did. This one has it’s place on my collection shelf but rarely does it get any game time compared to all the others.
The next Castlevania that I played rocked the shit out of my world! Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow for the DS. This one game made me into a hardcore fan of the whole series and because of this particular game, I started hunting down the titles I had missed in the past. Dawn of Sorrow has it all. Amazing graphics and super fluid animation. That awesome catchy musical standard is well kept. There is even an incredible anime style intro that gets you psyched up for the adventure to come. The leveling up system had been refined and now there was completely different weapons you could equip. This was also the first in the series that I had played where the whip was not the main weapon and this would stand to be the only gripe I have for the game.
With my fanaticism for Castlevania hitting a high, I sought after my missing pieces. I found Castlevania 1, 2 and 3 on NES. Castlevania Adventure, Legends and Belmont’s Revenge on Gameboy but none of these would compare to the complete fluke chance when I happened upon my copy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for Playstation 1.
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard gamers here and there talk about how good Symphony of the Night is and it wasn’t until I really started looking for it that I found out just how critically acclaimed and loved by fans it really was. Let me tell you, it truly is as good as all the hype in the world could preceed it. The graphics, music, rewarding upgrade system, epic boss battles, multiple endings, hundreds of different enemies with their own strengths and weaknesses, collectables and even hidden easter eggs are all here and put to perfect effect.
After this, all Castlevanias tend to get compared to Symphony of the Night and Super Castlevania 4. They just set the bar so high and for completely different reasons. Castlevania 4 is a straight forward action platformer and Symphony is a 2D action RPG and the only releases that measured up at all were the ones on DS called Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia. Both of which are great games but neither beat Dawn of Sorrow. Order of Ecclesia even brought back the high difficulty level which had kinda dissappeared from the last half dozen Castlevania games. Funny how no one even noticed until it returned. The only other release that made a blip on the radar was Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles on PSP. The claim to fame this one has is that it has the original release of Castlevania: Rhondo of Blood which was previously only available on an obscure console and only in japan. There was a SNES port called Castlevania: Dracula X (or in America it was called Vampire’s Kiss) which I am yet to find a copy for myself. Dracula X Chronicles has an unlockable extra where you can play Symphony of the Night in all it’s glory. There is one other Castlevania game I have yet to play called Castlevania Bloodlines which is only on Sega’s Mega Drive and by all accounts, the game sounds really REALLY good and is high on my hitlist for games I am currently hunting down. There’s one other Castlevania missing from my collection and it’s Castlevania Chronicles on PS1. It was released after Symphony of the Night and some publications say it’s a remake of the very first Castlevania.
Now there have been some disappointing newer releases too. PS2 got another Castlevania called Curse of Darkness which was better than Lament of Innocence but since I had played Symphony in that time, Curse of Darkness came across as shit. It had a strange “pet” system called innocent devils that was amusing and interesting but it didn’t save the game from it’s incredible dullness. There was also Castlevania Judgement which was released on the Wii. It’s a fighting game. You heard me, a one on one fighting game that sits somewhere between Powerstone and Soul Calibur but with none of the fun of either. It’s completely shit and not worth wasting time on.
The latest Castlevania at the time of writing this is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for PS3 and Xbox360 for which I have done a review for here at GeekActually. The game is great and brings back many things from the original series that got kinda lost along the way whilst leaving out a lot of important characteristics from the whole franchise. Like bringing back the Belmont name and the whip as the main weapon but removed Dracula as the main threat.
Overall, I look back on the series with fond memories, even with the frustration levels and intermittent crappy releases and any new Castlevania that gets made, I will snap up without a second thought. Some people talk about the horror elements of the game but I never really got that, though the opening sequence for Castlevania 4 sets an awesome mood, I guess I must have been too old to get creeped out by it. There’s a lot of lessons that can be learnt from the Castlevania series. What to do, and what not to do, to make a good game. And the final thought I’d like to leave with is that Castlevania is game series etched in history. Like all historical documents, there’s parts we like and parts we don’t but if they weren’t there, we’d be missing a vital piece of our heritage.