One of the nice things about revisiting old games from a modern perspective is the fact that you can see how certain genres have evolved over time… and sometimes seemingly morphed into different things altogether.
The original Castlevania is a great example of this. Far from being your common-or-garden everyday mascot platformer that we saw a fair bit throughout the 8- and 16-bit home console eras, Castlevania provided an experience that was altogether its own thing, immediately recognisable and immensely influential.
Atmospheric, idiosyncratic and consistently challenging, it’s a game that still holds its own today — just don’t expect an easy ride!
I first played Castlevania back when it was “current”. I never had my own copy, though, so I rarely got to play it for very long at a time, and consequently up until Konami’s release of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection for various platforms, I didn’t know a lot about the stages beyond the first “block”.
I did, however, know that Castlevania was hard. I knew that it had “weird jumping” and bizarrely heavy gravity. I knew that it had a distinctive and unusual weapon: a whip. And I knew that for some inexplicable reason, hearts were not a means of restoring your health, but rather a means of powering a series of special weapons that could be triggered through the slightly awkward “up and B” combination.
Armed with this knowledge, the release of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection saw me jumping in to the first installment with a certain degree of trepidation… and what little experience I had with the game soon came flooding back.
The early stages provide you with some relatively risk-free training that arm you with some of the skills you’ll need to survive later. The mindless zombies in the opening corridor, for example, teach you that enemies will often come from both sides, and that there is a distinctive “rhythm” to your whip attacks. In other words, you can’t just hammer the attack button and hope that you’ll hit something — you need to observe your enemies’ patterns and time your strikes carefully.
In the case of these zombies, that’s easy enough to do; they rise up and move at a constant speed towards you, so all you need is an understanding of how much distance the whip covers (ideally at all three of its different power levels) to know when you can safely strike to clear yourself a path or keep your back clear of threats.
At the same time, though, these early scenes teach you that you have to play in a somewhat assertive manner; hang out in one spot whipping zombies either side of you and you simply won’t make any progress. Instead, you need to clear out the enemies in your way and advance when you can, then repeat the process.
Each enemy has its own distinct “rhythm” that allows you to do this, and as you gradually start to encounter more different types of enemies with different ways of moving, you’ll start to pick up on these patterns — and the knowledge of whether it’s even worth trying to defeat an enemy, or if you should simply slip past when there’s an opening.
A great example of this aspect comes in the form of the widely despised Medusa heads, which first put in an appearance in the second block of stages. Something you’ll need to adjust to quickly in Castlevania is the fact that if you try to take out all the enemies, you’re going to make life more difficult for yourself; instead, faster, safer progress can be made if you observe the Medusa heads’ sine-wave movement pattern and either position yourself in a safe spot before moving, or jump over them while they are ascending or descending the wave.
Each new enemy you encounter in the game acts in this way. When you first encounter them, it might appear impossible to escape without taking any damage, but a little observation, experimentation and practice will soon teach you that there’s a way through every challenge, however seemingly impossible it might be. This type of game design can still be seen regularly in modern games that demand precision and perfection from the player, such as From Software’s titles.
The most potent example of this from my own experience with this most recent playthrough comes in the fourth block of stages, where there’s a sequence that simply involves running to the right. No platforming, no stairs, no jumping — just a straight path to the right.
The twist is that as you proceed to the right, eagles are constantly flying in from both sides and dropping Hunchback enemies, who have an awkward movement pattern that involves leaping at you too quickly for you to be able to respond with the relatively sluggish whip attack. Instead, knowing this behaviour, you need to pre-empt their leap, and ensure that your whip is right in the arc of their jump as they make it — or better yet, pre-empt them altogether by hitting them with your whip as the eagles are dropping them to the ground.
As you progress deeper into the castle, the game punishes you more and more harshly for mistakes, primarily through increasing the amount of damage you take with each passing block of stages. By the fifth area, you’re taking at least four “pips” of health with every hit, meaning you can take at most four hits before dying. Health recovery items are few and far between, too, so understanding of enemy patterns, memorisation of enemy placement and simple practice is essential for success — reach a boss with a sliver of health left and you’re probably going to have a bad time.
Let’s now turn our attention specifically to the platforming component of the game, and its boss fights. All of the elements we’ve talked about today combine together to create the distinctive experience that is Castlevania — not just for this first game, but for much of the early series.
Let’s consider the platforming angle first. I’ve seen some people describe Castlevania as a “beat ’em up”, and I can sort of understand why — it involves constant forward progression and places a strong emphasis on combat. Where I think this comparison falls down somewhat, however, is the presence of the platforming.
It’s not unheard of for a beat ’em up to incorporate platforming elements, of course, but generally speaking they take a back seat to punching people and/or things in the face. In Castlevania, meanwhile, they’re front and centre — and, more to the point, they’re incredibly distinctive.
One of the first things that new Castlevania players will notice is the fact that it feels very “heavy”. Simon moves rather slowly compared to, say, Mario, and his jump is very rigid. You can’t change its direction in flight, and if you don’t launch yourself forwards as you jump, you’ll just leap up in the air; you can’t simply start moving once you’ve left the ground. The ascent is relatively gradual, but the descent is rapid, meaning you’d better hope there’s a platform to land on by the time you reach the apex of your jump!
The descent from a jump is nothing compared to the speed at which Simon falls, however. Stepping off the edge of something, he falls like an absolute rock, and much like when jumping, you can’t control his trajectory — he simply falls straight down, often to his death if he drops off the bottom of the screen, even if you’ve come from a stage “below” your current position. We are not yet in the realm of open-structure platformers where you can backtrack at will!
Simon’s distinctive falling mechanics will be a big adjustment to those who are more accustomed to platform games with a degree of momentum to them such as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog; in those games, running off the edge of a platform without jumping and allowing your forward momentum to carry you to a platform slightly below and ahead of your current position is a viable (and sometimes essential!) option. In Castlevania, meanwhile, stepping off an edge means that you’re going to drop, hard, no questions asked, so there better be something down there to break that fall, otherwise you’re going to be in trouble.
Neither Castlevania nor Super Mario and company’s jumping and falling mechanics are particularly “superior” to one or the other, but it is worth acknowledging the difference, because it forces you to play each type of game in a very different way. Castlevania’s weight and relatively sedate pace lends it a very deliberate, meaningful feel: everything you do has consequences, either good or bad, and becoming proficient at the game is a matter of mastering these rigid mechanics rather than muddling your way through and hoping for the best.
In some ways, this can be interpreted as Super Mario and its ilk being family-friendly experiences that anyone can enjoy, while Castlevania is intended for more mature gamers — not necessarily in age terms (though some may argue horror themes are more appropriate for older gamers anyway), but rather in terms of experience. You don’t give Castlevania to someone who’s never picked up a controller before and expect them to 1) succeed or 2) have a particularly good time. Again, we can trace this design philosophy forward to games like FromSoftware’s titles and their numerous imitators.
The boss fights tie into this focus on experienced players, too. Being an 8-bit NES game, the boss fights in Castlevania aren’t especially elaborate, typically consisting of a large enemy moving via a preset, predictable movement path and perhaps shooting painful things at you. Despite their mechanical simplicity, however, they can be very challenging indeed; quick to punish mistakes and send you back to the start of the stage with your tail between your legs.
What’s interesting about the design of Castlevania’s bosses is that they gradually increase in complexity as the game progresses. The first two simply involve moving to avoid the boss and ensuring you can get some hits in on them. The third boss, which consists of a pair of mummies, teaches you about prioritising targets and defending against attacks from multiple angles. The fourth, which features a vulnerable Frankenstein’s Monster boss with no attacks of his own and a stunnable but otherwise invincible “helper”, builds on this formula by forcing you to calculate the best openings in which to attack.
Things only get more challenging from there — although those simple mechanics do sometimes mean there are exploits you can take advantage of to defeat them easily, as anyone who has defeated Death by repeatedly throwing Holy Waters at him will happily attest!
The bosses are clearly intended to be a focal point of the Castlevania experience — hell, the game’s interface shows the boss’ health bar throughout the entire block of stages leading up to them. In some respects, each complete block can almost be seen as a puzzle of sorts; the more you play the game, the more it becomes clear that certain subweapons are more effective than others on specific bosses, meaning it becomes a challenge to firstly find the appropriate subweapon, and then to successfully carry it all the way to the boss — perhaps stopping to locate the double- and triple-shot powerups along the way to allow spamming of these items.
You won’t beat Castlevania on your first attempt. You probably won’t beat it on your twentieth. But each time you play, you’ll learn a little more and develop your skills a little further, and that’s where this game’s satisfaction comes from. With each boss successfully taken down, you can give yourself a pat on the back for a significant achievement… and when you finally give Dracula the good kicking he so deserves, you can walk away feeling pretty damned pleased with yourself.