Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Feature: Castlevania Retrospective

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Few titles that started life on the NES still exist today.  Of those titles there are even fewer that weren’t developed by Nintendo.  Konami is one of the few companies that has a list of titles like this, although many of them suffer from very few updates and recent iterations such as the Metal Gear (Solid) series and Gradius.  Castlevania does not have this problem.  In fact, it still seems to withstand the test of time and despite trying to reinvent itself so many times, celebrates at least mild success with each new iteration.  As a gamer who got his first console, an NES, in 1988, I have literally grown up alongside the series and played most titles it has to offer.  If you don’t know Castlevania or have never played a single game, this will hopefully explain why you need to.

Scattered Start

Unlike the trends of the late 80s, Castlevania started life on Nintendo’s console(s) and was then ported all over the place, including to arcades.  Because of the strong Japanese connection and the fact that several versions of the series remained locked and unlocalized in Japan until recently, you will notice lots of import talk here (which is why you may want to follow the links provided, all connected to information content solely on this site).  It was one of the first games to appear on the Famicom Disk System (FDS) in 1986, about three years into the life of the Famicom (NES) in Japan, and saw a release on the MSX2 a month later (entitled Vampire Killer).  Both games are similar, but Vampire Killer is more of a discovery and puzzle game that required the finding of keys whereas Castlevania is as linear as it gets.  The arcade port, Haunted Castle, is just a brutal version of the original with different (and worse) levels with some spruced graphics.  As the smoke cleared at the end of 1986, it was clear that the most popular version was the original on Famicom (often nicknamed as Akumajo, a shorthand of the Japanese title) and it was ported to NES consoles and in cartridge form on the Famicom.

Its success as an action platformer that basically told the story of a hero fighting many of the original Universal Studios monsters solidified an immediate sequel.  This time around the gameplay of the first game would be combined with a few of the upgrade elements found in Vampire Killer to make for a true action RPG, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.  This title contained a save system, full inventory that had you collecting and using items, day and night cycles, and hub towns for you to heal up.  Sounds great, right?  Wrong.  Just like many other Nintendo staple sequels (Super Mario Bros 2, Zelda II: Adventures of Link, Metal Gear II: Snake’s Revenge) changing up the formula proved to be unpopular with gamers.  Simon’s Quest suffered specifically because it was another game that started life on the FDS and had to be converted to cartridges for worldwide distribution (which explains the long passwords necessary when saving was removed).  This game is somewhat boring when compared to the tense gameplay of the original and it’s completely unfair that the game literally lies to you.  I’m not even kidding, citizens in towns will mislead or misinform you on purpose and it has been revealed that this was also the case in the Japanese game, so it wasn’t a localization or translation error.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was the third and final NES title and first diversion to the Simon Belmont storyline – this time you play as Trevor, a great descendant of Simon Belmont from the first two games.  What’s significant about this game is how impressive it was, both gameplay and technically, and is even heralded today as the best game technically on the console.  Both the Famicom and NES versions needed to have special chips put in to work thanks to a great soundtrack and certain graphical effects like in the clock tower level.  In Japan the Famicom could support external sound chips so the VRC6 added an extra sixth sound channel and provided percussion and synthesizer sounds as well as allowed for impressive upgraded graphics and special background effects.  The NES couldn’t support external sound chips so the Memory Management Controller (MMC) chip was given its most impressive revision, MMC5, and allowed the NES version to come out albeit at the cost of lesser graphics and sound over the Japanese counterpart (some hints of nudity were also censored in this version).  This is why Castlevania III was very difficult to emulate early on and clone consoles still cannot support the game.  Aside from the technical feats, Castlevania III provided a rich story, branching paths that the player controlled (you wouldn’t see every level in a single playthrough), and companions that Simon could switch out.  Each of the three companions also had special abilities like climbing on walls and even Dracula’s son, Alucard, was one of the playable companions.  It took the concept of the original and turned it into a dynamic title that I could not get enough of while waiting for my parents to finally give me a 16-bit console for Christmas.

There were 16-bit console games – Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X on SNES and Castlevania: Bloodlines on Genesis – they were mostly remakes or more attempts at the original concepts.  In the meantime, a niche title in Japan on the PC-Engine CD console, entitled Akumajo Dorakyula X: Chi No Rondo or as it was later known in America Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, would begin to reinvent the series for future iterations.  Rondo still provided a linear experience, but there were discoverable offshoots and hidden rooms that started to make you feel like it took place in a real castle.  Boss battles could come at any time, creating a now common “sub boss” mechanic in the game.  It also gave tons of nods to the original game like having the original town from Simon’s Quest burning as the background to the second level or beginning another level with a boss rush of most of the original game’s bosses.  There was even a character, Maria, who could be found and unlocked for you to play through the game with and you could save and quit.  While there would be an altered port outside of Japan, Dracula X on SNES, none of these great features made it into that version, thus removing the big draw to this side story (Maria could be found but wasn’t playable).  Thankfully it’s now easily available on PSP (Dracula X Chronicles) or as a separate virtual console game that is a direct port of the PC-Engine CD title.

Crafting a Castle

As the 32-bit generation approached and Konami began reinventing its properties for the newfound Sony Playstation, Castlevania received a facelift and reinvention that resulted in probably the most popular game in the series, Symphony of the Night.  This new title created an actual castle, complete with map, that was open to you from the beginning to explore and try to live.  It has often been compared to the same gameplay style as the Metroid series, where the only thing stopping you is not having the right equipment to overcome and obstacle and promoted exploration and caution, lest you encountered a big boss out of nowhere.  This comparison is why the loved/hated nickname “Metroid-vania” has been attributed to titles like this.

From this point the series would split literally down the middle, with 3D rendered worlds and games would be released on home consoles (starting with Castlevania 64) and the 2D sprite-based exploration games coming out two years at a time on portables (first Gameboy Advance, then DS).  While the portable titles continued to sell very well and get both critical and fan-based praise, Castlevania in a 3D realm was not getting such a warm response.  As someone who has played every game in the 3D space, I don’t quite understand why they are so heavily scrutinized, but I will admit they do look and play like many other games of that time so perhaps the fact that Castlevania was no longer unique is what hurt it.  Either way, the commonality of these games (especially on PS2) has provided a low price point for those wanting to see what all the fuss was about.

New Horizons

As the current generation of consoles started to release, Castlevania has finally started to show some rough times.  The side-scrolling adventures weren’t so nicely regarded as of late, and given that there are probably seven or eight different ones all based on the same concept, I can’t say I blame gamers.  Konami recently updated the console version to more of an epic God of War style adventure game with Lords of Shadow, which did decent with reviewers and exceeded a million sold units on consoles, the shift seems to be a weaker resurgence on home consoles again.  In 2010 Konami released a download only 2D castle exploration with Castlevania: Harmony of Despair that integrated online co-operative play and a hodgepodge of parts from the portable iterations.  It was equally hated by fans of the portable games, newcomers from the Symphony of the Night days, and critics (and yes, I know there are a handful of you out there who love this game).  It looks like a sequel for Lords of Shadow should be showing up within the next few years and this design style is also being ported to the 3DS for an upcoming title as well, but for the first time in a long time it looks like the Castlevania series may be in for some chop.

Celebration

All this week (and possibly next) I am going to be digging back to the vaults and reviewing the many games in the Castlevania series starting with the original.  Feel free to check back here or on the main page to read up on a series that has thus far withstood the test of time.  Links to reviews of Castlevania games can be found below:

Written by Fred Rojas

July 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I had been wondering if your web host is OK? Not that I am complaining, but slow loading instances times will often affect your placement in google and could damage your quality score if ads and marketing with Adwords.

    Jones sabo all first bit

    April 23, 2013 at 1:33 am

    • I did some load trials and reached out to WordPress, my host, and all seems well from our end. Hopefully you don’t encounter these issues much but as we are a site that doesn’t want sponsorships there are concessions that have to be made.

      spydersvenom

      April 23, 2013 at 6:46 pm


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