Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Castlevania (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1987
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Famicom? Yes (as Akumajo Dorakyura)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Hard
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $12.87 (used) $55,000.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): $15-$20 (used) $1125.00 (new) NOTE: This copy is revision A and thus has a lower value.
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What Are You Supposed To Do?

This is a linear action platformer.  Many attribute the Castlevania series as an RPG or action RPG, whereas aside from the second title in the series, it has never really been.  With no real inventory to maintain and no story elements to speak of, this original title is all about jumping and killing enemies.

Review

Castlevania released early in the NES life cycle and for that time seemed to be the culmination of everything you would want in a video game.  Hitting store shelves early summer of 1987, most NES gamers had either just gotten or were hoping to get the console in the near future and word was getting around that this was one of the pivotal titles to play.  You control a hero, Simon Belmont, who has vowed to hunt Dracula in his own castle.  In the game you encounter all types of horror staples such as bats, zombies, and Medusa heads all while tackling large scale boss battles with famous monsters like Frankenstein, the Mummy, and even Death himself (aka: the Grim Reaper).  As a young boy, this sounded like the most amazing game in the world and I was even happier to find out it delivered on all fronts.  Castlevania is a difficult and wild ride through a haunted castle of horrors that holds up even today, albeit at the cost of your sanity with the Dracula battle.

Probably the most significant part of the series is Simon’s whip, which has been a series staple until the game migrated to the Gameboy Advance.  It begins with a short and standard whip that can be upgraded twice, once to add a mace and again to double its length.  Like so many other games of the time, the trick is to fully upgrade your whip (easily found in destructible candles and other menutia of the world) and not die.  Fortunately the game goes out of its way to upgrade your whip as soon as possible, so you have to really try to not bring the full whip into most of any level and all boss battles.  What the series does to even out your extremely effective ranged weapon is the fact that Simon can only whip in one direction, straight in front of him.  This means you have to be on the same level as your enemy, which is dangerous since getting hit not only drains life but knocks you backward (and Castlevania is a game chock full of pits, so there’s a good chance one is right behind you).

Unlike many NES titles of the time, Castlevania has a manageable difficulty that requires you to memorize enemy and boss patterns to overcome.  It doesn’t do random pop-ins or unfair circumstances that are intended just to make you die – if you fail in Castlevania it’s because you made a mistake.  Dying will send you back to the beginning of the level you were on, but with six lengthy levels the trick is really just to power through as unscathed as possible to give you the best advantage to tackle the boss.  Dracula provides the only tense battle and that’s purely because you have to beat him multiple times without dying and his pattern isn’t really tough to memorize, but tough attacks to avoid.  I have honestly never beaten Dracula outside of emulators where save states make him a breeze, but I can consistently get to him on the actual NES game.  If you are a fan of classic gaming and haven’t played Castlevania, you owe it to yourself to pick this up, especially for $5 on Virtual Console.

When the game originally released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System (FDS) and featured a unique soundtrack, name entry, and save state.  It was later ported over to cartridge format for the Famicom and of course for worldwide release on the NES in North America and Europe.  This game has multiple titles including its original Japanese title Akumajo Dorakyura (Demon Castle Dracula), an MSX2 version for Japan/Europe called Vampire Killer, and an eventual arcade port known as Haunted Castle in America.  The MSX2 is not a simple port of the game as it contains different level design and a skeleton key collection system that not only opens doors to the next area but also opens chests with items (such as the shield that would be integrated into Simon’s Quest, the sequel).  Haunted Castle also has completely unique level design and a heavily ramped up difficulty, not to mention only allowing you to continue 3 times regardless of how many quarters/credits the game has in it (no wonder it wasn’t popular in the US).  It was also re-released on the Gameboy Advance under the NES classic series.  Although there are plenty of similarities, both Super Castlevania IV (SNES) and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (N64) are viewed by this site to be unique titles from the original, although they are both clearly “remakes” or “retelling” versions of the original game.  Given the way remakes are coming out left and right these days, it’s not accurate to refer to them as such because they do not adhere to the level design, game structure, enemies/bosses, and gameplay of the original.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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