Castlevania: The Nintendo Years
Posted by Damien McFerran
Fangs for the memories
Although Konami’s influential vampire slaying franchise has since gone on to find success on several different hardware platforms, the association with the Nintendo NES is arguably what made the series so famous worldwide. The trio of 8-bit Castlevania titles remain highly regarded by fans and still stand up to scrutiny even by today’s standards. They also laid down the foundations for a range of Castlevania product on the other two key Nintendo platforms of the era: the Gameboy and SNES.
Join us as we take a stroll down memory lane and uncover the proud linage of the Nintendo-based Castlevania titles…
The NES Era
Released in 1986 in Japan as Akumajō Dracula, the first game in the series was produced for Nintendo’s ill-fated Famicom Disk System, which never actually made it to the West. The game was subsequently ported to the NES cartridge system and was unleashed worldwide in ’87. Castlevania established many of the hallmarks of the franchise: foreboding atmosphere, excellent music and gameplay so challenging it made you want to smash your joypad up in a fit of rage. Unsurprisingly it looks a little rough around the edges today, but it’s amazing how ‘complete’ it feels compared to later entries.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1988)
The first game was such a success that a sequel was practically inevitable, but Konami surprised everyone by deviating from the linear formula of the original and creating a game that is best described as an ‘Action RPG’. Instead of simply progressing from one level to the next, the player is expected to traverse the land of Transylvania collecting items, conversing with townspeople and tracking down the pieces of Dracula’s body before they can be reunited and cause the evil count to rise from the dead.
Simon’s Quest boasts a range of innovations, the most notable being a ‘night and day’ time system that affects how powerful enemies were, but it’s generally regarded as the weakest of the NES trilogy. Not a terrible game by any means, but certainly not indispensable.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1990)
After the brief experiment that was Simon’s Quest, Konami decided to go back to basics with the third NES game. Dracula’s Curse reverts to the more traditional ‘stage by stage’ gameplay of the original Castlevania, but with some pretty significant embellishments. The first title to feature different routes of progression, Dracula’s Curse also allows you to assume control of other characters (including Dracula’s son Alucard who would later find enduring fame in the 32-bit Symphony of the Night).
Graphically and sonically this game is head and shoulders above previous NES titles; the sampled drums on the opening level sound fantastic and although the limitations of the NES hardware are apparent, Dracula’s Curse is still pleasing to the eye.
Easily the crowning glory of the NES trilogy, many hardcore Castlevania fans regard this as the finest game in the entire series, which is high praise indeed.
The Castlevania Adventure (1989)
Given the crushing superiority the Gameboy enjoyed in the early ‘90s it’s unsurprising that Konami chose to support the portable console in a big way. The Castlevania Adventure was one of the first games to be published for the system and to be honest it shows; the graphics and gameplay are painfully primitive and frustration is taken to previously unheard of levels (even for a Castlevania game). The music is the one saving grace, but it’s not enough to prevent this from being one of the first games in the lineage to truly disappoint.
Castlevania Adventure II: Belmont’s Revenge (1991)
As if to prove that the first Gameboy title was nothing more than a minor hiccup, Konami really pulled out all the stops with the sequel. It is, in our humble opinion, one of the finest Gameboy titles of all time. Everything is perfect; the visuals are lovely (despite being in black and white), the music is quite simply breathtaking considering the humble nature of the Gameboy’s sound chip and the gameplay is wonderful, challenging even the third NES game for addictiveness and sheer pleasure. This is a must-have for any self-respecting fan of the series.
Castlevania Legends (1998)
With Belmont’s Revenge representing a remarkable turnaround in the fortune of the series on the Gameboy, hopes were naturally high for the third portable Castlevania, even more so when you consider that it was released after the superlative 32-bit Symphony of the Night (which many fans regard as the defining moment of the franchise.) Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
Legends isn’t quite as bad as The Castlevania Adventure, but it’s pretty darn close. Taking control of the feisty Sonia Belmont (the first female vampire hunter) the player is expected to wrestle with an inconsistent control system to trudge through a series of uninspiring levels fighting a range of badly animated enemies. The gameplay lacks the spark that made Belmont’s Revenge such an attractive proposition and the level designs are dull and uninteresting. As if to knock another nail into the coffin of this sub-par release, the music is painfully poor and will have you reaching for the volume control within minutes of booting the game up.
The SNES Instalments
Super Castlevania IV (1991)
Although it has ‘IV’ in the title, this is actually a remake of the first game in the series. The plot is the same, with Simon Belmont trespassing on Vlad’s turf in order to give him a sound thrashing and bring peace and tranquillity to Transylvania, but practically everything else is different.
To put it bluntly, Castlevania IV is a masterpiece. Although it gets off to a slow start with a somewhat underwhelming opening level, it soon hits its stride and by the time you view the end credits it dawns on you that you’ve just experienced one of the most engrossing and polished SNES platform games ever produced. Impressive use of Mode 7 rotation and sprite scaling helps to round things off very nicely from a technological point of view, and as for the soundtrack…well, let’s just say that here at NintendoLife towers we regularly listen to the music from this game on CD. It’s that good.
Castlevania: Vampire’s Kiss/Dracula X (1995)
Based very loosely on the PC Engine CD-ROM game Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (another title that comes very highly rated by fans, and for good reason), the second SNES instalment ranks as a crushing disappointment after the glorious highs of Super Castlevania IV. It comprehensively fails to incorporate much of what makes the PC Engine title so captivating. In terms of gameplay it feels like a huge step backwards, and although the colourful, anime-style look is undeniably eye-catching (and went on to set the tone of the series across the next few updates), you can’t help be yearn for the more restrained (and consequently far more effective) gothic look of the previous title.
Some poor level design choices and uninspired set pieces render this one of the less essential instalments in the long running franchises and a sad way to end the linage on Nintendo’s 16-bit console.
The 3D Debacle
Castlevania 64 (1999)
Vampire’s Kiss may not have ended the series on a high note for SNES owners, but worse was yet to come. Hyped to excessive levels prior to release, Castlevania 64 saw a host of delays that eventually led to it being released with many of the promised features removed. The act of moving the series from 2D to 3D was not entirely successful; predictably, ineffective camera AI often causes problems. Graphically it’s a mixed bag, with some impressive end of level bosses balanced out by laughably low-poly enemies. Oh, and it also features skeletons on motorbikes, which sounds cool on paper but is excruciatingly embarrassing when you see them in motion.
Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (1999)
Legacy of Darkness followed quickly on the heels of the previous N64 title and while it improves on the concept in a variety of ways, it’s still unfortunately cut from the same cloth.
The ability to play as several different characters, including a werewolf and shotgun-welding knight is showcased (something that was originally supposed to occur in the first N64 game) and this undeniably adds to the appeal of the game. However, Legacy of Darkness is held back by the same problems that dogged its predecessor and the 3D viewpoint feels more like a hindrance than a progression. Visually things are improved but only slightly so.
Essentially this is the game that the original N64 release should have been; were it not for Konami pushing it out onto the market before it was ready the impression might have been more favourable. As it stands the two N64 titles are remembered for taking the series in a direction it has never been comfortable with since (the PS2 Castlevanias have met with a similarly frosty reception from fans).