Despite the critical mauling Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 received at the hands of the gaming press, Konami's gothic franchise has arguably never been in better health. After years of dismal sales and underexposure, the mainstream appeal of the series was emphatically restored by 2011's Lords of Shadow — which, according to its publisher, is the best-selling entry in bloodline's long and illustrious history. Castlevania now has a whole new legion of fans and it's clear that the brand has once again been elevated to Triple A status within the walls of Konami.
However, Lords of Shadow 2 isn't the first Castlevania game to bitterly disappoint gamers all over the globe; like most long-running gaming franchises, it has seen its fair share of stinkers over the past three decades. One of the most notable failures is a game which Konami has remained curiously silent about since its release in 1988, the year after Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest hit the Nintendo Entertainment System. Haunted Castle may not be a Castlevania in name, but it is most certainly part of the lineage, and is perhaps illustrative of how confused Konami was about its vampire-hunting bloodline during its formative years.
Everything about the game's release is befuddling; at a time when most developers were porting titles from the arcade to domestic formats, Konami opted to take the opposite approach and migrate a home-grown brand to the coin-op scene. While this wasn't a bad idea in itself — arcade gamers were receptive to gory and dark subject matter, as Namco's shocking Splatterhouse proved in the same year — the execution was uncharastically sloppy. Simply put, Haunted Castle is a terrible game. It's frustrating to play, looks primitive — even for 1988 — and showcases some abysmal design choices.
The beginning of the game sets up the absurd tone of what is to follow; the intro sequence sees our hero Simon Belmont — bedecked in white wedding suit straight out of the 1980s — leading his newly-wed wife away from the church in which they have presumably just uttered their vows. That pesky nuptials-ruiner Dracula appears overhead, and after making a brown puff of inexplicably smoke appear from the church's spire, swoops in and steals the bride. Quick as a flash, our hero sheds his Miami Vice suit and is next seen dressed in the same fashion as Conan the Barbarian, complete with whip and leader armour. It makes precisely no sense at all.
Not that you're given much chance to take any of this silliness in, of course — Haunted Castle may be part of a franchise which is famous for its difficulty, but it takes frustration to entirely new levels. Simon moves with all the grace and purpose of a constipated tortoise, and is at a distinct disadvantage when pitted against Dracula's multifaceted army of undead monsters. His whipping motion is too slow to deal with some of the most basic threats in the game, and his enemies walk at least as fast as he does, making it difficult to execute evasive action to avoid taking damage.
Which leads us to Haunted Castle's next big flaw — you only have a single life, and you're only allowed to continue three times. The game employs a mechanic where you can use those three precious credits to boost your health bar during a single game, which makes things a little easier — but the drawback is that once you die, you can't continue at all. It's a puzzling design choice which seems intended purely to annoy as many players as possible — you can expend all your credits to boost your vitality and then fall down a hole, ending your game instantly.
If this wasn't infurating enough, levels often place you in positions where it's impossible to avoid getting hit and boss battles are borderline unfair, obviously designed to suck away your life and force you to insert more coins — which is unlikely, given that you constantly have to restart from the beginning of the game.
The tragedy is that as terrible as Haunted Castle is, it does have some redeeming features — the most obvious being the brilliant music. The Castlevania franchise has a long and proud history of incredible soundtracks, and if you're able to make your way through the game without suffering a coronary, then you'll hear some classic tunes which have since been re-used in subsequent entries — the first stage's music resurfaced in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin on the DS, while level five's tune was showcased in the Game Boy Advance release Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Bloody Tears — one of the most iconic songs in the history of the franchise — serves as level three's background music, and sounds typically fantastic.
It would appear that Konami is well aware that Haunted Castle is a bit of a stinker, as the game hasn't been released by the company on any domestic system. However, tiny Japanese publisher Hamster was given permission to port it to the PlayStation 2 in 2006 as part of the Oretachi Geasen Zoku Sono range. "Port" possibly isn't the correct term; the disc simply contains the original arcade ROM and an emulator which is compatible with Sony's console. This release has since become something of a curiosity amongst collectors — primarily because of the game's lineage and the fact that no other home version exists — but it doesn't fix any of Haunted Castle's annoying deficiencies.
Speaking to John Szczepaniak for his peerless Untold History of Japanese Game Developers project, former Konami staffer Masaaki Kukino – who worked on the game's art – explained why Haunted Castle turned out the way it did:
The project was short-staffed. Time for debugging was needed, but we couldn't make any more changes to the balancing. That was the most regrettable part. I think the development time was about 6 months. We would have liked to make it a better game if we had the time. I find it too difficult to be successful.
What makes Haunted Castle all the more dislikeable is that it wastes the potential of an arcade Castlevania game; back in 1988, coin-op hardware was still far more powerful than the domestic consoles of the era, and when you consider how technically stunning titles like Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X: Rondo of Blood were on the SNES and PC Engine, one can only wonder at what the developers could have created if they'd really tried. Somehow, we got Haunted Castle instead — a game which seems to have been slapped together almost as an afterthought and fails to effectively capture the brilliance of the franchise.
Screenshots courtesy of The Castlevania Dungeon.