With the upcoming release of the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition (NA) / Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System (EU), we're going to provide short profiles of all 30 games included on the system. Now we turn our attention to Castlevania; don't forget to check out the first two entries in this series, in which we look at Balloon Fight and Bubble Bobble.
In the first two entries of this series we've looked at games that first found acclaim and fortune in the arcades before moving across to home consoles. With Castlevania we have a title that was developed with home console gaming in mind, a game that - alongside other similarly ambitious releases - helped to establish the appeal and excitement of NES gaming. It also reminds us of a time when Konami were truly among the elite developers in the games industry.
It may seem odd to refer to Castlevania in such terms, but back in 1986 when it arrived on the Famicom Disk System as Akumajou Dracula, it would have come across as a relatively mature title. Sure, plenty of players - including those in the West when it arrived in 1987 (NA) / 1988 (PAL) - would have been children, but unlike colourful Nintendo games Castlevania was grimy and intimidating. That, naturally, made it rather exciting, with its gothic settings and monstrous foes no doubt capturing the imagination of young gamers. The fact that it was based in Dracula's castle and included graphical representations of classic monsters (like Frankenstein's Monster) only added to the appeal.
It's also the first in this series of articles (having previously covered Balloon Fight and Bubble Bobble) to be a sidescroller, a genre considered as fundamental to the NES legacy. Yet it was ambitious beyond that core approach; when you consider Simon Belmont's moveset - whipping, ducking, jumping, even the fact there were stairs to traverse - it was certainly impressive on a technical level. Throw in secondary weapons and hidden secrets, and what you have is a game that was perfect for the Nintendo Power / playground era.
Played now by those that have mastered it, you're looking at a sub-30 minute game (a full playthrough is in the video below). At the time, however, its variety of stages and difficulty level would have seemed far grander to young gamers sitting underneath the TV.
The difficulty level certainly fits into the 'NES hard' category, for most gamers in any case; Simon's habit of getting knocked back into pits is legendary and often joked about online. Yet with practice and persistence it's possible, and despite the technological flaws of slowdown and wonky bits of code, it can certainly encourage players to be strong-willed and conquer the challenge.
At the time, the challenge would have been easy to accept because of how immersive the game was. It may not look much by modern standards, but the visuals and music are highlights; plenty of retro gamers likely know the most famous music tracks by heart.
Intriguingly, this was a title that actually came to arcades after its debut on the NES (plus there were ports on some other home systems). Details are sketchy, but apparently Nintendo did the heavy lifting to bring a version to its 'Vs.' range of machines in 1987; the units seem relatively rare. This is demonstrated in the video below by the Esoteric Arcade channel, which also looks at a follow-up arcade from 1988 called 'Haunted Castle'.
This title has been ported and revived multiple times, with a notable example being its release as part of the Classic NES Series on Game Boy Advance. Weirdly a 'Rebirth' release on WiiWare was based on a Game Boy successor, rather than the iconic NES original. Castlevania has done the rounds on the Wii, Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console platforms too, and though later entries in the 2D series delivered substantial improvements and franchise innovations (on Nintendo hardware we've had trilogies on GBA and DS, and of course Super Castlevania IV on SNES) there's certainly a special place in the IP's history for the NES original.
Sadly, it's difficult to see where the franchise goes next, especially with Konami seemingly being more erratic than ever. One thing's for sure, plenty of fans old and new should get plenty of pleasure out of tackling this one on the mini NES.
In fact, it'll be worth digging out some headphones and playing late at night - you might as well get in the right mood for monsters.