Late to the Party: Castlevania (1986)

castlevania_anniversary

Konami this week released its Castlevania Anniversary Collection, containing eight of the earliest games in the series. I guess this would be a good time for me to write about what I thought of the original 1986 Castlevania game for the NES, which I played for the first time last fall. Playing and discussing it with fans begs the question of whether you had to have been there at the time to really appreciate this game. Personally, in 2019, find it to be just alright.

I remember hearing other kids gossiping about Castlevania back in the day, being impressed at the idea of a Nintendo game where you get to fight Dracula and the Grim Reaper. But I didn’t get the chance to play any Castlevania games until Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance in 2001. Most of my experience with this series so far is just the games that came out for Nintendo’s handheld systems in the early 00’s. I finally got to play the most popular Castlevania game — Symphony of the Night (1997), a few years ago (and wrote about it), but never got around to trying any of the earlier ones until recently.

It being an NES game, I wasn’t surprised or frustrated that OG Castlevania was designed to be a difficult game you win by repeating levels until you memorize the layouts and enemy patterns. I’ve learned to enjoy that kind of game again since playing Dark SoulsCastlevania itself has a well-designed collection of levels that require strategic movement and use of its various weapons. I can understand if the whole thematic presentation — a riff on early 20th century monster movies, was unheard of for a video game at the time. The music is also fantastic, I can understand why it became iconic among NES games.

My main gripe with Castlevania today though is just how sluggish its movement feels, even compared to similar games, but making that comparison has caused me to examine other comparisons I’ve made between games from the opposite angle. When playing Castlevania, the game I couldn’t stop thinking about was the first NES Ninja Gaiden (1988). They are generally similar: in each one you memorize level layouts full of enemies strategically placed for maximum frustration, while also using an arsenal of powerups. The main difference is Ninja Ganden has a faster tempo — its protagonist Ryu Hayabusa feels more fun to control. Slicing through enemies while rapidly hopping through the air feels more fun. In Castlevania I never quite got over its awkward method for climbing staircases for instance (Ryu can just attach to walls), during which you can’t fight back when enemies attack you.

Making Castlevania protagonist Simon Belmont move more slowly so you have to carefully measure his movements against enemies’ was probably a conscious design decision on Konami’s part. Every level is intricately designed around those moves. I’m just not sure if that actually makes the game more fun. I think Castlevania is a fine game, but I think I’m done with it after having cleared it once. Ninja Gaiden on the other hand still draws me back in even today whenever I boot it up on my Nintendo Switch.

I’ve been fine with relatively slow, measured movement in action games before though. Dark Souls itself could be considered a slower but vaguely similar counterpart to say, Devil May CryCastlevania even probably has more complex level design than Ninja Gaiden, similarly to how the levels in Dark Souls are more intricate and impressive than DMC’s. One of my favorite games of all time is Resident Evil 4, but a common point of criticism in that game are its controls which feel restrictive compared to later third person shooters like Gears of War. RE4 still has some of the best and most varied encounter design in third person shooters, but it’s all designed around those cumbersome controls and wouldn’t work without them. I can still play RE4 again and again though, likely because I was there at the time.

Jeremy Parish of Retronauts has a nice video as part of his “NES Works” series on YouTube that properly puts Castlevania in context with the NES games that came out immediately before it, which helps explain why it was so significant at the time. With Konami’s new collection out I plan to at least try out the other early games in the series.

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