Monday, October 19, 2015

Castlevania (NES, 1987)

Time to take a look at the original Castlevania. Originally posted this in 2010, but I'm presenting a remastered version here.
For anyone unfamiliar with Castlevania, it's a series where you play as various vampire hunters (such as Richter, and Simon) and battle Dracula and his minions. This series has garnered a hell of a lot of acclaim over the years, and the original - this one right heeah - is where it all began. This is Simon's quest (heh) to conquer Dracula, the terror of the night. It's an NES game from 1987, so it will be an arduous battle. Let's do this.

The game begins with the heroic Simon Belmont hanging out outside of Dracula's gates. Simon has NO respect for restraining orders! There isn't much of a story here, as the game conveys story through atmosphere rather than text.

All we know from the get-go is that Dracula is menacing the land, he's in that castle, and Simon has to get to him and defeat him. What little story we do have at this early stage is from the instruction booklet (remember those?) which has all the information a player needs to get going.

The game moves from left to right, and Simon has both limited movement speed and jumping power. With evasion downplayed, the key to this game is to stay offensive. Simon attacks with a whip, and it lashes out for a short distance in front of him. It's sorta like playing with the initial Short Beam from Metroid, only you're using it for the entire game. The whip strikes aren't instantaneous, either, so both timing and good aim are required to make much progress here. other news, I don't know if that's a forest or a wall of slime in the background. I hope it's the former, but the latter isn't out of the question. Not in this game.

Our hero locks horns with dastardly mutants as he struggles across the bridge over Dracula's moat. I gotta say...normally, whips completely lack appeal outside of the bedroom. However, this game joins the Indiana Jones movies in the category of things that make whips cool. I like the various whip upgrades, and it's actually more appealing of a weapon than a sword (the usual standby) would have been. The whip is just satisfying to swing at things. Because of the minor delay on whipping, you can't just rapid-fire your way to winning as in most games. You need to really get a feel for the whip and the weight it has. It's a lot like Dark Souls, actually.

The first boss is a giant bat. It isn't much to write home about, but on the plus-side it leaves a lot of room for further bosses to impress / build off of this one.

Protip: If you get the time stop power in the stage, hold onto it until this fight and use it when the bat is right in front of you. It actually works. Several seconds of furious whipping later, and the fight will be over.

Simon and the world-map. The tower is where Dracula resides. I like that the boss rooms are clearly noted on the map.

There are six stages in the game, and each one is divided into three mini-stages; thus, the second stage is divided into stage 4 through 6, etc. Here I'm on stage 5, which is essentially stage 2-2. It's a good way to break the stages up a bit and make the player feel like they're progressing even when the stages go a bit long. I definitely approve of this design ch-OWW WTF. A disembodied medusa head just knocked me to my death!

The infamous flying medusa heads are perhaps the most irritating foes in this game. Like all other enemies, they knock you backwards, which spells doom if pits are nearby. Adding to the difficulty is that the stairwells are in no way safe places to stand, and if you get knocked backwards onto one you fall through it to your death. The medusa heads travel in an arc (ala the Wave Beam) so you need to be particularly cognizant of their trajectory to get out of the way in time. They also like to show up when you're crossing a bunch of small platforms...

I get farther into the castle, and spiked platforms that descend from the ceiling become a threat. They're basically lifted right out of Mega Man 2 for the NES. Or vice-versa, as I believe this game came first.

Another's a vicious Medusa head. I think Medusa heads are overused in this game. At this point I've got my whip upgraded to a ball and chain, which reaches further and does more damage. It's added incentive to not die and lose your powerups. The holy water also stuns this boss for a moment, making the fight much easier...if you brought it.

And how about that background? The backgrounds of this game ooze atmosphere (or in the case of the first level, simply ooze). Really well-done imagery here, especially given the technical limitations. The art direction in this game was excellent.

I briefly mentioned the time stop and holy water powers earlier. There are a number of special weapons you can get, and each one has a particular effect. The watch stops time temporarily, the dagger is a throwing weapon that travels in a line, the axe is a throwing weapon that travels in an arc, the cross is a throwing weapon that boomerangs back to you, and the holy water is basically a bomb that leaves a flame where you throw it for a couple of seconds.

The special powers are very useful if properly used, and a bit reminiscent of the Ninja Arts in the NES Ninja Gaiden. You can also find Roman numerals that allow you to have more special weapon projectiles in the air at a time. Finally, collecting hearts gives you more ammo for the special weapons. Hearts are essentially a one-size-fits-all ammo for everything, and you can never have too many of them. Unfortunately, losing a life means you lose all of your accrued hearts.

Getting closer to Dracula's lair... where, somehow, he is currently simultaneously pleasuring both Drusilla and Darla. "They never let us do that!" whined Spike to Angel when reached for comment.

Check out the castle tower in the background there. If you know that it's Dracula's lair, it's giving you a glimpse of your destination at this early point. The great backgrounds continue to impress with their creativity. And this was in 1987, mind you, a time when most games had pretty static backgrounds and generally recurring foreground assets. This game was ahead of its time in terms of having both elaborate backgrounds AND foreground tiles that change as you go along; this gives the game a feeling of progression. Looking at it now, it's easy to miss the little things that made this stand out so much for the time.

The next boss is a couple of mummies who close in on our hero, as I notice that this game has the exact same health bars as the NES Ninja Gaiden games. Boss health only appears when you fight them, and they're the same appearance-wise.

Since I don't have much to say about the fight, this would be a good time to point out how good the music is in this game:

OH MY GOD. And this is just level 1! If this doesn't make you want to give the game a try right now...

In what looks like the ruins of a Greek temple, Simon must contend with flying hawks that drop off...I'm not sure what. Is that a skeleton? Whatever it is, it jumps around like a maniac. These hawks are like the world's worst Lakitu. At least the spinies don't leap all over the place. I don't want to live in a world with leaping spinies.

The next big fight is with Frankenstein's Monster. Awesome. I mentioned that the weapon-delay and "weight" was reminiscent of Dark Souls, but an even bigger similarity is how creepy and memorable the bosses are in both games. In a way, it's like this game is the first ancestor of games like Dark Souls. I gotta say, it may have taken me my entire life to get around to finally checking out this game, but I'm really enjoying it. It's cool to see something that is the first of its kind in so many ways.

Bear witness to what may be the most difficult hallway in the game. Fearsome knights attack here, and along with them are erratic-flying medusa heads zooming in from all sides. I haven't seen such insurmountable odds since the Bobby Jindal candidacy.

The next boss is a big road-block for a lot of players: Death. He's Dracula's right-hand man most of these games, usually showing up at the end of the second-to-last stage. He's a real bad-ass, and he's certainly difficult to beat.

...UNLESS you bring holy water. Much like the medusa head boss, holy water stuns this guy all over the place.

The final stage begins. The first boss of the game (the giant bat) makes several appearances here. You can either fight or just scurry on by. The main thing to focus on here is the jumping. You can't change directions in midair so you're pretty much committed to your jumps, and this means thinking them through beforehand. It adds a lot to the challenge, for sure. Bringing the stopwatch will freeze the bats in place, just like it did at the end of level 1. Makes the level a breeze, at least during these sections.

At the end we find an iconic screen: The stairwell leading to Dracula's room, with the moon in the background. This is another thing that makes an appearance in virtually every game in this series. Before the final fight you get a choice of various special weapons to bring. Take the holy water. No, seriously. Take the holy water. I'm as serious about this as Joe Biden is about how you should buy a shotgun.

At this point I take the advice of many seasoned Castlevania players and spend a few minutes farming hearts before going in for the final battle. And have to do this farming again every time you lose. It helps to farm as many hearts as you can from the room before Dracula...just don't take too long. There's a timer looming, and while it isn't usually any real threat, here it could end up being an issue.

Dracula's first form (this isn't even his final form!) was the hardest fight in the game for me. It requires very precise timing since his fireball attacks seem unavoidable. They expand as they travel, so if you stay close to him and leap the exact moment he fires them, it's possible to dodge them AN land a hit on Dracula's head mid-jump. It requires precise timing, and you need to do it a lot due to your strikes only taking off one tick of his health.
Dracula's second form: A completely insane bat-thing. I made the mistake of bringing the cross boomerang at first, and it turned out to not be the weapon one wants for this fight. I mentioned it before... bring holy water. Seriously. Bring holy water.

The holy water stuns him, and very effectively at that. If you time it right, you can get it down to a pattern and really wail on him, seen here. Doing this, the fight was much easier than his first form, and I eked out a win. This is definitely in the upper echelon of challenging final boss fights, but there's a very deliberate way to win.

Now we get some weird fake credits, featuring...Vran Stoker?

And thus, the game is over. OR IS IT?

Yep, it is... but it starts you over at the beginning with all your powerups. Welcome to Hard Mode, a second-playthrough of the sort that was all the rage back then. Everything is more difficult in this mode, and it's filled with those irritating medusa heads. They're everywhere in the second quest, so for this particular playthrough I'll be calling it a day here.

Final thoughts on Castlevania? It's a really fun platformer that set the trends for many other horror-type games to follow, as well as an overall new benchmark for background graphics and their art direction. It's very challenging, but once you get the hang of it, it's extremely gratifying. Not too many games are like that in the modern era (aside from the obvious Souls series) and that feeling of gratification at your success once you get good is a very welcome thing.

Thoughts on Castlevania? Thoughts on this post? Leave your comments below, and share this with the buttons on the left. Thanks!


  1. After Indiana Jones whips never looked back.

    That knocked back animation frame gives me nightmares.

    Huh, I didn't know that's what the roman numerals did.

    Those spike chains make me think of MM2 as well, but MM2 came out in 88, so this game thought of it first. Good for Konami.

    Always go with holy water.

    That music... awwww yeah.

    Iconic is right, when you showed the map earlier pointing out the tower, I was already thinking of this area.

  2. What if a whole action game had you walking from right to left instead of left to right? It'd be so trippy and challenging.

    "You can't change directions in mid-air" -- that is so true of real-world jumping, yet untrue of most video games. Nice touch.

    I agree that this game looks really well-done. The castle is great too.

    Pretty cool that we're far enough in the future you can connect this classic to the Dark Souls games.