The very first Game I Beat In 2014 invented the genre that would later be called “Metroidvania”. It’s a weird choice for the genre name, since the formula is all Metroid–“Metroidlike” would be the more accurate term for it. While people today associate Castlevania with the Metroidvania style, thanks to the popularity of games like Symphony of the Night and the Game Boy Advance Castlevanias, it wasn’t always that way.
Released in the US in 1987, Castlevania was US gamers’ introduction to the series. Unlike later entries, the game is a straightforward action platformer. Like many games of the era, the plot is not well developed in-game, except for a brief intro sequence of your character walking up to Dracula’s Castle when you press Start. But the basic plot of the series is that every century, the forces of good mysteriously weaken, and the evil vampire Count Dracula returns. This time around, it’s Simon Belmont’s turn to bring the Count down.
To do this, you’ll take Simon and his trusty Vampire Killer whip through a total of 18 stages, divided into 6 total levels. As you collect more hearts, you can also collect powerups to strengthen the whip. The first will increase the actual power of the whip, while the second will give it more range. Additionally, you can collect a number of subweapons that are powered by those hearts you’ve been collecting. Some of them are obviously strong, while others are less powerful. Then there’s a subweapon whose power is not immediately made obvious, but becomes easily the best powerup in the game when you unlock its secrets.
Which is a good thing, because Castlevania is quite the challenge. Mainly, this is because it’s all-the-way-in-one-long-play–there are no passwords or save files of any kind (Later re-releases do include a way to pick up where you left off, whether it’s the save feature introduced in the Game Boy Advance Classic NES Series re-release, or the “quick saves” of various Virtual Console re-releases). The penalty for dying isn’t especially harsh in terms of lost progress–you go back to the start of the stage you were on, except for a Game Over, which sends you to the start of the current 3-block level–but it is harsh in terms of what you lose, which is to say “All your powerups”. While you do get unlimited continues, you’ll need them at first. This is the first Castlevania game, and the bosses (At least until you harness the power of that one subweapon in particular) are among the toughest in the series, in particular the Grim Reaper. Dracula himself isn’t easy either, especially since you can only take four hits before dying in the last third or so of the game.
Not helping in the challenge department are the controls. The controls are, to be blunt, clunky. When you start a jump, you’re committed to it for its duration. Jump forward? Cool, but you can’t change your velocity in midair, and you have a total of one possible height for your jump. By the way, you jump right through stairs. Whipping is fun, but there’s a negligible delay between hitting the button and actually whipping, and if you’re on the ground, you come to a dead stop while whipping, even if you were moving before.
Fortunately, the music of Castlevania is top-notch. The music in the opening level, Vampire Killer, is an all-time classic that would be remixed in numerous later Castlevanias, and the rest of the music is catchy and hummable too. Walking on the Edge, in particular, is a favorite of mine, which makes it too bad that it only plays in a single stage (Stage 10).
Overall, Castlevania is the start of a classic series, and despite the challenge, it’s a very worthy entry to both the series and video game canon as a whole. Even better, besides the NES original, it was re-released several times. First, it came out on the Game Boy Advance as part of the Classic NES Series, and again three more times on each of Nintendo’s Virtual Console services. In short, you have no reason not to play this game, if only to see where it all began.
Castlevania is THE NES game that taught me to be patient with controls. The UP + B firing mechanism seemed goofy and the way Simon lurches back after getting hit was… different… but I embraced the newness and couldn’t imagine playing Castlevania any other way. I applaud Konami for their control scheme, especially since nearly every NES game where you press UP to jump (ugh) is a play-control disaster.
One of my favorite NES games, probably top 5. I may have been 12 years old when I first got to the third level but I couldn’t believe how good the music was — and how moody the graphics were. It took until years later that you see what will ultimately be the final staircase and tower in the background just before battling the mummies!