Release Date: September 26, 1986
My first Castlevania game was the PS1’s Symphony of the Night. I bought it on a whim, not knowing what to expect despite seeing great review scores. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the game’s mashup of action, platforming and RPG styles, all while providing a massive castle to explore. Even the notoriously bad dialogue did nothing but enhance the experience.
Since then, I have played many of the handheld Castlevania titles, most of which are near the level of quality of Symphony of the Night. I have always been embarrassed to say, however, that I have never played anything before SOTN. Wanting to play through this series from the beginning was a BIG reason why I started this retro project.
It seems unlikely that Konami knew what they had on their hands while making the very first Castlevania. Surely they couldn’t have expected a seemingly generic horror game to spawn more than a dozen sequels spanning over 25 years. But alas, that is what happened despite its humble roots.
Castlevania begins with our whip-carrying hero, Simon Belmont, approaching the castle’s massive entrance gate. He makes his way through the courtyard, cracking open lamps to obtain hearts and weapon power-ups, before entering the castle itself. The castle shows its age right off the bat, as its wallpaper has random tears, exposing the brick beneath. Simon is quickly greeted by zombies, moving much faster than you would expect, but they can be eradicated by a simple crack of the whip. Candles can be broken for more hearts and items, and the path is generally straightforward.
It doesn’t take long for shit to get real.
While the first few levels aren’t too difficult, the game sees a drastic spike in difficulty about halfway through the campaign. Medusa heads fly through the air, determined to knock you off the ground and into the deep, dark abyss below. Tiny flea men bounce around as if all hopped up on caffeine, sporadically moving about while constantly bumping into Simon. Getting hit by an enemy in the later levels takes up a significantly larger amount of his health, often causing cheap and frustrating deaths.
Don’t get me started about the bosses. The battles against Death (level five) and Dracula (the final boss) are among the hardest I have EVER played in a video game. It took me a hell of a long time to just get to Death, but no matter what I tried I could not beat the bastard through conventional means. Dracula was just as bad, although his second form doesn’t hold a candle compared to the first.
There are unlimited continues, thankfully, but they generally place you at the start of the stage upon going through the original batch of lives. So yeah, Simon has to make his way past all of the Medusa heads, Axe men, flea men and random other horror enemies before facing that son-of-a-bitch known as Death.
What makes the game most difficult are its decidedly poor controls. Simon cannot control his direction once in the air, and he can only crack his whip straight ahead. When he is hit by an enemy, he goes flying several feet backward. This leads to some infuriatingly cheap deaths, particularly from those blasted Medusa heads or flying bats that show up at the most inopportune times.
Borderline extreme difficulty be damned, this is still Castlevania, and damn if it isn’t fun. The classic, sexy 8-bit tunes, the campy horror atmosphere, the random inclusion of cooked turkey hiding in the walls… this is what it’s all about. I haven’t been as pissed off at a video game as much as this in recent years, but I couldn’t stop playing it anyway. A great start to an impressive franchise.