Retro Gaming Project #1: Castlevania [NES]

Castlevania [NES]

System: NES
Genre: Platforming
Publisher: Konami/Nintendo
Developer: Konami
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.

Entering the gates of Castlevania.

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.

Whipping a large skeleton, one of the more easier enemies.

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.

Frankenstein & Igor, the bosses of stage four

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.

Climbing the stairs to that son-of-a-bitch Dracula

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.


20 thoughts on “Retro Gaming Project #1: Castlevania [NES]

  1. Dan says:

    I loved Castlevania when I was younger, and I totally agree that the last two levels are ridiculous. I have clear memories of getting through the entire stage without getting hit, then dying to the Grim Reaper in 10 seconds. If you get to Castlevania 3, he’s even more “fun”. I was a big NES fan, so I’m looking forward to more of these posts.

    • Eric says:

      Oh man, not looking forward to another round against Death. I can feel your pain in coasting through the level only to get annihilated by him. Those damn sickles would get me every time. This game knows how to dish out the tough love, doesn’t it? Thanks for the words of encouragement, Dan!

      • Dan says:

        Also, if you really want a challenge and have a PSP, try Rondo of Blood, which is part of the Chronicles game. That’s possibly the most frustrating game I’ve ever played, and is even more merciless than the original.

        • Eric says:

          Oh yeah, good call on Rondo of Blood, Dan. I don’t remember how far I got into that game, but I know I got frustrated quite a bit. And what was up with the random placement of the power-ups to unlock Symphony of the Night and the original Rondo of Blood? That drove me nuts, just trying to figure out how to unlock and play them.

    • Eric says:

      Thanks Scott! A freelancer named Bryan Kennedy made it for me. It’s nice to finally have something other than text at the top of the screen!

  2. Morgan R. Lewis says:

    Loved this game when I was a kid… I’d still rank Castlevania as one of my favorite video game series. Of course, I played the first one on the Commodore 64, not the NES (people forget it wasn’t a single-system game).

    I agree with you about the controls… those made it considerably harder than it needed to be. Fortunately, they seemed to figure that out eventually… round about the fourth entry in the series, if I remember right.

    • Eric says:

      Yeah, I didn’t even realize this was on the Commodore 64 as well. Interesting.

      So I am in for two more games of shoddy controls, eh? I tried out Castlevania II briefly, and Simon looks to move a little better, but the beginning was really weird. What’s up with having to move around a town and talk to people? Total contrast from the first game. I’ll have to see if it picks up. Can’t wait for Super Castlevania IV, though. Heard nothing but great things about that one.

  3. gotounknown says:

    The Castlevania game series is on my top list of platform games, along with Mario and Mega Man. This one is extremely tough, but if you learn the patterns of the enemies after a few rounds, you should be able to finish it without breaking the control 😉
    Super Castlevania IV has to be one of the high points in the series, also the DS game Aria of Sorrow is great!

    • Eric says:

      Haha, well even after learning Death’s patterns I still had an insanely hard time dodging his sickles. Sometimes they would just appear in seemingly random places. Talk about frustrating.

      I can’t wait to finally play Super Castlevania IV. Completely agree about Aria of Sorrow — that’s one of my favorites.

  4. John says:

    Oh, HELL yes.

    We’ve all seen A Christmas Story, right? Change the gun to “Castlevania on NES”. Make it 1989 or whatever. And turn me into Ralphie. And then… imagine the parents never gave Ralphie the gun. Yeah… I had to rely on playing this game when I hung out with my friends. One of my favorites.

    • Eric says:

      I’m going to have to hang my head in shame here…. I don’t think I have ever seen A Christmas Story all the way through. I have caught bits and pieces (hard not to with it airing 24/7 come Christmas time), but never saw it all at once. Turning in my movie fan card now.

      I do get what you’re saying though. For me, I never owned a Super Nintendo as a kid, so the only time I could play it was when going to a friend’s house. That’s how I kept up with some of the classics like Super Mario World, Mario Kart, etc.

  5. sanclementejedi says:

    wait you have not seen a Christmas Story?

    I picked this up on sale as a XBLA game and it still whipped my ass. Apparently my Castlevania skills have not improved in line with my beard growing prowess.

    • Eric says:

      Nope, haven’t seen that movie all the way through. I should probably sit down for the whole feature this year.

      I didn’t know this Castlevania was on XBLA. I thought it was only a Virtual Console release…?

  6. jsicktheslick says:

    Castlevania is still one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. That son-of-a-bitch Death is right: those flying scythes gave me nightmares :S I like the original Castlevania a lot, but I think the series has gone in the right direction on the handhelds, with the toned down difficulty and RPG elements. Regardless, this is one difficult, fun, classic game that I’m glad you actually got entirely through! Good luck on the other 49!

    • Eric says:

      Thanks dude! I know the fanbase is pretty divided as to which style of Castlevania is better, but so far I still prefer the action/RPG hybrids found on the handheld systems. I love gaining XP, getting new power-ups and exploring huge areas, all of which the modern games do so well. This was still a fun, albeit infuriating, game though.

  7. John says:

    Castlevania is a great game! I’ve played a lot of it, but haven’t beaten it myself. Congrats on powering through it though, that’s an impressive feat.

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