Once upon a time, vampires were the hardmen of horror. They would go around and commit all kinds of socially unacceptable atrocities to satisfy their bloodthirsty desires. If there was any character in fiction that would typify evil, that character would be Count Dracula, the most infamous of vampires. Although Dracula and his cronies seemed to have an unhealthy obsession for young virgins, anything containing blood was fair game to them. Vampires were feared, and quite rightly too. Nowadays though, the reputation of vampires as being Transylvanian terrorists has been tainted somewhat by the popularity of teenage trash such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries (lots of 't's in that sentence, wasn't actually intentional). In these, the vampires have morals and an awareness of good and bad. They hold upstanding roles in society and prefer to sip from the blood of animals rather than humans. They do well at school, appear to be rather cultured and knowledgable. The Cullen clan in Twilight seem to be a bunch of do-gooding vampire foster kids, all partnering off with each other, in a wimpy vampire version of Home & Away. Fortunately, saving us from this current soft image that vampires now appear to possess is Castlevania, a video game featuring vampires in their more traditional guise - as the evil undead.
Castlevania is a franchise of vampire-themed video games in which the protagonist, usually a descendent of the Belmont family, has to battle with Count Dracula and his assorted pals. Like many long-running game series, the storyline today is as convoluted as can be, with a multitude of story arcs, canons, tangents and diversions that only interest the most die-hard fans. For everyone else, Castlevania is an opportunity to defeat Count Dracula. Or at least, harm him enough so that he doesn't come back for quite a length of time, but hopefully by the time a follow-up is ready. The series began back in the mid-1980s on Nintendo's Famicom Disk System and the MSX 2 as Akumajō Dracula. Although the game on the two systems had the same title and shared a number of similarities, they were also slightly different to each other. The Famicom disk version was slapped onto a cartridge for us westerners and renamed Castlevania, and it is that version that is examined today.
Castlevania was a simple platform game - although kind of unique in style - in which you took on the role of Simon Belmont. Simon's quest is simple. Count Dracula has awaken and he needs to be put back to sleep. Or is it awoken? Or waked even? Count Dracula has waked. Grrrr, nothing sounds right now. Perhaps I should have just put woken up. Anyhow, to get to Dracula, Simon must defeat a number of other enemies, including characters that wouldn't be out of place in Hammer Horror films, such as Frankenstein's monster and The Mummy. The Grim Reaper also makes an appearance. Simon possesses a whip and the ability to carry a second weapon. Initially, the whip is fairly weak and short, but can quickly be upgraded by collecting whip-upgrading power-ups. These power-ups are found by whipping animated ornaments, most often candles. Early on, upgrading your whip takes little effort and it initially seems a little pointless that it needs upgrading in the first place. But later on, when its more than likely you'll lose lives and your associated whip upgrades, you'll be wishing that strengthening it could be easy again. It's quite a clever mechanism if you think about it. Yes, think about it as it saves me trying to write out why I think it is.
Secondary weapons can be collected throughout the game which can be unleashed by pushing up and fire. These include boomarangs, swords, axes and clocks that stop time. You can also collect upgrades that allow you to use these secondary weapons quicker. Using the weapons is a case of pushing up and fire, so it is sometimes easy for Simon to let one off accidentally. Hehehe. Throughout the game you also collect hearts. The number of heart pieces you have collected represents the number of times you can fire the secondary weapons, so it's best saving them up for end of level baddies.
At the top of the screen are two energy bars. One represents your energy, the other represents the energy of the end of level boss, so it doesn't do anything for most of the level. You can replenish your energy by collecting food, which is usually hidden in a platform block or some of the scenery somewhere in a level. In this game, hearts don't increase your health, which is something that takes a small amount of getting used to. Enemy collisions deduct your health.
There are really only two types of enemies: walking ones and flying and jumpy ones. The walking ones are fairly easy to defeat, although take multiple hits as you get further through the game. The flying and jumpy ones are a pain in the ass though. Medusa's head oscillates its way through the screen, and there are jumpy monkeys and some other weird things that just hop around you and move unpredictably. The controls are ok, but they aren't amazing, feeling a bit stiff and make it a little awkward to time your movements well to avoid collision. A major issue with the game is how colliding with enemies affects you. Simply coming into contact with an enemy is enough to cause Simon Belmont to leap backwards. This becomes frustrating on some levels where if you fall off a platform, you fall to your death. As jumping over some of the enemies isn't always easy, you will find yourself losing lives, somewhat unfairly, all too often.
As the game progresses, it gets extremely tough. This is down to the fact that enemy collisions deduct more and more points from your health. Early levels only see your health deducted by one bar, later levels by four. Added to the additional harm that enemies inflict on you, there are also a lot more enemies to defeat. It's challenging, but also frustrating and doesn't always feel entirely fair. Similarly, end of level bosses begin by being quite easy to defeat, before getting ridiculously tough towards the end.
The game's appearance is ok. Levels are mostly dark and dingy, although most NES games looked dark and dingy to me. They capture the horror theme quite well, although one level in the middle of the game seems to take place outdoors, which just feels a little out of place thematically. Enemies are fairly well drawn, and Simon's animation is not too bad. The graphics are nothing amazing but do their job and are well suited to the game. Overall presentation is quite good too. The title screen is a fairly standard NES style one, displaying the game's title and little else. The game then shows Simon entering Castlevania before the action begins, and there are little map screens in between each level detailing his progress.
As for the sound, the music is quite upbeat, featuring jolly, catchy tunes. Some of these are now classics in the world of video game music, and have gone on to feature in several of Castlevania's sequels and on albums. The music gives the game an arcadey feel, and somehow prevents the game from being seen as overly moody and sombre. Subsequent games retain this kind of soundtrack.
As a franchise that still exists today, it is good to see how many of the ideas that exist in its current games began in the very first one. As a platformer in its own right, Castlevania is fun and challenging, if a little frustrating. A lot of 1980s platformers just haven't stood the test of time and are just a chore to play today, but Castlevania is still an enjoyable test of your gaming skills, looking and sounding good too.