Whip It Good: Castlevania's Legacy
Never has a video game series so held my interest as Castlevania. It's one of video gaming's most enduring icons, and deservedly so.
When I was twelve or thirteen, I watched a game called Castlevania (NES, 1986) being played over at a friends house, and was immediately transported. The game featured a slightly hunched looking man (looking vaguely like a barbarian) carrying a whip. In those days, graphics and music that - by today's standards - might be deemed primitive looked positively stunning. Detailed pixels could move fluidly on a screen without flickering, and it was a revelation. I was always drawn to darker themes and images, and at that time, virtually no games about monsters and creepy castles existed other than perhaps Haunted House (Atari 2600, 1982).
Castlevania has now lasted almost thirty years. As action platformers go, it has almost no equal, unless you count in a certain italian plumber.
Over the years, as I've ventured through Castlevania's various locales - it's windmill laden villages, burning towns, creepy forests, dank caves, grand halls, decrepit abbeys, clock towers, alchemy labs, crumbling buttresses or precarious towers - I've always looked forward to the next evolution of what is fundamentally a very simple premise. The player must kill Dracula, and is given three primary, non-passive actions on a quest to do it: whip, duck, and jump. That's the extent of what the series allows the player to do for most of its 40 or so different games. Each one varies in graphical quality, size, playability and tone, ranging from the cacophonous to the melodramatic to the patently absurd. Sometimes all at once.
Castlevania is at heart a story of monsters and the stoic heroes born to defeat them. The striking digital landscapes - whether retro-pixel, hand drawn art or fully rendered 3D - come straight from the imaginations of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, HP Lovecraft, and other horror novelists. The art is imbued with muted blues, purples, blood reds, and moss greens. The skies in these landscapes are either on the verge of twilight or in the midst of eternal midnight. Each brick, cobblestone, blade, and tower of the Castle and its surrounding environs is crafted with an almost impressionistic flair, one evoking loneliness, tragedy, doomed legacy and terror.
|The classic opening to the first Castlevania (NES, 1986)|
The Music of the Night
Castlevania's music bears mentioning. In no small measure, it defines the series' legacy. From the earliest 2 channel chip tune, to orchestrated midi tracks, to orchestral arrangements, complete with haunting strings and choirs, a lot of the same motifs have wound their way through the songs. As video game music goes, it's widely regarded as classic. Through the series' steady evolution, the same themes have found their way through each of the titles.
The Primitive Era
The 8-bit Castlevanias (they were, for all intents, a trilogy) have aged well. The first game is an attempt at genre worship, a mining of old school horror tropes. It features a young boy's horror comic reflection of the worlds of darkness, in which Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein's Monster reign. Later entries in the series go on to create mythologies all their own, but the first game owes its existence to Nintendo's willingness to play with genres after the release of the NES.
The first Castlevania (NES, 1986) is the story of Simon Belmont, stooped and muscular, as he clutches his whip and doggedly makes his way up through Dracula's castle in an effort to kill Dracula. Each level is a traditional platformer; a horizontal or vertical gauntlet crammed with enemies to be whipped, jumped over, and in some cases, firebombed.
|The first Castlevania (NES, 1986) - Hunchbacks and ghosts!|
Most of the early Castlevania titles, including the first, push you through gauntlets cluttered with enemies to whip. Each of these level gauntlets are mired in haunted, decrepit environments where even the rudimentary 8-bit walls seem to move. Zombies, bats, fish men, animated suits of armor, fire chucking skulls, hunchbacks, and most famously, medusa heads fly at Simon mercilessly.
We young gamers sweated and cursed our way over pits, up platforms, and across chasms, dying again and again until we got it right.
The second 'proper' Castlevania title, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES, 1987), takes its cue from the game Vampire Killer (MSX2, 1986) and adopts an open world design. It sets gamers loose outside the claustrophobic confines of the castle, and becomes a kind of RPG-lite. Simon's Quest lets the player - as Simon Belmont, yet again - backtrack through outdoor and indoor environments. A day/night system oscillates from light to dark and determines which enemies appear. Sporadic towns serve as rest spots where Simon buys supplies. This ability - for the player to buy and equip items - didn't go over well at the time, for a gaming audience hungry for strict action platformers.
As a consequence, the 'open world' design of Simon's Quest would not be seen again in earnest for several years, but once reinstated, it became a staple of the series.
|Simon's Quest (1987) - "Take Me to the Church!"|
|Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (1989) - Climbing the stained glass tower|
|Castlevania on Game Boy - Monochromatic Horror|
As an amusing footnote to the 8-bit era, Kid Dracula (NES, 1990) and its sequel, Kid Dracula (Game Boy, 1993) are goofy, lighthearted Castlevania parodies. They feature many of the same environments prevalent in 'serious' iterations on the NES (particularly the very first game), but the graphical style is bold and comical rather than stark and impressionistic. Kid Dracula takes all the self seriousness of its soberer brethren and wipes it away.
|A cutesy, comical version of Castlevania's famous Clock Tower level|
Bloodlines and Beyond
Starting in 1991, with the advent of the new 16-bit video game consoles, Castlevania made a small leap from mere platformer to lush, epic platformer.
Castlevania IV (SNES, 1991) begins with a single drop of blood falling onto a cold stone floor. This blood, along with a series of topless statues later in the game, were wiped out from the North American version of the game, but I was fortunate enough to have the uncensored Japanese import. This, the fourth major entry in the series, is a lot like the first. There is no backtracking like in Simon's Quest, and no alternate/branching pathways like in Dracula's Curse, but all the same, it's a stunning game. Castlevania IV features some of the most evocative artwork, animation and music the series has ever seen.
|Castlevania IV (1991) - The Museum Level|
In the opening level, watchful gamers can spy a distant, off-colored horse (a demon horse, perhaps?) grazing in a field. This and other slight but creepy graphical flourishes pepper each level: distant figures, drifting clouds, giant chandeliers, and more. In a museum, displays come to life. In a library, books attack, and in the art gallery, paintings accost you. Most notable is a level that takes place in a kind of underground Atlantis, with all kinds of water sluices and falling stalactites. The music that plays here sounds like a dissonant modern jazz riff as filtered through early-nineties trance synth.
|Rondo of Blood (1993) - A Burning City|
|Dracula X (SNES, 1995) - A Burning City, Redux|
|Bloodlines (1994, Genesis) - A Bloody Good Time|
1997's Symphony of the Night (PS1) begins with a fully playable prologue, re-creating the final level of Rondo of Blood. The aforementioned Richter Belmont fights his way up to fight Dracula, has an impassioned conversation with the dark lord about the nature of man, then (with Maria's help) vanquishes the evil. From here, the game deviates and entirely eradicates with the trappings of every other game before it. By introducing a fully realized castle, a leveling/hit point system, a stunning roster of enemies, items, powers, and armor, the game really becomes an RPG in every sense. In another twist, the hero of this game is a vampire named Alucard. Not only did Symphony of the Night pave the way for (almost) every game that followed, no other game has yet to live up to its sterling reputation.
|Symphony of the Night (PS1, 1997) - We Have Many Fine Deals!|
The Dark Time
|Castlevania 64: The awful box art was not a good sign|
When you consider the release, just eight months later, of an improved/re-packaged version of Castlevania 64, this seems likely. Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (Nintendo 64, 1999) is, for all intents, a Directors Cut of the previous game. It tightens up the frame rate and introduces new environments, bosses and characters. This wasn't the first time a previous entry in the series was improved/updated (witness how Rondo of Blood evolved into Dracula X), but releasing such similar games eight months apart seemed an odd move at the time, considering its muted arrival and limited run release.
|Castlevania 64 (1999, SNES) - An Interesting Mess|
The Portable Revolution
The relative failure of Castlevania in 3D got the folks at Konami thinking. "What is Castlevania?" I'm sure they asked themselves. "Is this a series that belongs rooted in two dimensions?"
Konami essentially decided to port its hardcore, Symphony of the Night-loving fanbase to portable titles. Between 2001 and 2008, Konami gave birth to no less than six separate Castlevania adventures on both the Game Boy Advance and its successor, the Nintendo DS. First was Circle of the Moon (GBA, 2001), then Harmony of Dissonance (GBA, 2002), Aria of Sorrow (GBA, 2003), Dawn of Sorrow (DS, 2005), Portrait of Ruin (DS, 2006) and Order of Ecclesia (DS, 2008). I list them all together because while the characters, stories and environments differed, they all hoped to ape the success of 1997's SotN, while exploring the boundaries of what Castlevania really meant to the fans.
|Aria of Sorrow (2003) - Featuring Soma Cruz, a fan favorite character|
|Order of Ecclesia (2008) - One of only a handful of Castlevanias featuring a female protagonist|
The Second Third Dimension
Near the beginning of Castlevania's portable revolution, Konami tried its hand with another 3D Castlevania game, Lament of Innocence (PS2, 2003). It partially succeeds, thanks in part to the direct influence of Capcom action series like Devil May Cry and Onimusha. Innocence's overall gameplay, however, has been vastly simplified over its portable counterparts for sake of pretty graphics. The environments are pretty but lack variety. Most of the 'Castle' is merely a single hub branching out to long, empty hallways and square rooms packed with complex, difficult arena battles. That element of exploration and discovery (and specifically the feeling of climbing a tall castle) so prevalent in other titles in the series is missing here, and the result is a well intentioned but bland game.
|Lament of Innocence (PS2, 2003) - Another arena battle? I'm afraid so...|
The second title in this new wave of 3D Castlevanias, Curse of Illusion (PS2, XBox, 2005), eradicates most of the problems of Innocence. Curse expands the game map and the variety of levels and gets rid of the central hub area for sake of an actual game map. Leveling trees are improved and more complex and the variety of both environments and enemies are ramped up considerably. In short, Curse of Illusion has something Innocence lacks: personality. In many ways, Curse is an unsung classic in the series, because at the time of its release, the portable Castlevanias (and their fervent fan base) took much of the limelight.
Between 2008 and 2010, as the Japanese-dominated development of the Castlevania franchise began to lose steam, a few anomalous titles wormed their way into the lore. Among them, a fighting game, a multiplayer loot grabbing title, an iOS puzzle game, an arcade game, and a vaguely retro reboot.
|The Castlevania Arcade Cabinet (2009) - The tagline for this game was 'Knock It Down With a Whipcord!" Seriously.|
When I first heard that Castlevania: Judgement (Wii, 2008), the first (and last?) Castlevania fighting game, was coming to Wii, I was mortified. Is this the direction the series is going in?, I wondered. As it turns out, Judgement is a largely inoffensive game that might stand in for any number of fighting games. For fighting games based on popular franchises to work, however (see: Marvel Vs Capcom and Capcom vs. Tatsunoko for nice examples), they must cull in familiar references from past titles and assemble them in a neat way. Judgment doesn't do this, instead trying to create its own lore. It also omits several of the most compelling characters, and as a result, it suffers.
In 2009, a massive Castlevania arcade cabinet - complete with life sized whips - premiered in arcades. I never played it, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Castlevania was going the way of House of the Dead. That same year, Castlevania: the Adventure Rebirth (WiiWare, 2009) (one of three 'rebirth' retro releases that Konami released for WiiWare) appeared. It's a retro 2D platformer, a re-envisioning of the series' first Game Boy title. In a nod to 1988's Haunted Castle, Rebirth even features keys scattered among the various levels, which can be used to open random doors to reveal alternate pathways.
|Harmony of Despair (XBox Live, 2010) - In theory this looks neat, but when you show everything at once, you omit the joy of discovery and the magic of solitude that has defined Castlevania.|
When I saw footage of the PSN/Xbox multiplayer battle game Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (XBox Live, PSN, 2010-2011), I was not only doubtful, but fearful. I began to worry about the series' future. In Despair, teams of multiple players fight over loot in a series of 2D hallways. This title was nothing more than an attempt to squeeze multiplayer into what could only be a single player experience. Rabid online gamers may disagree, but I don't think the title was imbued with a single redeeming quality.
Mercury Steam Rising
|Lords of Shadow (PS3 / Xbox360, 2010) - A Gorgeous Epic|
The Spanish developer Mercury Steam was handed the reins to the Castlevania franchise in 2010. Though most of the producers, writers, and developers on the team are Spanish born, several figures were brought in to bring gravitas to the project. Hideo Kojima (most famous for creating Metal Gear and virtually all its iterations) was brought on as consultant, producer and writer, and two esteemed actors, Sir Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Safe House) and Robert Carlysle (Trainspotting, 28 Weeks Later) came on board as well. Their involvement sealed its fate. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (PS3 / XBox360, 2010) is, in my estimation, one of the best titles in the series, an underrated gem bursting with pathos, tragedy and beauty.
That's not to say that Lords of Shadow is an original game. It takes nods from God of War, Devil May Cry and other 'epic action movie' games. Its brutal battles contain more grunts, screams, groans, and gore than any other Castlevania title before it, and it gets to be a little much. Its writing, while overwrought, appeals to the series' roots in melodramatic horror. Its flowery prose might be out of place in a feature film, but is perfectly at home in a Castlevania video game. Remember what I said about Castlevania being the video game equivalent of the goth smoking out by the bleachers? Lords of Shadow is no club kid vampire soap opera - instead, it's an old fashioned homage to old world horror novels, with a distinctively goth sensibility.
|Lords of Shadow (PS3 / XBox 360, 2010) - Moody and Melodramatic|
Lords of Shadow is dripping with cinematic grandeur. The color spectrum is remarkably wide - from the browns of muddy, rainswept villages, to the lush greens of haunted forests and peaceful leas, to grey, crow-pecked towers, and lastly, the Castle itself, with its deep mahogany libraries, kitchens and great halls. The giant map slowly draws the player into a world influenced by the very first Castlevania, one where werewolves roam alongside vampires. The creature design in LoS is like something out of a twisted fantasy epic, and while the combat borrows liberally from God of War, it's well implemented.
Lastly, LoS's award winning music (performed by a 120 piece orchestra) stays firmly planted in classical roots. It's an overwhelmingly gorgeous (and sad) soundtrack to a game that is, at its heart, all about good's descent into evil.
|Lords of Shadow (PS3 / XBox 360, 2010) - The ending is a stunner|
A sequel to Lords of Shadow will emerge from its tomb later this year, but the most recent release is the very first 3D Castlevania. Though a mouthful to say, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate (3DS, 2013) is a 2.5D platformer with a surprisingly meaty story. Mirror eschews the conventions of former portable Konami titles. Instead, Mercury Steam, the same studio responsible for Lords of Shadow, has taken over. The art style avoids the hand-drawn anime-influenced art and instead goes for a realistic look, complete with harrowing, complex battles. Its plot, while fundamentally silly (few video game plots can avoid being silly, I'm afraid) is still a far cry from the teen angst soap operatics of Konami's portable Castlevanias. Mirror of Fate is a darker beast, a tale of generational tragedy and revenge.
|Mirror of Fate (3DS, 2013) - Bizarre Carnival Warp Zones|
So that's it, at least so far. These games have come a long way. Castlevania has tried on many cloaks over its storied decades-long history (some of them ill-fitting, others just right), but it's never been off my radar. Way back in 1986, I don't think I ever could have imagined that this little game featuring a vaguely barbarian looking man whipping monsters would capture others' imaginations as it did mine. As long as gamers insist that games walk on the goth side from time to time; as long as the gaming industry recognizes the need for heroes other than space marines and tactical commandos, it's safe to say that Castlevania will be around for a long time to come.