Disclaimer – This review is part of an 9 part series of reviews for the the Castlevania Anniversary Collection for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. Due to a full review of the collection coming soon, I will not be mentioning everything the collection brings – only mentioning those that pertain to the original Castlevania.
Dracula, the Prince of Darkness, has returned to our world to begin a new reign of terror. Not all is lost however, as a young man by the name of Simon Belmont ventures into Castlevania to face Dracula alone. Clutched tightly in his right hand the mysterious whip – Vampire Killer. Grab your instrument of destruction boys and girls, break some masonry to reclaim your lost snacks, and let’s delve into the wonderful world of Castlevania on the Nintendo Switch.
Upon loading up the NES classic, you’re greeted with a truly 80’s cutscene to set the tone. Simon, our mighty hero, proudly struts up to a pair of blood red gates, surrounded on all sides by gore spattered spiked walls. Off in the distance is the vague shadow of Dracula’s Castle – Castlevania – illuminated by the light of a crescent moon. A cloud slowly obscures the moons regal visage, hinting at the darkness that is to come. Despite the hardware limitations, Castlevania manages to immerse you in its dark, gothic world from the get go. No dialogue. No explosions. Just classic horror vibes and visual story telling. It’s beautiful.
The “Hammer” horror undertones continue even after the game starts. Simon slowly ventures through a dilapidated courtyard and enters the open gates of Dracula’s Castle – as if invited personally to face the challenges of Castlevania. As you enter the mainhall, you are greeted by hordes of zombies, ruined walls and torn curtains. It gives you the impression that this is an old citadel – perhaps this is not the first time Dracula has risen. Maybe the enemies you are fighting are reanimated cultists? Who knows. It has an air of mystery about it. This being an early NES game, very little is explained, everything is told through visuals and it is your imagination that stitches it all together.
Despite being 33 years old, Castlevania looks amazing. Environments are detailed, enemies are instantly recognisable and clearly look like what they are trying to represent. Simon has a detailed sprite and looks sufficiently mighty. It all looks great – age be damned. Castlevania truly shines with its use of colour. Despite the atmosphere, enemies and backdrop being predominately dark and eerie, Konami made Simon almost entirely Orange. A weird colour choice for sure, but they also went and made nearly every platform Orange or blue. Heck, a lot of backgrounds are a shade of blue. Since orange and blue compliment each other, it makes Simon and platforms pop in a way you wouldn’t believe. No matter how chaotic the game gets, you will always know where Simon is, where the enemies are and where you need to go. Whoever made that decision, is a genius.
We can’t talk about Castlevania and not mention the music. It is some of the best music in gaming, period. Every track is memorable, every track fills you with a sense of “YEAH! I’M GOING TO KILL DRACULA!”. I wasn’t alive when Castlevania was released. Despite that, I was born knowing the entire composition of Vampire Killer. It is a classic even in it’s 8bit form. It is no surprise then that it has gone on to define the series’ sound ever since. To complement the outstanding score is the meaty sound effects. Everything from enemies getting cracked by your whip, to braziers being shattered, and even the crunch of century old masonry being obliterated and revealing wall chicken, just feels right.
Now that the atmosphere, graphics and sound are all out of the way, we finally reach the gameplay. How does Castlevania hold up in this department? Amazingly. Castlevania is one of the best 2D action platformers I have ever played. I have no nostalgia for this game, so walking into it, I was expecting to think it would cool seeing where the series started. But no, this game is phenomenal start to finish.
You are tasked with navigating various levels filled to the brim with enemies, pitfalls and bosses to take on Dracula. Simon is armed with a whip and can attack in 2 directions – left and right. He can jump to hit enemies and objects slightly above his head, and crouch to tackle enemies who are a bit closer to the ground. It feels great to use. The audio and visual feedback just floods your brain with endorphins. It feels like your are bringing divine, whippy judgement down on the forces of evil. What makes the whip special, is the delay between pressing the button and the animation playing out. This slight delay forces you to take every input seriously. Timing and precision become key. You hit the button at the wrong time, you are getting punished. You just flail your whip with reckless abandon, you are getting a face full of death. This delay is exclusively for the whip. Jumping, which we will touch on shortly, has no delay at all. The clunkiness is an intentional hurdle that evokes classic survival horror like Resident Evil or Silent Hill.
The first few screens give you a feel for how the whip works, before it throws obstacles in your way that the whip is not able to effectively beat. Enemies will often be perched above you, or patrolling below you, meaning the whip is very inefficient. Sub weapons are introduced fairly early and that is where the magic happens. Castlevania is a puzzle, that can be completed in many, many ways, most of which make the game significantly harder. Sub weapons are the key to completing these puzzles in the most effecient manner. The axe lets you kill enemies above you, the holy water lets you defeat enemies below you with the dagger giving you more range. The holy cross is a boomerang that clears out enemies and projectiles alike and the stopwatch briefly stops time letting you wail on bosses, escape difficult areas and generally gives you a “get out of jail” card.
Sub weapons are not infinite however, and require ammunition to function. More powerful weapons, like the stopwatch, require more to use that others. Ammo comes in the form of hearts and can be found by defeating enemies, breaking walls and destroying candles. Providing you are using sub weapons in an efficient manner, you won’t be running out of hearts any time soon.
Whilst exploring for hearts you might even come across the fabled wall meat – magical healing meat preserved in various walls thoughout the game. Finding these magical healing foods will keep you alive and kicking whilst encouraging exploration within the fairly limited level space. Aside from a hearty meal, power ups can also be obtained. These power up Simon’s whip, giving it a longer range, or enhance your sub weapons making you a true force of nature.
Death in Castlevania can come quick and often. When you die, you lose your hearts and your sub weapon as well as any upgrades you have found. All of these can be reclaimed by breaking some braziers, but it is a significant set back none the less. At first, Castlevania seems unfair. That feeling exacerbated by the platforming. When you jump you have no midair control. You are stuck in an animation with very few options should something appear to kill you. Death pits are everywhere, so messing up a jump can, and will kill you. Enemies also cause knockback, so getting hit can send you straight into a death pit. This combined with the delayed whip might seem unfair, broken and stiff, but it’s not.
Castlevania is not meant to be played by running right and killing stuff. It is a thinking mans/womans game. It has been designed in a way that forces you to make deliberate decisions, whilst punishing you for running and gunning. Every enemy can be beaten with patience, pattern recognition or sub weapons. The controls are not stiff, they are tight, the game is not unfair, it is a puzzle. Once you get into the mindset that this isn’t a typical action platformer, the game opens up and reveals just how masterfully designed it really is.
Even the bosses are a cakewalk once you embrace this mentality. Each one of them can be beaten by whipping and dodging if you want to brute force it, but a clever use of sub weapons will reveal the true path. A general rule of thumb for Castlevania is – if it seems like the game is broken, you are doing it wrong. By the time I got to Dracula I had become so engrossed by its alluring dance, that I beat him on my 3rd attempt and took no damage. It taught you everything you needed to know, and asked you to use that knowledge to body the Prince of Darkness. A perfect conclusion.
Castlevania is a classic in every sense of the word. Everything from its graphics, art style, music and gameplay is on a level of perfection that can only be found when looking at retro games. If you have an hour or two to spare, you absolutely need to experience this gem of a game.
This game is basically perfect. There is a reason why it spawned a series that has lasted 30+ years. Let me know in the comments below what you think of this retro classic.
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