A Graveyard Smash

25 Years of NES Part 9: Castlevania

Many of the most popular video game characters got their start on the NES.  There was Nintendo’s own cadre of heroes: Mario, Link, Samus, among others, as well as figures like Mega Man and Solid Snake.  Castlevania’s Simon Belmont stood as tall as or taller than these famous names during the NES’s lifetime.  He was quickly replaced by a procession of other members of his vampire killing clan.  Though he now lies nearly forgotten in gaming history, during his time he shined brighter than any save maybe Mario.

Like those other characters, the reason Simon was so popular is that his game was great.  Castlevania was Konami’s tribute to horror movies.  The opening even has a filmstrip aesthetic.  All of the bosses are monsters from movies, headlined by Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man, and Death and, of course, Dracula himself.

The best way to describe Castlevania’s gameplay it to call it the anti-Mario.  This is not to say that it is bad, just that it is designed to be the antithesis of everything Mario is.  Mario is fast.  Those asinine Sonic commercials from the Genesis days may suggest otherwise, but Mario’s games often feature some of the best use of speed and momentum in plat formers.  He sprints though levels.  Simon plods methodically through Dracula’s castle.  Mario is agile.  The player can control his jumps mid-air and perform relatively acrobatic feats.  Simon is again, slow and once he jumps, the outcome has already been decided.  This may sound like Mario is just better than Castlevania, but Castlevania’s slower mechanics work.  The game is designed for Simon limited move set, so it never really feels constricting.  Super Mario Bros is a sprint, a kinetic daredevil run through the obstacles of each level.  Castlevania is slower, more controlled.  The player must think out each move.  It is less reacting and more planning.  SMB rewards players with lightning fast reflexes, Castlevania rewards players who take it slow and stay calm.  The two games are polar opposites, but both games are truly great.

Even Castlevania’s look is the opposite of Mario.  The Mushroom Kingdom is bright and happy, with smiley clouds and non-threatening enemies.  Castlevania is dark and scary.  The castle is unwelcoming and threatening.  The games color palate reflects this, rely mostly on browns and grays.  Dracula’s castle is a place that you do not want to be obviously.  The importance of Death and Dracula as bosses is not to be underestimated.  The horror game trappings give the game an illicit feel for youngsters.  Your parents would probably not have let you watch the movies that many of the enemies originated from, but Castlevania brings them all simultaneously to you NES.  Kids love nothing more than something they are not supposed to have and Castlevania, though not scary and completely harmless, seems to have that.

It is also hard, unforgiving and cruel.  Without patience, hard work and pattern recognition you will not beat this game.  Even with those things there is a good chance you’ll never see the end.  And while repeated deaths can become frustrating, Castlevania is a game that most of the time when you die you know it was your own fault and think you have a way to avoid a repeat occurrence.  Even though this original game is good, the series really only went up from here.

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