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David Low
14 Jan, 2006

Franchise Mode #11 - Castlevania, Part 1

PALGN Feature | The Castlevania series from 1986 to 1993.
When discussing classic videogame feuds, a few names will always pop up. Link versus Ganon, Mario versus Bowser, Sonic versus Robotnik, Ryu versus Ken. But for quite a few years, the Belmonts versus Dracula may have been the first to come to mind. Despite becoming lower key in recent years, the long running battle between a clan of vampire hunters and the Romanian tyrant turned bloodsucker has been one of the most absorbing in videogame history. It has captivated players for twenty years, and spanned over twenty titles. Here's a look at the history of the Castlevania series, from its humble beginnings as a little disk for a new Nintendo peripheral, through its blockbuster success, hard times, and re-birth as a handheld stable.

Due to the large size of this feature, we've split it into two parts. Click here to read part 2 of this feature.

As far as long running game series go, Castlevania is an odd one. It hasn't had the same problems many other 20 year old series have had, such as a glut of near identical sequels (Megaman), large gaps between releases (Metroid, Super Mario Platformers), or spin-off fever (Megaman, Mario). Every title to bear the name Castlevania (or Dracula, as the series is known in Japan) has been a full entry into the series, and yet even without spin-offs, it has given us quite a lot of gameplay variety over the years. The series has had troubles of its own, but in general has chugged along at a pace of a game a year for the last twenty years.

Castlevania was clearly designed as Konami's answer to Capcom's 1985 arcade hit Ghosts n' Goblins. The games have very similar themes, graphics and gameplay, and even the names in Japanese are similar in meaning - Ghosts n' Goblins' Japanese name is Makaimura, which means Demon World Village, and Castlevania's Japanese name Akumajyou Dracula means Demon Castle Dracula. Yet Konami's take on the theme forged its own identity with great level design, great music with both rock and classical influences, and a great graphical style, and since its 1986 debut, almost every game to bear the Castlevania name has built on the ideas and mystique of the original. Today the body of Castlevania games has one of the strongest histories of any series in gaming, if not the most consistent.

And now, onto the games themselves!


Castlevania
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula (Japan)
Platform: NES (Also licenced ports to IBM, Commodore 64 and Amiga home computers)
Release:1986 (Japan) 1987 (USA) 1988 (PAL)

...


The original Castlevania game was first released as a title for Nintendo's new disk drive peripheral for their Famicom console, which is the Japanese name for the NES. Launching alongside such huge games as Super Mario Bros 2, and the breakthrough gameplay of the original Legend of Zelda and Metroid, a six level linear platformer called Akumajyou Dracula was lucky it didn't dissappear into the ether of history. But something about the game clicked with the Japanese players, and the game was a surprise hit. Mixing the dark graphical style of Ghosts n' Goblins with a cheesy 30's monster movie theme was a clever idea, and the top notch graphics and sound didn't hurt. But it was all these elements combined with great weapons and superbly designed levels that made the game a classic. The slightly clunky (but still responsive) controls and high difficulty level turned off some players, but thanks to the disk format, you could save your game after every level, which helped a great deal.

When bringing the game to America and PAL territories, someone at Konami had the brilliant idea of combining the word 'Castle' and 'Transylvania' (the name of the province of Romania that the Dracula story was set) to form 'Castlevania', which became the name of Dracula's castle and the game's title. It doesn't really mean anything, but it was catchy, and it certainly worked, as the game was a mega-hit in the US, helping launch Konami from small time to superstar developer status. The game was pretty much the same as the Famicom version, minus the save feature since it was in cartridge form. This of course made the game much harder, something the whole series was to become legendary for.

Castlevania stars Simon Belmont, a warrior from a legendary family of vampire hunters, who has been called on to defeat Dracula. Armed with an ancient mystical whip and several sub weapons, he must face several classic movie monsters (Frankensten's monster, the Mummy, the Grim Reaper etc) before facing the Count himself. Castlevania is a brilliant piece of software that truly stands up well today and it still takes zombie-like patience to beat.

In 1990, some licenced ports of Castlevania were released on the IBM, Commodore 64 and Amiga home computers. Despite being four years later, all three pale in comparison to the NES version, the IBM and C64 games each a different flavour of terrible, and the Amiga game, despte having slightly nicer graphics, plays worst of all. They are, however, collectors items today.


Vampire Killer
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula (Japan)
Platform: MSX2
Release:1986 (Japan, Europe)

...


Shortly after the Famicom Disk version of Akumajyou Dracula, Konami released a version of the same game for the MSX2 home computer, which was popular in Japan and parts of Europe. The game had the same name and story, but since the MSX2 had different capabilities to the Famicom, parts of the game had to be re-written, and it ended up quite a different experience.

The MSX2 couldn't handle scrolling backgrounds very well, so Akumajyou Dracula MSX2 was re-written as a flip screen action puzzle game. While it still contains plenty of demon slaying, the way the player progresses is via the collection of keys to open doors and chests, and it has a currency system where players can buy useful items from merchants that hang around the castle. However, as cool as these ideas sound, the design is much looser than the NES game, and many more unfair deaths will occur, usually due to enemies spawning right next to where you need to leave the current screen. It's still a unique and high quality take on the Castlevania theme though. In some areas the graphics look slightly better than the NES version - certainly some single screens look better than any point of the NES game. But overall there's a more plain look to the MSX2 version.

Contrary to popular belief, Akumajyou Dracula on MSX2 does not pre-date Akumajyou Dracula on the Famicom. Many fans have been confused about this, since the English localisation in Europe of the game as Vampire Killer was a full year before the English localisation of the NES game. But some recent detective work by fans involving the checking of ancient Japanese retail release lists have concluded that the Famicom Disk version was released first, if only by a few weeks, locking in that version as the true origin of the Castlevania series.


Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
Also known as: Dracula 2: The Accursed Seal (Japan)
Platform: NES
Release:1987 (Japan) 1988 (USA) 1989 (PAL)

...


Following the success of Castlevania, Konami decided to build on the franchise with variety, and the sequel was a major gameplay overhaul, the first of many for the series. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest took cues from Nintendo's Metroid as well as Konami's own Goonies series to create an action RPG/platformer hybrid. Gone was the linear structure of the first NES game, and while many elements of Vampire Killer were retained (key type puzzles, town merchants), all the ideas were greatly expanded upon, ditching all separation of levels for a single sprawling overworld ala Metroid, and including a save feature (via password in the NES version), which every subsequent Castlevania in both the east and west would now feature.

Story wise, Simon's Quest is a direct sequel to Castlevania. It seems that after defeating Dracula, Simon Belmont was left with some terrible wounds that would not heal - possibly from the six million deaths he suffers every time someone fires up an NES with Castlevania in it. One day a ghostly maiden appeared, told Simon that he has been cursed, and the only way to overcome the curse is to go on a quest to find the body parts of the Count (which his minions have hidden in five mansions) and burn them in Dracula's castle.

Despite some incredibly oblique riddles who's solutions were required to progress in the game (leading to some Lucasarts-esque hair tearing, 'I've tried every damn thing I can think of' screams of frustration), Simon's Quest was a much easier game than Castlevania, but built on its legacy admirably, matching but not imitating the original game. Add to this even better graphics and music, and Simon's Quest became another classic for the ages.


Haunted Castle
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula (Japan)
Platform: Arcade
Release:1988

...


Unlike many classic Konami series like Contra and Gradius, Castlevania didn't have an arcade beginning on which the home versions were based. In 1988 Konami decided to retrospectively correct this anomaly, and released an arcade Castlevania game. Its Japanese name was still Akumajyou Dracula, exactly the same as the home version, so it was clearly meant to be an arcade version of the original story. However, Konami's US arcade devision obviously missed the memo about the new name the series had in the west, so they named the game themselves, calling it Haunted Castle. It still starred Simon Belmont, but a twist was added to the story – in an intro sequence, Dracula flies in on Simon's wedding and steals the bride, giving Simon a more personal reason to fight the Count. The levels are original and not based on the NES game at all, but many of the creatures are the same, so it can be considered a remix of the Castlevania story.

A straight up action game with good 16-bit graphics, the English language versions of Haunted Castle are incredibly difficult, and some have even said impossible to complete. The fact that you have limited credits doesn't help, but it's mainly the massive onslaught of hard to avoid enemies that keeps the player down. Nonetheless, Haunted Castle is still a quality game and a worthy entry in the Castlevania series.


The Castlevania Adventure
Also known as: Legend of Dracula (Japan)
Platform: Game Boy
Release:1989 (Japan, USA), 1991 (PAL)

...


Released soon after the launch of the original Game Boy, The Castlevania Adventure blew most other Game Boy titles away in terms of graphics and sound. All the creepiness and graphical attention to detail was brought over intact from the NES games, and the music was some of the best on the Game Boy, with some outstanding catchy tunes. Starring a new, as-of-yet unnamed vampire hunter (who was later revealed to be Simon Belmonts's great grandson Christopher), the player must negotiate four new levels of Transylvanian countryside before facing Drac at Castlevania. The RPG elements of Simon's Quest were dropped, and it reverted to standard level by level action like the first NES game. Some adjustments were made to the gameplay to make it more small screen friendly, like replacing stairs with climbing ropes, and having more emphasis on platforming and negotiating traps than combat. But even though it had even stiffer controls, some slowdown, no sub weapons and fewer levels, it was still classic Castlevania, with all the clever level and enemy design, high difficulty and classic atmosphere the series was already famous for. You just needed a little more patience to appreciate it.

In 1999, a colourised port of The Castlevania Adventure was released exclusivley in PAL territories as part of Konami GB Collection Vol.1 on the Game Boy Color, along with colourised ports of Contra, Gradius and Konami Racing. The colourisation is pretty good, but there's a little bit of extra slowdown that wasn't there before. It can still be played in monochrome on an older model Game Boy.


Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse
Also known as: Legend of Demon Castle (Japan)
Platform: NES
Release:1990 (Japan, USA), 1992 (PAL)

...


Castlevania was a great action game with tight design, but after its sprawling sequel, going back to its linear level structure felt limiting. Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest was a great adventure game, but as a result of its larger goals it lost a lot of the tight design of the original. So what to do for the next NES game? How about something in between? By combining elements of every Castlevania game so far, Konami came up with another brilliant game and a high point for the series in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.

Dracula's Curse is set 100 years before Simon Belmont's clash with the count, and stars Simon's ancestor Trevor Belmont. Called upon by the townsfolk to save them from the Curse of Dracula, Trevor steps up to fulfill his destiny and fight the Vampire Lord and his minions. Still young and inexperienced, Trevor receives help in his quest in the form of three unlockable alternate playable characters: Grant DaNasty is a Pirate Ghost who can climb on walls, Sypha Belnades (pictured, right) is a mysterious demon hunter who can summon attack orbs - and who, in a Metroid inspired revelation, turns out to be a woman and becomes Trevor's wife. And Alucard is the rebellious son of Dracula who has sworn off evil, but can still turn into a bat and fly. When Trevor meets one of these characters, he has the choice for them to join him, and the player can switch between Trevor and the helper at any point thereafter. However, he can only have one helper character at a time.

Gameplay has reverted to straight level by level action, but after most levels the player is given a choice of path, and by your choices you can miss out on shortcuts or even meeting main characters. This means the overall structure is far from linear, creating massive replay value. And with 15 large levels, the game is huge! Graphics and sound are possibly the best on the NES, thanks to some extra chips in the cartridge, although the Japanese version has an even better chip, giving it superior sound effects and music samples.

Overall, Dracula's Curse is a standout title, and some would say still the best in the whole Castlevania series. It's certainly up there in the top five, even to this day.


Super Castlevania IV
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula (Japan)
Platform: Super Nintendo
Release:1991 (Japan, USA), 1992 (PAL)

...


With the new Super Nintendo system in its infancy, Konami readied a new Castlevania game for a new generation. But they didn't really make a sequel - Super Castlevania IV's Japanese name is simply Akumajyou Dracula, meaning it is once again a re-telling of the original Castlevania story, and once again stars Simon Belmont. As a result of it being a re-make, many of the advanced features from Dracula's Curse were dropped, such as the helper characters and multiple paths. In their place, Konami added fantastic graphics, a phenomenal score (That was arguably not matched for the rest of the Super Nintendo's life span), and an overhaul of the game system.

In Super Castlevania IV, Simon is no longer confined to the two directional (left and right) whipping of the previous games, and can now crack his whip in eight directions, as well as flail his whip manually (by holding the button down). While these additions free the player up, they actually mean the controls lose their tightness, so it's a double edged sword (or, eh, whip). A swinging mechanic that used the whip as a grappling hook was also added, and became integral to the gameplay of several levels. Luckily, Konami didn't skimp on the level designs, and Super Castlevania IV had some of the best levels yet. Heavy use of the Super Nintendo's Mode 7 chip meant enemies and sometimes entire levels rotated at will, and the graphics were impressive throughout, if not always incredibly attractive (a swamp's a swamp, however you look at it). Probably the best feature was the music, which brought the best out of the SNES sound chip, with great orchestral instrument samples, and excellent compositions. The level and enemy designs shone through in Konami's first SNES effort, and despite missing many features of its predecessor, Super Castlevania IV will be remembered as a Super Nintendo masterpiece.


Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge
Also known as: Legend of Dracula 2 (Japan)
Platform: Game Boy
Release:1991 (Japan, USA), 1992 (PAL)

...


The first Game Boy Castlevania was a great little game that had its fans, but many complained about the stiff controls and lack of levels. Konami went all out for the sequel, and fixed pretty much every problem of the original game, as well as adding some unique new features.

Set a few years after The Castlevania Adventure, Christopher Belmont is retiring, and has passed his title of vampire hunter down to his son, Soleiyu Belmont. But when Dracula returns and possesses Soleiyu, anointing the young Belmont as lord of his new castle, Christopher has no choice but to take up his whip one last time and fight his own son to defeat Dracula. Before he heads to Castlevania, Christopher must first plow though four new castles that have recently appeared to mask the true domain of Dracula. This leads to a Megaman style level select screen, where the player can choose to play though the initial four castles in any order, before facing the final, two level Soleiyu and Dracula castle.

The controls have been tightened to be equal or better than the NES games, extra detail has been given to the graphics, the sub weapons return, there are more levels (still featuring more platforming than combat), and the story is great. Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge is one of the best games for the original Game Boy.

Just like The Castlevania Adventure, in 1999 a colourised port of Belmont's Revenge was released exclusively in PAL territories as part of Konami GB Collection Vol.4 on the Game Boy Color, along with colourised ports of Kung Fu, Gradius 2 and Antarctic Adventure The colourisation isn't as good this time, but the game runs fine, and can also still be played in monochrome on an older model Game Boy.


Demon Castle Dracula X: The Rondo of Blood
Also known as: Nothing – it was only released in Japan
Platform: NEC PC Engine Super CD Rom 2
Release:1993 (Japan)

...


Released on the Super CD peripheral for the PC Engine, an NEC made console that was popular in Japan but that never made it to PAL shores (and flopped in America as the Turbografix), Akumajyou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, which means Demon Castle Dracula X: The Rondo of Blood, (Rondo is a musical term that means 'circular') was somewhat of a turning point in the Castlevania series. It was the only Castlevania game to not be released outside Japan, despite having a (justified) reputation for not only being the best game in the Castlevania series, but as one of the best 2D action platformers even made. Ironically, it was also the beginning of a major slump for the series, from which it has never truly recovered.

Dracula X, as it has become known as in the west (although as a westernisation of the game's name, Castlevania X would probably be more appropriate) was yet another re-imagining of the series. Once again taking all the best features features of all previous games, Dracula X added bold new Street Fighter inspired visuals, anime style cut-scenes, and an incredible CD audio soundtrack. The main character, Richter Belmont, looked ultra cool in a Ryu from Street Fighter 'I'm about to finish you off' kind of way, and while the PC engine isn't quite as powerful as the SNES, the CD format of the game meant a huge number of graphics tiles could be stored, and there was more life and variety in the backgrounds and enemies than ever before. This, combined with bold anime colours, the best enemy designs yet, and several re-mixes of classic Castlevania music into guitar fueled hard rock numbers made Dracula X easily the best looking and sounding Castlevania game of its time.

While there were fewer levels than Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, the path select feature finally returned, and was expanded upon, with every level except the first and last having two exits. This meant there are two distinct paths through the game, and the player can progress through any combination of those in a single play through. Richter also had a sub quest on the way to Dracula – to rescue four maidens from the village, including his fiance Annette and her younger sister Maria, and via this the alternate character feature returns – it turns out Maria has special powers, and once she is rescued, she becomes a playable character, with a completely different play style to Richter. Overall, Dracula X deserves its reputation as the 'lost masterpiece' of the Castlevania series.

But while the game itself was near perfect, Dracula X also represented trouble for the series. The first (distinct) Castlevania game to not be released on a Nintendo platform, Konami was abandoning eight years of faithful Nintendo Castlevania fans by making the best game ever for a competing system, and you had to be a pretty huge spender to shell out over $600 to play this game - as a PC Engine, CD Drive adapter, CD upgrade card and copy of the game cost at least that in 1993. Add to that the fact that the game never made it to the west, where Castlevania had always been more popular than in Japan, and it seemed like Konami had its head in the clouds.

But it got worse. Beginning with Dracula X, over the next six years Konami proceeded to release eight Castlevania games on eight different platforms, meaning that a fan of the Belmonts would have to buy an exorbitant amount of hardware to follow the series properly. For the vast majority of gamers, the series simply disappeared or had huge gaps in it for years. And so Dracula X was both the best Castlevania ever, and also the beginning of a downward spiral, and the series is still suffering.


Click here to read part 2 of this feature

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14 Comments
8 years ago
Excellent article, David. It's been a long time since I've played many of these games - can remember playing The Castlevania Adventure a lot on my cousins' Game Boy before I got my own, I'd almost completely forgotten about it.

Can't say I knew about the arcade game though, guess you learn something new every day icon_smile.gif
8 years ago
Awesome, great article. Castlevania has to be one of my favourite franchises.

Shame about the 3Dvanias though.

It's nice to see all the early incarnations of Castlevania.. David indeed did his homework! icon_biggrin.gif
8 years ago
Yeah, can we just pretend the 3D ones don't exist for tomorrow's article? icon_razz.gif
This brings back a lot of memories actually, I had both of the GB games and loved them to bits.
8 years ago
Released on the Super CD peripheral for the PC Engine, an NEC made console that was popular in Japan but that never made it to PAL shores (and flopped in America as the Turbografix), Akumajyou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (which means Demon Castle Dracula X: The Circle of Blood) was somewhat of a turning point in the Castlevania series. It was the only Castlevania game to not be released outside Japan.

Is that right? As there is a Castlevania installment on the Super Nintendo released after Super Castlevania IV which was called Castlevania: Dracula X in the United States Of America and Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss in PAL regions. But, then again with all these name changes between regions, it's quite easy to get confused.
8 years ago
Different games. I believe they use some of the same art/sprites but otherwise different because Rondo couldn't be replicated on the SNES or other platforms.

David will know for sure though.

I may as well ask now: David what is your fav game in the franchise?
8 years ago
Beepos wrote
Shame about the 3Dvanias though.
Chris wrote
Yeah, can we just pretend the 3D ones don't exist for tomorrow's article?
If you guys mean the N64 games, you're in for a shock - they're actually very good, espescially the first one. Their reputation for being bad is based on very little, usually just people's impression of the first level, which is easily the worst. See tomorrow's article for details.

ZNMS wrote
It was the only Castlevania game to not be released outside Japan.[/i]
Is that right? As there is a Castlevania installment on the Super Nintendo released after Super Castlevania IV which was called Castlevania: Dracula X in the United States Of America and Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss in PAL regions. But, then again with all these name changes between regions, it's quite easy to get confused.
Yes, it's correct. The game called Drac X in the USA is actually a sequel in Japan. Once again, see tomorrow!

Beepos wrote
David indeed did his homework! icon_biggrin.gif
Not really - I actually own every single one of the games listed (except the arcade game).
8 years ago
Jezz nice article man. That was quite a read icon_wink.gif

I was just playing Symphony of the Night on PS this morning, lots of fun indeed - puting the graphics aside its pretty entertaining in every aspect and I recently got Curse of Darkness from US for Xbox which was honestly pretty dissapointing.

You can pull of really neat moves and theres lots of monsters and summoning your own is awesome (I have a big dragon now and my pixie is fully evolved). However the only downside is the depth of the game - there is so many places to explore which would ussually be a good thing but in COD it isnt, everything looks the same and its very easy to get lost plus the areas arent very well furnished. A little dissapointing.
8 years ago
"When discussing classic videogame feuds, a few names will always pop up. Link versus Gannon, Mario versus Bowser, Sonic versus Robotnik, Ryu versus Ken."

I hope that was a mock at the mistranslation of the original The Legend of Zelda, since it is Ganon rather than Gannon.

I've only read the first two games so far, and I plan to read the rest tonight. Looks like you've gone into great depth with it. Looking forward to reading it.
8 years ago
Mark wrote
I hope that was a mock at the mistranslation of the original The Legend of Zelda, since it is Ganon rather than Gannon.
Well, the Zelda I've played the most was the first game, so that's probabaly why I remembered it like that. Fix'd though.

Beepos wrote
I may as well ask now: David what is your fav game in the franchise?
Ask me again in the comments of Part 2! I don't want to spoil anything now!
8 years ago
So does that mean you're favourite is the first N64 game, David? Interesting... I too thought they were bad.

Great article, speculation aside. Not really a fan of Castlevania though, controls always seemed too loose for my liking. Symphony of the Night was/is good though. Not really played many of the games, probably partly why I'm not so keen on the series.
8 years ago
Nice article and if anything achieved something in wanting me to look into this series.

As posted I've ordered the DS game (well I had for awhile, but it's finally arriving this week) so thanks to this article I cannot wait until I get my hands on it. icon_smile.gif
8 years ago
Heh finally bringing your Castlevania love to the masses in fine style

Nice write up man icon_razz.gif

*awaits part 2*
8 years ago
Quote
Not really - I actually own every single one of the games listed (except the arcade game)
Lucky Son of a...


Well I can't wait for part two.. where the Metroidvanias are introduced.
I have to reinforce just how good this article was!

David I'm guessing Sotn will be your #1. icon_smile.gif
8 years ago
nice work icon_smile.gif

out of interest, do you own the novel "based" on one of the castlevania games?

there was a whole series of novels based on NES games, called Books of Power. i think the Castlevania one was supposed to be based on Simon's Quest, and it was really quite sh!t, but just thought it's one of those collectors things.

i used to have a few of them, like Metal Gear, Bionic Commando, Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania, i know i still have the MG one, and might still have the others somewhere.

i say "based" because the Castlavania one was about a kid who was obsessed with Castlevania and was pulled into the world of the Belmont's through a portal in his school toilet. of course, he was being bullied and by the time he got back he was able to stand up to them.

the MG one was actually quite decent though, relatively speaking.
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