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David Low
18 Jan, 2006

Franchise Mode #11 - Castlevania, Part 2

PALGN Feature | The Castlevania series from 1993 - 2006
To read part 1 of this feature, click here.

In 1993, the Castlevania series was at the top of the videogame heap. A string of hit games, a reputation for quality and a huge fan following made the series seem unstoppable. And while Akumajyou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo was unobtainable to most gamers, it was still widely regarded (by those who had contact with it) as one of the best games ever made, even though it was on a less powerful system than the SNES. After seeing what Konami managed to do on the PC Engine, many fans salivated over what could be done if they went all out on a new SNES game. Despite going multi-platform with most of their series, Konami were still huge supporters of Nintendo (they released eleven high profile games for the SNES in 1993), so it seemed like a good possibility.

Well, it wasn't to be, and for the next five years, the series meandered without much direction, losing a lot of its lustre, and along with it, sales. Despite these political problems, the games remained decent, so back to them!

Demon Castle Dracula
Also known as: Nothing – it was only released in Japan
Platform: Sharp X68000
Release:1993 (Japan)

...


Yet another re-make of the original Castlevania, yet another relatively obscure platform, this time the Sharp X68000, a Japanese home computer famous for its excellent arcade ports. Akumajyou Dracula X68000 reverted to the old school non-anime style, and while the graphics are at a nice 16-bit arcade level, they're still not as good as either Dracula X or Super Castlevania IV. The sound also took a hit, since even with the best sound module (think external sound card) plugged in, the X68000 had lower quality audio than the SNES (as did the PC Engine, but Dracula X had the advantage of a CD soundtrack). But at least the compositions were good, with some excellent, though more traditional (ie midi) remixes of classic themes.

Gameplay wise, Akumajyou Dracula X68000 was another step back for the series. It's a far more conservative re-make of the original game than either Haunted Castle or Super Castlevania IV, and several levels are near identical in structure to the first NES game, though usually expanded upon. Simon can't flail or swing on his whip, but retains his multi-directional attacks. Like the original NES game, Simon is composed entirely of shades of brown, which was fine on the limited palette of the NES, but here it just looks ugly. Overall Akumajyou Dracula X68000 looks good, but while it's not being fair to it, a feeling of 'why did they move to a less powerful system' hangs over the game.

While these comments make it sound like there was no point to this sequel, once again, the level designs shine through - they're still great, still heaps of fun, and still hard as nails. And Akumajyou Dracula X68000 would have been the most obscure title in the series, had we not seen it again...


Castlevania: The New Generation
Also known as: Castlevania: Bloodlines (USA), Vampire Killer (Japan)
Platform: Sega Mega Drive
Release:1994 (Japan, USA, PAL)

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Another platform, another new graphical style – Konami's new practice of giving each and every system an exclusive Castlevania game had the fans scratching their heads. The first and only Castlevania for Sega's Mega Drive also had a silly storyline that linked it in with Bram Stoker's famous 1897 Dracula novel, which is odd because up until this point every game in the series had been largely based on the schlocky 30's monster movie version of Dracula.
Bram Stoker's metaphor for a sexual predator was rather incompatible with the Dracula of the monster movies, who hangs out with Frankenstein's monster and the wolf man, but most people didn't play Castlevanias for their riveting storylines anyway.

Castlevania: The New Generation is quite a good little game from a gameplay perspective. You have the choice of two characters, the whip toting Belmont descendant John Morris (who is supposed to be the son of a character in the Dracula novel, yet was never mentioned in it...), and his friend Eric LeCarde, who fights with a spear. There are once again branching paths, and your choice of character decides which paths you can take. The graphics are nice and detailed, but are severely lacking in animation compared to all previous 16-bit Castlevanias, and the characters and regular enemies are back to their tiny NES sizes. The soundtrack contains some great tunes, but the weak Mega Drive sound chip meant they were only fractionally better than the NES games in sample quality.

Overall, it's a great Mega Drive game, but because of the step down in system power, it still pales in comparison to Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X. If this game had come out between Dracula's Curse and the SNES game, it would have been a great step between the two. As it is, it was the second step back in a row, and while not a sales disaster, The New Generation was bad PR for the series.

One final note – this game was the first to have substantial differences between the US and PAL versions. The series had always had some minor censorship between the Japanese and English language versions – blood and Christian imagery have usually been removed, for example. But in a post Mortal Kombat world, Sega allowed all the gore through in the US version, but the censorship remained in the PAL version. We get the Star Trek esque subtitleThe New Generation instead of the 'hard-core' US subtitle Bloodlines, and the Japanese title continues the strangeness: for some reason it's named after the European version of the MSX2 Castlevania and it's just called Vampire Killer


Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula XX (Japan), Castlevania: Dracula X (USA)
Platform: Super Nintendo
Release:1995 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


When news of a new Super Nintendo Castlevania got out, gamers rejoiced. When early screenshots showed it was either a port or sequel to Akumajyou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, the best Castlevania ever, and that it would be coming to the west, US and PAL fans ran about in the streets yelping with glee. It was even going to be called Castlevania: Dracula X in the US! But instead of getting what they envisioned, the public was delivered a half finished semi-sequel/prequel of the classic PC Engine version, and due to the tragic waste of potential, Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss remains perhaps the biggest disappointment of the whole series.

Released as a semi-sequel/prequel in Japan called Akumajyou Dracula XX , Vampire's Kiss told basically the same story as the PC Engine game, although all the level layouts and most level designs were totally new. While the overall look of it was the same as the PC Engine game, almost all of the features that made Dracula X seem classy and special were stripped from it. Gone are the in game cutscenes, the alternate character (you can still save Maria, but she never becomes playable), and there are only two alternate levels, as opposed to the original game's four. Some bosses are less spectacular, and many enemies and backgrounds have less animation and detail – mainly due to Konami choosing to go with a smaller, cheaper cartridge size. One feature that remains great is the soundtrack, which was ported to cartridge format almost perfectly – some tunes are actually improved over their CD original!

In the end, it's still a decent game. The graphics are still nice, and soundtrack still awesome, the controls still tight, and the level designs remain strong. But the wasted potential made it even more disappointing than the last two games' drop in graphical quality. Had Konami sprung for a larger cartridge, and put another two months into the game, Vampire's Kiss could have been another masterpiece. As it is, it's a decent Castlevania game that will be remembered more for the disappointment it caused than for the things it did right.


Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation/Saturn
Release:1997 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


When moving to the next generation, the Castlevania series didn't immediately jump to 3D, as the Mario and Final Fantasy series already had with great success. But while remaining in 2D, the franchise received yet another major gameplay overhaul, and this time its inspiration was clear – Super Metroid. Konami 'borrowed' the level layout, mapping and 'sequence upgrade' style gameplay straight from Nintendo's SNES classic (some Metroid fans even referred to it as Super Metroid's 'spititual successor') and applied the formula to a direct Dracula X sequel.
This idea was a stroke of genius, and combined with truly next gen 2D graphics and a great and varied soundtrack, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night became another cornerstone title of the Castlevania legacy.

The story of Symphony picks up straight after Akumajyou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, and you actually play a slightly edited version of that game's finale as an intro. It seems Richter disappeared four years after he defeated Dracula and at the same time Castlevania re-appeared. So Maria, now a teenager, has set out on a quest to find him. Meanwhile, Dracula's rebellious son Alucard, awakened from a multi-century sleep by some trouble he senses, embarks on a new quest of his own to defeat his father. The player takes control of Alucard (which is Dracula spelt backward, if you didn't already know), who is much more agile (and animated) than a Belmont, and for the first time, the whole game is set within the walls of Dracula's castle, rather than beginning in outer courtyards or the Transyvanian countryside. Alucard fights mostly with swords, and as the game progresses, he regains his vampiric powers that allow him to reach new areas, Super Metroid upgrade style. There's a nice story and some clever twists to the gameplay that set it apart as unique from its inspiration though, one of which actually doubles the apparent length of the game – though artificially.

Another addition to Super Metroid's formula was a robust RPG style levelling and weapon system. There are Metroid style 'energy tank' and strength upgrade items in the castle, but the main way Alucard builds his health and attack strength is by defeating enemies for experience points. Hundreds of equippable weapon and armour items are dropped by enemies and sold by Dracula's librarian, who doubles as a merchant (and also keeps a glossary of every enemy you've encountered). The attention to detail in the game is astounding, and there are a huge variety of levels and enemies, many of which look as good as anything ever has in 2D, and some of the bosses are spectacular. Many enemies are ripped straight from older games, which is actually a good thing for fans who were after some consistency in the series. The variety also spills over to the music, which is all of very high quality, generally of a classical/rock blend, but it covers a great deal of genres as appropriate to the area they are heard in – organ music in the castle chapel, for example (although why the prince of darkness has a church in his house is a slight mystery). Symphony is the complete package.

So was there anything wrong with this game? Not much. The in game menus are very cheap and nasty looking, and the music, while great, can be a little pretentious – it thinks it's Tchaikovsky and Sting all at once, when its pop melodies are sometimes closer to Yanni. There are some CG animation sequences for the intro and ending that always felt tacked on, and in retrospect are appallingly dated. The game is also incredibly easy, mostly due to levelling up happening too quickly, which is dissapointing for Castlevania fans, as the series had always offered a good challenge (and Super Metroid wasn't a walkover like this, either). But most of the problems lie with the English translation. It begins badly by referring to the wrong Castlevania game in the intro (it's a sequel to Dracula X, yet it says 'Bloodlines') but this pales in comparison to the voice acting, which is some of the worst to ever be recorded for a game - easily worse than any Resident Evil game, for example. The guy who voices Richter is particularly bad, but all characters sound awful.

But probably the biggest failure of the game was nothing to do with the game itself – it was the game's failure to sell, particularly in the US. SCEA did have a no 2D policy on the PlayStation in the US, so it was lucky to get a western release at all, but perhaps their anti 2D policy was a self-fulfilling prophecy? Symphony got a 'greatest hits' release in the US late in the PlayStation's life – despite never being a 'hit', but it's still an expensive game to get your hands on, no matter what version you're after.


...


An enhanced port of Symphony was released on the Sega Saturn in Japan, the biggest new feature being the ability to play the story mode from the perspective of Richter and Maria right from the start (a less developed 'Richter' quest was un-lockable in the PlayStation version). Along with the new characters came some excellent new audio tracks, which were mostly classic Castlevania tunes re-mixed to fit in with the rest of the soundtrack, and some new (though small) areas and secrets. Unfortunately, the Saturn version suffers some slowdown that wasn't present in the PlayStation version, and also has longer load times – both of which are the result of sloppy programming, since the Saturn usually has better load times and is far stronger at 2D than the PlayStation. Overall the Saturn version is only slightly better, but worth checking out, if only as the easiest way to hear the vastly superior Japanese voice acting, since Saturns can play imports without hardware modification using an Action Replay.

Castlevania: Legends
Also known as: The Legend of Dracula: Dark Night Prelude (Japan)
Platform: Game Boy
Release:1997 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


In 1998, an unexpected new Game Boy entry turned up, in the form of Castlevania: Legends. It didn't continue the story of Christoper from the first two Game Boy games, rather, it was set far earlier, and starred Trevor Belmont's great grandmother Sonia Belmont, who was the first female Castlevania protagonist (not counting Maria's playable cameos). Once again sporting an anime style, Legends played very much like its Game Boy predecessors, with some slight modifications. Jumps had more freedom of movement, some small anime cutscenes were introduced, and Alucard makes an appearance. But even though it was seven years later, it actually looked less detailed than the last Game Boy title, Belmont's Revenge, and the level designs, while not terrible, were not up to the series' lofty standards.

Legends main claim to fame is its plot – it's the first battle between a Belmont and Dracula chronologically, and in a series defining plot twist, it turns out that all subsequent Belmonts and Dracula are actually related, since Trevor's grandfather was – wait for it – the lovechild of Sonia and Alucard! Legends was another decent little game and a godsend to Game Boy owners in the system's ninth year.

Of note is that Castlevania: Legends was Super game Boy compatible, and got a custom border and custom colour palettes when player on the TV via the SNES Game Boy adapter.

Castlevania
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula Apocalypse (Japan)
Platform: Nintendo 64
Release:1999 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


From the very beginning, Castlevania's first 3D outing faced adversity. Early previews of 'Dracula 3D' were quick to write the game off as 'Mario 64 with a whip', and when Konami announced that they were rushing the game out, dropping two of the promised four characters in the meantime, there seemed to be no hope of Castlevania 64 being any good..

But what happened? Upon the game's release, it was met with almost universal critical praise from the gaming press! The huge US magazine EGM gave the game scores of 9, 9, 8 and 9 from four reviewers, and every contemporary review awarded it at least 80 - 90%. It turned out Konami had pulled it off anyway, and while there were some control and camera problems like most 3D games of the time, Castlevania 64 was a very well designed game, and a great start for the series in 3D.

Of course, all this makes the current reputation the first Nintendo 64 game has for being 'bad' hard to fathom. Where did this myth start? Was it from impressions players formed from playing the game for five minutes (the first section is the game is easily the worst, and it gets immeasurably better)? Was it a hangover from the negative press the game recieved prior to release? Was it from fans who wanted 2D Symphony clones forever now? Who knows - rest assured, the game was far from bad, even now has aged better than many games of its era.

Called Akumajyou Dracula Mokushiroku (Demon Castle Dracula Apocalypse) in Japan, it was simply called Castlevania in the west, but is usually referred to as Castlevania 64 to avoid any confusion with the NES game. It starred two new characters, Reinhardt Schneider, a vampire hunter of Belmont heritage armed with the standard whip (which is fantastically realised in 3D), and Carrie Fernandez, a young girl who is a descendant of Sypha Belnades from Castlevainia III and attacks with glowing orbs. It's level by level based, but most of the game world is open plan, so you can go back if you missed something.
The gameplay alternates between platforming, combat with the whip/orbs, some RPG style puzzle sections (with a Resident Evil kind of atmosphere), and some special action set pieces.

The level design is top notch. Platforming areas like the gear and lever packed 'clock tower', and swinging blade filled 'tower of execution' remain shining examples of the genre. Extra mentions must go to some of the action set pieces – running through a 'The Shining' inspired hedge maze while being chased by a chainsaw armed Frankenstein's monster is an experience not to be missed, and many other events are equally memorable. The game is paced brilliantly, with puzzle type sections placed neatly between action heavy levels, and it all builds up very dramatically to the epic battles with Death and then Dracula. The story is also excellent, the best in the whole series, with independant plots for both main characters and several well thought out supporting characters, all presented via some nice in-engine cut-scenes. The music is a new take on Castlevania, and is far more atmospheric than usual, but it sounds great, and fits the game perfectly.

The game does have its problems. The graphics seem a little first/second gen-N64, and are certainly not up to Ocarina's standard from a technical standpoint (but from an artistic perspective they're fantastic – many parts of the game drip with atmosphere). As mentioned, the first level is the worst, it's often ugly due to a blurry dirt texture, and too slow paced. And the camera can seriously misbehave, so sometimes you just have to live with a dodgy camera angle to make that jump. But overall, these problems are easily forgivable for what the game gives back. Castlevania 64 is another landmark title in the series.


Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula Side Story: Legend of Cornell (Japan)
Platform: Nintendo 64
Release:1999 (Japan, USA), 2000 (PAL)

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The first N64 game was the highest seller for the series in years, and Konami knew there was some extra material left over that had been cut, so they quickly commissioned a sequel. Many people refer to Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness as a 'special edition' of the first game, which is only half true – it's mainly a sequel, with a new main character and story and completely different level layouts.
Upon completion of the game you can unlock a re-mixed version of Reinhardt and Carrie's quests, but overall it's as much a sequel as any game that use the same engine as its predecessor. Some improvements have been made to the engine – manual camera control is now mapped to the N64's d-pad, which is useful, and a high resolution mode is available via the N64 RAM expansion, whic isn't useful, since framerates plummet in high res. Overall it plays very similarly to its predecessor.

Legacy of Darkness is set eight years before Castlevania 64, and stars Cornell, a man who has trained to release an ancient power within himself to become a wolf, and as a result of this is struggling with his identity and place in the world. When Castlevania appears, he feels drawn to Dracula's realm, not sure if he will fight or join the dark lord. When he returns from training to find his village alight and his sister Ada kidnapped, he heads off intent on her rescue. There is another selectable character once Cornell's mission is complete, a shotgun armed knight in armour called Henry. His quest is shorter but much different – he has seven days to rescue six children scattered throughout several large open levels.

While Legacy of Darkness improves on some aspects of its predecessor, there are a few problems holding it back from surpassing it. Cornell is a great character, but his story is somehow not as gripping as either Reinhardt or Carrie's, and his quest isn't as compelling or well paced either. The other character's re-mixed quests are not as good an their original versions, and Henry's quest can get annoying. Legacy of Darkness doesn't really add much that's new to the mix, and is slightly weaker on a few fronts, but overall it's still a strong game, and another worthy Castlevania experience.


Castlevania Chronicles
Also known as: Castlevania Chronicles: Demon Castle Dracula (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation
Release:2001 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


In 2001, Konami made one of the most bizarre decisions in the franchise's history when they released another 2D Castlevania game on the original PlayStation, despite the fact that Symphony, while brilliant, was a sales failure, the N64 games and sold quite well, and the PS2 and Gamecube were already out and dominating sales (it was so late, in fact that the Dreamcast had already come and gone!). Initial impressions (and the game's title) suggested that Castlevania Chronicles would actually be a retro collection, but on closer inspection, it only contained a single older title, and was perhaps meant to be the first of a series of retro 'chronicles'.

Now if you were to choose one 8 or 16-bit title to begin a retro Castlevania series, what would it be? One of the NES games? Super Castlevania IV? Dracula X? Well it was none of the above. Instead, Konami decided to port over what was probably already the least neccessary title in the whole series – the Sharp X68000 title! And while there were a few extra features added in, and it was great for western fans to be able to play the Japan only title, Konami really missed the boat with this one.

For the game itself, refer to the section on the original above, because this is basically a straight port. The disc includes an exact re-production of Akumajyou Dracula X68000, as well as an arranged mode with a new main sprite (which is nice), an arranged soundtrack (which is not so nice – it's a bit 'techno', which doesn't fit with a retro game at all, and the original sounds far better), some slightly improved enemy placements, and an extremely crappy CG intro. There's also some unlocakable artwork and a developer interview - the interview is with the producer of this game and Symphony (Koji Igarashi, who would later become the producer of the whole series), and is okay, nothing special. The artwork is nice, but is mostly from Symphony because that was the last Castlevania game Igarashi and the cover artist Ayami Kojima worked on – this is, of course, incredibly self serving of them, since three Castlevania games had been released between Symphony and this one, all with equally excellent art. Overall, it's a decent package, but by choosing such an odd game (and an odd platform) to begin a 'chronicles' series, Konami pretty much made sure it wouldn't sell, and no future retro releases would happen.


Castlevania
Also known as: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (USA), Demon Castle Dracula: Circle of the Moon (Japan)
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Release:2001 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


While the N64 games were great, many fans still longed for some classic 2D Castlevania, specifically a follow-up to the Metroid inspired gameplay of Symphony of the Night. But 2D games just weren't viable in the era of 'mad 3d grafix!', and Konami had the battle-scars of two under-selling PlayStation games to prove it. The 2001 arrival of the Game Boy Advance changed all this, and Konami was quick to jump in with a new free roaming Dracula hunt.

Known only as Castlevania in PAL territories (but usually referred to by its US and Japanese sub-title Circle of the Moon anyway), the first Castlevania for the GBA was an attempt to combine the classic whip slinging action and decent challenge of the older games with the Super Metroid type gameplay of Symphony of the Night, and in this it succeeded. The story is about a vampire hunter called Morris Baldwin and his two apprentices, Nathan Graves and his son Hugh (we assume at least one of them is of Belmont heritage). The three head to Castlevania to fight a newly resurrected Dracula, and in an into sequence we see Morris captured, leaving Nathan and Hugh to search the castle for him seperately. The player takes control of Nathan, who of course requires all sorts of weapons and magic spells scattered throughout the castle before he can reach Dracula's tower, and just like Symphony, there are other characters running around the castle you'll bump into at times, including Hugh, who takes on Richter's role as the vampire hunter possesed by evil. Armed with the classic whip (which now has a useful auto flail) and and sub weapons, Nathan plays a lot more like classic Dracula X Richter then Alucard, and this, combined with a much better (ie higher) difficulty level, brings back the old-school Castlevania feel to the action. There is also a well thought out spell system that involves combining two types of cards to gain a special ability. It's a great system because it's both robust and discreet, unlike in Symphony where you had to wade through hundreds of items in the ugly menu screen to manage spells and abilities.

Circle of the Moon looks and sounds great for a first gen GBA game. While it was not quite up to Symphony and Dracula X's level, mainly due to memory limitation issues (stiff animation, sometimes repetitive backgrounds and less musical tracks), but the graphical design and detail were good, and the music was outstanding in quality, featuring many classic themes. There were, however, some problems playing the game on an original model GBA – the appropriately dark castle setting was very hard to see unless the lighting was perfect, and much detail was lost because you simply couldn't make it out. Of course, this is now a moot point – played on any newer Game Boy Model (SP, Game Boy Player, DS or Micro), Circle of the Moon looks fantastic, and is still one of the best looking games on the system. But back in 2001, it was quite a problem, and one that Konami would fix for the next game.


Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
Also known as: Castlevania: Concerto of the Midnight Sun (Japan)
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Release:2002 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


The beginning of 2002 was still a world without GBA SP, so for Circle's follow up, Konami worked on fixing the problems that made that game hard to see on the original GBA screen. Created by Koji Igarashi's Symphony team (since the Circle of the Moon team's division of Konami had been shut down due to consolidation), they succeeded in making a game that was more visible on the original GBA, but in the meantime, lost a lot of what made Circle such a great game to begin with. Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is a patchy effort, and the worst of the Metroid-vanias, as they have come to be known.

As Juste Belmont you must once again traverse Dracula's maze-like castle, and once again defeat a 'possessed by evil' former ally (this time it's Juste's friend Maxim) before eventually facing Dracula – it was all getting a bit old at this point. The graphics are technically better, with larger sprites that feature a bit more animation, and the backgrounds are equally as detailed as Circle's were, though less repetitive and with more effects. But in an effort to make the game more visible on an old GBA, something went awry. Everything has been made brighter and more colourful, but it was taken waaaay overboard, and many areas just look garish. The sprites stand out from the backgrounds better – but this just shows up their lack of animation even more. Juste himself 'juste' looks stupid – there's a blue glow behind him at all times (presumably to make him stand out from the backgrounds) but he's an ugly and clunky looking sprite and is animated poorly. Worse still is the soundtrack, which has taken a massive hit from Circle. The sample quality of the music is NES level, and the compositions are ok but nothing special.

But the biggest problem with the game is that it's boring. The castle design is easily the least inspired of all the Metroidvanias, and for seemingly no reason there's a mirror-castle, which is just a badly palette swapped version of the main castle (the designers seemed to think that just because Symphony had a second castle </spoiler> that it would be a good idea to add one here, even though they were bereft of ideas on how to do it well). Gone is the card based spell system, replaced by a 'spell fusion' system that transforms your sub weapons into spells, which isn't as interesting and doesn't work very well, since you just end up using one spell most of the game. And all the challenge has been removed – you level up far too quickly, and it's unlikely Juste will ever die - making it the easiest Castlevania game ever. Overall, Harmony of Dissonance is still a decent game, and does some things right - there's plenty to do and see, and some parts look great, even if it does feel a bit pointless. But by not living up to its predecessor by a long shot, Harmony will be remembered as one of the more disappointing titles of the series.

Another note – Harmony of Dissonance was the beginning of an effort to re-name the series in Japan from Akumajou Dracula to its western name Castlevania. Due to fan backlash, this only lasted three games!


Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Also known as: Castlevania: Minuet of Dawn(Japan)
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Release:2003 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


In their third GBA effort, Konami got it almost totally right. This time the graphics and animation were excellent, it was easy to see on a regular GBA (even though the SP was out), and the musical quality was better, if not quite as good as Circle of the Moon.
Best of all, the castle was well designed and interesting, the magic system was clever, and for once they came up with an original and well thought out story. The only real complaint about the game was that it was still too easy (and that it never got an official Australian release for some reason).

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is actually set in the future, the year 2035 to be exact, but you wouldn't know that from playing the game - it's still set in a medieval looking castle. It stars Soma Cruz, a student on exchange to Japan. One day while watching an eclipse with his friend Mina, he blacks out, and wakes up in a strange castle. It turns out it is Dracula's castle that has been trapped in another universe and is only accessible during an eclipse. Soma decides to investigate this strange place in the hope of finding a way out, and so begins a story with more twists and turns than Tony Hawk on a ramp. There are several other characters running throughout the castle at the same time, many of whom initially hide their identity (or don't know it...), and all of whom have an agenda of some sort, and it's slowly revealed who's good, who's bad, and what has to be done. The gameplay is the (now classic) standard upgrade crazy Metroidvania, which was getting a little tiring if you'd played them all, but was still enjoyable due to the much better castle design and story. This time, the spell system is called the 'tactical soul' system, where Soma absorbs the 'soul' of enemies he defeats to gain new powers – a bit more thievery from Metroid, this time from Metroid Fusion, but it works well. The graphics finally achieve the perfect balance of animation and detail for the GBA to be some of the best on the system, and while the sample quality isn't as quite as good as Circle's, the tunes are great.

The only thing stopping Aria of Sorrow from being right up there with Symphony as the best of the Metroidvanias is the GBA hardware holding it back. But as the fouth of them, the formula is getting a little tired. It's still a classy game from start to finish, so for fans of this type of game (or anyone not burned out by them) Aria is not to be missed.


In 2006 there is a re-release of Aria scheduled, packaged with Harmony as the Castlevania Double Pack. Why they chose Harmony over the vastly superior Circle of the Moon is just one of those mysteries, but if you just pretend Harmony isn't on the cart, this may be a good way to get your hands on Aria.

Castlevania
Also known as: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (USA)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Release:2003 (Japan, USA), 2004 (PAL)

...


It seems possible that some of the (undeserved) backlash against the N64 Castlevania games may have been sourced from within Konami themselves, as the series return to home consoles (after much success on the handheld front) scrapped everything the N64 games did and started again from scratch. A new engine was created with more emphasis on combat than platforming, and the open plan, landscape spanning levels and free camera of Castlevania 64 and Legacy of Darkness were dropped in favour of indoor only levels and a fixed ¾ view camera angle. None of the free roaming gameplay of the very successful Metroidvanias was used either. What Konami created was a game with some potential, but it was quite limited in scope, and it was missing a lot of what had always made The Castlevania series great.

Frustratingly just called Castlevania in PAL territories again (now the fourth game with that name here), the first PS2 game is most commonly referred to by its US subtitle Lament of Innocence. It stars Leon Belmont, and Konami once again re-write the Castlevania time line by setting the game several hundred years before Legends, whose Sonia Belmont was supposed to be the first of the line of Belmont vampire slayers (even stranger, Lament of Innocence is set hundreds of years before Dracula himself existed in any form...). Leon's friend and fellow warrior Mathis Cronqvist informs him of a vampire living in a castle in a nearby forest, and with a whip given to him by a local sorcerer named Rinaldo, Leon sets off to vanquish the beast. Apart from the extended intro and ending sequences, there is pretty much no plot development during the game, leaving the focus on the action. Leon must clear five castle sections connected by a magic transporter room (?!) in any order before facing the sixth and final level and the vampire. The action is based on combo-ing two different types of whip attacks on multiple enemies, with the addition of a tactical block and a spell system reminiscent of Harmony's spell fusion.

But while the combat works well, the level design almost literally consists of five different rooms per level, repeated 20 times each. Konami have simply not even bothered to create a game world with any interesting features – and the overall floor plan is so flat that a simple raised section of floor seems like a huge change. This is especially disappointing given the massive variety of locations in similar games like Capcom's Devil May Cry, and what we end up with is a competent melee fighting engine with decent enemy and weapon design, but with boring and repetitive level design. And for a 3D version of a series of platformers, there is very little platforming - and what there is of it is badly handled. With the ultra flat floor plan of the castle, it feels far more like a 3D version of a top down dungeon crawler like the original Gauntlet than a 3D version of a side scrolling platformer. This complete disregard for what the series has always been about is very disappointing.

The graphics are decent, but not up to the level of other PS2 action games, and the soundtrack is nice, and more classical in composition than any Castlevania so far. Anyone with a decent knowledge of classical music will laugh at the cheesy pop melodies and simple harmonies that the composer thinks constitute 'opera', but it's catchy and fits the game well enough. Lament of Innocence is least fun to play for a while, and showed potential that a decent sequel could build upon amicably, but it's a bit of a letdown to have an undeveloped and repetitive action game for the console Castlevania, when the handheld games were reaching a zenith of depth and polish, and the two previous 3D efforts were far more ambitious and achieved much more for the series. Lament of Innocence sold poorly, and Castlevania 64's status as the definitive 3D Castlevania game remains intact.


Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula: Crucifix of the Blue Moon (Japan)
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release:2005 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


The first DS Castlevania is a direct sequel to Aria of Sorrow, and picks up one year after Aria left off. Soma has (conveniently) lost all his powers, but is drawn back to Castlevania (along with the rest Aria's rather large cast) by a mysterious cult that wants to destroy him in an effort to resurrect Dracula.
And so another free roaming Metroidvania begins, with the same 'soul collection' system as Aria.

While we hardly needed another one of these games, Dawn of Sorrow does so many things right that it's easy to forgive its unoriginal nature. The power of the DS has produced the first game in eight years that can be described as the best looking 2D Castlevania. Many of the levels are so beautiful and intricate in their design that you'll sometimes get hit by an enemy just because you were gasping at the incredible detail of the game's backgrounds. Right from the first section - probably the best 2D realisation of a village ever in a game, through to the clock tower, Dawn of Sorrow just looks amazing. Many clever effects are utilised to give the backgrounds life, like the use of 3D in the background, and one particular favourite is the moving reflection in a mirror that makes a 2D room feel 3D (you have to see it to understand). The sprites, too, are finally perfectly animated, from the hero characters through to bosses that finally trump Symphony. The music isn't quite CD quality, but sounds better than any of the GBA games and is well composed, catchy, and not as pretentious as some of the other recent soundtracks. The art style has been changed to an anime type one for some odd reason, but it looks nice and is a good excuse for a full animated intro.

Dawn of Sorrow is mostly a traditionally controlled game, but it uses many of the DS's unique features, and some of the implementations work better than others. The game takes place on the bottom screen, and having the map screen visible on the top screen at all times is a Godsend – going back to the screen flipping maps of older games feels like a chore after having it right there in Dawn. Some touch screen features have been implemented – there's a 'magic seal' you have to draw on the screen to finish off bosses, which is fun (but a bit awkward to have to pull out the stylus all the time), and some blocks that can be crushed with a tap – both are tacked on, but at least they don't go overboard with touch screen features. Overall, Dawn of Sorrow is just another re-tread of the same formula, but its sky-high production values make its lack of originality in design more than forgivable. Probably the best thing that can be said about Dawn is that it managed to stand out from the crowd in the DS's 2005 holiday line-up, and that was quite a feat. It's the best Castlevania game in at least five years, and the triumphant return of the series ultra high standards.


NES Classics: Castlevania
Also known as: Famicom Mini #29 Demon Castle Dracula (Japan)
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Release:2005 (Japan, USA, PAL)

...


The original Castlevania was released in late 2005 (earlier in Japan and the US) as part of the NES classics series for GBA. It's a near perfect port of the original game – the only modifications are the restoration of the save feature from the Japanese version, and slightly altered resolution so it fits on the GBA screen. It's probably the best of the NES classics series, and works well as a handheld game thanks to the save feature, so is well worth picking up to experience (or re-experience) the original classic. But even with the save, it's still hard as nails.

What makes this release notable, is that it means the Game Boy Advance now has the highest number of Castlevania games on it of any platform, finally breaking the record held by the NES for sixteen years, meaning that numerically, the Nintendo handhelds truly are the series new home.


Castlevania: Curse of Darkness
Also known as: Demon Castle Dracula: Curse of Darkness (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Release:2005 (Japan, USA), 2006 (PAL)

...


Recently released overseas and coming soon to PAL, Curse of Darkness is the game that is supposed to correct the numerous shortcomings of Lament of Innocence. The camera has been released from its fixed position, and far more interesting and varied levels have been promised. Bizarrely, the game is a direct sequel to Castlevania III – it's hard to believe there will be many players of this game will have the extended knowledge of a sixteen year old NES game for this to mean anything. It stars a man named Hector, who is a 'devil forgemaster' - apparently a defector from Dracula's army – who can conger up 'innocent devils' to help him in battle.

Initial reviews have not been promising, and a common complaint is that while the levels look like they're more varied, it's really just a coat of pain over equally repetitive corridors. And the implementation of the Castlevania III storyline is supposedly so weak as to be a waste of time. However I'll reserve judgment and update this feature when I've played the game.


Update: Read our review of Castlevania: Curse of Darkness.

Trevor finally returns in Curse of Darkness

Trevor finally returns in Curse of Darkness
Close
So where does this leave Castlevania? In its twentieth year, the series is once again meandering on the home console front, but the successful handheld titles are keeping the series afloat. Hopefully Konami can get it together, and Castlevania can re-join the big boys like Mario, Zelda and Final Fantasy as a premier console franchise. And hopefully they can do something new with the handheld Metroidvanias. But the series has recovered from slumps before, and just needs another breakthrough title to survive for many years to come. Bring on Castlevania: Revolution!

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25 Comments
8 years ago
wow, reading some of that, it's amazing the franchise is still around. many companies would've shelved the name after some of those seemingly appalling games.

i suppose bad game doesn't equal bad sales. just look at Driv3r.

it's funny, i'd never really played a Castlevania game properly, as in taking note of the story, or indeed some of the names, until quite recently. it didn't occur to me that Alucard was Dracula reversed, but this could be more because the first time i heard the name was in the Hellsing anime, where it was Arucard, an obviously Japanese corruption (along with Van Helsing -> Hellsing) which isn't quite so obvious, and takes the focus off the reasoning for the name.

top stuff David, you know your sh!t.
8 years ago
Indeed, lots of good info on the games in here, and definately making me think of getting the games (well some of them) to actually play what I've been missing out on.

Top stuff icon_biggrin.gif
8 years ago
Awesome.... I can't hardly wait to get my hands on DoS.

So David now that part 2 of this excellent article is done, your favourite Castlevania game is..?
8 years ago
Beepos wrote
So David now that part 2 of this excellent article is done, your favourite Castlevania game is..?
The closest I can get to a favourite is a three way tie for first place: Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Akumajyou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo and Castlevania 64.

Following these closely are Super Castlevania IV, Symphony of the Night and the original NES Castlevania.

But really, with the exception of Harmony of Dissonance and Lament of Innocence, I love them all.
8 years ago
Fantastic read, David.

Reading about Castlevania II: Simon's Quest brought back a lot of memories. I remember the game so well, but didn't realise it was part of the Castlevania franchise, always thought it was just called Simon's Quest. Remember getting it bundled with my NES also. Don't remember if that was a Nintendo promotion at the time or selected stores.

Some fantastic memories though, and you've done an excellent job with the article David. One of the finest franchise modes yet.

Speaking of franchise modes, I wonder if anyone will be brave enough to do a Star Wars one icon_razz.gif.

Top effort though.
8 years ago
Mark wrote
Speaking of franchise modes, I wonder if anyone will be brave enough to do a Star Wars one icon_razz.gif.
Franchises Within Franchise Mode?

i know your joking (well, i hope you are) but i might compile a list of SW games so people could boggle at the thought. hell, plugging Star Wars into GameFAQs would give you some idea, though for some reason PS2, XBox and PC titles don't return results.
8 years ago
A game that was more visible on the original GBA, but in the meantime, lost a lot of what made Circle such a great game to begin with, and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is a patchy effort, and the worst of the Metroid-vanias, as they have come to be known.

That can't be right, as Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a disaster with the worst jumping and whips physics out of the three GameBoy Advance titles. Totally ruined the game and then there is that silly card system that just added fuel to the fire.
8 years ago
ZNMS wrote
That can't be right, as Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a disaster with the worst jumping and whips physics out of the three GameBoy Advance titles. Totally ruined the game and then there is that silly card system that just added fuel to the fire.
Gamespot:
Circle of the Moon: 96%
Harmony of Dissonance: 82%

You'll find it extremeley hard to find a site or magazine that thought Harmony was the better game.

I can undertand not liking Circle, just not preferring Harmony. But that's opinion for you, eh?
8 years ago
Great read David. Very well done.

ObsoletE wrote
Mark wrote
Speaking of franchise modes, I wonder if anyone will be brave enough to do a Star Wars one icon_razz.gif.
Franchises Within Franchise Mode?

i know your joking (well, i hope you are) but i might compile a list of SW games so people could boggle at the thought. hell, plugging Star Wars into GameFAQs would give you some idea, though for some reason PS2, XBox and PC titles don't return results.
Try an IGN game title search.
8 years ago
i did, but IGN is such a piece of poo these days it's a pain in the arse to do discretely while at work.

i was considering taking the challenge, but after having a quick look, i think i'd be lucky to have played half of those available. IGN lists 185 games (including repeats for multi-platform games).

i think a safer option for anyone attempting it would be to do what i said above, Franchises Within Franchise Mode. do all the Dark Forces games (DF, DF2:JK, DF2:JK-MOTS, DF3:JK2:JO, DF4:JK3:JA) or the Star Wars Platformers or the Rebel Assualt -> Rogue Squadron chain.

or maybe Sh!t Games based on the Star Wars Licence. icon_smile.gif
8 years ago
ObsoletE wrote
i did, but IGN is such a piece of poo these days it's a pain in the arse to do discretely while at work.

i was considering taking the challenge, but after having a quick look, i think i'd be lucky to have played half of those available. IGN lists 185 games (including repeats for multi-platform games).

i think a safer option for anyone attempting it would be to do what i said above, Franchises Within Franchise Mode. do all the Dark Forces games (DF, DF2:JK, DF2:JK-MOTS, DF3:JK2:JO, DF4:JK3:JA) or the Star Wars Platformers or the Rebel Assualt -> Rogue Squadron chain.

or maybe Sh!t Games based on the Star Wars Licence. icon_smile.gif
I think it would be easier just going for good Star Wars games, narrows it down a fair bit.

So next franchise mode is... better wait for you guys to announce it, I can see a few options, but the numbering is screwed icon_wink.gif
8 years ago
David wrote
Gamespot:
Circle of the Moon: 96%
Harmony of Dissonance: 82%
Games Domain:
Circle of the Moon: 70%
Harmony of Dissonance: 90%

Game Informer:

Circle of the Moon: 87.5%
Harmony of Dissonance: 95%

GameSpy:
Circle of the Moon: 82%
Harmony of Dissonance: 87%

IGN:
Circle of the Moon: 90%
Harmony of Dissonance: 92%

But, then again, it all comes down to personal perference.
8 years ago
Circle of the Moon is the better of all three of the GBA Castlevania titles, it at least brings back a decent difficultly that the series is profound for.
8 years ago
heh David.. he did find a few sites there. icon_lol.gif


Quote
Circle of the Moon is the better of all three of the GBA Castlevania titles, it at least brings back a decent difficultly that the series is profound for.
That's exactly what I was about to say. Circle of the Moon was indeed the best of the three, because it's an actually challenge. Aria was very close and I liked the souls better then cards, but it was just way to easy.

Someone please tell me DoS is much harder then Aria... pleassssssssseeee.
8 years ago
Someone (maybe even me?) should write up a lovely Franchise Mode on the greatest franchise and video game series ever.

Incase my bias isn't totally obvious by now, have a look at my sig and avatar for a couple of hints of which franchise I'm talking about. icon_wink.gif
8 years ago
Quote
have a look at my sig and avatar for a couple of hints of which franchise I'm talking about.
But there has been only 2 Halo games, not much of a franchise.


Oh wait.
8 years ago
Beepos wrote
Quote
have a look at my sig and avatar for a couple of hints of which franchise I'm talking about.
But there has been only 2 Halo games, not much of a franchise.
Can't we include Dead or Alive 4 to beef it up a bit, since it had that Halo character in it?
8 years ago
^ Let's get him!!! (EDIT: To Beepos)

EDIT: Don't forget about that sizescrolling game. Halo Zero...

Use this intead. the white... kills...
8 years ago
Gamerankings:
Circle of the Moon 88%
Harmony of Dissonance: 86%

Nonetheless, you described Circle as a disaster - which is a pretty big call for a game that has an 88% rating on gamerankings

theory wrote
Someone (maybe even me?) should write up a lovely Franchise Mode on the greatest franchise and video game series ever.
Incase my bias isn't totally obvious by now, have a look at my sig and avatar for a couple of hints of which franchise I'm talking about. icon_wink.gif
I'm planning one within the next couple of months, as I'm actually an even bigger fan of Metroid. Only seven games (plus pinball) will make it much easier then this one - my first draft of this was 10,000 words!

EDIT: Here's some pictures of my Famicom Disk System copies of both original Castlevania and Metroid (on top of my FDS box):



Note that Castlevania is still sealed with the official Nintendo FDS seal!
8 years ago
I have no idea how harmony of dissonance got such high marks, it is probably the worst of the castlevania series, if not giving Lament of Innocence a run for it's money.

On the other hand, Circle of the Moon is the most underrated, with only gamespot giving what I believe to be a truely justifiable score.

Well, given the ones that I've played here are my faves in ordere

1. Circle of the Moon
2. Castlevania 64
3. Super Castlevania IV
4. Aria of Sorrow
5. Dawn of Sorrow
6. Symphony of the night

and way lower

Harmony of Dissonance
Lament of Innocence
8 years ago
David wrote
I'm planning one within the next couple of months, as I'm actually an even bigger fan of Metroid. Only seven games (plus pinball) will make it much easier then this one - my first draft of this was 10,000 words!
Glad to hear it!

David wrote
EDIT: Here's some pictures of my Famicom Disk System copies of both original Castlevania and Metroid (on top of my FDS box)
Thanks for the pics.
I always wanted a copy of Metroid on the FDS, and now I want it more (because I can't let you be the only one on PALGN with it). icon_smile.gif
8 years ago
CotM and AoS rock. Dracula's Curse owns, Simon's Quest is the bomb (even if it did take me months to figure out the ducking thing). Harmony of Dissonance was ok, Symphony of the Night was brilliant (in that it helped the series evolve) the N64 games were painful to look at, and play. Haven't played the PS2 incarnations.

Bloodlines (I think that's it) was a good game, as was Super CV and Dracula X (possibly my favourite, but it's hard to tell). Never really got into the Gameboy renditions, but they were fun while I played them. The original game on NES was a brilliant piece of gaming, even if it was insanely difficult (although I did like the whole added items and stuff on the second playthrough, that forced me to finish the game twice in one sitting).

As for Dawn of SOrrow the company that was responsible for releasing it here can burn in Hell.
8 years ago
Quote
As for Dawn of SOrrow the company that was responsible for releasing it here can burn in Hell.
Suit 1: So how many people like Castlevania in Australia?
Suit 2: Quite a few I believe...
Suit 1: Ok we'll print 10 copies of Dawn of Sorrow, that'll be enough.
Suit 2: But sir...
Suit 1: Don't argue with my logic, it makes total sense to piss off the fans.
Suit 2: Shoots self.
8 years ago
Luckly I got the US copy so I could avoid Atari australia's suckfullness.
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