Castlevania (NES) Review

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Quick Review 

~Review by tankMage (January 2020)

Score: A-

Here’s a short breakdown of Castlevania’s strengths and weaknesses, scroll down if you wish to read the full review.

Pros

-Challenging gameplay.

-Great graphics for a game made early in the lifespan of the NES.

-Excellent soundtrack.

-Special weapons that have strategic uses in combat.

Cons

-Controls, especially jumping and climbing steps are very sluggish.

-Steep learning curve.

-Some of the situations the devs place the player in are a bit unfair.

-No way to save your game.

Full Review

No one said it would be easy…

    Castlevania is almost laughably primitive by modern standards and it’s also very brief, but it’s also one of those games that deserves its place in history…or infamy. In fact, Castlevania dares to do something developers often shy away from: challenge players. Every step forward, every boss defeated, and pitfall crossed is a small victory in this game, so much so that those willing to put in the effort necessary to complete it will be rewarded with the satisfaction of having overcome a well crafted challenge. I gotta admit, I certainly have a positive bias towards this game, mostly due to it being the start of a great series and the high likelihood that the creators of Ninja Gaiden (my favorite NES series) likely took inspiration from Castlevania. That said, some of the stages are so unpredictable that I felt I got through them due to luck rather than skill, which spoiled the experience to some degree. 

There’s a reason they call this guy Death.

    If you’re looking for a good story, don’t bother with this game. There’s no damsel in distress, no character development, and barely any background. You control the famed vampire hunter Simon Belmont, who has set out to slay the evil Dracula who has holed himself up in his castle with a host of ghouls and… that’s it. While the plot is a bit bare bones to say the least, there’s a certain elegance to it; Simon is just a dude with a whip and a job to do. It also meshes into the game very well, since Castlevania itself is a very straightforward, no nonsense affair.

    Players can expect the usual classic platforming recipe from this title. There are bosses to destroy, an army of lesser monsters to plow through, special weapons, and obstacles to jump over. However, the game’s director, Hitoshi Akamatsu, decided to spice things up a bit by adding mechanics that forced players to use a more deliberate, strategic style of gameplay. Simon cannot dash around the screen like Mario or Sonic and, like most of us who live on planet Earth, he is basically committed to jumping in a single direction. It even takes Simon a second to flick his whip, so players have to constantly pay attention to their surroundings and think ahead, rather than rely on luck and sheer reflex. 

    Of course, Akamatsu’s vision for this game was somewhat prototypical and there are a few kinks. Jumping feels perhaps a bit too stiff and it seems as though Simon has a magnetic attraction to pits, so even tiny errors can result in death. On top of that, Simon is nearly helpless while scaling stairs since he is unable jump. While these mechanics aren’t really a problem once you begin to understand how the game works, some of them do not make much sense in a game that tried to achieve a sense of realism. After all, just about anyone can jump up or down steps, let alone a world class vampire hunter. Finally, the last stage featured monsters whose movements were very random, so much so that trying to cross the bridge to Drac’s tower felt like playing a slot machine and hoping everything lined up right. To be fair, I powered through the end of the game (A task that required a hell of a lot of caffeine by the way) so maybe I’m just not familiar enough with the stage to truly understand it.

    Castlevania was released in 1986 in Japan and 1987 in North America, which wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s technological prowess, so its graphics aren’t going to stack up to titles that came out a couple of years later. But, this game still looks nice in its own way. The colors are vibrant, especially for a haunted castle, and they tend to make otherwise visually repetitive stages more interesting. One of the things I find funny about this title is the fact that most of the monsters are the corny bats and skeletons that are ever present in video games, but it almost seems like Castlevania invented these tropes, though I’m sure that’s not the case since such things were present in older titles as well as the classic horror films that inspired this game.

    Many of the bosses are diminutive in terms of stature, which is a bit unusual in a world where bosses are often gigantic, though I actually like this touch. It makes sense that something like a mummy would be approximately normal human height or that a giant bat would only be huge by bat standards. This was also likely a consequence of the technological limitations of the time as bosses from games of this stage in the NES’s existence tended to be about the size of the player’s sprite. Speaking of sprites, there wasn’t a lot of variety as far as monsters go in Castlevania, but the ones that are present look pretty good. In fact, I think this game has the best looking Medusa heads out of the entire series, if such a thing can be said about the head of a hideous snake woman who can turn you to stone with a mere glance.

    I can’t gloss over the music, which feels like a “Castlevania’s Greatest Hits” fan compilation. If you’ve played any of the other games in the series, you’ll almost certainly recognize at least one or two of this game’s musical scores. Even some of the more obscure pieces are very good. This is thanks not only to quality composition, but also skilful use of the NES’s modest sound processor. I was actually surprised at how well this game’s soundtrack was mixed as bassy tones kept rhythm and contrasted the high treble of the melodies in a manner uncommon on the NES. The sound effects were also pretty good all things considered and I was amused by the fact that the sound Simon makes upon taking a hit is very similar to the one Link makes in Legend of Zelda.

Final Thoughts

    For better or worse, I can’t say I’ve played anything quite like Castlevania. Some games are difficult, because they are poorly thought out, but almost everything about this release its finely tuned like some sort of torture device made by a sadistic genius. On the same token, slogging through eighteen stages of pain turned out to be one of the most rewarding gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Castlevania’s creator achieved his goal of making a challenging, yet cinematic game. He also managed to create a franchise that has seen many different incarnations, cementing this title’s place in history.

Recommendations 

While it’s a great game, I think only people with a fair amount of experience playing platformers and are looking for a challenge should even think about touching Castlevania. 

This Castlevania review is property of RetroMaggedon.com, ©2020

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