Rod sharpens a stake for Dracula with this NES classic.
Who made it?: Konami (Developer/Publisher).
Released: May 1987 (NES edition).
1986’s Castlevania is the first game in the long-running franchise that pits the Belmont clan of vampire hunters against Dracula and his forces of darkness. It was definitely inspired by the Universal and Hammer horror films, respectively, and was actually the very first horror-themed game I ever played. I was about six or seven years of age, and distinctly remember being frightened just by seeing Dracula’s face on the cover art, let alone anything in the game! Perhaps this is one of the earliest seeds sewn for my journey towards becoming a horror fan? Quite possibly… and Scooby Doo cartoons as well, but I digress.
The story for Castlevania is not explained in the actual game itself, however it is basically about a vampire hunter named Simon Belmont, who wields a whip known as “Vampire Killer.” He enters Dracula’s castle, the Castlevania of the title, in order to destroy the Count once and for all… which always proves to be a temporary fix as he continually resurrects throughout the series. And, yes, Castlevania takes place in Transylvania.
The gameplay is very simple and straightforward, but don’t let that fool you. Castlevania is one of the hardest games in the NES library, due to Simon being unable to change direction mid-jump, falling into water instantly killing him, and spike crushers falling and rising from ceilings meaning instant death. There are also tough and unforgiving enemies, not to mention that when hit by an enemy Simon gets knocked back, which is even more frustrating when there’s a chasm behind you! When it comes to replenishing health, like many other Castlevania games, you need to collect meat, most of which is hidden in certain secret walls. Although, considering where this meat has been found, I don’t think I would want to eat any!
Simon’s main weapon is his whip, the aforementioned “Vampire Killer.” The initial version is leather but it can be upgraded to a chain whip, and then a longer chain whip. But be advised that, when you die, your whip will revert back to the first version, so you will have to collect the upgrades again each time this happens. A mainstay of the series are candles that are suspended in mid-air, and these will drop your whip upgrades, as well as other items, once you destroy them.
Aside from his trusty whip, Belmont can also use sub-weapons, like the dagger, the crucifix-shaped boomerang, the bottle of Holy Water, and a stop watch that temporarily freezes enemies; the hearts that drop from destroyed candles are basically ammo for Simon’s sub-weapon. There’s also a one-use rosary weapon which will destroy every enemy onscreen as soon as you collect it. Remember that if you already possess a sub-weapon and pick up another, it will be replaced. This can be very frustrating, especially when you wanted to keep a specific sub-weapon for the boss battle, which can increase how difficult said boss is to defeat. Also, you can collect a II symbol, which means you can use your sub-weapon twice in a row with a shortened wait time between uses, and the III symbol which obviously allows for three uses in a row.
The enemies you face in Castlevania are numerous. There’s vampire bats, zombies, leopards, mermen, dragon skull cannons with two heads which shoot fire, white skeletons that throw bones at you, red skeletons that collapse into pieces when hit but resurrect after a few seconds, knights, ravens, hunchbacks, flying Medusa heads, skeleton wall snakes that also shoot fire, ghosts, eagles that carry hunchbacks, axe-throwing knights, and giant vampire bats. At the end of each level, you face a boss whose health is displayed underneath Simon’s. The first level boss is a giant vampire bat, the second is the head of Medusa, the third is a pair of mummies, the fourth is Frankenstein’s Monster and Igor, the fifth is Death, and last but not least, of course, you have Dracula as the sixth and final boss. You will fight the Count in his vampire form and then in his giant white-winged monster form. Obviously, Dracula is the main antagonist in pretty much every Castlevania game, and the bosses are also featured in many other titles in the franchise.
The Castlevania series has always been known for great music, and while this game doesn’t have music as awesome as later entries, it is still pretty good. The sound chip in the NES has a distinctive sound despite how dated it is, so what you hear is still effective because it really suits the tone and feel of a game from this era. One of the music tracks featured in this game, “Vampire Killer,” has been included in later entries.
In the end credits, there are joke names which are parodies of those associated with the horror genre, such as Trans Fishers (director Terence Fisher), Vran Stoker (author of Dracula, Bram Stoker), Christopher Bee (actor Christopher Lee, who of course played the Count multiple times), Belo Lugosi (actor Bela Lugosi played Dracula in the 1931 film), Boris Karloffice (actor Boris Karloff who played Frankenstein’s Monster in the 1931 film Frankenstein), and Love Chaney JR (actor Lon Chaney Jr. who played The Wolfman in the 1941 film). It is also interesting to note that Simon Belmont is credited here as Simon Belmondo.
Overall, this milestone is still a difficult one to get through, and it definitely holds up as being one of the hardest NES games ever released. It’s a good game to play if you want to be challenged, and is still a pretty cool Castlevania title when all is said and done. If you haven’t played this retro classic yet, then I definitely recommend you give it a bite… I mean a crack.
- Castlevania was developed and published by Konami for the Family Computer Disk System under its original title Akumajō Dracula. Due to its success, it was released in cartridge format and was later released for the NES in 1987 and 1988 in North America and Europe, respectively.
- The game’s release coincided with the 90th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
- It sold impressively and is considered a NES classic by PC World, while Nintendo Power and Game Informer ranked it in their best video games list (at 22 and 48 respectively). IGN ranked it 19 among their favourite NES games.
- It was followed by two more NES games titled Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (released for the NES in 1988) and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989). A fourth game was released for the Super NES and titled Super Castlevania IV.