There are few franchises in all of gaming as revered as Castlevania. Konami’s beloved action series has been one of peaks and plateaus over the years, but whether great, good or bad, the series has built on the initial blueprint created by the NES original. Going back to play the original Castlevania today, you’ll find that while many of its attributes still hold up, it is not a game for everyone.
Being the first entry in the storied series, Castlevania represents the very basics of the series’ gameplay. Simon Belmont can walk, jump, and uses a whip as his primary weapon. Additionally, secondary weapons can be found in the forms of throwing knives, holy water, throwing axes, boomerang-like crucifixes, and stop watches that temporarily freeze enemies and obstacles in place. You can only hold one secondary item at a time, and they are lost whenever Simon is defeated. Hearts can be found hidden all over the place, and every secondary item takes one heart for each use, with the exception of the stop watch, which uses five hearts.
There are a total of six levels, which are progressed through linearly. Each stage is separated into three segments, with each segment serving as a checkpoint, and a boss fight waits at the end of every level. Simon must make his way through these six stages in order to confront the evil Count Dracula in a final showdown.
The game is as simple as that, but its level design provides some challenging platforming and the enemies will put Simon Belmont’s weapons to good use.
At its core, Castlevania remains a fun game to play for the most part. Though it does include awkward “stair mechanics,” with Simon becoming glued to staircases when ascending and descending them, which leaves him vulnerable to enemies’ attacks. Aside from that mechanic the gameplay remains mostly fun. The graphics, while simple, still manage to evoke a sense of eeriness even with their 8-bit limitations, and Castlevania includes a killer NES soundtrack.
What will turn away a good number of today’s gamers, however, is Castlevania’s sharp difficulty. A lot of NES games were incredibly difficult (no Nintendo console library since has been so consistently challenging). But while Mega Man and the like are difficult because of smart level design and boss fights, Castlevania combines those traits with some unpredictable enemies and a few cumbersome elements.
Players may notice they make it through the first three levels without too much trouble. But once you enter the fourth level things pick up drastically, with enemies popping into the screen seemingly randomly, and others have patterns that seem to change on the fly. The fourth boss – a combination of Frankenstein’s monster and a tiny, bouncing Igor – will probably have anyone but the most diehard Castlevania fan swearing at their television screen.
It’s true that many of these enemies become much easier with the appropriate secondary weapon, but since you only have access to those so often, you frequently feel at a loss. And the sheer unpredictability of some enemies only adds fuel to the fire.
Take into account the aforementioned stair mechanics, which also remove Simon’s ability to jump. If you come across a skeleton throwing multiple bones at the top of a staircase and Simon has low health, you’re pretty much a sitting duck. Floating Medusa Heads continuously spawn is certain areas, but each will spawn with different patterns. Ravens will fly towards Simon, sometimes continuing to fly onward, other times swooping down for a strike. Then there’s the tiny Fleamen, who bounce around Simon uncontrollably, and are difficult enough to hit that they might deplete most of your health before you can take one of them down.
There’s also the strong knock back Simon receives with every hit. You can potentially make it through most of a level without taking a hit, then die after a single bump sends you down a pit, into a spike, or into a body of water (this is especially bothersome when Simon travels across water on small platforms, and Mermen will jump out of the water at random points, meaning they can knock Simon into the water without the player being able to do much about it). You can find meat hidden in some of the castle walls to replenish health, but they’re so infrequent they only help so much.
There just seems to be a few too many elements in the difficulty that are out of the player’s control. As such, Castlevania may be off-putting to many gamers today. But for those who welcome an old school challenge, and anyone with a strong love for the Castlevania series, then revisiting this inaugural chapter in the illustrious saga will ultimately prove worth it.
Castlevania may not stack up to many of its sequels, but knowing all the games that were inspired in its wake is enough to be grateful for in itself.