Dracula is alive. Well, as much as a vampire can be. He’s spent at least a century rotting inside of a coffin, but that doesn’t stop him from getting back into the swing of things. Now that he’s been resurrected, he can continue with his favorite pastimes. Ruling over his vast, magical estate of Castlevania. Restoring the decrepit ruins of his home. Tending to his menagerie of mythical, demonic creatures. Getting in touch with old friends, regardless if they’re still living. Spreading his evil influence throughout the rest of the world. Slowly raising a nigh-unstoppable army of undead minions and nightmarish monstrosities in one of his many attempts to enslave humanity.
You know, the usual.
There’s just one problem: Simon Belmont. Another in a long, ancient line of powerful warriors and the wielder of the legendary Vampire Killer whip. As the original hero of the Castlevania series, he’s charged with the task of murdering Dracula and saving the world from darkness. He’s come prepared, too. His trusty whip can be upgraded via pickups, which give the weapon greater reach and more attack power. Simon is also well-versed in more conventional (if not overly religious) weaponry. If throwing axes and knives won’t get the job done, his cross-shaped boomerangs will. His holy water works more like divine molotovs. There’s even an old watch that can temporarily freeze time, which is a godsend when you’re being torn apart by little hunchbacks and Medusa heads. This badass array of sub-weapons has its limits, though. Simon can only gain more heart-shaped ammo or find new weapons by destroying the candelabras that decorate nearly every room in the castle. Or defiling the carcasses of his slain enemies for any item drops, for that matter. You can only carry one extra weapon at a time, which can spell your doom if you enter a fight unprepared. Despite the raw power and abilities of these weapons, it’s not a good idea to abuse them; more hearts and leftover time at the end of the levels means extra bonus points.
Don’t bother relying on just the whip, though. Even when it’s fully upgraded, it’s kind of slow and can only hit objects that are directly in front of it. That’s fine for when you’re slaughtering hordes of flesh-eating zombies or exterminating the mutant merman in the underwater catacombs. Not so good when you get to the bosses. You might get by the giant bat, the mummies, and maybe even Frankenstein. But try pulling the whip on the Grim Reaper (you know, the personification of Death?), and you’ll realize just how weak your supposedly legendary weapon really is. Which is unfortunate, considering how much stronger it is compared to the other projectiles. You’ve got to use all of the weapons in tandem to be really effective. Since some enemies can spawn in random locations, you’ll have to be on a constant lookout for any impending doom. If the constant barrage of skeleton knights, snakes, and other nightmare-inducing foes aren’t enough to kill you, the layout of the levels certainly will. There are only half a dozen linear levels to get through, but the last few of them are brutal. The placement of the platforms, obstacles, and enemies is so well-designed that it requires near-perfect timing and skill to survive. You might have to jump onto moving platforms while killing enemies in midair, narrowly dodge projectiles that send you careening into a bottomless pit, and destroy foes that are far more agile than you could ever hope to be.
But considering who they’re facing, that’s not much of an accomplishment. Simon Belmont may be legendary vampire slayer, but the guy moves with the agility and grace of a tank. His walking speed is horrendous; you’ll have the sluggishly amble the haunted halls, stopping only to unfurl the whip at an oncoming foe. The jumping is even worse. There’s no way to speed it up or increase the range, which means you’ve got to stand on the very tip of a platform and watch him make the same awkward, uncorrectable jumping animation. That’d be fine, if the game could actually read your commands correctly. It’s entirely possible to have the most well-intentioned leap ready to go…only for you to just walk off the side for no reason whatsoever. That goes double for when you’re trying to walk up or down stairs, which could send you plummeting to your death again. Even if you do manage to make the perfect jump, the game won’t register that you made contact with the other platform, which sends you careening to your doom again. Enemies and hard-to-reach ledges make for a deadly combination; between the random Medusa heads and bats flying right into your face, you’ll likely get shoved backward into a bottomless pit and die again. That’s assuming that just touching the enemies – which can rip away a huge chunk of your life bar in later levels – doesn’t send you keeling over again.
At least you get infinite continues. Maybe you’ll finally get lucky enough to survive it before throwing your controller into the nearest wall. Given how little the game punishes you for dying, it’s a great opportunity to memorize the layout of the levels and master the mechanics of the game. It won’t take long for the iconic settings to be burned into your brain. The tattered curtains and the cracked walls. The piles of human bones littering the underground caves. The possessed suits of armor trying to impale your 8-bit guts. That final ascent up the staircase, with the crescent moon floating ominously in the background. None of it is particularly good – the colors are kind of drab and the movement animations are average at best – but it’s still more interesting than the stuff you’d see in Mario or Mega Man. Besides, it’s the music that makes it work. The Beginning and Vampire Killer themes give off a sense of adventure and action. It’s no wonder that so many of these tracks are constantly remixed throughout the rest of the series; these original versions are some of the most catchy and memorable tunes on the NES.
That could be said of Castlevania as a whole. It’s an icon in retro gaming. It’s a fine beginning to one of the most prolific and long-lasting series in gaming history. A heroic badass with a legendary whip, a host of classic mythical and movie monsters, and some of the most challenging platforming on any system. It’s all you need for a good game, and this has got nearly all of it where it counts. It may be a little on the short side, but it’s satisfying throughout. The clever level design and excellent music make for an impressive presentation. It’s not perfect, though. The controls are occasionally misread, jumps are awkward, the whip attacks are terribly rigid, and the enemies are far too overpowered. It’s not unplayable by any means. It just gives you more of a reason to look forward to the next game. It paid off, too. Considering how many sequels Castlevania has spawned, it’s amazing how it could have started from this one, humble platformer about a guy killing Dracula. Godspeed, Simon.