Although I have greatly enjoyed Castlevania (IV, Symphony of the Night, and Dawn of Sorrow) titles in the past, the very first game is one that I never had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy beyond a few short cross-legged, two-inches-from-the-tv sessions at friend’s houses after school. Raised on computer games, particularly those of the roleplaying variety, I was pretty crap at action and arcade titles, so I never got far, and I never really got it, to be honest. In the many, many years since, I’ve managed to develop the necessary motor skills to at least attempt these games, and the NES Mini has given me another tool in my arsenal – save states. Yes, I know – evil, impure, sacrilegious. Please, just cut me a little slack – I’m a dad of twins with a full time job, so a little corner cutting goes a long way.
So, yeah: Castlevania is hard. The first few levels aren’t too bad, but boy, it ramps up. Yes, my atrophied dad-gaming-skills don’t help, but I’d be surprised if there was anyone out there that didn’t recognize that old NES games were hard. Part of that is that they were coming from a different place, where the point wasn’t necessarily to immerse the player in an atmospheric story made with eyeball scorching cutting edge technology, but rather to present a challenge. Games of this era still often had a score, and many designers cut their teeth in the arcade, where games were designed to suck quarters and breed scoreboard competition. Things weren’t always fair to the player, and the demands were often on rote pattern memorization. The key is to never forget that it’s important for the player to have fun, and Castlevania is a hell of a lot of fun.
If you’ve played later Castlevania‘s, there aren’t any surprises here: whip your way through classic monsters, picking up hearts, munching on roast chickens, and chucking a variety of special weapons. It’s fun, and the controls are tight. Being an early NES title updated from its original Japanese Famicom Disk System release, graphics are certainly rougher than later NES titles, but it still has plenty of nice, Gothic charm. There’s not a ton of music, but what’s there is truly fantastic, and some of the most iconic videogame music of all time. What really makes Castlevania special, though, is its deep love for classic monsters and horror. It’s clear the developers really cared about classic horror and classic horror films, and each muddy blob of pixels is a wonderful ode to an era and an atmosphere. During the end credits after Dracula’s demise, players are treated to a tongue-in-cheek list of inspirations by way of a fake cast and crew – “Directed by Trans Fishers,” (the great Hammer Horror director Terence Fisher), “Screenplay by Vran Stoker,” (Bram Stoker, of course), “Dracula – Christopher Bee,) (the titanic Christopher Lee, of course).
So yes, this creaking old dad managed to whip Dracula to dust. Hell yeah. I admit, though, I abused the saves liberally. I had a ton of fun playing Castlevania. While later games added RPG elements, fancier graphics, and labyrinthine environments to the series, it all started here. Tough as nails but also fun as hell, Castlevania is still truly fantastic. If you’re looking for a creepy oldschool challenge, blow the dust off Dracula’s coffin, grab your trusty whip and holy water, and take a trip into crumbling Castlevania.