With a new Castlevania game just around the corner I think it's time I look back at the humble beginnings of one of the longest running action game franchises around. For this piece we're going to use a youtube video.
While there have been occasional twists the story typically goes that Dracula is alive and well and it's up to a Vampire Hunter to slay him...or at least force him to go away for a hundred or so years. The goal is simple enough but each game offers its own challenges as well as unique directions that have helped the series remain fresh over countless sequels and spin-offs. The original game is still regarded as a classic and it offers enough difficulty that even though it's quite short it demands an exorbitant amount of patience and tenacity just to complete.
For the early games the oft-overused quote "look before you leap" may as well be Castlevania's subtitle. While Simon and his descendants have health meters they don't stand up to very much punishment and worse-still they're sent flying with the slightest touch...and more than likely that leads to falling into the nearest pit. Furthermore Simon can't change direction in mid-air, jump off a ladder if an emergency comes up, and there's a bit of a delay before his whip strikes whatever target he's aiming for. This is one of those games where slight mistakes can easily lead to death. Health restoration is very rare and enemies actually do more damage as the player progresses...even if it is the same enemies from earlier stages.
Still Castlevania is by no means an impossible game and for this video we can see somebody beating the game without dying. I'll do my best to provide commentary for everything notable about the game.
0:09 - In what has become a series tradition the game starts off with a straight-forward enemy-free section where the player can grab a few power-ups as well as get accustomed to the controls. Here we're introduced to the basics like whip upgrades(for longer-reach and greater damage), hearts (which serve as ammo for sub-weapons), and so on. Note that the player sometimes attacks while coming down from a jump. This handy tactic saves a little bit of time and makes Simon a bit more mobile. The player skips some of the torches since they contain a power-up they have no need of. It's important to memorize candles that drop useful power-ups as part of the challenge in the game is having the right sub-weapon to get past the next obstacle.
0:26 - At times it's probably best to simply avoid the enemy entirely. The earliest Castlevania games are fond of respawning enemies and many times it's actually to the player's advantage to keep moving as stopping to whip everything in sight could eventually lead to being overwhelmed. Note the well-crafted hit-box when Simon dodges the panthers. There's no such thing as unfair damage.
0:56 - Another trademark of many Castlevania entries is that the main character will fall straight down very quickly if they walk off of a platform. This can be useful at times and I've seen the design decision come up in quite a few other games like Capcom's Black Tiger. It's also at this point that the player takes advantage of Simon's frailty to get a boost. It's rather clever on Konami's part since if they didn't want players skipping that section they would have built a wall.
1:28 - When dealing with multiple hit enemies the whip can stun them but often-times the whipping speed isn't enough to keep the enemy from attacking. There are some situations however like with the axe. The boss is unable to do much of anything since well-timed axes hit the boss twice and thanks to the double-shot power-up a second axe is always close behind.
2:18 - Medusa-heads. Nobody likes them and yet Konami keeps thinking them in every Castlevania. The pattern these creatures move in is simple to understand but their very presence can make any situation more complicated.
2:42 - Once again the player takes damage to attain a shortcut. It's hard to discuss how much of a threat the medusa-heads are when the player is having no trouble at all.
3:32 - The player switched to the holy water for this boss as it works her over completely. In another clever move Konami has both the double and triple-shot available for the player in the short time from collecting the holy water to encountering the boss. What's also notable is that the bone-pillars flash before firing. When dealing with games that offer limited animation visual cues are very necessary.
4:05 - Urghh..fleamen. The player wastes no time in getting rid of them. They have erratic jumping patterns and follow the player everywhere. It's a nasty combination especially since the whip works on a delay. Crows are also not at all fun to deal with. It's a bit of a shame that in the newer games these guys aren't half as threatening as they used to be...mostly because there's no bottom-less pits for them to knock the player into.
4:45 - Again with Medusa-heads it's usually best to ignore them completely. Here the player gets by them and a bone-tossing skeleton as if they didn't even exist. In some ways Castlevania uses trial & error design to assist players in finding the best route through each section. Since Simon has a health meter a few mistakes can be made without too much worrying provided the damage is made up for by surviving more dangerous areas. As the game progresses however that starts to go out the window.
5:01 - There's actually a bonus-point system in place. By destroying multiple hostile "objects" (enemies as well as their fireballs) with a single sub-weapon the player gets a large cache of bonus-points. It's a very cool touch even though in practice it would probably kill the pacing if the player stopped to milk every possible bonus-point section they found.
Castlevania requires a lot of emphasis on timing. The options are limited to jumping in one of three directions, walking in two directions, crouching, or attacking. A number of other action games can have several times as many ways to avoid death(mostly because they offer things like control in mid-air). Also out of these options typically only a couple of them result in survival.
5:27 - At this point Simon has to play double-dutch with a couple of bone-pillars. In a rather unique display of mechanics he dodges a fireball by leaping over it while going the same direction. Since the fireball is slightly faster it just misses Simon. Even for a game that's so direct it can take a little outside-thinking to get through a bad situation. Also the player must have attempted this part numerous times in their attempts to get a perfect run. Later in this same section we see more of medusa-heads working in conjunction with other enemies.
5:54 - Once again the bosses didn't have a chance. It's a given that Konami will balance future games out so these kinds of things don't happen again. Unfortunately that's not always guaranteed but at least it gives creative players a reason to continue looking for new strategies to beat bosses as quickly and painlessly as possible.
6:40 - Compared to other titles the original Castlevania is fairly light in terms of level-design. Mostly it's just a lot of straightforward paths that use a combination of enemies and holes in order to kill the player. A moving platform is probably about as different as we're going to get in this game. Also since the player skipped the section at the beginning of the game now we're being introduced to fish-men. While the game only works with a small pool of enemies Konami is smart enough to work with what they have to keep things fresh and challenging. Also there's one of those now classic "duck so that a rock outcropping doesn't push you off a moving platform" sections. I'm not sure if this game was responsible for this idea but I wouldn't be surprised. It might have been also that since fish-men are jumping out of the water some sort of way of keeping them from landing on the player's head while they're completely helpless would be imperative. Building a platform way above the player would be too obvious I guess so instead we have fish-men walking through walls...well whatevs.
7:21 - Fleamen and eagles...eeuurgghh. These foes are just plain awful and as usual the best advice is to just run away. Here the player uses the holy water to cover their tracks and prevent fleamen from following. The player picked up a sweet bonus along the way at least.
Now let's move along to Part 2
0:02 - The boss here gave me so much trouble when I was younger. It turns out that if I just held onto a triple holy water I could keep Frankenstein from moving and by effect keep Igor from jumping off of his shoulder. I usually ended up using the dagger to beat them and that mean dodging Igor and his fireballs...which usually never went well with me.
0:41 - This is where the game hits a real difficulty spike. Clever enemy placement is everything in Castlevania and having a bone-tossing Skeleton just out of reach makes anything complicated. The enemies also do more damage. The shortcut cost the player four blocks where toward the beginning it may have only been two.
1:31 - Another shortcut and here we have the axe-armors. Like the other denizens of Drac's Castle, these guys work best when teaming with others. However just as easily as the holy water tears through bosses it makes the armors out to be a whole lot of nothing.
2:37 - This particular section is legendary as it's one of the hardest in the game. Once again holy water saves the day and with just two sprinkles it's all over. Still timing is important here as knowing when to jump and when the throw really can change the results. The Grim Reaper is supposed to be a hard boss but once again...uh..well oh well. Maybe I should have used a video where the player clearly isn't dominating everything.
4:00 - Oops the player messes up on a shortcut attempt and nearly loses his life. The skeletons are really tossing those bones now. What follows is another difficult section involving the eagles. There's a fairly set pattern for when and where they spawn so it's just a matter of moving up the stairs in a way so that the player doesn't bump into them.
4:51 - Dracula's first form is all timing. Clearing those fireballs as well as getting a hit in should be mentally ingrained by this point since so much of the game was spent timing jumps and attacks. The second-form is well..using the holy water again. Although this time at least it can be argued that it's necessary. The second-form takes a ton of damage and its jumping pattern isn't really predictable as it can do a much shorter jump that doesn't give the player enough room to walk under.
While the original Castlevania was far from perfect it laid the groundwork for the action-platformer as we know it. The multiple enemy-types would in some form or another find their way into future action games and in some cases we have a series like Ninja Gaiden, which all but apes Castlevania but creates a different style of play. As far as Konami is concerned however they would continue to work on the series making improvements, changing directions, and essentially doing their best to keep the series fresh for many years despite adhering to the core concepts set in the original game.
Oops I almost forgot...
Game Rating - 2.5 stars out of 5
This game works better for what it was rather than what it is. The difficulty is pretty uneven, the weapon balance is whacked, and a lot of times all it takes is being in the right spot with the right tool and suddenly Death himself can be destroyed without a sweat.
My Rating - 1 star out of 5
I'd give this game five stars for influence if I could but these days...I'd rather play a newer Castlevania. Can you really blame me though? Castlevania 3 is a better game in every way so I may as well stick with that one.