Eerily, the moon hung full and bright yet hidden by amorphous and oblong clouds, thick as dirt and iridescent with the blackness of death. The cast iron gates are held suspended by brick and mortar that have more tales to tell than dead men have secrets to share. The castle that lay beyond the gates had more than its share of all those and more. A man stands with long locks of hair strewn down to his shoulders, his muscles taut, defined with a purpose. Armored in little more than a leather cuirass, and a whip that is told to have holy properties, the man called Simon Belmont has come to complete his family’s long mission—destroy the evil of Count Dracula. Simple enough. Kill a man, but no. Count Dracula is no man, but rather evil incarnate, the harbinger of doom, the end. Only once a generation does an opportunity to come to strike the lord of the undead down; only once does his keep, the living and ever-changing fortress known as Castlevania, appear in a manifestation accessible to corporeal man.
What can I say about Castlevania that hasn’t already been said? It is a classic, nay, a cornerstone of the video game world. I’m not just talking about the original NES masterpiece from Konami; I’m talking about the entire damn franchise. I mean, let’s get real here, people—what makes for better side scrolling, sometimes action-RPG, mash and bash adventure than Castlevania? It’s got everything: werewolves, mummies, zombies, bats, mermen, gargoyles, innumerous decapitated and weaponized medusa heads that fly in a parabolic pattern that even the world’s most fantastical theoretical mathematicians are astounded by, and those are just the goons. The boss fights have the likes of giant bats, Frankenstein, The Grim Reaper, and of course the big bad himself, Count Vlad Tepes Dracula…in more forms than there actually games in this franchise. Some of the games even have a love interest, or two. Yes, there is not much I can say to add to the glory that is Castlevania.
Well, that’s a lie. I’ve always got something to say, and it is always glorious. Over the years, many individuals have extensively reviewed the original three games, and none with as much vitriol, caring, and spite, as James Rolfe, the Angry Video Game Nerd. I’ll direct you to him if for super extensive, though highly scatological, coverage of those three Castlevania games, which I will quickly touch upon before elaborating on the series’ chapter that is nearest and dearest to my heart: “Symphony of the Night.”
The original three Castlevania games, the first one especially, are not only staples of the true 80s kid’s NES collection, but are in fact some of the hardest games one is ever likely to encounter. For those of you young bloods who think you’re tough because you’ve got, I don’t know, Skyrim chops or something, I defy you to go buy, download, acquire, whatever, the original Castlevania for NES, and see how well you fare with two buttons and a d-pad against every unholy creature ever spewed forth from Satan’s keep. You will cry. You will die. You will throw the controller against the wall and curse out your television like it was a Super Bowl ref. Respect your elders, and know your roots.
The second game takes a twist in format, not so wholly different as Adventure of Link, but in a direction more akin to the RPG enough to make the comparison. It’s characterized by incredibly difficult, and sometimes down right impossible, text-based puzzles that require you to talk to townspeople, buy items, and, well, not fall into water. I wonder why water—an essential element to real life—if so often certain doom for video game characters. If you can kill fucking Dracula with a whip, rather than a stake, you should be able to learn to swim. Ah, but I digress. The second game is characterized by mind-boggling puzzles and boss fights that would be forgettable, if only they were contained in other franchises. You have to find parts of Dracula’s scattered corpse in order to resurrect him, and then kill him in order to lift a curse. That’s the plot.
The third console Castlevania is set before the time of Simon Belmont with its main protagonist being Trevor Belmont. The reason I say main is because, among other things, Castlevania three is rife with choices, not the least of which is the option to spiritually transform between Trevor and one of three allies (including Sypha Belnades, a young sorceress; Grant DaNasty, which sounds like an early 90s MC name, who is a freaking pirate with Spider-Man powers and knives; and Alucard, more on him later). Besides being able to choose among your allies, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, also allows for a multi-linear course. The game is not non-linear in the sense that you can roam free, but there are times you can choose various paths, which for the time was an interesting option to have and was actually more befitting of a game that takes place in an eternally changing and living castle.
Not only are these games great, but they are also cornerstones of the industry. Castlevania is the forerunner of the entire horror genre and a pioneer of the side scroll adventure game. While games of both types existed before the series, none had the impact and carry the same weight as Castlevania.
With due deference to the original Castlevania trilogy, the Gameboy games, The Super Nintendo, and Genesis games, there is one Castlevania game that is, for me, the best, or at least my absolute favorite. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, for the Sony PlayStation (that’s PS1 to you young bloods), is an absolute masterpiece. I actually have no critical views on this game whatsoever. It’s hard, for sure, frustrating at times, and non-linear. Some people don’t like that…but then again some people are allergic to chocolate. Allow me to elaborate…
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night holds the distinction of being the first game in the series in which the main character is not a Belmont…hell, the main character is isn’t even strictly human. He is the dhampir son of Dracula, Alucard. (Pay close attention to the way I phrased those names, it blew my mind the first time a realized that Alucard is the reverse spelling of Dracula). The game is set in Castlevania in the time of Richter Belmont, chronologically after the original Castlevania, but something is amiss. The Castle has appeared for second time in a generation, and Richter Belmont is missing.
I remember when I first got my grubby little 12-year-old hands on this game back in 1999. I actually borrowed it from fellow Eat Your Serial Feature Columnist, Dr.Fat Lee Adama, and it consumed my summer. The game, which I had limitedly experienced at the good doctor’s house, was certainly gorgeous. Even when played today, one can marvel at the love and care that was taken in designing the sprites, the settings, and levels. The detail and quality of the design is bar-none, and probably the best I’ve ever seen in any game. Simply said, it is a beautiful looking game. The control is tight, malleable, and intuitive. The cut scenes are welcome, sparse, and valuable. The boss battles are challenging, rewarding, and fun—as are the puzzles. The whole damn game is a puzzle and it’s incorporated into the story.
To familiarize the player with the setting, the game begins at the end of the Sega Genesis game and transitions forward to the main character. When Alucard first enters Castle Dracula, h he is powerful. Nothing can stop him; after all he is the heir apparent to the keep. Giant wolves, zombies, malevolent birds—no force can withstand his might. That is, until he comes across the Grim Reaper. Mind you, this isn’t the wry and sarcastic Reaper of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, this is Death: bone faceed and raspy voiced. “Ah, Alucard,” Death greets your avatar, building a sense that a change occurred long ago in the dhampir. After an exchange that expresses Alucard’s defiance against the Lord of the House, Death removes all of your armaments—some of the most powerful in the game, and leaves you without even a Popsicle stick sharpened into a shiv. You’ve got nothing.
As you defeat enemies, you level up, find items and weapons, solve puzzles, and build in ever expanding map. Your access to areas of the game are limited only by the items you hold and your ability to overcome the strength of the enemies in each of the castles many, many wings—some of which have been redesigned from previous games, repurposed, or are entirely new. The game is amazingly expansive, scratch that, THIS GAME IS HUGE. The areas are so far apart, so vastly different, so intricately mapped, that there are portals you have to unlock and elevators to help you get around more easily. It is so open that it is often referred to as Metroid-vania, both for its free-roam setting and its need for specific items and keys to open locked doors. Some people use that term as a criticism, but for me, comparing a game to Metroid is a compliment of the highest order.
Besides having a huge map (including secret interiors, portals, a basement, cavern, and what can only be described as hell underneath the cavern) the game has multiple endings. You get one distinct ending when you defeat the dark wizard Shaft (ya damn right), another when you defeat Shaft and Dracula, and there’s more, more as in, TWO ENTIRE GAMES after the regular game. The “true” ending can only be attained by getting specific items, going through a portal at the site of the ending of the Genesis game and entering THE INVERTED CASTLEVANIA. Yes. This game is so well designed that the entire castle is turned upside down and is a completely different map that is fully navigable, and twice as hard. The designers at Konami should build prisons for super villains, no lie. Further than that, once the game has been completed you can start a new game and put your name in as RICHTER and play the game once more, as said Belmont for a completely different experience. The game is multi-purposed in ways that are unforeseen, and always thrilling in the pit of your Nerdcore.
Before I close on this, I have to mention one thing that is never lacking in Konami games, but is especially badass in the Castlevania series. The music. Good god, it is so appropriate, so metal, and so balls-out sick throughout the series that you can find infinite metal guitar covers it on YouTube. In Symphony of the Night, the music is beautiful. As the games title suggests, the music is at times symphonic, at times rockin’, and at times moody—there’s chamber music, heavy metal, and quartets abound. Konami really took advantage of the music capabilities of the disk powered PS1 and went all out with the score on this game.
What else can I say? There is really only one way to top this review: while I don’t have much experience with the newer Castlevania games (such as the N64 ones) I do have SOTN on my (you guessed it) Xbox 360, and on that note I also have the Castlevania for it as well. Though I haven’t beaten it, it’s still pretty good, although a little more like Tomb Raider mixed with God of War and Dante’s Inferno; it doesn’t actually take place in Castlevania, and is a prequel to the entire series. It’s good nonetheless—and there’s voice acting from Patrick Stewart, PATRICK STEWART. ‘Nuff said.