There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part.
-Bram Stoker, Dracula
Growing up in the typical “little white church” (by which I’m referring to its coat of paint, not to the predominant ethnicity of its Hawaiian parishioners) didn’t always mean living under the stereotypical do’s and don’ts associated with the superficial brand of denominational religion, but I can recall that my father was a loving parent who was concerned with the kind of media I consumed, at least when I was very young. When my curious mind had developed to the point of being able to appreciate The X-Files, Alien, Twilight Zone, 2001: a Space Odyssey (now my favorite film), or a host of other science fiction staples, I watched them with him and these became the foundation for my enduring love for sci-fi. Before that point, though, I can remember there was a decisive push, a kind of responsibility I felt on my father’s part to keep what he deemed the worst and most traumatizing from me, his child.
Sometimes the censorship was misguided or misinformed on his part, at least in the retrospect of memory and the inevitable rebellion a child feels when they grow into an adult themselves, but he was (despite working as hard as a robot) only human. I don’t at all blame my father or mother for loving me this way. After all, a lot of us recently weighed in on the “games and violence” issue currently being dredged up in our culture by pinpointing the significant role of parents in using the ESRB rating system to help make wise choices about what their children should be able to enjoy at various ages. I expect making those choices to be a part of parenting as I myself am a parent now and as I remember my own parents.
I don’t believe it’s fair to call parents “over-protective” in one breath but demand they make better decisions based on rating systems in the other.
Growing up before the ESRB when Gremlins was rated PG was weird.
I can recall the instance an action figure I wanted was disallowed. I was pretty big into action figures as a kid. One had to be into something that could occupy the imagination when living in the middle of a clearing in the jungle while the family house was being built from two-by-fours. A plastic assortment of multi-jointed Ninja Turtles, X-Men, McDonald’s Transformers, G.I. Joes, and Earthworm Jim figures were a refuge.
Anyway, this action figure I wanted was some kind of menacing skeletal monster, complete with eyeballs, grimacing jaws, and a weapon of some sort. I actually couldn’t remember what the figure was until I looked it up. It belonged to some cartoon I never watched called Skeleton Warriors on CBS. Go figure.
When I asked dad if I could get it, or rather if he could get it for me, I remember he was driving and he just shook his head. Now a lot of the times when you hear men tell stories about their fathers and they reach this point in the story, typically the next thing they say is something like how the shadow of their father loomed over them, intoxicated with power and alcohol, and either verbally and/or physically abused them. Well, my dad didn’t do any of that. All he did was shake his head. That was enough for me to get the picture, I guess. No explanation came as to why I couldn’t get it, but I suppose that’s the nature of a loving relationship where I simply trusted in that moment that he knew what was best for me better than I did. There would be other situations when I’d argue instead, of course. I think I told a joke I heard from a commercial for Skeleton Warriors once and dad gave me a courtesy chuckle, but I never did get that action figure.
Skipping several chapters in my story, I can recall the Castlevania series being something I vaguely knew about. Being the excitable, imaginative kid that I was, enamored with day dreams in The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland (my two first novels as a lad), the name “Castlevania” stirred in me a romanticized picture of what the game must be like, but the bloodied grin of Dracula hovering in the night sky behind the Gothic spires of his keep were probably indicative enough for my father as to what the game was like.
I rented a ton of NES and SNES carts from gas stations, grocery stores, and Blockbuster on top of borrowing them from friends and classmates, but I never played any Castlevania game until much later in life. I think we’re talking 2004, when I was already in college and a roommate busted out his N64. Castlevania 64 wasn’t the best introduction to the series, and ironically I was in seminary at the time, hahaha!
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to play a few other titles in the franchise. I was delighted by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I enjoyed getting dizzy in Super Castlevania IV. I lost all respect for the direction of the series thanks to Netflix’s pedestrian “valleyspeak” dialogue in their Burgessian ultra-violent Castlevania show. However, all is not lost. When there’s no path forward, turn and look to history.
One of the joys of retro gaming is in making the personal discoveries of playing older games for the first time. Contrary to the autobiographical intro, this is actually my review for the first Castlevania on the NES, set into a specific cultural context. I played and completed Castlevania for the very first time in March of 2018.
The point of my story and its relationship to Castlevania is how it highlights Nintendo’s famous (or infamous) content policies for games they sent to sell in the West. Papa Nintendo was known in this era for scrubbing games shipped overseas of all kinds of stuff they probably deemed too offensive, shocking, or sexy. This included but wasn’t limited to the removal of drugs, alcohol, scantily clad characters, innuendo, violence, as well as religious imagery, iconography, and reference. Nintendo of America specifically had a guideline written in 1988 which blocked the usage of…
“…symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha…”
Nintendo’s current family-friendly persona came at a price and that price was stringent censorship of their own products as part of the localization process. That it was an inconsistent policy made it seem even more arbitrary, though that capricious approach to both nit-picking minutiae and glossing over other offenders doesn’t make a good case for censorship, certainly not for governmental censorship. If in-house censorship was fickle, how much more would censorship from an external, federal body be considering the government sucks at pretty much everything already?
Here are some silly examples of what got censored what and somehow made it through: crosses were removed from coffins in DuckTales (1989), red crosses were removed from hospital buildings in EarthBound (1994), yet Link bore the emblem of the cross on his shield years earlier in The Legend of Zelda (1986). Hilariously, I actually claimed Link was a Christian when I was a kid just so my parents would let me play it. Children are sneaky.
Other famous examples were the SNES Mortal Kombat (1992) being blood-free and sweaty, and Final Fantasy VI’s (1994) Siren having her buttocks covered up, though other games made it through the gauntlet like the highly religious Breath of Fire titles on the SNES (1993 and 1994). This obviously risked some confusion but Nintendo has lightened up since the early days (Bayonetta!). The aim was cultural acceptance but this policy perhaps says more about Nintendo than it does about their prospective audience.
To clarify my own position on their censorship and whether I think it’s famous or infamous, I think they have the freedom to do whatever they want with games made on their platforms in agreement with the developers. If that hurts or helps their sales, that’s on them (and it did hurt sales when it came to Mortal Kombat). Figuring out which would be hypothetically worse, sales diminished because of controversy or because of censorship, is something Nintendo has to balance. Not me. It’s a part of their brand philosophy but gaming is now big enough that I really don’t have to care. I don’t have a proverbial dog in the fight.
I personally think that fandoms should be more than trying to cover the butts of our favorites, anyway.
When Castlevania was first released on the Family Computer Disk System in Japan, it was known as Akumajō Dracula, which roughly translates to “Demon Castle Dracula”. Konami of America’s senior vice president at the time, Emil Heidkamp, believed the title was “Dracula Satanic Castle” and so the move was made to put the game out internationally as “Castlevania”. This was in reference to the Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula.
However, and this is a clear example of inconsistency, the game itself included tons of things which were banned or altered in other games on Nintendo consoles. Though the title was softened, there were crucifixes adorning tombstones all over the place, and crosses and holy water were even used as weapons! Years later, Super Castlevania IV on the SNES would face fiercer censorship than even its own prequels.
Considering some of the dominant voices speaking out against video games as a corrosive force in that time were preachers and evangelicals, maybe Nintendo wasn’t too far off in their policy. Since then, the force of disdain has since shifted to journalists, SJWs, and again/most recently to politicians. The Infernal Accountant Mage summed it up appropriately in his column on 1992:
“The decisions made about video games have rarely been made by the people who care about them.”
The 8-bit Review
Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. Probably. I don’t claim to be clairvoyant but I do know that there’s a tendency with graphical scores to take them in one of two ways. If the score for graphics is too high, then you may hear: “hey, graphics aren’t everything and you can’t judge an entire game by just the graphics”. Contrariwise, if the score is too low, you may hear: “well that’s unfair… you do realize that this is a retro game and you can’t judge an entire game by just the graphics, especially compared to modern stuff”. Well I’m not judging the entire game by its graphics, nor am I setting it against the context of modern high definition.
Castlevania was released fairly early on in the NES’s lifespan and it was released in the very first year of the Family Computer Disk System, the console on which it debuted. I think that accounts for its appearance. Really, the game looks downright ugly in many portions thanks to a bizarre choice of clashing, hyper-saturated colors. The NES had a limited 64-color palette but many later games drew from a variety of technicalities and other tricks to produce images that make Castlevania look positively primitive by comparison. To reiterate, in the context of the NES library, which was quite expansive, Castlevania is on the bottom tier in terms of graphics. Lots of flicker, jarring color choices, and none to detailed character sprites even by NES standards. It may by now have some iconic imagery but there are far more impressive games on the system in regards to visuals.
Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima double-teamed composing the soundtrack for the original Castlevania, taking turns working on their own tracks solo and in some places collaborating on the same tracks. However the split was decided, the soundtrack itself is legendary and for good reason: it’s fast-paced, adrenaline pumping, cohesive rock and a clear foundation for the series that was to come. Castlevania is a game that’s about pushing onward through every danger and the soundtrack musically supports that drive to continue.
A lot of the music on the NES was influenced by guitar riffs and drum solos of the rock bands of the ’80s, and that influence is clear here. It’s more than just random chiptune noises. It has the utility of performance energy. Later indie games have attempted to capture the same feeling but it’s more than a feeling (heh), it’s purpose. Later games would attempt this flavor of music to varying success. To my mind, the music is the best thing about Castlevania.
Castlevania is played across several stages which emphasize multi-tiered platforms connected by stairs, hidden food and items, and fast-moving enemies with different attack patterns. The baddies represent a degree of memorization necessary to progress, since they don’t all simply march toward you. Some of them hop, some toss bones, some spit fire, some (the iconic medusa heads) fly across the screen in a wavelength pattern. Playing through Castlevania for the first time, encountering new enemies and not knowing how they were going to behave and how I needed to avoid them kept each stage fresh and lively. Later on when Castlevania lays the enemy placement on thick, it’s challenging and exhilarating.
There are two mechanical functions which made playing Castlevania something I had to focus on getting used to. The first thing I want to mention here is something so small and simple it’s easy to overlook and that’s the inability to change direction in mid-air when jumping. You can either jump straight up or just forward in the direction you’re facing. Thanks to Super Mario Bros. becoming the blueprint for virtually every platformer since, Castlevania’s stubborn jumping is a hurdle to precise gameplay. To draw on other examples, try comparing Super Metroid to Space Ace in terms of jumping. In Castlevania, you can add to that the heightened rate at which your character falls and the knock back that occurs if you’re hit by an enemy. The platforming here becomes absolutely treacherous because of it. It was incredibly easy to miss jumps with this outmoded mechanic, so game seemed unnecessarily difficult in places.
The second thing has less to do with your character’s movements and more to do with his attack. Who thought that taking a whip to a vampire fight was a good idea? The whip can be upgraded and it grants you a degree of distance with which to strike your foes, but there’s a slight delay between pressing the button and the whip lashing out at full length. Your character must stretch his arm back and then loose the whip forward. This means that beyond having to adjust to the antiquated jumping, you’ll also have to familiarize yourself with the speed of a regular attack. This equates to missing frequently until you get the hang of it.
With these impediments, it pays to be canny about items. These are stashed throughout the castle. Many are worth points, some recover health, and others are secondary weapons. The Axe, Boomerang, Dagger, Holy Water, and Stop-Watch all have different uses and knowing them is integral to progressing through the game. The Axe, for instance, can be lobbed upward in an arc far above what you’d normally be able to reach. It’s perfect for those pesky aerial enemies. The Holy Water creates a pool of glistening fire in front of your feet that can be used to halt oncoming ghouls. The Stop-Watch was the one I got the most use out of. Why fiddle with different weapons when I could just freeze time for a few precious seconds. I doubt I could’ve beaten the game without it.
Castlevania stars Simon Belmont on his quest to enter Count Dracula’s castle and slay the vampire. Dracula’s castle only appears once every century so this is the vampire hunter’s chance to rid the land of this magical tyrant. The going isn’t easy, as you might expect. Everything from Frankenstein’s monster to fishfolk to imps to zombies to skeletons to Death itself bar Belmont’s path.
This game is known for being tough as nails, and weren’t not talking about those flimsy nails that bend in half if you strike them the wrong way. I’m talking about huge, ugly, please-tell-me-I-got-my-Tetanus-shot railroad nails. Some of that difficulty is due to Belmont’s cumbersome movements and attacks as I mentioned earlier. Plenty of it is due to enemy placement and boss fights.
However, and this is why Castlevania gets such a high score for Challenge, by the time you reach the Count himself, you will have familiarized yourself with all the peculiarities of controlling Simon Belmont that the last boss is a test of your timing and skill. Jumping over three fireballs and whipping Dracula in the face sounds easy (and painful) but the timing required is something the game expects you to perfect. This final fight is the crown of the game in a way that suggests you made it this far on the strengths you yourself have built in this castle. It’s a testament to the human spirit, both in Simon Belmont and in you, that you completed this game at all. A lot of games from this era may be difficult and occasionally unfairly so, but that makes the ending all the sweeter.
Of course once you beat Dracula and you’re treated to the parody credits naming “Christopher Bee”, “Belo Lugosi”, and “Boris Karloffice” (nods to classic horror films), the game starts all over again on hard mode…
Though the game starts over on hard mode after playing it through on normal, the only things to look forward to are fiercer and more aggressive enemies, new enemy positions, and secret crowns you can find for points. You’ll also take more damage this time around. Think you can get the “good” ending by beating hard mode? Think again. It just starts an infinite loop of hard modes.
Though this was fairly common back then, it’s not something that equated to much replay value. I’d say most replayability stems from nostalgic pining for Castlevania, but even that’s generous considering this game’s unapologetic brutality.
Castlevania is a clear example of ’80s games that included items which made no intuitive sense. This is nowhere clearer than with the hearts you can pick up by destroying wall-mounted candles. You would automatically think that hearts equate life, right? Of course you would. Hearts must be nearly universal symbols of love and life.
Well in Dracula’s castle that’s not what they’re for. In the first area, before I got hit, I kept finding all these hearts and I thought to myself: “C’mon… this game can’t be that hard if they give you all this healing!” Turns out the hearts are used for powering your secondary weapons. Hearts are consumed from your inventory every time you use a dash of Holy Water or toss your Boomerang. Even after I beat the game, that makes no sense to me. At least the weapons themselves are straightforward, but how was I supposed to know what Double or Triple Shot did?
Konami’s Castlevania is a less than cartoonish, far more gruesome and Gothic addition to the NES library than many other big title games you’ll find there. Playing it and thinking of direct comparisons and contrasts, I came away finding Castlevania stiff and unwieldy, occasionally awkward, but incredibly engaging.
The level design in particular is spectacular and because there’s so much variation in it, I really felt as if I was climbing a ruined castle toward that blood-sucking villain. A little ugly on the outside, the great music and the gameplay that commands you to master it make for a compelling experience, one which deserves to be the foundation of its franchise.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
The funny thing about not playing Castlevania as a kid is I now realize I wouldn’t have been able to beat it as a kid, anyways. You could say I picked my battles but I was also pretty impatient a lot of the time. I now know that Castlevania rewards those who take the time to come to grips with it, but it will crush players who simply want to slack off in a spooky castle.
While Castlevania doesn’t soar to the same dark heights as Symphony of the Night, which most definitely overshadowed a lot of what came before it, I am glad I finally took the opportunity to play it and have my own slice of humble pie baked courtesy of Count Dracula.
Aggregated Score: 6.9
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Categories: Game Review