By 1987, the NES (which quietly arrived in ’85) was gaining a lot of traction in a market still battered by the collapse of consoles in the great “Video Game Crash” a few years earlier in ’83 which devastated North American peers such as the once-mighty Atari.
With a bit of smart marketing, redesigning its Famicom looks down into a more “serious” grey and black box, and further distancing themselves from the previous generation by doing things such as calling it an “entertainment system” and not just a ‘game’ console, the NES was quietly creating a groundswell of acceptance opening gilded doors tempting developers to jump onboard. Developers like Konami.
Konami’s Castlevania arrived on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987 for its North American and European audiences. The vampire slaying action adventure introduced a generation to the whip-wielding struggles of Simon Belmont as he battled against the evil of Dracula several months after the Japanese had taken a crack at it the previous year. It originally came out for the Nintendo Famicom (the NES in Japan before it hit the West) in 1986 as Akumajo Dracula which also foundi its way over to the MSX2.
Castlevania is a tough, side-scrolling battle against the minions of Dracula before facing off against him in his tower. There are six stages divided into three sections. At the end of the third section is one of the bosses featuring classics like Frankenstein and Igor, the Grim Reaper, and finally, Dracula himself.
Simon Belmont wasn’t the most agile of characters — this was during the era where jump control was more like a bonus feature than something standard. Jumping in one direction meant you were going that direction. But he was also a hero with a pretty unique weapon, a whip that could be improved by finding power ups improving its reach and power. The game also featured a number of other power ups like secondary weapons (which used “heart” points collected by smashing candles and special blocks) and a pork chop restoring Simon’s health bar (how he could eat something hidden in a brick wall for who knows how long is anyone’s guess…vampire killer constitution!).
Graphics-wise, the game looked great for the time. Simon looked like some miniature Conan in leather and wielding a whip while the enemies in the game really came to life with unique attacks and surprising effects. Castlevania really pushed the envelope…perhaps a little too hard. I remember having to return at least two copies of the game because of a bizarre bug that froze it at the stairs right before the big fight.
Platforming was also big. This was in the days before falling to the floor below that you had just left a screen earlier climbing stairs meant instant death instead of a hard landing. There’s a point in the game where flying Medusa heads come at you and getting hit off of these tiny platforms meant one less extra life in your score bar. Many continues ensued.
Later levels ramped up the difficulty with bone throwing skeletons, shattered floors requiring death defying jumps as bats flew at Simon’s head, and keeping pace with all of the action was the memorable work by Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima. Even today, the memorable starting theme in the first stage is still with me along with the high flying movements while traversing the broken sky bridge in the third stage as crows and flying bones came at Simon.
After defeating Dracula, and his second form, the player was greeted with the dawn and watched as Castlevania crumbled with its arrival. The credit scroll included tongue-in-cheek jokes such as saying that the screenplay was done by “Vran Stoker” (a play on Bram Stoker, the original author of Dracula) and that Dracula himself was played by “Christopher Bee” (a play on Christopher Lee who played the role of the Count in many films a the King of Horror). All of it complete with an ending theme.
Castlevania wasn’t a long game to play through, but learning all of the ins and outs, working out the timing for the jumps and attacks, and how to defeat each of the bosses (including Dracula) could take days or weeks of work even with unlimited continues. There was no difficulty level to pick from, either. Just the default “go save the world” version. But this was a fantastic action game. Everything still came together — the music, the action, and once you worked out Simon’s shortfalls and what special weapons worked best against whom, it was like a “eureka” moment that made it all worth getting through.
Akumajo Dracula also did something a bit backwards for a console game. Unlike a number of those that Konami had ported over to the NES (like Jackal), this went from consoles to the arcade instead. It showed up in Japan in 1988 as Akumajo Dracula while in the West, it was simply known as “Haunted Castle”.
The arcade version, as fan supersite The Castlevania Dungeon points out, was “built from the ground up” as an entirely new game. It even had its own starting sequence with Simon in a wedding tux and his bride walking from a chapel when Dracula swoops down from the sky to kidnap her. In Castlevania, Simon just went out to kill everything between him and Christopher Bee. No damsel in distress here.
The arcade game also had a lot of new visuals added in to beef up the look of each of the stages with new challenges and bosses added in to take advantage of the power of Konami’s arcade hardware. It looked like a completely new game with little other than the basic premise, whip wielding warrior, and villains to tie it to its Castlevania roots.
But as The Castlevania Dungeon points out, it was also extraordinarily difficult. While Castlevania was tough on its own merits, its challenge wasn’t as brutally vicious as Haunted Castle’s. Castlevania’s system of hearts (found by smashing the copious number of candle holders throughout the game) powering secondary weapons gave the player a powerful, and still limited, edge when it came to boss fights and battling the brutal monsters of the game. Haunted Castle did away with most of those opportunities. Even worse, players only had one life — once that health bar was done, so was the player and it was back to the very beginning.
Yet Castlevania would go on to found a dynasty of memorable titles that would stretch across several hardware generations and making it one of the most desired properties that any console could get as an exclusive. Today, you can get the original on a blistering array of platforms from Windows to mobile devices.
Konami’s Castlevania is also one of the best games to have come out for the NES back then. It still is as fans remember where the series had come from with a challenge that remains as timeless as its stages and the music that became synonymous with vampire slaying. Simon Belmont’s legend started off with a simple request — to vanquish Dracula. And thanks to his fans, he and his family have gone on to do that and much more.