A few weeks ago, the world mourned the sad passing of a true rock legend: Ronnie James Dio. Now that I have recovered from my grief, (as well as my shock that he has been outlived by both Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy,) I present a small tribute in the form of an article about Irem's 1989 NES Castlevania rip-off Holy Diver.

This really was a rare (for me, at least) case of being hooked by a game's title, but unfortunately, despite sharing it's name with the song that may well represent the pinnacle of man's musical endeavour, it has nothing in common with Dio's masterpiece. If you're looking for a game where you can jump on a tiger, I suggest you try the arcade classic Tiger Jump 19XX. I, however, am going to play through Holy Diver.

The game offers you no kind of story, so I'm going to make one up. You play as a magnificently-shoulderpadded wizard, who we shall call Dio for the sake of convenience. Dio must urgently find a large amount of Ferrero Rocher with which to cater the ambassador's ball he will be holding that evening, but the only all-night supermarket is located across six stages of hellish terror filled with a cavalcade of evil demons. Undaunted, he puts on his second-best cape (he's saving his best cape for the ambassador's ball, natch) and sets out on his quest.
As previously mentioned, Holy Diver bears more than a passing resemblance to the early Castlevania games. You jump around, fight monsters and go up and down those staircases made of diagonally-placed blocks (you know the ones I mean). Instead of a whip, you shoot fireballs, and instead of sub-weapons you get different magic spells. The first level sees Dio standing at the top of a tree that looks rather like a Twister ice lolly. As if to prove his wizardly powers, he leaps from the tree and into a cursed church. It's curse? To be full of little shirtless men wearing executioner's hoods, men who are desperate to prove their worth by running into any magician they see. There are also some orange knights who hover just out of reach and then dive in to attack, which will become a rather irritating recurring theme with the enemies in this game. So far, Holy Diver is off to a solid, if derivative, start.
Things soon change though. Once Dio has reached the Guns 'N' Roses-esque cross with a skull and snake on it, the game decides you are sufficiently heavy metaaaaaal enough to start being punished by the wildly fluctuating difficulty level. Flying butterfly skulls (this game is rather heavy on skulls) start flapping in from all directions, generally getting in the way while you're trying to fight the orange knights. They're like Castlevania's Medusa Heads, but even worse because they don't just float past you: they turn around and come back at you in a constant stream. Even Dracula's minions weren't that cruel. This early difficulty spike, the kind of difficulty that is not so much a challenge as it is pointless frustration, should have perhaps been a warning signal, but what kind of wizard obeys warning signs? Shooting fire out of your hands must come with all kinds of safety legislation, but I imagine if you can shoot fire out of your hands, you tend to ignore such things. Dio struggles through and eventually reaches the boss, a teal demon who is fond of jumping around and shooting fireballs at you in a manner very reminiscent of Dracula from, you guessed it, Castlevania. He doesn't seem all that vicious though; I think he just wants someone to play with. Oh well, he's dead now, and Dio receives the power of Blizzard.
The second stage, according to the small amount of online translation I subjected it to, is called Offal Hell. Now, that is a bold name for a level. Not the regular kind of hell, you know, with the fire and everything, but the kind that's full of tripe and ruled by demons made of haggis. Actually, most of the level looks like it's made of spaghetti bolognese, with the floor looking like mince and what I assume are lava flows that look like tomato sauce. Maybe this Offal Hell won't be so bad.

The level sees Dio travelling across the mincey land, avoiding demons who fire arrows at your head and using your new Blizzard powers to freeze the tomato-y lava so you can walk across it. Inside the cave, some terribly frustrating bats appear, but the rage they cause with their difficult-to-dodge projectiles is alleviated somewhat by the skeleton dragon-dinosaur things that accompany them. I like their sprites a lot, as they manage to seem menacing and really goofy at the safe time, which is always a good combination. They stage gets more organic and offally as you proceed, until I noticed that the walls were filled with little embryos. Terrifying flashbacks to the embryo stage in Splatterhouse began to consume me, the memory of wanting to stab the developers still fresh in my mind. Luckily, the embryos stay in the walls and I'm free to make my way to the boss. This boss is a giant fleshy wall who fires tomatoes at you, which is probably where all the tomato sauce comes from. He's very easy to beat: I managed to find a spot where his tomatoes could not hurt me and just mashed fire. In fact, he died so quickly that I forgot to get a screenshot. Whoops.
Stage three is set in a jungle, a jungle with lava flowing through it and a constant barrage of bladed wheels rolling at you from all angles. There are some trees to climb, but the trees do have eyes which weep deadly tears at you, so I guess it's not as wholesome as it sounds. The flying butterfly skulls have been superceded by something even more infuriating: unkillable eyeball flies. That's right, they can only be avoided. They're like the angry sun in Super Mario 3, except there are approximately seven thousand of them in every room. This level has a lot of enemies, but the best and strangest is waiting inside the caves later in the level: flying orange angler fish that vomit slugs at you. I have no idea what that's all about: all I know is they're very irritating, and the combination of their orangeness and the green of the background is not a good mix, visually. Add to that the sprite flicker, and you may want to keep some aspirin nearby, or maybe just play a game that doesn't look like the inside of psychopath's head. If you do continue, you'll soon reach the boss, a penisy-looking plant creature that floats up and down and drops worms on you. The boss is far easier than the actual level, which seems to be a pattern with this game, and soon you're on to the fourth stage.
A castle! You gotta have a castle in wizard-based games. Also, rocks fly at you, and if even the tiniest particle of these rocks make contact wth you, you take damage. What is it with rocks in videogames? The only cool rock in a videogame is Geodude: all the rest are just there to frustrate you and knock you off ledges. Goddamn rocks and ledges. Anyway, after a frustrating spell jumping across narrow pillars while gargoyles try to poke you, Dio makes his way into the castle proper, which is populated mainly by giant bouncing skulls in Roman helmets who shoot croissants at you. This is getting a little strange, and I have to wonder how effective a skull would be as a guard. He's got no hands, he can't lock doors behind himself or anything. They did a decent job at keeping me out, but that's mostly because I'm rubbish at videogames. Once I manged to get past them, I emerged on the battlements where a neon-pink golem was waiting for me who turned out to be much tougher than any of the bosses battled so far. Once he's dead, our hero turns into A FUCKING DRAGON. A dragon! Why was this power not made use of earlier!? I could have just flown straight to the shop to get the Ferrero Rocher! Anyway, there's a small side-scrolling shooting section where you control the dragon while a fire-worm chases you, and it's actually quite good fun. Once you reach the other side, you have to sadly ditch your dragon powers and take on the boss. The boss is a tower with eyes on it that slowly rotates whilst you try and stay on the small platforms that float around him. This wouldn't be so bad, but each time the tower's attacks hit you, you fly backwards roughly twenty feet, off the platform and to your death. Eventually he crumbles and it's on to stage five.
The fifth stage starts with a barrage of rocks, except now they're green and almost impossible to avoid because they appear at the same rate as underage girls getting knocked up on a council estate. Maybe rocks are like Kryptonite to wizards or something. My recollection of this stage is a little hazy, because I was concentrating so hard on not dying I didn't have time to take in much of the level. I looked at the notes I wrote down while I was playing, and all it says is "Jesus it's hard". There is a section where you jump across pillars made of what appears to be piles of kidney beans: perhaps the bolognese stage wasn't pasta at all and was actually a chilli. There's a slightly sci-fi looking section, followed by a lot of vertical climbing sections, all of which are a complete nightmare, and then the walls change into skulls. There sure are a lot of different architectural styles going on here. The main difficulty here is the fact that because there are so many enemies firing so much crap at you, the game can't handle it and a lot of the sprites either flicker a lot or disappear entirely, meaning you're constantly getting hit by things you can even see. There a logo which says "BS" in the background at several points: it certainly feels like BS, that's for sure. The boss is... well, I'm not sure what the boss is supposed to be. You reach his chamber, where he is keeping another wizard on a crucifix, and he floats around generally getting in your way. As far as I can see, the boss is a floating pelvis with two fleshy lumps and a small brain in the middle that you have to shoot. Unfortunately, the boss spends 99% of the time off the edge of the screen or under the floor, so you just have to wait around for him to reappear. This is not fun. Once he's deigned to spend some time fighting you, you can destroy him and move on to the final stage.
Confession time: stage six is so difficult, I had to break out the good ol' Game Genie to see me through it. A huge thank you to whoever figured out the code for invincibility. After a section of biological-looking platforms, you fight your way through what seems to be a Victorian red-brick warehouse, then through some very difficult lava waterfalls where even being invincible doesn't make it any easier, through an orange section and then a green jungle area. It's like a videogame version of The Masque of the Red Death, except not good. Not content with stealing from Castlevania, Irem decided to plunder the works of H. R. Giger in both the appearance of the stage and by forcing you to fight facehuggers. Really irritating facehuggers. Speaking of irritating, while the music during the rest of the game is inoffensive if nothing special, this stage has some truly dreadful music on a short loop, which I think is supposed to sound menacing but sounds more like a cat chewing on a robot bumblebee. You can take a few different routes, but they all lead to the same place, and they all force you fight some black golems who I imagine would be nigh-impossible to beat if you weren't invulnerable. Eventually, you battle your way to a rib-cage, at the top of which waits the game's final boss, Black Slayer. He's a giant squishy brain with various appendages that you have to shoot off while avoiding the infinite number of facehuggers he has stashed somewhere about his person. Given the difficulty of the actual level, he's not as tough as I anticipated, and eventually he falls. Of course, he's not dead yet, and our hero transforms into a dragon again for the final airbourne confrontation... which lasts about seven seconds. The evil Black Slayer is defeated, and the game scrolls some ending text.
The end text reveals that your wizard's name is actually Randy. Randy the wizard. I'll just let you soak that in for a moment. But then, in a shocking twist, he is revealed as Randy R., and the wizard you rescued at the end of stage five is Zakk W. I can only assume this means that these two are the guitar legends Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde, a discovery which makes the task of slogging through Holy Diver just about tolerable. Sadly, while the ending is telling you this, it shows a picture of two dragons flying away from the screen, so the last thing you see is a dragon's ass. You know, I think that's actually quite appropriate.
Is Holy Diver any good? No, not really. It has a few decent moments, the Blizzard power is quite good and some of the enemy sprites are nice, but all in all, it's a pretty poor game. Also, it has nothing to do with Holy Diver the song, which I guess is just as well because otherwise this would be a pretty crappy tribute to Dio. For a real tribute, go and play Holy Diver on Guitar Hero: 80s. Long may Dio shine on. You know, like a rainbow in the dark. I'll see you all next time.
P.S. Here's a speedrun video


  1. I totally disagree. Holy Diver is a hidden gem in the vast ocean of NES/Famicom games. The soundtrack is great, the story is tongue-in-cheek Metal references, and the gameplay is astounding, albeit too hard. The difficulty is the only downfall of this game.

  2. Nightowljrm: I think part of my problem with Holy Diver is that I really wanted it to be better than it is. That, and I'm just not very good at it, ha ha.


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