31/10/2011

CASTLEVANIA (NES)

Happy Hallowe'en! Yes, the spooktacular season has reached its macabre climax, but before I return to my crypt with the undistributed sweets and a DVD of Evil Dead II I'd like to offer up one last ghoulish gaming tale - the story of a stiff-kneed hero's journey through a monster-filled castle. His ultimate goal? To whip evil square in it's befanged maw. I am, of course, talking about Konami's 1986 horror classic Castlevania.

I'm sure many of you have played Castlevania, and even if you haven't you've almost certainly heard of it. The basic plotline is simple enough - there is an Evil Thing and you, as the Good Hero, must defeat it. In this case the Evil Thing is Dracula, king of the vampires and owner of some prime magical real estate, and the Hero is Simon Belmont, the latest member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan and proud wearer of leather skirts.
While there is some disagreement over which was developed and released first, the Famicom Disk System version of Castlevania or the slightly different MSX2 version localised as Vampire Killer, the FDS version is generally accepted as being the first Castlevania title and the originator of the huge franchise that bears the Castlevania name.

I say "bears the Castlevania name", but the series' original Japanese title is Akumajo Dracula -literally, Demon or Devil Castle Dracula. When the original game was ported from the Japan-only Famicom Disk System to the standard NES cartridge format for an overseas release it needed a new name, and in true to the rules of Eighties localisation it got one that doesn't make any sense. Presumably the "Vania" part comes from Transylvania, but vania on its own doesn't mean anything - Transylvania is formed from "trans" and "sylvania", meaning "beyond the forest". Still, it's a catchy little title, isn't it? I'd love to find out who came up with that name, but no-one seems to know.
Also, notice that both the Japanese and Western title screens are presented as though they're on film. Keep that in mind for later.

The game begins with Simon reaching the castle gates. Dracula's castle is silhouetted against the night sky, giving you your first taste of one of the ways that Castlevania set itself apart from the crowd of early NES platformers - the atmosphere of gothic horror.
Despite repeatedly being whipped to death by generation after generation of the Belmont clan, Dracula still leaves his front gates unlocked and Simon can casually wander into the first area: the Front Yard of Evil.

Phase one of defeating the ultimate evil: destroy all their garden ornaments. In rather magnanimous gesture, Dracula has filled these ornaments with items that power-up Simon's weapon, and one of the Castlevania series' most iconic elements: the Vampire Killer whip. A blessed weapon that contains the power to defeat Dracula, it's also one of the most inaccurately-named weapons in videogaming. Even though he gets beaten more often than the Welsh football team, Dracula rises again each time and seems very resistant to actually being, you know, killed. I suppose "Temporary Inducer of Vampire Dormancy" doesn't have the right air of menace to it.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the whip as a weapon. It's aesthetically different enough from the standard sword to be interesting, but more importantly it strikes a nice balance between the short range of a sword or a knife and a weapon that goes the length of the screen.
Anyway, here we are in Dracula's hallway, faced with a conga-line of zombies and some unfortunate interior design choices. Red drapes with lime-green window frames? Forget that, though: the first thing that you should get excited about is the almost legendary soundtrack.



That's "Vampire Killer", one of the series' most famous tracks. The soundtrack was composed by Kinuyo Yamashita, and it perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the game - moody, gothic and catchier than headlice at a werewolf primary school. If there's one thing I associate with the Castlevania franchise, it's the excellent music. There have been the very occasional mis-steps, but almost every Castlevania game, even the rare terrible ones like Castlevania Judgement and the unusual spin-offs like Castlevania: The Arcade and the pachislot games, have had amazing soundtracks that are right up there with the best that their respective platforms can offer. It all started here, with Yamashita's Vampire Killer, and what makes it all the more amazing is that this was the first videogame soundtrack she ever composed. First day on the job: have a cup of tea, compose Vampire Killer, cement semi-legendary status amongst videogame music geeks. Not a bad day's work.

Even if you've never played Castlevania, you'll soon figure out the basics. You must make your way through the rooms of the castle, jumping over pits with one button and whipping enemies with the other button. Oh, and walking up and down stairs, you'll be doing a lot of that, too.

The enemies are all taken from the pool of classic horror icons - the first stage has bats, zombies, some kind of big black cat, and so on. Here we can see a merman who has jumped free of his watery abode so he can walk into you, triggering Simon's fish allergy in the hope that anaphylactic shock will finish the vampire hunter off.

Of course, there are also bosses waiting at the end of each stage. The first is a bat, but a bat who is somewhat larger than all the other bats. He's not particularly threatening, even is his body is ninety percent mouth. More mouth = more mouth to whip. He doesn't take long to kill, and once he's dead you can collect a magic orb that refills your health and then travel to the next stage.

Stage two is where jumping becomes a more integral part of the gameplay experience, and this is troubling because the Belmonts are famous for jumping like a sack of potatoes fired from a very weak catapult. In contrast to most platformers, you cannot control Simon at all once he has leapt into the air: once he is airbourne, he's locked into his trajectory and no power of the Earth or Heavens can alter his path. That is, of course, until you hit an enemy.

Getting hit, unless you have activated the mystical aegis that is "standing on a staircase", causes Simon to fly backwards. This is especially dangerous when you're jumping over the many holes in Dracula's shockingly-maintained floors, and the danger only increases when you add enemies to the mix. This is especially true when the enemy is the dread foe pictured above, the one in the process of knocking Simon down a hole for the umpteenth time: the Medusa Head.
The bane of all Castlevania players' lives, the Medusa Heads' sole purpose is to float across the screen and bump into you when you're trying to manoeuvre the already-graceless Belmont over a bottomless pit. They manage this with such frequency and nonchalance that they have engendered an almost cancerous hate in my already black heart - a hate that fills my veins with an icy chill every time I see their stupid little snake-haired faces drifting toward me.

Happily, the boss is Medusa herself and I get the satisfaction of condemning the progenitor of those foul flying demons to an eternity of abyssal damnation. Plus, she looks a bit like Phanto from Super Mario Bros. 2 wearing a fright wig.

Speaking of odd-looking enemies, is this... is this the ghost of a frog? Why is a spectral frog trying to kill me? What did I ever do to the frog of the world to justify such treatment? And more importantly, what unfinished business could a frog possibly have that would be strong enough to allow it to return from the afterlife? Whoooh, I only ate three-quarters of my bodyweight in insects on the day I diiieeed!

Anyway, stage three is next, and it's probably my favourite-looking of all the stages with its blue-green palette and "ruined aqueduct" aesthetic. Dracula may have gussied up his castle for the later installments, but in the original the place is a bit of a wreck, frankly.
Oddly, skeletons - nowadays Castlevania's go-to monsters for low-level, easily killed grunts - don't make an appearance until stage three. I guess Dracula was so fed up of them letting Belmonts onto his precious aqueduct that he demoted them to the undead equivalent of Wal-Mart greeters.



Once again, there's more excellent music here with another on the series' signature tunes, "Wicked Child". I'm going to assume that "Wicked Child" refers to the infuriating little hunchbacked pricks that populate this stage, hopping around like a cat dropped onto a ceramic hob and generally being a nuisance almost on a par with the Medusa Heads.

Mind you, these ravens aren't much better. A general rule of thumb seem to be that the smaller an enemy in Castlevania is, the more likely they are to make you crush your gamepad in a vice-like grip of pure, agonising rage.

This rule holds true with the bosses, a pair of mummies who are far less of a stumbling block than Simon's arthritic knees and the local bird life. However, the appearance of the mummies shows that Dracula is starting to get serious. He's bringing out the big Hallowe'en guns now!

Stage four starts in an underground cave filled with moving platforms and populated mostly by mermen who, for some unexplained but almost certainly evil reason, can walk through solid rock in their efforts to land on your head and knock you off your tiny platform.
As there's not much else to say about this area other than to once more reiterate that jumping is not the Belmont family's strongest suit, it seems like a good time to talk about sub-weapons. You see, the whip isn't the only weapon at your disposal - you can also hold one sub-weapon at a time that can be use by pressing up and attack. There are five sub-weapons, all with varying levels of usefulness depending on the situation. There's a forward-firing dagger, an axe that flies in an arc, holy water that creates a patch of magical fire on the ground and a stopwatch that briefly freezes all enemies in their tracks. My favourite is the cross, a projectile weapon which returns once you've thrown it.

Of course, Nintendo of America's strict "no religion" policy meant that a cross, even one that was being used for Righteous Holy Justice, wasn't going to get into the game. So, in a move that fooled precisely zero people they renamed the cross to the "boomerang" and that was that. This thing you use to fight vampires? The cross-shaped one? Yeah, that's a boomerang. To be fair, crosses don't generally return to you when you throw them, a fact that saw me expelled from Catholic school as a child.
Your sub-weapon usage is limited however, because these weapons run on the power of hearts. No, not like that poor bastard in Captain Planet who got lumbered with the magical healing power of friendship, but actual hearts that you must collect. Oddly, you don't generally get hearts from killing enemies but rather from whipping the many candles that line Dracula's halls. I'm not entirely sure why these candles have a cardiovascular system, but the obvious answer would be that they are not candles but actually tiny creatures who have evolved to thrive in Dracula's castle. Here's a simple anatomical drawing:

See, now that makes perfect sense, and it explains why Dracula hasn't gone completely fucking mental after having to relight every single candle in the castle every time he gets resurrected.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, stage four. After emerging from the cave, my joy at being back on solid ground was quickly wiped away when I realised that Dracula was employing some experimental weapons system that consists of highly-trained geese constantly dropping hunchbacks on me. After dashing through this nightmarish blizzard of feathers and tiny men with spinal problems, I managed to make it to the boss.

Oh for Christ's sake. It's another hunchback, but this time he isn't the main event. That honour obviously goes to the Frankenstein's Monster, or "The Creature" as he is usually known in the Castlevania games. They're a pretty nasty double act, but I'm always happy to see The Creature appear in any game: as Hallowe'en mascots go, he's one of my favourites. Like several bosses in the early games, The Creature shows up in the later Castlevanias as a regular enemy, where he can also shoot missiles out of his arms, a useful feature and one that I can't believe Victor Frankenstein forgot to mention in his original story.

GOD DAMN IT. Stage five starts with hunchbacks and continues on in a similar vein. The game was hard before - I mean, it's a Konami NES title from the mid-eighties, after all - but now it starts getting really difficult. The original Castlevania titles are such different beasts to the modern "MetroidVania" titles and while I couldn't argue that Castlevania is a better game than, say, Symphony of the Night or Order of Ecclesia, I can point out that is a very different style of play. The gameplay here is almost strategic - to get anywhere, particularly in the later levels, you need to plan every jump, every swing of the whip and every evasive movement to perfection. Of course, this means a lot of memorisation is required, but this was almost mandatory for any NES game of the time, and as this is such a short game you'll get plenty of chances to remember it all. What did strike me as interesting was how rarely you need arcade-style "reflex" skills in this game: as I say, all your movements are methodical, you don't move or attack particularly quickly and once you're jumping you can't change trajectory. Compare this to something like Super Mario Bros, where memorisation is certainly a large part of doing well but if you do mess up, quick thumbs and a good eye can often get you out of trouble.

Anyway, back to the level at hand. Simon makes his way through the dungeon-slash-secret lab, fighting pink skeletons (possibly related to the ones in Golden Axe II) and feeling and increasing sense of lurking terror pressing heavily upon his shoulders. Is it remorse for the many candle-creatures he had murdered for their hearts? No, of course not. It's the dark presence of the Grim Reaper himself: Death!

I'm pretty sure summoning Death himself counts as "bringing out the big guns", so it looks like Simon has Dracula running scared! Yes, it's the first example of the fine old Castlevania tradition of having Death as Dracula's servant. Alright, maybe "servant" is a little bit harsh - as this picture from the Symphony of the Night's monster encyclopedia shows, they're, like, bestest bros forever:

Aww, isn't that sweet? Well, I would be more inclined to think it was sweet if the fight against Death wasn't so infuriating. It's often held up as the hardest part of the entire game, and while I wouldn't go quite that far it is one of the very few times when the difficulty swings from "very hard" to "unfair". The main problem is that Death likes to fill the screen with sickles, sickles and more sickles, as though he runs some kind of sickle breeding school and he's trying to train them up so that one day they'll grow in to fine, upstanding young scythes. As Simon is about as agile as a three-seater sofa, dodging all these sickles quickly becomes aggravating, and I'm sure that this was the point when a lot of kids threw their NES controller through the nearest window. But then again, he's Death, not Comfylia, God of Hugs - you'll just have to keep practising and one day you'll be able to dodge his sickles. Maybe.

If you do manage to make it past Mr. G. Reaper, then you'll be faced with the final stage - the approach to Dracula's lair!

The first boss returns, and is easily ignored!

Not so easily ignored is the fact that the only way to reach Dracula's lair is by traveling through the inner working of a giant clock. No matter how often he changes the layout of his castle, Drac always insists that it has a massive clocktower filled with flying minions, spikes and moving platforms, as though the most effective way to spread his evil is by ensuring the surrounding villages always know the correct time.
The clocktower is difficult to escape from, mostly because it's full of geese (which you'd think would be really bad for the mechanisms) but it's the final obstacle standing between you and your pointy-toothed nemesis.

Well, there's a staircase first but I don't think that'll slow you down much. I absolutely love this shot, by the way: the pixelly moon, Simon's grim, determined tread, it all comes together really nicely. No time for admiring the scenery, though: we've reached Dracula!

I've gotta say, I'm not terribly impressed. No elaborate throne, no glass of wine? Judging by the open coffin in the middle of the room and Dracula's general sluggishness, Simon arrived about five minutes after Dracula rose from his century-long sleep. Add to that the fact that Drac's curved nose makes him look a bit like Gonzo and you've got yourself one really unthreatening villain. His only attack is to teleport around the room, launching fireballs from under his cape: you simply have to hop over them and whip him in the face. Once you've hit him enough times, he drops the facade of being an aristocratic gentleman who likes to sleep a lot and morphs into his true form.

Honestly, this one's even less menacing than the last. He just looks so cheerful, skipping around the screen as if Simon had invited him to a tea party rather than a brutal fight to the death. And speaking of death, it may be called the Vampire Killer but it's hardly the fastest-acting weapon ever, with Drac soaking up a lot of hits before he finally un-dies. Couldn't I have just waited until the afternoon, gone in and opened the curtains? However you decide to finish him off, be it a repeated lashing or a Holy Water enema, Dracula is defeated and is not due to be resurrected for, oh, at least another three weeks. Simon Belmont has saved the nearby villages / Transylvania / Europe / The World (the extent of Dracula's power is never really established) and forged a brand-new addition to Konami's list of classic franchises.

The ending is a little strange: rather than actually, I don't know, giving the people who made the game some recognition, the credits are all parodies of people associated with Dracula and early horror films like "Vram Stoker", "Belo Lugosi" and my personal favourite, "Boris Karloffice".



If you combine this with the film effect I mentioned on the title screen, as well as the appearances of many of the monsters being almost directly copied from the early Universal horror movies, it makes me wonder if Castlevania was actually supposed to be the story of movie, much like the ending to Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. If that was the case, Konami perhaps didn't envision the game becoming as popular as it did, thus creating demand for sequels which would ditch the "movie" setting and create their own mythology.

Oh, and in Japan they're know as the Belmondo clan, which sounds like the name of a character from a cartoon about surfing animals with "attitude".

Castlevania is a Good Game. I must admit, I was worried it wouldn't be, not after all this time and after all the changes and advancements that the Castlevania series has gone through. Luckily the gameplay is still solid - it's challenging, tough, relies somewhat on memorisation but most importantly it rarely feels unfair. Hard like a breezeblock sandwich, but fair.

In a lesser company's hands it could have gone badly wrong, but this was a time when seemingly everything Konami touched turned to gold and new franchises were being born left and right. While the gameplay is still good, the thing that really lifts Castlevania up to classic status is the setting and the presentation. The horror theme is skillfully captured with some great moments like the stairs to Dracula's lair, the enemy designs evoke an almost Hammer Horror aesthetic and most of all there's Kinuyo Yamashita's amazing score, the importance of which can't really be overstated.

There you go, then: a Konami classic, the foundation of a wonderful franchise that's still going strong today and my Hallowe'en gift to you. And speaking of Hallowe'en, let's check the Hallowe'en-O-Meter!

It's a ten. Of course it's a ten - it's Castlevania.
BONUS!
I'm sure you know I struggled my way through Castlevania, what with my sluggish and enfeebled senses, so here's a treat: a video of some talented person completing the game in about the same time it takes me to climb the stairs in my house. It's terribly impressive.



And finally, you can always check out the Castlevania Dungeon or the Castlevania Crypt for all your web-based Castlevania needs. And that's it for this year's VGJUNK Hallowe'en Month. Thanks to everyone who read, shared and commented, and I hope you enjoyed it. Normal service will be resumed later this week!

2 comments:

  1. brilliant article - i love the original castlevania, i finally beat it only a couple years ago. the music is classic, and the only way i can beat the Reaper is by continuously using the holy water to freeze him in his starting position.
    happy halloween!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I completely forgot you could do that with the holy water - until about twenty minutes after I'd finished the game. D'oh. Happy Hallowe'en to you too!

    ReplyDelete

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