Castlevania: The Game that Introduced Us to Horror?
My first exposure to survival-horror wasn't the movies or even literature. It was Castlevania for the original NES. This included ghouls, mummies, Medusa, and even Count Dracula. I know zombies and vampires are rampant these days in almost every medium of entertainment, but 25 years ago, I was still a horror neophyte with little exposure to the monsters of classic lore. With Castlevania's 25th anniversary having passed just a few months ago, I thought it'd be fun to go back and look at the original game from the perspective of it being one of the forerunners of survival horror gaming. Yes, everything from the ominous opening to the rigorous difficulty contributed to an atmosphere of tension and fear that haunted me as a child.
Players originally took up the whip as Simon Belmont to hunt down Count Dracula in September of 1986 ('87 in the States). Developed by Konami and titled Akumajo Dracula (Devil's Castle Dracula) in Japan, there were six stages divided into eighteen levels in the castle, each with a very distinctive feel about them. From the opening hallway, with torn curtains and dilapidated walls, to the damp underground tunnels beneath the castle, all the way up to the Grim Reaper's torture dungeon filled with skulls and ancient corpses, there were a lot of creepy areas to traverse. Castlevania was the second Nintendo game I'd played (the first was Kung-Fu, a ported version of the arcade classic), and it exuded atmosphere in a way I'd never experienced before in a videogame.
There were a couple features that made the game so special. First was the variety of enemies. The opening level alone introduced players to zombies, black leopards (before there were killer dogs leaping through windows), fish men, and the Vampire Bat. The next level had a brand new suite including the Medusa heads, black knights, and white skeletons. Go back and play games like Super Mario Bros. While brilliant, the end bosses were recycled Bowsers. Castlevania played up the horror theme in all the monsters. Even in sprite form, skulls and spirits were scary for a kid who'd use his imagination to make them even scarier in his head. How to ward off these terrifying beasts?
Upgradable powers came to the rescue, the second aspect to what made Castlevania so special. The legendary whip, the "Vampire Killer", could be lengthened (and strengthened) into a morning star. You could also gain sub-items to help your cause. Depending on which boss was coming up, you'd have to strategize which item you retained to most effectively ward off the hordes of the undead. Was there a particularly difficult area to cross through? Use the watch to freeze time. Have a slew of aerial foes to fight? Hold on to that axe! These items may seem standard now, but back then, they were a godsend. I'd say the most valuable item of all was the pork chop, since it replenished health. It also engendered a sense of mystery since the walls of the castle held secrets within them.
Third were the controls. I know the jumping and whip motion feel stiff now, but back then, the delayed whip attack seemed natural and realistic. Other reviewers have noted how the stiff jumping (Simon is no olympic jumper) caused so many headaches and busted controllers, especially since Simon fell back everytime he got hit. While frustrating, I'm not sure what the alternative would have been. There had to be some reaction by Simon to an enemy attack, especially since his health bar would have made the game too easy otherwise. The designers intentionally placed enemies in specific areas to take advantage of obstacles like moving platforms and deep pits. Would the next jump result in death? Would you be able to swing the whip quickly enough to fend off the coming hunchback? Even if you take a look at other platforming classics, say, Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden, they too had similar mechanics. Were they frustrating? Yes. But the difficulty made victory all the more gratifying. More importantly, they lent Belmont an air of vulnerability. He wasn't a super human warrior, but someone with the same weaknesses as any of us. Every step he (and the players) took in the environment had to be a cautious one.
Challenge was rife in Castlevania, especially in the fourth element that made the game a classic - the bosses. Whether Medusa or the Vampire Bat, they were a gruesome bunch. The bane of my childhood was the second to last boss, the Grim Reaper. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get past this personage of Death. The Grim Reaper horrified me when I was young, and even though I laugh when I see him now, the image of his skeletal visage wrapped in dark robes was disturbing to me back then. His seeming invincibility made him even more daunting. Continue after continue, the scythes would swarm me until I was a pile of bones and flesh.
The worst horror films are the ones in which the villains can't be defeated. Think about the first Halloween and the seemingly invincible Michael Myers. Or even in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre where there is no heroine and Leatherface lives on. At best, escape is the only option, meaning the evil still remains. Wes Craven, in the great documentary about horror films, The American Nightmare, compares horror films to mental bootcamp. They prepare the psyche of kids for the evils of the world and expose them to ideas that are completely egregious otherwise. Despite the fact that these movies can induce terrifying nightmares, kids are still drawn to them. Why? Because it's a way to ward off the evil within the confines of a safe environment. It's only a movie, right? In that context, Castlevania wasn't just a form of preparation, but a way to fight back. All you needed was your trusty whip!
I finally beat Castlevania when I was much older. Sadly, the ending was anti-climactic because I found dispatching the Grim Reaper way more gratifying. I marvel now when I see players on YouTube beat the Reaper without getting hit once, but that moment when I first beat him, I was jumping with joy. It was like overcoming a bully from my childhood.
Making the experience all the sweeter was the great music. Castlevania has one of the best 8-bit soundtracks ever. I miss the days of midi melodies. I know most of the great gaming composers these days have graduated to sophisticated symphonic tracks, but there's something that's gone missing in the atmospheric orchestral tones of current games that doesn't capture the catchy allure of tunes like Bloody Tears and Stalker, Wicked Child along with Out of Time. I can hum those songs like it was yesterday.
With 2011 at an end, we can look back and marvel at the great games that came out 25 years ago. What was it about that year that inspired so many titles that we still regard as classics? Here at GameDynamo, we've done a retrospective for The Legend of Zelda, Kid Icarus, and Metroid, all of which had 25th birthday's this year. Just as those games have aged and evolved, so have we. I look back and remember the first time I played Castlevania at a friend's house. It was incredible. If you would have told me 25 years later I'd be doing a retrospective on the game, I probably would have had no idea what you were talking about. But here we are, celebrating a great game and the experiences that helped shape us into the people we would later become. All starting off with a lone man braving a castle against adversity, overwhelming odds, and some of the coolest monsters in history. Happy 25th Castlevania. I hope you vanquish Dracula for another 25 years.
He has been working in film and games for over a decade. On his off time, he likes to travel the world. His short story collection, Watering Heaven, was just published by Signal 8 Press.
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