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Castlevania Review

As an avid platformer enthusiast, I’ll be bringing you reviews of the majority of the Castlevania series for Halloween, since nothing is quite as frightening as awkward jump mechanics and enemies that spawn endlessly off the edge of the screen.

In case you’re somehow unaware, the series started way back in 1986 with Castlevania (obviously?) for the NES, which set the precedent for the bare-bones story structure of generation after generation of the Belmont clan fighting Dracula in the titular castle. Even when there’s more going on in the story, there isn’t really more going on in the story, and there’s certainly not more going on here. You play Simon, who can walk at a sluggish pace, jump, whip, and throw knives, axes, crosses, and holy water, which increase the number of available actions and are where most of the strategy lies. In comparison to, say, Mario, or even the later Castlevania games, the subweapons are especially important in these early entries in the series because you don’t have control of your jump after jumping. Your options are almost solely whipping and making a clumsy-ass jump across the screen, and the subweapons greatly increase your ability to get anything done, especially where the bosses are concerned.

Most of your interaction with the world comes from the whip, since you use it not only to kill baddies (most of which, importantly, drop in a single hit) but also to defend yourself from their attacks. Fighting against the little towers that spit fireballs at you, your only defense is to whip the fireballs before they hit you, or throw out a subweapon, one of which stops time. You usually can’t jump them, since they spit two at just the right interval for it to be nearly impossible, and you have to be close enough to the enemy to get hits off. Every projectile can be whipped, so your attack is also your defense. This is usually fine, and only really becomes a problem against two bosses, because your whip takes a bit to come out and you can’t move while doing so. In fact, that aspect of the game is brilliant, since it’s a major part of what forces you to be tactical and think. It’s a huge part of what makes the level design some of the best in the business. If you miss your attack, you’re definitely getting hit. It takes some foresight to be good. But against the bosses, this mechanic turns into a bit of a problem. It’s possible for projectiles to spawn on you in the Death battle, so it’s pretty easy to get hit if you whip inappropriately. But if you don’t destroy them, you’ll easily get overwhelmed. Striking that balance is enormously difficult, especially considering Death is at the end of a long and trying stage.

This is really the big problem with the game: the bosses aren’t balanced appropriately with the rest of the game, and more importantly rely on skills that the level design doesn’t really bring forth. The Dragon towers and Dragon headed snakes that spit fireballs at you teach you to whip down the projectiles, but they only ever come at you from a single direction, and usually you’re in a position not only to hit the projectiles, but also to hit the enemies that are spitting them. This fortunate positioning almost never occurs during the tough bosses. The game never requires advanced and complex movement through an area while projectiles are coming from different screen locations until the boss of the fourth level, Frankenstein’s creature and Igor, who not only suddenly pulls this new method of attack on you, but also can down you in only four hits. Additionally, Igor, the little guy who is sporadically jumping around the screen, isn’t even the target. Not only do you have to dodge (or whip) him and his fireballs, you also have to be aware of the creature walking back and forth on the screen and whip him. Even once you know what to do, the battle is maybe just a tiny notch too hard. Having the boss take just a couple less hits to die, or you taking one more hit, could remove a lot of the intense punishment for minor mistakes. The problem is, the boss isn’t difficult because of the statistics so much as he’s difficult because dodging his shit is really hard. The jumps are unpredictable and occasionally glitchy, and though the fireballs come out at regular intervals, they come from his position, which means they still manage to be hard to predict. Making the Frankenstein creature statistically weaker would just make it too easy for you to win a war of attrition by standing in place and whipping frantically.

Also pictured: screen flicker

The next boss battle, Death, is the same way, but on that stage it actually does give you some good training. He spawns scythes around you which then move toward you at random intervals, while he also floats around the screen with a gigantic hitbox. In both cases the respawn point is back far enough that you can get a subweapon that does help—in the first battle, the knife, which makes it so you have to worry less about your own positioning while getting hits off on the boss, and in the second battle, the cross, which lets you cover more of the screen in attacks to try to take out the scythes—but even with them, it takes a relatively skilled player quite awhile to overcome those obstacles. The problem is, the battles aren’t hard because the enemies are tough as much as the battles are hard because the game’s physics are awful. This prevents me from ever really feeling fulfilled when I do manage to beat them. It’s always an intense experience, but I don’t really feel like I won a personal victory so much as I happened to be slightly less screwed over for once.

The problems are even more apparent when you figure out how to cheese the bosses, since you can kill every boss in the game but one remarkably easily by using the Holy Water—in most cases, you won’t even take hits while doing so! Once you realize this, the game becomes more about figuring out where to get the holy water and bringing it to the boss, at least until you’re actually good enough to try going toe to toe with the bosses. Ultimately, all of these problems just stem from the game coming out in 1986, and from being the first game in the series. Later bosses don’t feel cheap, even though your whip still takes time to fire up. There’s a lot of reasons for this, and we’ll get to all of those in the relevant reviews.

Of course, only half of the bosses have these problems, and that’s even only really a problem assuming the only way to enjoy the game is to beat the entire thing. Playing the game on its own is fun, whether or not you get the reward of beating it, and though half of the bosses are irregularly hard compared to the levels, the first three are fine. Additionally, the level design itself is amazing. It’s very clever, without having to trick the player. Things are positioned in areas where they’re easier to kill with certain subweapons, or take just a bit of forethought in the approach. The only problem with that is it means the level design kind of encourages memorization or multiple plays to get good at, but since it isn’t strictly required, that element doesn’t work against it. Granted, playing the game without knowing where the health and weapons are hidden can be a bit too tough, but as I’m going to talk about in the next review, this game came out in a time where blatant secrets were included in games to encourage people to share those secrets with their friends. Additionally, it isn’t difficult in the same way that the cruel level design of The Lost Levels is, with its hidden blocks that trick you to fall into pits. You won’t die just because you didn’t know where the health-refilling meat was—you die because you got hit too much, AND didn’t know where the meat was. And that’s fine, really, since knowing where the health is is roughly equivalent to getting extra lives in Mario. It doesn’t really make you better at the game so much as it helps you get through more of it, which in turn lets you learn more. Castlevania is undeniably a learning game, but it’s unfortunate that a part of that learning curve is figuring out how to cheese every boss with holy water, because they’re mostly just difficult because of the physics. Since the bosses don’t really feel like they were designed for the physics we have, the easiest way to deal with them is to cut out as much of the physics as possible, like never jumping during the Death fight. It only took them two or three more games (depending on how you slice it) to patch up the jump, and the series really benefited from it.

In any case, Castlevania is definitely a blast to play. Just give it a try! It’s available on the Wii’s virtual console, or pretty much any retro game store if you’re fortunate enough to have a working NES. It’s a game that most anyone who calls themselves a gamer should play, and the designers certainly knew what they were doing. Also, when you finally do beat it, be sure to read the credits. I definitely don’t think it’s the best game in the series, even for the level-based ones, but for starting so much and being so dang good even despite its problems, it’s totally an 8 out of 10. I recommend it to everyone who likes killing vampires, even though there’s only the one in this game and it’ll take you ages to kill him.

Unless the bats are also vampires… I guess they could be.

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