Everyone is aware of the original Castlevania games. Their difficulty and soundtracks are legendary. Though is it the same legend Castlevania is known for? I honestly don’t think so. Ask anyone even moderately well versed in games about genres and you will hear the phrase Metroidvaina.
“Metroidvania is a subgenre of action-adventure video games. The term is a portmanteau of the game series Metroid and Castlevania. Metroidvania games use game design and mechanics that are similar to games from these two series. Specifically, the term derives from the Castlevania title Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and many of the games in the franchise which come after it, which are generally considered to contain certain aspects of gameplay comparable to that of the Metroid series of games. As such, the term is used to invoke gameplay concepts and mechanics similar to that of these two series.”
This is not about those. Infact I loath that term because Symphony of the Night is a late series addition to the Castlevania franchise. It’s no lie the 15th title in that series. So I’m sorry, that’s not a “Castlevania” style game when it changes so much. That’s like saying a Mario style game is any game that plays like Mario Sunshine.
So let’s forget about that. Let’s forget about everything for a little bit and go back to the first time you booted up Castlevania. Your mind racing at the possibilities of a Dracula videogame, this is gonna be rad.
First thing first is a film reel style opening. Silly by today’s standards, but back then it made you stop and think that maybe this is going to be more than just go from left to right and save the day. Most games were that or like shooting things in space. Not Castlevania though. Most games just had some scrolling text at most during this time. Later games even on the NES did eventually get some cutscenes like Ninja Gaiden. Castlevania though, it was the full package. Didn’t hang around on the start screen long enough to catch the story? Didn’t read the instruction book?
I mean those were the go to ways to tell the player what was going on and why you should care about the events in the game. Most of us just didn’t bother to be honest. We just wanted to go kick some undead vampire butt and that is all we needed. So even way back then Konami was like “let’s give them more” they always used to push narrative and emersion just look at Metal Gear. So how do you set up a story without text or dialogue? The game itself.
This was all it took. You hit start and got treated to some awesome visuals of your man Belmont slowly approaching the gate. He turns to steady himself knowing only that he had to go fight the evils within. If you bothered to learn why I believe Dracula kidnapped his wife/girlfriend. So ofcourse Simon was going to go save her. Now maybe this wasn’t your first time going into Dracula’s den. This might not be how you were first exposed. Konami is aware of that and so every Castlevania had a start that set up the theme and tone perfectly.
Those little touches would snap you out of your mundane day to day life and get you ready to slay the undead. Without the pompous goal of saving the world. You were there for personal grounded reasons. Yes Dracula is a threat. The later post Symphony games show this rather well that he could be a global crisis of human extinction proportions. That’s always on your mind ofcourse, but the real issue at hand is personal. He took your wife. It’s your family tasked to slay him. It always focused around a Belmont and why they had to be the ones to take this creep down.
That is up until Symphony where it is the Belmont’s fault he is back in the first place, but then the plot just goes all.
Now I’m not saying those games are bad. I am saying those games are not Castlevania at it’s core. The older games told a story through pacing and stress. From the slow cinematic opening segments to the level design and enemy placements it told you the story.
It hit you with a map screen showing how far you have come and where you were heading. It built suspense as you could see the end in sight. Unlike Mario where you kept going until you finally found the princess having castle. You knew right where Dracula was and you felt focused.
The enemy placement might feel rough and random but it was anything but. They were deliberately placed to slow you down and make you take in the situation. Find some exploits and work arounds. Avoiding all damage is not an option here, making each hit count was the name of the game. Sometimes you could get launched over a pit bypassing a whole section. Other times you might take a hit just to get past a dangerous area quickly. You had to think hard about what you were doing lest you become a sad pile of bones in Dracula’s potty.
You go through his sewer a lot. It’s awful. I try to avoid it when at all possible. Which in later games it is.
Branching paths became the norm allowing for players to pick a difficulty level by just taking an easier path. The harder the path usually meant the greater the pay off or atleast a better ending. Nintendo Power was upfront about this in it’s walkthroughs.
And what’s this about it’s past you ask? Clearly the 3rd game is after the first two right?
A dang ol’ prequel right there three games in. Numerically in mind you. There are a lot of side stories and little bits and bobs about. Here is when I started to realize there was more going on. That each game stood on it’s own, yet told a larger narrative. Just like classic horror films. The beauty of classic Castlevania was the larger story subtly unfolded. You got lots of little “Ah-ha!” Moments when things just clicked, or you learned a tiny bit more about the Belmonts, the world, or even just that wacky vampire slappin’ whip. Like any good horror film the narrative gives the action structure.
You get the few bits needed to cross that threshold and the stages set the story. Every little detail helps you craft your own narrative.
Courtyards, hallways, jumping along broken parapets, dungeons, alchemical laboratories, sewage strewn waterways, climbing through the gears of a massive clocktower, and so many more vibrant stages that culminate in a boss fight befitting the theme. It doesn’t take much time before you start guessing as to who comes next. Filling in the gaps of narrative which ultimately would have just been lip service anyway. With so little to distract you and how focused you have to be to even survive you are sucked in. The story gets to you without words, just a bumpin’ soundtrack and the memories of past attempts or past games. It’s all it needed. Yeah there was some odd games in the before Symphony titles, but even then the games stood on their own. A legacy you get to be a part of. An adventure you earn the right to be proud of. A game that in an age of bleeps and blocks got into your mind and made you terrified.
Not always from the shocking imagery some bosses toss at you. No, real fear of pain. I can’t think of anything worse than being two hits from death and seeing that butt burgling bone dragon dancing above the door to progress. You know you are heading back a bit, god forbid a game over hits you. Hours can be lost. So you stop for the day as you have stuff to do. Thoughts of Dracula haunting your mind as you will be trekking all the way back from the gates to the spot if your previous grave. Each step making you flinch more and more as you anticipate the next hit. That’s real terror. Second guessing every choice, do you need the axe or the holy water, do you have enough health, or even are you calm enough to take down the boss.
The fights are hard but fair, you need to stay calm and trust your instincts. The games are incredibly beatable, but the amount of effort you have to put into it makes them stick with you. That is a Castlevania game. A game where when the dawn’s light finally vanquishes the beasts and brutes. You can give a sigh of relief as day will more than likely be coming soon to your own window to. The only thought in your mind is that you finally did it. You learned the layout, beat the bosses, and got all the way to Dracula on your own. Tonight you can rest but soon the curse will once again be cast. The difference is now you know he can be beaten. With enough preparation, dedication, and memorization you can pull it off. That to me is what I expect from a Castlevania game. A challenge purposely crafted to keep you guessing, to keep you focused, and to make you learn everyway you can fail. Though ultimately it has to be fun enough to make you want to keep at it. So in that regard all Castlevania games I’ve played have felt like a Castlevania game, but not all Metroidvaina games, not by a long shot. So let’s not forget that a game is more than just the sum of it’s mechanics. It is how it resonates with you and why you want to play the next one.
I’m back, no not Dracula, just this is a second part. I just couldn’t stop thinking about Castlevania. Like the enemy layouts are just.
I mean what other games can you think of where the bad guys placements stick with you more than the actual stage layout. I don’t honestly know the jump placements in Castlevania, but I sure as shit know where the enemy spawns are. Mega Man is more or less about the same difficulty, and yet I couldn’t tell you when the next Metool is coming. Every part of Castlevania 1 and 3 is just a masterpiece in game design. Nothing can put me in a shitty mood so fast yet be enjoyable the whole time. Even now it’s half past three in the morning and I am just thinking about those face humpers and eagles right after the second boss in the first game. I can see the whole stage in my mind. The music blaring in my think ears. Sadly even when fantasizing about that stage I’m still getting hit. Castlevania is so consistent and it’s so important to learn this and fast that I can’t even lie to myself about being better than I am at it. Welp, I probably should shuffle off since I already finished the hot take and revising hot takes goes against the point of an off the cuff section. So here have an example of Castlevania setting the mood with it’s music as well.