Before Dark Souls. Before Diablo. There was Castlevania.
The original Castlevania was an early gem for the NES. It was (and still is) a great action game that featured a medieval, gothic setting with classic horror monsters who were all united in their relentless and single-minded drive to kill you… over and over again. You played as Simon Belmont, a man with nothing to fight Dracula’s hordes with but strong muscles and a whip.
Yeah, a whip. You fought with a whip. How cool was that?
Gamers today may take fighting with a whip in Castlevania games for granted, but it was one of the biggest things that distinguished it from everything else on the market when it came out at the time. Indiana Jones movies were a pretty big deal in the '80s, so getting to fight horror monsters with a whip was considered pretty cool and badass. I think it still is.
While Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest veered away from the formula of the first game somewhat, and is considered the weakest game in the NES Castlevania trilogy, it was the third game that dug its claws into me and didn’t let go for many months. The following is an example why:
Castlevania III has fantastic music and is one of the best soundtracks on the NES. It was the first game I played where I found myself exploring the sound mode in the options just to listen to the music. In fact, it was the first game I owned that even had a sound mode. It featured some tracks that showcase some of the best music the series has to offer, and I was pleased when Konami continued that legacy a few years later with Super Castlevania IV--another Castlevania game with stellar music. Those two tracks above are from the first two levels of the game. There’s more where that came from.
And holy balls, this game was hard.
Not hard in an unfair way, but in a way that kept you coming back--a mark of a well-designed game. Castlevania III’s difficulty was firm, but fair. It may have sent me into fits of gamer rage--I may have yelled at the game and thrown my controller, vowing to never play it again, but I would come back anyway. I always came back because my gamer pride wouldn’t let the game defeat me and I knew I could prevail, so I soldiered on. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences as a gamer. I can say without hesitation that Castlevania III was the hardest game I've played and beaten on the NES. Conquering it felt like an achievement.
Part of the difficulty was the stiff controls all the old Castlevania games had--but that never felt like a major issue since the level design seemed structured around the controls. You didn’t feel like the game was asking you to do the impossible (usually)--you just had to know your limitations. Part of it also was that you had helper characters you could recruit to help you through tough spots. But most of all, Castlevania III is the first two games on steroids. Castlevania I and II were not easy games either, but Dracula’s Curse took it to the next level. I haven’t played every Castlevania game out there, but no modern Castlevania game I’ve played has had that tough as nails difficulty contrasted with that level of quality and polish that keeps you coming back in spite of yourself.
Oh and the music. Did I mention that?
I’ve been somewhat lukewarm on Castlevania as a series since it adopted the Metroid mold of gameplay and level design (Metroidvania). Maybe it’s nostalgia for the good old days, but I truly believe Castlevania was more vital as a series when it wasn’t constantly trying to live up to Super Metroid’s legacy. I would have liked to see the series go its own way and break new ground. Not that those games aren’t quality and worth playing, but they never felt fully like Metroid or Castlevania to me. Always somewhere in the mushy middle. Always good or passable, but never great. Maybe Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained can accomplish that, but he never showed a desire to veer from that style of gameplay when he was helming the Castlevania series. He was the one spearheading it from what I understand.
We’ve all had those games that we cut our teeth on at one time or another. One of those games that you love one minute and hate the next after falling just short of beating that level you’ve been struggling to conquer. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was definitely one of those game for me. I would get jitters in my stomach and sweaty palms on some of those levels, giving it everything I had, only to fall short once again.
But I just couldn’t stay away.
Oh and the music…..