Castlevania is the classic to which we give credit for having started it all as far as introducing the western world to Akumajou Dracula, a Famicom Disk System title from Japan that would become known to us as "Castlevania" through localization. Because there was and still remains an obliviousness to Vampire Killer (it, too, titled Akumajou Dracula in Japan), a platform-adventure for the MSX2 computer system that debuted concurrently or even up to a year earlier (as argument would have it) than the FDS title, we in the western hemisphere hail Castlevania as the forefather of this great series. Konami knew for sure that it had something special in Akumajou Dracula, and it wanted to share the game's world of ideas with a growing consumer base. Thus, Castlevania was born. And while it's true that the game's focus was in translation shifted away from the game's actual subject-matter--that being Dracula, for whom the series was actually named--in favor of shining the spotlight on the overall game-universe, it doesn't change that licensed to the NES console was an action-adventure game like no other.
Castlevania is a one-player game, and it entails six stages of horror, a multitude of magical items and weapons to collect and master, and many famous monster-movie and mythological adversaries to slay. Your only means of protection, as the manual states, are your whip and your wits. Mainly, Simon starts his adventure with the famed Vampire Killer, a leather whip of limited power and range. However, by collecting morning star symbols, he can upgrade its basic leather form and thus transform it into a stronger chain whip and then into the all-powerful morning star whip. To gain more of an edge over what is a considerable threat, Simon is able to wield the famous mystic sub-weapons (the axe, the dagger, holy water, the boomerang, and the stopwatch)--all of which come to be defined by their assigned quirks, which in this case are certain advantages and disadvantages that you must consider before picking them up.
Littered throughout the castle are many torches and candelabras (helpful souls explained to be the supernatural metamorphosis of Dracula's victims) that Simon can whip away to reveal the aforementioned weapons and a larger collection of magical items: Morning star symbols, of course, increase the whip's strength. Big and small hearts will bolster his ongoing heart-total (up to 99), a sum used to power the sub-weapons--that's one heart apiece for the axe, the dagger, the boomerang and holy water, and five hearts for the stopwatch. Invisibility potions render you temporarily invulnerable to enemies and their attacks. Crosses eliminate all on-screen enemies. Pot roasts replenish a portion of your energy meter. And any money bags or hidden treasures collected increase your point-total, a system used for score-keeping and ultimately the earning of more stock (an extra life for 20,000 points and another for every successive 50,000). Additionally, you can attain extra stock more conventionally by finding the rare 1-Up symbols.
In order to explore each of the six stages, Simon will have to call upon his whip-and-jump abilities and harness them within what are very-well-designed levels--straightforward yet loaded with memorable platforming scenarios. His fighting and platforming skills we be tested by the enemies, their placement, the castle's many traps, and the different types of moving platforms. Simon's most common method of travel is by staircase, those of which he'll use to climb up and around the many obstacles and hazards in negotiating a path to his destination. To survive the ensuing madness, Simon will have maintain his hardly abundant energy meter by fighting intelligently; he can help this cause by breaking through certain castle structures to find the hidden pot roasts that will replenish his lost health. Otherwise, he'll have to hurry in order to reach a stage's end before the timer, which varies in length depending on the stage, counts down to 0, at which point a life stock will be lost. All stages culminate with contests against guardians, progressively challenging bosses that utilize energy meters similar to Simon's.
Castlevania is also famous for its secrets. To heighten the adventure, Konami supplied the aforementioned mechanic of breaking through walls to find both hidden treasures and recovery items. But, also, they have the most fun with premise of what I like to call "posing for prizes." That is, hidden treasures, like chests and crowns, will be revealed if Simon stands, kneels or walks in certain ways on or against certain platforms. While not necessary to the completion of the adventure, this adds a small does of investigation and discovery, which goes a long way.
These are the elements of Castlevania that remain as such for all its future ports: As to not limit it to the NES, Konami licensed Castlevania to several computer systems such as the Commodore 64, the IBM PC and the Amiga Home Computer, and the game has since appeared on more modern platforms like cell phones. There are indiscernible differences between each what we can call for certain "watered-down remakes," and they all suffer from the same deficiencies (ugly graphics, poor controls, and general lunacy). Also, the NES classic has managed to reappear largely untouched via direct ports (save for some minor alterations like palette and resolution changes) such as those that surfaced in arcades in the early 90's as part of two separate Nintendo projects: The Player's Choice and Versus series. Any future versions of Castlevania, I'm sure, will embody these very same mechanics and hopefully meet the original's standard.
Castlevania delivers in setting a spooky atmosphere right from the start by using dark tones and backgrounds populated by ominous woods, bone bushels, spider webs, ruins, intimidating castle structures, unkempt brickwork, and other nifty albeit slightly ugly visuals. The graphic designers very expertly capture a certain atmosphere that makes you feel as though you're back in a more medieval time. The designers were very successful in creating a distinct look and feel, but you may conclude by gauging background and foreground textures that they went a bit overboard with color-work and design to compensate for the NES' memory and palette limitations, which resulted in (a) a lot of structures and walls decorated with green "things" splattered all over, (b) the always-popular unusable floating stairways, and (c) a lot of other incoherent work, like architecturally deficient statues and the cutoff gears of the clock tower. While we may look down upon these graphics now as "choppy" and overall disorienting, they were, at the time, some of the very best the NES had to offer and a sure sign of high production value; too, because this artistic approach is strangely intriguing and convenient in displaying an "old, neglected and tattered castle," one must admit that their efforts lend a huge amount of charm to the effort.
The package wouldn't be complete without a competently displayed hero and a formidable set of enemies, and that's exactly what Konami provides. While the character animations therein are clunky and, in Simon's case, awkward, present is the template that every future title would attempt to duplicate and upgrade. Simon is bland-looking yet unmistakably defined, and the appropriate, convincing cast of bone-throwing skeletons, bats, zombies, knights, hunchbacks and other ghoulish freaks do well their job to further enhance the game's personality and atmosphere. The selection of foes and the quick-fire encounters you'll have with them will be simply unforgettable and like the first encounter with Medusa Heads truly some of the more defining elements of "Castlevania." The suppressive bosses, while supplied only few frames of animation, are as equally convincing as they are horrifying, and they put a forcible stamp, a final aesthetic touch, on what is a strong presentation.
Theirs is a topnotch effort when it comes to creating the game's musical score, which has somewhat become a given when discussing Castlevania and Konami's other game franchises. They know how to capture you in the action with appropriate themes that do nothing but magnify the game's tremendous sense of atmosphere; it's all about matching the moody themes to the ghoulish locations, and this is where they do their best work. By the time you reach the game's fifth stage, the dungeon that houses the Grim Reaper, the urgent-yet-slow-paced tone of the music will instill a nervous calm yet underlie that business is about to pick up. As I suggest when discussing Castlevania's graphical presentation, its musical score, too, is again representative of the very best the NES has to offer.
To show its lasting quality, this is the soundtrack whose tunes act as a catalyst for its many sequels. People just expect (no--demand) that Konami pay homage to this original effort by repeating it and remixing it as often as possible. I can think of no better compliment than that. In contrast to Vampire Killer's, its tracks are more serious in tone but lacking in depth of instrument, but this helps to accommodate what is a more action-packed game and does so at a high level.
They've done a pretty good job with sound effects, too--it's just the usual collection of snaps, splats and crashes that you'd expect from the NES, yes, but Konami uses these sounds as well as can be expected (the thunderous burning of the holy water is a good example of this). Unlike most 8-bit heroes, and as a precursor to voice samples, Simon even comes equipped with his own personalized grunt for when damage is received, but I'd bet that it's a sound you'll probably grow to hate.
Almost perennially, the individual series titles have had control issues, mainly when we focus on stair-climbing: That is, if you try to descend down a flight of stairs that stands over a cliff without pushing down on the digital pad, you'll unwittingly plunge to your death. Conversely, if you try to use a sub-weapon while at the base of a stairway, you'll forgo throwing the weapon and instead climb the stairs and more likely fall prey to the enemy you were attempting to destroy; this leads to certain doom in areas like the dungeon, where stairways are always bunched up in enemy-heavy territory. And then there's always the dreaded control conflict: Simon has trouble activating sub-weapons while on stairs because "up" in this case is the overriding action for climbing; so when you push up plus attack to use a sub-weapon, Simon will more often than not remain idle on the middle of a staircase, open to repeated damage. While this doesn't heavily impair the gameplay, it's a shame that it took Konami at least four games before it decided to correct this flaw in some way.
There's another so-so problem, which is more a product of Konami's deliberately twisted enemy placement: Damage received from enemy contact or projectiles sends Simon hurtling, so when you're jumping from platform to platform, air-based enemies are always a threat to knock you into a bottomless pit; when Medusa Heads are flying about in pressure situations, it becomes a damn chore. This is a heavily repeated theme. Of course, enemies are always deviously placed in areas that require perfect jumps (a trick of which many may have grown tired while playing the Ninja Gaiden series, which is itself Castlevania-like). While it's nothing that a video game master hasn't learned to conquer by now, this may be a turnoff to those new to the series and to those who can't stand the trial-and-error mindset imbued by veteran companies like Konami and Capcom.
What is there to say about its challenge-level, really? All of the early series titles have the distinction that a majority of gamers may never be able to conquer them in a given lifetime--a design philosophy that is ever-present here. Castlevania is fair when it comes to supplying continues, true, but that may not matter when two of the bosses in particular, Frankenstein and the Grim Reaper, can be ridiculously difficult. There are some who can never truthfully say that they have defeated these respective bosses without using the holy water trick or excess boomerangs. And Dracula is just plain feared; the ability to alter his shape after an initial battle is a staple for every future meeting you'll have with the Count. Just when you think you have him defeated, his energy will fully replenish, and he'll transform into some giant monstrosity. "They're crazy," you'll think as your energy meter lay depleted from the initial battle. This is the very definition of "old-school" gaming, and it's not for the weak of heart. With that said, mastering this game can be done, but you'll almost always need a little luck, experienced or not.
Castlevania is a true classic that every series fan must own. It's the type of game the likes of which you'll never see again--a package that blends together a 2D atmosphere, an award-winning musical score, a legendary challenge, and a classic feel that will never be matched. There are some negatives, certainly, when it comes to the controls and some minor gameplay nuances, but this is in many ways the perfect prototype. It easily stands the test of time due to set precedents, and it's always fun to revisit Castlevania every couple years if not just to look at it and feel it.
However, I must advise everyone reading this that the same does not go for the frequent non-port remakes. If you want it summarized quickly: Drain out all of the fun, turn the challenge up 100% due to horrible play control and its fatal effect on the platforming, and hit yourself over the head with a dislodged turkey wing about one hundred times; you'll therein have captured the look and feel of the horror that awaits. The NES experience is by far the best.
I give Castlevania five Medusa Heads for what it is and what it represents.