It was in 1988 that yet another of the series' more obscure titles found its way into the hearts of few. Yes--Haunted Castle squeaked its way into the market and in doing so earned some of its own distinctions: It was the franchise's first stand-alone arcade representative, its second non-Castlevania title, and only the series' third entry. Haunted Castle, whose original Japanese title is Akumajou Dracula, came about as a direct result of Konami attempting to capitalize on the intuitive formulas of the identically named entries on both the Famicom Disk System and the MSX2, both of which found their way onto their respective platforms in 1986. Though, most of Haunted Castle's existence is shrouded in mystery and speculation: What tie does it have to the previous entries? Why does it share their name? Which staff members are responsible for it, and did they play any role in the creations of the FDS or MSX titles? Why did they choose to localize it as "Haunted Castle" when "Castlevania" was by then a known property and would have garnered for it more attention?
Those questions being ignored, Haunted Castle had one final distinction: It went virtually unnoticed while the FDS game enjoyed all of the success and recognition that came from being Akumajou Dracula. The arcade title of gamers' bane never clicked with the quarter-spending masses, nor did it fare much better when it found its way to western arcades. (I'll explain why soon enough.) Only years later did we find that Haunted Castle has no true place in the lineage; it exists only as a unique iteration of Simon Belmont's adventures. There is, however, a bit of a difference in its version of the story: Dracula has risen from the grave, and his very first instinct is to kidnap Simon's wife, Serena, for matters of revenge against the family. Now it's up to Simon Belmont to hunt down the Count and save his bride as well as the world.
Regardless of its status, Haunted Castle features classic Castlevania action: You take control of Simon Belmont and guide him through six stages of horror in order to reach the castle keep for the final battle with the treacherous Dracula. Simon starts the game with his Vampire Killer whip, but it cannot be powered up. To realize his potential, he'll have to destroy certain enemies to collect sub-weapons, which are similar in look yet showcase significant differences compared to the usual arsenal; he will find the familiar stopwatch and a more traditional boomerang, yes, but Haunted Castle has exclusive to it an engulfing torch, exploding bombs, and a new type of throwing cross. In order to power the sub-weapons, he'll have to collect big and small hearts, which can only be found by defeating enemies, since there are no candelabras.
There are no other magical items to be found. However, Simon can otherwise upgrade his arsenal by collecting two weapons to replace the whip: There's a medium-powered mace and then the more deadly sword. In order to attain these new weapons, Simon will have to destroy certain enemies that have been assigned the task of carrying them.
Haunted Castle, though afforded the advancements of arcade hardware, doesn't try to evolve the classic formula in any other way and therein reveals its deficiencies: Simon uses the whip and the sub-weapons by pushing the attack button and up plus attack respectively. This works fine. However, his awkward jumping ability will be tested when it comes to the game's platforming scenarios, because we're dealing with a game that wants you to die so that you'll have to spend more quarters. To compound this, the hit-detection is extremely poor--that is, you'll sometimes receive damage even when you didn't come close to making contact with an enemy or its attack. Attempting to jump over enemies is futile, because you'll take damage every time. Instead, to navigate around enemies and the perilous stage hazards, you'll have to in frustrating fashion negotiate the staircases that connect the platforms. And if you're somehow able to survive all of this lunacy, you'll encounter a meter-less boss that's sure to overwhelm you with the help of the minor enemies that will still be allowed to lurk.
Though flawed in execution, Haunted Castle's stage design, you'll find, is very much ahead of its time. The single-layer backgrounds all permeate a gothic tone, and while the artists went a little overboard with detail, each texture is impressive in its own way. The backgrounds' surrounding sprite-work is nicely colored and even surprisingly animated. You'll travel through the usual locations--the woods, underground caverns, the main halls, a clock tower, and the castle keep--but you'll encounter within them some interesting ideas: These include a wall that comes apart and flies toward you, piece by piece, while a thundering storm rages; harpies that pull you into a chaotic netherworld; an out-of-control speeding elevator; attacking furniture; crumbling bridges; and much more. You'll often be reminded of Super Castlevania IV, since Haunted Castle introduces some unique ideas that wouldn't show up again until the release of the SNES classic years later.
The characters are large in size, colorful and animated fairly well, this in spite of populating maybe two-three frames. As a result of their bouncy and awkward movements, they display a look that reminds one of a video game-based anime, but they're also apt to display these mean and nasty facial expressions that make their presence work effectively within the game world. I can't say the same for Simon, who doesn't look too hot with his oddly colored mane and goofy-looking outfit. Despite our hero's tragic appearance, it's surely a great-looking and fast-moving game, which signifies its high production values. The impressive-looking water effects, deep mist formations, and level of texture-detail show that they wanted the game to at least be a success in an artistic sense. I say this with much regret, because it seems useless to discuss these intricacies when they're very much a moot point. (I'm getting there.)
The stage, boss and stage-ending tunes are all well-orchestrated, however digital, and they're one of the true high points of a game that sadly failed to realize its potential. You'll be pleased to hear Bloody Tears ring through the main halls, and Heart of Fire, its brilliant castle keep theme, will pump you up for the final battle. The soundtrack is definitely fitting and memorable, and it gets better as you get deeper into the castle. For all of that effort, though, I don't know what went wrong with the sound effects. For instance: Some samples are unbecoming of the creatures making them, like the ravens whose squawks sound more like children gawking, the battle cries that sound like Ed McMahon interjections, and the bosses that scream like little girls when destroyed. When I'm plowing through enemies in frantic fashion, I'd prefer that it doesn't sound like a Three Stooges convention, thank you. Because of the digital output, these sounds are very scratchy, screeching and, at times, an assault on the senses--this is to be expected from a 1980s arcade game, yes, but they still could have mustered up some better sound effects to at least match the action.
The controls tend to be tight, like something you'd expect out of an early Game Boy title. Simon moves quickly and swings the whip and other weapons at high speeds, and the sub-weapons can be thrown without much of a problem, but he's slow to react when things get hectic, and "hectic" is pretty much 90% of the game. He jumps at long distances, but the leaps can't be controlled and sometimes come off as wild--I can't imagine this to be anything but intentional, as mentioned, because they want you to fall into pits. And it's back to the dark ages when we're dealing with stair-climbing: The controls conflict badly when distinguishing "up" from "left and right," which will leave Simon helplessly standing on a staircase while the enemies gobble away his energy; you'll often become stuck on a top stair because the game won't yet recognize that you've made it to solid ground. Since you can't use sub-weapons while climbing, this combined with the hideous hit-detection, you may wonder why you're even bothering.
So, as you may have deduced, it's safe to include Haunted Castle in the "Impossibly Hard" category. There's no point in even celebrating its strengths, because you'll most likely never see past the third stage. While you don't necessarily lose too much energy for taking hits, you'll never be able to fend off the multiple enemies that are constantly pouring in, and you'll be dead soon enough. Its basic mechanics (mainly the unfavorable hit-detection) don't alleviate the problem (nor were they meant to) or help you in any way. How are you supposed to win when they make it so you can't possibly come close? And what's the point of putting so much effort into what is such an art-filled game if no one can make it far enough in to see your talent displayed? To get extra quarters at the expense of people who will hate the game enough to avoid it? I mean, what the hell were they thinking?
"It's an arcade game, right?" you ask. "You can just keep continuing, right?" Well, no--they made it so that you can only continue a handful of times, which means that if you're to finish Haunted Castle, you'll have to do it in one shot. This extreme level of challenge just totally detracts from what otherwise could have been a legendary arcade game, and the experience is just no fun whatsoever. Now, had they improved the hit-detection, thrown in unlimited continues, and calmed down with the Final Fight-like stream of enemies, we would have had a much better game on our hands. It was all there--the music, the graphics, the unique stage ideas, the new weapons--but they threw away the whole effort to instead produce another tired quarter-muncher in a market that was already flooded with them.
I look at this game more as something just to discover, and I would never recommend that you take it too seriously and contemplate trying to actually clear it. Can it be done? I guess--I know of people who claim that they can do it with the stopwatch, but these are just misguided souls who have spent years getting to that point. That should tell you all you need to know. If there's anything nice I can say about Haunted Castle, with its unique ideas, it's that the game at least helped a bit in spawning further one of the greatest video game series ever created.
So for that, I award Konami's effort with two Medusa Heads.