What is Castlevania?

"'What is Castlevania?' you ask, as if the phrase hasn't been repeated enough on this page alone! Well, it's not just what you see when you pop on your little Nintendos, Genesises or any of those other newfangled game-box thingys; as you'll find on this page, the Castlevania series has its origins in history, both real and fictional, and in cinematic lore, both in our horror movie classics and in Japanese anime. Just move on down a bit to begin learning about my favorite series and yours! (Note: Some images are credited at the bottom of the page.)"


If you've read my "About the Author" page, you know that the main elements of Castlevania that most appeal to me are the enemies. I've never felt it to be more than a guilty pleasure because, at its root, that's what the series is really all about. The tone of the games very much relies on the formula of good-versus-evil and their never-ending battle of wills, but the slanted view of the story always surrounds the real star--Dracula. That fact is sugarcoated here in America by the series' adoption of the title "Castlevania," but in Japan, they make no bones about it, naming the series in one of the following forms: "Dracula," "Dracula X" or "Akumajou Dracula." The heroes in this case always remain faceless--a recurring quirk of how the hero characters look in each game--more or less being cast in the role of the every-man, the representation of the common burden shared by all of mankind in their fight for righteousness. So, with this idea in mind, Konami already knew who their impending heroes were; they just needed the perfect foil.

Part 1: "Good Evening"

I was always taught that dark themes and dreary atmospheric stories (of war, mostly) were never popular within the Japanese culture. As such, games like Metroid, with its isolationist vision, never had much of a chance with their public. But while the overall dark tones of war and chaos were thus not welcome, individual evil, occult characters--always portrayed as being consumed and perhaps misunderstood--who were representative of this tone always made a splash. This is most prevalent in postwar society, starting with Nosferatu, a German film made in 1922 that brought the vampire Count Dracula to life on the silver screen. Nosferatu, of course, was nothing more than Bram Stoker's Dracula. (The names had been changed due to a lawsuit by Stoker that prevented the director, F.W. Murnau, from using his characters.) Noferatu was the embodiment of evil, and his story captivated middle-eastern audiences that chose to live vicariously through his being, to see the predicament of evil from his point of view, which confutes the mistruths we have been conditioned to believe.

Without question, the biggest example of this is the universally-known movie monster Godzilla. Godzilla has been the subject of countless films, and to us, those films are simply an exhibition of a giant monster's path of rage over Tokyo and its citizens. However, symbolically speaking, Godzilla was used in Japanese films to represent the consequences of nuclear war. It's that process of storytelling that made Godzilla and the aforementioned Nosferatu ten-times more interesting than any hero they could possibly encounter.

These symbolisms are lost on those of us in the US because of the way they're presented. What we had from 1920-1950 were some of most famous horror movies and characters of all time: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon--each lightweight cardboard cutouts of the more serious characters found in the novels written by Stoker, Mary Shelly and the like. We watch as Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price take up the roles of these vile and wicked creatures as they plunder and terrorize the countryside. To us, they are just "monsters"--"movie monsters," as they have become known.

One of the more famous of these monster movies was Dracula, filmed in 1931 with Lugosi playing the main role. The story begins as a man named Renfield, despite warning from the villagers, foolishly enters into the Carpathian Mountain region of Transylania--Castle Dracula to be exact. What we meet is a well-groomed man who gains an insatiable urge from a small paper cut Renfield had received earlier. Renfield learns the severity of this finding when Dracula enslaves him and uses him to decoy attention away from his own nocturnal bloodlettings. When a Dr. Van Helsing suspects a vampire at work, no one believes him. When Helsing's theory proves to be true, Dracula reveals himself and his intentions; the rest of the film becomes a battle of wills between Helsing and Count Dracula--and the center of that battle is a woman named Mina. Finally, in the end, Helsing puts a stake through Dracula's heart, saving Mina and, potentially, the world.

It sounds all well and good--but it's pretty boring at its root. There is no character to Dracula beyond just being a vampire. What are his real intentions? What is an eternity like for one so doomed? Does he have feelings and what are their limitations? We don't know because that's not how it's presented to us. But in most Asian and European cultures, each of these characters are case studies that go beyond superficiality of their appearances; each is a tale of a being who has been cast into an eternity of suffering, an impasse of existence that they cannot escape, and they therefore become a lightning rod for sympathy.

The Tokyo-based division of Konami knew this all too well. In that vein, they had a basic structure and deep characters to make up a cast--but they needed a story to make it all come together. Where would they find it?

Part 2: D, At Your Service

One of the more popular styles of film-making in Japan is anime, animated movies that utilize colorful, artistic presentations; the plots of these animes often contain deep-seeded meanings and powerful emotions--an ability to spare no expense in delivering to the audience an unforgettable tale. Perhaps none is more popular than Vampire Hunter D, a Japanese anime created in 1985. As I've visited many Castlevania sites over the last couple of years, I've seen this title made reference to again and again, but I never really considered its importance until I actually saw the Americanized version; its similarities were recognizable from the beginning. And even though the anime itself is based in the future--a polar opposite of the time-period placement of Castlevania--its inspiration cannot be denied.

Its story begins like most post-apocalyptic tales and becomes an entity all its own: Sometime in the year 1999, the planet Earth was destroyed by a nuclear war. Those who were not eradicated by the mass destruction were forced to live underground for many years. When they emerged to once again re-inhabit the decaying world that they once lived peacefully within, they found that the planet had become overrun by mutants and other twisted demons procreated by the chemical imbalance. As hundreds of years passed, and the population began to multiply, the race slowly degenerated to a primitive state. It's during this time that vampires emerged and, with no humans to dare oppose them, declared themselves the nobility.

The vampires ruled for thousands of years thereafter, and they reconstructed the planet into their own habitat--"The Capital," as they called it, a mechanical and automated system that allowed them to control the fabric of life. As history repeated itself, the humans rebelled against the vampire dictatorship and eventually drove most of them out of power--but the damage was done, as mechanically engineered monstrosities spawned from the system lived on to attack the people. It was for this reason that strong-willed humans were forced to come together and form the "Hunter Class" to combat these many terrors--and it was most strongly represented by its most powerful sector, the Vampire Hunters.

And this is where the relevant story begins.

One vampire in particular managed to remain in power despite hunter defiance--Count Magnus Lee, who, like all vampires, was a direct descendant of Count Vlad Tepes Dracula himself. As his lecherous campaign raged on, he remained a major threat to the human population. With, by his side, his daughter Lamicca and his werewolf retainer follower, Rei-Ginsei, a mutant bearing a spinning scythe who had the power to bend time, Count Lee was looking to expand his "family" by one, and that "one" was Doris Lang, the daughter of a slain Werewolf Hunter. Count Lee's motive was nothing more than bliss, as the boring routine that was ruling for thousands of years had made him crave the touch of a human woman, his one true pleasure. As for Rei-Ginsei: He wanted nothing more to raise his stock to become part of the family and thus become nobility; as you'd expect, it was a more personal a vendetta with Doris because of her father's rank.

Doris eventually met up with Lee when she trespassed on his domain, and the encounter left upon her a symbol of their meeting--a fresh pair of teethmarks that would threaten to eventually vampirize her. With nowhere else to turn for help, having rejected help from the mayor's crooked son, Dora hired a man called D, a member of the Vampire Hunters; this cloaked vagabond knew what his mission was: He had to protect Dora and kill Count Lee in order to reverse the curse placed upon her. (Dora, by the way, happened to be skilled with a vampire hunter whip.)

Simon's Quest anyone?
The familiar-looking landscape
From this point on, with the plot already revealed, the anime becomes more about character development: We follow D, a shrouded and mysterious soul who is very much skilled with a sword, as he journeys to and enters into Count Lee's castle of horrors and, during that trek, battles all sorts of mutants and demons (skeletons and slimes, in 'Vania terms); and as Rei-Ginsei becomes more and more of an instigating presence, we start to learn intimately about D himself through his reactions. Besides having a hand that can talk and think for itself, a parastic voice of self-preservation that often antagonizes him, we find that D is a "dhampir"--an offspring of a vampire and a human woman; he's a half-breed with human tendencies and vampire rage, and he's forced to painfully mask the vampire traits and suppress them within.
He also has a natural quick-healing factor that makes him infinitely more powerful than any ordinary human and perhaps more indestructible than any vampire. He has all vampire strengths and almost none of their weaknesses, but, despite his power, he's constantly at war with himself. As he tries to become intimate with Dora, he must continue to fight the vampire urge to sink his teeth into her flesh; ultimately, purposefully, he separates himself from emotion and pushes her to a distance. Later on, however, when entranced by a 3-headed snake woman, he's forced to call upon that vampire strength to defeat it, only in this most desperate situation, and it's here that we finally see his true and potentially self-destructive power.
"In the end, you'll always show your fangs," his hand says.
He fights the urge and pushes Dora away

What we also learn is that Count Lee is mighty powerful himself from his advanced age, as you'd expect a Count Dracula relative to be--"almost invincible," as D would later confide. Count Lee, as the king of the undead, is cold and callous, and he cares only about the preservation of his race. By default, the human race, which he sees as "fundamentally stupid," becomes the target of his aggression. But to rule over the world and destroy any human that opposes him is not only a necessity in his mind--he takes pleasure in killing them; he'd just as soon torture a human than take its life. From that strength comes his brashness and arrogance, an air of superiority and over-inflated self-importance that becomes of him. He therefore sees nothing wrong with craving a human woman, even though it's against his family's code of honor; the emotional opposition of his increasingly resistant daughter does little to change this. He also devastates Lamicca with the revelation that she, like D, was born out of a relationship with a human woman; she had always thought of herself as pure-blood and was not ready to accept this.


After Rei-Ginsei temporarily defeats D, leading to the capture of Dora, he's overcome by greed, unsatisfied with the Count's unwillingness to grant him nobility; when he threatens Lee with death using a candle essence made to paralyze and destroy vampires, Lee is just too powerful, and Rei is magically tossed around the room and sent crashing into the metal structures until his head explodes. When D and Lee finally meet up, the Count easily, in a similar method, has his way with the vampire hunter, and he laughs at how pathetic a challenger the brooding dhampir turns out to be--that is, until D unleashes his vampire side and hastily puts his blade right through Count Lee's heart, pinning him to the wall. Vainly, as he looks upon his favorite picture of Vlad Tepes, Lee refuses to believe that he could be defeated by what he now knows is not just an ordinary dhampir. And that's when he realizes the truth--that D is actually the son of his very own ancestor, Count Dracula. Despite his humble demeanor, we learn that D's vampire strengths are far beyond anything on this planet, and, as the Count's son, he is thus the noblest of the nobles.

Count Lee finds out D's true power
He realizes he messed with Dracula's son

Having rescued Dora and defeated all of the evil forces, D renounces his birthright as next in line to the Count's throne, opting to remain a Vampire Hunter. Lamicca understands, but since D would never harm anyone without provocation--even if they were a vampire--she decides to die honorably by falling along with the House of Lee. From a mountain cliff, they all watch as Count Lee's castle crumbles to the ground. D, painfully, subsequently mounts his mechanical horse and rides off into the sunset as Dora and friends wave good-bye. And this ends the first tale of what went on to become a franchise of Vampire Hunter D novels plus two animes--but this tale in particular reigns supreme among the others, and it remains the beacon for which most others followed.

This tale of inner-struggle and the equilibrium between good and evil served to act as more than just a storyline for Konami. It did three things:

(1) It gave them a blueprint to follow: Evil vampire ruler, watching over from his mountain-raised castle, decides to amuse himself by attacking the people ("...strong preying on the weak," as D put it). Hero character infiltrates the castle, fights past hordes of unexplainably evil creatures, fights and defeats the vampire menace, and watches from a mountain cliff as the castle crumbles to the ground.

(2) It inspired a setting. Even though the anime is future-based, the time-period model is decidedly medieval, with human nobility portrayed as leotard-wearing snobs, the outland depicted as endless woodland, and the towns featured as a classical presentation of granite and wood-bearing (as you may see in Simon's Quest). They could automatically relate it to an atmospheric time-period and place in our own history--Transylvania during the fifteenth century.

(3) It gave them ready-made character ideas that they could thrust into the script at any time. As you read about D's traits, the name "Alucard" should just scream out to you; they're practically one in the same: Both are portrayed as half-breeds who are the son of Count Dracula, inherently cursed with an internal struggle that sometimes outwardly feigns as a code of honor; they even share the same taste in weaponry when it comes to swords. And if you've seen the way Dora, the whip-wielding warrior, looks in the anime, you can envision Sonia Belmont. Finally, Rei-Ginsei is a direct prototype for what would later become Legacy of Darkness' Cornell (and Ortega to a lesser extent)--a werewolf retainer who wields an energy scythe.

So they now had a basic idea of what of their impending series could be about, with main players already in place. All they needed was to refine their characters and add a supporting cast into the mix.

Part 3: Needed: One Impaler

Akumajou Dracula (Vampire Killer incarnate) was a lot like a most of the games made during the mid-80's: As everything about the video game industry came with a risk factor, companies threw titles out there for the sole reason of testing the market. Akumajou Dracula, like Rock Man (or Mega Man here), exhibited this train of thought--it was supposed to be a one-time thing, a preliminary exercise compared to what the future might potentially hold. Because of this, Konami wasn't really in need of a solid story with characters to complement it. Instead, Akumajou Dracula was patterned after the classic monster movies, and it existed as an isolated event in which a whip-toting hero just decided to infiltrate the Count's castle and send him back to the grave; the undead selection were just plastic molds, the stereotypes that their monster-movie counterparts longed to be, for Count Dracula would just be presented as a pale-faced devil. Even the game's credits played off like a movie, with some of the genre's most popular actors credited as playing the "roles" of the game's enemies.

So Konami of Japan shipped Akumajou Dracula over to the U.S. and put it in the hands of Konami of America. For some reason, KOA decided not to market the game as "Demon Castle Dracula." Instead, to add their own American flavor to it, they took the essence of the game (a castle) and combined it with the place where the story was situated (Transylvania), and they came up with--tada!--Castlevania. When Castlevania and its Japanese counterpart sold well--and the video game industry as a whole thrived, sparked by the Famicom and the Nintendo Entertainment System--a sequel was only natural; even more sequels would surely have to follow. Now, every bit of real-life inspiration, along with Vampire Hunter D's strong universe of ideas, would have to come into play. To start, Dracula would have to become more than just "that evil guy at the end of the game." In a bold move, Konami combined Dracula the movie monster with Vlad Tepes Dracula--the real-life dictator whose characteristics Bram Stoker used in envisioning the fictional version for his story, Dracula--using Vlad's whole lifetime as the true past of the fictional's, this to create a layer of character depth; in essence, the Castlevania version of Count Dracula became a remorseful victim of circumstance, rising again and again for what he truly believed was the humans' wish. These changes happened slowly over a 16-title-plus series, evolving the Lord of Darkness to a point where he became a more and more interesting foe to overcome, if not only to see how he reacted to defeat.

Frankenstein, mummies, wolfmen and skeletons wouldn't be enough, though, to entail the rest of the undead fray. As luck would obliviously have it, Konami already had the answer. Two of Castlevania's characters really stood out as different: The Grim Reaper and Medusa, both of whom have origins that differ from their monster-movie counterparts. Both of these foes came in with instant notoriety and backstory due to their link to Greek and Roman mythology. The inclusion of such characters broke the monster-movie mold, adding a new dimension to the ever-growing Castlevania universe. What we've learned since then is that the Konami teams that make these games are very well informed and educated when it comes to past-European and Asian mythology, and they've been nothing but creative in using those gods, deities and titans to transpose and amalgamate into their own gaming universe. If you're truly attentive, you can even see series-related character inspirations from mythology-based novels such as The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno and The Iliad and from the film mentioned many times on this site, Clash of the Titans--Medusa and the Ferryman most prevalent here.

Konami utilizes this history so well that you'd be hard-pressed to find any unique boss creature from a Castlevania game that doesn't have some sort of mythological tie. They have truly become the George Lucas of their craft, as they can create a bevy of different creatures at their whim, each playing a small role in a much grander scheme.

Add it all up, and they were ready to roll. With Vampire Killer having already been remade into a hit, Castlevania, they were determined to make themselves a series. They had an early advantage in that their initial cast had history and a whole genre to their name--but Konami now had a story, an idea, a set of defined characters, and the perfect place in time, Transylvania.

Part 4: The Future, Conan?

As I stated earlier: The Castlevania games have always been about Dracula and his existence in that universe, with the heroes acting as sequence-connecting voids. It would be easy to characterize the struggle as good-versus-evil and move on, but that would be too easy; instead, we have anything but an equilibrium; it's evil that has to rise up and surpass its opposing force before any good can be necessitated. And Dracula is the epitome of that struggle, for fate has already dictated that his is the losing side, but that fate rests on the willingness of hero; they have to give up for him to win; he doesn't, because his eternal existence merits evil either way. That's not to say that the cast of hero characters are overtly pointless--they're just unrefined, wooden; to prove this, Konami doesn't even care about them enough to reveal anything about them, not their relationship to one another, their individual pasts or how they've evolved.

The event that ultimately repeats itself again and again is a castle crumbling to the ground whilst the hero looks on assuredly. Beforehand, Dracula will usually utter something about evil continuing to grow and crave an embodiment of evil. These events symbolically mimic the pendulum-swing in the balance of power, whereas the castle crumbling to ground represents all of evil losing hold and collapsing into a state of nothingness. And when that castle rises from the depths once again, evil will surely be "rising" with it.

For fifteen years, this has been what Castlevania games have been about. But what about the future of the series? The games have predominantly been platform adventures, even though four of the games have deviated enough to qualify as RPG/Adventures. And two of the games have entered into the realm of 3D, the peak of gaming, both in graphical appeal and potential. But what's next? It can't be the Belmonts versus Dracula forever, can it? Well, Konami is running out of space between 1400-2000 to stick these things in, and there aren't really any Earth-shattering ideas that can be implemented that such a series hasn't already exploited. They can always place a game somewhere in the future, but then it would lose its historical significance; it wouldn't retain its mystique from the unknown, its depiction of an age that we haven't lived in and will forever remain ignorant to in that regard; it would become an extension of times we've already seen, places to which we've already traveled, or ones we wouldn't care to acknowledge.

It can change, however. The names can change, and the set could, too, but one thing would always remain have to remain constant--Dracula. Who the hero is really isn't of concern, since their job is defined to a tee [one-dimensional]. Without the Prince of Darkness, though, it wouldn't be Castlevania; it wouldn't be about ultimate evil and its battle with inevitably. Quite simply, it would just be a game about a hero taking on "those bad guys" in an attempt to, oh, save the world. And that would be a shame.

Thank you for playing.

Bela Lugosi Images:
"Dracula" (1931) Images:
Vlad Tepes Dracula Image: