The History of Castlevania
. Since its publication the book has gone on to become one of the most significant pieces of literature ever written and has inspired numerous movies, TV series and comic books, as well as establishing an entire horror genre. However, not in his wildest dreams could Stoker have anticipated that his seminal work would also provide the foundations for one of the most enduring videogame franchises of all time: Castlevania.
Although Konami’s classic series features Stoker’s legendary vampire antagonist and even goes as far as to tie itself in with the tumultuous events of his novel, the main focus is the seemingly unending duel between the forces of good and evil: namely the bold and courageous Belmont clan and malevolent Count Dracula himself. At the last count the series has spawned almost 30 different entries across a myriad of consoles, home computers, portable devices and mobile phones, and with the upcoming release of the Nintendo DS title Castlevania: Order Of Ecclesia and Wii fighting game Castlevania Judgment, we thought it was the perfect time to look back on the illustrious history of this classic gaming franchise.
Fangs For The Memories. As is the case with many classic Japanese videogame series, Castlevania’s genesis took place on the Nintendo Famicom (known as the Nintendo Entertainment System in the West). Released in September 1986 for the Famicom’s Japan-only ‘Disk System’, the first game Akumajo Dracula (which is one of the many Japanese titles for the series and roughly translates as ‘Demon Castle Dracula’), didn’t really do a great deal to set itself apart from the flood of similar platform action titles available on the 8-bit machine at the time. However, it did boast one vital ingredient that other, more kiddie friendly games lacked – atmosphere. From the foreboding visuals to the mean and moody soundtrack, Akumajo Dracula was as tense and spooky as any 8-bit videogame possibly could be. It was also incredibly challenging, with Simon Belmont – the game’s protagonist – famously unable to jump off the many staircases that were dotted throughout Dracula’s dusty abode.
Shortly after its Disk System debut, Akumajo Dracula was ported to the popular MSX2 home computer. Konami had a history of supporting this platform, with titles such as Metal Gear 2, Snatcher and Hyper Sports all appearing on it, so conversion wasn’t that much of a surprise at the time. However, it’s worth noting that the MSX2 version marks the European debut of the franchise (the MSX series of machines had quite a following in this region at the time), although it was published under the title Vampire Killer. In all honesty the MSX2 edition isn’t a port in the strictest sense; it actually featured new areas and was structured differently, with emphasis placed on exploration rather than out-and-out bloodletting.
Given the success of the Disk System version, Nintendo decided to release Akumajo Dracula in cartridge format in 1987. In the same year Akumajo Dracula made the leap from East to West and was retitled Castlevania, with a European release following in 1988. The timing of the Western publication was perfect – the NES was effortlessly dominating the American market and this meant that quality games were likely to find a massive (and highly lucrative) audience. Castlevania was no exception to this and sold impressively, quickly establishing itself as a NES classic.
Konami’s next move was an extremely brave one. At a time when most developers would slavishly stick to a blueprint once it had been proven successful (Capcom’s dangerously similar Mega Man NES titles are a good example of this), the developer decided to make the inevitable sequel quite different from its predecessor. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest continued the tale of the first game but adopted a very different structure. Instead of being strictly level-based, the player was expected to traverse Transylvania in search of Dracula’s scattered body parts – a task that will help lift the curse that Dracula had placed on Simon immediately after their bloody encounter in the previous outing.
Again, like the original game Simon’s Quest was released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System under the title Dracula II: Noroi No Fuuin (which translates as ‘The Accursed Seal’ in English), but a standard cartridge release followed in the West. Simon’s Quest was part-RPG, part-action platformer, with items to purchase, non-player characters to interact with and even an innovative real-time ‘day and night’ system, where enemies were stronger (not to mention more abundant) in darkness and weaker when in the sunlight. Although the game showcases some neat ideas, it hasn’t aged particularly well and the unusual gameplay comes across as clunky and poorly realised when set against its more illustrious forebears. Nevertheless, it remains a significant title in the lineage and pre-dates the semi-RPG overtones that would be adopted for the more recent entries.
Sensing that its vampire-killing franchise had legs, Konami decided that it would produce an arcade edition that would benefit from the considerable technical prowess that coin-munching machines boasted at the time. Sadly, while the resultant Haunted Castle certainly looks better than the 8-bit games that sired it, the gameplay is pretty dismal, with annoying enemies and bland action. As a result it remains something of a curiosity, but the connection with Castlevania was enough to ensure that it was granted a Japan-only budget release in 2006 on the PlayStation 2.
After this minor hiccup Konami turned its attention to Nintendo’s latest piece of hardware – the portable Game Boy. Released in 1989, Castlevania: The Adventure (known as Legend Of Dracula in its native homeland) was one of the first games for the fledgling portable and to be brutally frank, it shows. Graphically it’s rather basic and the gameplay is slow and plodding. Ironically, of the key staff behind this lacklustre instalment was none other than Masato Maegawa, who would later break away from Konami to form Treasure, the legendary creator of such classic titles as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga.
The series returned to its NES roots with the next chapter of the Belmont saga. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (Legend Of Demon Castle in Japan) took the core gameplay of the original game and essentially augmented it with additional characters, branching level progression and some seriously impressive presentation. Easily the best Castlevania release for the 8-bit Nintendo, the game remains a firm favourite even today and is generally regarded as one of the finest entries in the entire canon.
The 16-bit Era Dawns. With the release of the 16-bit SNES in 1991, Konami decided to revisit the original game and ‘reboot’ it using the fearsome technological capabilities of Nintendo’s new hardware. At the time it seemed foolish to not focus on creating a title that added to the rapidly expanding Castlevania storyline, but when the game finally appeared such petty criticisms were forgotten. Despite a rather slow opening level, Super Castlevania IV is arguably one of the finest SNES games in existence – quite a feat when you consider it was also one of the first to be published for the machine. Although Simon Belmont was once again the centre of attention of the tale, the level design was entirely different from that witnessed in the NES edition, with all-new enemies and stages that took advantage of the Super Nintendo’s innovative features. Who could forget the smoothly scaling Golem boss and the rotating cylinder room? As if all this graphical trickery wasn’t enough, the game also boasted a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack that literally blew away anything heard in rival SNES games at the time.
Elsewhere, Castlevania’s handheld adventures continued apace with the sublime Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, produced for the Game Boy in the same year as Super Castlevania IV. Here, Konami redeemed itself for the previous portable title with a game that surely ranks as one of the finest on the monochrome handheld. The music is of particular note, with the usually grating sound chip of the Game Boy being made to sing some seriously catchy and toe-tapping tunes.
Although the success of the Castlevania series was built on the NES, Konami was slowly but surely coming around to the idea of branching out to other platforms. With the first 16-bit Castlevania reaffirming Konami’s talent, the company’s next move was eagerly awaited. Thankfully it didn’t disappoint. Dracula X: Rondo Of Blood was released for NEC’s PC-Engine Super CD-ROM in 1993 and although it removed some of the embellishments that had been so well received in Super Castlevania IV (the lack of multi-directional whipping being the most notable), what it added was considerable; the branching level progression from Dracula’s Curse made a welcome return, only this time it offered much more in the way of replay value. The CD-ROM storage medium was used to grant the game a gorgeous anime-style introduction and the soundtrack remains a distinguished masterpiece. Amazingly, due to a petty disagreement between NEC’s US distribution arm TTi (Turbo Technologies, Inc) and Konami, the game was never released outside of Japan and only very recently made its Western debut as an unlockable bonus in the 2007 PSP remake Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.
Having taken the franchise to NEC’s hardware, Konami then turned its attention to Nintendo’s main rival Sega. Castlevania: The New Generation (known as Castlevania: Bloodlines in North America and Vampire Killer in Japan) proved that Konami was a talent to be reckoned with, no matter what hardware the company coded on. Not wanting to open up a can of worms here, but even the most ardent Sega fan would admit that the SNES generally played host to the more polished games of the 16-bit era. However, The New Generation was something of a revelation; not only did it sport tremendously detailed visuals, but it also featured sprite scaling and other effects that were typically not seen on the Mega Drive – here was a title that could truly give Super Castlevania IV a run for its money.
As the 16-bit era drew to a close, a semi-sequel to Dracula X: Rondo Of Blood was published for the SNES in 1995; sadly it’s something of a disappointment. Castlevania: Vampire’s Kiss (Castlevania: Dracula X if you’re American) ditched the branching levels and replaced them with strictly linear ones. Also, the stage design was changed almost beyond recognition, with several amendments coming across as particularly amateurish. Despite its relatively poor critical reception, Vampire’s Kiss has gone on to be something of a collector’s item, largely due to the low print run coming at the end of the SNES’s life span.
The IGA Years. It’s around this time that the enigmatic Koji ‘IGA’ Igarashi joins our tale. A long-time Konami employee, he would come to work on what is arguably the most important (not to mention popular) entry in the entire history of the Castlevania series – Symphony Of The Night – and would eventually become the producer of the entire series. Ironically for a game that has since passed into videogame legend, this 32-bit instalment was initially met with intense sceptism and even mild derision. When the first screens were published, many critics balked at the primitive 2D visuals and accused Konami of being too conservative to bring the series up to date in an era that was becoming rapidly obsessed with all things three-dimensional. What these early screens didn’t illustrate was the massive sea change that had occurred in terms of gameplay; no longer was the world of Castlevania restricted to linear or merely ‘branching’ levels. The structure of this new game echoed that of the oft-misunderstood Simon’s Quest, with the player being free to explore each nook and cranny of Dracula’s fortress at will, providing they possessed the necessary items and equipment.
Because SOTN borrowed many elements from Nintendo’s SNES hit Super Metroid, the game has, over time, been branded ‘Metroidvania’. However, SOTN also brought many other ideas to the table. The most striking was the fact that for once, a Belmont descendant was not the main character of the story. Dracula’s half-vamp, half-human son took centre stage and proved to be one of the most popular and enduring leads the series has ever seen. The game also introduced many RPG-style concepts, such as experience points, weapons, armour, spells and restorative items. Despite some rather puzzling reviews (the Official UK PlayStation Magazine was particularly harsh on the ‘outdated’ visuals and gameplay), SOTN swiftly established itself as a true classic of the 32-bit generation, being granted platinum status in the US and earning itself a ‘Best of’ re-release in Japan. It’s worth noting that the European release was nothing short of a disaster, with Konami struggling to shift the initial small shipment of PAL copies. As a result the game is now quite rare in this format and worth a fair few bob these days, especially if you have the limited edition artwork book and soundtrack CD. A Japan-only Saturn conversion was also produced but although it featured additional levels and another playable character, it was afflicted by crippling slowdown and lacked many of the clever visual flourishes of the PlayStation original.
It’s paradoxical that after releasing what is generally regarded as being the finest game in the series, Konami then proceeded to produce several distinctly underwhelming titles. Castlevania Legends on the Game Boy was the first title to be developed post-SOTN and even went as far as to include new poster boy Alucard as an end-oflevel opponent, but it was an insipid effort that contained none of the invention and brilliance of its 32-bit forebear. However, while this fairly incongruous release did little to dent the enthusiasm of the Castlevania fan base, the next game in the lineage would leave a lasting scar that for some fans has not healed even to this day.
3D Or Not 3D. Taking into consideration that many established videogame franchises were being dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of 3D during this period, it was obvious that the same would happen to Castlevania at some point. During the development of SOTN, a full-3D adventure was announced for Nintendo’s upcoming N64 console, with a few basic promotional movies showcasing the weirdly angular characters and the kind of action they’d be indulging in. However, the development time was a protracted one and when the game eventually limped out onto store shelves in 1999 it was a pareddown experience compared to what had been promised. Instead of offering four different characters, as was hinted in the trailer, it only contained two – Reinhardt Schneider (your typical Belmont-style whip-carrying hero) and Carrie Fernandez (a young girl with magical powers). However, a lack of playable protagonists was the least of Castlevania 64’s problems.
The transition from 2D to 3D hadn’t exactly been a smooth one and it was clear that Konami had experienced some difficulty in keeping the traditional gameplay intact. The combat was dull, the auto-aiming unpredictable and the visuals weak. To make matters even worse several sections of the game degenerated into tiresome platforming assault courses where the 3D camera steadfastly refused to track the action correctly and one wrong move would send you plummeting back to the start.
It was clear that Konami simply hadn’t had enough time to make the game as good as it possibly should have been, and this viewpoint was given credence when a semi-sequel quickly appeared in the same year under the title Castlevania: Legacy Of Darkness. Essentially the game that Castlevania 64 should have been all along, it reinserted the missing characters that had been so cruelly removed during the development of the first game and generally polished things up. Sadly, it still suffered from many of the same flaws that hampered its predecessor and was proof enough to some fans that Castlevania belonged in 2D; to force the vampire-hunting epic to adopt a 3D perspective was, in the eyes of many, pure sacrilege.
Thankfully, it seemed that Konami was thinking the same thing, at least for a while. The next entry was Castlevania: Circle Of The Moon – the first of three 2D ‘Metroidvania’ titles for Nintendo’s shiny new Game Boy Advance. Playing like a pared-down version of SOTN, this new game did much to restore faith in the series and was followed by two more GBA entries. Castlevania: Harmony Of Dissonance featured improved visuals but didn’t really better Circle Of The Moon in the gameplay stakes; that fell to the third game – Aria Of Sorrow – which was hailed as a masterpiece comparable to SOTN itself. It also marked the first time that the franchise entered the future – 2035 to be exact– although thankfully Dracula’s castle wasn’t populated by laser-gunwielding zombies in spacesuits.
After returning to glorious 2D form with the GBA releases, Konami again felt confident enough to dabble in 3D. Castlevania: Lament Of Innocence was released for the PS2 in 2003 and attempted to unify the gameplay of SOTN with the 3D combat of Capcom’s stylish Devil May Cry. The result wasn’t a total write-off by any means, and even the most hardened 3D cynic would have to admit that it was all quite enjoyable, but big mistakes were made in the construction of the game. The level design was featureless and repetitive, with many of the larger levels simply repeating textures and room designs. Mindful of the issues raised by fans over Lament Of Innocence, producer Igarashi set about crafting the next 3D adventure in the series. Castlevania: Curse Of Darkness again used a 3D viewpoint but this time Igarashi attempted to accommodate more of the gameplay elements made famous by the ‘Metroidvania’ titles. Although some pretty decent concepts were featured, the game felt as empty as its predecessor and Curse Of Darkness was yet another ultimately unsuccessful attempt to take vampire slaying into the third dimension.
Thankfully, the disappointment of the home console versions was negated by the uniformly excellent Nintendo DS releases. Dawn Of Sorrow was a direct sequel to the GBA release Aria Of Sorrow and once again sees the player stepping into the shoes of exchange student Soma Cruz. Portrait Of Ruin swiftly followed in 2006 and attempted to tie itself in with the events of the Mega Drive title Castlevania: The New Generation, with the lead character Jonathan Morris being the son of the aforementioned John Morris. Eric Lecarde, the second playable character in The New Generation, also makes a cameo appearance. The portable fun didn’t end there, though; in 2007 Konami finally answered the prayers of fans in the West by releasing a PSP remake of Dracula X: Rondo Of Blood. Featuring new 2.5D visuals and gorgeous artwork by Castlevania veteran Ayami Kojima, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles also contained the original game and SOTN as unlockable extras.
And that brings us neatly to the present. The next release is the third DS title, called Castlevania: Order Of Ecclesia. It’s something of a deviation from the norm, adopting a female lead character (who isn’t a Belmont, as far as we can ascertain at this stage), but ‘Metroidvania’ fans will be pleased to know it sticks to the tried and tested template laid down by SOTN. After that we can look forward to the dubious delights of the recently announced Castlevania Judgment – a 3D fighting game for the Wii. To say Judgment has divided opinion among fans is like saying that passing wind in the face of a complete stranger is bad manners; the general consensus at the moment seems to be that Konami is one can short of a six pack. However, stranger things have happened and if the developer can infuse the dangerously stagnant one-on-one fighting game genre with some of that time honoured Castlevania magic then this might just surprise us.
Whatever happens, the Castlevania series currently finds itself at an impasse. Although it continues to appear on the leading home console formats, fans will argue vehemently that the portable editions are the only Castlevania titles worth bothering with right now; by and large they stay true to the core principles of the series and keep the battle between good and evil rooted firmly in 2D. How long this can continue for is anyone’s guess and it’s likely that Igarashi and his team at Konami will put the disappointment of Curse Of Darkness behind them to explore the realm of 3D in the future; one can only hope that they finally get it right when they do.