Halloween is descending upon us like a fat corgi going down a staircase, and two Belmonts are coming to Smash, so there’s never going to be a better time to get into the Castlevania franchise. I never played a game in the series before, so I have been working to fill this hole in my collection, starting of course with the original on the Famicom Disk System. After about two hours of playing, I made it my mission to build a time machine so I can go back and slap past me in the face for waiting on this for so long. A ton of positive things overwhelmed me at once, like a fat corgi dressed in Danganronpa games noticing the bacon strapped to my face. When I wasn’t playing the game because of petty things like eating or socially interacting with people, I was coming up with complex strategies for it, excited to try them when I got the chance. I normally slump over when I’m done working for the day, and here I was trying to prop myself up and put my eyeballs back in place so I can maybe make it past those Axe Knights while only taking two hits. Castlevania has that effect on me, and reminds me of what I love about classic gaming: its complete contempt for my existence.
Castlevania is the heartwarming story of the whip wielding Simon Belmont. He’s good because you play as him, Dracula’s bad because he’s Dracula, go whip him to death. That’s about the gist of it, and that’s all you need. You can jump, whip, and use sub weapons at the cost of hearts. You can pick up handy whip upgrades to go from large shoe string to large chain to longer and large chain. It’s a very simple control scheme, but a very limited one. Because of a reasonable fear that you might see up his man skirt, you can’t control Simons direction in mid-air, and moving him feels like you’re trying to rub off the fat corgi poop onto Dracula’s carpet. Fortunately, the game is designed around these shortcomings. You’ll be asked to do a lot, but never anything you can’t handle with the controls provided. Every enemy you encounter will test your creativity in how you attack it. You can only smack your mighty whip forward, so depending on where the enemy is and how the stage is laid out, you have to attack appropriately. You do this for six blocks of three stages each, each block ending in a boss fight with one of several classic Halloween bad guys, like he stumbled into the filming of Mad Monster Party. That’s about it. Just you and a series of obstacles between that and Dracula.
The real story of Castlevania is the conversation it has with you, really. It’s no nonsense sort of conversation. It’ll say “Jump here. Dodge there. Wait 1.4 second before you jump up and attack,”. You try to breeze past what it’s trying to say, and it’ll pick you up and slam you back down to earth. It’s a loving teacher that doesn’t mind piling you with fat corgis because they know you can get them off your chest eventually. And if you can’t, then you are wasting their time. It’s nice to play something really well put together from an era like this. There are hundreds of bad games that toss fat corgis at you so relentlessly that don’t feel rewarding from the NES days, so there’s been an effort over time to limit difficulty to an option. Mega Man 11 is hard, but it doesn’t have to be with items and difficulty options; Classic collections add new beginner friendly versions of older titles; save states are practically a requirement for game re-releases these days etc. While I think these are inherently good ideas that tries not to alienate newer players, it sacrifices any reason to play the game on a harder difficulty, since you’ll get the full game either way. Castlevania is a responsible teacher. It doesn’t soften the blow because you’re having trouble, it lets you learn from your mistakes and encourages you to try again. A video game is supposed to test your skill, and if you fail a test, you don’t get to retake an easier version of it. I believe, no matter how bad you are at a game, you can overcome it with time. I played the fifth block of stages so many times that I have every note of Heart Of Fire engraved into my Amygdala with an Xacto knife. I wanted to break the screen. I screamed in frustration. I flipped the console off in a fit of rage, only to turn it back on seconds later. In the end though, I beat it, and I felt like I could part the sea.
Of course, you can pick at this game for a variety of reasons. Later Castlevania’s might have done things better, or the graphics may look dated, or the game has programming faults or it made me spill my ice cream once. But I don’t see any of that when I’m playing it, so I don’t believe I should point out the flaws for the sake of pointing out that the game isn’t perfect. We know no game is perfect (besides maybe Barney’s Hide And Seek). But Castlevania is exactly what you expect from a well crafted 8-Bit classic. An excellent score that matches the grandness of what you’re feeling from the gameplay. Well thought out stage design that expects you to meet its standards. A sense of satisfaction for every victory on par with any victory you have felt while playing a game. It is, in every way, what a video game should be. It’s not perfect and it’s not for everyone, but it is what it sets out to be. Every hardcore gamer should try this game out. I’m certainly glad I did instead of writing another joke at the expense of fat corgis.
HautDeForme is a collector, a self proclaimed historian, and most of all, a player of video games. When he’s not writing about that, you can find him writing music for no particular reason and advocating for the localization of Mother 3, whether people listen or not.