The Halloween season brings with it many rituals and traditions, but there is one above all others that I steadfastly keep. At least once during this spookiest of months, I sit down either by myself or with a friend and try my best to beat the original Castlevania video game in one sitting. Originally released in Japan in 1986 as Akumajou Dracula, the game found its way to American shores the following year under the name Castlevania. In the 33 years since the game’s release it’s spawned nearly 30 sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and remakes as well as numerous comics, and a successful Netflix animated show. A legacy like that would be impressive for any game, but the original Castlevania also has the distinction of being one of the best Halloween games ever made.
The plot of the game is straightforward. The year is 1691, and Dracula has risen from the grave. Simon Belmont, the scion of a family of vampire hunters armed with the very literally named magic whip Vampire Killer, must ascend through Dracula’s castle doing battle with the hordes of the undead before ultimately facing down the Count himself.
As the game opens, our hero strides towards blood-red gates. Towering ominously beyond is the imposing shadowy outline of Castle Dracula. A host of Vampire bats flutter in front of a cloud-obscured crescent moon as Simon makes his entrance From this simple cinematic on, the player is engrossed. While many other developers at the time were still struggling with basic graphical fidelity, Castlevania delivered a cohesive and clear visual aesthetic based in classic horror cinema. Castlevania on the NES borrows liberally from horror greats of the past to great effect. Cribbing from the set design of Universal and Hammer monster movies*, Castlevania excels at suggesting a larger world beyond the limits of the game’s hardware. Plush curtains molder on crumbling walls as you make your way through the first level. Ascending through the courtyard of the 3rd level, it’s hard not to imagine what lies beyond the linear path amongst the broken walls and statues in the background. Castlevania pushes the hardware of the Nintendo Entertainment System to its fullest to offer within its a world that is contained yet cohesive. Key to the game’s success in immersing the player its vibrant use of color. The game is awash in karo-syrup-blood reds, cobalt blues, electric oranges, and moody purples calling to mind the horror movies of Mario Bava. A fault of later remakes of this game is doing away with the eye-catching color palette. The result being levels that can’t help but feel washed-out and unmemorable in comparison with the original. While the series would go on to develop a distinctive anime-gothic aesthetic, this original outing is served best by its emulation of its b-movie forebears.
Great visual aesthetics alone do not make a legendary game, and thankfully, Castlevania is an exceptional and rewarding gameplay experience as well. You will die a lot in Castlevania. Jumps must be executed just so to land safely on a platform. A slight delay between pressing the attack button and Simon swinging his whip means each attack must be carefully considered so that you’re not swarmed by enemies. At the time of Castlevania‘s release, many games were still designed with arcades in mind, where the need to pump quarters into a machine to turn a profit demanded unfairly cruel challenges and roadblocks to the player’s success. Not so in Castlevania. Like any classic movie monster, there are clear rules to be learned in order to defeat the beast. Castlevania runs almost like clockwork. Items and enemies dependably appear in the same spots over and over. Castlevania, then, is about learning patterns. The game is about learning when to jump and swing your whip just as a skeleton leaps into its path or when being hit by a flying Medusa head can knock you upwards through a platform and save you a long and dangerous trek. It’s about learning where every last piece of health-restoring meat is hidden within the castle walls. Castlevania takes patience and persistence, and though it’s a single-player experience, it’s ideal for playing with a friend and working with them to develop strategies. Modern iterations and rereleases such as 2019’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection** also feature the ability to save the game at any point, making the experience much more fair and far less frustrating***. Good game design makes Castlevania the sort of challenge at which you want to throw yourself and one that provides a sense of satisfaction like no other when you best it.
In a lot of ways, the original Castlevania is like a well-loved and frequently watched horror movie. You know exactly when the Creature will pop up from behind a wall and you’re ready for it. The limits of the sets speak to a wider world beyond in which you can live for a little while. And, of course, like any classic horror movie, the real joy is then in sharing it with others. Simply put, Castlevania is the stuff Halloween traditions are made of.
*In the game’s closing credits, the roles of the monsters are credited to the likes of “Christopher Bee”, “Belo Lugosi” and the legendary “Boris Karloffice”
**Currently available on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Steam and Nintendo Switch for the budget friendly price of $19.99 for 8 games.
**the original Japanese version was released on floppy disk and allowed save files, US players limited to cartridge technology had to muddle through playing in one sitting