There are certain games from my childhood that still haunt my nightmares.
Not because they were scary, mind you. Because of their brutality. As a small child, being faced with an insurmountable challenge that your tiny mind and smaller hands are incapable of overcoming can be scarring. Like being beaten over the head with a stick over and over again. From there after, you’ll always flinch, even if just a little, when faced with a similar beating stick.
Castlevania was one of those games. I first played it on one of those NES Classic games they put on the GBA. I’d pop that sucker in, lay down on the couch, and try to beat it. Surprise! I couldn’t. Not even after years of effort. So, eventually, I gave up and moved on with my life.
Except here’s the thing: I’m a spiteful bastard. I hold petty grudges for a long time. So, for years, I planned my revenge. I plotted my vengeance against Castlevania.
Which was a bit silly, in retrospect. All I had to do was play the game.
The plot is about what you’d expect from an NES game: simple and almost non-existent. You play as Simon Belmont, monster hunting legend. Your goal is simple: climb to the top of Dracula’s castle and murder the ancient vampire. It’s your typical ‘go kill the bag guy’ plot of an early video game. The kind that you don’t think about at all before, during, or after playing the game.
Now, before we talk about how bullshit this game is, let’s talk about the graphics. Hot take incoming: this is the best looking NES game. Fuck, it still looks good to this day! I you asked me what the best looking 8-Bit game is, I’d answer Castlevania with only a moment’s thought.
Just a moment. Shovel Knight makes a strong argument.
This game has an incredible amount of detail for an NES game. Each environment is beautifully crafted (except the clock tower, which sucks ass), with detailed sprites. The colors all work together perfectly, making every single level visually distinct and clear to read. You never wonder what you can or cannot interact with.
And the music! Good god dude, Castlevania’s music is so good that it’s unfair to the competition! Every single tune is catchy as hell! Vampire Hunter, Wicked Child, Heart of Fire, and Poison Mind are my personal favorites. The track list is short, yes. But it is oh so very sweet!
Okay. Now I can talk about how fucking evil this game is.
The gameplay is simple. You can jump, swing a whip, and throw a secondary weapon. With those three tools, you must platform your way through several stages filled with all kinds of spooky monsters until you reach the boss. Rinse and repeat until you kill Dracula and the game ends.
It sounds simple, and it is. You only need to worry about two buttons and the d-pad. But if it were as easy as it is simple, than this game wouldn’t have the reputation that it has.
Enemies in this game don’t play around. Each one has their own unique trait that will inevitably piss you off. Zombies are weak but they spawn in large numbers. Medusa heads are weak but they fly across the screen in an annoying pattern. Knights are burly and deal lots of damage. Hunch backs are the worst thing ever put in a video game, being small and quick and hard to hit. The list is huge and the reasons for fury just as long.
Now, this wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. Frustrating enemies are in basically every video game ever made. And once you learn how to deal with each one, they’re plenty manageable. Even if the sheer number of them is practically impossible to avoid completely. Still, it isn’t the worst thing ever.
The knock-back is.
Every time Simon takes a hit, he flies backwards. And if there are pits in the level, and there are always pits, you’ll fall in. You fall in and you immediately die. Die and you restart the screen. Lose all your lives and you get to do the whole game all over again.
This one feature turns Castlevania from a challenging action platformer to one of the most difficult and frustrating video games ever made. A single mistake is enough to get you killed. Skill can help you along, but a quick bout of bad luck is more than enough to end you. If you aren’t playing at the absolute peak of your abilities for the entire game, you won’t be able to beat it.
Or you could just cheat. Which I personally wouldn’t judge you for. At least not much.
The boss fights are equally brutal. They’re all fairly simple and fun, but they’ll whoop your ass if you aren’t careful. Death is a motherfucker, Frankenstein and his hunchback buddy make me want to die in real life, and Dracula is a bastard and a half. There are plenty of exploits that make them a cakewalk; it is an NES game, after all. But if you play them fair-and-square, you’re in for a rough, but enjoyable, time.
The side weapons are also the best here. In the later games, most of them were completely worthless; get the cross and you beat the game. Here, all of them are good for different situations. The axe helped with enemies in the air, holy water the opposite, the cross is a good boomerang and does good damage (even if it makes the knife worthless), and the stopwatch freezes all the enemies in place for a moment. Each one has their different uses in different situations, making it worth swapping between them.
But why the hell are hearts your ammo? Why not gold or something? Do you have any idea how heartbreaking it is, to get a heart when you’re low on health and discovering that the heart doesn’t heal you?! NO I’M NOT STILL UPSET ABOUT THAT, WHY ARE YOU POINTING FINGERS AT ME?!?!
I have a love-hate relationship with Castlevania. It pisses me off to no end. But at the same time, I can pick it up and play it any time of the day. No matter how hard it beats me down, I’m always eager to come back for more. It’s a true NES masterpiece.
And then there’s Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse. Which is just fucking nonsense.