Review Date: February 28, 2021

Release Date: May 1, 1987

Platform: NES

Publisher: Konami

Genre: Linear Platformer

Anecdotes: Here’s the first of the 1987 classics. Castlevania is of comparable difficulty to Ghosts ‘n Goblins, but in a very different way. That could be because the early game is easier or because Simon can take more hits than Arthur. I loved this game as kid, despite the fact that I never completed it. I never made it to Dracula and 95% of playthroughs didn’t make it past the Grim Reaper.

Description: All of the basic platformer tropes are in play here, but unlike other platformers, this one is completely linear. Simon goes through 18 stages, divided into 6 blocks of 3, in order. There are no warp zones, optional stages, or ways to backtrack. Simon needs to fight his way through the castle and its courtyard to get to Dracula. He will traverse each stage from door to door or door to boss. A boss awaits at the end of every third stage. The blocks are divided as follows:

  1. The Castle Halls. It’s mostly just whipping zombies and panthers. The only bottomless pits are in stage 2, so it’s an easy level to start. The boss is the Phantom Bat.
  2. The Red Tower. Here, there are a lot more pits to jump and a bigger variety of enemies. There are three instant death spike traps in a row in stage 6, yet they will never appear again. When Simon gets to the end, Medusa will be waiting.
  3. The Courtyard. Between the Fleamen, the Ravens, and the Pillars of Bones, Simon is going to be fighting his way across the bridge. Simon will then fight two Mummies.
  4. The Caverns. This is the only block with three very different stages. Stage 10 is an underground passageway full of Fishmen. Stage 11 is is a grassy area and features tons of Fleamen. Stage 12 is a dungeon-like area with two Bone Dragons and the bosses, Frankenstein and Igor.
  5. The Laboratory. Things will get a lot tougher here. Many enemies will be back for more, plus a bunch of Axe Men join the party. Simon will face the Grim Reaper in the last room, but not before a grueling hallway full of Axe Men and Medusa Heads.
  6. The Path to Dracula. Stage 16 is full of Phantom Bats. Simon fought one back in stage 3. Stage 17 is the traditional clock tower, full of nasty jumps while trying to avoid Fleamen. Stage 18 is where Dracula awaits. I have never been able to pass stage 17.

Positives: Castlevania just oozes atmosphere. From the second the cartridge is loaded, with the bat flying out from the back, to the opening that is set at night with the moon out, to the bridge across the courtyard to the giant laboratory, everything gives off the haunting feeling that it should. Background details are amazing is places, and take a look at stage 10:

Words aren’t needed to point out that this is a wet cave underground.

While the sound effects are good, the music is outstanding. I absolutely think “Heart of Fire” (stages 13-15) is the best tune in the game, but “Stalker” (stages 4, 5, 6, 11, and 12) and “Walking on the Edge” (stage 10) are great, too. The whole soundtrack is something special. When the tune that plays in stages 7-9 is the weakest of the game, and it’s still catchy and good, that’s a winner.

The checkpoints are fair (except maybe in 15) and the game does offer continues. The subweapons are nice, minus the stopwatch, and all have their uses. The Cross does some nice damage, but the Holy Water is a game changer. Never, ever let it go.

Negatives: The difficulty is high. In particular, there is a pre-boss hallway in stage 15, followed by the Grim Reaper (later called Death), that will have a player screaming at the TV. In the corridor, Simon has to fight two Axe Men and a steady stream of Medusa Heads. The heads fly in waves, but the axes go straight across and come back. Simon can only take three hits at that point without dying and there are no health refills before the boss. Good luck.

Damage is fixed by stage, so everything in a stage does the same damage. The only exceptions are falling down pits and the spike traps in stage 6, both of which are instant death.

Tread carefully.

If you lose a life, the game takes away your subweapon and downgrades your whip. This is especially frustrating when you get to the Grim Reaper with the Holy Water, lose to him, then have to restart stage 15 without any chance of finding it in the stage. None of those things, though, reduce my enjoyment of the game.

Trust me on this: never, EVER, grab the stopwatch. I made that mistake here and ran into trouble with the Phantom Bat.

More Screenshots:

One would think Dracula would put a lock on his gates.
Medusa seems to make lots of appearances in games…
I took out a raven, but it led to some screen flickering.
Time to drop in on the Fishmen.
Excuse me for a moment while I quickly dispose of these two (Frankenstein and Igor) with Holy Water.
That’s a rough map of the second half of the game, but it’s not really too accurate.
I felt bad having to whip this skeleton, but it doesn’t die. Hitting it just makes it hide for a few seconds.
Here’s what the Grim Reaper battle looks like if a player knows the Holy Water trick.
Here’s what the Grim Reaper battle looks like normally. Notice how Simon is almost dead.
It’s not easy trying to get around the Fleamen to reach the stairs at the bottom.

Grade: A


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