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Saturday, September 13, 2014

NES Replay: Castlevania

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: May 1987
The NES was marketed to children out of necessity. We've discussed this before: By marketing the system to children, they could get into toy stores, which enabled Nintendo to bypass the taboo against video game systems that existed after the Crash of 1983.

Due to this fact, most NES games, at least on the surface, looked like colorful children's games. They had plumbers stepping on turtles, colorful characters floating with balloons, and goofy wrestling characters. Even the darker games, like Ghosts N' Goblins, had the main character running around in his underwear if he got hit.

Castlevania was different. It was cool. No goofy colors, no happy enemies with smiles on their faces, just you and a trusty whip against the whole of Dracula's castle.


In theory, you should feel overmatched when you play Castlevania. Simon Belmont is slow, his whip only extends in front of him a little bit, and he can only attack in a straight line in front of him. In a different game, this would be a huge detriment. However, Castlevania, is built around this mechanic, so it almost works to your advantage. You're not meant to use speed to evade attacks, but rather to be smart and patient.

For example, compare watching a speedrun of Super Mario Bros. to Castlevania. While a Super Mario Bros. speedfun is full of near-misses and flights of derring-do, a Castlevania speedrun looks completely different. It looks almost effortless, like every move made is completely obvious and pre-ordained. Of course you're supposed to stand there in order to avoid the Medusa head. Of course you're supposed to attack that skeleton at that exact moment. Of course you're supposed to use that weapon on the boss. It all makes sense.

In many ways, Castlevania feels like Konami's answer to Ghosts N' Goblins. They both involve characters moving through gritty levels and fighting demons on their way to a big evil guy. The difference is that while Ghosts N' Goblins was built for the arcade and unapologetically wore those influences on its sleeve, Castlevania was built from the ground up for home consoles. See, Castlevania is hard, but not as hard as Ghosts N' Goblins. If you're patient and smart, you can minimize damage taken.

It also feels more concrete than Ghosts N' Goblins. Dracula's castle feels like a real place. You move from room to room, opening doors to new chambers and climbing up long staircases on your way to kill Dracula. You won't run into random bottomless pits, for the most part. If it wouldn't be in a castle, you won't find it here, which was a really amazing way to approach level design.

Finally, Castlevania still looks sharp. For a game made 27 years ago, everything looks the way it should. It's by turns medieval and menacing, and should prove that great art design trumps great graphics every day.

Castlevania is frequently referred to as one of the NES' finest games, and it deserves that recognition. In the early arms race between Konami and Capcom, Konami had struck several times now. What would Capcom do?

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