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Castlevania (NES) artwork

Castlevania (NES) review

"You know, when it comes to video games, today’s kids have it easy. Do you remember back when you didn’t have fancy memory cards and saving your progress usually was done by scribbling down lengthy passwords (if that option existed at all)? Or when designers compensated for a game's lack of size by making it frustratingly difficult? "

You know, when it comes to video games, today’s kids have it easy. Do you remember back when you didn’t have fancy memory cards and saving your progress usually was done by scribbling down lengthy passwords (if that option existed at all)? Or when designers compensated for a game's lack of size by making it frustratingly difficult?

Well, if you want to get reacquainted with such archaic notions, pay a visit to a magical place. Maybe it is a place you have been many times on many different systems, but this is the first time Konami made it available for prospective heroes. Pay a visit to the wonderful world of Castlevania.

New-age gamers will soon find out that this game bears very little resemblance to the Castlevania quests of today, such as Symphony of the Night on the Playstation, the three similar efforts on the Game Boy Advance or Lament of Innocence on the PS2. The exploration-minded gameplay? Not present. The multitude of weapons and items? Strike two. A huge variety of diverse and colorful locations and enemies? Get real — this is an old NES game we’re talking about.

But this game should not be so quickly dismissed. While it definitely is not a thing of beauty and words such as “intricate” or “vast” probably won’t be used to describe the six levels this game has, there is one thing Castlevania has that a number of the new versions don’t — CHALLENGE!!!

Take Symphony of the Night for example. Sure, it was pretty, but any somewhat skilled gamer could run through nearly everything that game had to offer with very little effort. And, if a monster actually displayed the gumption to put a hurting on your character, you could simply use one of the dozens of healing items you likely had stored in your vast inventory to revitalize your character.

The original Castlevania doesn’t play by those rules. If you come in expecting an easy go of it, you’ll be chewed up and spit out long before a possible encounter with either Dracula or his eternal sidekick, Death.

What this game gives you is a life meter divided into 16 parts. That number is a bit misleading, though, as it seems that all contact with enemies takes away more than one segment and as many as four, depending on what level you are currently struggling through. Healing items are a rarity, too. By breaking the correct blocks, you might find one or two per level, with each one restoring six life meter segments. Not much room for error, is there?

Still, it may take a decent amount of time before you start to sweat. The first level is a very simple introduction to the game with an extremely weak boss. While the second level has a few tricky parts, including the series’ first encounter with those cursed flying Medusa heads, it still is relatively non-challenging.

But then, business picks up. Maybe level three will be your downfall. After all, making jumps over bottomless pits can be a bit rough when those Medusa heads are constantly threatening to knock you off your ledge. The fourth level might prove to be the end of Simon Belmont’s quest. You try killing Frankenstein when some stupid midget keeps bouncing around shooting fireballs at you. It’s not easy.

If you’re still alive, good luck with the fifth level. Not only are the Axe Knights durable and deadly (especially when backed up by Medusa heads -- a consistent thorn in the side, as you've likely gathered), but Death is more than capable of slicing you to bits with his sickles. You survived all that? Well, don’t let your guard down on the final level. If you can run an intense gauntlet of giant bats, eagle and hunchbacks to get to Dracula, you’ll get the “pleasure” of one intensely difficult two-part battle with the evil vampire himself.

Oh, and lest I forget, if you get through the entire game, after the ending plays, you can do the whole thing again on an even higher level of difficulty.

As in most Castlevania games, your main ally will be whatever special weapon you have equipped. Use the stopwatch to freeze enemies, giving yourself a breather. The holy water will rip slow ground-based enemies to shreds. Daggers, axes and crosses all attack in different manners and with different degrees of effectiveness. Since Simon’s whip (even at maximum power) doesn’t have a great deal of range, these special weapons can be a lifesaver against tough opponents.

And you’ll need all the “lifesavers” you can possibly find in this game. You see, the difficulty in beating it doesn’t simply apply to the monsters and bottomless pits, but also to the play control (of course there had to be a dark side to the challenge...).

Oh, it’s not like the play control is horrible or anything — it’s just really limited. First, you have no ability to control Simon during jumps. If you jump from a stationary position, you’ll go straight up. If you make a running jump, you’ll go the full length of the jump with no opportunity to make corrections. Obviously, this means that if you jump a bit too early to clear a gap, you’ll suffer a quick death as you’ll have no opportunity to realize your error and abort the leap.

Simon’s attack also is very limited, as he essentially can only attack what is directly in front of him. Sure, the axe weapon arcs upward a bit and the holy water’s primary radius of attack is on the ground, but for the most part you’ll be helpless against foes coming at you from odd angles. In many areas, this is a good way to add on to the challenge, but it can get frustrating at times. Take Simon’s trek through the final level’s clock tower. You’ll be assaulted from all angles by quick-moving eagles and hunchbacks while leaping from ledge to ledge. A few moments in this part of the game can make Simon seem like a slow-moving, unwieldy statue of a man who is completely out of his element.

The cheapest fatalities are created by Simon’s exaggerated reaction to getting clipped by a monster, though. You will get the utter joy of watching your brave hero recoil back a couple of blocks, regardless of how feasible that action is. It is essentially a sure thing that the average player will get the “pleasure” of watching Simon leap to a ledge, get drilled by an enemy or projectile and go flying off the ledge to a horrible demise.

And let’s face it — that sort of thing really can sap the fun from a game. It’s one thing to fondly remember how the games of yesteryear actually had a tangible difficulty level and couldn’t be bullied through in a couple of sittings. It’s another thing to essentially say, “Okay, you’re going to control an unwieldy, slow character and any mistake you make is really going to cost you. If you’re lucky, you’ll only lose about one-fourth of your life meter, but odds are you’ll just die,” and try to pass that off as a high point in video gaming history. Maybe I don't speak for every gamer out there, but while I love a tough game, I don't have that same emotion for cheap games and this one has its share of cheap hits/deaths just waiting for you.

Castlevania is a pretty decent game, with okay graphics for its time and a very nice soundtrack, but it isn’t one of those enduring legends that is just as playable today as it was when it first came out. Even if you limited your search to merely the pure action-oriented Castlevania games (as opposed to the exploration-oriented), this patriarch of the series would fall far short of the standard set by Castlevania III and Super Castlevania IV — games that had much more going for them other than their degree of challenge. Play this Castlevania solely for the nostalgia — play III or Super IV for a truly fun old-school gaming experience.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (February 25, 2004)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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