Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Castlevania Review

A Dark Beginning for the Immortal Franchise - Castlevania NES

By Ben “Blinge” Cataldo

If somebody were to name the most famous 2D platformer franchise, the most common responses would be Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog or maybe Megaman. Lurking just outside the window however is Castlevania, one of the oldest series still enjoying new releases today. The original Castlevania was released by Konami on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987.

In Castlevania you assume the role of Simon Belmont, a hero of the Belmont clan of vampire hunters. You have a simple mission; battle your way into Castle Dracula and kill its owner. Although he's Dracula in all but name as the manual simply refers to him as "The Count."

Castlevania was one of the first horror themed console games and achieves this end beautifully. While earlier NES games often looked more primitive than their later 8-bit counterparts, Castlevania remains visually impressive, showing variation in each stage despite the entire game taking place within the castle itself. The NES' colour palette is used tastefully, the backgrounds are detailed enough to avoid being repetitive and the foreground elements pop out enough to be distinct from the backdrop.

As Belmont progresses through the castle he encounters new themes in each stage. First, a zombie infested entrance, an ascent through crumbling stairs and hallways, a race across rooftop parapets, an underground cavern, a grim laboratory and finally the iconic clock tower that has since become a staple of the series. The whole game is replete with gothic imagery and these surroundings are suitably aged as to look like a still-living ruin: the castle itself seems undead.

Indeed the place is teeming with un-life, packed with monsters that aren't exclusively from the vampire mythos. Castle Dracula is described as a "doss house for every monster from every mythology ever" by notorious reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw.

Castlevania arrived on the NES amid a total saturation of 2D scrolling games, but what distinguishes Konami's flagship platformer was its slower pace. Belmont can’t jump on enemies to kill them, neither is he fast enough to avoid the castle denizens, even attempts to jump over enemies will likely cause him damage. Slamming into a crowd of enemies to try and force your way will often lead to death as well. The player is encouraged to take each new enemy or obstacle as its own challenge, whether by using the range of Belmont’s whip, or by experimenting with the various secondary weapons you can find in the castle. 

A great example of this is the throwing axe, which can be found shortly before the first boss – a large vampire bat. The bat usually stays above Belmont before swooping down to attack: while it’s possible to whip it during this dive attack, using the axe and its upwards arc is a more reliable tactic. This is an example of player training as the player should learn that using the different sub-weapons yields better results.

The slow pace contributes to player training again in stage 2 when you find a Bone Pillar waiting at the top of a staircase. This static enemy stands in place like a turret and repeatedly fires two projectiles at a slight interval, but Belmont can safely stand on a lower step beneath the fireball’s trajectory. An observant player should see the Pillar’s pattern of attack, and that it’s possible to hit it safely with the whip from slightly below. Carrying this knowledge into the rest of the game will make future Bone Pillars easier to deal with, as will using the environment to gain an advantage over enemies, thus a slower pace encourages intelligent play, and intelligent play is rewarded. Let it be known however that rushing through Castlevania is possible, as is only using the whip, though this requires a real mastery of the game.

Trial, error and slower gameplay is also the main source of difficulty in Castlevania. While a modern gamer may dismiss Belmont’s sluggish movement as old games having bad controls; slower movement and lack of agility is integral to the balance of the game, and the controls are precise enough to be suited for this purpose. It is usually a player’s rash actions that get them killed rather than Belmont’s speed.

Another source of difficulty is the much bemoaned knockback: upon being hit, Belmont will be stunned for a fraction of a second and stagger backwards. Sometimes this can be disastrous, you might be hit and knocked backwards into an instant death-pit, or bounced between several enemies, taking a lot of damage in the process. However there is a positive aspect to knockback: you’re invincible for the duration of the stun period and slightly longer, saving you from taking fatal levels of damage too quickly and in the second scenario mentioned above, it would be possible to jump to safety or launch a counterattack.

Standard practice for many games at this time was to give the player a limited number of lives and continues; once they’re gone it’s game over. Castlevania offered a concession here as you can continue infinitely from the beginning of the stage you’re on. Stages are made up of smaller sub-areas, dying resets you to the beginning of an area (with 0 ammunition) and continuing after a game-over takes you back to the first area of that stage. 

When considering Castlevania’s difficulty, this is a good system that rewards progress and encourages the player to continue without fear of losing that progress.

Overcoming frustration and learning how to deal with a difficult section to the point where you can beat it every time and progress further is an immensely rewarding experience, it’s what makes Castlevania such a good game and the essence of why we enjoy challenging experiences.

Castlevania’s atmosphere is a fusion of the 2D action game with gothic spookiness, so it can’t be called a pure horror game, despite drawing upon gothic imagery throughout. However, encouraging a new player to take things slowly provides ample time to build some measure of suspense. Music plays a huge part in creating the game’s atmosphere; the brief intro builds tension as Belmont approaches the castle gate, before giving way to the opening blast of Vampire Killer, the catchy and iconic level 1 song. The theme of the whole game is summed up here: a foreboding build up, then straight into the action. In keeping with the gothic atmosphere, the boss theme sounds like classical music through the NES soundchip, which works surprisingly well. That same boss melody is worked into the stage 5 music, Heart of Fire: the perfect example of the feel of a classic Castlevania game.  

The soundtrack does go for a full horror approach when Belmont finally reaches Dracula himself, the final ascent up a long staircase into the Count’s throne room with the music constantly cranking up the tension must have been mind-blowing for somebody playing it for the first time in 1987. The fact that many of these songs have been re-used and rearranged in later games in the series is a testament to the quality of their composition and their popularity among fans. 

The NES revolution brought something that console gaming hadn’t seen before; the ability to pick a theme and run with it, fashioning a coherent gaming experience from that theme. Castlevania does this with gothic horror, it does it with spooky imagery and sounds but doesn’t detract from the fun of a platformer/action game. The gameplay itself even feeds into that theme by encouraging the player to take their time and think about how they’ll tackle each challenge. Many design elements in modern games can be traced back to this pioneering time, or Castlevania itself. One could go as far as to suggest that this game was the Dark Souls of its time.

Come then ye children of the night, those vampires aren’t gonna slay themselves.  

This extended review by Ben “Blinge” Cataldo

Also the web review can be found here: 

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