Castlevania [NES] – Review

You know, I still remember checking out Castlevania on the NES in the early-to-mid 2000s, marveling at the foundations of the series that spawned one of my favorite games at the time, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. This had to have been late in my middle school years, perhaps even my first year of high school. I had already been turned onto video games for a year or so, and not too long before I had scored an incredible haul from a garage sale that furthered my interests in retro gaming. It was a NES with, like, all the heavy hitters. I’m talking multiple Super Mario Bros. and Zelda games, Metroid, Contra, the Zapper, and of course, Castlevania. What stuck with me most about checking out Castlevania was its difficulty. I could only get so far – maybe the second boss – before burning out and throwing in the towel.

Fast forward to Halloween afternoon, 2021 and I STILL hadn’t played a thematically appropriate game for the month of October. As one does with scary stories, horror movies, and the like, there’s just something fitting about consuming them in October. At least here in North America, fall is starting to FEEL like fall. It’s getting darker earlier and colder, which makes it harder to enjoy physical activities outdoors, and on top of that, everything’s dying. Why not revel or find solace in a piece of entertainment that mirrors the increasingly dire situation that surrounds oneself? Well after days of seeing Philip Summers – aka “The Hand-Drawn Game Guides guy” – post about his Castlevania exploits on Twitter, I decided I’d do the same!

As a – what is it my wife calls me, a cheapskate? – I held off on purchasing Konami’s stellar Castlevania Anniversary Collection until I saw it on sale earlier this year. Let me tell you, this compilation is a BARGAIN at its normal price of $19.99, so it’s almost unconscionable to NOT buy it when it’s on sale for $4.99. Excluding fan favorite Rondo of Blood and a couple oddball titles, this release collects essentially the first decade of Castlevania; in other words, nearly every entry that falls into the classic side-scrolling action-platforming style the series adhered to until the late 1990s. What’s more, these ports were handled by M2, one of the retro gaming scene’s darling resurrectors of classic games. Rest assured that these are faithful renditions with multiple display options, quick save features, and alternate versions with their unique regional alterations. But enough about the collection writ large, I’m here to talk about Castlevania!

Flying enemies were pretty tough to kill or evade.

Recalling my recent playthrough, the first thing that comes to mind was Simon Belmont’s stilted jump. There was quite a lot of platforming to be done as I guided him through the game’s vast namesake, and it wasn’t a confidence-inducing jump. He dropped like a rock after reaching the apex, and it was a decidedly binary action; unless I was pressing forward when I initiated it, he would jump straight up and plummet back down, with no ability to nudge him to one side or the other midair. After failing what seemed to be some rookie jumps early on, I slowed things down and approached ledges one step at a time, inching my way right up to the edge before leaping to the other side from a standstill. I eventually improved enough to clear gaps while on the move, sometimes avoiding enemies simultaneously, and each gap successfully cleared felt like a minor victory.

So too, did each vanquished foe. Save for a few stationary enemies that fired projectiles, most every enemy was on an infinitely spawning loop, appearing constantly from just off-screen. They demonstrated a nimbleness that Simon lacked so evading them wasn’t often in the cards; I had to confront each and every one. At most they took a couple of hits from his whip, which required a split second wind-up before its satisfying crack returned them to the netherworld. To account for this brief delay and prevent faster foes from closing the gap, I learned to strike when they were just out of reach. Like jumping, it felt like a mechanical binary action, but a similarly pleasing one that I quickly grew accustomed to.

Old friends, just hanging out.

In addition to Simon’s whip, I came across a number of secondary weapons while casually destroying the hundreds of light fixtures in Dracula’s castle. These axes, daggers, and the like provided attacks with greater range or power than his stalwart whip. Their use required hearts however, which were dropped from the same light fixtures, and rarely, enemies. Initially I had the tendency to horde these like curatives in an RPG, but when I defeated the first boss and watched them transferred to points, thereby beginning the next stage with none, I realized it was better to use them. It sure made those boss fights easier, too!

Each third stage was capped off by a classic monster movie inspired boss, like a mummy, Frankestein, and of course Dracula. Furthering the homage were cheeky end credits, paying tribute to the “actors” who played these villains, such as Christopher Bee. Their health rivaled my own, and considering I’d often taken damage in the preceding stages, they had an immediate advantage. Lacking familiarity with their movement and attack patterns also put me at a disadvantage. So after a couple of deaths, I’d learn their patterns well enough to know when to attack and if applicable, hammer on my secondary weapon, and hoped I’d picked a good one!

Simon’s cross to bear.

Seeing as it froze enemies for a few seconds, I relied heavily on the pocket watch while journeying about the castle. It was especially helpful against the Medusa Heads, which flew at me in simple to avoid sine waves. They were admittedly easy to avoid when I was on a flat surface, but when I had to jump across platforms, forget it, I was toast. While the pocket watch helped me get through stages with ease, it was worthless against bosses. Generally, after catching on to the patterns of a boss, I could squeak by with only the whip and about, twenty attempts (thank you quick save!). When I went up against Death, the penultimate boss with the pocket watch though, there was no way I was going to win. He floated around, spawned numerous floating sickles, and simply took a lot of hits – too many for me to win with just the whip.

Instead of fruitlessly continuing to load my quick save right before our encounter, I read up on what it’d take to beat him. The answer: holy water. And so I restarted his block of stages, obtained the holy water secondary weapon, and crucially, located the double and triple shot power ups. These allowed me to fire off my secondary weapons in quick succession. When I made it back to him, I spammed that holy water, took my lumps from his sickles, and won in just a few attempts. This experience represented the most difficult sequence, if only because it forced me to revaluate my play style. Dracula (and the trio of stages that led to him) were obviously harder, but three hours in at this point, I relied heavily on this compilation’s quick save, save scumming my way through the final gauntlet.

‘Til Death Do Us Part

Had I known of Castlevania’s unlimited continues all those years ago, I may have beaten it; then again, maybe not. Without this compilation’s quick save feature, I’d be returned to the beginning of a block of stages after losing all my lives to a boss. I’d probably be able to come back a little smarter, stronger, but eventually this likely would have worn me down. Simon wasn’t agile and he didn’t jump terribly well, nonetheless the platforming gameplay of the game felt good. I mean, unlike Mario who zips around with a spring in his step, here’s a stolid guy who acted like he just ate mushrooms of dubious origin. I couldn’t take any enemy or gap for granted, and as a result each one cleared felt like a minor victory. And when the ultimate victory came and credits rolled, now that felt like an accomplishment years in the making.

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