Original Version: 悪魔城ドラキュラ, released in 1986 for the Nintendo Famicom Disk System and for the Nintendo Famicom
This is one of the classics right here. Castlevania takes all the staples of horror movies–vampires, bats, mummies, creaky old castles, etc.–and mashes them all together in one action-packed platformer.
The protagonist, Simon Belmont, is tasked with destroying Count Dracula. Castlevania tried to squeeze every bit out of the primitive Famicom hardware to produce an atmospheric, spooky, and robust adventure. They mostly succeeded, with the control issues being the weakest part of the game. For example, using staircases is finicky and can sometimes result in Simon taking damage if he walks up/down a staircase when you don’t want him to, or vice versa. Simon also jumps back every time you take a hit, which can lead to an instant death if you get hit next to a bottomless pit. Simon will just jump right down to his doom. Later levels become extremely difficult. Many game developers back then made short games and then greatly increased the difficulty to artificially extend the length because many gamers desired (and still desire) quantity over quality. Well, in any case, Castlevania was a good first iteration (and Castlevania 2 was a bad second iteration) for what the series would eventually become.
Here’s a video of me playing.
Castlevania is an odd duck, being at once a serious action platformer steeped in gothic imagery, and kitsch featuring an all-star cast of mummies, flying gorgon heads, zombies, Frankenstein’s monsters, and Dracula. Castlevania’s tone rests comfortably in the middle between gritty, serious action movie and goofy, campy B-movie. The environments are grim but brightly colored, owing to the Famicom’s limited palette. This almost seems like an homage to sets such as “The Addams Family,” which was painted pink because it showed up nicely in monochrome as a grim, morose grey.
Taking the lead is Simon Belmont, who has realistic proportions and physically accurate (if exaggerated) abilities. His primary weapon is a whip, and a secondary weapon can be acquired. Every secondary weapon is projectile, allowing you greater range and versatility in dealing with foes. Only one can be carried at a time, so you have to decide whether to pick up a weapon or pass it over. The whip can be used endlessly but secondaries use ammo, represented by heart icons. Most players refrain from using secondaries until they get to a boss. The game discourages this by rewarding secondary weapon enhancements if you kill a certain number of enemies with said secondary. You are going to need these because, as I said, the game’s difficulty is infuriating. Castlevania‘s difficulty is always fair, but it seldom feels so. When a medusa head swoops from above or below to knock you off a tiny platform into a bottomless pit for the hundredth time, you’ll start contemplating either suicide or homicide. When you die because Simon starts ascending a staircase against your wishes, you’ll weep quietly–a broken shell of a human.
The funny thing is that many readers are thinking to themselves, ‘Wow! That sounds great! I want to play Castlevania now!’
You can buy a physical copy of Castlevania here or an electronic copy for the 3DS. If you have a copy you can download a backup rom here and play it with Mesen.