Today is Review a Great Game Day, a wonderful tradition started by the fine folks at 1 More Castlewhere we take some time our of our busy schedules of complaining and kvetching about things we don't like and instead talk about great games for a change.
So, today, I want to talk about Castlevania for the NES. If you ask anyone familiar with the NES and its games which games they liked or which games they remembered, they'll probably say some Mario game, then maybe a Mega Man game, Ninja Gaiden, and so on. Eventually, though, they'll probably mention one of the Castlevania games.
The story of Castlevania is pretty simplistic (and largely inconsequential to enjoying the game): Dracula has been revived (again) and it's up to you, as Simon Belmont, to use your amazing athletic prowess (and enchanted whip) to kill Dracula again (temporarily, of course).
Let's take a quick look at a clip of the gameplay.
One of the first things you notice is that the game looks kind of like a cartoon. The stage is bright and colorful, but still looks like it's a decaying castle. Brightly-colored moss hangs from brightly-colored walls, brightly-colored cobwebs hang from brightly-colored-yet-still-dank-somehow dungeons. Monsters look like they have come right out of a low-grade generic horror movie. It's almost like it is ticking off the boxes to make a game that pays homage to as many horror tropes as it can. Bats? Check. Reanimated Skeletons? Check. Mummies? You better believe that's a check.
You might also notice that Simon's athletic prowess is just about anything but phenomenal. He shuffles around the stages like he's an arthritic octogenarian wearing 75 pound lead shoes (which also probably is why he can't swim). He has no air control over his jumps (something even freaking Chip and Dale have mastered), so every time you press that jump button, you're committed. His whip takes ages to crack, and he can't move while he's doing it, so you better be absolutely sure that you're going to hit whatever that is sailing your way before it smacks you in the kisser.
Simon's controls reward precision and punish (sometimes severely) inaccuracy. This is all the more problematic since the enemies are far, far more mobile than Simon can ever hope to be. So, you need to be completely on top of your game. You have to not only watch what every moving thing on the screen that isn't you is doing, but you have to anticipate where they're all going and react accordingly. Make no mistake, the residents of Castlevania hate Simon (and you, by extension), and the game makes sure that you know it.
As tough as the game is to control, though, it never seems unfair. All of the challenges are surmountable, given enough practice. And the graphics, being easy on the eyes, along with the incredibly catchy chiptunes, makes practicing much less of a chore than it otherwise could be. Each time you play the game, you feel like you can get just a little bit further. You can get through maybe one more door. You can knock one more sliver of health off of that boss that gave you trouble last time. Simon doesn't actually get any stronger through the game (and, in fact, he gets weaker as the game progresses, since enemies sap more and more health as you move through the castle), but you're able to take on more and more difficult obstacles because you are getting stronger, in a sense. You are becoming better and more skillful, and are able to use Simon's abilities to their fullest, regardless of his limitations.
And, to me, that is one of the hallmarks of a great game. You get to vicariously go on an adventure of some kind, and you, the player, is actually the one to grow and to learn from the experience. You get to, via dedication and hard work, live the life of the hero, if only for an evening. And, for lots of evenings in the late 1980's, I not only guided Simon Belmont to be a great hero; I was that hero. That's why Castlevania will always be one of my greatest video game memories, and why it's still a great game today.