Whipping your way through a horror movie is certainly no picnic!
To Beat: Reach the end credits
To Complete: Beat both loops
My Goal: Beat the game without continuing and see how far I can get in the second quest
What I Did: Beat the game with continues and made it halfway through the second quest
Played: 1/2/16 – 1/3/16
My Difficulty: 6/10
Castlevania is yet another classic game series that got its start on NES, though technically I should say it really made its debut on Famicom under the title Akumajou Dracula. It was released in Japan in 1986 on the Famicom Disk System and the game made it on a NES cartridge for US release in 1987. It is the 4th NES release from Konami following Gradius, Rush ‘N Attack, and Track & Field.
I couldn’t really track down much history on the development of the game or the series, although some information can be gleaned based on a sort of companion release to Castlevania just a month after its Famicom debut. Bearing the same title Akumajou Dracula, a different take on this game was released on the MSX2 computer in Japan and it was also released in Europe renamed as Vampire Killer. Castlevania is a very linear game and Vampire Killer took a more open-ended approach. In Vampire Killer, the player must find keys to progress to the later levels which I believe are hidden in alternate paths in the levels. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest refined upon the open-ended concept that Vampire Killer started. The series as a whole after that had more or less two separate phases. Beginning with Castlevania III, the games were mostly linear stage-based affairs, and then Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in 1997 for Playstation firmly pointed the series into the open-ended platformer style again. It’s really interesting that the series started off not really knowing which way to go before ultimately going both ways over a long period of time.
Castlevania on NES is a stage-based platformer game. You play Simon Belmont traveling through the different areas of Dracula’s Castle as he fights his way toward a battle with Count Dracula himself. He is armed with his trusty whip that can be upgraded twice along the way. He also acquires subweapons through item-bearing candles or as an occasional enemy drop. The subweapons available to Simon are the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Subweapons have limited ammo and this is represented by hearts that can be picked up along the way. Simon can only equip one subweapon at a time –- grabbing a second one causes him to lose the one held previously — and having the right subweapon in his inventory at the right time can really sway the difficulty of the game. The game has 18 levels in total and they are broken up nicely into six areas of three levels each. Each level serves as a checkpoint and each area ends with a boss encounter. Dying puts Simon at the start of the level, but if all lives are lost Simon can use a continue though he has to start back at the beginning of the area. Fortunately there are unlimited continues and it’s a good thing because this game is quite difficult. The game is not all that long so the difficulty is ramped up to make up for it. So typical of NES!
Similar to the Mega Man series, the Castlevania games have been a fixture of my NES collection for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate to have acquired most of the major NES game series very early on before NES collecting got crazy popular and expensive. Even though I have owned all three NES Castlevania titles for a long time, the first one is the one that I have played the most over the years. It’s been awhile since I have played it but I more or less remember the game well enough that I figured I could make it through without too much trouble.
Now having said that, Castlevania beat me up way more than I expected going in. I’m not sure if I have ever done this before, but I thought after a try or two I should be able to 1CC the game. In two different attempts I knew I had virtually no chance without a lot of extra practice. The first night I played I had to continue in Level 6, and I stalled out in Level 15 and decided to drop it and come back fresh later. I got as far as the Grim Reaper fight but I wasn’t able to get past it. It may be a little unfair, but a good strategy is to spam holy water right on top of where Grim Reaper first spawns so that he never has a chance to attack if you have enough holy water. Otherwise, the fight to me is the hardest in the game. For the life of me, I couldn’t get there with holy water. I would either lose it to another weapon drop or die before I could get to the boss. My best chance came with about 3/4 health and double crosses. In a straight fight, the crosses are very useful for taking out the sickles that float around the screen, but even then it is so hard to move consistently in a way to avoid everything while still damaging the boss. I believe I took out half his health bar on that shot and I never got particularly close in this session otherwise.
The next night of playing was when I was able to beat the game. I ran out of lives and had to continue in Level 9, but this time I got holy water all the way to the Grim Reaper and beat him with the stun lock strategy. It’s shameful, yes, but it’s not against the rules! It took me a few attempts to get to Dracula, and then I completely forgot the strategy for beating him once I got that far. I did end up figuring it out again and beat the game. Even that wasn’t without some fault as I failed to capture a proper picture of the ending screen. After the credits roll and you see the message “Thank You For Playing,” the game drops you off right back at the beginning pretty quickly with no way of stopping or delaying it. I figured this had to happen at some point, but in this case I snapped a picture of the victory stance at the end of the Dracula fight so that is proof enough to me that I did indeed beat the game. I messed that up too because I forgot my name tag in the picture. It’s been rough going for me lately! 🙂
Now not many people realize this, but Castlevania has a sort of a second quest or hard mode that amps up the difficulty even further. The only way to get to it is to beat the game and keep on playing afterwards. The level layouts are unchanged, but enemies do more damage and there are generally more enemies thrown at you. I noticed in the first area that the zombies appear more often, and there are sections of the game that spawn infinite medusa heads that do not appear in the same locations the first time through. Furthermore I don’t think anything special happens when the game is beaten the second time. I still think a complete run of the game would include beating both quests. I am sure I could have beaten it if I had enough time to play, but since I have never done it before I decided instead to see just how far I could make it. I played until midnight which on that night gave me about 40 minutes or so to play the hard mode. I got to Level 29, or about halfway through the 4th area before I stopped. I only got through Level 28 one time though. The enemy spawns were tweaked and I kept getting knocked into the water by a specific enemy and I only made it through that part once somehow.
So you may have already picked up on this, and I kind of alluded to it above, but this is the first game for my project where I failed to meet the goal I set for myself. I guess this is a good of a time as any to clarify my intentions on my project. Ultimately, my goal is to beat as many NES games as I can, so the “to beat” criteria at the top of each post is the absolute minimum to consider the game done. However, I want to get the most out of these games and so I will try to meet the “to complete” criteria where it makes sense. This is very much on a game-by-game basis, but this will generally include getting the proper ending or best ending, winning on the highest difficulty level, and playing every level and mode in the game as is reasonable. The real end though is to beat the game – the rest of it is icing on the cake.
For Castlevania, I decided that beating the game once is good enough. Hard mode has no apparent different ending and there is no way to reach it other than beating the game first, so I would have to start from scratch every time just to maybe make some progress if I am struggling. This is where I decided to draw the line for this game. If there was a hard mode code or a unique ending, I would have worked through it. I don’t intend to be lazy here, but I am working with a limited time budget and I have hundreds of games left to play, so I think this is a good way to go about things. Trimming just a little bit for the sake of overall forward progress is something I will value here and in the life of this blog.
Update 5/27/16: I had a discussion with NES master Tom Votava and he told me that Castlevania actually has three distinct difficulty loops instead of just two. He said most Konami games that let you restart upon completion loop three times before the difficulty stop increasing, and Castlevania is one of those games. It’s hard enough just beating it once, but three times through is something I could accomplish with enough practice.
Castlevania is a great game and worthy of its status as an NES classic. It has that “Nintendo hard” difficulty, great atmosphere, a nice assortment of weapons and enemies, great boss battles, and just the right amount of length. It’s a quality game particularly for an early title in the NES catalog. It’s not a perfect game, but it has a lot going for it and I’m glad I played through it again and at least started to play the game a little bit differently than I have ever done before.