Monday, November 7, 2011


My introduction to Simon Belmont came via the (notoriously bad) Saturday morning cartoon, "Captain N the Game Master." As you can see below, this provides quite a confusing image.
It was my assumption, then, that the Castlevania video games centered on a man's quest to become the ultimate metrosexual. That misunderstanding was eventually shattered when I played Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (which I nostalgically hold to be the best of the series), but somehow I never got around to playing its progenitor.

Developed by Konami and released on NES in 1987, Castlevania is a dark, surprisingly atmospheric game, following Simon Belmont as he journeys through Castle Dracula to defeat the Vampire Lord and break the curse on his family. The gameplay here is nothing unexpected: it's a classic 8-bit side-scroller in the mold of Super Mario. What sets Castlevania apart are the gloomy palettes, the macabre imagery and the wonderfully downbeat soundtrack. Like Mega Man and Contra before it, I was rather excited to best this game on my quest to become


First of all, let me say the opening animation to Castlevania, with Simon looking to the looming castle before walking through the gates, is pee-your-pants bad-ass. It's amazing a pixelated image can create such foreboding and suspense. With a deep breath, Simon (and I) enter the gates of vampire hell and...

YAWN. The first level of Castlevania (composed of stages 1, 2 and 3) is easy to the point of boredom. Simon is powered-up on the first screen, and the baddies are easy to beat and/or avoid. Most difficult are the bounding dogs and the swooping bats; a simple jump dodges and one strike will whip it--whip it good (sorry).
Level 1 Bat!
He was running me amok.

I suppose Stages 1-3 are meant to acclimate a player to the physics and timing of Castlevania, but I couldn't help be bored. The opening boss is (surprise!) a large bat, who's only attack is to dive at you. I Wupped Batman's Ass on the first try.

Cut the Mullet, Jerk.
Again, like Stages 1-3 before it, Stages 4-6 are laughable. The only real challenge are the flying Medusa Heads; they ponce about in swooping arcs but lack speed. A simple whip or jump renders them moot. Pass a few instant-death spikes and you're taken to the boss, a giant flying Medusa head. Again, not too much challenge here. Medusa's only attack is to release snakes which slither along the floor. Simply crouch and Whip the Donkey's Ass. The snakes get instant-death with Medusa not far behind.

Got any Sudafed?
Dumb Mummies
Oh! Sorry, I didn't realize you... I'll just leave.
Stages 7-9 start to annoy the shit out of players pump up the difficulty by introducing the Hunchback. Hunchbacks resemble tiny Meth-heads and jump all over the place, making them difficult to hit. These levels also introduce Dragon Skull Cannons: stationary baddies which shoot fireballs. The fireballs can be whipped (into shape! [sorry {again}]) or jumped, but either way, require good timing. I burned my first Game Over before reaching the Boss: a pair of mummies. Like the 2 previous bosses, the Mummies require no real strategy. I just mashed on B and put them on a Hell Greyghound Bus Ride.

Birdman caught me on his property.
STAGES 10-12:
Stage 10, with its moving platforms and baddies which spawn at the worst possible time, killed me literally 40 times. My stomach sank, anticipating the final "GAME OVER." Stage 1, here I come (again). Thankfully, the GAME OVER never came. Castlevania has infinite continues. I literally sighed with relief.

After burning through a few (dozen) continues, the catacombs rose to a flat, grassy stretch. Uh-oh. Unimpeded ground this late in a game is ALWAYS a bad sign. My foreboding was rewarded with a shit-ton of giant Eagles dropping Hunchback paratroopers. And after that? Fire-spewing dragon heads. And after that? Stage 13 and the hardest boss in the game.

NES MASTER: CASTLEVANIA!!The level boss here is Frankenstein's Monster and a fire-spewing hunchback (who looks to be humping his head). The Monster is mostly harmless. The Hunchback? Annoying as hell. Even though Castlevania offers infinite continues, getting to Frankenstein's Monster and the Hunchback with lives and health to spare is an unholy task. Stages 10-12 took twice as long as the previous 9 Stages combined.

STAGES 13-15:
Axe KnightIf Simon Belmont wasn't already journeying through the upper crust of Hell, I'd say TO HELL WITH THIS. Stage 13 starts with a couple of Hunchbacks then introduces Castlevania's Biggest Pain in the Ass: the Axe Knight. The dude takes a bajillion* (*approximate) hits and chucks axes at you. This gets real fun (read: not fun at all) in the run-up to the level boss:

They put me on a War Hell Ride.
If the two Axe Knights weren't bad enough, there's an infinite chain of Medusa Heads bombarding poor Simon. By the time I reached the Level Boss--The Grim Reaper--I was to my last health bar. Luckily, The Grim Reaper is kind of a joke. His attack consists of a number of spinning scythes, which move intermittently depending on where you stand. If you let Simon stand still so the scythes can get a beat on you, a few steps in either direction will evade damage. Then its only a matter of (literally) whipping the Grim Reaper INTO SHAPE (I'm not even going to apologize for that one).

STAGES 16-18:
These stages are probably very hard. I say "probably" because as soon as I saw the Giant Vampire Bats on the fisrt screen, I ran the eff away from everything. Huncback-dropping Eagles? RUN! Medusa Heads? RUN! I managed the few tricky jumps and finished Stages 16 &17 without killing a single damn thing.

Dracula 1Dracula 1Which brings us Dracula. As bosses go, Dracula is mostly harmless. In his human form, he teleports around the room, shooting fire from his cloak. Once you master the timing, the fight becomes boring. And mastering the timing is simple because dying against Dracula spawns you RIGHT OUTSIDE HIS DOOR. Dracula's second beast form is similarly simple. Holy Water (available in Drac's chamber) both damages and momentarily freezes the beast, allowing Simon to Whip it! Whip it Good! [crack!]

After sending the count back to hell, you get the pleasure of watching his castle crumble to the ground, followed by a list of phony credits, including "Belo Lugosi," "Boris Karloffice" and "Love Cheney, Jr."
Castlevania End
I hope he had homeowner's insurance.

The ease of Castlevania's early Stages is mirrored by the difficulty of it's later Stages. From Stage 10 onward, any one baddie can seriously piss on your parade, and the final Stages require serious repetition to master. That said, infinite continues make beating Castlevania a matter of determination rather than skill. Even Stage 15 with its Axe Knights and Medusa heads became routine after a few (hundred) playthroughs. I'm solid in saying Castlevania gets: 
Controller Icon

Two controllers out of five. Were some of the level hard to the point I shed bitter, bitter tears? Yes. But  knowing I had infinite continues kept me going, and made Castlevania manageable.

Next Monday I tackle the Number 7 in the Hardest NES Games of All Time, and channel the power... of the Warrior! 

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