Got that Mania for Castlevania

Welcome to Save State, where we’ve played the Metroids, now we play the -vanias. I’m sure it’s no surprise to tell you now that I’m a big fan of Metroidvanias, but Castlevania hasn’t always been the same type of series you would see from Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow. The series originally started on the NES as difficult traditional platformers that required you learn enemy placements and make strategic use of your limited-use subweapons, because only attacking horizontally with a whip is for chumps. While spooky season may be finally over, as of this writing, I did spend some time in the last couple weeks playing the Castlevania Anniversary Collection just in time for Halloween. While these games are quite old by now, a lot of their level design holds up, and I’d like to share my thoughts on each game with you all, today.

There are three NES games in the collection, those being the first three Castlevania titles. The first Castlevania is a classic game that kicked off the entire series, with simplistic but tough as nails platforming and enemy placement. Players who have never experienced an old style Castlevania may find it hard to adjust to the games locking your momentum when you jump, but once you get the hang of it, the level design forces the player to be deliberate and methodical in how you tackle enemies and jumps, else you might lose a life relatively quickly.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is more open ended (think Zelda II: Adventures of Link) and has some very obscure puzzles for some reason. The game actually has hints toward what you’re supposed to do, but some hints given are blatantly wrong or mistranslated. If you’re not aware of the translation errors you could spend a large amount of time trying to hit your head on every block in a cliff area, because that’s what you’re told to do, but what you actually need to do to proceed is get the Red Crystal and kneel for 5 seconds straight to summon a tornado. You know, things you’d totally know to do when you’re a child playing this game in the pre-Internet age (just use a guide, is what I’m saying, if you’re easily frustrated by obscure puzzles).

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is pure perfection. Trevor Belmont saw an upsurge in popularity thanks to the Netflix Castlevania animated series, and it returns to the formula established in the first game. Thankfully, the game’s mechanics are expanded upon in meaningful ways, because this game introduces new playable characters for the first time in the series, each of whom have their own special ability. More linear than Simon’s Quest, Dracula’s Curse gets to focus on the platforming that made the first game excellent, though if you have a particularly hard time in some areas, you might be able to use Alucard’s bat form to outright skip some tough platforming segments, should you desire. Dracula’s Curse is another one of those games that, if you enjoy tough retro platformers, you should absolutely play.

The SNES game, Super Castlevania IV, returns to Simon as the main protagonist, and removes the additional playable characters for a powered up Vampire Killer whip that can attack in various directions and even let you swing from ceilings. The graphics are substantially improved, though I will admit that the color palette for this game never struck a chord with me, and the sub-weapons always seemed to pale in comparison to just using the whip on everything since you can whip diagonally, which kind of reduces the need to chuck axes at flying Medusa heads. Movement is also a lot more accessible, which makes Castlevania IV one of the easier titles in terms of platforming. The game is still challenging, don’t get me wrong, but some of its design choices make this one a little easier to get into for new players, I believe.

Genesis-exclusive Castlevania: Bloodlines took Sega does what Nintendon’t seriously, and added more realistic gore to the games to attract Genesis players at the time. It might seem quaint now, especially in a post-Postal world, but back then seeing a series entirely on Nintendo platforms come to Genesis with ceilings that drip blood was kind of impressive. There are two playable characters as well as a phenomenal soundtrack that took full advantage of the Genesis sound chip. While Bloodlines is only, say, upper middle tier in this collection, it’s still a great game to experience as the level design is as balanced as Super Castlevania IV.

The Gameboy had two Castlevania titles released for it, Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge. Castlevania Adventure has aged poorly- it’s extremely plodding and slow, which was likely a compromise born out of the fact that the original Gameboy’s screen was known for bleed and ghosting when things moved quickly across the screen. There were also moments where it seemed like I clearly should have hit enemies, but the hits didn’t register, making Adventure a lot more frustrating than the developers probably intended. Your whip can actually upgrade to level three and launch larger fireballs when fully upgraded, but taking any hits downgrades the whip, and no subweapons exist to counteract common diagonal enemy movement, or enemy projectiles that are far faster than you.

Belmont’s Revenge is a massive upgrade over Adventure by almost every possible metric. Subweapons return (though it’s only axe and holy water), and while Adventure also had rope-climbing in as a platforming challenge, Belmont’s Revenge takes it a step further and has pulleys, even spider thread that the player can use. The speed of this game is just as slow as Adventure, but enemy projectiles no longer outspeed the player character by a huge margin, and the tighter controls and hit detection give the player more counterplay against projectile-spamming enemies, rather than requiring trial and error. Belmont’s Revenge is clearly the one of the two Gameboy games included in this collection worth playing, if for nothing else than that this game actually had enemy placement and level design built around the Gameboy’s limitations. It’s still not the best game in the collection, but it’s leaps and bounds better than Adventure.

The last game in the collection is Kid Dracula, another NES title that is wildly different from the other games in the series. I had never actually played this game before picking up the collection, mainly because it was never localized in the US. Kid Dracula is insanely cute, and the level design and way you attack gave strong vibes of playing a late-NES Mega Man game, rather than a Castlevania (which is great for me, since I love Mega Man). You jump your way through all sorts of cheery, well lit environments, and get different projectile attacks like fireballs and homing shots you can perform by charging your attack button. Enemies, when defeated, explode in cartoony “Pon!” clouds, and everything, making this a delightful change of pace from other games in the collection, and another solid game to play even if it started out as an unlocalized parody of the Castlevania series.

While the collection of the individual games is great, there aren’t really a lot of features in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection that players may be expecting. There’s a simplistic save state feature, not to be mixed up with this column, so you can save your progress as you progress through the various games. Beyond the save state feature, however, there aren’t really any bells and whistles- you can change the borders on the sides of the screen, change the display mode to stretch, pixel perfect, etc., or add a CRT scanlines filter. There are simple manuals, images of the box art, and even a brief interview with the developers of Castlevania, but no rewind function or even multiple save slots while you play, which makes this collection on the vanilla side of emulation.

Sure, the collection might be something that seems as if Konami whipped it up in a short development cycle, but many of the games themselves are pure classics that any fan of platformers should play. Outside of Castlevania Adventures, I didn’t find myself having a bad time with any of the other games in the collection (though I did look up information on Simon’s Quest, because again, some of those puzzles are insanely esoteric). For the most part, even though the collection lacks a large number of features that really should be commonplace in these emulated re-releases, considering that this collection goes on sale for just $5 or $10 multiple times throughout the year, you really do get a lot of bang for your buck with this collection should you like challenging platform games.

With that, I’ll consider this week’s edition of Save State closed. Join us in a couple weeks when I’ll go back to rambling on about obscure RPGs or strategy games again!

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