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Review: Can Castlevania be recommended in 2014?


†††† Castlevania is a pillar of game design and story telling from the early days of modern console gaming. Released the Japanese market in 1986 and landing on US shores in 1987, it is sometimes easy to forget today that Castlevania not only has a legacy that goes back decades in the gaming landscape, but an aesthetic lineage that goes back to the black and white monster movies of yore. Frankenstein, Medusa, werewolves, the Grim Reaper, the Mummy, Dracula: all in one game. A thing only discussed in hushed tones around the school yard in the late 80's. While there's not a single line of dialogue: the film-scroll title screen, the cast of monstrous characters and the eerie environs tell a chilling tale if you stop to consider them. But it can also demand pixel perfect platforming and it will throw you into devious monster loops that will test your patience. This game makes no bones about punishing the player for not memorizing the level, or accidentally picking up the wrong sub-weapon for that stage. Within this larger context, Castlevania for the NES still manages to craft an appealing experience amid a sometimes unsettling, sometimes frantic, horror milieu.

†††† If you intend to play this game, the first question to ask yourself is, which system? If you donít have access to a retro gaming shop or a friend who keeps gaming hardware around, then your options fall to Nintendoís latest console and handheld hardware: the Wii U and the 3DS. Make no mistake, playing this on a CRT-TV with the original game and console is the most authentic way to experience it. That said, our other options are very good. Playing this game on the Wii U, using Off-TV Play, with a Wiimote, would be my recommendation. If you arenít sitting too far away and the GamePad is on its stand, it's the most authentic way to play VC games short of using the old hardware. Other control options are the GamePad itself or any combination of Wii peripherals (save the game specific ones). If you play this game on your wide-screen HD setup, donít expect a visually pleasing experience. The 3DS is also a decent choice. It affords you the ability to play it on the go. Due to the save-state functionality, the gameís more frustrating moments become tolerable by not forcing you back to the beginning of the level or section. It is also worth noting that the original Castlevania release in Japan was on the Famicom Disk System, which allowed you to save the game. So if youíre playing this on the 3DS or Wii U, in a strange way, being able so save the game is closer to the original design and experience that the developers at Konami offered.

†††† This most classic of the Castlevania games has you playing through six consecutive stages, punctuated by boss battles at the end of each stage. This was a comparatively standard formula, even for its time. You walk, you climb, you jump, you swing your whip and you can use your sub-weapon, thatís all. The difficulty of each stage can vary wildly, depending on a few factors. The most important of which is your own knowledge of the level and the sub-weapon that you use with Simon Belmontís whip. For example, not only do you have to know enough to get to the Mummy at the end of the level, but donít bring the stop watch because he isnít effected by time (get it?). This game demands memorization, and you have to accept that dying is just the gameís way of telling you to reconsider how you are approaching an obstacle. But when you find the rhythm of the game, it flows into a brisk and gratifying experience. The designers at Konami were aware of the gameís limitations and constraints, and what they created was a series of challenges which directly cater to: Simonís abilities, your knowledge of the hazards (look for secret wall meat!) and a moderate amount of dexterity. If you know what you are doing, you can clear the game in about 25 minutes, but getting good enough to do that will take hours.

†††† The sense of progression this game gives you is impressive. In 1986, video games on the NES are just moving out of their early period. Ever played NES Remix? Castlevania is an NES game that came out after the first, early, wave of NES titles represented in NES Remix. Each stage has its own theme and context. You begin in what looks like an Entry Hallway. After defeating a giant bat hiding in the curtains of the Gallery, you move onto what looks like a ruined tower or dungeon. You venture into its dungeons, eventually battle Medusa, then Frankenstein and work your way into the laboratory he was created in. All of this to eventually climb the spires of Draculaís Castle and vanquish him. The backgrounds are complex and the levels tell a story as you progress, both of which are reasons this became a seminal NES title. † † †

There is a reason that Castlevania on the NES became the predecessor of a loved and long running series of games. It is one of those pieces of expression that recognizes its limitations, and is wonderfully creative within the boundaries of its medium. The NES is not an impressive piece of hardware, and the first Castlevania isnít even the best Castlevania on the system. Despite that, Castlevania tells a great story entirely through its gameplay. You should pick this game up if you have any interest in what earlier games were like, have a particular interest in the Castlevania series or enjoy the kind of game that is unforgiving in its difficulty (until you understand its rhythm). For everyone else, it may just be frustrating and ugly. Regardless, it is important as an artifact of gameís history. And if nothing else, it will make playing Castlevania II, III and IV a little easier.

Good, but not essential. Recommended with reservations.
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About Thumb Scarone of us since 11:57 AM on 02.25.2014

Been gaming since the NES days. I remember computers, before the internet. My motivation to learn how to read was to play Final Fantasy. Games have, wonderfully, helped shape my life. I love games, history, writing and discussion. Pursuing that is the goal.

I've played games on Nintendo consoles for most of my life, but branched out into PC gaming and Playstation by the mid-90's. Current platforms: Wii U, 3DS, Steam. Typically playing: 5e D&D, tabletop games, and a backlog of retro games.

We live in interesting times. I can't wait to see where the industry goes next.