I already wrote about Castlevania a few years ago, but frankly I did a poor job. Half of my write up discusses not having played it growing up which would have been more fitting of an article discussing bad luck and stupid decisions than the game itself. At the time, I was of the opinion that readers are more interested in my personal recollections and anecdotes about a topic than examining the subject in depth. That may or may not be true, but in this particular instance it’s difficult to reminisce about something with which you don’t have any deep seeded history making the attempt at nostalgic storytelling a poor choice. If you want to read a chronicle on why I didn’t play any Castlevania games until the early 2000’s, then by all means click the link above and delve deeper into the SRMLU (Super RetroMania Literary Universe). This time around I am fresh off of a complete play through of the historic NES game and am prepared to jump into greater detail as I did recently with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
After pushing the “start key” as our title screen instructs we are greeted to an animated sequence of our protagonist Simon Belmont walking up to the gates of Dracula’s Castle. From the beginning I must say that Konami did a great job of maintaining consistency with the artwork of our setting. See that tall tower in the backdrop with the odd protrusion? That’s where we fight Dracula in the final stage of the game. You’ll see that odd tower in the background a few times as well as on the map screens between levels. It’s a small touch but something lesser developers wouldn’t have thought to include.
After the animation we take control of Simon on the castle grounds just outside of the main doorway. This is where the player is introduced to the primary mechanics of the game with several torches that drop power ups scattered about. Simon begins with the basic whip which you will almost never use as the two power upgrades are always readily available. The first upgrade converts Simon’s whip into a morning star while the second increases the range of the morning star. Whenever the player dies, these upgrades are lost but are typically provided again so quickly that their loss is negligible. More punishing is the loss of your equipped secondary weapon, any hearts you may have, and any “roman numeral” power ups.
If you haven’t played the game in awhile or have never played but are interested in the subject I’ll recap what I just mentioned in that last sentence. In addition to the whip, Simon has access to secondary weapons which can be used by pressing Up and B simultaneously. Since the whip can only be used to attack enemies directly in front of Simon, the secondary weapons provide range.
- The axe is thrown in an arc to attack enemies above or at a distance in front of the player.
- The sword or dagger is thrown forward to hit enemies directly in front of Simon but out of range of the whip. It can travel the entire length of the screen. Once it hits an object (be it an enemy or a candle) it’s gone.
- The cross is like a boomerang which travels forward and then back the entire length of the screen. It is more powerful than the sword as it can damage multiple enemies not only once, but twice if it manages to strike them on the way back.
- The Holy Water acts like a firebomb. Essentially it’s a glass vessel filled with Holy Water which shatters when it lands. It is thrown in an arc as well, but without the height of the axe. In addition to damaging enemies while in the air it explodes when it reaches the ground leaving behind a fire that does continuous damage to enemies while also freezing them in place.
- The stopwatch freezes all enemies in place for a few seconds. It sucks.
Use of the secondary weapons is limited by the number of hearts you’ve collected throughout the stage. Whipping candle sconces or killing enemies will leave behind hearts which are tabulated with a special counter at the top of the screen. Roman numeral power ups, which most players refer to as double shots or triple shots, allow the player to use the secondary weapon more than once at a time. What does that mean? Say Simon throws an axe. He won’t be able to throw a second axe until the first one has left the screen entirely. Even more confining is the holy water as Simon cannot toss a second one until the fire from the first one has completely dissipated. But with the double shot or triple shot the player can toss two or three weapons in succession without having to wait. The holy water combined with the triple shot is a very powerful combination that can take even Dracula down without him being able to fight back.
Enter the castle and now the quest truly begins. The first stage is the castle halls with a brief detour through the basement. The halls do an excellent job of introducing the player to all of the basic concepts of the game with plenty of candle sconces, a lot of steps which are required to be traversed, and straight forward simple enemies to practice mechanics. The platforming is kept to a minimum and isn’t very challenging and there are some simple to find secrets within walls which the player might find on accident simply by attacking. Enemies here include zombies, mermen, bats, and panthers which as far as I can tell are only in the first level and never seen again. Traverse from screen to screen where eventually we meet up with the first boss of the game; the vampire bat. It can shoot fireballs at you, which it will rarely do, and swoop down at you which seems to be it’s primary attack. This boss falls easily to the axe. Losing to the bat here would be akin to losing to Glass Joe in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.
Next we come to the castle tower, which is equal parts climbing and side scrolling. Quickly we are introduced to the knight, but a far more menacing enemy is introduced in this stage which will become a thorn in your side for the rest of the game: the medusa head. Zigging and zagging up and down as they cross the screen, these assholes will send you careening off of a platform and down a pit frequently. You’ll learn to hate them more than any other enemy as they can frustratingly derail a solid run with full health and a triple shot with a single hit. Personally I’ve found that avoidance seems to be the best strategy. Another agitating obstacle in this level are the spiked platforms which rise and fall and will kill you in one hit even with a full health bar. Since there is no run button you’ll have to time your movements perfectly.
At the end of the tower you’ll square off against the second boss, the Medusa. The Medusa is a hideous looking woman’s head with snake hair that flies around the screen and releases crawling snakes at our hero. That said, this boss battle isn’t very difficult. The holy water, cross, or even just using the whip are all suitable weapons to fell this horrendous hag.
Now that Simon has reached the top of the tower, it’s time to traverse the rooftop in level 3. This level puts your platforming skills to the test for the first time as you’ll have to jump from surface to surface dodging medusa heads and fending off falcons. We are also introduced to the hunchback, which is an easy foe if dispersed quickly but a real pain in the ass if they are allowed to start hopping. Basically they leap all over the screen at high speeds propelling themselves into you in the process which is extremely irritating. Patience and avoidance are your best weapons. Eventually you’ll reach the level boss, a pair of mummies which attack by shooting floating bandages at you which should mean a war of attrition would yield a win, but the mummies seem to have a limitless supply of said bandages. Fortunately they are easy to take down with just the whip. Enjoy your victory as this is the last easy boss fight in the game.
After dispatching the mummies Simon falls down a shaft and is trapped in the castle catacombs. I consider this to be the first challenging level of the game. There are a lot of platforms to jump to, both stationary and moving while simultaneously dodging bats and mermen that spring up from the water below. A single miscalculation will cause you to fall into the water which results in an instant death and the loss of your hard earned items. Eventually you reach a staircase which leads you to a courtyard where birds constantly fly across the top of the screen dropping hunchbacks. If you whip the hunchbacks as soon as they hit the ground, this segment is easy; but it can quickly get away from you if the hunchbacks are allowed to start jumping. Eventually a doorway guarded by a big dragon like skeleton leads us back into the castle for what can be a difficult boss battle. Frankenstein’s monster is waiting for us inside after a few more dragon skeleton’s are dispatched; and he’s not alone. On his shoulder is a hunchback which some people claim is Igor. If you have the triple shot holy water, this battle is easy as the Frankenstein monster can be spammed with the firebombs before he even has a chance to start moving. If you don’t have this option, your dexterity is put to the test as this boss fight can be a real pain. That little bastard Igor leaps all over the screen shooting fireballs at you and is un-killable. You’ll have to dodge the fireballs and the hunchback while you pelt the lumbering lab creation with your whip or secondary weapon. The Frankenstein Monster himself doesn’t pose much of a threat as he moves slowly across the screen, but the act of dodging projectiles while simultaneously trying to land hits on your opponent is a difficult juggling act. That said, it’s one that you’ll need to master if you want to stand a chance in the next boss fight.
Next we travel to the torture chambers which I consider to mostly be an easier level than the catacombs. The reason I say that is that there are no platforms to hop and there are several health refills available so even though you could take some damage, you aren’t going to plummet into a pit for a one hit death. This stage is comprised mostly of staircases and skeletons with the occasional axe throwing knight here and there and is pretty straightforward. Eventually however you will find yourself fighting for your life on one of the most infamous screens in NES history; the hallway before Death.
Although the level hasn’t been too bad leading up to this point, this hallway will put your NES skills to the ultimate test. Axe throwing knights which require approximately 9 hits come at you from the left while flying medusa heads repeatedly zig zag across the screen from both the left and the right. You have to simultaneously dodge the medusa heads while attacking the retreating knights and either dodging or destroying the axes they toss at you. With the Holy Water, this section is manageable as a jumping toss of the valuable elixir will kill the knights with a single blow. Since there are only two knights, two well timed jumps grant safe passage, assuming you are able to successfully dodge the medusa heads. If you don’t have the Holy Water, the cross is your next best option as it is easier to land hits on the knight’s from a distance while avoiding the flying medusa’s. That is, however no easy task and if you are using the cross you’ll need to make sure you have enough health left to battle the final boss of the stage, the Grim Reaper, Death himself.
Death has been said to be the most difficult boss in the game. I disagree as I managed to beat him much easier than Dracula; although that isn’t to say that the Grim Reaper is an easy opponent. I just personally had more trouble with Dracula than Death. If you have made it to this point with the triple shot Holy Water then congratulations! The Grim Reaper is a piece of cake as you’ll be able to toss the bottles repeatedly at the top right platform as Death descends onto the screen and he won’t be able to move. Simply keep throwing until he’s dead. If you don’t have this weapon, prepare for a war of attrition. Death flies around the screen while scythes materialize in mid air and hover all over the place homing in on you. Typically if you don’t have the Holy Water you’ll have a cross at this point. My strategy is to continuously throw the cross which will hopefully hit Death while simultaneously destroying the floating scythes. My focus is on Simon himself and his surroundings. Whip any scythes as they come near while throwing the cross at every opportunity in an effort to inflict damage on Death while preventing Simon from taking hits. I mainly track Death with my peripheral vision and simply lob the cross in his general direction while taking out any approaching scythes and dodging the Grim Reaper as he approaches. If you can keep taking out his projectile weapons eventually you’ll deal enough damage to come away with the win. Congratulate yourself as most NES players fail at this juncture.
Simon finds himself on the roof of the castle to begin the next and final stage. Dracula is holed up in a tower and this short but intense level leads you to his lair within the outcropping portion of the castle. Begin by hopping across some bridges with gaps in them and dodging multiple vampire bats (the same as the level 1 boss). Don’t bother fighting them. At the end you’ll enter a clocktower and battle a few skeletons before being pummeled by birds that drop hunchbacks. These assholes have ruined several great runs of mine. You see, as of this writing I’ve been able to play from the start through Death without losing a single life. I haven’t quite been able to get to Dracula however as I always seem to get knocked into a pit by a vampire bat or worn down by these stupid hunchbacks. They are the only thing standing between me and a deathless run of this game which is making me pretty bitter as I only play on real hardware so it’s tough to practice just this portion. Traverse a few staircases and you’ll eventually find yourself at the base of a long set of steps up to the strange outcropping that is Dracula’s lair.
Inside of the tower you’ll find several candles and an open coffin. Count Dracula will materialize behind you on the right side of the screen and the battle begins. I had a lot of trouble with Dracula because he doesn’t seem to have a repeatable pattern giving his attacks the illusion of randomness. During this fight Count Dracula will disappear, materialize practically on top of you, and then open his cape to throw three fireballs in your direction. If you’re airborne those fireballs angle upwards towards you. If you’re on the ground they go straight towards you. Eventually I realized that although Dracula doesn’t have a pattern, he does have an established set of behaviors. As noted earlier, he has a tendency to reappear either right on Simon or very close as a surprise tactic. The key is to move constantly and keep in one direction when it’s about time for Dracula to reappear. As he reappears you can create some distance. Then wait for him to open his cloak first before you leap and hit his head with your whip. By doing this you will leap over his fireballs and you can ensure that they never fly upwards at you while you deliver a blow. It takes time and practice to perfect this strategy but once you have it down, his first form is not too bad. Fortunately Konami was generous as you have unlimited continues which start you from the bottom of Dracula’s stairs each time.
After you’ve delivered enough hits, Dracula’s head will fly off the screen and he transforms into some kind of a giant lizard monster. His behaviors here are more difficult to predict but the battle is shorter and you have some time to get in a few free shots. A hit with the Holy Water will not only deliver damage but will also freeze him. If you have the triple shot Holy Water, this battle is again an automatic win as you will be able to freeze him in place by spamming him with the weapon. If you don’t have the triple shot, he still isn’t too bad. Hit him with the Holy Water you picked up by whipping the last candle on the left in Dracula’s lair and he will freeze long enough for you to jump and deliver two to three shots with the whip at his head. Keep repeating this strategy. When he backs you into the corner, constantly turn left and right as quickly as possible which has a tendency to cause him to jump high into the air allowing you to walk underneath of him and begin the process again. With this strategy I’ve been able to beat him with roughly 12 hearts preventing the need to constantly walk up and down the steps replenishing your hearts after a death.
Once Dracula has been defeated we see his castle collapse from a distant cliffside before some fake end credits begin to roll. I heckled it in my last piece, but it’s pretty evident that the staff thought they were being funny by misspelling the names of actors from older Universal and Hammer horror films. I guess it could’ve been worse. At least Konami didn’t “conglaturate” us for beating a great game and proving the justice of our culture. As the series rolls on the endings would get better, so in retrospect this one is a bit of a disappointment. At the time it was more or less par for the course.
Now that the reading is over, let the viewing begin! I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to my new YouTube Channel: Super RetroMania! Over the last few years I’ve been recording some NES play through’s on an older DVR with the intent of uploading them to a special YouTube Channel created for this site. Unfortunately time has been at a premium for me recently as I have not only engaged in some business ventures but have had numerous other distractions that come with being an adult. Finally I’ve been able to set aside some personal time to debut my channel which has been roughly three years in the making, and Castlevania is my debut subject! Want to see how to beat Dracula or the Grim Reaper? Then check out the video below to get a taste of what you’ll see on the channel!