Game Name:  Castlevania (Konami Collector's Series: Castlevania & Contra)
Developer:  Konami
Publisher:  Konami
PC Release Year:  2002
Review Date:  February 28, 2014

Sometimes I wonder how people, who otherwise share a hobby, can have such divergent tastes.  Based upon the popularity of horror amongst my peers, the aversion I have to the genre when it comes to movies, games, and literature, sets me at odds with the mainstream.  Apparently, a lot of people like to be scared and I do not fall into that camp.  Despite my very clear preference for comedy and drama, I have felt the need to push myself on this front over the years.  I am afraid that if I do not, I will miss solid gems like Resident Evil and Bioshock, which rank among my favorite games.  While I can appreciate the limited supply system and excellent story found in these titles, I could definitely do without undead dogs crashing through the windows of an empty hallway or a deranged dentist silently staring at you when you turn around in an otherwise empty exam room.  Given the reality that I am a coward, it is naturally with trepidation that I explore the roots of the Castlevania franchise.  Fortunately for me, I found a lot of campiness in Simon Belmont’s first adventure.  Unfortunately for gamers as a whole, I also found an action platformer that does not live up to the hype.

Like so many other iconic titles from the late 1980s and early 1990s, the story and lore in Castlevania is nearly nonexistent.  What little the player is privy to, comes from the mere four hours of gameplay.  All we know is that a man shows up at Dracula’s castle with a whip in hand, and for reasons unstated, must fight his way to the top of the highest tower in order to vanquish his vampiric foe.  Who is this protagonist, and why is he risking life and limb to square against his undead host?  What is with the whip anyway?  Is Dracula actually the hero in this tale of an extremely rude house guest?  While that last question may seem silly, it underscores a broader criticism I have with titles from this generation; they merely present a challenge for the challenge’s own sake.  At one point, we accepted this from developers because our hobby was novel and new.  However, gamers and gaming have both evolved since that time, and we have come to expect more from our entertainment.

As much as I knock Castlevania for its extremely shallow narrative, the title’s quirks and oddities would be nearly impossible to explain anyway.  Aside from werewolves, which modern cinema has taught me are the archenemies of vampires, every other classic Hollywood monster appears to be renting a room from the master of the castle.  Either that, or they have all finally come together to film a music video for Monster Mash when Simon decided to crash the party.  What other reason could there be for our hero to run into Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy man, and the creature from the black lagoon all in the same night?  This kind of cheesy setup would have lent itself extremely well to a little humor.  The seriousness through the rest of the game, though, just seems to suffocate whatever fun Konami managed to create.  Simply put, if the title had given off more of a campy B-movie vibe, it would have held up a lot better than it has as a cult classic.

Fortunately, the gameplay in Castlevania can be fun at times, if only because of the powerful sense of nostalgia it is able to evoke.  For readers my age, this is one of those rare games which will bring back memories from your childhood, even if you have never played it before.  In terms of how it handles, it is standard action platformer fare.  Dracula’s home is filled to the brim with all sorts of skeletons, bats, and ghouls.  Your mission is to fight, climb, and jump your way past them through each of the six levels, which are designed to look like different components of an actual castle.  As you are traversing these dungeons and courtyards, you will notice a number of candles adorning the walls and find a smattering of false bricks.  Cracking your whip in their direction will reveal power-ups to aid you in your quest.  These include both a damage bonus and range extender for your main weapon, along with food to regenerate health, and a series of secondary weapons like throwing knives and holy water.  Such items are necessities for the ultimate showdown with a level’s boss, who functions as a kind of gatekeeper.  To progress, you will have to defeat this monster, which has a lot of health and unique attacks that are unlike other abilities found in the game.

Boss fights are where the experience will fall apart for most modern gamers.  They will beat you up, frustrate you, and precipitate a flurry of expletives directed at the computer monitor.  While you have a health bar, at best you can expect to absorb only a handful of attacks from these more powerful creatures before you are killed.  In reality, it will be even less since it is near impossible to make it through the earlier portions of a level unscathed.  The problem is, these encounters feel less like gaming and more like synchronized swimming with the way they are structured.  There is a dance that needs to be learned in order to dodge the attacks of villains like the Grim Reaper and Dracula, but the pace of combat is so frantic and the damage is so high that only the quickest of learners will catch on.  All other players, myself included, are in for a painful process of repeatedly trying to learn the fight in five second increments.  While I freely admit to enjoying a challenge, I am very happy the industry has moved on from requiring such rote memorization to succeed.

Given that I am writing negatively about the PC port of a beloved NES classic, I am bound to stand at odds with someone.  In this case, I know it is both the army of Nintendo fanboys and the legion of hipsters who only consider themselves gamers if they are playing a title that is older than they are, while drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and listening to vinyl.  For such folks, Castlevania is likely perfect and nothing I say will dispel that notion.  To the wider pool of gamers though, there is not a single thing here that cannot be found in a better, newer package.  This is not to say that modern audiences cannot find enjoyment here on a rainy night in.  Much like the original Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania definitely has its charms, between its simple 8-bit graphics and incredibly catchy soundtrack of midis.  However, nostalgia can only take it so far.  Just past those rose-colored glasses is a game that is both unnecessarily difficult and unreasonably shallow.  If your objective is to play through the so-called classics, give it a try.  If instead you want to play a solid game that holds up well to this day, pass it up for something better.

Verdict:  Not Recommended