One of the earliest games I can remember playing, apart from Super Mario Bros. (スーパーマリオブラザーズ), was Castlevania (悪魔城ドラキュラ). I can still remember the opening of the original game. You play as the brave Simon Belmont (シモン・ベルモント), you march to the front gates of Dracula’s castle, which you can see in the backdrop, epic music plays and thunder claps, and thus you begin your adventure. This was such an epic opening to a video game. It was so cinematic, and it hooked me onto the series. Castlevania is one of the most important, integral, cinematic, dark, and underrated game series of all time. It is a franchise that is basically dead now. It has not had a great main console game since, arguably, PlayStation’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (悪魔城ドラキュラX 月下の夜想曲). Where does the original Castlevania come from? What happened to the series? Why haven’t we seen a great Castlevania game in such a long time?
The Castlevania series is a sprawling game series consisting of over 40 games! The original was released in Japan in 1986, and the last main entry was in 2014. Most of the games are traditional 2D side-scrolling games, meaning that the character is a two-dimensional sprite that has to battle his/her way from the left across the screen to the end of the level or boss. Your character is equipped primarily with a whip, or other ancient weapons, and you can collect power-ups. You progress through the levels defending bosses and sub-bosses until you reach the top of the castle where you face Dracula. It all sounds basic, but let’s dive into the history of the series. To do so, we have to understand the game’s developer, Konami (コナミ).
While Konami has pretty much given up on games in the last few years, causing a bitter division with Hideo Kojima (小島秀夫) among others, to focus on mobile games, pachinko (パチンコ) machines, and its other businesses, it was one of the best gaming companies in the ’90s and early 2000s.
Konami was founded in 1969 as a jukebox rental and repair business. The name Konami is actually a combination of the names of the founding members: Kagemasa Kozuki (上月景正), Yoshinobu Nakama (仲真良信), and Tatsuo Miyasako (宮迫龍雄). The company was originally started in Toyonaka (豊中), Osaka (大阪) – just 2 cities away from where I live, actually. This is just further evidence for another article I wrote that explains how Kansai (関西) is actually the cultural heart of Japan. Nintendo (任天堂) was founded in Kyoto (京都), Hideo Kojima is from Hyogo (兵庫), and now Konami. (So just skip going to Tokyo [東京] altogether and just hang out in Kansai.)
Anyway, as the early days of video game entertainment began to change, founder Kagemasa Kozuki, shifted the company’s focus from jukeboxes into arcade machines in the early 1970s. They spent 6 years developing their first arcade game, which was published in 1976, and they began to find a lot of success in the early ’80s with a little arcade game you’ve probably never heard of… Frogger (フロッガー).
By the mid ’80s with the seeming resurgence of the home console with Nintendo Famicom (ファミコン), Konami began developing games for it. One of its first titles for the Famicom was Castlevania.
After looking at most of the titles for the Famicom, Konami recognized that there were no horror games. Sensing that this was a niche market that they could exploit, they began to develop an action side-scroller that was in the vein of classic horror movies. The development team took a lot of inspiration from Universal’s classic monster movies and incorporated many themes, characters, and tried to create a similar atmosphere.
In the original game known as Akumajou Dracula (悪魔城ドラキュラ) in Japan, you play as Simon Belmont whose family is the sworn enemy of the forces of evil. Every century, Dracula and his castle reappear and begin to wreak havoc on the innocent villagers. Your task is to fight your way through the castle, defeat Dracula’s minions (which include giant bats, Frankenstein’s monster, and even death himself), and finally face off with the Lord of Darkness himself, Count Dracula.
The original game controls are sluggish. Simon lacks the speed of movement of a Mega Man (Rockman [ロックマン] in Japan) or the dexterity of a Samus (サムス). You have virtually no control of the character once you jump. So each jump you make is very perilous. There is some contention about this control scheme. Some game researchers chock these somewhat wonky controls to the inexperience of the developers, while others claim that it was purposeful design. Because you are a human fighting inhuman monsters, they wanted to make the experience of playing the game more realistic. Simon can jump about as well as a normal human can, and dies just as quickly.
It was originally released on the Famicom’s short-lived disc system, to wide acclaim. Seeing the success, Konami also published a computer version of the game called Vampire Killer. Konami also decided to publish the game in cartridge format in America. Senior Vice President of Konami America demanded that the name be changed. He read the title as Demonic Castle Dracula and was worried about religious connotations. At this time, game companies understood that for the most part, it was parents buying games for their young children, and they felt that few parents would buy their kids a game that had “demon” in the title.
So, the marketing team in Konami America decided on Castlevania as the international title. It was released in America in 1987 to near instant mass acclaim. Due to its success, the team at Konami began working on a sequel.
The first generation of Nintendo sequels was very interesting. After the success of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo pushed for a sequel and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto (宮本茂) did just that. The Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, released in America as The Lost Levels much later, picks up outside of the last castle of the original and the game is essentially the same just infinitely harder. Many fans were angered and so Nintendo pushed that each of the sequels should be very innovative. During this time, RPG elements began to be popular in games so many of the developers began to mess with the formulas that made their originals so successful.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was one such case. You once again play as Simon, but you have been cursed and have to gather the body parts of the slain Dracula to resurrect him in hopes that you might defeat him again to free yourself of this curse. This second adventure incorporates many RPG elements like character and weapon leveling, and an innovative day/night cycle. While it was nowise a bad game per se, fans were disappointed. They wanted more Castlevania, not a harder version of the game (a la Super Mario Bros. 2) but a more improved new game. But this entry simply did not feel like Castlevania. Konami heard this loud and clear and began development of their last entry for the Famicom.
This third entry is great! It controls better than the original but has the same style and feel. Castlevania III and other third entries in the early Nintendo cannon like Super Mario Bros. 3 set the gold standard for sequels going forward. In this third entry, you play as Trevor Belmont (Ralph Belmondo [ラルフ・C・ベルモンド] in Japan). As opposed to simply working your way through the tower, you are given choices of where to go next. You also meet other characters on your journey who you can trade places with, including a mysterious half-vampire named Alucard (アルカード). From here on out, Konami began to pump out Castlevania games like a pair of rabbits in mating season. So, I will just cover a few of, what I consider, the most important entries.
With the creation of the Super Nintendo, Konami published Castlevania IV which was basically a remake of the original, but now you had much better control of your character and could whip in 8 different directions. This 4th entry was also a showcase of the Super Nintendo’s power.
But the true revolutionary entry in the series would not come until the next console generation. Konami had never been wholly committed to the Nintendo relationship, it was a polyamory relationship, so when Konami had the chance to develop a game for Sony’s (ソニー) new disk-based system, they put one of their brightest and best developers on the project. Koji Igarashi (五十嵐孝司) is one of the names most closely associated with the Castlevania series because of this one entry that has influenced so many games since. That game is none other than the legendary Symphony of the Night.
Symphony of the Night (SOTN) is not only the best Castlevania entry but one of the best games ever. It, along with the Metroid (メトロイド) series, created the “Metroidvania” sub-genre, which is a traditional 2D platformer in basic structure but is much more open and explorative. The game gives you few directions and it’s up to you to wander the huge world of the game to discover your next power-up, to let you proceed through the game, or defeat another boss.
SOTN has gorgeous visuals that hold up to this day and incredible gameplay. It has several RPG elements like character leveling, but it is still a classic 2D game in an era when all the studios were trying to fit their existing franchises into 3D worlds. SOTN is both the best thing to happen to the Castlevania series and the worse. It marked the high point of the series, but it also set a bar so incredibly high that no other game in the series would be able to reach it.
While SOTN was lauded far and wide, Konami also published two 3D games for the Nintendo 64 (ニンテンドー64). These two games have largely been considered the worst games in the series. Here we see the ruination of the entire series. Igarashi and his team were pushed off the main console space and made games for handhelds in the classic style while the main console space was taken up by consequently more expensive and less successful 3D games. Igarashi’s games for the Game Boy Advance (ゲームボーイアドバンス) and later DS (ニンテンドーDS) were consistently praised, but even though each game was a modest success, he continued to receive smaller and smaller budgets, while Konami continued to pour money into 3D titles that ranged to somewhat successful to massively hated.
Konami never seemed to get the message that they had learned almost 20 years ago. People want classic Castlevania games. Fans of the series continued to buy them in droves for the handhelds, but the prevailing idea of the day was that the general players did not want a 2D game on their home consoles. So, Konami continued to pour money into a pit. Eventually, Igarashi left and with a massive flop of the second Lords of Shadow game, Castlevania would be no more.
With the PlayStation 3 (プレイステーション3) and Xbox One generation, we saw a new figure rise in the gaming scene – the independent developer. Many of these developers had grown up playing the classic Castlevania games and pined for the day when they would come back. But soon they began to realize that maybe they could make their own. Games like Axiom Verge and Shovel Knight are the modern day incarnations of Castlevania. They take the lessons learned from SOTN and apply a fresh coat of paint and have been massively successful proving that classic 2D platform games are still a force to be reckoned with and will continue to the future.
Koji Igarashi has even gotten in on this craze. He started a Kickstarter campaign for a new spiritual successor to the Castlevania series, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It went on to be one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever. It is due to release in March of 2017.
If you ask game fans, “What happened to Castlevania?” Many will tell you, “It is dead.” But I find this view overpessimistic and shortsighted. Castlevania is not dead, it has changed. Like the phoenix, it died only to be brought back to light and fire. The purity of Castlevania lives on in the independent game industry where people who studied at its feet now recreate it in their own ways and their own interpretations. It is somewhat like a famous artist or writer who creates a new style and passes it on to his/her apprentices who go on to continue building it in different ways. Are there no more Castlevania games? Far from it! There are more now than ever before. They just go by different names now.