The Castlevania series and I have a weird history. The first half of the series consists of bitch-hard linear platformers, and I like bitch-hard linear platformers. The second half of the series consists of Metroid clones, and I like Metroid clones. But by and large I do not care for Castlevania games. The linear games are too arcade-y for my taste; they rely too much on memorization. The nonlinear ones are too grind-y; they lean too hard on their RPG elements. The series does have some outliers and those are the ones I tend to like best… and when I like a Castlevania game I tend to fall pretty hard in love with it. Challenge runs, muscle memory, full clear saves, etc. They just have that effect on me.
I really, truly, honestly cannot stand this game. I didn’t own it during that developmental period of my childhood before I learned to stop playing games I wasn’t having fun with. A buddy of mine owned it, though, and between the two of us we could get partway through the third stage. It just gets too flippin’ hard by that point, and not the good kind of hard, neither. Simon is slow, his attacks have a long lag and are only effective at a very particular range, and he has zero air control. (Pay attention, because these features will crop up again.) I’ve only ever finished this game with invincibility codes turned on, and even then I had to use like sixty continues. (Invincibility codes don’t protect you from getting knocked into a pit, see.)
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
I did own this one as a kid, and really loved it. It’s a lot easier than the original so I could play it for hours and hours and feel like a badass because nothing could kill me. And you almost have to play this game for hours and hours, too, because the sequence of events you have to enact in order to win is so obtuse and poorly clued that it’s only possible to win by accident. I eventually went on to beat this one too, later in life, with the help of a walkthrough. It’d almost be worth playing today if there weren’t so much grinding involved, as you have to purchase virtually every upgrade with hearts, and the only way to get hearts is to run circles whipping zombies.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
I actually finished this one legitimately thanks to Grant. Trevor handles like a typical Belmont, but Grant can climb walls and change direction mid-jump. The game is still hard, but since the hero is more agile it’s more Mega Man and less… well… Castlevania. There are two other characters to play as, but they suck as much as Trevor does so I’ll never go back and use them. The only downside to Grant is that his knife isn’t as fun to use as Trevor’s whip, which brings us to…
Super Castlevania IV
If this game were female I would impregnate it. It’s essentially a remake of the original except Simon moves like a video game character ought to move. The ability to move in the air means reflexes are a viable solution rather than memorization. Re-mapping the subweapon button to the shoulder meant you don’t get your whip when you try to boomerang, and vice-versa. Letting him jump onto and off of stairways makes vertical levels less tiresome. Basically they leveled the playing field and gave Simon the tools he needs to avoid the stereotypical cheap death. The game is still bitch hard, though, especially the last few stages, but because I’ve always felt like I was in control of the game I stuck with this one until I got awesome at it. (Here’s video proof of said awesomeness.)
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
The best in the series, bar none. Switching from a linear set of stages to a huge, freeform castle was pure genius; Castlevania went from being an arcade game to a gothic-style Metroid. Alucard not only has a ton of moves, he has a ton of kinds of moves, so he never gets boring to play as. Thanks to the RPG elements (experience, equipment, healing items, money, etc.) the game is much easier than what came before… but that is deceptive. The challenge isn’t just beating the game, it’s exploring the castle and figuring out its secrets. Getting the true ending and discovering the uber-rad mid-game twist takes a good deal of observation, experimentation and intuition.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Richter Mode)
If Alucard isn’t enough for you, you can play the game as Richter. Richter splits the difference between SCV4 and Symphony by taking a more arcade-style hero and putting him in the massive, connected world. Richter doesn’t upgrade his abilities like Alucard does, so he’s got full run of the castle right from the beginning. He does get stronger, but only by killing bosses, so the opportunity is there for awesome challenge runs. Want to make for Galamoth right out of the gate? Go nuts! Richter Mode in Symphony is pretty much my ideal Castlevania game.
Castlevania: Dracula X
This came out before Symphony, but I played it after, because I was such a fan of Richter Mode. Since Richter is so agile and fun to use in SotN I think I was expecting him to handle like SCV4’s Simon. I was disappointed when he turned out to be an oldschool drives-like-a-camper Belmont. I quit playing after the second level or so.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
I don’t remember a lot about this one. I only played it once, and I remember enjoying it, but I also remember feeling like it was just Symphony-lite. I traded it in.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Some other game came out after Circle but before Aria, but everyone said it was terrible so I didn’t play it. I took a chance on Aria though because the thought of a Castlevania game set in the future intrigued me. I ended up really, really liking Aria even though I was put off by how grind-y the main character is. Soma’s special abilities come from souls, which drop randomly off of monsters. So if you want new abilities, you just kill monsters and hope you get lucky. Still, once you get a soul you have it forever, and they were a lot of fun to play around with, so I wasn’t too put-off.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (J Mode)
Then, once you finish the game as Soma, you get to replay it as Julius Belmont. Julius is to Aria exactly what Richter was to Symphony; he gets stronger only by killing bosses, and can get anywhere in the castle right from the beginning. If you go straight to the last boss J’s whip only deals 1 damage to him; the fight actually takes longer than if you’d powered up a bit beforehand. My friends and I had fun for a while trying to determine the best route through the game. Our basic strategy was to kill enough easy, on-the-way bosses to make the final boss manageable. We got our times down to like thirteen minutes too, on a good run.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
A direct sequel to Aria. I was hoping this game would clean up the grind, but unfortunately it went in the opposite direction. Soma still gets his abilities from souls, but now he can get multiple copies of each soul and the more he has, the more powerful the move is. So if you find a move you think you like, except it’s kind of weak, have fun killing hundreds of skeleton apes or whatever! Even worse, the game’s best equipment is built from souls as well, which consumes them. Even doing a bare-bones clear (one of everything) means farming at least two copies of some ultra-rare souls. And I mean ultra rare. The most ball-bustingly horrid example is a monster that takes 1 damage from everything, has a huge stack of HPs, and only drops his soul about 1% of the time. Glurge.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (J Mode)
Fortunately Julius was back, and he brought friends! Not only do you get the now-classic Belmont, but you get Alucard and some magical girl as well, essentially re-creating the team from Dracula’s Curse. I was certain this would be the reason to play the game, but no, they ruined this too; the J Mode characters level up just like Soma does, meaning it’s possible to be over- or under-leveled for each area of the game. I didn’t even bother finishing this mode.
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
The reason for this long-ass Castlevania post is that I’m working my way through Dracula X Chronicles on PSP, meaning I get to take another crack at Rondo of Blood. (Which was released previously as Dracula X on SNES, except not in North America. Or something?) Richter is just as bad as he was before, but I stuck with it long enough to earn Maria, at which point I started really warming up to the game. Maria has a double-jump and the timing on her attacks doesn’t have to be as precise, so the whole experience was more enjoyable. I’m still in the process of learning the game (and there are some stages I haven’t seen yet) but I might be able to put this one on the top shelf.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Maria Mode)
The other half of Dracula X Chronicles is just Symphony again, but it’s a version of Symphony that includes Maria as a playable character. I haven’t gotten around to that yet, but I’m looking forward to it.