Castlevania is a terrible game. I am sorry if you like it, but you like a terrible game. Maybe it was not terrible in the ’80s, when important lessons had not yet been learned about how to make non-terrible games. Back in those old dinosaur days, a game where you didn’t have to pump quarters into a machine to keep playing it felt downright friendly, I suppose. But even by NES-era standards Castlevania is terrible.
I have debated fans of this game at great length over the years. They see a game where brutal challenge and player abuse is a desirable thing, a sort of merit badge to be earned. Beating Castlevania is an achievement in ways that beating Mega Man and Kirby are not. I suppose I can see that point of view. My own beloved Final Fantasy shares many of those nutrients, especially when you consider some of the insane challenge runs I’ve completed in that game. Beating Final Fantasy with a solo mage puts me in an elite club of power-gamers and makes me an authority on the subject. It feels good to be in that place.
But when it comes down to brass tacks I could never argue that “Final Fantasy as a solo mage” is a fun challenge that other gamers should feel comfortable undertaking. I can’t defend my accomplishment in terms of something a sane, rational person would do. When people ask me which Final Fantasy they should play, I recommend the modern versions of the game that don’t involve player abuse.
For years this is how my relationship with Castlevania persisted. I was on the outside, looking in at an elite group of players who had managed to tap into the genius of a classic game. A game I grew up with, but could never tame. A game which did not synergize with any of the skills I’d picked up from other action games over a gaming career that spanned decades. I figured if I could just break through that shell and get to the creamy center of Castlevania my opinion of it would change.
So I did it. I sat down and learned the game. Every brick and candle. Every boss fight. Every screen full of monsters. I’m good at the game now. Good enough, at least, to clear it consistently without a continue. But my opinion didn’t change. The game is still terrible. In some ways, I think now I actually hate it more.
The first thing I want to mention is that I have a lot of nostalgia for this game. Castlevania is one of the earliest NES games I played. Before I owned an NES I would play over at a friend’s house, and his collection was basically Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Gyromite and Castlevania. When I finally got my own system in 1990 this was one of the first games I asked for, simply because I had played it so much and didn’t know any better. This would have been when I was seven or eight years old.
Many of those old memories are bad, though, and it’s not hard to see why. The game is just too difficult. Games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 2 taught me that the more forgiving a game is, the more fun it is to play, and so I gravitated towards that style of game more and more. I mentally filed Castlevania away as something that was just beyond my ability, and left it there. I picked it back up every now and again, sometimes with the mindset that it couldn’t be as bad as I was remembering, only to be reminded that, yep, it sure was.
That particular shelf of games — the ones that were too hard for me as a kid, but which I rediscovered as an adult — is dwindling more and more. I conquered Dragon Warrior and Legacy of the Wizard, toppled Contra and Super C. Zelda 2 and Metroid and Faxanadu. The Wii’s Virtual Console brought me back to Kid Icarus. Sometimes I found the old games really sparkled after I picked them up and polished them off, but sometimes it turns out they’re just turds.
For years my biggest complaint about Castlevania were that the controls are bad. Purposely bad, I mean. Designed to be bad in order to increase the difficulty of the game. The kind of bad where, if it were baked into a Mario or Zelda game, fans would understandably riot.
It’s not just about the deliberately-measured jumps and attack delay, although that’s part of it. It’s that parts of Simon’s moveset are removed at arbitrary points in the game for reasons the player can plan for, but not control. If the stairs go up and to the left, Simon cannot throw his subweapon to the right with any kind of precision. You can’t duck under an axe or a medusa head if you’re standing next to stairs, because Simon will interpret the command as “climb down stairs” and then get hit. And under no circumstances may you throw your subweapon while ducking.
Many Castlevania fans hold this up as a feature of the game. Mastering the bad controls (and I am certain they will object to my use of the word “bad” in this context) is part of learning the game, after all. My usual flippant response to this is, “If overcoming bad controls is so rewarding, why not just break your controller and play every game that way?” That’s not fair, but I really do feel that way.
The counterargument I hear a lot is Bionic Commando, an action game where the controls have a steeper learning curve than even Castlevania. It takes a lot of practice before you are good enough at moving around in Bionic Commando to even really start playing the game, so surely that’s worse, right? The difference is, in Bionic Commando the controls serve a style of gameplay that is truly unique. Novices can play around with it and do things that are reasonably cool, even if they never get good enough to finish the game. Experts (like me!) get to experience a style of gameplay that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the gaming landscape. Tall ladder, strong payoff.
Castlevania has no such payoff. It’s an action game where you navigate platforms and kill monsters with a variety of weapons. At the top of its tall ladder is a type of game that exists by the dozens in the NES library. Novices who play around with Castlevania‘s controls mainly just jump into monsters and fall into holes, and experts don’t get to do anything cooler or more impressive than a typical Mario or Mega Man game.
Mostly Great Level Design
Once you do master Simon’s awful jumping and whipping actions, most of the levels in the game are fun to learn and fun to play. I am mentioning this because, even though Castlevania is a terrible game, there are the roots of really genius design here. The game did not spawn a million sequels and spin-offs by coincidence.
The game is made mostly of blue and orange blocks, so it’s easy to judge things like “how far will my attack reach” and “can I make that jump” at a glance. Examining the layout of each level is like reading a textbook in how to take a short list of enemies and obstacles and create a huge variety of challenges with them. This is something the old Castlevania games are very good at, but the modern ones are very bad at.
I enjoyed learning the levels in this game and I enjoy sitting down and playing them. I enjoy them more now that I know them pretty well, too. I’m mentioning this not to try and balance out my negative rant with positive observations, but because in some ways my brain registers a terrible game as being more terrible if it has some pleasing aspects to it. Like, if Castlevania were uniformly terrible it’d be easy for me to just write it off and forget about it. Its bad parts sting all the more when I see the shadow they cast over the really good parts. That feeling of, “I would really be enjoying this if not for _____!” drives me absolutely bananas as a player. I would say it’s one of my main sticking points, actually. It rubs me raw more than most folks would think is reasonable.
Or maybe it’s not that, and the bad parts of Castlevania are just really, really bad.
Totally Uneven Boss Fights
The really difficult parts of Castlevania aren’t the levels, though. Except for a few screens (maybe fewer than ten screens in the whole game), you can clear the levels by being very careful and treating every monster and chasm as a discrete challenge. (That’s a good aspect of the level design, by the way: two axe knights in two different situations should feel totally different.)
(There’s another way to get through the levels, too, which I’ll mention later.)
The bosses, aside from Dracula, are just terrible though. They are either 100% trivial, or 100% impossible, and never any point in between. There’s no watch-and-react, no give-and-take. There is no chance of a loss if you’re prepared, and there is no chance of a comeback if you’re losing. They are the antithesis of everything I hold to be true about making fun, challenging boss fights in 2D action games. I hate them. I hate them so much.
The first two bosses in the game do not exist. You can out-damage them even if you walk into the room without a health advantage. Go in and whip, whip, whip. Don’t bother aiming or positioning yourself, just hammer the button, fool! The third boss is almost as easy, although you do need to walk in with a health advantage to make the whip, whip, whip strategy work. There is beef inside the boss room to help you accomplish this.
The fourth and fifth bosses are an order of magnitude more difficult, though. They control so much of the screen with randomly-moving attacks that even if you were playing a game where the hero didn’t control like butt you would still probably end up trading hits. This doesn’t work, because your strikes deal one bar of damage and theirs deal four. I am confident in saying that only a very small group of Castlevania grandmasters can consistently win these fights with just their whip.
But ah, there’s a trick! If you have the right subweapon both of these boss fights are trivialized. Easier, in fact, than the “whip, whip, whip” of the first three bosses. The gap in difficulty is really unreasonable here: you either walk into the room and get destroyed, or you walk in and totally dominate. There is no middle ground.
I am very familiar with this style of boss fight. It’s the core of every Mega Man game, and that’s one of my favorite action series! In fact, my biggest gripe with the latest installment is that it doesn’t let me just walk into boss fights and rule the roost. So what gives?
In Mega Man, the weapon you need to dominate the boss fight is on your menu screen. You win it from another boss, then you have it forever, and can use it whenever you want. In Castlevania the weapon you need comes out of a candle somewhere in the level. You lose access to this candle if you die or if you accidentally pick up a different weapon.
To its credit, Castlevania doesn’t ever give you a real game over. When you run out of lives you can always start back on the level you died on. This is, in fact, friendlier than a lot of arcade-style action games of its era. In addition, each level has multiple checkpoints, so you aren’t always sent back to the very beginning when you lose.
Let’s mix all these ingredients together, now: the levels are generally safe to traverse if you take them methodically. The bosses are total pushovers provided you have the correct subweapon, which you find in a candle at the beginning of the stage. And when you die, you start back at a checkpoint at the middle or the end of the level.
The end result is, the game’s friendly lives-and-continues system actively works against you! If you die towards the end of the fourth or fifth level, you might as well lose all your lives and start over anyway, because the boss is so unreasonably difficult without a subweapon you now cannot retrieve. And when you continue, now you have to replay the entire stage, slowly and methodically, just like you did last time, and the time before that.
You don’t even have to die in order to feel this sting. Whipping the wrong candle replaces your good subweapon with one that is worthless, and now you might as well start over. Subweapons drop randomly off of defeated enemies, too, and can ruin your run just as quickly.
Fail, then Fail Some More
You can get pretty powerful in Castlevania. Once you have the best subweapon and the highest shot multiplier, you are in excellent shape to blitz the game. At my level of skill, this typically means I can grab the holy water at the beginning of Stage 3 and keep it until the end. The problem is, failing at any point along the way (dying, whipping the wrong candle, whatever) removes all the advantages that were helping you succeed. Depending on where your checkpoint is, you probably have no way to recover except to restart the level.
This property exists in a lot of old games, notably Gradius and Contra. In those games, though, you respawn immediately at the spot where you died with a generous amount of invincibility time. Dying means ruining your flow but not necessarily killing your chances. It’s common to die repeatedly in Contra because you lost your spread gun, but it’s also common to pull out a kludge-y win by chaining the invincibility of repeated deaths while pumping bullets into a boss’s face.
That element of recovery doesn’t exist in Castlevania. Dying means being sent back to your checkpoint with a short whip and no subweapon. As a result, an unlucky death tends to be punished by more death, without any real upside. The slippery slope is demoralizing and painful. The further you are into the game, the tougher it is to get back up to the power level you need to be at to win.
I remember being very young and recognizing this same situation in one of my favorite NES action games: Super Mario Bros. If you’re very careful and know just where you look, you find a fire flower in 8-3. If you can keep this fire flower to the end of 8-4 it is easy to defeat the boss and win the game. If you get hit at all in 8-4, though, you lose your flower and there’s no way you can get another one without replaying the world from 8-1. The last two monsters in the game are very, very difficult to avoid without fire, involving precise timing and a little luck. This gave the end of the game a very off-putting “all or nothing” feel. Some Mega Man games have the same feel in certain areas, usually having to do with weapon energy respawns. Players I talk to generally consider this kind of thing to be a flaw, and yet all of Castlevania is built this way. Am I the only one who noticed?
Memorize, Memorize, Memorize!
The other way to clear the levels, outside of playing methodically, is to just commit them to memory. This is going to happen anyway, at least a little bit, because you’ll be replaying them so much as the bosses terrorize you. And like I said, the stage layouts are generally designed so they become more fun as you become familiar with them.
There’s a line, though, that separates being familiar with a level and committing it to memory. Castlevania‘s levels are on the wrong side of it. To move through the levels quickly, you need to know the position and direction of every enemy. You have to know where health and multipliers spawn. You have to know which medusa heads you should whip and which ones you should jump. You need to know the spots to jump and whip to kill an enemy that wasn’t even onscreen at the time you started your jump. If you know all these things, you can usually run through the levels as quickly as Simon’s stout little legs can carry him. If you’re fuzzy on one detail, though, or mistime one jump, or are a tad slow with one attack, it ruins your rhythm and now you’re on that slippery downward slope.
Rote memorization is by far my least favorite way to win a game. Mario requires the player to build up a set of skills, and then provides levels where those skills are used in response to the level design. Mega Man requires some in-game knowledge, but generally for abstract things like “use x weapon on y monster”. Even Bionic Commando, that bitch-hard game with the incredibly high learning curve, mostly involves assessing risks on the screen and then reacting to those risks.
Castlevania involves knowing what your next action is going to be before you perform it, every screen, for the entire game. Because the only winning strategy is “get the super weapon and then keep it”, riskier approaches are penalized too severely.
I think it’s very telling that videos of good Castlevania players always feature them knowing what’s going to happen before it does. The best Mega Man and Metroid players do the same thing, but underneath them is an entire class of merely-good players who just take the game as it comes. It’s a bit frightening to me that I can break Level 5 of Castlevania down into a list of discrete actions, but not, say, Snake Man’s level of Mega Man 3, which I have played fifty times as much.
Brainstorming ways to fix this terrible, terrible game are counter-productive because its fans like it just the way it is. I generally think it’s a good thing when they fix obvious problems with my favorite old games for re-release, but then I tend to love the old games despite their flaws, not because of them.
My knee-jerk reaction here is to just point at Super Castlevania IV, because that game keeps all the fun and challenging things about the formula while changing or removing all the things that make me want to rip my hair out. Let’s pretend that’s a cop-out answer, though, and that turning Castlevania into Castlevania IV is not desireable, even though it would be totally sweet.
Let’s also pretend that we’re limited to small tweaks, rather than sweeping changes to the game. We’ll accept that the game is basically good, and that we want to keep as much of it intact as possible.
First, I would remove the first two levels of whips. The game drops the whip upgrades so quickly that you never play with the starting whip anyway. There is a weird edge case where instead of a whip upgrade you will get a double shot after you die and respawn. This means that once in a while, for no discernible reason, you sometimes have to play an extra screen or two with a short whip. There are maybe two spots in the game where this matters, and when it matters it is always “well, I got screwed” rather than “well, that was neat!” Learning the levels with the long chain whip is already difficult enough that learning backup plans for the leather whip seems unnecessary.
Next I would eliminate subweapons as random monster drops. Losing your advantages because of death really sucks, but it’s appropriate. Players should lose some state because of failure. Losing your advantages because a monster randomly dropped a knife, though, is abusive and adds nothing to the game. Players should never feel afraid of death drops in this sort of game; kill the monster, grab whatever it drops, and move on. Can you imagine if robots in Mega Man randomly dropped items that sapped your weapon energy? That’s what happens on certain screens of Castlevania.
Then I would alter the Level 4 and Level 5 boss fights, but only slightly. Both fights require you to watch multiple objects on the screen, anticipate their movement, and dodge accordingly. You can’t dodge them after they’re coming your way; at that point it’s already too late. I consider myself an average player, and I can’t win these fights unless I have the correct subweapon or phenomenal luck. I think that’s unfortunate.
For the Level 4 boss (The Creature), I would slightly increase the amount of time Igor stays stunned when you hit him, and add a slight delay between the time his stun wears off and his next jump. Alternating hits between Igor and The Creature is a good strategy, and I think players should be rewarded for discovering it rather than disappointed when they discover it but can’t do it because it requires insane timing to actually pull off.
For the Level 5 boss (Death), the problem is getting overwhelmed with sickles. I would leave the boss fight alone, but change the drops at the end of the level. Instead of health in the wall after the checkpoint, I’d put a double shot. Dealing with the sickles is a full-time job, and double crosses would go a long way to helping keep the screen clear. The fight would still be incredibly difficult, especially considering the brutality of the preceeding hallway.
As much as I harped on it before, I think I would leave the “keep your subweapon OR ELSE” stuff alone. I have to admit that the sense of grabbing a weapon and holding it forever is fun, and that requiring the player to have back-up plans in case their primary strategy gets shot down adds depth to the game. For the two tallest brick walls in the game, though, that back-up plan is “play perfectly, and maybe get lucky”, which isn’t the level of dedication the rest of the game demands.
A version of Castlevania in this state probably still wouldn’t be good, but at least it wouldn’t be terrible. And I think it would be close enough to what its fans love it for that they wouldn’t complain too loudly, either. Well, okay, of course they would. What I mean is, if the game were originally released with these changes in place, its fans would fall in love with it for all the same reasons, and not notice anything is missing. Then someone would release a romhack version where Igor recovers instantly and everyone would declare it to be bullshit.
Brick, You Are Stupid and This is Stupid
Yeah, probably! I mean, yeah, difference of opinion, not all games for all players, etc. I mean, I get why people love this game and why it is considered a classic. And I realize how unfair it is to judge the game by 2014 standards, or even by 1990 standards. I love watching speedruns of it (and of other games in the series which use the same formula), and I think it’s important to recognize the game as a piece of console gaming history.
Castlevania fans tend to love the game precisely for the reasons I hate it. That’s fair enough.
I really did think, though, that familiarizing myself with the game would change my outlook on it. That’s happened quite a lot in recent years, most notably with Final Fantasy Tactics, Metal Gear, Metroid: Zero Mission and Pikmin. These were all games I didn’t really understand when I first played them, but went back and learned properly, and now I understand where they’re coming from and what their merits are.
Try as I might, I still don’t see the merits of Castlevania. It’s mean and sour and stingy. It’s highs are low and its lows are really low. And revealing my distaste for it gets me called bad names by its fans like no other game I can think of. (Just tweeting out the premise of this article earned me two fuck-yous and an appeal to burn my house down. Playfully, I realize, but zow! What passion!)
I tried to love you, Castlevania. But you are terrible. You are the very most terrible and I never, ever want to play you again.
That goes double for you, Castlevania III.