It might be hard to believe, but for over 30 years millions of players have committed home invasion in order to murder the Lord of Darkness. Since its 1986 debut, Castlevania (orAkumajō Dracula as it’s known in Japan) has haunted its legions of fans with its historic Gothic settings, multi-genre soundtrack and devilish antagonists. Even Konami’s recent shift to mobile platformers couldn’t prevent Dracula’s demonic castle from rising once again.
Earlier this month, long-time Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi took to Kickstater with a spiritual successor to his critically acclaimed Igavania Bloodstained: Ritual of the Nightquickly quadrupled its $500,000 goal in less than a week, proving there are still plenty of vampire killers ready to take back the night. Currently slated for March, 2017, Bloodstainedwill continue the signature “gothic, exploration-focused action platformer” style that revolutionized game design back in 1997.
But what is it about the series that started it all? Which Castlevania adventures are worthy of the Belmont bloodline? Here are the five best Castlevania.
5. Castlevania: Rondo Of Blood (1993)
Often considered the swan song to the series’ linear entries (though the Sega Genesis exclusive Bloodlines would be released a year later), Castlevania: Rondo of Blood turned heads with its animated cut-scenes and cinematic set pieces. Multiple pathways, hidden levels and an unlockable playable character enhanced the replay value far beyond previous titles. Super attacks known as "item crashes" allowed Richter to rain down holy water or fling axes in every direction, provided you have enough hearts to perform the attack. Fast enemies and bottomless pits ensured that only the most devout would ride into the sunrise.
Only released on the Japanese PC Engine CD, the rest of the world would have to settle for it’s underwhelming Super Nintendo port, Dracula X. In 2007, Konami would once again remake Rondo with The Dracula X Chronicles, a 2.5D PSP exclusive that also contained the classic original title as an Easter egg. It would finally receive a standalone release on the American Wii Virtual Console in 2010, 17 years after Richter Belmont volunteered to destroy Dracula and his creatures of the night.
4. Super Castlevania IV (1991)
Long before HD remakes became the norm, Konami retold the story of the originalCastlevania with it’s first 16-bit entry. Once again players would join Simon Belmont as he fought his way through the hordes of Dracula’s undead minions. Though this time through, Simon would benefit from a number of gameplay enhancements. Players could now fling their whips in eight directions, as opposed to the standard standing and crouching position. Simon could also attach his whip to grapple points and swing himself to higher ledges. Perhaps most welcomed was the improved jumping controls, enabling Richter to change direction in mid-air or even leap while climbing stars.
Graphics also saw a considerable upgrade thanks to the SNES’s Mode 7 effect. Stages featured highly detailed backgrounds, large transforming sprites and even a level that ceaselessly rotated. The Sony-produced sound chip allowed for a superb soundtrack, often regarded as one of the best ever heard in a game. Nearly 25 years after it’s release, Super Castlevania is still a favorite amongst speed runners attempting to put an end to Dracula in record time. Despite taking place in 1691, Super Castlevania is considered the most modern feeling of the series.
3. Castlevania: Dawn Of Sorrow (2005)
After a trilogy of well regarded Metroidvania-style games on the Game Boy Advance, many fans felt the Castlevania series had yet to live up to the potential of 1997’s Symphony of the Night. But when Dawn of Sorrow hit the Nintendo DS in 2005, it was not only considered the penultimate Castlevania game, but also one of the best titles on the DS.
A direct sequel to 2003’s Aria of Sorrow, Dawn takes place in the year 2036. Soma Cruz, the altruistic reincarnation of Dracula, is forced to stop an evil cult bent on releasing his soul’s evil nature. As with Aria, Soma could absorb the souls of his numerous enemies and turn them into hundreds of magic-based techniques. If that wasn't enough, Soma could also purchase, find and craft dozens of weapons including handguns, hammers and swords, each with their own levels of attack, speed and range. Though some would lament the new Anime-influenced character designs (series artist Ayami Kojima was unavailable at the time) and gimmicky Magic Seal touchscreen attacks, few could deny the the superb gameplay and diverse locations set deep inside Dracula’s castle.
2. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989)
Cited by Koji Igarashi as the best in the series, Dracula’s Curse would be the final entry in theCastlevania NES trilogy. Abandoning the open world of it’s cooly received predecessor, the third entry would return to its mostly linear level progression. However, this time around players would be able to choose alternative pathways and experience entirely different levels. Support characters were also introduced, allowing Trevor Belmont to be swapped out for different playable character once their demonic forms were defeated. The priestess Sypha could project magical attacks to burn or freeze enemies, the nimble Grant could cling to surfaces and change directions mid-jump, and Alucard (the son of Dracula) could transform into a bat to avoid enemies and shoot fireballs.
Unbeknownst to American and UK players, they were missing out on one of the best soundtracks on the NES. While Japanese versions included the VRC5 coprocessor chip, allowing multiple instruments to coexist, the rest of the world would have to settle for a standard cartridge. If that wasn’t bad enough, Grant’s handy projectile attack was removed entirely and many of the already devastating enemy attacks delivered more damage than the original release. Religious images, gore and nudity were also censored for the American release. Regardless, Dracula’s Curse was well received by fans around the world, including Iga. Who knows? Without this entry we might not have our number one pick.
1. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night (1997)
By 1997 3D video games had become industry standard, with many developers converting their popular franchises to the next dimension. Even Konami was hard at work at producing a 3D Castlevania for the Nintendo 64 (more on that next week). While a plethora of programmers tinkered away at polygons, a much smaller team was hard at work on a 2D side story. Originally developed for the short lived Sega 32X, Castlevania: Symphony of the Nightwould revolutionize the series and usher in the genre know as Metroidvania. Though instead of exploring a desolate alien world, players would explore a lavishly detailed castle.
Director Toru Hagihara and Koji Igarashi would attempt to create a long form action game, a far cry from the two-hour-long titles of the series past. Rather than a linear progression, players would explore every inch of Dracula’s castle, unlocking new abilities to gain access to previously unreachable doors and pathways. The gigantic castle featured over 150 unique enemies and 27 locations including lush gardens, haunting churches and the signature clock tower. Players would also find dozens of secrets, including messing with the librarian's chair and a confessional with a deadly surprise. Just when the game seemed to be at its end, a portal revealed a complete inverted castle, requiring players to explore the entire environment upside down.
Ayami Kojima’s design of Alucard’s silver hair and ghostly pale face became one of the most enduring video game characters of all time. Dracula’s winged demonic final form and Beelzebub’s decomposing body are equal parts breath-taking and disturbing. Michiru Yamane’s elaborate soundtrack ranges from creeping pianos to full blown metal tracks, taking full advantage of the Playstation’s CD quality audio. Her compositions have become so beloved that CDs are still sought after by fans. By remaining in 2D, Symphony of the Night’s presentation remains as stunning as it was 18 years ago.
However, Symphony of the Night’s most significant contribution to game design would be it’s incorporation of RPG elements. While it retained all the control of an action game, Alucard would progressively level up his statistics, providing more health and powerful attacks. While not the first to do so (Deadly Towers, Rygar and Zelda 2 would feature many of these ideas a decade earlier) Symphony expanded this concept to a brilliant degree. From the beginning, attacks would display numbers, communicating the number of hit points removed from any enemy and the efficacy of Alucard’s weapon. Even Alucard’s familiar companions could level up their attacks and effects, adding yet another layer to the already deep mechanics.
Though Symphony of the Night would go unnoticed by the public during its initial release on the PlayStation, critical praise would slowly evolve the game’s reputation from an underground classic to an undisputed masterpiece. The concept of progression through action has become a staple of game design, as seen in the Call of Duty series and Grand Theft Auto V. With it’s hundreds of items, weapons, secrets and gorgeous soundtrack, there’s almost too much to praise. Simply put, Symphony of the Night is one of, if not the best games of all-time.
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