Games Roundup: Castlevania


Written by Chris Price
05 Monday 05th July 2010
Finally, the now 24 year old franchise inextricably linked with the Nintendo fanboy community, Castlevania is getting some love too.  Ubermensch games designer Hideo Kojima has been taken on board to rejuvenate a series that has failed to live up to its namesake after several poor 3D outings, with the latest incarnation, Lords of Shadows.
With developers Konami announcing a new 2D arcade version for download only on Xbox Live, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, we thought it was a great time to revisit one of the seminal Super Nintendo titles of yesteryear, the game that tattooed the names Simon Belmont and Castlevania on the heart of many-a thirty-something gamer.

The year was 1991, the year the SNes was launched in the UK. Super Castlevania was the story of Simon Belmont, latest in a lineage of ace vampire hunters, and his quest to hunt down the Duke of Darkness, Dracula, who had been terrorizing the locals, busying his eternity on Earth fluttering around as a bat, nesting in people’s garages, buzzing couples in darkened parks etc.

The game was a reboot of the first Castlevania, shined up for 16-bit audience that was baying for answers as to why they had shelled out £250 on a sparkly new console (Full 32 kHz 16-bit stereo! 32,000 colours! THE FUTURE IS HERE!).

The game’s 11 stages had you pottering about Dracula’s labyrinthian Transylvania, dispatching every folklorian creature popular culture could throw at it (Werewolves, Mummies, Frankensteins) with Belmont trusty Vampire Killerwhip. Three stages of power-ups and secondary range weapons could be picked up and stocked by collecting ‘hearts’ from vanquished foes and mystic candelabras along the way.

Its remixed musical score, from Taro Kudou and Masanori Adachi, is still regarded as one of the finest musical accompaniments from the 16-bit age. A kind of rousing prog-rock remix of Fulci-esque horror themes. The visuals were neat and varied, taking plenty of opportunities to utilise the SNES’ graphical wizardry (essentially, the ability to rapidly scale and rotate blocky pixels very quickly. Most were utilized in dream sequences, flying over landscapes, falling down holes etc).

There were a few crucial tweaks that really emulsified the actual play. Belmont could now be controlled mid-air, as could directional strikes with the whip – including a downstrike mid-jump, to reach enemies on platforms underneath. It could also be waggled in front of him, utilized for discovering destructible bricks and hidden bonuses. As well as light comic relief, due to looking a bit dumb.

Castlevania’s main strength was its efficiency. Several quick plays let you gauge the distance of attack and the slight delay in recoil before each attempt. A few misplaced jumps informed how far each jump would move you (not just in height, but also the time you remained airborn). The pinpoint control system was key to this, ensuring each movement had to be purposeful. Mistiming would either leave you wide open to attack, or drop you to a lower level of the dungeon, or death. Enemies would follow basic movement patterns, lending their strength to numbers and combinations. The player would have to survey each combination of assailants before attacking. It was quick to learn, and each new level added one more pattern or obstacle to overcome.

This combination of staccato problem solving also continued to the level designs. Each room scrolled horizontally, but vertical movements meant a shift of the screen, a reload of all the sprites on screen – enemies, but no extra weapons. Small errors required replays of tricky sections, and when your health began running low, anxious pixel-by-pixel play was called for. The game was hard, but not impossible. It just required concentration, diligence… and possibly a hand-drawn map of each room. A nation of teenagers sat slack-jawed in their bedrooms.

To me, the elegance of Super Castlevania IV came down to its humanity. It looked like something a real person had created. The quality of the interface, and the aesthetic polish encouraged you that these people knew what they we’re doing, and it was worth your time sitting down and banging away at it. Head designer Nyankun Haracreated a series of simple, linear challenges, which escalated depending on the combinations of baddies deployed in each section, and this stream of minute challenges became.

It’s this binary level of simplicity that has been rediscovered via iPhone apps and downloadable content, rejuvenating a whole generation of 2D adventures. With increasing compartmentalization of the development process, game design has become a dark art. Producers are now orchestrators, trying to see their vision through to fruition amongst overwhelming odds. Super Castlevania IV harks back to a day when small groups of talented Japanese programmers locked themselves in a room, and didn’t leave until they had realized their dreams; a true triumph of human design, from a by-gone era.

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