Akumajo Dracula: When Goth Hit Japan

The Castlevania Franchise, From Belmont to Wallachia

A look at the history and legacy of the infamous horror gaming franchise. This goes way beyond vampires.


Konami is a company without a true mascot. While previous entries in this series have focused on one of Nintendo’s multiple iconic characters or Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, Konami has gone its entire history without a mascot. Of the various franchises it has produced, from Gradius to Dance Dance Revolution, one of the longest-running is its Castlevania series. The early days of Castlevania were filled with experimentation, and even different names before Konami settled on “Castlevania.” Of the numerous heroes in the many games of the series, the most iconic would probably be either Simon Belmont, the whip-wielding hero from several of the earliest Castlevanias, or Alucard, the half-vampire lost son of Dracula who debuted in Castlevania III and took center stage in Symphony of the Night

As with Sonic, this will be a look at some of the more notable games in the series, rather than a blow-by-blow account of every game. I’ll also look at some of the Japan-only games, before Castlevania truly grew into its legacy as an international sensation.

Castlevania Begins

The original Castlevania game was titled “Akumajo Dracula,” or “Demon Castle Dracula” in English. It was released for a multitude of systems and computers, but the NES version was the most popular and notable in the U.S. The Castlevania series as a whole tends to involve the Belmont clan, a whip-wielding family of vampire hunters, as they battle the evil Count Dracula. Every hundred years, the forces of good weaken and Dracula revives.

In the first installment, you control Simon Belmont as he attempts to rid the world of the evil count. To do this, you’ll go through six areas of Drac’s castle, Castlevania, beginning in the courtyard and ending up at the top of one of the towers for the final showdown with the Son of the Dragon. Each area is broken up into three stages, and at the end of each area, you’ll do battle with a popular horror/science-fiction villain, including a giant Medusa, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Grim Reaper, and finally Dracula himself.

You’ll have a whip with which to beat these baddies. It starts as a short leather number but can be powered up twice—once to turn it into a more powerful chain whip, and the second time to increase its range. In addition to the whip, you have a number of sub-weapons that will help you out. The dagger is a quick-striking but weak weapon that goes across the screen, while holy water, in this original game, is basically the Wrath of God in a bottle if you can acquire a double-shot power-up.

The sheer volume of the texts, when it comes to the catalog of Castlevania franchises, without delving into their collective lore, nor secondary media, is staggering.

This first Castlevania game is short and there are unlimited continues. Continuing puts you back at the start of a stage, except on the last stage, where you can start just before Dracula if you Game Over on him. This makes it sound like Castlevania is an easy game; it isn’t. Everything does at least two blocks of damage on a health bar of 16 blocks, and this increases to four blocks by the end of the game. Plus, the controls for jumping are clunky; once you initiate a jump, you’re committed to it, unable to do anything but whip in mid-air.

Castlevania, like many of the classics I’ve discussed, is known as a console series. Yet a little-known arcade entry in the series exists. Haunted Castle has some strange elements compared to most of the “Classicvania” games [ 1 ]. For one, there’s a different selection of sub-weapons, including a grenade from the Middle Ages (if you watched cartoons as a kid, you’ll think of it as “the cartoon bomb”). For another, instead of getting more powerful whips, you can replace your main weapon, ending up with a sword. There’s also the way the game handles continuing. You can insert additional credits to make your life bar longer but doing so reduces the number of times the game will allow you to continue (down from three). 

Castlevania II: A Different Animal

Regardless of the existence of arcade games, Simon would return to the NES for Castlevania II. Konami took a lesson from the 1980s Nintendo playbook for it. While a later game in the series would get the credit for helping coin the term “Metroidvania,” Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is, to my mind, the proto-Metroidvania. The plot picks up not long after the first game. When Simon killed Dracula in the original Castlevania, he didn’t do a very good job of it; Dracula placed a curse on him and the land. Now, in the world of Transylvania, Simon has to collect Dracula’s body parts, take them to Castlevania, and resurrect him to kill him again. 

While it contains platforming, Castlevania II is closer to a Metroid-style game with some RPG elements than the typical platformer that was the first game. You wander the world, finding villages, getting clues from the villagers and purchasing items to be able to move on. You can also purchase more powerful whips. You begin with a Leather Whip, and can upgrade to a Thorn Whip, Chain Whip, Morning Star, and finally the Flame Whip. Each whip is roughly twice as strong as its predecessor. 

The game is one of the first NES titles to have a system where in-game time passes and matters [ 2 ]. At 6 p.m. each game day, the game switches from day to night. At night, the villagers go away, replaced by zombies that roam the streets. Plus, enemies outside the villages grow twice as strong.

The other thing Castlevania II is famous for is being incredibly obtuse in terms of how to get anywhere, even taking into account the era it was released in. For a long while, it was thought that this was purely due to a bad translation; indeed, gems like: “You now prossess Dracula’s Rib” are emblematic of the translation’s quality. It turns out, though, that the other factor is that some villagers actively mislead you, giving useless advice such as “HIT DEBORAH CLIFF WITH YOUR HEAD TO MAKE A HOLE.” You’re supposed to use Dracula’s Eye to unearth clues about what to do next, although even these aren’t as helpful as they could be.

One neat aspect of the villagers’ advice is that the closer you get to Castlevania, the more Dracula’s influence seems to overtake the villagers. As you progress through the game, the villagers get less and less helpful, until you come across an entirely deserted village near Dracula’s stronghold. It’s a cool way to add atmosphere to the journey. Another interesting tidbit is that there are three different endings depending on how quickly you beat the game. 

Castlevania III: Return to Formula

Despite it being the foundation for the later “Metroidvanias,” Castlevania II is something of a punchline today, in part thanks to being the very first game lampooned by the Angry Video Game Nerd. As such, Konami again followed the Nintendo formula and went “first game, but on steroids” for Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. The game takes place before Simon’s time, as the protagonist (either Trevor Belmont in the U.S. version, or “Ralph C. Belmondo” in the Japanese version) again takes up his whip to destroy Dracula. 

This time around, the core of the action reverts to platforming, a la the original game. However, at certain points, you’ll have the option to pick one of two paths, which can alter the difficulty of the game. You can also pick up one of three companions: Sypha, a companion who wields magic; Grant, a pirate who can cling to walls and control his jump in midair; and Alucard, Dracula’s half-vampire son, who can turn into a bat and shoots fireballs from his cape as his primary attack. Each character plays in a unique style.

The Japanese version of the game was called Akumajo Densetsu, or “Legend of Demon Castle.” Similarly to Zelda II, it’s the same “core” game as Castlevania III, but has some substantial differences. Aesthetically, the Japanese version had an additional chip—VR6—which allowed for fuller, richer music via an additional sound channel. On the game-play side, Grant attacks with the throwing dagger power-up in the Japanese version, as opposed to stabbing with a short-but-swift knife in the U.S. version. Sypha’s lightning magic is also more powerful in the Japanese version. Plus, damage works differently between the two editions. In Japan, specific enemies do certain amounts of damage, while the U.S., CVIII follows the same formula as the original game, where all enemies do more damage the further you go into the game. Finally, the U.S. version cruelly removes the just-before-Dracula checkpoint, forcing you to re-do the last portion of the final stage if you die to him.

Super Castlevania: Pushing the SNES to the Limits

The first game in the series would receive an expansion and remake in the form of Super Castlevania IV on the Super Nintendo. Once again, Simon is trying to take out Dracula. In addition to the six inside-the-castle levels, which have been redesigned and expanded, there are five new levels leading up to Dracula’s hideout. The control scheme also has been improved—Simon can swing his whip in one of eight directions, as well as swing from rings using the whip. 

Super Castlevania IV is also noteworthy for being Mode 7: the Game [ 3 ]. Mode 7 was Nintendo’s fancy terminology for “being able to do scaling and rotation effects directly using the hardware,” and Konami made the most of it, showing it off in some form in pretty much every stage. Level 4 in particular constantly rotates and scales either the stage or one of the bosses.

Bloodlines

In the early ’90s, Nintendo lost its iron grip on the video game industry as its third-party developers began to make games for the rival Genesis. Konami was no different, and in 1994, the first Genesis Castlevania game, Castlevania: Bloodlines was released [ 4 ]. More so than many games, Castlevania was influenced by elements of pop culture, especially vampire lore, and more specifically Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bloodlines takes this to another level, attempting to follow on from the lore of that novel by adding in additional references. In the early 20th century, Elizabeth Bartley, Dracula’s niece, puts into motion a plot to revive her uncle, kicking off World War I in the process by having Franz Ferdinand assassinated. This time around, two heroes, John Morris (son of Quincey Morris from the novel) and Eric LeCarde, go off to fight the Countess (loosely based on Elizabeth Bathory), and Dracula himself. 

Whereas previous games in the series were confined to Dracula’s castle and the area around it, Bloodlines takes you all around Europe, ranging from England, to Germany, to Greece, to Italy. Once you’ve selected your character—John Morris is the “classic” Castlevania whip-wielder, while Eric LeCarde uses a spear that he can vault with to reach higher areas—you’re committed to using that character for the rest of the game. The game also carries over your hearts—essentially your sub-weapon ammunition—from stage to stage, unlike many other entries in the series. The other new tweak is a fourth weapon level that adds fire to your weapon and gives you a unique sub-weapon as long as you don’t take damage [ 5 ]. The game’s plot would figure into later Castlevania games, which we’ll discuss in a bit. 

Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night

At this point, another game that was, for a long time, only released in Japan is worth discussion. Rondo of Blood was a game for the PC Engine, the Japanese version of the TurboDuo system. It takes place in 1792, and this time around, you play as Richter Belmont, whose goal is twofold—rescue his beloved, Annette, and defeat Dracula. As with Castlevania III, there are multiple routes through some levels. You can take some of these paths to rescue not only Annette, but Maria Renard, a 12-year-old girl who you can then play as (and who may be stronger than Richter thanks to her animal army), plus two other maidens. As was the case with the first Castlevania on CD, the music is a step beyond anything heard in the series to this point, and the visuals are a sight to behold. There are also Japanese voice-acted cutscenes. 

Holy cow, how did I not mention the best part of Rondo? That is, of course, the extremely Castlevania SAMBA music that plays during Maria’s ending. It’s seriously like something out of Super Mario Kart. Look up “Rondo of Blood Maria Ending” on Youtube and skip to about 2:45 in, and tell me you don’t instantly say, “yep that’s Castlevania all right” [ 6 ]!

Rondo of Blood would receive an alternate version on the SNES, removing Maria as a playable character, as well as some of the alternate paths. The cutscenes were also removed, and the final battle was changed from a remake of the fight in the first Castlevania, to a fight where you’re treacherously perched on platforms against his two forms, with the second form being markedly different from the Rondo fight. 

The next game in the series would be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood. The gameplay would change, though, in a way that would define the series for years to come (indeed, ask people who began playing Castlevania games within the last 15 years what they think of when they think “Castlevania,” and the result will likely be one of the games in this style). Castlevania: Symphony of the Night begins with you replaying the final battle from Rondo of Blood (each stage in Rondo, incidentally, is named. The final stage happens to be called Bloodlines, and this is displayed at the start of Symphony of the Night, which led people, myself included, to think it was a mistranslation.). The “proper” plot then kicks in—a mere five years after Rondo, Castlevania re-emerges. Worse, Richter has disappeared. Alucard, Dracula’s son from Castlevania III, invades Castlevania to defeat his father. 

While Castlevania II is the quintessential early Metroidvania, Symphony of the Night is much more in the Metroid-style. After basically every boss, you collect an item that allows further exploration of Dracula’s castle, either by allowing you to assume the form of an animal to increase your maneuverability or by acquiring items that allow further exploration, such as spike-breaking armor. There’s also much more to the game than you first realize. 

Like Castlevania II, the game includes some RPG elements. You fight enemies to level up, which increases your health, attack, and defense power. It also increases your magic, which you use to cast spells or transform into various forms. You can also purchase items from a librarian. 

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was so well-received that it coined the aforementioned new term for games that play like Metroid: “Metroidvania.” This despite the fact that, when you break it down, Castlevania’s contribution to the portmanteau amounted to “being in the Castlevania series.” The RPG elements that SotN brought to the table aren’t an essential element to the formula.

Japan received a port of Symphony of the Night on the Saturn [ 7 ]. Despite some extra content and a new playable character, this is widely regarded as a disappointment—the game slows down much more than the PlayStation version, and the new content is pretty clearly tacked-on and unfinished.

Castlevania 64: Enter the Third Dimension

After conquering 2-D space, Konami decided to try its hand at a 3-D Castlevania. The game was simply called Castlevania but is commonly known as Castlevania 64 to differentiate it from the original game. In Castlevania 64, you play as either Reinhardt Schneider, an heir to the Belmonts, or Carrie Fernandez, a magical girl. Like Castlevania II, the game has a day-night system; unlike the older title, however, the end game plot is affected by how quickly you make it to the end. A prequel game, Legacy of Darkness, would follow soon after, revolving around Cornell and Henry, two man-beasts. Cornell and Henry are rivals, and Henry aligns himself with Dracula to try to defeat Cornell. After beating the game with both characters, you can then unlock something close to the original Castlevania 64 as well. 

As the 2000s got into full swing, the series made a return to 2-D space with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance. This time around, the protagonist is Nathan Graves, who has been chosen as the successor to Morris Baldwin, a vampire hunter. This dismays Morris’ son, Hugh, who resents Nathan even as the three go into Castlevania to defeat Dracula.

The main modification to the “Metroidvania” gameplay is the introduction of a card system to modify Nathan’s stats, attacks, or summon monsters to aid him. Some combinations imbue Nathan’s whip with an elemental bonus, others change his whip into something else, and yet others can change his statistics. There are also five different modes that alter Nathan’s starting stats. Each time you beat the game, you unlock a new one of these modes. Magician Mode, for instance, gives you high magic stats, while Fighter Mode gives you great strength but no magic at all. 

The franchise has been so wildly successful, that even the reboot transcended from their platforms, as mobile gamers needed their fix on the 3DS.

Circle of the Moon was a GBA launch title and one of the original must-haves for the system. This despite the game being dark (as in “not light”) to the point of being hard to see on the original GBA hardware, an indictment of the system as much as the game itself. Two more Game Boy Advance Metroidvanias would follow—Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow. The former follows Juste Belmont as he tries to rescue his friend from a kidnapping, while Aria of Sorrow revolves around Soma Cruz, a teenager with the power to absorb monsters’ souls [ 8 ].

Further Experiments Within the Series

A further trilogy would follow on the Nintendo DS. Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and Order of Ecclesia would use the second screen, particularly in the first DS title, to draw sigils or symbols on the screen to seal away bosses.

Castlevania has even expanded into the fighting game genre in its spinoffs. Castlevania: Judgment for the Wii involves characters ranging from Simon Belmont to Eric LeCarde to Alucard being put into an alternate dimension through a time gap. This is because Galamoth, a rival of Dracula who is, frankly, no better than he, has summoned the Time Reaper from 10,000 years in the future to try and take Drac out. The game is a 3-D fighting game using the Wii controls—you attack with the Wiimote and move using the Nunchuk. It’s an interesting choice, in contrast to your party/karting/pinball games that you tend to think of when you think of wacky series spinoffs.

After decades on the periphery of pop culture, with an errant manga or comic book here or there, Adi Shankar’s Four-Season Netflix was wildly successful. So successful, that a spinoff series featuring Richter Belmont has been greenlit, debuting later this month.

The Castlevania series can be broken into two distinct phases. Unlike Mario or Sonic, these aren’t 2-D vs. 3-D, but rather action-platformer versus Metroid-like. This, plus the more gothic horror roots of the series, secure its place in video game lore, making it a classic staple of gamers around the world. With the Castlevania series on Netflix reaching its 4th and final season in 2021, a full 35 years after the release of the initial NES cartridge, this game series is as iconic as it comes for Konami.

Images

  1. “The sheer volume of the texts, when it comes to the catalog of Castlevania franchises, without delving into their collective lore, nor secondary media, is staggering.” Karm80. Scribd.com. “Castlevania Guides & History”. Fan Compiled PDF. https://www.scribd.com/document/364524779/Castlevania-Guides-History
  2. “The sheer volume of the texts, when it comes to the catalog of Castlevania franchises, without delving into their collective lore, nor secondary media, is staggering.” Karm80. Scribd.com. “Castlevania Guides & History”. Fan Compiled PDF. https://www.scribd.com/document/364524779/Castlevania-Guides-History
  3. “The franchise has been so wildly successful, that even the reboot transcended from their platforms, as mobile gamers needed their fix on the 3DS.”  Shutterstock. Klang, Malaysia – September 29, 2018: Castlevania Lord of Shadow videogame on Nintendo 3DS console in store. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/klang-malaysia-september-29-2018-castlevania-1275816841
  4. Castlevania-Spinoff-Series.jpg “After decades on the periphery of pop culture, with an errant manga or comic book here or there, Adi Shankar’s Four-Season Netflix was wildly successful. So successful, that a spinoff series featuring Richter Belmont has been greenlit.” https://collider.com/castlevania-anime-spinoff-netflix/

Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.

Resources

  1. “Haunted Castle — Arcade.” Nerd Bacon Reviews, Nerd Bacon Reviews, 9 July 2014. http://nerdbacon.com/haunted-castle-arcade/.
  2. Gamespot staff. “The History of Castlevania.” GameSpot, CNET Networks, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20080725014047/http:/www.gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/history_castlevania/p4_01.html.
  3. Ritz, Eric James Michael. “An Introduction to Mode 7 on the SNES.” One More Game-Dev and Programming Blog, WordPress, 16 July 2013. https://ericjmritz.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/an-introduction-to-mode-7-on-the-snes/.
  4. “Castlevania: Bloodlines — Release Details.” GameFAQs, CBS Interactive. https://gamefaqs.gamespot.com/nes/578318-castlevania/data.
  5. Busbee, Logan. “Castlevania: Bloodlines Review.” Logan Busbee, Medium, 22 Mayn 2019.  https://loganbusbee.medium.com/castlevania-bloodlines-review-6c785266faea.
  6. Videogame endings database, V. E. “Castlevania: Rondo of Blood — Maria End (English).” YouTube, YouTube, 25 May 2016. https://youtu.be/pEgJXNlsWIM.
  7. “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night/Saturn.” Castlevania Wiki, Fandom.  http://castlevania.wikia.com/wiki/Castlevania:_Symphony_of_the_Night/Saturn.
  8. Freiberg, Chris. “Castlevania: Why the Game Boy Advance Games are Worth Revisiting.” Den of Geek, Dennis Publishing, 9 Oct. 2019. https://www.denofgeek.com/games/castlevania-game-boy-advance/.