Whip Cracks and Bloody Tear-Tracks
The Music of Castlevania
An analysis on the soundscapes that shaped the Castlevania franchise.
Having covered both the Zelda and the Mario franchise’s development of its musicality, it’s only fitting that we address another giant of the industry that’s become well-known for complex and deeply emotional musical composition in its games. When the word Castlevania falls upon the ears of the discerning and seasoned gamer, gothic imagery, the macabre, medieval fantasy, and the eternal war with the legendary monster Dracula, a long-time staple of the film and television industries, come to mind. Castlevania, initially released in 1986 by Konami Game Studio for the Family Disk System in Japan, would receive critical success amongst Japanese markets and receive a North American and European cartridge release for the Famicom or Nintendo Entertainment System [ 1 ]. Konami’s development and release of Castlevania would trailblaze the genre and evolve it into a beloved and successful game series. Nintendo’s impressive new console had Konami releasing an array of titles for the system, including the side-scrolling action shooter franchise, Contra. However, as Konami was approaching more new games, they inadvertently broke the mold with Castlevania as director Hitoshi Akamatsu and composer Kinuyo Yamashita, who would go on to score for games like Mega Man X3, created a stunning medieval gothic fantasy world that puts the player in the boots of Simon Belmont of the infamous Belmont clan.
Coming from a cursed bloodline that wields the legendary Vampire Killer whip to expunge the dirge created by the evil Vlad Tepes, or Dracula, and his menacing shape-shifting castle from the land of Wallachia. Whip cracking, holy water hurling, and wall-meat munching, the experience Castlevania gave to players was unlike any other. Its dynamic, fluctuating, and immersive level designs would lay a solid foundation for the series in its evolution through the rest of the eighties through the early two-thousands. As players were thrown into a surreal and not so cheery world, the sorrowful yet triumphant soundtrack painted Castlevania’s action, side-scrolling horror into an experience laden with vampires, demons, eroticism, and the occult. According to authors, who write for the games section of AVclub.com, they eloquently describe the drive of one of Castlevania’s most recognizable tracks.
“‘Vampire Killer’ is as emblematic as video game music gets. The first theme of [any] Castlevania stage, the title is [eponymous] with your character, Simon Belmont, a hunter who’s out to vanquish Dracula [and] the name of his clan’s sacred whip. But the music itself is reflective of what Castlevania is at heart, less outright horror than a swashbuckling adventure with a monster-movie twist. The key is that combination of spooky minor-key melodies with rocking riffs and drums, riding a line between ghoulish and glamorous. As the series evolved, it took advantage of new technology for more lush aesthetics and implemented the sophisticated structures [even as] the music transformed as well, becoming far more complex and diverse. But deep down, this ‘Vampire Killer’ formula remained the core of the series’ sound and identity, the blueprint for 30 years of fantastic music and games” [ 2 ].
Building Steam with Nintendo
With the original Castlevania’s overwhelming success, the Konami team was tasked with creating a sequel to their hit vampire slaying action platformer. That sequel would come in 1987 with the release of the infamous Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest [ 1 ]. A game that lays in infamy due to its poor choices in game design, where the protagonist Simon is forced to endure an inopportune and interruptive dialogue of “What a horrible night to have a curse.” It is here, that Simon is forced to fend off droves of undead minions sent by Dracula in a more concentrated amount than during the day.
While Castlevania fans would tout the game as a critical achievement for Konami, adapting an inventory system, new items, and an impressive role-playing immersion. However, the game also had significant framerate and hitbox detection issues. If it were not for Castlevania II’s original soundtrack, composed by a team of musicians under the Konami banner, audiences would never have experienced a composition that not only set a solid foundation for what legendary composer Michiru Yamane would create for the series but set the tone for future arrangements of one of Castlevania and all of gaming’s most recognizable scores—“Bloody Tears.” A minor-key epic that conjures the images of storming Dracula’s mysterious and menacing castle, as you play one of the many in a long line of Belmonts that must eradicate giant man-eating plants, blood skeletons, Medusa, and even demons that resemble something out of a Lovecraftian horror from the never-ending halls of Lord Dracula’s castle. Only scratching the surface, Castlevania’s reign through the late ’80s and ’90s would continue in its evolution to 1990’s with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse with its solid gameplay, level mechanics, improved visuals and an unforgettable soundtrack.
Spin-offs and the Legacy of the 16-bit Era, Nintendo vs. Sega
The ’90s were a revolutionary time for video gaming, as the two major competitive game console manufacturers with strong presence in the North American market, Nintendo and Sega, were battling it out for sales with household names like Mario and Sonic. For third-party developers like Konami, this was an opportunity. The company had established quite the impressive resume with the action shooter Contra series and a slew of brilliant arcade beat ’em up/brawlers titles like X-Men, The Simpsons, and TMNT IV: Turtles in Time. Konami clearly had experience developing for multiple consoles, and Castlevania would inherit the exclusivity trend. Nintendo’s SNES would see the release of 1991’s Super Castlevania IV, while the Sega Genesis would see the release of 1994’s Castlevania: Bloodlines, which featured composer Michiru Yamane’s entry into the Castlevania franchise [ 1 ].
In this divergence of brand splits, an entirely different development team would foster each game. Super Castlevania IV for the SNES directed by Masahiro Ueno and scored by Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo and would set a new standard for the Castlevania series. With its abundance of breathtaking special effects, smooth combat system, and fluid mechanics, it would become one of the most successful games for the console and the franchise. The soundtrack and sound design truly encapsulated the essence of Castlevania’s moody atmosphere and nuances between the changing stages of Dracula’s castle. Castlevania: Bloodlines for Sega’s Megadrive, or Genesis in North America, would approach the game in a different direction as the player takes on the role of John Morris, a descendant of the Belmont clan who obeys his fate to fight off vampires in a war-torn Europe in the early twentieth century. The game’s thematic delivery of Dracula’s return in a significant historical setting added an even more immersive dynamic not seen before in the series. Morris would not only dredge the depths of Dracula’s castle but would explore levels in various European countries—Athens, Greece; Pisa, Italy; a weapons factory in Germany; the Palace of Versailles, in France; and the fictional Castle Proserpina in England.
This historical fiction approach would break the mold for traditional storytelling in videogames and continue a positive tendency for the series. Bloodlines’ soundtrack, composed Michiru Yamane, would provide the haunting and catchy melodies that many fans of Castlevania have grown to cherish as the series was beginning to have a foothold on groundbreaking genres and resurrecting the gothic horror elements that made it what it is today. Konami’s plan of console exclusive titles within the same IP would continue onto the next generation of consoles which would ironically become their greatest success and ultimate downfall.
Symphony of the Gods and Nintendo who?
As Konami entered the next generation of consoles, the divergence of Castlevania titles became significantly more distinct. Sega was fizzling out in North American markets with the lackluster success of the Sega Saturn and Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s N64 were leading the pack with exclusive and quality titles. 1997 would mark one of the most monumental years in Castlevania’s history with the release of Koji Igarashi’s gothic masterpiece—Castlevania: Symphony of the Night [ 1 ]. An entry into the series for Igarashi and heralded the return of composer Michiru Yamane, the recipe for a fantastic game was imminent. In terms of the sound designer and or composer having creative control in the final product of the game, Yamane did have a creative hand in shaping what made SOTN. In a Gamasutra interview with Yamane she states she didn’t have influence in the design of the game.
“from the early stages, but I can certainly influence design from a sound standpoint in terms of how things are implemented and the direction of events. I remember a specific time when my vision and [Castlevania director] Koji Igarashi’s vision didn’t overlap. At that time, I basically had to change my way of thinking to match his, so maybe I don’t have that much control. But usually we’re on the same page.” [ 3 ]
Following the events of the then Japan exclusive Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Richter Belmont’s crusade, SOTN puts the player in the boots of Alucard Tepes, the half-vampire prince destined to eradicate his father Dracula. Symphony of the Night would not only introduce innovative gameplay elements, a new inventory system, fluid mechanics, and a soundtrack unlike any other. It set a foundation for what many Castlevania purists believe in. Koji Igarashi’s level design took what made previous Castlevania titles so memorable and added his creative liberties. Many fans will adamantly defend Igarashi’s Castlevania in favor of other titles with the Castlevania moniker.
Igarashi’s design for Castlevania followed the traditional formula and expanded it into a complex role-playing, explorative, and immersive experience. The player would traverse through an array of different areas of Dracula’s castle as they move from screen to screen. Along the way, hidden items, save points, and teleportation rooms are discovered to aid Alucard on his quest to stop his father.
As the player traverses the labyrinth that is Dracula’s shape-shifting castle, one would be keen to notice the similarities SOTN took to the Metroid series from Nintendo. With its two-dimensional plane and map screen, isolationist atmosphere, and similar mechanics, fans of these types of games have coined the term for the genre as “Metroidvania.” SOTN not only broke the mold for graphic and sound technological capabilities for the Sony PlayStation, but the composition for each visually unique area of Dracula’s castle was exemplary to the eerie and haunting atmosphere expected from a creatively embellished two-dimensional Castlevania. From dredging cemeteries, to navigating through dimly lit haunted libraries, SOTN offered an experience that not only continued the thematic delivery of speculative historical fiction to the game’s motif, but a truly stunning and immersive experience that let fans take a moment and gaze at the macabre level designs while their ears absorb Yamane’s brilliant, beautiful, and brooding composition. The choice of harpsichord and piano instrumentation for many of the game’s scores truly compliments the game’s dark, ethereal, sorrowful, and gothic atmospheres as Alucard unfolds his near limitless magical powers.
“To enter the calm of the library and hearing those first delicate notes from the harpsichord is like a sip from a cool glass of water. It’s a truly lovely piece—layered but uncluttered, maintaining an even tempo that makes every jump and sword slash feel like a dance.” [ 3 ]
With Symphony of the Night’s critical reception, fans were bloodthirsty for more. To the dismay of many, the Igarashi purist mentality would crush any other Castlevania releases not directed by the man himself. A prime example of three-dimensional over-ambition and no direction led Konami to producing abysmal titles such as 1999’s Castlevania 64 for the Nintendo 64. This was a game with clunky mechanics, archaic visuals, and a lackluster soundtrack rife with minimalist and ambient composition. For the Castlevania purists out there, it was clear the only true Castlevania game from then on was two-dimensional, influenced or produced by Koji Igarashi and either composed or influenced by Michiru Yamane.
3-D Blues and a Handheld Legacy
While Konami may have taken two steps back when hauling the Castlevania universe into a third dimension, for some franchises it added invaluable dynamic and revival to the series such as the example of 2002’s Metroid Prime for the GameCube. Konami would release a slew of Castlevania titles for the Sony Playstation 2 throughout the early 2000s, but simply couldn’t gain critical ground for a 3-D Castlevania. Konami would tirelessly release 3-D Castlevania titles for the PS2 such as 2003’s Lament of Innocence, and 2005’s Curse of Darkness. While the games respectively received good score thanks to the production of Koji Igarashi and the distorted guitar and heavy synth composition of Michiru Yamane, Castlevania in a 3-D environment still wasn’t having the lasting appeal audiences craved. Perhaps it was destined to only truly be experienced on a two-dimensional field. As Konami expanded its endeavors across console markets, two-dimensional Castlevania IPs were the perfect fit on Nintendo handhelds like 2001’s Gameboy Advance and 2004’s DS. The handheld-gaming market would be the clarion call to a golden age of Castlevania revival, reminiscent of the Symphony of the Night-sized hole fans were looking to fill. The Game Boy Advance would yield stellar titles like 2003’s Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow– a future Castlevania where players take on the role of Japanese transfer student Soma Cruz, who is inevitably destined to become the next Dracula. In addition, the GBA would also see prior sleeper hits with 2001’s Circle of the Moon and 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance.
DS Gems, Konami Exploits, and Crowd Funding
The Nintendo DS would see the refinement and renaissance for traditional Castlevania titles in the vein of the Igarashi Yamane dynamic. 2005 would yield the release of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow which featured a jazzy return of fan-favorite protagonist Soma. 2006 would yield a continuation of Castlevania: Bloodlines in the partner swapping adventure of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. Then 2008 would be the last time Koji Igarashi and Michiru Yamane would collectively work on a new Castlevania IP for Konami with the visually stunning, ethereal, erotic, and emotional Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. Order of Ecclesia puts the player in the boots of Shanoa, a glyph wielding enchanter who, as part of the Order, draws her power, called Dominus, from Dracula. Unfortunately for Shanoa, who loses her memory and emotions, slowly learns the clandestine intentions for the Order of Ecclesia using her as a vessel. Foreshadowing its creator, Konami’s intentions for Koji Igarashi, the godfather and the innovator of the series were far away from another Castlevania. Like many renown creators, such as Hideo Kojima, Igarashi departed Konami in 2014.
Luckily for purist fans of the traditional gothic, erotic, speculative fiction romp through Dracula’s castle, 2015 would see an overwhelmingly funded Kickstarter.com that went well beyond a plethora of stretch goals with Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night which is set to release in 2018. In addition to its retro 8-bit spin-off Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, and the return of legendary composer Michiru Yamane it’s fair to assume Igarashi and producer 505 Games are on the right track with a future game franchise under a new moniker and IP that is giving the blood starved fans the homage of a highly anticipated new “Castlevania.” In a 2015 PCpowerplay.com interview, Mr. Igarashi states:
“I’ll be in charge of the overall design and be collaborating with Inti on the production. Of course, Michiru Yamane will be doing the music and thanks to clearing one of the stretch goals David Hayter will be doing voice. This will be a big production with lots of talented individuals working to make the best game they can.” [ 4 ]
Konami found a diamond in the rough when tasking a development team for another attempt at creating a three-dimensional action/puzzle/adventure/rpg with the Castlevania brand. 2010 would see the release of Madrid based studio—Mercurysteam’s critically acclaimed release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. This epic tale traverses the origins of the cursed Belmont bloodline with Gabriel Belmont and his battle with unending darkness. The game was lush with breathtaking visuals, fluid mechanics, and real-time action, making for an immersive experience on par with the God of War or Assassins Creed franchises. The game even featured a brilliantly arranged and fully orchestrated soundtrack by composer Óscar Araujo, who took up the reigns from series-regular Michiru Yamane.
While lacking the gothic rock influences that were a prior staple of the franchise, the symphonic score was admirable, with its reliance on haunting orchestral numbers. Araujo went on to compose for Lords of Shadow 2 across the current roster of triple-A platforms, and Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate for the Nintendo 3DS [ 5 ]. This tells me that, until the next iteration, the music of Castlevania is in good hands.
- “Throughout its various incarnations, the Akumajo Dracula franchise, or Castlevania, has been known for certain iconic riffs, tracks and locations. These combine into a visual and audio lexicon that its fans have come to expect, reinvented for each new installment.” Source: Eng, Kilian. “Castlevania.” 2017, www.cookandbecker.com/en/article/124/officially-licensed-castlevania-art-prints-by-kilian-eng.html
- “Throughout generations of its protagonists, regardless of historical period (or “accuracy” to the same), one can always expect some vision of the castle, the classical fanfare, Bloody Tears, and Vampire Killer.” Source: Menezes, Joao V. “Medieval Castle with Trees and Moon behind Castlevania Castle.” Shutterstock.com, www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/medieval-castle-trees-moon-behind-castlevania-1984902650
- “The franchise is known for juxtaposition, pairing of classical such as clean orchestral piano tracks, with anime-stylized illustrations and contemporary metal guitar riffs. This all serves to transport the audience into its haunting world, balancing historic trappings with modern slasher-inspired sensibilities, to incite the adrenaline.” Source: Justinas. “Spooky Digital Illustration Featuring Evening Time in a Gothic Town. Fantasy City Full of Vampires and Bats with Tall Transylvanian Buildings. Fictional Horror Halloween City in the Middle Ages.” Adobe Stock, stock.adobe.com/images/spooky-digital-illustration-featuring-evening-time-in-a-gothic-town-fantasy-city-full-of-vampires-and-bats-with-tall-transylvanian-buildings-fictional-horror-halloween-city-in-the-middle-ages/538412121?prev_url=detail
A classically trained musician, when paired with her talents in creative writing, her career as a technician and industrial electrician, and her education in journalism and the arts, Kyla’s a force to be reckoned with. Having served in SFS’ core and intermediate writing staff, she’s made her mark, both on The Living Multiverse and, of course, The Unconventional. Her series Sonata of the Screen and Grid, provides in-depth analysis of the usage and evolution of music in video games and cinema.
- “HISTORY.” Konami Games, Konami Digital Entertainment, konami.com/games/castlevania/eu/en/history
- Hughes, William, et. all. “30 Years of Night: A Musical History of Castlevania.” Games, Games.avclub.com, 3 May 2018, avclub.com/30-years-of-night-a-musical-history-of-castlevania-1798252346.
- Staff, GDMag. “A Classic Interview with Castlevania Composer Michiru Yamane.” Gamasutra Article, gamasutra.com/view/news/207767/A_classic_interview_with_Castlevania_composer_Michiru_Yamane.php.
- “Interview: Bloodstained’s Koji Igarashi.” PC PowerPlay Magazine, 7 Oct. 2015, web.archive.org/web/20160320091349/www.pcpowerplay.com.au/feature/interview-bloodstaineds-koji-igarashi,410167.
- Napolitano, Jayson. “E3: Oscar Araujo Confirmed for Castlevania Sountracks.” Destructoid, 6 June 2012. destructoid.com/e3-oscar-araujo-confirmed-for-castlevania-soundtracks/.