Delving Into Castlevania – #2

Last time around, we looked at how Castlevania’s overall mechanics and sense of game design can be traced forward to technical action games such as From Software’s popular titles.

Today, I wanted to focus on some other important and distinctive aspects of this original NES installment: specifically the platforming component, and the boss fights.

All of the elements we’ll have talked about by the end of today combine together to create the distinctive experience that is Castlevania — not just for this first game, but for much of the early series.

Let’s consider the platforming angle first. I’ve seen some people describe Castlevania as a “beat ’em up”, and I can sort of understand why — it involves constant forward progression and places a strong emphasis on combat. Where I think this comparison falls down somewhat, however, is the presence of the platforming.

It’s not unheard of for a beat ’em up to incorporate platforming elements, of course, but generally speaking they take a back seat to punching people and/or things in the face. In Castlevania, meanwhile, they’re front and centre — and, more to the point, they’re incredibly distinctive.

One of the first things that new Castlevania players will notice is the fact that it feels very “heavy”. Simon moves rather slowly compared to, say, Mario, and his jump is very rigid. You can’t change its direction in flight, and if you don’t launch yourself forwards as you jump, you’ll just leap up in the air; you can’t simply start moving once you’ve left the ground. The ascent is relatively gradual, but the descent is rapid, meaning you’d better hope there’s a platform to land on by the time you reach the apex of your jump!

The descent from a jump is nothing compared to the speed at which Simon falls, however. Stepping off the edge of something, he falls like an absolute rock, and much like when jumping, you can’t control his trajectory — he simply falls straight down, often to his death if he drops off the bottom of the screen, even if you’ve come from a stage “below” your current position. We are not yet in the realm of open-structure platformers where you can backtrack at will!

Simon’s distinctive falling mechanics will be a big adjustment to those who are more accustomed to platform games with a degree of momentum to them such as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog; in those games, running off the edge of a platform without jumping and allowing your forward momentum to carry you to a platform slightly below and ahead of your current position is a viable (and sometimes essential!) option. In Castlevania, meanwhile, stepping off an edge means that you’re going to drop, hard, no questions asked, so there better be something down there to break that fall, otherwise you’re going to be in trouble.

Neither Castlevania nor Super Mario and company’s jumping and falling mechanics are particularly “superior” to one or the other, but it is worth acknowledging the difference, because it forces you to play each type of game in a very different way. Castlevania’s weight and relatively sedate pace lends it a very deliberate, meaningful feel: everything you do has consequences, either good or bad, and becoming proficient at the game is a matter of mastering these rigid mechanics rather than muddling your way through and hoping for the best.

In some ways, this can be interpreted as Super Mario and its ilk being family-friendly experiences that anyone can enjoy, while Castlevania is intended for more mature gamers — not necessarily in age terms (though some may argue horror themes are more appropriate for older gamers anyway), but rather in terms of experience. You don’t give Castlevania to someone who’s never picked up a controller before and expect them to 1) succeed or 2) have a particularly good time.

The boss fights tie into this focus on experienced players, too. Being an 8-bit NES game, the boss fights in Castlevania aren’t especially elaborate, typically consisting of a large enemy moving via a preset, predictable movement path and perhaps shooting painful things at you. Despite their mechanical simplicity, however, they can be very challenging indeed; quick to punish mistakes and send you back to the start of the stage with your tail between your legs.

What’s interesting about the design of Castlevania’s bosses is that they gradually increase in complexity as the game progresses. The first two simply involve moving to avoid the boss and ensuring you can get some hits in on them. The third boss, which consists of a pair of mummies, teaches you about prioritising targets and defending against attacks from multiple angles. The fourth, which features a vulnerable Frankenstein’s Monster boss with no attacks of his own and a stunnable but otherwise invincible “helper”, builds on this formula by forcing you to calculate the best openings in which to attack.

Things only get more challenging from there — although those simple mechanics do sometimes mean there are exploits you can take advantage of to defeat them easily, as anyone who has defeated Death by repeatedly throwing Holy Waters at him will happily attest!

The bosses are clearly intended to be a focal point of the Castlevania experience — hell, the game’s interface shows the boss’ health bar throughout the entire block of stages leading up to them. In some respects, each complete block can almost be seen as a puzzle of sorts; the more you play the game, the more it becomes clear that certain subweapons are more effective than others on specific bosses, meaning it becomes a challenge to firstly find the appropriate subweapon, and then to successfully carry it all the way to the boss — perhaps stopping to locate the double- and triple-shot powerups along the way to allow spamming of these items.

You won’t beat Castlevania on your first attempt. You probably won’t beat it on your twentieth. But each time you play, you’ll learn a little more and develop your skills a little further, and that’s where this game’s satisfaction comes from. With each boss successfully taken down, you can give yourself a pat on the back for a significant achievement… and frankly, as of the time of writing I can only imagine how good it feels to finally vanquish Dracula once and for all… or at least for this time around!

More about Castlevania
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3 thoughts on “Delving Into Castlevania – #2”

  1. The original Castlevania games had a lot of elements borrowed by other games. The Ninja Gaiden Trilogy had similar level designs and HUDs. The same could be said for VICE: Project Doom, and a few other games. But each threw in their own distinct elements that set them apart. So much so that many of us didn’t realize this until we were adults. Anyway, great analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

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