Despite a lack of recent releases, Castlevania is one of the world’s most well-known videogame franchises. Since the first game’s release in 1986, there have been more than 30 Castlevania titles, numerous spinoffs, a handful of iOS games, a series of four pachinko machines, two arcade games, and even a Netflix series that has been heralded as the first good videogame adaptation. Not every Castlevania project has been well-received by players, but the series’ best games have had incredible staying power over the years, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is often regarded as one of the best games of all time. But what is it about Castlevania that made the series so iconic?
Even in 1986, when games’ visuals were severely limited by 8-bit technology, Castlevania’s art style set it apart from the other games being released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). It was just three years after the videogame crash of 1983, which Nintendo had survived by removing tobacco, alcohol, violence, and religion from all of their games, and marketing the NES as a children’s toy.
Castlevania ignored these guidelines, opting for dark, oppressive color schemes and grim environments filled with hanging corpses, religious symbols, and all the monsters and creatures of the night that you’d expect in a Castlevania game. These decisions put Castlevania in its own class – few other games at the time were doing anything similar, so it had almost zero direct competition.
As technology improved, Castlevania’s art style continued to be a major selling point for the series. During the development of Symphony of the Night, artist Ayami Kojima joined the Castlevania development team and guided the evolution of Castlevania’s gothic aesthetic. Later games like 2005’s Dawn of Sorrow tried to alter the art style, replacing hand-drawn illustrations with anime-inspired art that nobody really enjoyed, but not every game in a series spanning three decades can be a winner.
Early Willingness to Experiment
Speaking of failures and flops, the Castlevania franchise certainly has its share of those. Without those failures, though, Castlevania never would have had its hits. Castlevania was innovative from the beginning, and the developers’ willingness to experiment was a crucial part of the series’ success.
The original Castlevania was a standard platforming action game in terms of mechanics – think Metroid but with clunkier controls and a whip instead of a laser cannon. Castlevania II-IV introduced new mechanics: a large open world in Castlevania II, multiple playable characters in Castlevania III, and revamped, improved controls in Castlevania IV. In 1997, Castlevania hit its peak with Symphony of the Night, a game that took more chances than any installment before. Rather than having linear stages, this game’s version of Dracula’s castle was a labyrinthine, Metroid-like map. This, combined with an RPG-style leveling system, fluid controls, multiple playable characters, and the best graphics yet, made Symphony of the Night into a major turning point for the series. Many players say that no metroidvania game has topped it since.
After Symphony, Castlevania’s developers continued to make changes. In 1999, Castlevania 64 was released. It was an experiment in moving Castlevania to 3D, but the transition wasn’t graceful. The game was poorly received, as was the follow-up Legacy of Darkness. In 2003 and 2005, Konami once again tried to make the transition to 3D with Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness. Both games were vastly superior to Castlevania 64, but still failed to make the impact that previous games had.
The series fared much better on handheld consoles, which saw another handful of games over the next ten years. On handhelds, 3D graphics weren’t expected yet, and these installments were free to stick with Symphony of the Night’s formula. Most of these games were well-received.
Castlevania’s story is another major selling point. There’s something inherently fascinating about the series’ subject material: immortal, inhuman monsters, demons, and the occult. Castlevania does these things justice. While each game focuses on only one chapter of the overarching story, each game (excluding the few that have been declared non-canonical) takes place within a timeline that spans hundreds of years.
The care that has been taken in establishing that continuity and scope really shows. Bloodlines and Portrait of Ruin even feature main characters who are descendants of Quincy Morris, the protagonist of the book that started it all – Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The games state that Quincy Morris is himself a descendant of Trevor Belmont, which makes the original Dracula book part of the Castlevania canon.
Where is Castlevania Going?
Depending on who you ask, you might hear that Castlevania is already gone. Konami continues to re-release older Castlevania titles, but there hasn’t been an original game since Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 in 2014. This game was a somewhat less successful follow-up to 2010’s Lords of Shadow, the latest attempt to move to 3D. The decline in interest among players combined with recent bad press regarding Konami’s abysmal treatment of employees seems to have spelled the end of main-series Castlevania releases, at least for now.
Fortunately, even if Castlevania itself is coming to an end, its influence still lives on. Players are still enjoying Symphony of the Night and other titles, whether by buying one of the re-releases or downloading ROMs and emulators. Koji Igarashi, the architect behind Symphony of the Night and the metroidvania-style games that followed, is now developing a very similar series of games beginning with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Netflix’s Castlevania series has been renewed for a third season.
The Castlevania series has made plenty of missteps over the years, but there are also a handful of gems that are still thoroughly enjoyable 20 years after their original release. However, those missteps were made as a result of rapid innovation and a willingness to experiment. That willingness, combined with a haunting, distinctive art style, a great story, and some of the best metroidvania-style gameplay ever has made Castlevania into a classic franchise that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.