Mainlining is our new featured series where we run through all the mainline games in a series one article per game, often in different and original ways. We begin with a series that sought to evoke the spirit of old monster movies of the past, while simultaneously challenging us with tight platforming and brilliant level design. Castlevania is a timeless game I have played and loved consistently since 1987.
Some series form their core identity over time but Castlevania established a tone right from the start. The look and feel of Castlevania that ran through the entire series came from the original game.
Despite the occasional wild detours in the franchise formula, this series is at Dracula’s heart about jumping and whipping. It is the epitome of what I believe matters most in video games. It’s fun.
As the first entry in the Mainlining: Castlevania series, I’ve decided to break down what my thoughts were as I replayed through the games 18 stages (divvied up into 6 levels with 3 stages apiece).
STAGE 01 – ENTER THE VAMPIRE KILLER
The very beginning of Castlevania is a brilliant bit of game design. In just 15 seconds you know almost everything you need to know about jumping, whipping, candle breaking, and acquiring items and sub-weapons.
Also, jump over the entrance! Secret time, children. And treasure. Sweet treasure! Ah, such Points! Enjoy them, for the night is young.
As a kid, you play this part and it’s just so much fun. You get to whip those dumb brainless zombies to your heart’s content. I remember as a kid hating the bloodhounds for some reason. I would freak out and always find a way to take a hit from them. Now I just wait for them to approach and I swing on them dogs. That’s the real genius of this game is that it pretty much anticipates your mental path of least resistance and says, “No you don’t.” Also, those are leopards and not bloodhounds, or so the games instruction manual tells me.
Castlevania is the perfect game to treat like a series of combat puzzles. You can break down each enemy encounter and study their movement and attack patterns. Even if this encounter resulted in a hit, the next one ostensibly won’t. You can learn as you go, meaning progression is rewarding. To put it another way, I’m trying to put a positive spin on the fact you will die repeatedly when you first play this game. How’m I doin’?
This section also gives us our first breakable brick, netting us some cash points. This time, it’s Blue Money!
Another fun little moment I always enjoy is exiting stage one while snagging that Useless Cross you don’t really need since you’ve got one foot out the door already. But it does make that cool little noise as we have our first-ever door transition in the game. So many firsts! But seriously, why Useless Cross?
STAGE 02 – SURF AND TURF
We get the first instance of Castlevania wall meat, or whatever your little pet name for it is. I’m sure it’s just as good as mine. Block Turkey. Chicken-a-Blocks. Probably not better than Chicken-a-Blocks.
For the record, they’re called Pork Chops.
Anyway, pop into the sewers real quick to get your first taste of the Fish Man. He represents the first jump scare of the game, bursting out of the water at the last second just when you think it’s safe to leap to the next ledge. Fear not. You may die several times when you first encounter them, but this section will teach you a series-spanning move that involves jumping and swinging your whip at an enemy while leaping over a pit. All three original games employ it, as do several others. Love it. Learn it. Live it. In whatever order that’s supposed to be in.
STAGE 03 – NOT LONG ENOUGH FOR A WHOLE MEMOIR OF AN INVISIBLE MAN
We’re back in The Drapes of Wrath for the final leg of Castlevania‘s first level. You get to see the very brief spell of invincibility you earn from the Yellow Jug of Transparency. The game manual, which I still own, calls it an Invisibility Potion, but it’s always been Useless Romanian Water Jug to me.
So here I am killing the bat, only did you know he’s called Phantom Bat? Neither did I! That’s the kind of stuff you only look up because you’re writing an article. He’s The Big Bat, or The Bigger Bat. I was the nerd that read the instruction manuals like they were the keys to the universe, and I never once corrected someone who didn’t call Bats McGoo over here Phantom Bat.
But seriously, the toughest part of the intro level is freeze-framing in the badass pose of your choice upon grabbing the red orb (sorry, the manual says “Magic Crystal”). My end pose, or Vamp as I am wont to call it, was always “Jumping in the Air Mid Swing”.
STAGE 04 – BA BOOM A RANG RANG
OK, just hear me out. Level two begins with you getting the boomerang. If you ask me, you wanna get that ‘rang and you wanna keep that ‘rang. That’s just me. Most people think it’s the Stopwatch’s game to lose because Nintendo Power (or was the Nintendo Fun Club?) told them, “You can freeze [end boss] Medusa with it!” and that was supposedly some big Pro Tip for the fight. Yeah, about that. I’ll see you and Medusa’s unwieldy mane of hair in the Stage 06 section, but for now, let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning…of Stage 04, aka Level 2.
Breaking the wall at the end of the first flight of stairs and checking out the headroom in the cubbyhole will net you a 2,000 pt crown if you can hustle back quick enough to snag it before it checks-out off the screen. In a game where extra lives sometimes matter, points are actually worth something, and reaching 30,000 and 80,000 points will net you an extra Simon.
Stage 04 also introduces moving platforms in a safe environment that you can still somehow manage to get yourself killed by if you try hard enough. Trust me.
Also, double that rang.
STAGE 05 – FIRST TIME EVER I SAW YOUR FACE
Medusa Heads. You should probably get acclimated with these little ladies because they are a series staple. Their deceptively simple up-and-then-down swaying movement have perplexed gamers for decades thanks to Konami’s level design that always seems to know where you want to go, and then scolds you for making that choice.
However, it only does that because it knows you’re smart enough to learn from your mistakes. The game loves and respects you. It’s not looking down on you with judgment like a Michael Haneke film. How dare you assume what I expect from a movie, Haneke!
[steps away from the laptop for 30 minutes to calm down and get this article to feature length]
I’m sorry. This is not the place for Funny Games. I apologize, let’s rewind.
I feel like the Fish Men encounter in the first stage prepares you for this next evolution. It’s often the same concept of jumping and attacking at the same time, only now the enemy movement is more complicated. The rhythm and flow feels less set to autopilot. It’s left up to you to establish the rhythm and then maintain it. Otherwise, you end up in a shame spiral of damaging hits that usually ends with you stumbling back into a pit. Insta-Death. It’s downright precarious.
Also, here is where the game baits you into getting the Stopwatch. Don’t. If you ask me, you hang on to that ‘rang for as long as you can. Besides, this relatively short area is basically an early gauntlet of tricky jumps and you really have to come to terms with your limited range of movements here and learn some basic skills in adapting. You must accept that once you jump, you are committed to jumping that way. If you don’t accept these things, you will miss the moving platforms, you will hit the flying Medusa heads, and you will plummet helplessly into a pit because that’s why those pits are placed where they are, baby. To punish you. It’s the only way you’ll learn, kiddo.
Plus, you could jump up on the scoring area. When I was 11, this was very cool. Real 4th wall breaking stuff. I still jump up there every time like it’s some obligatory ritual I have no problem performing. That’s one of those things, that you realize as you get older, a lot of people remember specifically doing too. It’s one of those weird iconic parts of the game that people just connect to and go, “I remember that!”
STAGE 06 – NO EYE CONTACT, IT’S IN HER CONTRACT
Stage 06 is packed with fun tidbits and first appearances of several recurring Castlevania enemies, but the most memorable moment that occurs happens should you let the Stabby Gate Forks poke you. Insta-Death. Suddenly this game is all like Consequences! This just in: Forks don’t play.
So now you have a new fear in the back of your mind. Suddenly you realize when this game introduces a new element and tells you to pay attention you pay attention. So study the forks pattern and proceed with caution to the end level boss, Medusa.
OK, so here’s the thing about Medusa. She ain’t all that. Personally, I think late 80s video games did her a severe disservice. If these games came out today, we’d be inundated with articles about how Medusa “Deserved Better”. Whether it was exploiting her “lazy eye” in Kid Icarus or simply whacking away at her here, she’s never a challenging foe. She’s basically just a floating head shedding all over you. You don’t need a Stopwatch is my point. Keep the heads Rangin’. (Will this survive the editing process?)
STAGE 07 – “THOSE FLYING HORSEHEADS ARE RAVENS?!”
When it comes to the hunchbacks, the key is restraint. They actually stop right in front of you if know how to juke them into moving first. This is classic Castlevania where an ounce of patience is worth a pound of pain.
The ravens looked like “flying horseheads” to me when I was a kid, and also as an adult. The only reason I just recently discovered they’re actually ravens is because I played this game on several different consoles including the NES Classic, which has a controller cord so infamously-ridiculously short you can’t help but see the graphics up close (there are fixes to this, but at the moment I am merely too cheap to rectify the problem).
It does really helps to make you feel like you’re in one of those old ads where the young skateboarding kid was hunched over leaning into the TV to play Marble Madness—to the Max!. Only I’m 42, and that shit is bad for my eyes, so I quickly went back to playing on the PS4 Castlevania Collection.
Also, where do those stairs go? I gotta know, man.
STAGE 08 – WHERE THINGS GET TRICKY
Basically, what you need to know about this area is if you swing and miss on the crows, you might be in a bit of trouble. Especially with all these pits everywhere. Toss in Medusa Heads and those Dragon Skull Cannon guys and you start to get the impression the game is ready to kick off the training wheels.
Oh, and there’s a crouchy-spot too.
STAGE 09 – WRAPPED UP IN YOU TWO
As we approach our third, and most challenging, boss fight to this point, we spy off in the distance the highest point of Dracula’s castle. I appreciate that as we near the literal midpoint of the game, the programmers give us a quick glimpse of the endgame.
Also, in case you were wondering, I still have the boomerang. Why have I kept the boomerang for so long? For this moment. It’s the Mummy Men. They’re not exactly hard to defeat bosses, but with a boomerang, you can just mess them up real quick and it’s super satisfying. Also, they’re good on the statue and birds.
NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL A CUTSCENE: 1987
STAGE 10 – THE CAVERN OF CHEAP DEATH
Simon, as his quads, survive quite a drop into the cavern level no worse for wear. I have some issues with this level and I’m still not sure to this day if it’s my own inadequacies as a gamer or the level design, but I’ve always found the enemies in this level to be a little “cheap”. You often have to jump on a moving platform only to encounter a bat that spawns from the right side of the screen in a position where you can’t strike it, forcing you to jump, which is tricky since you’re on a platform with a limited range of movement, meaning you often end up falling into the water one way or another. You can get the Stopwatch early on and it certainly helps but what if I don’t really want a Stopwatch?
Being aware of your surroundings is important. You will encounter those skulls during the level, and you will notice that they are part of the background and not a solid surface. Still, I often forgot this and would step off this ledge to a watery death. That’s on me.
STAGE 11 – “SO WHY DIDN’T THEY JUST FLY THE HUNCHBACKS TO THE LAST LEVEL?”
I ascend the stairs in a cool bit of autoplay animation and I know those birds clutching those hunchbacks are coming because I’ve been here before, and sure it was 1987, but I remember. I also know that it’s actually pretty easy so long as you don’t miss any of the Hunchbacks with a mistimed whip strike. However, if you do miss just one of those little fellas total mayhem will be unleashed with tiny feet of fury stomping on you like Hell’s Angels on Hunter S Thompson.
Also, you can totally run under that Skeleton Dude (he’s called a Skele-Dragon) if you got a little hustle going, then either kill him for a ton of hearts/money bags or simply move along.
STAGE 12 – WHERE I’LL NEVER LEARN THE PATTERN OF THOSE FIREBALLS
I really hate Stage 12, and for a few reasons. Those erratic Skele-Dragons. That knife (sorry, Dagger) in the candle that you always grab even when you don’t want to, and of course, Frankenstein and Igor. When you split them up, it’s just a hunchback with a fireball, and a tall, lumbering idiot, but together, they’re magic. Just total mayhem.
If you have Holy Water (which the game manual calls Fire Bomb because the NES avoided religious imagery like a non-Biblical plague) I’d douse them with that early and often. Just spam them with it. No one will judge. Least of all me, King Spam-A-Lot. NES era games are notoriously difficult and any and all tricks are allowed.
STAGE 13 – WE’RE DOING THIS, WE’RE REALLY DOING THIS
By the time you reach Stage 13 you’ve no doubt endured a few hardships along the way; maybe the Medusa heads got you a few times, you had to continue in Stage 09 and ended up taking on the mummies with nothing but a Dagger like some sucker. But all that doesn’t matter anymore because you’re in the light blue level now. You probably won’t survive your first time through anyway. You will game over. You will start from this point again, with no points, and no sub-weapon, but it’s cool. It’s almost freeing once you accept this as your new starting point. This stage is one where you have to master it piece by piece. This is where treating the game like a series of combat puzzles comes back around. You have to learn from your mistakes, or you are doomed to repeat them over and over again.
STAGE 14 – THESE GUYS
The Axe Men (that’s their names) are Castlevania royalty. These guys cause fits, mostly due to the fact that they’re often paired up with highly distracting enemies like Hunchbacks and Medusa heads that cause you to take an ax in the face when you’re busy playing defense swatting at these pests.
This is where the difficulty really starts to amp up in case you haven’t noticed.
STAGE 15 – THE LONG LONG CORRIDOR
Is this a metaphor for Death? The long, long corridor riddled with multiple strong enemies, seemingly-insurmountable odds, and a health bar rapidly depleting? What will await you at the end of your journey, battered and bruised stumbling down to the end of the long, long corridor? The Grim Reaper, that’s who, and he is a tricky one. Is it a metaphor for death? No. Not anymore. It’s too on the nose now.
STAGE 16 – BOSS RUSH MODE: ALL PHANTOM BAT EDITION
There’s a shit-ton of Level 1 Boss Bats on this bridge. Run. Run and jump. Very strategically. Do not try to fight them. It’s too many of them. Too many Big Bats. Just go, Simon. There’s no time! Actually, that’s not true, there is an insane amount of time, but that’s only because the endgame battle is potentially long and tedious. The only reason I know how to get past this part unscathed is that I saw one of those speedrunners do this part and it just sort of stuck in my brain. Sure I can’t do algebra, whatever that is, but I can speed run Stage 16 of the original Castlevania for the NES, and at the end of the day I can always just look up what algebra is.
STAGE 17 – AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY FRUSTRATING…
All the best and most whimsical parts of most Castlevania games involves gears and clockworks. I’m kidding, these areas are always frustrating as hell. However, during this run through the original game, I just sort of lucked out and got through it relatively unscathed. I didn’t question my luck, I just went with it.
Suddenly, and without much build-up, I was suddenly the dweller on the threshold.
STAGE 18 – WAKEY WAKEY
I was legitimately surprised when I realized I was at The Stairs. The Music kicked in. I knew where I was. I knew what was at the end of this hallway. It was Dracula. I was about to fight Dracula.
Just as quickly, it also all came back to me that you’ve got to tediously target his head at a very specific moment whilst dodging fireballs, not to mention dodging cheap hits from Dracula spawning right on top of you. And that was just his first form. I remembered all of it. It all rushed through me in an instant and I had to make a choice: Boomerang or Holy Water. What would best serve me in my fight against all this fuckery?
None of this even takes into account the fact that once you go fatality on Dracula his second form shows up.
On the plus side, if you die – and you will – you start at the stairs. Not sure how many people would’ve stuck out this endeavor if each time the game ended you had to go through the short but maddening Stages 16 and 17. Props, Konami.
Now look, no one loves a good Boomerang more than me, but if I’m being honest, having the Holy Water with a II or III power-up is a pretty good way to kill this winged demon. What’s his name? Batula? I’ve heard he’s supposed to be the Spirit of Dracula, but he’s more of a flappity, bat-goblin than any kind of spirit. I mean what kind of ghost lumbers around, on two feet mind you, spattering fireballs, flailing around semi-randomly anyway?
Nevertheless, defeating Dracula’s two forms will net you the final Magic Crystal, 50,000 points, and a pretty cool ending for an NES game.
True to its cinematic trappings, the Castlevania end credits have actual credits. Castlevania collapses in on itself. The bosses you fought were actually actors (pun versions of real actors) portraying monsters. Actors such as Love Chaney Jr. (Lon Chaney Jr) and Christopher Bee (Lee) are fun references to the classic horror actors who portrayed these iconic characters back in the early days of film.
And that’s it. Once the credits are over, the game loops you back to the beginning of the game, and you can continue playing a slightly harder version of the game to your heart’s content.
In the end, what I always come back to when talking about this game is how much fun it is. Is it difficult and frustrating at times? Yes, absolutely. However, I can’t think of many games that I have played as consistently through the years as this game. It’s a true gaming classic.
- I own many, many copies of this game. I have the original NES game. I have the Wii and WiiU virtual console games. I have the Castlevania Collection on PS4. I have the NES Mini version. I’m one of those suckers that re-buys the same game over and over again.
- The real original Castlevania was Vampire Killer, released for the MSX in 1986. It’s best described as a less linear Castlevania. The artistic design is basically the same, although oddly some levels look better, and others look worse. You search for keys to progress through the stages, giving the whole game an original Goonies vibe, another Konami game American audiences didn’t get outside of appearing on PlayChoice-10 arcade cabinets. We in the United States only got the wonderful and strange Goonies II (although your love and mileage may vary).
- Up next, Simon Belmont tackles obtuse hints, poor localization, and RPG elements in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.