The original Castlevania is a surprisingly simple game. Perhaps more surprising is how good it is despite that. It’s a game where the quality comes from the level and gameplay design rather than any particular big ideas.
You play as one of the many Belmonts (Simon in this case), armed with only a whip. The whip has two levels of upgrade, but you will receive both very quickly each time you start a new life, to the point where the upgrades are almost superfluous. You have limited mobility compared to the action games of the time, with a jump that can’t be adjusted in mid-air and no way to do things you might expect to be simple, like jumping onto a staircase. Your range of attack is limited to a forward whip and a crouching forward whip, and it’s a fairly slow animation, so you’ll need to fight tactically to have a chance.
The game does offer a wide variety of sub-weapons that are varying degrees of useful. They range from a simple knife that grants a basic ranged attack to the stopwatch that freezes time for all enemies for a few seconds. While these weapons are powerful when used correctly and can greatly enhance your survivability, they see their most use during boss fights.
The boss fights in Castlevania are memorable and get progressively harder. The game is divided into six distinct levels, each with its own boss. You have unlimited continues, but each sets you at the start of the level, and even simply dying sends you to the beginning of the third of the current level you’re on. As a result, with the exception of the final boss, you’ll always need to play through at least part of a level before fighting any boss. As a result, you really need to learn not only boss patterns, but the stages themselves.
If you’ve played future Castlevania games, a few things stand out in the original. The castle design is actually pretty consistent in many other games, so veterans of Symphony of the Night for example will recognize most of this game and its enemies. The U.S. manual even hints at some aspects of the actual storyline, unlike other Konami games like Metal Gear. This really feels like the start of a series.
Castlevania is a classic game because it’s so well-tuned. It’s short, but hard enough that it will take some time to beat. There are difficulty spikes, but they can be overcome. For instance, the final boss can be quite hard at first, but you continue indefinitely at the point just before the fight, so you have time to learn it. There’s even a more difficult second quest for those seeking a greater challenge. This is a game well worth revisiting.