Castlevania was dead. Not undead, like one of those chipper skeletons always throwing spare bones around the series’ dank dungeons and improbable libraries. (And where the hell do those leering freaks get all those bones anyway? Their Jordan-esque airtime abilities aren’t as weird as their willingness to waste what should be finite bone power.) No, Konami’s classic gestalt of beloved 20th-century pulp horror was all the way dead. In the 2010s, the only remnants of the series that helped define what action video games could be—twice no less—were the muddy, Castlevania-in-name-only Lords Of Shadow trilogy and a pachinko machine. The pachinko machine’s big selling point was its “erotic violence.” Nothing says you don’t give a damn about your legacy or future creative and business potential quite like slapping “EROTIC VIOLENCE” on your work in the late 2010s.
But pulling a page from Dracula’s playbook, the storied series appears to be rising from the grave. While Konami itself remains largely out of the business of developing new video games, it’s become increasingly liberal with licensing out its characters for other media. The series’ iconic soundtracks have been getting sumptuous vinyl reissues through Mondo Tees. Netflix has produced an animated show penned by acerbic comic book writer Warren Ellis that is surprisingly faithful to the series’ best entries. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Nintendo’s latest “It’s A Mad World But Video Games” brawler, even added the vampire hunters Simon and Richter Belmont to its roster. There is even, yes, a mobile game that borrows characters from the classic games, rather than just their names, as Lords Of Shadow did. The coffin that Castlevania rests in may not be bursting open, but it’s certainly not as still as it was.
Beyond the re-emergence of its iconography, Castlevania’s influence feels stronger on the gaming landscape than it has since its first dynasty in the 1980s. Developers of every stripe are tapping into its veins: The Messenger’s taut jump-and-slice rhythm; Dead Cells’ compulsive exploration and dripping pixel art; Hollow Knight’s expert blend of haunting melodies and imagery as grotesque as it is endearing. Castlevania’s blood is infused in a growing army of games filling its absence.
But that absence is still keenly felt, because, for all the games that draw on Castlevania’s action, exploration, and aesthetics, none nail the precise mixture of characteristics that made it so influential. Reduce Castlevania to its caramelization point, and you’ll find its sweetest sugar isn’t its structure. Castlevania doesn’t easily break into separate genres because it’s varied significantly from the beginning. The true essence of the series is momentum, how it lets you move through distinct spaces. That marriage of movement and space defines the best, worst, and weirdest entries in the series.
The original Castlevania, directed by Hitoshi Akamatsu, was one of the defining experiments to come out of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s wild mid-’80s. Super Mario Bros. had completely revitalized the platform in 1985, and Castlevania was one of the new breed of crazy, creative games to spawn in its wake in 1986. Where Nintendo’s premier platformer felt whimsical, though, Castlevania’s action felt dangerous, thanks to its violence and chunky, lurid art. Lead character Simon Belmont moved with a heavy intent, winding up for each whip strike and gliding through the air in arced jumps over crumbling parapets. This formula and pace became a bedrock for action games that followed on all gaming hardware. If your game had a character moving from left to right and hitting things rather than shooting them, Castlevania’s DNA was there.
Every fight against the game’s mishmash of monsters—ripped either from mid-20th-century Hollywood movies, like Boris Karloff’s Mummy, or mythology, like the disembodied Medusa heads—felt momentous and fraught. And they were: The game was short even for its era, but also absolutely brutal in its difficulty. It was a hit, but Akamatsu abandoned its structure for the swiftly produced Castlevania II. Keeping the basic feel of the action, Castlevania II dropped the muted colors and clear, vicious action of the original for a game that tried to be more expansive and story-based but only ended up feeling ponderous. Some of the atmosphere was there, but none of the clarity. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse fixed that and perfected the series’ formula, introducing a cast of characters and branching pathways to enhance the sense of place Castlevania II was striving for, but maintaining and expanding upon that crucial momentum that made the original Castlevania so magical.
Castlevania III stars not just Trevor Belmont, Simon’s 17th-century predecessor, but three companions: a wall-climbing pirate named Grant Danasty; Dracula’s son, Alucard, who can turn into a bat and throw fire; and Sypha Belnades, a spell-casting vampire hunter with a fascinatingly progressive story. Where Trevor moved exactly like Simon, all three of his potential companions completely recontextualized that careful, methodical action but retained the core feeling. The freedom offered by Grant and Alucard to move around made jumping seem less perilous, but made fighting feel so much more difficult. Sypha’s spells ate enemies alive, but her short reach made her vulnerable. This was the game that proved Castlevania’s action could be expanded upon in context without losing its identity.
That identity came into vivid focus here as well, with a monumental expansion in artistic scope. The original game’s six environments and the second game’s mishmash of towns, swamps, and blocky “mansions” gave way to 15 completely distinct environments, imbuing Castlevania’s world a personality beyond homage to Universal Studios and EC Comics. Giant owls peered out of trees, a Cyclops guarded an entombed sorceress, a pirate ship took you to a horrible place, and mammoth gears provided footholds up an impossible clock tower.
Castlevania III is the game that created the series’ world that endures today; Netflix’s animated show is directly based on the game. For the next 20 years, every other game to bear the name sprang from this one, even those that dramatically changed the structure. When Castlevania returned to more seamless exploration, it was rooted in the alternate paths and art of this game. And when it expanded into 3D, disastrously at first, it was nevertheless rooted in the art and world of Dracula’s Curse.
Castlevania II was not the first bad Castlevania game—that distinction belongs to arcade spin-off Haunted Castle—and it wasn’t the last. Miserable flip-phone game Order Of Shadows, multiple mediocre black-and-white Game Boy games, that Tiger Handheld freakshow—there are plenty of missteps. The most tragic and lamentable of the Castlevania games is its first foray into the third dimension: Castlevania for Nintendo 64.
Castlevania 64 (as it’s colloquially known) isn’t bad because of its shift in style. Far from it. The series would eventually see some excellent 3D outings on PlayStation 2, like Castlevania: Lament Of Innocence, which retained that mix of precise, otherworldly motion and memorable world-building that are crucial to making a great Castlevania. In fact, it gets at least half the equation right. Murky and washed out, the early 3D graphics of Castlevania 64 have only improved with age, giving the whole game a surreal, dirty air that perfectly evokes that nightmare feeling of being lost in bad weather or stuck in a building you don’t understand. Critics and fans indicted it at the time for some of its enemy designs—motorcycle skeletons are stupid, bro!—but they all felt perfectly of a piece with the oddballs that had shown up in Castlevania III’s artful offspring Super Castlevania IV, Bloodlines, and Rondo Of Blood. (Not to mention a certain PlayStation game we’ll get to shortly.)
Only one crime is so heinous that it damns Castlevania 64 to the bottom of the pile: Moving is miserable. Lead characters Reinhardt Schneider and Carrie Fernandez glide all over the world like their feet are covered in bacon grease and Silly Putty, somehow sticky and slippery at the same damn time. Every strike against some heavy-breathing merman or blocky tiger-man feels like a stroke of luck rather than careful timing. Worst of all, whenever you have to jump up a series of stairs, cliffs, or anything you’d typically jump over in Castlevania, it feels impossible to properly land or judge distances. Castlevania thrives on all movement feeling driven and filled with purpose. Castlevania 64 feels like you’re given a body that depends entirely on chance.
Some of this could be chalked up to shifting technology. The early days of three-dimensional game design were unkind to many developers who had mastered two-dimensional action. Konami even recognized these shortcomings to the point of releasing an expanded, remixed version of the game, subtitled Legacy Of Darkness, later in 1999. But while Legacy Of Darkness addresses some of 64’s shortcomings—at least you can see what’s happening most of the time—it still feels awful to handle. In 1999, three years after Super Mario 64 and one year after The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, Castlevania 64’s clumsiness was competitively disastrous. Coming two years after the most graceful and the strangest of all Castlevanias, it was unforgivable.
And then there’s Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night for PlayStation. Released in 1997, it remains a landmark for the series, for exploration-based platformers, for pixel art, for sound design, and more. It’s among the most pointed-to inspirations for indie games made in the past 10 years. Taking the weakest character from Castlevania III and turning him into a goth anime heartthrob with the dopest cape in town, Symphony Of The Night is a direct sequel to both that game and the little-played Rondo Of Blood. It turned up the narrative ambitions with penny dreadful dialogues straight out of a Tommy Wiseau remake of The Vampire Lovers. Dracula gained a tragic past. There were rotting, furry alligators whose tails turned into women who forgot to wear pants. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night is possibly the most-imitated game of the past 20 years, but no one, not even producer Koji Igarashi, has ever matched it.
Nor should they necessarily want to. There’s a very good reason that Symphony Of The Night is not named the best Castlevania here: It’s a mess. Make no mistake, being a mess is what makes it great. Those qualities that define Castlevania—movement and world—are here in spades. Alucard has none of the rigidity of the Belmonts, but his shadowy flow from one tier to the next in every glittering hall of Dracula’s castle is just delicious. He feels fluid but intentional. As a space, with its mix of rough polygonal features and sumptuous pixel art, Symphony Of The Night’s castle is like Castlevania III’s countryside post-Wizard Of Oz twister, plopped into a Technicolor revelation. By the end, Alucard can simply demolish any obstacle in his way. Unfolding the castle, finding a way to unlock the next path, is a pleasure in and of itself, but Symphony Of The Night never necessarily stands in your way. No punishing repeat deaths, just a steady easy flow inside the gory on-screen violence. As a result, the game has a compulsive, dreamy quality. You’re endlessly pulled forward, but there’s no urgency. That doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it weird. Very, very weird.
Take, for example, the alligator with a pantsless woman for a tail. Were that an isolated idiosyncrasy in Symphony Of The Night, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning a second time. But Alligator McBeal is just one in hundreds of bizarre sights and instances peppered through the game. There’s an armored butcher who screams like a drowning Game Boy every time you cut him down passing back through his hall. At the bottom of the eastern castle wall is a telescope that looks across the river surrounding the castle for no reason other than… it looks cool? Who knows. Alucard can find some peanuts and he’ll throw them in the air and you have to catch them to heal. They heal barely a fraction of your health. In the game’s chapel—ultimate evil Dracula, a vampire injured by the crucifix, has a chapel—there’s a confessional, and if Alucard takes the priest’s seat a ghost will stab him. Like any dream, Symphony Of The Night is a seemingly bottomless well of disconnected, purposeless oddities that nonetheless feel of a piece in context.
Which is why it endures. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night is one of the greatest games ever made because of these oddities. No one forgets butt alligators or the prettiest vampire in history randomly eating some peanuts after floating his way through a mysterious ice cavern. If you want undiluted Castlevania, turn to Castlevania III; if you want Castlevania diluted with lysergic acid, you grab Symphony Of The Night. It’s also why the Castlevanias that followed on the Nintendo DS that borrowed its structure maintained a devoted but shrinking audience until the series itself died in 2008 to make way for whatever Lords Of Shadow was. Aria Of Sorrow, Order Of Ecclesia, and the other Koji Igarashi Castlevanias maintained that alchemical fusion of motion and zone. Some were arguably better games than Symphony itself. But despite their mechanical experiments—like letting you play as a monster-commanding reincarnation of Dracula in Aria Of Sorrow—they were relatively staid exercises in the established world. Wonderful, certainly, but never weird.
If and when Castlevania returns, it won’t be weighed by the measure of Castlevania III or Castlevania 64. Those canonized entries, representing the best and worst extensions of Akamatsu’s original vision, have preserved legacies elsewhere. Designers have been making brilliant action platformers for 32 years, and they’ve known how to make a bad 3D action game since before 1999. Every successor, from the brisk and addictive Dead Cells to the grandeur of Hollow Knight, live in the weirdo shadow of Symphony because of its singularity. If Castlevania itself, Koji Igarashi’s successor Bloodstained, or any other game can pick up that mantle, it won’t just live. It’ll be immortal.