Pulp Appeal: Castlevania (Part 1)

Alright readers of Broadswords and Blasters, it’s time for a full on nerd-out, and the topic is the Castlevania franchise. This article ballooned on me. In fact, it practically metastasized, so there will be a part 2 in next week. I guess you can say I’m a Castlevania fan. I even forgot until just now that my wallpaper on my iPad is fan art for Castlevania, with nearly every character from the game series history present in the piece. So…yeah. Also, you should listen to this playlist of some really awesome video game music as you read.

I first played Castlevania on the original Nintendo back in 1987. I was probably at my friend Michael’s house, as he was the only kid in the neighborhood I knew who had a Nintendo. I got my first Nintendo three or four years later. I didn’t have the original Castlevania in my library, but I did have the sequel, Simon’s Quest. To this day I’ll fight people over the importance Simon’s Quest had not just to the Castlevania series, but to video games in general. But before all that, let’s talk about why Castlevania even deserves to be discussed in an article for a pulp fiction magazine.

Look, it’s impossible to talk about horror, particularly pulp horror, without including a discussion about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the advent of the now-oversaturated genre of vampire fiction. Although vampires had existed in cultural histories for centuries, and although there had been novels before the Irishman tackled the lore, it’d be silly to somehow conclude Stoker wasn’t the progenitor of vampires as we conceive of them in the world today. Shortly after the novel was published there was a glut of Dracula literature. There were plays, other novels in the same vein, and even early films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu,[1] an unauthorized production of the original novel, which was almost lost to history as Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and nearly every copy of the extant film was destroyed. Luckily for history, the destruction was not complete and versions of the film survived.

DraculaChristopherLee

Christopher Lee

Bela Lugosi

In 1931 the most famous film adaptation of Dracula came to life with Bela Lugosi playing the undead Wallachian count. This version has become iconic for his widow’s peak and his accent, and the tropes it established are still around today (Hotel Transylvania is one example. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not). In the late 1950s what was old was new again, and Hammer Horror did a bunch of remakes of 1930s films, the most famous being Dracula but this time portrayed by Christopher Lee.

Castlevania_-_(NA)_-_01

While Lugosi may be looked upon as iconic, he only played the role in two films whereas Lee played Dracula in seven. It’s this latter portrayal that has a direct impact on Castlevania. In 1986 Konami made the first game, titled Akumajō Dracula (Devil Castle Dracula) for the Famicom Disk System, an add-on for the Famicom, the Japanese home computer system that was later modified and sold in US as the Nintendo Entertainment System. A year after its release in Japan, Castlevania hit shelves in America. This name change was to avoid the religious terminology, something Nintendo of America has done its best to keep out of games for much of its existence. (But they kept the crosses, holy water, and demonic elements of the gameplay…) Two other versions of the game, with two other title switches, were released on the MSX2 computer and as an arcade cabinet. The former, Vampire Killer, is named after the main character’s whip, and the latter, Haunted Castle, serves as a de facto sequel to Castlevania, though it’s not in the official game canon and is often forgotten (sometimes deliberately) because it’s just not very good.

As you can see in the image at the top of this page, the opening screen for the game is designed to look like a film strip and sets up the central conceit running through the rest of the game into and through the end credits. Essentially Castlevania is a Hammer-Horror-style film, right down to the names in the credits, which are deliberate tongue-in-cheek corruptions of real names. The game says Dracula is played by Christopher Bee, Death is Belo Lugosi, Frankenstein is Boris Karloffice, and the Mummy is Love Chaney, Jr. The screenplay is even “written by” Vram Stoker. It’s an obvious homage to anyone who knows these properties, and to pretty much anyone else who osmotically absorbed such information.

And that brings me to the plot summary, such as exists for an action-platformer, for the game. Simon Belmont sets out to rid the world of Dracula, as the undead count has launched an attack on humanity. After selecting start, the next screen has Belmont walking up to the gates of a gigantic castle in the middle of the night. From there Belmont makes his way through the castle under the player’s control, utilizing the aforementioned whip, Vampire Killer, which can be upgraded in length and strength, and a series of optional subweapons like a cross-boomerang, an axe, a dagger, or jars of holy water. At the end of each major stage, there is a boss battle where each boss is one of the standards from the Universal/Hammer horror films. There is a giant bat, Medusa, The Mummy (two of them, really), Frankenstein and Igor, the Grim Reaper, and Dracula himself, but he has two separate forms: the human-appearing count, and a demon.[2]

24055-castlevania-ii-simon-s-quest-nes-front-coverCastlevania 2: Simon’s Quest is a direct sequel to the first, and carries with it the same conceit of film homage. In this one Dracula’s minions are still around, despite Simon Belmont having killed Dracula, so Belmont has to gather the pieces of Dracula’s body from where he scattered them, resurrect the vampire again, and this time kill Dracula in the proper fashion. The gameplay while appearing similar in that it’s an action platformer, is actually significantly different. It’s more of a side-scrolling roleplaying game. The player has to actively gain currency, level up the character, purchase items, including whip upgrades, and go back and forth between towns and wild areas, much as is common in games like Zelda and Metroid. While there is much derision hurled at Simon’s Quest because of its cryptic clues and unclear dialogue translations,[3] it was a huge path diversion in terms of how the game was structured. The non-linear progression, multiple paths, and puzzle/clue nature of exploration founded the direction the game would take for most of the rest of the series. At the end of the game, depending on how quickly the player finishes, there are several different endings, ranging from dour and black and white to full color and triumphant, something that was also somewhat rare for the time period, but which went a long way to making video games more interactive, and also increasing their replayability.

Castlevania_III_-_Dracula's_Curse_-_(NA)_-_01Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse is the high point of the game series for me. It takes the linear progression of the first game, adds in some of the branching path ideas from the second while paring down on some of the roleplaying elements, and overall improves on both of its ancestors to make a superlative game. It also introduces more protagonist characters into the world of Castlevania. The game is effectively a prequel to the first two games, a common occurrence for part threes in the video game world. In this game you start the game as Trevor Belmont, the ancestor of Simon from the first two games. During this game players have branching path choices and can rescue three other people along the way, though each time the player rescues someone, they end up having to choose which person to keep around as the game only allows the player to keep Trevor and one companion. The people are rescued after first battling them, either to remove a curse or to prove Trevor’s worthiness as a hero. The characters are the pirate Grant, the sorceress Sypha, and Dracula’s son Alucard, in a direct rip-off/homage to the Hammer films. Each of these characters grants the player the ability to swap between them and Trevor, and has different skill sets to augment Trevor’s whip and subweapon abilities. Grant is much faster, nimbler, and better at jumping than Trevor and can climb walls. Sypha can use magical spells to freeze or burn enemies, but she’s slower and doesn’t jump as high. Alucard is perhaps the most powerful. He’s a dhampir, half vampire/half human, and can turn into a bat at will or shoot fireballs. He’s not as nimble as Grant, but can access areas no other character can simply because he can fly. Each of these characters provides the player access to even more branching paths, but the player can never see them all during one game session. They’d have to beat the game four separate times to see all the possibilities. One of the more popular endings is to keep Sypha around until the end, at which point she and Trevor become romantic. Keep this game in mind for next week’s article.

I’m not going to do this same deep dive on the rest of the game series here or else you’d be here reading for the next couple of hours. There are literally dozens of other games, ranging from Tiger Electronic LED versions to GameBoy, from Sega Genesis/Megadrive to Super Nintendo, from Playstation to Nintendo 3DS. There may even be a game in the future for the Nintendo Switch. At least, I bloody well hope so.

As a matter of fact, the reason I first started writing this Pulp Appeal was to talk about the Netflix animated series, which both Matt and I really like, but I’m at a good stopping point for now and will spend my next article tackling the show and wrapping up my opinions on Castlevania and its impact on me and its appeal for fans of pulp. See you in two weeks.


[1] It’s in the public domain, and below is an excellent, high quality restoration you can watch on YouTube.

[2] Incidentally, in the speedrunning community this demon form is known as the Cookie Monster. See for yourself why.

cookie monster

[3] The most famous criticism of Simon’s Quest comes from the YouTube series Angry Video Game Nerd. Simon’s Quest was the first episode of the AVGN series. In the episode, the nerd calls out the game’s obnoxious day-night transition and the cryptic clues, which are often factually incorrect as some of the townsfolk Simon talks to actually lie. The nerd’s seeming hatred for the game set the stage for James Rolfe’s character as a cranky, foul-mouthed, beer-swilling detractor of piss-poor video games. His over-the-top antics are not for everyone, but with 2.7 Million YouTube subscribers, DVD and Blu-ray releases of extended episodes, and even a feature-length movie, the nerd is a fixture in the YouTube community. I mean, he’s even considered important enough to have a Wikipedia page.

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2 Responses to Pulp Appeal: Castlevania (Part 1)

  1. Reblogged this on Mangled Latin and commented:

    Today I talk about Castlevania, so if that’s your jam, be sure to read this and check back in a week when I’ll talk even more about Castlevania.

    Like

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