Review by Mike Finkelstein
As darkness looms and the moon rises in the sky, one man must venture into the evil lands of Dracula's Castle. Armed with only a whip, he must face off against the evil vampire to save the world.
That's as much story as we ever get in the first Castlevania game in the series (especially if you picked up your copy used and never read the instruction booklet). It was the golden age of the NES (technically the silver age of video games), and story wasn't nearly as important as game mechanics. Story was what happened in other games (those played on computers, where you used text to do things). When it came to gaming on the NES, all you needed what a good challenge and the audacity to try and beat the game.
Make no mistake about it, the original Castlevania is a brutal game. Maybe it's not as bad as Contra, for example (you do get a health bar, as well as lives, so that's one up on the game of disposable army men). But it is quite tough. I remember playing the first stage of the game and dying at the Giant Bat at the end. This is one of the easiest bosses is the game, and I was "skilled" enough to die at him. My ability to make it through the castle improved over time, but the challenge of the game never let up. Even now, I consider it an accomplishment to make it through the second stage. One wrong jump, one misused subweapon, and the game was up.
Daunting challenge aside, there's a lot to like in the original game. Sure, by today's standards, it's a bit dated. Graphics are appropriately low-color (due to the limits of the system), but they have a certain style (panache, if you will) that rises above the limits of the colors. The castle feels like a dark, dank castle (despite the sometimes inappropriate colors, especially the bright pinks in places). It might not be much to look at by current standards, but this game wanted to be so much more stylish than it was, and once you're in, playing it, you won't notice the dated graphics for long.
The ambiance is helped, in no small part, by the music and sound. Castlevania boasts a fantastic soundtrack for its six stages (plus boss fights) that rises above its plinky, chip-tune nature. These are songs (like "Vampire Killer" and "Wicked Child") that are worth listening to even outside the context of the game (and they're songs that have been referenced and remixed time and again by laters entries in the series). Coupled with a sound mix that emphasized Simon's journey through the castle (the crack of the whip, the grunt each time Simon get hit), Castlevania is a pleasure to listen to, and to play.
It may be hard, but the game isn't unforgiving. Control is precise where it needs to be and hit detection is spot on. When you die, you know it was your fault. The computer may be actively out the kill you, but it's not cheating to do it. Castlevania wants you to learn to best the castle, to make it through the traps and past the menacing bosses. It tries to kill you, but that's so you learn and do better next time.
Because, remember, defeating Dracula is only the beginning. He always comes back...