Playing with Power: A night in Dracula's castle
November 21, 2018
I originally intended to run this in October, since Halloween factors perfectly into a game featuring Dracula and other well-known monsters.
With the elections, I opted to hold off because allowing our readers to voice their opinions is much more important than me using this space to reminisce about a 31-year-old game I played on a Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini.
Dracula has become one of the most enduring icons of horror. Bram Stoker’s original character, based loosely off of a 15th century ruler known as Vlad the Impaler, has morphed and changed over the past century. Most people likely imagine him looking similar to Bela Lugosi’s characterization in the 1931 film “Dracula.” However, with each imagining, Dracula changes, morphs and has kept up with the trends of both the medium he’s in and of popular culture in general.
This is true in the video game realm too, with “Castlevania” reflecting how Dracula can change to fit the medium. The “Castlevania” games take place over a large timeline involving multiple heroes and their quest to destroy the undead vampire. As such, Dracula is a more important character to the games than any of the heroes people play as. While Super Mario can play the hero in the absence of Bowser, the King of the Koopas, “Castlevania” and its Belmont family of vampire hunters cannot exist without Dracula’s influence.
Dracula is given a variety of powers and abilities fitting for a video game villain, well beyond the scope of Stoker’s imagination. In “Castlevania,” Dracula is given command over a legion of undead and mythological creatures from multiple cultures and stories. Zombies, vampire bats, and animated suits of armor join Frankenstein’s Monster, Medusa and the Grim Reaper in defending Dracula’s castle. Dracula himself has many of the powers associated with vampires, but is given a host of magical abilities suitable for a being on par with Satan. He can shoot fireballs, teleport throughout the room and transform into a larger demonic beast that spits fireballs at the player. Hitting Dracula in the head is the only way of damaging him too.
For Simon Belmont, the hero of “Castlevania,” his abilities are far less impressive. Compared to Mario, Simon only travels at one speed: a plodding, deliberate pace that feels sluggish. He’s unable to jump as high too, meaning a jump to avoid an attack or clear a gap has to be much more precise. Simon has a few weapons at his disposal that, if used properly, can be quite useful as he makes his way through Dracula’s castle. He has a holy whip that is his primary tool for fighting the dark creatures attacking him. He can also pick up a cross, axe, dagger, holy water or a time-stopping watch. He can only have one item in his possession and will drop the item he has in favor of whatever he picks up.
Like a lot of other video games from the era, “Castlevania” is difficult to play through. While Simon can take multiple hits before dying, small mistakes add up and can quickly result in a player taking on a level’s boss monster with a small amount of life left on Simon’s health bar. Another unique challenge involves Simon being thrown back a few paces every time an enemy hits him. The game’s later levels take advantage of this and create situations where Simon can get hit by a monster and immediately fall into a pit. This can be very frustrating.
“Castlevania” was popular enough to warrant two sequels on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the series continued on later video game systems, with Dracula gaining the power to be reincarnated every 100 years to accommodate for these sequels. While the newest “Castlevania” game to be released was in 2014, compilations of some of the series’ best games continue to get repackaged and released on newer consoles. The series’ third game was also re-imagined as the story for Netflix’s “Castlevania” animated series, which had its second season recently release. Simon and his descendant Richter Belmont will even appear as playable characters in Nintendo’s upcoming “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” game.
That kind of longevity and reach isn’t common for many video game series, but Dracula isn’t a common character either. The immortal vampire continues to fuel conflict in “Castlevania” more than 30 years after the first game was released, just like he’s done in cinema for more than a century.