50 years. That’s a long time in anyone’s book, but yes, 2019 is Konami’s 50th anniversary and things are shaping up very nicely indeed. To celebrate, the good people at the Japanese games company are treating us to three different collections: Arcade Classics, Castlevania and Contra Anniversary Collections. Most recently, gamers were invited to “trace the origins of the historic vampire franchise”, with the release of eight games in the Castlevania series. After such a long time, are these titles worth a revisit, or have they, er, lost their bite?
First things first, the games included here in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection are: Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, The Castlevania Adventure, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, Castlevania Bloodlines and Kid Dracula. As well as these titles, the collection also contains a digital bonus book, featuring original box art, interviews with those involved in creating the games and archived designs from each release. It’s a nice extra, but a bit of a bugger to navigate through. All this is yours though for the reasonable price of £15.99, which by anyone’s standard is plenty of Castlevania for your money.
The only, potentially obvious, game missing from this compilation is the fantastic Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. It has be re-released in the past, first coming to my attention during one of the Wii Shop’s Hanabi festivals around ten years ago. These events would see games previously never released in the UK making it across to our shores for the very first time. With the Wii Shop channel closing this year, it would have been a “nice to have” game, but there’s still plenty to get stuck into here without it.
As soon as you boot up the collection it’s clear this is a collection of no frills, direct ports of these games. If you didn’t like them originally, you won’t likely be won round now. Each game has visual settings you can fiddle around with depending on how you want to experience each game, albeit that is fairly limited. Whatever you do, don’t go changing it to a 16:9 ratio though.
The first three Castlevania games are all NES releases, starting in 1987, and introduce gamers to the Belmont family. It quickly became clear that no matter what they did, they’d be going toe-to-toe with Dracula and his undead armies pretty regularly. The games are side-scrolling platformers, and are pretty unforgiving, and even as part of this collection, if you run out of lives, it’s all the way back to the beginning, for you. You’ll be needing plenty of patience if you want to fully explore these games too, as there’s no saving of your progress here.
You start armed with your famous whip, but can pick-up more powerful secondary weapons on your travels. The second game feels simplified where you only have your whip, and are introduced to a day/night mechanic, meaning the enemies would be able to take twice as much damage after sunset. I can’t quite explain it, but mainly because of small differences, it feels like the odd one out compared to Castlevania I and III. In all three adventures there are numerous pickups to nab, as you smash your way through the many candles dotted about, most of which are hearts. These, rather oddly, don’t replenish your health but provide ammunition to your secondary weapon which you’ll rely on more and more as you progress through the game, and take on bosses.
As they did back in the day, the games will still lag pretty badly when you start chucking jars of holy water about, but that’s part of the charm with nostalgia trips such as these and the Castlevania Anniversary Collection is no different. The controls can be a bit dodgy, especially when trying to navigate stairs, so I’d recommend moving with the D-Pad. Otherwise, with a certain element of patience, the games remain very playable and enjoyable to this day. Konami really nailed the vampire vibe with varied level design, enemies and eerie chiptunes.
The next game in the series, Super Castlevania IV, which was released on the mighty SNES, moved the already beloved series forward leaps and bounds. As with so many franchises, the game released in the SNES era is often considered the finest entry in the series, and there are many fans who think this of Castlevania, including myself. The game still looks and sounds fantastic today and is incredibly accessible. Control mapping has been tweaked and feels more intuitive, with simple changes such as your secondary weapon having its own dedicated button. You can now also release your whip in one of eight directions and keep it extended to spin it round and defend yourself when things get hectic. An earlier gripe of mine, stairs, have also been improved as you will climb and descend the vast majority of them automatically as your approach, instead of forgetting to push up or down and plummeting to a frustrating death like before. You can also restore your health with pickups much more regularly, which is a welcome change from the earlier titles. As a result of these improvements, the game doesn’t feel quite as unforgivingly difficult to play, but at the same time not too easy. In fact, it is a perfect balance.
You also get a couple of Game Boy releases included in this Collection; The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge. Both are, naturally, simpler versions of their home console brothers, but do a decent job of bringing the Castlevania formula to the handheld. Belmont’s Revenge has a nice touch in where you have to explore four castles, but you can play the levels in any order you like. Except for die hard fans, these are probably the two in the collection that will be overlooked, but should you give them a go, all things considered, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Castlevania was very much at home on Nintendo systems for the first decade, with one exception, Bloodlines. This game was released for the Sega Genesis, and as a result many view it as a forgotten gem in the series. Personally, I feel it’s a very close second behind Super Castlevania IV for best game in this Anniversary Collection. It’s a globetrotting epic where you have to race against time to prevent Dracula from being resurrected. You can also play as one of two characters – John Morris or Eric Lecarde – which was a first for the series. I can only describe this game as Castlevania on steroids, especially when compared to the other releases in the collection. The game still looks amazing, packing in plenty of special effects (check out the water in stage two), and fantastic level and enemy design. There are much stronger horror themes in the game from half hanging corpses in the background to genuinely scary looking boss characters to defeat. It’s also fast paced, often with loads going on at once, which means the difficulty is more in line with the early games in the series. Castlevania: Bloodlines is an excellent game which deserves to be played by everyone.
The final inclusion in the collection, Kid Dracula, is an odd one. Previously only released in Japan for the Family Computer, it’s Castlevania but not as you know it. The core gameplay remains the same, however this is clearly aimed at a younger audience, with chirpier music and less sinister enemies to defeat. It’s also easier to play but is still lots of fun; think of it as a Super Princess Peach to the Mario series. It’s a nice touch for Konami to include it, even if no one was really asking for it.
Overall there’s plenty here to keep fans of the series happy, and that’s clearly who this compilation is aimed at. Castlevania Anniversary Collection on Xbox One doesn’t make any vein attempts to win new fans over, but it’s reasonably priced, and that allows anyone willing to give it a shot the chance to do so. Some game elements haven’t aged too well, but they are in the minority here, and there’s no finer way to experience how the historic franchise began than by spending time with the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.