It's funny how something as simple as a side-scrolling action game can be a brand that's relied on for years in this industry. But that's exactly what happened with Castlevania, a series that got its humble beginnings way back in 1986 as an action game for the NES, and has since flourished into one of the more dependable adventure series out there. Let's take a look at its most significant footsteps through history, shall we?
The NES Years
Castlevania debuted in 1986 to huge response from the fans, who enjoyed its various weapons, awesome stage design, memorable boss encounters (how about that giant bat?) and classic 8-bit music. Konami, responding in kind, followed by with two sequels – Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, which featured some interesting role-playing elements; and Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, which introduced new characters to the fold, along with a member of the whip-wielding Belmont clan. All three games sold fundamentally well, cementing Castlevania's legacy onto the next coming 16-bit platforms.
On a side note, Konami also released an arcade game featuring Castlevania-style gameplay called Haunted Castle, though its faulted design and heinous difficulty left most players turned off. (Quick trivia note: the game was re-released in 2006 on the PlayStation 2 in Japan as part of Konami's Oretachi Game Center Zoku collection.)
Whip It Good, 16 Bit!
After various releases on the NES and Game Boy, the series successfully moved to the SNES with Super Castlevania IV, a game that featured splendid 16-bit style graphics (including Mode 7 rotational and zooming effects), a remastered orchestra-like soundtrack, thrilling boss encounters and cool new functions with your whip, such as being able to swing across ledges.
The Turbo-Grafx 16 also got some Castlevania love – in Japan, at least – with the release of Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, a fantastic entry that became a hit seller for the system. (Quick trivia note: the game finally got a US release in 2007 for the PSP under the name Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles. It also came out for the Wii Virtual Console service.)
Konami also released a game for the Sega Genesis titled Castlevania Bloodlines, taking place in a later timeline than the previous games and featuring two playable characters, as well as cool visual effects, a great soundtrack, and a surprising amount of carnage. (Trivia note: Konami at one point planned to re-release Bloodlines for the PSP, but the project was mysteriously cancelled.)
A Dramatic New Turn
In 1997, Konami, working with long-time producer Koji Igarashi, made a dramatic leap forward with the Castlevania franchise when it released Symphony of the Night for the Sony PlayStation. Featuring a new exploration-style system along the same lines as Nintendo's Super Metroid, the game garnered huge critical acclaim, with many deeming it the best Castlevania game to date. It was also powered by a terrific soundtrack by Michiru Yamane, though the voice actors didn't really rise to the dramatic occasion. ("What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!")
That game's release would lead to more adventure-style Castlevania releases, mainly for Nintendo platforms. These included Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance, as well as Order of Ecclesia, Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin for the Nintendo DS. Each of these games featured various items to track down, as well as optional goodies, including co-op support and Boss Rush modes.
These games did very well for Konami, though not every game in the series was a hit.
Konami, feeling that the Nintendo 64 needed a strong Castlevania entry that stood out on its own, released the first 3D game in the series, Castlevania 64, in 1999. Though the idea seemed solid at first, the execution wasn't the greatest, and some players were turned off by the sluggish pacing, limp visuals and lack of fundamental storytelling, which was featured in other Castlevania games at the time. Konami tried to improve on the formula with the follow-up Legacy of Darkness, but only a fraction of the mainstream Castlevania audience really got into the games.
The company fared better on the PlayStation 2, thanks to more advanced visuals and the incorporation of better storylines, with games such as Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness, but many clamored for the "classic" 2D days of Castlevania.
Konami also tried – and failed – to make a grand Castlevania experience on the Wii in 2008 with the release of Castlevania Judgment, a 3D fighting game featuring various characters from the series. Despite its noble effort, the game didn't even come close to what Castlevania fans were truly seeking out. To try and make amends, Konami relented and brought back Koji Igarashi to make Castlevania: The Arcade for WiiWare in 2009 – a well-received effort, though the company failed to release the game on more popular platforms like Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.
Those subscribers did get a Castlevania experience all their own, though it wasn't quite what they were expecting. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair featured six stages, in which players could work together to bring down large enemies within an allotted time limit. Though novel in concept, the game was lacking the thrills that came with the single player adventures.
Return To Greatness
Despite errors along the way, Konami would re-find its footing with Castlevania in 2010, when it announced that Kojima Productions, in collaboration with the team at MercurySteam, was working on a captivating new 3D experience called Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. The game arrived to much appreciation from both Castlevania veterans and new fans alike, and with its high production values, awesome boss encounters and dedicated voiceovers (featuring Sir Patrick Stewart), it was easy to see why. Even in 3D, MercurySteam made it work.
Though the series has been somewhat quiet since then, Castlevania is on the verge of its biggest year to date. Earlier this year, both Castlevania: Lords of Shadow II and the Nintendo 3DS spin-off Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate were announced, both slated for a 2013 release. From what we've seen so far, the handheld equivalent looks fantastic. Lords of Shadow II, however, is wrapped in mystery. We should know more soon though.
The Belmont Legacy Lives
Though it's seen its fair share of ups and downs, the Castlevania series has done a great job over the last two and a half decades, and shows no signs of slowing down. And who knows, we just might see the long-awaited sequel to Symphony of the Night, or a re-release of Bloodlines, to keep us busy while we wait for the next generation of games to arrive. The Belmonts sure know how to keep a ruckus going, don't they?