Castlevania has always kicked my butt. The first time I played the classic NES/Famicom game was as a child at my uncle’s house. He had a massive collection of NES games and it was always difficult to choose which one to play when we visited. But despite the plethora of options available, I was always drawn in by Castlevania.
It’s hard to say exactly what appealed to me at such a young age (I must have first played it around 1989 or 1990 when I was five or six years old). I’ve always been a big fan of anything with Halloween vibes, I guess; ghosts, ghouls, vampires, witches, etcetera. I think Castlevania stood out to me partly because it was set at night (which was actually quite unusual — I was used to playing bright and colourful platformers like Super Mario Bros.), and partly because it featured an electrifying soundtrack that I still find mesmerising.
Castlevania is broken up into multiple “blocks”, each with 3 stages and a boss (making up a total of 18 stages). The very first block (which includes the iconic entrance hall) is absolutely the easiest part of the entire game, as you’d expect. It’s the place where you can get to grips with the controls in relative safety. Although as you might expect — and like many of its contemporaries — Castlevania didn’t include a tutorial to ease you in. Also, I think it’s fair to say that compared to other platformers of the late ’80s, Castlevania was pretty uncompromising in terms of difficulty.
It will come as a surprise to no one that such a game is virtually impossible for a young child to play; or at least, to progress very far at all. From memory, the furthest I managed to make it in those days was to the first boss: the dreaded Phantom Bat. I’d say it was decent attempt (it did mean I was able to clear three stages along the way), but I couldn’t do it without exhausting my lives and continues.
What may surprise you is that even now, at the tender age of 37, I still find Castlevania incredibly difficult. I’ve just never been great at manoeuvring Simon Belmont (let alone wielding his trademark weapon — the Vampire Killer — with finesse). Going back to the original game, especially after playing the much more forgiving Super Castlevania IV, feels jarring.
Enter Castlevania Anniversary Collection, which is available for just about every platform under the sun. I’ve been playing it on the Nintendo Switch, because Castlevania and portable go so very well together.
It’s worth pointing out that there are several ways to enjoy the original Castlevania these days (the NES/Famicom Classic is a solid option, for example). I don’t point out Anniversary Collection for any particular reason in terms of the first game in the series — it just happens to be where I’m playing it. Although having said that, it’s a pretty decent way to nab a whole bunch of classic games in the series in one package. This is especially true if you missed the rather wonderful Castlevania Bloodlines, which was exclusive to the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis.
Playing Castlevania this way has been a godsend. It has enabled me, for the first time in my life, to experience parts of the game I’d never been able to reach before.
The main reason I’ve been able to finally experience this wonderful game in all its glory is — as you might have guessed — the ability to use save states to both save and load at any point. This has enabled me to save right before a boss (like our Grim Reaper friend pictured above) with full health, so that if I died, I could immediately spawn in right before the encounter and try again. The alternative — being put right back to the start of the “block”, several stages earlier — was the painful hurdle that had prevented me from putting in the effort to take this guy down for all those years.
Save states are the primary thing, but the ability to play in handheld mode and to use the analogue stick (which, in this case, actually feels surprisingly comfortable) all played a role.
There are now a myriad of options when it comes to playing classic games on modern consoles. But I feel like a lot of the conversation is either around oldies like me re-playing stuff we’ve played before, or younger folks experiencing these games for the first time. Just in this last week though, it’s really dawned on me that these classic re-releases are actually opening up a tantalising new doorway: the ability to fully experience classics from my childhood in ways I simply never could before.
It is truly wonderful to revisit something from my childhood and experience certain aspects of it for the first time as an adult.
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