Vanquishing The Night – Human Stories and Spooky Settings in Castlevania
A key part of what makes the Castlevania series unique is the way inn which the series plays with classic horror movies, mythology, and gothic and Victorian designs. Careful art design and memorable music give the series unique personality, and its gradually-evolving plots keep players engaged along the way. Despite simple action-genre roots, Castlevania games tell deeply human stories– and this isn’t just a later invention, there have been seeds of this style laid out since the very beginning. Castlevania toys with our fears, the unknown, and recognizable mythos to create an experience like no other– a combination of thrilling horror and action-adventure that takes players to theif fears, and gives them the power to overcome them.
The original Castlevania took place solely in Drscula’s castle, a locale that was forboding in and of itself, but it also populated the lair with creatures from a variety of regional folklore and popular monster movies. Konami crafted the beginnings of a world both familiar and threatening, where monsters both existed and could be dispatched with skillful use of the weapons on hand. Protagonist Simon Belmont was a simple man with a magic whip, but he was tasked with destroying the Dark Lord himself– and after he succeeds in this harrowing journey, the second game sees him cursed and questing to bring Dracula back so he can do it again! Resurrecting Dracula wasn’t a simple feat, either, as Simon had to roam the countrysied to find Dracula’s scattered body parts- a concept particularly grisly for the family-friendly Nintendo Entertainment System.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse starred another Belmont, Simon’s ancestor Trevor, but the true innovation was in the secondary playable characters it introduced. Each brought not only a new playstyle but also a new perspective. Pirate-like Grant DaNasty was defeated by Dracula and turned into a monster when he tried to avenge his family’s murder, and “warlock” Sypha Belnades had been captured by Dracula during her own attempt to slay him. Sypha, presumed to be a man, was revealed to be a woman only at the game’s conslusion When rescued, the two heroes could join Trevor on his mission. There was also a third side-character available: Dracula’s son Alucard. Depite their familiar bond, Alucard sought to destroy his father to prevent further acts of evil. Each charscter was a distinct person in an era where most games, even the wildly Super Mario, barely distinguished between the avatars of player 1 and player 2.
On the Super Nintendo and PC Engine, later descendant Richter Belmont’s adventures in Dracula X/Rondo of Blood brought another new dimension to the story. He had goals beyond simply killing vampires: he had to rescue various townspeople as well as his kidnapped girlfriend. This seemingly simple variant of the “rescue the princess” formula was complemented by the introduction of Castlevania’s youngest protagonist, young Maria Renard, who wielded magic powers as she joined Richter to save her sister. Another layer of complexity was added by the fact that Dracula did not resurrect on his own; he was brought back by a dark wizard who also needed to be confronted along the way. Richter was up against overwhelming odds and a journey that was more complex than those of his predecessors.
The next sequel chronlogically, Symphony of the Night, combined elements from both Dracula’s Curse and Rondo of Blood to form a magnificent feat of storytelling. Alucard returned in a starring role, and the game took the opportunity to explore his conflicting emotions and establish the source of his patricidal resolve. He became the deepest and most fully formed character to appear in the series to date. His path crossed with those of previous protagonists Richter Belmont and a now-grown Maria Renard, and the villainous wizard Shaft also reaurfaced for a second attempt at resurrecting Dracula. The English version was sadly hampered by the weak voice acting typical of the time, but the game itself demonstrated that Castlevania was willing and able to evolve. With its balance of story and groundbreaking gameplay, Symphony is remembered by generations of gamers as one of the finest games of all time.
Symphony was followed by two standalone Game Boy Advance titles, which were less complex than that title but still brought new stories and characters into play. Circle of the Moon kept the usual whip-wielding hero model, but cast the player In the role of a vampire hunter outside the legendary Belmont clan and tasked them with fighting a rival as well as Dracula’s forces. The following title, Harmony of Dissonance, brought the similar themes back with a slightly different twist. Juste Belmont confronts his childhood friend and rival Maxim as he ventured into Dracula’s castle to rescue his childhood friend Lydia. He also had to live up to the legacy of his legendary ancestorsa Simon and Trevor. The game follows this up with the ability to father Dracula’s scattered remains, just as Simon did in Castlevania II, as part of Juste’s quest to prove himself worthy of his family’s legacy. Many players can relate to the feeling of being measured against high expectations or competing with a close friend, so these themes could still resonate even if the details of the story were somewhat scarce and the presentation was limited to a tiny handheld screen.
The height of 2D Castlevania storytelling came with Aria of Sorrow and its sequel Dawn of Sorrow, which moved the setting to Japan and placed a mere boy named Soma Cruz, not a Belmont, within the castle’s walls. Dracula is supposedly permanently destroyed before the game begins, and the reasons for the castle’s appearance aren’t apparent. Instead of a quest to kill Dracula, the player is looking to solve the mystery of the castle and find a way to get out. Rather than a straightforward march to the Dark Lord’s keep to slay him, Aria of Sorrow focused on revealing secrets behind the Castlevania universe as well as the hidden power and fate within Soma himself. He wasn’t a Belmont, and he had no family legacy or formal training– he was an ordinary person, much like the player, thrust into a seemingly impossible situation. His tale gave a new perspective, but followed up on details from earlier games as well as revealing the new story of what events had transpired since the groundbreaking Symphony of the Night. This ambitious twist on the storyline was matched in innovation by an entirely new way of playing the game: the Soul System. Soma actually fought using the powers of darkness, and could absorb the souls of his foes to gain new attacks and abilities. The story also incorporated elements from Symphony of the Night and other preceding Castlevanias, making it truly a culmination of all that had come before.
The following two Castlevania titles put new spins on the “non-Belmont protagonist” idea, with Portrait of Ruin dealing with two non-Belmont heroes taking up the traditional weapons of whip and magic, as well as other arms, to take down Dracula and other vampires despite the risk involved in using the powerful weapons. Order of Ecclesia was set in a time with neither Belmonts nor access to the Holy Whip, and instead looked toward Dracula’s own power as the means to defeat him.
The following two Castlevanias, both on the Nintendo DS, focused on the time between Symphony and Aria, during which the Belmonts are out of the picture. Portrait of Ruin followed up on the one-off Sega Genssis game Bloodlines, which tried to tie Castlevania into Bram Stoker’s Dracula by introducing the Morris family into the story. Portrait of Ruin brought this one step further by placing the heroes of both Bloodlines and Portrait as essentially stand-ins for the Belmonts, taking their place as vampire hunters until the time came for Dracula’s utlimate defeat prior to Aria of Sorrow. The final story-based 2D Castlevania as of this time was Order of Ecclesia, which was also placed in a period without Belmonts, and gave the player another chance to use the powers of monsters against them. That game did not particularly tie into any others, and while it does have some interesting twists, it ends up completely unimportant to the overall plot of the series.
The castle implied in the series’ title soon became only part of an expanded setting, with conflict spilling out into the Romanian countryside. Some games, such as Bloodlines, even carried the battle worldwide– and the sequel to that game, Portrait of Ruin, included enchanted paintings within the castle that contained areas lifted from throughout the globe. The scale of the setting (and the size of the castle) changed with each game. Dracula’s castle is a truly wondrous place, with it’s ever-shifting layout and contents. That mystery, though, only added to the Cadtlevania legacy. No matter what time tha game took place In, who was fighting, or where, the experience would be entirely new. Even if there was a clocktower and a showdown with Death, you never knew where to find it or how it would play out.
The series’ bestiary has expanded with each entry, and the recurring characters and returning areas have given Castlevania its own distinct universe spun off from reality. Aside from Dracula himself and his keep, other series staples included the Grim Reaper, Death, the clock tower, and the eternally-frustrating Medusa heads. Players would be facing new areas, new enemies, and new layouts and patterns for the elements they remembered. New games were bigger, better, and instantly familiar.
Each Castlevania story places its protagonist on an adventure against overwhelming odds with a different motivation pressing them to succeed. The triumph of these relatable characters over the supernatural threats they face gives players a reward for overcoming the creatures usually feared. For 25 years, Castlevania has offered players a way to vanquish the horrible night and the creature that inhabit it. With its constsant evolution to reflect new styles of play and story while still building on what has come before, Castlevania is an excellent of example of a game that moves forward while retaining its core elements– and I hope more Castlevanias are yet to come. Here’s to another 25 years of slaying the Dark Lord and his minions.
Note: I realize that I have only covered the “main” Castlevania timeline here, and only 2D games. There is simply too much to cover in one article, and I hope to visit the 3D titles and their influence at a later date.