Halloween Meltdown ’13: A Castlevania Confession, Part 1

I’m prone to bouts of mournful, melodramatic introspection–a tendency from which, dear readers, you have thus far been spared. But no more. FOR YOUR SINS YOU SHALL SUFFER.

Actually I’m always hesitant to put too much of myself into this. We all create online personae, after all, with varying degrees of reality-ness. Bloggers, I think, do it more than most. (Alas that we can’t do this as successfully now as we could in the 90s, those glorious Old West days of unregulated internet insanity.)

But it’s October, dammit. Halloween trumps everything, including self-preservation. So buckle in–this is going to be a two-parter.

Look at that freakin’ box art. Conan the Barbarian vs. pointy Bela Lugosi. SOMEONE MAKE THIS MOVIE. (Wikipedia)

So. Castlevania. I’ve gushed about how great it is before. But lately I’ve been thinking I haven’t given this series its due. And I don’t mean as games. I mean, I haven’t acknowledged how much of an influence Castlevania has had on me personally. So this entry is about one of my favorite franchises, and how, in a very real–and slightly embarrassing–sense, it has led me to where I am today.

Released in Japan as Akumajou Dorakyura (literally, “Devil Castle Dracula”) in 1986 and the in 1987 in the US, under its more familiar (and slightly ridiculous) title, Konami’s Castlevania chronicles the story of Simon Belmont, a vampire hunter tasked with taking down the most infamous of all bloodsuckers. In the game, you guide Simon through a series of difficult platforming levels, jumping and whipping (yes, your primary weapon is a whip) the classic Universal-esque monsters you encounter there until you make it to the big guy himself. There’s a lot of extremely satisfying Christian imagery, like a boomerang shaped like a cross (a recurring weapon throughout the franchise) and holy water that you toss like a grenade and which burns with righteous fiery fury when it hits the ground. There are Gothic spires and moonlit gardens and catacombs and all kinds of other crunchy classical horror goodness.

I really appreciate the Christian imagery, actually, as it had the effect of defamiliarizing what was, at that time, very familiar to me (again, raised Irish Catholic–and had there been vampires, I might have remained so). In this and numerous other ways, Castlevania touched on all the stuff that would become my enduring obsessions, and likely will fuel countless hours of therapy over the next few decades.

(Yes, okay? The name is dumb. I know the “-sylvania” in Transylvania actually comes from the Latin word for forest, so tacking it onto the end of castle really doesn’t make much sense. Shut up.)

Simon approaches the gates of Dracula's improbably-named castle.

Simon approaches the gates of Dracula’s improbably-named castle.

Somewhat ironically, I actually didn’t play the first Castlevania game a great deal until later on–Castlevania II may  in fact have been the first one I played. I can’t remember. But it’s pretty much irrelevant, as at this stage in the franchise’s history the plot of these games was all but nonexistent. You were a vampire hunter, doing exactly what that job title suggests. Yes, in #2, there was a thing about how Simon hadn’t killed Dracula properly the first time and had to collect all his parts to do it again. Whatever. The important factors in this equation are the vampire and your burning hatred for vampires. Those smarmy, toothy bastards, think they’re so cool… I WILL SHOW THEM ALL.

Regardless of which I played first, Castlevania II is really where my love of this series began. Everybody hates it, but I love it. The day/night thing is a great addition, and I swear, the nighttime actually freaked six-year-old me right the hell out. It’s not that NES graphics were capable of being frightening in anything like the way games can be today; it had more to do, in fact, with the general weirdness of pixelated green ghouls rising from the earth and Thriller-dancing their way mindlessly toward you.

JESUS CAN'T HELP YOU NOW. Because, I guess, he has a meeting, or something?

“Oh, a church! I’m safe!” JESUS CAN’T HELP YOU NOW. Because, I guess, he has a meeting or something.

That’s a picture of one of the ghouls at night in the very first town in Castlevania II. When night falls the game flashes a now-iconic message–“WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE,” because, you know, Wednesday would be better for me–and the music changes to an equally-iconic song and HOLY SHIT THERE ARE MONSTERS. Actually there are always monsters–it’s a game where you fight monsters–but at night they’re stronger, and they appear in towns, which during the day are safe zones. This was a small thing, but taking away your safe place worked to create a sense of dread.

Castlevania III was very similar to the first game, but you play as a different Belmont, Trevor. It also introduced some new characters and gave you the ability to switch between them on the fly, which seemed like a big deal at the time. More importantly, the game gave us Alucard, the stupidly-named (but awesome) halfbreed son of Dracula who apparently thought spelling Dad’s name backwards would just piss him off so much. Haha, grown-ups are dumb.

Trevor meets Grant and provides some Oscar-worthy pathos. Ooo, we're so gonna get you, Dracula. Just you wait.

Trevor meets Grant, who provides some Oscar-worthy pathos. Ooo, we’re so gonna get you, Dracula. Just you wait.

All three of the first trilogy were maddeningly difficult, and I don’t think I beat any of them in my childhood. I only beat Castlevania II much, much later, and then using an emulator (I couldn’t have done it without the ability to save state). But they had this killer Gothic horror aesthetic, and the world in which they took place was full to bursting with supernatural beings that all wanted you dead. So, you know. Paradise.

At first blush it seems strange that I was so taken with the Castlevania world when I was a kid. When I was really young, I was terrified of horror movies and scary stuff in general. One time when I was around five years old, I was at a friend’s birthday party and ended up alone in a dark basement immediately after watching the opening library scene of Ghostbusters. That was like the scariest event of my life to that point.

But actually, that’s precisely why I think I liked Castlevania. It takes these scary ideas–ghosts and werewolves and vampires–and empowers the player, who takes on the role of vampire hunter, to fight back and actually win. Horror films and other media are usually hopeless: the protagonists fight back as best they can, but their efforts are nearly always futile (that was certainly the case in the 80s, when I was a child). Even those super-nerds in that one installment of Nightmare on Elm Street who fight back with their Dungeons & Dragons powers end up dying. But the Belmonts, these fictional vampire hunters who fight evil with a freaking bullwhip–because screw you, Evil–let you face those exact same monsters and destroy them with righteous fury. Oh, a scary rotting zombie just popped up out of the ground and wants to eat you? Whip. Oh holy god, the lord of all vampires is shooting fireballs at you and then turns into a giant horrible bat-demon and is probably going to drink your soul with a crazy straw? Whip to the FACE. And some magic fiery holy water for good measure.

In terms of gameplay, the first trilogy were more about frustrating platforming than about combat. Jumping across giant moving gears, swinging pendulums, and revolving platforms got old after a while; but the conceit of being a vampire hunter was so cool that the frustration of the games’ insane difficulty levels didn’t lessen my desire to destroy toothy evil with whips and axes and holy water.

In fact, I really took it all to heart. My weird family used to take a lot of weird vacations and day-trips. In a visit to family in the Midwest, we went to some museum that happened to have a lot of cowboy-themed kitsch in its gift shop. At age seven or so, I acquired, from this stupid museum, a toy bullwhip–the first of several. You can see where this is going.

That’s right: I became a vampire hunter. With my younger sisters in tow, I would turn out all the lights in the basement–my sisters having been armed with less-badass weapons like light-up laser guns–and run around destroying all the monsters that had nothing better to do than haunt a suburban house in the middle of the day. It is a miracle, what with all the bullwhips, that nobody lost an eye.

At this time one of my sisters had these toys that came with these large “crystal” vials (plastic, of course). I think the idea was that the vial contained some mystery “treasure,” and when you filled it with water the bag inside dissolved and revealed a pile of plastic gemstone and coins. Something like that. Anyway, I took one of these vials and filled it with tap water, and during our monster-hunting sessions I’d lob it like a grenade into every dark corner, imagining it bursting into holy flame like in Castlevania. I was a cool kid.

If I had to pick a moment when the supernatural ceased to be a source of abject terror, and became instead a point of interest, it would be those ridiculous monster hunts in our unfinished, cluttered basement.

By the way, if anybody wants to go on a monster hunt, I am totally down. I’ll bring the bullwhips and holy water.

8 thoughts on “Halloween Meltdown ’13: A Castlevania Confession, Part 1

  1. This: “Horror films and other media are usually hopeless: the protagonists fight back as best they can, but their efforts are nearly always futile …” is why I am so selective about my horror. I want an ending that satisfies at the very least. One that rewards inventive, intuitive solutions and decisions made during the unfolding of the story. It doesn’t have to be “happy” but I want the evil at least forced to bay, and the main character to reap some reward for his/her efforts.

    The more I read your video game pieces, the more I think I should do some exploring. It sounds like I may be able to find what I like more easily there.

    • I’m with you. And gaming definitely changes things, at least sometimes. Games are partly about empowerment (though not entirely, and not always), and a game where you have no chance to succeed is not necessarily appealing (although plenty of those exist, too).

      Castlevania, at least pre-“Lords of Shadows” (the reboot of the series on current platforms), always rewards your efforts. When I do part 2 of this I’m going to talk about Symphony of the Night, which is the crowning glory of the series and one of the best 2D games ever made. I posted some music from it in a previous entry. That’s a really good place to start, if you do decide to play.

  2. Your man love for Castlevania is safe with me. When I was young, I used to draw monsters — a T-rex with a Mohawk and a golem made of cement are two that I can remember — and make my grandma watch while I pretended they were real, karate kicking the air outside, whipping pinecones (I mean throwing stars) all over the yard, and of course making lots of my own sound effects.

    Did you ever run across any T-rexes or cement golems in your basement?

    • Oh man, we would have a TON of stuff to talk about as kids. (PS, your grandma sounds like the COOLEST.)

      Honestly our basement-monsters never had chance to take on definitive forms. I was too quick on the draw with those holy water grenades.

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