Previously, on the Angry Scholar, I talked about my vampire-ridden childhood and my thing for whips. In this installment I’ll discuss growing up Belmont, the transition to 16- and then 32-bit, and the worst possible motivations behind important career decisions. Stay tuned!
The cool thing about being a child of the 80s, who is also a huge nerd, is that I got to grow up along with the video game industry. The NES was great, but then, in the early 90s, something truly magical happened: the Super Nintendo. This was the stuff of dreams. Sounds sounded like sounds. Images had a degree of depth that they’d never had before. This system was amazing. All the major game franchises were quick to release 16-bit versions on the SNES, and Konami didn’t neglect its vampire-hunting family. Simon Belmont returned in Super Castlevania IV, and the SNES’ ability to breathe life into the established Castlevania world was impressive.
Don’t ask me about the story. The Wiki article I linked to above doesn’t include one, and for all I know it was the same as ever: Dracula was doing bad things and Simon was out to whip his ass into shamefaced oblivion. (Also, I feel I should point out that the whip doesn’t stay a whip–you can get upgrades to make it into a flail with a spiked ball at the end, like in the image above.) But that was enough. This game took the creepy pixels of the previous three and made them pop out in a brilliant way, adding details like gates that you could pass through to create the illusion of three dimensions, vines that grew up iron fences as you watched, and rotating trap rooms lined with spikes that required you to whip from one hanging support to another (and made you homicidally enraged in the process). I don’t think I beat this one either, but even now I enjoy just firing it up and admiring the visuals and sound.
The next installment that I played at any length came in 1995. Inexplicably titled Castlevania: Dracula X (or Rondo of Blood in Japan), this one marks the series’ first major departure from the original aesthetic (there was a 1994 game on Genesis called Bloodlines, but I didn’t own that system and only played the game very briefly). Dracula X introduced a new Belmont character, this one named Richter. It also introduced a more anime-ish art style and some crazy electric jazz music. The graphical leap from Super Castlevania IV to Dracula X is considerable, but I never identified with Richter like I did with Simon or Trevor. Maybe because of the headband.
For some reason, I think I actually DID beat Dracula X. I seem to remember its difficulty being somewhat lower than previous games. But none of that matters, because SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT.
Dracula X is the prequel to 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the best entry in the original Castlevania franchise and perhaps the greatest 2D action game ever made. SotN, which was released on the Sony PlayStation–thereby bringing the franchise into the 32-bit era–picks up not long after Richter’s original adventure. The young Belmont has been brainwashed by an evil priest (hilariously named Shaft), who plans to resurrect Dracula and figures having a Belmont on his side will pretty much make the damned thing stick this time around.
In SotN, instead of playing as a Belmont, you play as Alucard (his real name, the instruction manual informed us, is Adrian Fahrenheit Tepes), the estranged son of Dracula who was introduced way back in Castlevania 3 and now looks way more anime and way less Bela Lugosi. Unlike the Belmonts, Alucard uses a range of weapons–mostly swords–and looks super-cool in his Lestat-style 17th-century fake gothy French court regalia.
Alucard is also notable for being a half-vampire, or dhampir, which means that he has a lot of the snazzy powers of his vampire dad without having to, you know, puncture people’s throats. Over the course of the game you get the ability to transform into a bat, a wolf, or mist–all classic Stokerian vampire abilities–as well as cast various magic spells to smite thine enemies.
SotN upped the ante on atmosphere a hundredfold. It has an incredible soundtrack, and environments that all imply a crazy backstory, which you never get fully in-game but can imagine for yourself if you’re so inclined. For instance, there’s a chapel where you can sit in a confessional booth. If you sit on one side, the ghost of a weeping woman appears in the other, and sits there sobbing for a while before fading away. If you choose the opposite side, another ghost appears, pulls the curtains shut, and stabs you with a bunch of knives that appear out of nowhere.
I feel there is some religious commentary here, but I am too dumb to decipher it.
Since I don’t have a way to easily snag a screenshot of SotN, here’s a video showcasing some of its awesomeness. This is the moment when Alucard first arrives at Dracula’s pad.
Over the course of the game you explore the entirety of Dracula’s castle, as well as a weird shadow-world inversion of it (because why not?). Alucard faces and defeats his father, of course, but on the way he fights a freaking who’s-who of classic (and not-so-classic) monsters: Frakenstein’s monster, called only “The Creature”; a succubus; gaggles of skeletons, zombies and witches; werewolves; undead clones of the heroes from Castlevania 3; several flying demon-creatures, including one that looks like Cthulhu but is named something else, and one that looks like something else and is called Cthulhu (haha, noobs); a giant, rotting corpse suspended from meat hooks; an obvious nod to Max Schreck’s Count Orlock in Nosferatu, who here is called “Olrox”; a headless skeleton who chases his skull around comically and is named, of course, Yorick; and a giant ball of human corpses, held together by a tentacly abomination that shoots lasers out of its eyes. There’s nothing not to like.
And this is where my recap of Castlevania stops, dear readers, because these are the ones that were released during my formative years. All that empowerment against evil supernatural entities that the first games represented came to a head in SotN, where you’re not only able to fight the monsters, but you’re actually one of them. A subplot involves Alucard resisting his demonic nature despite the best efforts of Dracula’s minions to recruit him to their cause. None of this is to say, I should add, that SotN’s story was super complex. It was an action/platformer, and the story, while present and sufficient, was really secondary to the gameplay. Also, it has a few instances of shoddy voice acting that at times seriously detract from the rather barebones narrative. But none of this matters, because it is awesome.
If I have one real complaint about SotN, it’s that it’s no longer scary at all. You’re still fighting the same monsters, in similar environments that are more beautifully realized than ever before; but it’s brighter, more polished, less bleak and ghoulish, somehow (even though it was more graphic and violent than any of the previous entries).
These first six entries in the franchise made a lasting impression on me. I trace my interest in the supernatural to a lot of sources, but now, in retrospect, I think it really began with Castlevania (and maybe a few other pop culture sources at around the same time). Another video game franchise, Fatal Frame, gave me a name for what I wanted to be (a folklorist), but Castlevania sparked my abiding interest in the supernatural. It may seem ridiculous that a fictionalized, cartoony portrayal of generic horror monsters could translate into something like a career choice, but we are all of the world, like it or not; pop culture (broadly understood) can influence as much as anything else. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it encourages us to question things, to learn more, and to recognize the motivations underlying its portrayal in these kinds of materials.
Following SotN, there were a lot of games in the series released on portable devices. I played a few of them, but they all seemed too derivative and gimmicky. There was also an N64 version, which I didn’t play but was supposedly awful. (There were several entries on the Gameboy prior to this, as well, but I didn’t play those either, or not enough to remember.) But the series as a whole has shaped my sensibilities as a gamer and, again in a real sense, influenced my whole career trajectory. So, I guess, thanks, Konami. When all this is said and done, can I get a job as, like, a PR guy? Please?
So what does any of this have to do with Halloween? Well, the games themselves are obviously full to bursting of Halloweeny imagery and music. Vampires and werewolves and demons and zombies lurch out of every inch of Castlevania’s considerable floor space. But also, regardless of the holiday’s origins, I’m inclined to say that, at least for some of us, Halloween today is at least partly about the same feeling of empowerment that these games provide. The supernatural is closer on this day than on any other, and by embracing it, celebrating it, we enter into a more equal, and less fearful, relationship to it. Plus candy.
One last thing: Castlevania in general has brilliant music, as I’ve tried to demonstrate at least once before. But in case you’re not convinced, head on over to YouTube and search for the OSTs to any of the original trilogy, or SotN (I recommend the song entitled “Woodcarving Partita”–super awesome harpsichord, yo). Meanwhile, here’s a metal version of Castlevania 2‘s three main themes by the awesome video game cover band, the Minibosses. (On their website, they have their first album available for free download, and you can purchase their other stuff. They are awesome–if you’re an old-school gamer, you won’t be disappointed.)
What a horrible night to have a curse!