Music For a Tragic Prince
A Look at the Music of Castlevania
By Paul "Wallace" Esch, Instructor of Music Instrumentation, Theory, Composition and World Music.
The Beginning of a Legacy
From bleeps and blips, to full 27-piece orchestra, the music of Castlevania (AKA Akumajou Dracula, which translates directly to "Demon Castle") has celebrated the most dramatic changes in music style, composition, and quality. What has made this landmark series stand out musically from the rest? What are the influences that spawned songs like "Bloody Tears", "Key Largo", and "Vampire Killer"? When did we move from "Video Game Music" into "Art Music", and where is it going from here?
This is an examination of those questions and more. From here on, we will examine the movement of the series from a musical standpoint, how it has changed, and what this all means. We will see how the music of the Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic era has played a large part in the music we have enjoyed for years. Also, I prefer to call the titles by the original Japanese name, but I realize that most of us (including myself) grew up with the name Castlevania, so Iíll use both. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Bleeps and Blips: The early days of video game music -
Castlevania 1, 2 and 3
The 8-bit revolution: Nintendo was becoming a giant in the video game industry, and companies like Konami were in need of composers to write music for their next product. From here on our journey continues, as we look at how game music has developed.
Writing music for video games at the time was a limiting experience for composers. Not only was the hardware extremely crippled, but the purpose of the music was nothing more but to fill in the background. Composers didnít have the freedom to write big scores full of emotion and power. Just a quick few pieces where needed and thatís it. The composer had little to no voice as to where a certain track would go and so forth. As long as the music was "appropriate and not too distracting", it was OK.
Castlevania 1 is (unfortunately) a perfect example of early game music composition. Although we have come to love several of the tracks from this first installment (probably because of their familiarity) it is still a game where the music has little effect as far as importance to the quality of the game. Although you might disagree, you must realize that, at the time, little attention was paid to the importance of the soundtrack presentation. However, today we have been enlightened to the importance of music in games, so we can look back with a new appreciation to work that was then, neglected. So let us continue in this fashion.
Castlevania 2 was among the first batch of games to show a heightened awareness of the need for good music composition in a game. Until now, most music was written in common time or 4/4 time. In other words, four beats in a measure, and mostly consisting of four measure sections. But now we begin to see 3/4, and 6/8 time signatures used. A definite break from video game music tradition.
Perhaps the most celebrated and loved piece "Bloody Tears" made its debut in this installment. Along with "Bloody Tears" comes a plethora of wonderfully melodic tunes that correctly embody the ambiance of the game. For the first time, the composers were being consulted as to where specific music will go, and what would be best to set the mood. The first step in good video game music has begun.
Castlevania 3 followed in the same footsteps of its predecessor. Taking a larger step in the direction of compositional quality, Castlevania 3 was making a good reputation for the series. People were starting to notice that the series was endowed with a certain musical quality that, for back in itís time, was incredible.
Both Castlevania 2 and 3 owe much of their inspiration to the early Baroque music of the 18th century. While not entirely based on this style of music, distinct influence can be heard in several pieces, like "Bloody Tears", and "Prelude" (from the Castlevania 3 intro). We will talk more about Baroque influence later, where it becomes more apparent in later installments of the series.
Portable Vampires: -
The Gameboy titles
The series goes portable, and with that we are given three new installments. First off, the Gameboy still severely limits options to the composer. Fewer sound channels are available than the Famicom (Nintendo 8-bit), and the actual instrumentation is still severely limited. So, like before, composers are given a technically challenging task yet again to come up with satisfying music on a limited PCM sound chip.
Castlevania Ddventure was yet a through back to the first title. The music composition seems to simply function. Although appropriate, the music seems to offer little in the way of great artisanship. However, Belmontís Revenge is granted with a wonderful score. As far as the limitations of the hardware and instrumentation, the composition if the music itself is quite remarkable. One that stands out particularly is "Chromatische Phantasie", which, analytically speaking, is very similar to many of Bachís and Mozartís Harpsichord concertos. Complex and intelligent, this composition is a great work of art in the series.
Castlevania Legends was given a combination of classic arrangements that gave us that nostalgic feeling, as well as some new work that was both functional, and well put together. Although not as profound as Belmontís revenge, the music works well as a means, but in my opinion, does not stand very well by itself.
Baroque, Rococo, and Romanticism -
The Score of Super Castlevania 4
Welcome to the era of the 16-bit machines, and 8-bit PCM sound chips. The Super Famicom was released as the Super Nintendo, and we were blessed with not only one of the best games ever, but in my opinion, one of finest sound scores EVER in a video game. Castlevania 4 (Akumajou Dracula) was a milestone in the field of electronic gaming music. Just re-released in 1999 on disc in Japan, the compositional genius of the Konami sound team can now be enjoyed by fans of the series everywhere (as long as you know where to import it).
So why is the score of Castlevania 4 so important? Like I said before, music in the early days always took a back seat to the graphics, and had little musical integrity in and of itself. The music did little for the actual game, except function, (faster, harder music for the boss, and typical "Adventure" theme for the level) and makes the game sell-able. Few games at this time, had music with the ability to not only function and set an appropriate mood, but also stand alone as compositions themselves. Castlevania, and also worthy of note, Actraiser (Super Famicom) and Gate of Thunder (PC Engine Super CD), were some of the first with these qualities.
The PCM of the Super Nintendo was rather uncharted and new at the time, but what Jun Ferando was able to pull out of it technically, emotionally, and effectively is incredible. I have yet to hear better instrumentation on the SNES than that used on Castlevania 4. But besides all of the technical work achieved, this particular score is incredible at creating a dark and foreboding ambiance that is responsible for the general "feel" of the game. Like a movie score, the music correctly and effectively supports the context, and situations of the game. However, unlike lots of movie scores, save the work of John Williams and Wojciech Kilar, the music can stand on itís own as art. Each piece is full of an unusual amount of profound musical integrity, so much that I use it in my own teachings as examples of modern-day art composition.
The music of the Baroque era, at its zenith in the 18th century, and the Rococo era shortly after, is found throughout the soundtrack. Use of techniques called 4 voice leading (type of chord movement), pedal melody, where one note repeats under a distinctive motive or "riff" (Bloody Tears), secondary dominants (also a part of chord movement), and non-harmonic tones like suspensions and passing tones. These are just a few of the techniques employed by Bach, Mozart, as well as other composers of the Baroque and Rococo era. These techniques are used to add color, change of key (modulation), and make the music flow. These techniques of music theory are employed in Castlevania 4 throughout. Listen to some of Bachís work, and you will hear distinct influence in many of the pieces.
Romanticism was an advent of simpler movement in music composition. These included less ornamentation, and more emphasis on the actual melody, with often times beautiful chord progressions under it. Like the use of Baroque, so is Romanticism applied to the score. One that stands out is the music at the cave before the waterfall, and the waterfall itself in stage 3. Simple yet beautiful melodies, harmony, and progressions with use of harp, piano, and strings are the forte. All in all, a great feet for game soundtrack history.
The Lost Soul:
Akumajou Dracula X Rondo of Blood
The PC Engine. One of the greatest game systems to ever grace the Earth (in Japan anyway). With the use of the Super CD system, composers had the chance to make full blown scores with no limits but the imagination, and they did! 1993 came along, good music was being composed for the system (Lords of Thunder being one of my favorites), and Konami released what has been called the greatest Akumajou game ever: Dracula X, Rondo of Blood (AKA Circle of Blood). Unfortunately, the United States never picked up this title, but to the few who actually imported a copy, or have had the pleasure of playing it, you know why many consider it the greatest of the series.
Dracula X has a unique mixture of music styles. Not only do we have some great arrangements of classic themes that we all know well and love, but some new work that has a distinct Japanese/Euro Pop sound to it. At the time, American pop music was making its way into Japan at an exponential rate. Influence like this is definitely seen in both the new work, and the arrangements of the older pieces. A definite contrast to the earlier games.
Rondo of Blood is not without other influences though. The orchestral pieces, like the boss music, and Draculaís theme, are perfect examples of Romanticism, and modern composition. Changing time signatures and great classical instrumentation accompanies these works. But the piece that stands out the most, is the soprano solo heard at the options screen, Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison, is the Greek word for "Lord have mercy", used as a response during Catholic mass. This phrase is repeated throughout, stretching each syllable out to form separate phrase movements. Easily the most striking moment I have ever experienced in a video game. It not only suits the game, but it sets a very serious mood from here on. Never before has a composer used voice in this manner for a game score, and in great tradition, it will be done again in its sequel: Akumajou Dracula X, Nocturne in the Moonlight.
Segaís Hunters: - Vampire Killer/Castlevania Bloodlines (Megadrive)
The Genesis (Megadrive) gets its first taste of the Castlevania series. Although many people where unhappy with this installment, one aspect was rather impressive, the music. Although the Motorola PCM is a bit weak, the actual composition of the music is very impressive.
Easily the most influenced title by the Baroque and Rococo periods, this title has much to offer as a good example of classical composition. The use of pedal melody and traditional instrumentation, as far as the Genesis hardware goes, pays proper homage to the Baroque and Rococo masters. Truly some masterful composition at work, we get a real wonderful taste of Baroque influence here. We again, get some arrangements of classic Castlevania music, and plenty of new pieces to keep us happy.
Although this may not be the best in the series, the music alone is worth the effort. I would like to hear arrangements of the music for actual orchestra, because I think the music could benefit from a better PCM, or actual instrumentation. Still, it is a great example of Baroque and Rococo music in the series.
The Shadow of Blood -
A loosely based version of Rondo of Blood, the Super Nintendoís Castlevania X contains the same music from its inspiration, except with the instrumentation of the SNES PCM. Not a bad job considering that the music was originally on CD. Again, the same things apply as in Rondo of Blood, so I donít want to be too redundant, but just to say that the work from translating a CD quality score to PCM was done very well.
The Resurrection Of the Son - Akumajou Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight
Of all the Akumajou Dracula games, Nocturne in the Moonlight boasts the greatest variety of music textures, styles, and applications. Easily one of the most wonderful scores to ever grace a video game or movie, the score is both profound and functional. A perfect sequel to its predecessor: Rondo of Blood, we are greeted in Dracula X tradition by a most haunting and beautiful tenor and soprano solo entitled "Prayer". The phrase "Key Largo" is voiced repeatedly throughout this short piece. Also used in Catholic Mass, Key Largo is the Greek term for "May your ascension into heaven be blissful". A rare combination of medieval chant, mixed with polyphonic and homophonic voicing (independent melodies and harmony together), is used here. A great example of composer freedom in composition, and score writing.
One piece that stands out my mind, Is "Wood Carving Partita" (the Library stage). A wonderful piece that puts the harpsichord in the spotlight, this is perhaps one of the most profound works in any Castlevania. Easily the best example of Rococo music in the series, the movement in the piece is both complex and technically astounding. "Requiem of the Gods" (Holy Chapel) is a great Baroque choral piece, and "Crystal Drops" (Water Channel) is a wonderful fusion of techno and Jazz. All this said, the music enhances the distinct feeling and ambiance of each area, as well as providing a tapestry of incredible music genius.
A second release of the game appears on the Sega Saturn. Included here are some arrangements of "Vampire Killer", "Bloody Tears", and a new version of "The Master Librarian", which adds some wonderful Arabic instrumentation to the piece. "Bloody Tears" is arranged in two styles of Heavy Metal, and "Vampire Killer" includes two dance style arrangements, and a surprising 50ís swing/ Louisiana Dixieland arrangement, complete with full brass and piano! Dixieland is a style of Jazz mixed with Blues, often times used in traditional Louisiana ceremonies like Mardi gras, community gatherings, good times, and even funerals.
Two new tracks are included: "C. Chonell" and a track for the "Trial of Maria". "The Trial of Maria" comes in the form of a crashing symphonic suite. Heavy on strings, and very much like the work of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, this piece fits well with the existing soundtrack. "C. Chonell" is a masterful Pipe-Organ concerto, straight from the Baroque Era. A truly wonderful work, especially technically, this piece lends itself to create a dark, yet mysterious mood for the ambiance. One of the finest works in gaming music today.
Each piece in NITM, like Castlevania 4, is composed with an idea to the game, but at the same time, stands alone as its own identity. Again we are blessed with a soundtrack of musical complexity, and quality that surpasses the usual standards of game music composition.
A Depart from Tradition - Dracula Apocalypse (Castlevania 64) and Legend of Cornell
(Legacy of Darkness)
Castlevania enters the 3-D realm, and many are skeptical, and disappointed. Should the series stay 2-D, (I say yes, but, thatís not what Iím here to debate) or is 3-D the natural evolution? Fortunately, neither of these things affects the music. However, what we do have here is essentially two of the same game, with some added music and arrangements to "Legacy of Darkness". So because of this, I will treat the evaluation as one game to save time, and sanity.
The N64 PCM, a sound chip that is rarely used to itís potential. Fortunately, the Castlevania 64 series uses the PCM well. The instrumentation is wonderful, and compliments the game well. The choices of music style are, again, primarily Baroque in nature, and at times mixed with Classical and Rococo. Some pieces of note are "Invisible Sorrow" (the cave), which is a combination of Baroque movement and classical rhythm textures, and "Annex: Silent Madness" (the manor), a perfect example of classical harpsichord music, and the use of pizzicato from the late 18th century.
Along with this, we hear phrases of "Bloody Tears", as well as arrangements from Rondo of Blood. The soundtrack CD features some arrangements, as well as a beautiful bonus track called "A Night in Peace and Quiet", very beautiful, and very full of emotion and color. Legend of Cornell introduced new music that departed from the use of Baroque and classical themes. Although not quite as symphonic as its predecessor, the music functioned well, and added some interesting textures to a game that is basically, a "directors cut". However, some pieces where added as arrangements from other titles, and gave a small nostalgic ambiance to the game.
Again, while not entirely as symphonic as itís predecessor the pieces that are come to us with wonderful power and conviction. All in all, a great use of the N64 PCM, and a good soundtrack score for the series. Both games are a good example of the work put in by the Konami sound team.
A Return - Akumajou Dracula: Circle of the Moon
After a long wait, we return back to the 2-D roots of the series. We are given a new hero, a classic formula, and great music. New to the world of hand-held gaming is great sound, and Circle of the Moon is a fine example of the Game Boy Advanceís PCM capabilities.
We open with the familiar "Kyrie" from the PC Engine "Rondo of Blood", and then an arrangement of the main theme from the Nintendo 64 titles. A wonderful setup for the introduction, it sets the mood properly. Again, we are blessed with great sound from a small handheld. We are also introduced to a wonderful variety of new music, encompassing many styles. Much of the music featured here is from the Romantic period. Most unusual to the series is the introduction of Spanish classical music.
Mostly made of large string sections, this often times obscure and looked over form of classical music ads a unique texture to the score. Not to be confused with "Flamenco", classical music from the world of Spain is passionate, energetic, and tells the story of a proud people.
Again, a large portion of the soundtrack is driven by lush and encompassing string sections. Accompanied with brass and timpani, these are traditional to orchestra music and often times used in movie scoring.
Mixed with arrangements of classic Castlevania music, and music inspired by the era of Romanticism, the Spanish composition takes a leap as a renegade change in game music. Again, the music of the Dracula series takes game composition into new ground. Hopefully this tradition will continue in the further installments of the legacy.
A New Belmont is Born - Castlevania: Concerto of the Midnight Sun (Harmony of Dissonance
While opinion is divided over the compositional quality in "Concerto of the Midnight Sun", itís hard to ignore the drastic change in instrumentation choice, when compared to that in Circle of the Moon. While Circle of the Moon uses an impressive instrument set (especially for a hand held system), Concerto of the Midnight Sun uses a disappointing arrangement of low quality, 8-bit sounds to bring the soundtrack to life. Yes indeed, the graphics are nothing short of excellent, but according to the producers, the sound had to take a back seat for the visuals to take place. This reminds one of the values in early video game music production; where the music really is of little importance, except to merely function.
The music in this title tries to formulate itself under the ideals in "Nocturne in the Moonlight", but it unfortunately falls short of its goal. A few tracks have been composed by Nocturne in the Moonlightís original composer, which are very wonderful indeed, but it makes one wonder why Konami did not hire her to do the entire soundtrack. This is not to say that Concerto of the Midnight Sun is without some quality works, but most of them contrast too much with the game play elements, making an unbalanced whole. Contrast can make a wonderful ambiance, but it must be the right use of contrast to be effective.
Revival Castlevania Chronicles and the X68000 versions
Released just recently on the Sony Playstation, the MSX Castlevania returns with the original version, and an arranged version with a new Simon Belmont, Dracula, and some cosmetic re-fittings. The original version offers us three soundtrack options: the original X68000 PCM, and two arranged versions.
For the time, the X68000 computer had a strong PCM. While not as profound as the Super Famicom sound set, the X68000 was capable of doing decent sound synthesis. Strings, drum channels, and piano where replicated fairly well, and lend themselves well to the soundtrack.
The original sound track is a collaboration of classic works (Vampire Killer, Bloody Tears), and new works that while good, seemed merely to function as a background. Opinion is of course divided on the subject, but it seems to lack the integrity of most the others when compared side by side. Especially considering that this, and Dracula 4 where released within a short time of each other. The two arranged soundtrack are from Roland midi sound sources. Both with their own flare, each find a way to modernize the classic compositions.
The arranged version of the game includes a soundtrack primarily in the style of Electronica, or Techno. Electronica got its start as a combination of underground Chicago trance, and European electronic experimentation. While other forms of music inspired Electronica and Techno, itís hard to tell exactly what and where, although many competent theories are present, such as Rap and German underground. Most techno these days is void of melody and much depth, simply because anyone with a decent sound program can link sample upon sample into a string and call it Techno. There are however, some deep-minded Techno composers left today.
The arrangements are done well, and the use of instrumentation keeps it from sounding too "Pop". While most are arrangements of the same music, the music in the cave is drastically different, bringing us a great example of LA and London Trance Techno. Smooth, and slightly melodic in nature, the music lends well to the watery ambiance of the stage.
Over time, many people have E-mailed me with great questions concerning the music of Castlevania. Here are some of the most common questions I am asked:
1. Q: Where can I find Music that is similar to the music in Castlevania?
A: Music of the Baroque and Rococo period. The work of J.S. Bach is s great place to start looking. Also look at:
Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach
Not all of these composers are from the Baroque era, but their music has landed some inspiration in the music of the series. For some modern day composers, try:
Joe Satrianiís classical works such as: "Midnight", "The Forgotten: Part One", "Tears in the Rain", and "Baroque".
2. Q: I play an instrument, how can I learn to play music like this?
A: Lessons in classical music from a good teacher. Take the time to find the right one for you! Good communication with your teacher is important.
3. Q: I am trying to write music like the kind in Castlevania. How do I do this, and how can I be a better composer?
A: Education in the style, an understanding of the language, passion and bravery. Lessons will help you to know more about the style of music you want to compose, theory lends as a great tool in composing and understanding the language. The passion will drive you, and the bravery is for pushing the limits of what you can do.
4. Q: The Guitarist Y. Malmsteem: does Castlevania music steal from him, or vise versa?
A: They are both heavily influenced by classical music, and both use many of the same techniques from this period of time. This lends to them sounding very similar at times. Do they "steal" from each other? No. Take any music of the period, and you will hear many of the same things between the works of different composers.
5. Q: Where can I get a list of all the Castlevania soundtracks?
A: This site!
6. Q: Do you compose?
A: Yes, constantly! I mostly compose for orchestra, solo instruments (lots of Guitar), duets and quartets in many world styles.
7. Q: Can I E-Mail you a question?
A: Of course! My E-Mail is: X_Raziel_X@Hotmail.com
Iíll get back to you as soon as I can. I have a lot of students and teaching to do, so I usually canít respond right away, but I will get back to you!
8. Q: Why do you have such negative feeling toward the U.S. version of Nocturne in the Moonlight (Symphony of the Night)?
A: Any time a work of art is edited or changed from its original form to conform to a particular audience, we are left with an empty shell of what once was. Itís an insult to our intellect, and our right to enjoy something in its purity. When Nocturne in the Moonlight went through its localization, many elements were lost, changed, and censored. Fortunately, more and more companies are beginning to understand this, and are more prone to leave elements intact. Still, the majority of the games that are released stateside are changed and edited in some form beyond translation.
9. Q: Is there official sheet music available for the Castlevania series?
A: Unfortunately, no. As soon as I hear otherwise, I will update this dissertation with the info on how to get it!
Thanks to the hard work of some great composers, video game music as a whole has become an integral part of the gaming experience. The transition from background noise to full four-voice choral is an exiting change in the game soundtrack evolution. Because of this, we will be treated to more scores of techno, full orchestra, and ethnic music to accompany our ecstasy of gaming.
Akumajou Dracula was one of the firsts to help this revolution come about. At the time, little did we know that down the line, game music would mutate into an art in and of itself. Hopefully, as new installments of the series arrive, they will keep in this tradition of intelligent, profound, and encompassing music scoring. Often times, a great score can make an average game great, and for me at least, good music is one of the factors of which makes a game great.
Remember, music is the soundtrack to our lives, and it is meant to be primary, not secondary and in the background. Be aware of your musical interests, why you like what you like, and what is important to your tastes musically. Whether its chamber music, or the Castlevania scores, music is part of the human condition, so enjoy it, appreciate it, and respect those who share their craft with us.
-Paul "Wallace" Esch
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