Haunted Castle (1988)
Castlevania is a bit of an oddity amongst Konami's classic video game series. Unlike Contra or Gradius, which started in the arcades, Castlevania was focused on the home market, having been introduced to gamers on the Famicom/NES and MSX. Perhaps wanting to break into a different market, Konami released an arcade version of their famous series. In Japan, it was dubbed "Akumajou Dracula", the same as the home releases, but was dubbed "Haunted Castle" when brought outside the country (which is actually a closer translation, even if it sounds a bit awkward.)
However, if you go back and compare a lot of the arcade games to their NES counterparts, the NES games more often then not, end up superior. They might not have the same impressive graphics or sound capabilities, but the home titles are usually better balanced, and quite a bit longer to boot. Haunted Castle is not a translation of any of the home Castlevania titles, but is rather a completely new game built from the ground up. Unfortunately, it really is quite bad.
In the first Castlevania game, the motive behind our hero Simon Belmont was simply to destroy Dracula. Haunted Castle opens with our gruff barbarian hero (hilariously dressed in a suit and tux) getting married to his sweetheart. (Various Japanese sites have pegged her name as "Serena" - don't quote that as canon though.) Before they can make it more than a few steps out of the chapel, lightning strikes and destroys the cross. The music turns fowl, and a vampire steals the lady from right under the heros' nose. The only thing left to do is to follow him into his demonic castle and rescue her.
The game mechanics are basically the same as the first Castlevania, although all of the character sprites are significantly larger. The controls are even clunkier than before, as Simon whips very slowly, and his attacks don't deal very much damage. There are no candles to whip, and the few hearts you actually do find come from dead enemies. Special weapons are scarce too, but they remain fundamentally different from the usual crowd. There's a bomb, a stopwatch, a boomerang (which doesn't work right, because it fails to return), and a cross.
Weapon upgrades are scarce, and are obtained from specific monsters at specific points in the game. In addition to your leather whip, you eventually find a mace and a sword, although they're fundamentally the same.
Even with the sloppy controls, Konami's strong game design shows through strongly with Haunted Castle. Although many of the stages consist of a straight line from beginning to end, with only a few platforming segments, there are number of cool moments that keep things from getting boring. Right in the first level, a wall comes to life and starts throwing bricks as the rain comes pouring down. Later on, a torch falls on the ground and sets the ground on fire, leaving you to balance on top of pillars. One jarring part in the third level mysteriously transports your hero to an alternate realm to fight harpies for a few minutes before whisking you back to reality. The final level is a race across a falling bridge, which was another aspect repeated in many other Castlevanias down the road.
Anybody familiar with Castlevania will recognize the enemies - skeletons are numerous (and certain ones will even turn into spirits after they've been dealt with), as well as plenty of zombies, rats and ravens. Other foes include those horribly annoying Igors, merman (looking especially like they were taken from a low budget 50s movie) and mud creatures who replicate themselves after being destroyed. The bosses are also familiar, like Medusa and Frankenstein, plus gigantic skeletal dragons and rock creatures. Even the stained glass windows break and form a knight for you to battle (this idea was reused in Castlevania Chronicles and Castlevania 64.)
Unfortunately, if there's one thing that ruins the whole experience it's the extraordinary difficulty level. Practically all of the Castlevania titles out there have been immensely hard, but always maintained some form of balance. Not here. Once you reach level three, scads of enemies are thrown at you, to the point where effectively attacking them is impossible. Worse yet, many bad guys take multiple hits and aren't slowed by your attacks - the upgradable weapons are supposed to balance that out, but oftentimes the game simply doesn't give them to you (depending on the difficulty level) or takes them away after you continue. It doesn't help that your character is very slow and controls very awkwardly, making boss fights in particular very frustrating.
Which brings up another concern - you only have one life. Bringing up another concern - you only have one life. That's it. This is considerable since this is an arcade game, and there aren't too many parts where you can die instantly by falling down a pit or anything. But the kicker is that you can only continue three times. You can extend your life meter by pumping in quarters and hitting the Start button, but if you max it out, you can't continue at all. This is ridiculously stupid, especially for an arcade, where it's just plain silly to toss a player right at the beginning of the game instead of urging them to spend more money and carrying on.
Since this was created in 1988, don't expect great graphics - they're not exactly Super Castlevania 4 level, but somewhere just below it. The artwork on the cover of Castlevania always portrayed Simon as being resembling Conan, but the 8-bit graphics weren't detailed enough to convey that appearance. With the improved hardware, Simon looks closer to his design - and jeez, is it ugly. The rest of the sprites are well detailed but suffer from some rather awful animation. At least the backgrounds look pretty nice most of the time. The soundtrack, as typical for Konami games, is excellent. I don't know what kind of technicaly wizardry went into Konami's arcade boards, but they created some damn fine sounding games, with some extremely high quality music. Some of the songs have popped up on other games - Bloody Tears and the Game Over theme of Castlevania 2 show up here, the final theme "Don't Wait Until Night" shows up as part of Julius' theme in Aria of Sorrow, and the "Underground Melody", the fifth level song, in rearranged in Dawn of Sorrow. Oddly enough, the excellent first level tune, "Cross Your Heart", hasn't appeared in any other Castlevania games.(not counting the remix bonus found on the Dracula X soundtrack.)
While the sound and graphics are vintage Castlevania, the gameplay and its overwhelming deluge of bad guys just suck the fun out entirely. As a result, it's an interesting footnote, though little more.
For a long time, Haunted Castle was confined to the arcades, until MAME let us play it on our computers. In 2006, a budget publisher called Hamster ported Haunted Castle to the Playstation 2 as part it's Oretachi Game Center Zoku series. This budget series includes a single old arcade game, along with supplemental materials like a small game guide, a soundtrack CD, and a DVD with a super play video on it. At least, that's how it's supposed to work in theory.
The game disc is just an emulator and ROMs shoved on a disc. You can't choose a difficulty level, or allow infinite continues or anything fancy. You can choose to run the game full screen or display it in the original resolution (which is pretty close to full screen anyway), but otherwise there aren't any display options. Some way to mess with filters or turn on progressive scan would've been nice. The emulation quality is only average, as it seems to have lots of problem handling the vertical sync in certain stages. It's nice to finally play it (legally) on a real console, but it's still just the same crappy game as it ever was. At least the music sounds about perfect.
The rest of the package isn't anything to write home about either. The mini-soundtrack CD includes all of the music directly from the game, which sounds less bassy than the music on the Konami Game Music Collection soundtrack. It also includes a sound effects track. The mini DVD is pretty lame, offering mostly commercials for the other Oretachi Geesen discs. Now, "Super Play" videos are supposed to show expert gamers completing the game from beginning to end, but the video here stops after level three. Additionally, the player takes a lot of damage, especially on the third stage. It's incredible that he's able to get that far without losing a life, but you'd expect more from a demo like this.
This package only came out in Japan, but it's no big loss that it's never coming out in America - $25 for a single lousy arcade game with questionable extras (other than the music CD) isn't exactly a bargain.
Haunted Castle Artwork
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Castlevania Games - Haunted Castle