Castlevania has long been considered one of gaming’s most storied franchises, but that hasn’t always been the case. From it’s humble beginnings as an acclaimed NES title to a surge in popularity and critical acclaim that culminated in the early 2000’s to more tepidly received installments in the present age, especially in the face of it’s publisher’s declining popularity, the franchise has stood the test of time.
The games follow the Belmont clan and their descendants as they fight against Dracula and his armies – often in what is called the “Metroidvania” style. Along with Super Metroid, the series revolutionized side scrolling platforming. Initially the series focused on linear, side scrolling action, but with later entries, the series shifted to a style that encouraged exploration rather than just running along a predetermined path. Simon Belmont, the chief protagonist of the series, and Dracula are the most notable faces of the franchise but in recent years, the more recent games have begun to focus on newer characters and taken the series in creative new directions. An example would be the character of Soma Cruz and his struggle to avoid becoming a reincarnation of Dracula in the near future.
The original title was hailed upon its release for its innovative gameplay and has been considered in the years since to be one of the pioneers of modern game design. It follows Simon Belmont as he undertakes the quest to defeat Dracula for the first time and gamers were first introduced to the Belmont clan and Dracula through this game. The sequel, Simon’s Quest, is the entry responsible for the style of gameplay Castlevania titles are most known for – Metroidvania.
Castlevania 3 largely abandoned the open ended exploration style of the previous installment but was critically acclaimed and became notable for the introduction of Dracula’s son Alucard – who has himself become a staple of the franchise and arguably as iconic as Simon Belmont and Dracula themselves. Super Castlvania IV would receive much of the same praises as previous entries but the real gamechanger would come several years later.
The series is widely considered to have reached the peak of its popularity with 1997’s critically acclaimed Symphony of the Night, which would become the template for the vast majority of the franchise that followed including the lauded titles for the Game Boy Advance – Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance. Symphony of the Night brought the Metroidvania genre into the public eye and is considered to be a landmark title for game design and frequently appears on lists of the greatest games ever made. Gamers take control of Alucard in SotN and conqueror Dracula’s castle, only to find that it later inverts itself in a work of masterful game design. This type of ingenuity is what has garnered the franchise so much praise.
2001’s Circle of the Moon was a shocking hit at the launch of the Game Boy Advance and largely abandoned the series mythology of the Belmonts, while also being one of the only titles in the series to be criticized for its graphical presentation. Castlevania’s chief producer Koji Igarashi was not involved in the making of the game and, not even a year after release, pulled the game from the series’ official timeline. Igarashi has stated multiple times this was due to the intent of the team to create a stand alone title.
The series entered into a new era with 2003’s Aria of Sorrow and embraced a protagonist, who was again, free of the tired and true format of the Belmonts with the previously aforementioned Soma Cruz, who was presented as a vessel to potentially resurrect Dracula in the near future. Other, similar titles on the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS followed and the series experienced a shift to handheld platforms in the 2000’s.
The series’ long reputation was called into question, however, as the modern 3D titles began to take shape. Whereas the Aria duology focused on a cohesive story experience, in the opinion of some longtime fans, the modern entries have strayed far from what the series was about in terms of exploration and the implementation of the series’ deep mythology. They have received varying levels of endorsement from critics and fans and as a consequences, has called the future of the franchise into question. But taking the declining state of Konami over the years into account, it is a sad inevitability that Castlevania would be negatively affected.
Castlevania continues to be one of the most consistently well received and iconic video game series, despite its recent short comings. The series’ deep mythology continues to enchant gamers of all ages and the easy pick-up-and-play nature of the franchise at large remains appealing. The Netflix mini series that just debuted also hints at new life for the franchise. Despite being an adaptation of Castlevania 3, the mini series is attracting attention from gamers and non-gamers alike and has already been greenlit for a second season consisting of eight episodes instead of the first season’s four. One can only hope that platforms like the Nintendo Switch, which puts emphasis on both 2D and 3D AAA titles, can entice Konami into making another installment of the beloved series. And if not, then it would be a poor waste indeed.