It seems that just as Count Dracula sleeps for 100 years, so does the Castlevania franchise. The reboot and compilation releases have littered the past decade, but the series essentially hit a wall in 2008 with the release of Order of Ecclesia, Koji Igarashi’s last game before parting with both Konami and the Castlevania series.
While time may not be kind to the franchise, this is a series bursting to the brim with some of the greatest games ever made. Split between the Classicvanias– action platformers with an emphasis on atmosphere & difficulty– and the Metroidvanias– side scrolling action RPGs with an emphasis on exploration– Castlevania can cater to any gamer.
10 CLASSICVANIA: Akumajou Densetsu
One could just play Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse in English, but now that the Japanese original, Akumajou Densetsu (which translates to "Legend of the Demon Castle"), is included in the series’ recent Anniversary Collection, there’s absolutely no reason to play the much harder, and far more tedious, US release. The Japanese version is perfectly playable, even without English text.
It’s a much better balanced game on a whole. With enemies doing less damage, levels are less frustrating and players can better appreciate Castlevania III’s great level design. That said, Dracula’s Curse is a good release for series veterans looking for something much, much harder. Between four playable characters, branching paths, and some of the best visuals & music on the Famicom, Akumajou Densetsu is a must play.
9 METROIDVANIA: Dawn Of Sorrow
Dawn of Sorrow’s flaws are a bit more blatant than other Metroidvanias. It features one of the worst stories in the series – failing to live up to Aria’s surprisingly great plot– and the touch screen gimmicks outright ruin some boss fights. That said, Dawn of Sorrow excels pretty much everywhere else.
The touch gimmick is a pain, but the actual boss fights are well designed. The game’s castle is also one of the best designed in the series, both visually and in terms of layout. As Dawn of Sorrow is a direct sequel to Aria of Sorrow, it uses its predecessor fantastic Soul system, giving the game plenty of combat depth to fuel multiple playthroughs.
8 CLASSICVANIA: Castlevania
There’s no going wrong with a classic like the original Castlevania. As brutally hard as it is, it’s an incredibly fair platformer that will reward players who take their time and diligently try their best. Beating Castlevania is hard, but it’s by no means impossible. As a game, though, it’s just so well paced and tightly crafted.
Castlevania is the kind of game built for all kinds of players. Those who just want to kill some time can whip through the game in less than 3 hours, while those who really want to test their mettle can sink dozens of hours in mastering Castlevania.
7 METROIDVANIA: Portrait Of Ruin
The second to last Castlevania game Igarashi worked on, Portrait of Ruin, featured two actively playable characters at all times and a truckload of optional content. It’s one of the biggest Metroidvanias in the series in terms of what to do. There are so many different spells and weapons to master, a bunch of different game modes, and even a post-game.
Portrait of Ruin’s anime art style – which it shares with Dawn of Sorrow – is a bit of an eyesore, but the music is fantastic and the castle – while not one of the series’ best – is memorable and generally well-designed. The back half can feel a bit repetitive, but Portrait of Ruin is a gem of a game.
6 CLASSICVANIA: Castlevania Bloodlines
The game that Portrait of Ruin follow sup narratively, Castlevania Bloodlines releases exclusively for the Sega Genesis and then never saw a re-release until this year with the release of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection. Now that Bloodlines is widely available, there’s no reason to miss out on one of the series’ best entries.
More arcade-like in structure, Bloodlines features two playable characters, an actual set of Continues that will end the game should players run out, and six fairly long stages that take John Morris and Eric Lecarde all across Europe. Aside from excellent level design and boss fights, Bloodlines notably made Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon.
5 METROIDVANIA: Order Of Ecclesia
The last of the Koji Igarashi-produced Castlevania games, Order of Ecclesia, was also the last game before the Lords of Shadow reboot, period. There hasn’t been any continuation of the series’ main story since, but Order of Ecclesia does at least bring things to a fitting enough stopping point, focusing on a rather intimate and small scoped story for a change.
Shanoa’s Glyph system is a natural evolution of Soma Cruz’ Soul system, and the game’s level design actually lifts fairly heavily from the Classicvanias, dedicating the first half to linear stages akin to the NES games, before veering into full blown Metroidvania as Shanoa enters Dracula’s Castle in the second half.
4 CLASSICVANIA: Rondo Of Blood
Just all around one of the tightest action-platformers of all time, Rondo of Blood is a perfect refinement of the NES Castlevania foundation. It throws away all the frills Super Castlevania IV added to the equation and keeps whipping simple. Jumping is still a bit more floaty, and Richter does have a backflip, but this is old school Castlevania at its absolute best.
Secret levels, hidden paths, multiple playable characters, secret boss fights, and some airtight level design make Rondo of Blood such an essential game for anyone who wants an appreciation of the franchise. It was once locked to Japan’s PC-Engine, but can be played in English on the PSP, PS Vita, and PlayStation 4.
3 METROIDVANIA: Symphony Of The Night
Rondo of Blood’s narrative sequel, Symphony of the Night, changed the game. Not just for the franchise, but for the medium as a whole. In one fell swoop, Metroidvanias were given their purest foundation. Even more shocking is that Symphony of the Night still stands out as one of the greatest games of all time today. Its legacy is on par with that of Ocarina of Time.
Symphony of the Night makes good use of its plot, but the story never outstays its welcome. The castle has depth and is brimming with content, but it’s intelligently built, making exploration intuitive & fun. Combat is fast and electric while by no means mindless. Symphony of the Night is the complete package.
2 CLASSICVANIA: Super Castlevania IV
Rondo of Blood may have perfected the original Castlevania formula down to a science, but Super Castlevania IV outright evolved it. It is the natural next step from Castlevania III. Simon can whip in eight directions, he controls far more fluidly than his NES counterparts, and the game on a whole is far moodier and more mature.
Super Castlevania IV is hands down one of the best games on the Super Nintendo. It makes fantastic use out of the SNES’ hardware while also just providing a game oozing in atmosphere. Between the music and the visuals, it’s impossible not to immersed in Super Castlevania IV’s outstanding level design.
1 METROIDVANIA: Aria Of Sorrow
Aria of Sorrow is locked to the Game Boy Advance, and the Wii U of all things, but it’s one of the best Metroidvanias of all time, if not the best. Its Soul system is incredible, adding so much depth and replay value to the game while also just expanding the series’ core combat considerably. Then, there’s the level design, home to what’s probably the series’ best Castle.There’s no filler or fluff in Aria of Sorrow. There’s no padding, the story is good, the music is even better, and while there isn’t that much content compared to later entries, Julius Mode is still a fantastic addition to a worthwhile game. Here’s hoping the future’s bright for Soma Cruz, the Sorrow duology, and the rest of the Castlevania franchise.