This month marks the 30th Anniversary of the Castlevania series in North America. It was released for the NES on May 1, 1987. It launched a year prior in Japan and is known over there as Akumajou Dracula, or Devil’s Castle Dracula. In thirty years there have been more than thirty games released across multiple platforms. Needless to say, narrowing down that number for my best and worst picks wasn’t easy. That’s because most of these titles are all excellent in one way or another. And if not excellent, they’re at least not terrible games by any stretch of the imagination. However, there are some gaps in my knowledge including the Japan-exclusive mobile games, and Pachinko slot machines. I can’t imagine any of those being that fun.
As you read this list, you’ll definitely see a pattern start the form. Instead of having you try and figure it out like one of the God-awful puzzles in Simon’s Quest, I’ll spell it out for you. I love the Metroidvania games, but the more traditional action-platformers are a bit too archaic to enjoy nowadays beyond a single play session. There are crossovers from each genre, but that’s the gist of how this article plays out. Again, they’re not garbage games, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Perhaps it’s a generation gap, or lack of taste. Maybe I’m just a baby gamer who doesn’t like to die by enemies appearing off screen. Boy, do I enjoy falling into those holes. Great work Konami. Oh, but enough dawdling. Hunters, grab your whips because it’s time to slay Dracula and his horde of unholy creations.
Let’s begin with the game that helped start the Metroidvania genre. Prior to Symphony of the Night, Super Metroid refined what its predecessor did by creating one huge map players could explore. Unlocking new abilities meant gaining access to new areas. Fast forward a couple of years to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which introduced RPG elements to those Super Metroid mechanics. It further perfected an otherwise brilliant formula. And that's how the Metroidvania genre was born. History lessons aside, Symphony of the Night has been written about to death, so it really doesn’t need that much of an explanation. You’re Alucard, son of Dracula, seeking to vanquish his father for the crimes he’s committed. You explore his castle, fighting enemies, level up, gain new powers, and so forth. It’s so easy to pick up and play now, plus it’s available as a download on a litany of systems. It’s simply marvelous.
This worst category begins with quite possibly the most terrible game in Castlevania history. Again that’s excluding the Pachinko and cellphone games though. Castlevania: Judgment released in 2011 as a tribute to the series during the 25th Anniversary in Japan. It’s a fighting game for the Nintendo Wii that pits the franchise’s most iconic hunters and villains against each other in a weapon brawler similar to Soulcalibur. It’s a solid concept and a good way to celebrate the brand’s history, but it couldn’t have been more slopped together. The story elements with the voice acting make everything seem serious, but it is written too poorly to work well. There’s no sense of campiness to it. It’s just bad. Fighting is no different. There’s just an unruly weight to everyone. Judgment is a bad game, but a good example of a slapdash money grab when you get right down to it.
Pretty much every Castlevania has crossed over to the West at some point except for this little gem. Akumajo Special: Boku Dracula-kun roughly translates to Demon Castle Special: I’m Kid Dracula. That rolls right off the tongue doesn’t it? So this is sort of a cutesy version of everything Castlevania stands for. It’s unknown if this is supposed to be Alucard (as this is also Dracula’s son), but it may be a safe bet. It’s a parody, so there’s not even a point in trying to place it within the history’s timeline. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The platforming is superb, the music is bubbly and cute, and Kid Dracula’s powers are simple but effective. Dedicated fans even translated the game although it doesn’t have much for dialogue anyway, so you don’t really need a patch. Also, technically, it did come to the West via a Game Boy port: Kid Dracula. It’s basically the same game, but a lesser version of it.
Anyone who has played the original Castlevania will note that Simon Belmont isn’t the most agile character, compared to the later heroes in the series. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, not to be confused with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest on the NES, takes that small weakness and multiplies it by ten. Christopher Belmont moves like he’s wearing Goku’s weighted clothing from Dragon Ball. Jumping is even worse. The pacing is so sluggish that countering an enemy’s attack takes near precise timing making every encounter frustrating. Prepare to die over and over again. I could just as easily put the other two Game Boy games on this list as well, but it’d be redundant, and Belmont’s Revenge is the worst of the three.
It's hard to understand now, but 3D was a huge step for games back in the 90s. Some series made the jump gracefully, like Mario and Zelda, while others fell flat on their face. Castlevania 64 and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness released on the Nintendo 64 and were met by a plague of limitations and bewildering decisions. So suffice it to say, the series’ first foray into 3D wasn't grand. Flash-forward four years later when Konami tried 3D again with Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. It’s rough around the edges mostly due to loads and camera issues, but it is essentially the Metroidvania formula done right in 3D. I really liked it at the time, and it was actually the first Castlevania I ever played all the way through. Nostalgia may play a part in this, but I popped it out again for the purpose of this list, and it's still great. Very underappreciated.
In a way, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest felt like a natural progression from the first. It took the story away from the castle, added in a hub town, there was gear to get, and even a day and night cycle. Once night befell Simon’s world monsters would become stronger making an already difficult game more challenging. Bloody Tears is also my favorite song in the series. For all these positives the thing that holds it back is the bad translation. Text from village NPCs scroll out slower than a snail and even after all that waiting the message is perplexing. Yes, thankfully GameFAQs is around, so it’s incredibly easy to decode your instructions now. Whoever finished this back in 1988 must be a wizard of some sort. It’s nigh impossible without help.
Even though PlayStation helped create the Metroidvania genre, Nintendo is the one that helped continued it with their portable line. The first Metroidvania post-Symphony of the Night was Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. It was good, but was sadly forced onto a system with an abysmally dark screen, and the series' slow movement speed marred the experience. The next game, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, is much better, but I hate how it looks. That leads us to Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, which is not only a fantastic Castlevania game, but also one of the greatest GBA titles of all time. The game follows Soma Cruz in the year 2025. His body is a candidate for Dracula to possess so needless to say he also has magical powers akin to those of the Belmont family. Thankfully he chooses to resist the darkness along with his friends and Alucard, who is disguised as a guy named Genya Arikado. Gameplay features the Tactical Soul system, which allows Soma to absorb the powers of his enemies. It’s kind of like Pokémon, but I’ll get into it more with the sequel later down the list.
What a fitting title. I sure am in despair when I play this game. Ba dum tss! Rimshots aside, when this project was first announced I was ecstatic. Imagine the graphical style of Symphony of the Night applied to a multiplayer game that featured heroes through the series. Trouble is the key component, co-op multiplayer, makes the game awful. The map zooms out too far where it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Alone you can zoom in and out on the fly, but it still doesn’t make the game great. It feels more like a mod to Symphony of the Night without much of a point to it. That analysis probably isn’t too far off either. Like Judgment, the idea was sound, but the execution was unacceptable.
Mario began the trend of leaping into portraits in order to explore new worlds back on the N64. It’s been copied before, but not as much as you’d think. One game that springs to mind is Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. Dual protagonists Jonathan and Charlotte leap between paintings as well. The plot revolves around solving the problems within each painting in order to stop a plot to revive Dracula. Something along those lines at least. And that’s right I said, dual protagonists. Players can switch between the two on the fly. Jonathan is more of the offensive melee character while Charlotte is the defensive magical one. It’s a concept that was last seen in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse back on the NES in 1989. It was a nice throwback and worked well for this portable gem.
Super Castlevania IV was the series' first step into the 16-Bit generation. While graphically impressive it still suffered from those clunky movement controls I mentioned before. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was a step beyond that. Released exclusively in Japan for the PC Engine in 1993. In its initial release, gameplay was smoother, the music was impressive, and it had voice acting and animated cutscenes. Now Castlevania: Dracula X is an inferior port of this, and that's why it's on the naughty list. In its SNES debut, a lot of what made Rondo of Blood unique had to be stripped out due to memory and technical limitations. By all accounts, it’s still a fine game, but again a lesser version. Just like so many others on this list.
If you’ve kept up on my lists then you know I love Metal Gear and in turn Hideo Kojima. So when I saw he was involved with producing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow I was over the moon. Unfortunately, he barely touched the project so his whacky stamp is nowhere to be found. That said, I do like the game. My overall feelings are similar to Lament of Innocence. There are rough spots in that there are too many ideas that aren’t fully developed, but I had a good time overall. Boiling it down to its basics, Lords of Shadow is a hack and slash game with puzzle elements akin to God of War. It also tells the origins of the Belmont and Dracula feud in an interesting way although it stands as a reboot to the entire franchise, so technically it doesn’t line up with the timeline. It was a gamble that paid off here, but…
Unfortunately, this effort was destroyed with the sequel, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. The first game was packed with gameplay elements that were good, but not complete. This game not only adds more, but doesn't even match the heights of its predecessor. One of these mismanaged mechanics is stealth, and my God is it frustrating. If your game is action based, don't put stealth in it! Period. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is one of the best games of all time, but that early stealth fortress is pure garbage.
The plot is also in shambles. Gabriel Belmont was a likable character with a purpose, but now he’s just Dracula. It’s always hard to side with the villain even though we know the gray circumstances behind his transformation. It goes through lengths to include known characters from the other games too. For example, Gabriel’s son, Trevor, is killed, and then resurrected Alucard. Let me explain why that’s messed up. Trevor is the protagonist in Dracula’s Curse who meets up with Alucard later on in the game. I know this is a reboot, but why wouldn’t they pick someone else to be Alucard? I should have added that to my bad plot twists article.
Released in 2008 this is sadly the last primarily 2D Metroidvania. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is at least a high note to end the 2D side on. The pixel art is gorgeous, the gameplay is silky smooth, and it's one of the best soundtracks in the series. Plus it stars a solo heroine vampire hunter, Shanoa, and I’m always happy for a female protagonist. Her powers are similar to Soma’s Tactical Soul system in that she can absorb the power of monsters through magical glyphs imbued on her back. It’s not as good as that, but it does have a nice weapon combo mechanic that lets you swap weapons mid-slash. It won't make combo-heavy games like Devil May Cry wince, but it sure is fun anyway.
The fate of Castlevania has been cursed to arcades for years now, and none of these machines look interesting. However, I didn’t mention that before the Belmonts aided in gambling addictions, the original Castlevania was ported to arcades in 1988. In the west, it’s known as Haunted Castle, and it’s basically like a reimagining of the first game. Like my entry regarding Dracula X, Haunted Castle deserves to be on this list for mucking up an otherwise great game. Yes technically it upped the sprite count, but it still looks terrible comparatively. The best and worst part of this whole thing is the advertisements for it. I mean just look at the picture above. Some schmuck in a cheap Dracula costume doesn’t really sell me on Castlevania. Brilliant job marketing team!
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is my favorite game in the franchise. It perfects what was already amazing from Aria of Sorrow. Namely that Tactical Soul system I mentioned earlier. Soma can gain abilities from every single monster he fights. The chances are random, but if you keep at it, and add luck boosting items, they’ll eventually come. I even included the game on a Pokémon clones list. Now, these skills range from offensive, defensive, and traversal moves. I also love that it continues Soma’s storyline as most entries in Castlevania focuses on a new hero per title. Hopefully, we’re not done yet, and Konami will reveal Castlevania: Switch of Sorrow during Nintendo’s E3 showcase. That's a bad name admittedly, but if it gives us another Castlevania I’ll take it!