When it comes to horror-themed video games, few are as revered as Konami’s classic Castlevania franchise. While the series has had its fair share of missteps (anybody remember Castlevania 64 or Castlevania: Legends on the Game Boy?), by and large the bulk of the monster-slayin’ titles have been pretty good-to-downright fantastic.
Since dozens upon dozens of games have been released on virtually every system you can think of, it’s no surprise some of the absolute best games available on any platform proudly bear the Castlevania namesake, whether we’re talking about the NES, Super Nintendo and Genesis or obscurer consoles like the TurboGrafx-CD, MSX2 and the X68000.
With the venerable series soon set to arrive on Netflix as an animated program, what better way to pay our respects to Castlevania and the Belmont clan mythos in the meantime than by counting down the 10 best stand-alone titles in the illustrious franchise’s history? Oh, and for the sake of keeping things interesting, we’re going to limit the selections to one console appearance each – that way, not only do we get a wider panoply of Castlevania games to reflect upon, it also gives us an opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the lesser heralded installments the series has spawned over the years.
So get your thumbs in optimal button mashing shape, folks – regardless of any outstanding curses, you’re guaranteed to have anything but a terrible night with these games on your itinerary…
10. “Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth” (2009)
This $10 virtual download for the Nintendo Wii might just be the best console-Vania of the last 20 years. Although technically a remake of the first Castlevania game on the Game Boy, the 2D ReBirth is really a loving homage to the entire old-school series, with odes and references to Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV and Bloodlines sprinkled liberally throughout. With so many games in the franchise aping the backtrack-intensive Symphony of the Night formula since the late 1990s, it was a refreshing change of pace to play a more linear, old-fashioned Castlevania game again. Now, if only we could convince Konami to rerelease this one for the current crop of consoles – or better yet, make it available as a value-priced download on Steam.
9. “Vampire Killer” (1986)
Believe it or not, the first Castlevania sequel wasn’t Simon’s Quest – it was this pseudo-remake that came out on the MSX2 just one month after the original game hit the Famicom. While Vampire Killer looks a lot like the NES classic we all know and love, it’s actually a drastically different game with all new levels and a greater emphasis on exploration. While it’s not quite the MetroidVania-style experience we’ve gotten accustomed to, at times it nonetheless feels more like an adventure game than a pure action-platformer. And as challenging as the original Castlevania game was, rest assured this one is even TOUGHER, with a final battle against Dracula that reaches nearly Ghosts ‘n Goblins levels of difficulty.
8. “Akumajō Dracula” (1993)
Since it was released on the Japan-only Sharp X68000 computer, Akumajō Dracula is definitely one of the most obscure games in the Castlevania canon. Thankfully, the graphically and aurally overhauled remake of the original Castlevania is also one hell of a title in its own right, with huge levels, great music and some truly awesome boss battles (the throwdown with a “mirror” Simon Belmont has to be one of the franchise’s highwater marks.) Although the game was later ported to the Playstation as Castlevania Chronicles, I’ve always preferred the X68000 original – which, despite coming out five years earlier, looks, sounds and plays much better than the PS1 carry-over.
7. “Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin” (2006)
All three Castlevania games on the DS were terrific, but if I had to pick just one, I’d select the middle child as the best of the bunch. A sorta’ sequel to Bloodlines, this portable game has you switching between two characters to solve puzzles, wipe out monstrous bad guys and occasionally operate motorcycles in tandem – trust me, it sounds a lot cooler in action than in description. Unlike most Castlevania games – which have you traipsing around a huge castle and its spooky environs – Portrait of Ruin has you running all over the place, including Egyptian tombs and the foggy city streets of World War II-era London. And the journey is made even more enjoyable by the inclusion of a series first – an online, co-op multiplayer mode.
6. “Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow” (2003)
The last of three Game Boy Advance-exclusive Castlevania games is definitely the best of the trio. While the preceding entry, Harmony of Dissonance, did a pretty decent job bringing the MetroidVania formula to handhelds, Aria of Sorrow really ups the ante with a bite-sized Symphony of the Night-esque experience with great visuals, terrific level design and impressive boss battles. The debuting “tactical souls” mechanic greatly extended the title’s replayability, with players able to trap virtually every enemy in the game to gain special abilities – and with the GBA’s nifty cable link accessory, you could even swap and trade demon-absorbed powers like unholy Pokemon monsters! Needless to say, I definitely got a lot of mileage out of this one during bouts of homeroom ennui my senior year in high school.
5. “Super Castlevania IV” (1991)
Super Castlevania IV was one of the very first games released on the Super Nintendo and it did not disappoint. Rather than overhaul the tried and true series mechanics in the leap to the 16-bit era, Konami wisely stuck to their guns (err, whips) and crafted an outstanding straight-forward action platformer that used the SNES hardware horsepower to enhance the atmosphere instead of gimmicking up the gameplay. From the very first opening cinematic of the game – with all of that fog billowing across the screen – Konami made it clear they were out to create one creepy-ass game, complete with a weird, otherworldly organ soundtrack that remains one of the eeriest you’ll hear on any system. With plenty of reverential nods to its NES forerunners and a ton of great gameplay additions (finally being able to use eight-way directional attacks, the rope swinging sequences, the rotating stages, etc.) – not to mention some huge, excellently designed levels and some downright killer boss fights (my favorite is definitely the throwdown with the hulking mummy that bleeds flying serpents), there’s no surprise why this remains one of the most popular Super Nintendo games of all-time … and, of course, one of the most beloved Castlevania outings ever.
4. “Castlevania: Bloodlines” (1994)
For years, retro video game nerds have bickered back and forth over whether Super Castlevania IV or Bloodlines is the superior 16-bit Castlevania experience. While the SNES game might have the more memorable ambiance, its Sega Genesis counterpart is arguably the better overall title, with more challenging gameplay, more inventive level design (how about that climb up the Medusa Head-infested leaning tower of Pisa?) and some of the most whacked out bosses to ever appear in the franchise (including the grand finale encounter against Satan himself, who – for some reason – has an extra mouth for a crotch.) While the graphics and sound may not be on par with the SNES game, the Genesis-exclusive Bloodlines ups the ante with the inclusion of two different playable characters, who not only have drastically different controls but even require different strategies from level to level – a brilliant design choice that certainly increases the replay value. Oh, and the subtitle Bloodlines isn’t without a dual meaning; unlike those dry old Nintendo games, this Castlevania actually shows some pixelated gore, complete with enemies that explode in showers of blood and guts!
3. “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” (1997)
At a time when 2D gaming seemed deader than Blacula’s bell bottoms, Symphony of the Night not only resuscitated the Castlevania brand, but in some ways, proved two-dimensional gaming still had a place and purpose in the era of polygonal graphics. Greatly inspired by Nintendo’s Metroid series, Symphony of the Night has a heavy emphasis on exploration, with plenty of hidden passages and secret items that can only be acquired after you’ve defeated certain enemies and picked up specific powers. Thanks to the RPG-like leveling-up system, the game gives you plenty of incentives to slay every bad guy you encounter and retrieve every item dotting the massive game space; and when I say there is a lot of content, we’re talking a full game that takes even veteran speedrunners a good six or so hours to complete! With one of the best soundtracks of the 32-bit era (as well as some of the most memorable voice acting ever featured on the Playstation), Symphony of the Night may very well be the most atmospheric title in the pantheon of Castlevania games. There’s a very good reason why many franchise fans consider this one Castlevania at its absolute apex – after all, practically every subsequent 2D game in the series has incorporated the same MetroidVania-style aesthetics and gameplay, haven’t they?
2. “Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse” (1990)
Opinions are very, very mixed on the second Castlevania NES game, but pretty much everybody can agree that Dracula’s Curse is a far superior offering than Simon’s Quest. Eschewing the pseudo-RPG elements of its predecessor, Castlevania III brought the series back to its linear platforming roots – albeit, not without some ingenuous twists. For starters, each level has at least two branching paths, which definitely amps up the replayability (indeed, with 16 stages, the game is easily twice as big as the original Castlevania.) Secondly, the game allows you to play as one of four different characters, all of whom have special powers that are needed to get past some of the game’s thornier enemies and obstacles. And last – but definitely not least – the level design is just about perfect. The dark-pastel backdrops are absolutely gorgeous, the platforming sequences are tough but enjoyable and the boss battles are among the best ever featured on the NES. A quarter-century later, Dracula’s Curse is still an absolute blast; more than just a great horror game, it’s unquestionably one of the best pieces of 8-bit software ever manufactured.
1. “Castlevania: Rondo of Blood” (1993)
Over 30 years of games, Rondo of Blood remains the quintessential Castlevania experience – an oddity, to be sure, seeing as how the game technically never made it to the United States. Released as a Japan-only offering on the TurboGrafx-CD (also known as the PC Engine CD), Rondo of Blood is an outstanding action-platformer that incorporates the best elements of Bloodlines, Dracula’s Curse and Super Castlevania IV into a truly spectacular package, with some of the series’ best visuals and music. While the animated cutscenes look a little cheesy, there’s nothing corny about the game’s awesome level design (the haunted ship might just be the best stage in any Castlevania title), humongous bosses (pink, axe-wielding minotaurs and green, bare-breasted Medusas are some of the tamer adversaries you’ll encounter) or intense action sequences (the game begins with your character being chased by the Grim Reaper on horseback … how about that for starting off on a high note?). Factor in the two playable characters (each with their own special attacks) and multiple branching paths and you have an immensely satisfying 2D masterpiece with plenty of replayability and TONS of atmosphere. Although the game has been ported to the SNES (as Dracula X) and the PSP, those versions are vastly inferior to the original.
If you haven’t sank your teeth into this one, for shame – not only are you missing the definitive classic Castlevania game, you’re missing one of the best video games ever released.