Every 100 years or so, Dracula returns from the dead to torment the land with his cronies Medusa, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, and Death himself. Who puts those creatures back to rest every time? The Belmont family. With the whip Vampire Killer, the only weapon that can hurt Dracula, and a cadre of other supplies — crosses, holy water, throwing knives — the Belmonts jump, whip, and whip some more on their way through Dracula’s evil home, Castlevania.
Konami’s been making these monster mash-ups for over 25 years now. Sometimes they’re side-scrolling 2D platformers. Other times they’re action-RPGs that use Super Metroid‘s non-linear approach to upgrading abilities while traveling through grid-like maps. And once in a while, they’re an ill-conceived fighting game or a reboot of the entire continuity.
Some of these games are not so good. Some are downright great. The following list compiles the best of the bunch. You may agree. You may disagree. Either way, let us know below and we’ll hash it out. Don’t forget your giant roast chickens.
Castlevania (NES, 1987)
The game that started it all is still one of the best. Back in 1987, many games focused on jumping or shooting. This one is all about a whip, a short-range melee weapon. As Simon Belmont, you have to get up close and personal with every enemy and that means danger at every turn. Really, every turn. The deliberate enemy placement throughout levels makes every single enemy encounter a life and death situation. The challenge is unrelenting. The controls are nigh perfect, if unforgiving. You want to make a jump? You better be dedicated to that jump because you can’t change direction mid-air.
The way it mashed together Universal Studio monsters, Greek and every other kind of mythology, and pork chops into walls set the standard for the rest of the series. It also flipped expectations when it came to hearts, that most video game-y of video game conventions. Hearts usually revive your health like in Zelda, but in Castlevania they’re ammo for your sub-weapons like axes and daggers. A unique spin on the action-platformer in its day, and a classic all the way, consider it a badge of honor if you beat the damn game. It’s incredibly difficult.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES, 1990)
The first sequel, Simon’s Quest, isn’t on this list because it’s a frustrating bore that was broken on purpose in order sell Nintendo Power Player’s Guides. How else can you explain that kneel-down-and-wait-for-the-tornado B.S.? Although that game predicted the series’ non-linear future, it was the second sequel, Dracula’s Curse, that built on what the first Castlevania did.
It sticks to linear level design — with branching paths at the end of each level, a first for the series — and introduces a new Belmont to the clan, Trevor, Simon’s ancestor. It also adds three new playable characters: Grant (the wall-climbing thief), Sypha Belnades (the magic-casting witch), and Alucard (the son of Dracula who turns into a bat). Dracula’s Curse offers a bunch of options in what is basically a bigger and better version of the original Castelvania. Just don’t expect to ever beat it because it’s even more difficult than the first one.
Order of Ecclesia (Nintendo DS, 2008)
The last worthwhile Castlevania before the Lords of Shadow reboot, Order of Ecclesia stars Shanoa, a witch in a sect dedicated to defeating Dracula. We already collected cards (Circle of the Moon) and souls (Aria and Dawn of Sorrow) at this point in the series, so this time we’re after magical glyphs. In a Mega Man-style twist, Shanoa absorbs glyphs from enemies then equips them to her arms and back. It’s fun to see what kinds of combinations you can come up with.
Castlevania games were considered pretty easy at this point too, so Ecclesia brought the high difficulty back. Enemies deal massive damage and some levels — Ecclesia hosts both the linear levels of “Classicvania” and non-linear maps of “Metroidvania” — are just big tests of endurance against gauntlets of foes. Notable for fun boss fights, one of the few female protagonists in the series, and that sticky friction you feel when absorbing glyphs from enemies, Order of Ecclesia is the most satisfying Castlevania adventure to play on Nintendo DS.
Aria of Sorrow (Game Boy Advance, 2003)
After finding success on PlayStation 1, Konami moved the Castlevania series to Nintendo handhelds: Game Boy Advance and later, Nintendo DS. While Circle of the Moon was a decent if dim-looking entry, and Harmony of Dissonance boasted bright graphics but tinny sound, Aria of Sorrow achieved a Goldilocks balance of great audio, visuals, and gameplay. It’s the best game in the series since Symphony and shakes things up by setting the story in the future. And it stars another non-Belmont: Soma Cruz, a teenage foreign exchange student in Japan.
See, in 1999, Julius Belmont, Yoko Belnades, and Alucard managed to defeat Dracula for good and sealed Castlevania in a solar eclipse. We don’t know the exact details because Konami’s yet to bestow us with what’s-sure-to-be-an-amazing-game about the Battle of 1999, but Aria picks up 36 years after that event with Soma re-entering the castle in an eclipse to find out he’s more than just a pretty boy high school kid. Upon defeating normal enemies, Soma absorbs their souls and gains powers like the ability to detect breakable walls, command bats, toss grenades and become powerful when in a poisoned state.
Defeating monsters to collect their souls adds a great Pokemon-y collect-’em-all system to the series that also combines series staple whips with modern arms like swords and laser guns. It’s one of the craziest, most creative (defeat the Curry Skeleton to throw plates of curry!), and best games in the series for its surprisingly good story, collectible powers and addictive gameplay. New Game Plus, additional characters to play as, and cameos and Easter eggs all over make this an essential ‘Vania.
Super Castlevania IV (SNES, 1991)
A remake of the original game and the first game in the series on SNES, Super Castlevania IV scared the hell outta me when I was younger. The opening “cutscene” showed off the Super Nintendo’s power a little too well — the sound of lightning striking Dracula’s headstone had me hiding under the covers. The oppressive fog. The moody music. The 16-bit graphics and sound made the atmosphere come alive. The game had texture: vines on a rusty fence, crumbling rocks beneath Simon Belmont’s feet, gelatinous blobs hanging like fungus from the ceiling … The amount of detail was unreal at the time.
And the controls! Now, you can control where you land when you jump. You can whip in eight directions, wiggle the whip around by futzing with the D-pad, and swing across chasms like Indiana Jones. This level of control breaks the game a bit since the importance of sub-weapons like the dagger and axe is diminished, but the game made up for it with gorgeous graphics, an amazing soundtrack (especially for the time; no other game sounded like this) and moderate difficulty. The enemies are huge and the boss design is terrific. (I’ll never forget the instruction manual’s names for the dancing apparitions — Fred Ascare and Paula Abghoul. Move over, Iggy and Lemmy Koopa!)
Lords of Shadow would later take Super Castlevania IV‘s muted color palette, reliance on the whip and emphasis on spectacle, but forget the compelling gameplay.
Bloodlines (Genesis, 1994)
The only Castlevania on a SEGA console (unless we count the awful Saturn port of Symphony of the Night and the canceled Dreamcast game, but we’re not), Bloodlines stars two characters you can choose to play as at the beginning: spear-wielder Eric Lecarde or whip-slingdinger-on-parade John Morris, the son of Quincey Morris from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That’s right, the original novel is part of the Castlevania continuity. How great is that?
Bloodlines essentially upgrades the 8-bit games and that’s why it’s so damn great. From a pure gameplay perspective it’s just about perfect. The controls are flawless. Lecarde’s spear feels mightier than the whip and he can jump higher than usual if you hold down on the D-pad. It’s fun as hell, gets right to the point (hit things and jump!) and graphically, it’s one of the most impressive games on this list. It uses the Genesis’ excellent effects in many of its Europe-themed levels: water reflects, towers rotate, and you play upside-down once or twice. Upside-down!! Fans of fellow Konami platformer Rocket Knight Adventures will recognize many of the tricks on display in Bloodlines. The music, the first in the series by composer Michiru Yamane, rocks. (To the max.) And the story somehow incorporates the death of real life Archduke Ferdinand. Nope, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Tight controls, steep difficulty and heaps of personality (beat the game to find out the ridiculous boss names in that curtain call thing old games do so well) round Bloodlines out to make it the second best “Classicvania” ever.
Symphony of the Night (PS1, 1997)
The turning point. Featuring the most amazing sound (entering Dracula’s castle for the first time, my god) and 2D graphics at the time, Symphony of the Night turned Castlevania from a linear stage-driven game you could beat in two hours into a sprawling, hours-long adventure with Super Metroid-style save points, branching paths all over and a big, big map.
The game, full of addictive ideas new to the series and action games in general, is designed to keep you playing. Symphony introduced “RPG elements” before they became a bullet point on the back of every game box. Stats like HP, DEF, ATK and equippable items ensure you will grind those numbers higher and higher. Tiny little numbers pop up for every pleasing hit you make against a skeleton. A satisfying jingle plays and the screen flashes for every level gained. The soundtrack is so good (one of the best ever, actually) you want to play so you can keep listening. Alucard, last seen back in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, controls and animates beautifully. Ethereal and fast (though not fast enough for back-dash abusers), with a deep booming voice and plenty of angst and white hair, he set the standard for Castlevania heroes to come. Only Cloud and Sephiroth, who debuted the same year, could rival his influence or popularity. And Alucard has tons of weapons, abilities, and spells to discover and master — the Street Fighter-style button commands required for spell-casting has yet to be replicated well.
The level of detail in Symphony is unmatched. There are tons of secrets and Easter eggs for long-time fans to find. The boss fights are challenging and the second castle was a revelation at the time. It’s still excellent. Maybe too excellent. Future games would copy Symphony of the Night over and over without surpassing it. After this, it was the “Metroidvania” style that Symphony of the Night introduced, or nothing at all. Unless you count Castlevania: Judgment. Or Lords of Shadow. Or Adventure: ReBirth on WiiWare (eh).
No, the classic 2D platformer style was lost…
Rondo of Blood (PC Engine, 1993)
The pinnacle of the series, and the link between old and new styles. Dracula X: Rondo of Blood gets everything right.
After Super Castlevania IV gave gamers extra control over Simon Belmont, Konami scaled things way back to the original NES style with Rondo. Ryu look-alike Richter Belmont can only whip in one direction, but that’s okay. That means, once again, raw skill is required. His restricted moveset keeps the game fair, focused, and fast. Sub-weapons are more important than ever in Rondo since hearts are hard to come by. You have to conserve, and know exactly when to time your jump and where to throw your axe. And instead of just throwing the boomerang cross, Richter can cause dozens of them to rain down from the sky with a costly screen-spanning “item crash” move.
Aside from giving your arsenal merit, Rondo‘s distinction is that enemy placement and flawless level design complement Richter’s abilities perfectly. Battling through decks of a pirate ship, gears of a clock tower, and the (burning) village from Simon’s Quest, has never felt as great in Rondo. Nearly every enemy is a fight to the death, a trade of blows that sees Richter somersaulting out of harm’s way and praying he picked up the right sub-weapon for the job in the previous level. Well-timed jumps, flips, and weapon throws will turn you into a Castlevania athlete. No, a Castlevania ninja. For pure action, this game is tough to top.
It gives you a lot to do, too. Alternative routes return, ensuring you can replay the game three or four times and still not see everything. Setpieces and surprises like bosses with final desperation attacks and a huge, lumbering zombie beast chase shake you out of complacency. An unlockable second character, a little girl who can shoot doves and dragons out of her fingers, offers funny new ways to attack the same enemies. Sometimes the best way to defend against Death’s attacks is to hide under a giant turtle shell.
The presentation is that wonderful early-’90s CD-ROM blend of crisp 2D sprites, anime-inspired half-motion video, and rocking CD audio. Many of the same sprites — and ideas — will be recycled in its sequel, Symphony of the Night. If that game’s a giant buffet line, Rondo is a perfect three-course meal. Classic, memorable. It’s not just the best Castlevania, it’s one of the best action games ever made, and like the best Final Fantasy game it never left Japan until much later in a PSP remake/port and on Wii’s Virtual Console. For the most authentic experience we recommend the Wii V.C. version. For a version to play on-the-go, go for Dracula X Chronicles. It packs the Dracula X: Rondo of Blood 2.5-D remake, Symphony of the Night, and the PC Engine version of Rondo in one tidy, vampire-killing package.