I am a gamer, have been since first playing games on the Atari system when I was a kid. My first horror game was Friday the 13th on the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and I remember playing it with my heart in my throat. Jason, in all his pixelated glory, was a near unbeatable foe. I never could survive an encounter with him. But, I think it was Castlevania for the N64 that woke a deep love for horror games in me.
The opening of this game still excites me, a sweeping view of a grand castle and the strains of a haunting and melancholy tune played on a violin by Malus. There are two playable characters: Reinhardt Schneider and Carrie Fernandez. Each have their own special weapons. Reinhardt has a whip and a dagger, while Carrie has magic orbs that home in on targets and a set of rings.
They share the same adventure, trekking through the Forest of Silence, the Castle Wall and then the Villa but then diverges to separate levels unique to one character. Some levels can only be accessed through Carrie (i.e. the Underground Waterway) or Reinhardt (i.e. the Tunnels). Others are shared. There are also several different endings that can be unlocked. That makes this game have a great re-playability.
I love the atmosphere. Dark, tense and horrifying. Time slips from day to night, which is important to some aspects of the game. There is blood and implements of torture, supernatural foes and some very disturbing bosses. But there is also beauty to be found in Castlevania. One of my favorite levels is the Villa.
The Villa is reached after completing the Castle Wall area and fighting several Cerberuses. A timeworn cemetery greets you as you pass through the Villa gates, some of the tombstones still retain their epitaphs and are readable. Entering the Villa, you find yourself in a large foyer with a staircase. Exploring the house, a small indoor garden can be found. Red roses encircle the room. If the time is right, you’ll meet Rosa. She is the garden’s caretaker, responsible for the white roses. What white roses? There aren’t any but as the scene progresses, we learn the reason why. Rosa waters them with blood.
A maze lies behinds the Villa and it’s here that you meet Malus, a frightened boy that has lost his family. This part never fails to make my heart race. In order to help Malus, you must follow him through the maze while being chased by a large creature reminiscent of Frankenstein’s creature wielding a chainsaw and two hellhounds. I can still hear Malus’s scared “Help me!” and the revving of the chainsaw in my head.
As Reinhardt, one of the most memorable moments is entering the Tunnels, a labyrinth of seemingly endless pathways. Shortly after discovering a poisonous river, a scantily clad woman emerges from the murky depths, her arms chastely covering her chest. Walking toward Reinhardt, more of her is seen. Below her waist is the body of a spider. These spider women are the dominate foes of the level, gliding down from the Tunnel ceilings, skittering toward you from the shadows and spewing poison whenever they get the chance.
The Castle Center provides a harrowing challenge. To release the seal and fight the boss, two ingredients are needed. One is mandrake, the other magical nitro and it’s with the nitro that comes all the fun. One jump, one slip from an edge or a hit from the traps or enemies and you explode. Playing through this, my hands shake every time. Once the seal is broken, a massive bull awakens. As you battle him, his flesh falls from his body, leaving only a gigantic skeleton until you defeat him.
Castlevania has left a lasting impression on me. From entering the Forest of Silence to fighting the incarnations of Dracula, it has held endless fascination and frustration. At times creepy and beautiful to downright scary (there’s a statue in the Castle Center that weeps blood which then becomes a monster), it is a game I return to again and again.