Castlevania Anniversary Collection
A Horrible Night To Have A Curse
In 2019, Konami realized that it had an anniversary to celebrate amongst its many questionable decisions across the span of the decade. While this sounds like a hostile way to begin a first take preview, this author has a love-hate relationship with the company. For a company that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, sitting on many valuable IPs, and having a dedicated fanbase for each IP, Konami has seen better days. 2019 was the year that the company, long considered to be out of touch, wished to return to the good graces of its fans. The Castlevania Anniversary Collection was one such avenue.
Originally a part of the Konami Anniversary Collection, the Castlevania Anniversary Collection served as an anthology of many Castlevania titles in one package. With a storied history of games and many releases from the 80s to the 90s alone, this collection was narrowed down to eight titles. This featured the first five Castlevania console games, two Game Boy games, and an exclusive title never released outside of Japan. As compilations such as these and the Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection are receiving physical editions thanks to Limited Run Games, we took a look at every game featured. Time to explore Dracula's castle, or rather, part of it.
The 1987 classic that helped birth an entire genre of gaming, Castlevania's premise was simple. You are a part of a family of vampire hunters known as the Belmonts and your mission is to go to Dracula's castle and beat him up. Along the way, there are enemies, traps, and many items to find. While my first Castlevania was Aria of Sorrow which isn't included in this collection, the gameplay is vastly different. First, the simplicity of the controls is deceiving. One button attacks with the whip while the other jumps. Pressing Up + Attack uses one of your items.
The issue here is that the challenge comes from precision. Enemies move in patterns and getting hit causes the player to "jump back." While the first level of Castlevania isn't that big of a deal, certain enemies are annoying to fight, like bats. It's convenient that there's a giant bat that serves as the game's first boss. It also teaches you how valuable having items are, as your whip can only do so much damage. Overall, it's a good way to historically see how far the Castlevania games have come since their humble beginnings.
Released a year after the first game, this one has always been considered the "black sheep" of the series. It was the first and only Castlevania game of this era to deviate from the action platformer the original was known for. Instead, Konami attempted a more "in-depth" approach, including day and night cycles. In the daytime, the player can talk to villagers and shopkeepers, giving clues as far as what to do next.
The issue is that the dialogue is so vague, probably due to the NES limitations, that it's almost impossible to figure out what to do without a guide. At night, the infamous words "IT'S A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE" appear, causing enemies to become more aggressive and more Castlevania-like. I didn't get far with this title at all for the aforementioned reasons and it's a good thing that future games decided to return to their roots. Perhaps this game is best known for the rather eccentric review that the Angry Video Game Nerd gave during the early days of his career.
As I hinted at the end of Castlevania 2, this game returned to the original game's roots, keeping much of its gameplay and mechanics. It would also be the final main series Castlevania game on the NES. Many of the problems from the first game occur, including accidentally using an item when you mean to use a whip attack. However, I feel as if Konami made some of these "problems" as features, specifically the enemy's aggression. Skeletons now throw their bones at you, deceptive traps await, and the annoying floating heads return tenfold. Many of the players' early deaths will involve getting pushed into the abyss because of the stupid heads and their stupid patterns. The game lives up to its "most difficult Castlevania" reputation so for those looking for a challenge, look no further.
Super Castlevania 4
In the early 90s, Castlevania made their way to the 16 bit with Super Castlevania 4, complete with graphical achievements that weren't possible. The graphical tricks to make the player appear like they are moving with the environment is pretty cool. The music, which has always been a high point in the series, doesn't let up. The genius of Michiru Yamane and the rest of the staff is shown in full effort.
Perhaps the biggest improvement is the extra buttons the SNES proves. Gone are the accidental usage of items as it is bound to a separate button. This makes the player focus on attacking enemies above or below them while keeping a moderate challenge. The player can swing across chasms and the animations will set the tone for future Castlevania games. If there was a title to start with, Super Castlevania would definitely be the first. The Genesis would have their own Castlevania game as well.
If Castlevania 2 was the outlier, Bloodlines is the second outlier that maintains the main series's magic. This is the first game in the series that takes place in the 20th century, before World War 1. It is also the first game to include two playable protagonists. One plays similar to the previous vampire hunters complete with a whip. The other uses a spear and excels in long-ranged attacks. I picked the latter and the differences between the SNES and Genesis games are clear.
While the SNES may have better fidelity, the Genesis version includes things such as blood and its own unique graphical effects. It's a unique spin on the classic Castlevania formula and some of the effects, including the second level's water reflection, are quite pretty to look at. After giving Super Castlevania a try, Bloodlines is a decent game to continue on with.
Castlevania 1 and 2 Game Boy
I'll combine both Game Boy games under one header as there isn't much of a difference between the two. The second game is a vast improvement over the first by miles. Castlevania plays like the Game Boy was submerged underwater. Actions like jumping and attacking take several frames to start up, meaning players must plan well in advance. This comes to a head when the player is expected to traverse a super-tight platforming section while a bat pesters the player. Knowing what happens when a player gets hit, the frustration isn't worth it at all.
Castlevania 2 on the other hand plays similarly to the console versions. Platforming is fixed, the enemies are unique, and so are the traps. There are multiple paths to take which is impressive considering the small size of the Game Boy. An example is a risky path involving a spike trap. The player here must quickly fall down a rope or else they will get crushed, something that isn't present early on in the console Castlevania titles.
The "star" of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, this title was released only in Japan on the Famicom back in 1990. Almost twenty years later, the game finally gets an official English release exclusive to this compilation. In this game, the player takes control of "Dracula's son," as they fight Castlevania enemies yet in a "cute" style. Killer birds are now storks, skeletons are now kid-sized, and ghosts are comical. Of the games featured here, this one is by far the most dynamic. In my opinion, this game is Castlevania's answer to Mega Man as Kid Dracula's main form of attack is a fireball...that can be charged to do more damage. Hmm.
What's interesting about this game is that it is the only game that "works" with the Konami code. The classic "up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A" code doesn't work with the other titles in the compilation. Doing so in Kid Dracula gives players unlimited health and lives! No, actually it gives a cheeky Easter Egg, letting the player know that there is nothing to be expected. This also softlocks the game, meaning that players will have to reset the game in order to play again.
IS IT WORTH IT?
Much like the answer I gave at the end of the Neo Geo Color compilation as well as the Disney compilation, that entirely depends on several factors. Players who grew up with the series will get joy from the nostalgia, complete with bonus content and interviews from the staff. For everyone else, it's difficult. Many of the series' heavy hitters including Symphony of the Night, Rondo of Blood, and Aria of Sorrow are not present here.
They are included in other compilations, sure, but for a compilation called Castlevania Anniversary Collection, players expect the standout titles as well as their origins. It is by no means the definitive collections fans want, but with the physical release, it is an important part of any gaming collection.
Castlevania Anniversary Collection is available on Sony and Microsoft consoles and the Nintendo Switch.