Konami’s Castlevania series has been laid to rest for around six years now, a bit like Dracula himself after an encounter with the Belmonts. That hasn’t stopped the beloved franchise from garnering an entirely new fanbase in that time thanks to Netflix’s animated series that has aired two seasons since 2017 and is currently Rotten Tomatoes’ highest rated video game adaptation of all time, a feat that surely isn’t anything spectacular at a glance but does the series justice. Konami recently brought two of the series’ most beloved entries, Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, to the PlayStation 4 back in time for the second season in 2018, but that still leaves a huge part of the core series, mainly the core 2D platformer entries, out of reach for those looking to get into the Castlevania games and learn of the Belmont’s lineage and their importance to video game history. Alas, it seems like those dark days are over as, with the return of Simon and Richter Belmont in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Netflix series renewed for a third season, last year’s Castlevania Requiem Collection and now the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, it’s safe to assume that Castlevania is back in one way or another, and it’s a wonderful time to jump into this brilliantly dark series.
Konami has once again assigned Japanese developer M2 to bring these titles to modern machines and, as usual, the team has done a wonderful job resurrecting eight of the series’ most iconic and important instalments in this neat little package, topped off with a digital guide book with concept art, design documents and developer interviews. The titles included are Castlevania (NES), Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES), Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES), Super Castlevania IV (SNES), Castlevania: The Adventure (Game Boy), Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (Game Boy), Castlevania: Bloodlines (Mega Drive) and Kid Dracula, which is seeing its first release outside Japan ever since it launched in 1990. While I could nitpick at the titles I would rather see included, the fact that this exists and is as high quality as it is is a blessing. Developer M2’s emulation is once again unrivaled as some of the best emulation you’ll find, which is especially surprising this time considering the sheer amount of different hardware these games span. Rest assured though, these games have never looked better. The work on Castlevania: Bloodlines in particular stood out to me as a fascinating look at what to expect from their SEGA Mega Drive Mini, releasing later this year, essentially meaning we are in for a treat as it’s one of the best looking and running titles in this bundle.
Being the great emulation that it is, you can expect these titles to run exactly as they did on their original hardware while remaining perfectly formatted for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. Initially released in 1986, the original Castlevania for the Nintendo Entertainment System remains a short yet tough as nails 2D platformer with some unforgiving level design and bosses. The player guides whip-wielding vampire hunter Simon Belmont through six levels (divided into 18 stages) as he travels through Dracula’s castle on a mission to slay the beast. Revisiting this title made me immediately appreciate the collection’s save state feature as it remains one of the most difficult NES games ever made, and given the era, that’s saying a lot. While it’s no surprise, everything in Dracula’s castle wants Simon dead and then some, and this isn’t helped by the heavy controls and knock-back making even platforming a heart-racing endeavor. Castlevania is a great foundation for the rest of the series and a challenge to those willing to put up with its archaic design philosophy. At least you’ll have some incredible music to help guide you through Dracula’s trials.
Next comes the peculiar case of sequelitis that NES games endured with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. In the ways that Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link seemingly wanted very little to do with their wonderful predecessors, Simon’s Quest is technically the first title in the series to experiment with the ‘Metroidvania’ design philosophy that Symphony of the Night would later come to utilise. While Castlevania was a linear 2D platformer where you would pass through a level, defeat the boss and then move onto the next, Simon’s Quest is a non-linear side-scroller in which Dracula has cursed Simon following his defeat in the previous title, meaning that Simon must now gather up his remains and defeat the monster once again. Simon’s Quest is infamous for just how vague and incredibly cryptic it is, almost requiring a guide to be used in order to reach its completion. There are many reasons why the game ended up this way, but overly-ambitious design, awful localisation and hardware limitations are just a few of the worst, but in its own ways, Simon’s Quest isn’t necessarily a bad game, it’s just a thoroughly unfortunate one; however, the influence of this title can still be felt in Metroidvania titles today.
Now for the best in the NES trilogy and the current source of Netflix’s animated adaptation, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Released in 1989, Dracula’s Curse is one of the few NES sequels that feels like a true evolution of its predecessors. Taking the best of both Castlevania and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Dracula’s Curse is a 2D platformer built very much in the essence of the first title but also takes Simon’s Quest’s non-linearity to the next level by having branching paths that can lead to separate levels, changing the game’s ending. Castlevania III features so many of these branching paths and optional levels that it requires three playthroughs to even play them all. Besides new protagonist Trevor Belmont (ancestor of Simon, once again hell-bent on killing Dracula), Castlevania III introduces new playable characters in the form of Grant Danasty, who controls way better than Trevor and can climb on walls, Sypha Belnades, a witch that can use magic-based attacks and finally, Dracula’s son himself, Alucard, who can turn into a bat. Bringing back the infuriating difficulty of the previous entries, Castlevania III is yet again one of the NES’s most difficult games, but if you’re wiling to go the distance, you will find one of the most brilliantly realised and impressive NES titles ever made.
Making the jump to the next generation, Super Castlevania IV had a lot to live up to following just how excellently Castlevania III built upon its predecessors. It had to not only build upon a beloved culmination of the series thus far, but it had to do it as the series’ first 16-bit outing. Not only did Super Castlevania IV achieve this, it did so outstandingly. My favourite in this collection, Super Castlevania IV acts as almost a remake of the first title, bringing us back to Simon Belmont and his mission to defeat Dracula once again. Super Castlevania IV has the best level design, controls, visuals and music of the entire series up until this point. Castlevania IV’s controls are almost a direct insult to the clunky and stiff controls of the NES games. Not only can Simon finally move by jumping in any direction in mid-air, but he can now whip in any direction, making the entire experience far more responsive and satisfying than ever before. Not only one of the best entries in the series, Super Castlevania IV is one of the best 2D platformers and Super Nintendo games ever made.
That, unfortunately, leads us to the low point of this collection, released for the Game Boy in 1989, around the time that Casltevania III was about to take the NES by storm, Castlevania: The Adventure is by far one of the worst games in the series. Following Christopher Belmont this time, this entry is another traditional 2D platformer that constantly runs off a fifteen-minute time limit for absolutely no reason as you slowly guide Christopher through a series of uninteresting levels and nothing but a whip to attack with. A complete mess, Castlevania: The Adventure’s main issue is just how unbelievably slow it is. Unlike some of the other low points of the series, this title doesn’t even have memorable music to hold it up. Some of these issues were rectified in its sequel, also included in this collection. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, released in 1991, follows Christopher once again on a mission to save his son from Dracula. This title brings back the sub-weapons from the main series and takes advantage of the original Game Boy a bit more by having more aesthetically pleasing levels; however, Christopher remains the slowest Belmont thus far, and the title, and by association its music, is still largely unmemorable.
A stranger entry in the series, Castlevania: Bloodlines from 1994 marks the franchise’s debut on the SEGA Mega Drive (or Genesis) as a rather strange entry. It follows John Morris, a descendent of Quincy Morris, an ally of the Belmonts, and his friend Eric Lecarde, as they attempt to take down Elizabeth Bartley, Dracula’s niece who is attempting to revive him. The first thing worth noting immediately about Bloodlines is that it is by far the fastest game in the collection, made immediately noticeable coming off of the two Game Boy titles. Must be something to do with that ‘blast processing’. This title shares a lot in common with Super Castlevania IV, which is high praise. Both John and Eric are playable, with John controlling similarly to a traditional Belmont and Eric instead wielding a spear for greater range. As it has you travelling through Europe, Bloodlines is an absolutely gorgeous SEGA Mega Drive title with some beautiful backgrounds and animations, with a heightened amount of blood thanks to that 90s SEGA edginess. Bloodlines also features yet another incredible soundtrack with just the right amount of ‘Genesis twang’ that’s so synonymous with the console’s sound chip.
Finally, we make it to the most interesting title on this collection, Kid Dracula, released in 1990 on the Famicom in Japan only. This strange-yet-charming 2D platformer is almost ‘Castlevania for kids’, with its adorable 90s kids anime art style, quirky music and relatively simplistic gameplay. This title follows ‘Kid Dracula’ as he awakens from his ten-thousand year slumber to find that a demon named ‘Galamoth’ has taken over the demon world in his absence, invoking him to set out and reclaim his throne (equipped with tomato juice). Quite the departure from the gritty tones of the previous entries (especially Bloodlines), Kid Dracula is a fun entry in the series that I’m glad to see was brought into this collection. There’s not much more to it than that.
The collection itself is a brilliant celebration of some of the best (and worst) of the Castlevania franchise, especially for an anniversary collection. M2’s emulation is top notch, and some of the other additions are sure to please all fans, such as the different viewing modes: the normal 4:3 used on TVs of the era, the pixel perfect mode made to preserve the pixel art (a personal favourite) and a horrendous 16:9 mode that I’m sure somebody will find enjoyment with somehow, along with some interesting CRT and scanline filters for preserving some early memories with these titles. The Game Boy titles also feature colour filters that add some rudimentary colours to the otherwise greyscale games and even a ‘dot matrix’ filter that emulates the act of viewing them on an original Game Boy screen, green tint and all, alongside some borders to add to the sides of each game. What is, however, underwhelming is that, at least on the Nintendo Switch, there is no control consistency amongst the games. This means that while the NES titles use the A button to jump and the B button to whip, Super Castlevania IV, using the Super Nintendo’s controls, uses the B button to jump and the Y button to whip. This gets relatively confusing when switching between games, so some sort of button remapping option would have been appreciated to perfect this collection. Otherwise, Castlevania Anniversary Collection is an almost perfect compilation and emulation of some almost perfect (and not so perfect) 2D platforming legends.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 16th May 2019