Castlevania [1986] + Dark Castle [1986]

Just from reputation, I expected to have to turn around and eat my words from the Super Mario Bros [1985] post, the ones about how it inaugurated a new kind of thoroughgoing consideration towards player onboarding which quickly became gold standard. But instead, I saw it more or less confirmed. The gameplay begins with a section with no enemies where you can try out its version of question mark blocks, then easy enemies that run right into your melee attack, then verticality, and so on. Its stepwise escalation is strikingly deliberate. In the main, I must even say that Castlevania [1986] puts all its cards on the table and plays scrupulously fair, save a couple blindside sweeps here and there. Castlevania is a classic example of “Nintendo Hard”, but coming out of the early 80s, it seems more like “ZX Spectrum Easy” to me. Playing it for the first time was, for me, like easing into a recliner with a nice cup of tea. It’s the genre of Platformer in a very familiar kinda shape, even if maneuvering the fixed jump arcs is a little wonky.

Dark Castle [1986] conversely offered me only cold comfort, but I still had warm feelings towards it. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this project, small but crafted with love communicated through intricate little animations and the creative, bespoke actions they afforded, was even more familiar to me. I kept remarking to friends that it felt a lot like the Flash [1996-2020] platformers I would dink around with in the 2000s. Then I reread something I had forgotten: Dark Castle was a major programming showcase for one Jonathan Gay, who would go on to spearhead the development of Flash! So the resemblance is much more than a mere coincidence. Parts of Flash seem to be made so that things like Dark Castle could happen again… It makes me a little bitter, thinking of how the seeds were planted on a Macintosh and killed on the iPhone.

Samhain III – Halloween II [1986]. This post is published the week of American Thanksgiving, but that’s Halloween II, the true celebration of horror so it all works out.

Castlevania has a good soundtrack. I didn’t listen to more than a couple seconds of it before muting the game entirely. My friends pretty universally think that this is an offensively odd habit of mine. It’s games like Castlevania and Dark Castle that taught me to do that. Video game music honestly drives me clean up the wall. I inevitably get to a point in almost any video game where I’m struggling or just waiting, and the music combines with that context to very rapidly make me extremely irritated, when on mute it’s trivial to keep my cool. Usually I don’t think I’m losing out on much, I’ve just made the experience plain more pleasant all around for myself.

I think it’s the endlessness. I can listen to an album while I play a video game no problem. I even especially love repetitive music, even at its most deliberately absurdly monotonous (as long as it’s not Bolero [1928].) Video game soundtracks, especially in this era, have a bit in common with the situation of a silent film score. But a silent film musician can be constantly reacting and evolving the score against a pre-existing fixed target, and video game music is the thing that’s fixed and pre-existing and it’s the video game experience that’s constantly in flux. It still wants to have something to do with the context of what’s on screen, though. The classic strategy Castlevania ablely demonstrates is to split the game into big slabs, usually geographic ones, where passing through the threshold from one to the other changes the loop you’re listening to. So I’m looking down the barrel of maybe hours of listening to the video game recycle a few stanzas of music with no end in sight, where the only way it relents is by changing to something else when I as a player am proficient enough to advance it to the next part, which is just starting the process all over again. Sisyphean torture. My patience for this situation wears thin in minutes flat, if that.

Conversely, I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a transformative video game soundscape as the one in Dark Castle. On mute, Castlevania and Dark Castle look and feel quite similar. Stairs are handled almost the exact same way, they lock you in on their path while taking away your abilities to move and attack. They’re both about a guy who invades a castle to kill the evil-coded final boss, basically the Super Mario Bros plot, but without the damsel to explain the bad guy as evil, and with a heightened and central emphasis on the castle’s visual atmosphere. At the end of the day, both of these games, as the titles suggest, are about their castles in all their detail and splendor dominating their thinly-sketched characters. The image of the castle ominously looming above opens the game actually three times over across the two games. Along the way through the castle, our little guy kills or stuns many other inhabitants, such as Frankenstein, or the constant low-level hassle of bats, whilst trying to avoid being killed or stunned themselves.

Turn on the sound though, and Dark Castle plays like a spoof of Castlevania! Almost all the sound is provided by Dick Noel, King Of The Jingles… but other than a brief Bach ditty, there’s no music in this game. Instead he’s making all the sound effects with his voice, so everything sounds winkingly pathetic and ridiculous, and it becomes immediately crystal clear that this is a cartoon. The crows caw like they’re doing an Edward G. Robinson impersonation. Our hero, during their frequent and lengthy stun animation, warbles like a dork. When they get killed on the stairs you tumble down every step head over heels. You’ll be dying a lot in this game, because unlike Castlevania everything in Dark Castle is a one-hit kill, or the aforementioned stun which is so cumbersome it’ll kill you 90 percent of the time. Everything’s so finicky to control that it makes the hero (and the player) look downright clumsy. It seems to kinda share a trollish spirit with I Wanna Be The Guy [2007], even though it doesn’t much rely on inconsistency and inventive unexpected traps. Though there is some of that, like a room where the player character spawns in completely hidden behind a rock, so that in the seconds you spend scanning the screen to see where our hero even is, they get attacked and killed by a bat. You can get stunned by a drop of even like a couple pixels and the game likes to hide those. You can’t get mad, you gotta laugh it off. Fundamentally, it’s a comedy game, specifically the kind of slapstick participatory comedy that you can get out of like a Zork [1980].

Its sense of humor builds on the expectation that a platformer ought to work in a certain way, namely smoothly and unobtrusively. Then that expectation is subverted. The console ports (I played the Macintosh original) are remembered as infamously bad games, though they are pretty faithful. A component of this is that the game was designed, like Deja Vu [1985], essentially as a tech demo for the Macintosh’s unique and novel technical affordances: you use the mouse to aim and throw rocks, which is kinda funny itself, using cutting-edge tech to replicate the absolute most basic tool usage. This mechanic was replaced on consoles with a slow ratcheting sweep of the arm through discrete degrees, introducing yet-more friction, probably too much, and that’s where it curdles. The joke becomes pretty hard to see. I think more importantly, though, is that its level design sensibility stands quite deliberately athwart what comes to be understood as good game design. By the time the console ports are coming out, it’s the early 90s and Dark Castle is even more of a jarring throwback. It works more the way that most games worked before 1985: it’s a space that’s awkward to navigate and contemptuous of the player’s continued existence. This tradition doesn’t die out, especially in computer games, but it becomes less dominant.

Dark Castle, then, would seem to be the prickly title that actually goes against Super Mario Bros’ orthodoxy. The sense of humor builds on the expectation that a platformer ought to work in a certain way, namely smoothly and unobtrusively. Then that expectation is subverted. Except, well, this is basically also how Super Mario Bros 2 [1986] (aka The Lost Levels) works. Dark Castle even declares its allegiance by having one of its levels (the one that you should probably play first, FYI IMO,) be a direct homage to Donkey Kong [1981], the approachable proto-Super Mario Bros. So it’s hard to actually say that this is any kind of opposition: either it’s actually supported by its foil, or more likely, there’s not much overlap between Mac players and designers and those of the NES circa 1985 and both arenas are operating in ignorance of the other.

In ironic contrast, despite its comparative ease, the games Castlevania seems to be riffing on is a more-obscurantist tradition. (Mild apologies for the stretch of historicizing instrumentalization in this article, by the by.) It’s a refinement of an international zeitgeist for platformers with pronounced adventure game and RPG influence that kinda puts the lie to game genre by blending them together, incorporating things like inventories and complicated maps and lock-and-key gating, such as Montezuma’s Revenge [1983] or Dragon Buster [1984]. This tradition of Adventure Platformers would, of course, eventually come to be known as Metroidvanias, in part after this very game series. (I’m liable to just go on calling them Adventure Platformers!) Dragon Buster is fascinating to watch, because like its peer Tower Of Druaga [1984], it’s spiritually a console game that Namco put into the arcade. It seems to me that most of the NES’ catalog’s critical and commercial success was built off of Namco’s earlier strides. I’ve already talked about Druaga, but SMB itself was also reportedly inspired directly by Pac-Land [1984], and Donkey Kong was taking its technical cues on sprite-based games, which it would in turn pass down to the NES, from Galaxian [1979]. Dragon Buster is basically a circa-1989 NES game, complete with apparently the world’s first double jump and a Super Mario Bros 3 [1989]-style world map level select. You’re navigating platformer mazes that smoothly scroll both vertically and horizontally ala Pitfall 2 [1984], broken up by miniboss rooms that lock you into a showdown, with a health bar, ammunition, magic ranged attacks and other gameplay-effecting power-ups. Your player character in Dragon Buster even has this kinda-lousy melee swing as their default attack — it’s practically speaking already Castlevania! The similarities become even more apparent when you look at Castlevania’s MSX computer game twin, Vampire Killer [1986], which has a labyrinthine level design. Though Vampire Killer might be, Castlevania is notably enough not a Metroidvania. There’s no lock-and-key gating, and though there is a world map you get to watch Simon Belmont progress through to create an impression of a journey, and the path through it and through every level is always going like, left, then up, then back over to the right, there’s no actual possible deviation in the route through the game. It’s still linear.

It’s actually more linear than Dark Castle, which has 4 sections of 3 or 4 screens each and lets the player pick which set to attempt freely. Like Donkey Kong or, actually, Vampire Killer, Dark Castle is a flipscreen platformer. Every screen is delicately composed out of both sprites and large bitmap images. It’s flagrantly good-looking. It’s an early example, in fact, of my basically lifelong hypothesis that platformers that look great are very likely to control horribly, although to be fair, almost no platformers were snappy and Dark Castle makes that gap between desire and action (clumsiness) part of its engine. I would guess that the commercial success of Dragon’s Lair [1983] was on the mind here in some capacity: a technologically-impressive visual extravaganza where the player is going to die hundreds of times trying to play it, demanding memorization of its rote tricks.

Both games are immensely graphically impressive, actually. Dark Castle seems more like a comic book, with its wacky streak and succession of delicately-composed panels. Castlevania, on the other hand, openly aspires to cinema. The title screen has film reel sprocket holes, there’s an opening establishing shot, and the closing credits aren’t real credits to the frustration of those of us with an archival bent, and consist entirely of puns on classic monster movies. (I’ve made a big deal out of Dark Castle’s sense of humor, but it’s not like the first Castlevania is grimly serious, both games regard classic horror as lunchbox grist.) I get the sense that we should be thinking of its smooth scrolling as “tracking shots,” impressive “oners.” Castlevania is also in color, which it uses very effectively. The overall feeling is sickly, somehow colors are garish AND underplayed, which is perfectly appropriate for its spooky, decrepit romp through Dracula’s castle. But it progresses, something like how the musical tracks progress, which reinforces the feeling of a journey. Where other games recycle the same graphical components the whole way through, here you can remember the parts of the castle just off of dominant hues, the prominence of red or gold. The way that green breaks beneath the moon as you, unopposed, ascend the stairs to the final boss is unforgettable.

Thanks to Raigan Burns for suggesting Dark Castle to me, I totally would have missed it. If you’ve got a suggestion for a game I should cover (from 1986 on), send it on in any time! I’m all ears.

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