(This article first went live on Madness Heart Press 1.23.21)
I just beat Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow for the umpteenth time. I’ve beaten that particular Castlevania game a lot, under new game +, regular, hard, boss rush, Julius Mode, I’ve even played rom-hacks of it. It’s a fun little game. But is it horror? Is it a horror game?
I would probably be the first to admit that Castlevania games aren’t scary. Neither are Metroid games. There can be tense moments, but it’s never actually scary. But, Castlevania, and Metroid games, Metroidvania games if you will, are spooky. In almost every Metroidvania I’ve ever played, there were wonderful elements of horror storytelling that make those games thrive in my soul. Soon enough I’ll do a list of the best Metroidvania games, but today I’ll be sticking with the Konami blockbuster and listing the top 10 Castlevania games. (in order of release as opposed to awesomeness.)
With 36 games and at least 7 different continuities, graphic novels, and a 3 season long Netflix animated series… Castlevania is sprawling. It’s massive in a way that only things that are a bit silly and very beloved are. The games vary in graphical beauty from generation to generation and game to game, but the music almost always universally slaps. Like it’s super good. The gameplay too varies. I mostly love the Iga-vania game, named for Koga Igarashi, who produced what will end up being the lion’s share of the games on this list. These are the games that involve exploring a castle, then getting a new power, and then reexploring that castle with new movement mechanics and in a new way. But there are also linear Castlevania games, open-world Castlevania games, and of course, a fighting game. So let’s get into what is absolutely my favorite series (other than Monster Hunter, I’m sorry MonHun, I love you)
- Castlevania (NES) – The first, released in 1986, this game is a brutal, unfair, and ultimately beautiful game. This was the first Castlevania game I played, and one of my first video games. I used the whip without understanding any of the controls and hardly ever got to the first boss. But guys, the speedrun for this game is 11 minutes. And the music is incredible. It makes grinding this game almost a joy.
- Castlevania: The Adventure – Is this game as good as I think it is? Probably not. Released in 1989, this was the first Gameboy game for Castlevania. This game is special to me because it was the first game I could play on my Gameboy, and crew, I played a shit ton of Gameboy. I played my Gameboy more than I played my Nintendo. Very simple, very linear, still Castlevania.
- Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles – This is kind of a cheat for me because this PSP game included both Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night. Symphony, (Iga’s real breakout CV game) is still considered by many to be one of the best games. It holds rank with games like Link to the Past and Super Metroid. You play a pretty boy vampire son of Dracula and can turn into mist and, holy shit this is where Castlevania really turned into what we now consider to be a Castlevania game, a miserable pile of backtracking!
- Castlevania: Circle of the Moon – This is the last game in the “Apocalypse” series which is technically an Alternate Universe setting. This game is great, it’s a little dark and grainy even considering it’s on the GBA, but it controls smoothly. It really held a good castle route and involved a really interesting customizable card system that could be utilized for different magic attacks. Including this allows me to mention this timeline universe while avoiding the N64 era of Castlevania… The GBA era for Castlevania is great, and even for a non-Iga game, this one stands up with Aria of Sorrow as amazing. (sorry Harmony of Dissonance.)
- Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow & Dawn of Sorrow – Oh man, as much as people love Symphony of the Night, I adore these two games. I lumped them in as one so I could get them both in, and because they are direct sequels with identical controls, systems, and mechanics. Iga won my heart with these. You play as some punk-ass reincarnation of Dracula absorbing the souls of demons and taking their powers. You also get to collect armor and weapons like in Symphony. In Dawn of Sorrow, you utilize the touchscreen and can power up your souls and even turn the souls of monsters into weapons!
- Castlevania: Curse of Darkness – Oh no, I included one of the PS2 Castlevania games. Why? Why would I do that? Ok look, these are arguably the weakest games that Iga had a hand in, but there’s also some charm here. In Lament of innocence, you get your whip and it’s very much a nod to the early days of the setting. But in Curse of Darkness? You summon demons, and get crazy souls and make even more absurd weapons and can evolve and grow your demons like pokemon! It also introduces Isaac, one of the key antagonists from the Netflix adaption!
- Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin – Guys, remember how I said the GBA days for Castlevania was good? Well the DS days are certainly the best. Iga shined on all of them, from Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and Order of Ecclesia. Portrait of Ruin had two characters that you could switch between, one was good with weapons, the other had magic spells, and you could switch them around and use them both and it had touch controls and side quests, and also collection quests and cool shit and you jumped into pictures to make your way to different worlds within the castle and it fucking ruled.
- Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia – Ok, the last of the DS Iga-Vanias. This game is the most beautiful, and it had a fantastic mechanical system. Instead of finding weapons, you absorbed new weapons called glyphs, that you could then use as summons. Sometimes that meant stealing an enemy’s attack while it was trying to use it! You could create combos and special attacks based on which glyphs you equipped to each arm and it had an original and pretty gnarly story.
- Castlevania: Harmony of Despair – This is a weird one, technically this is an Iga-vania, but it’s weird. Weird and fun. You and a bunch of other people choose characters from all over the Castlevania franchise and fight through a single area of Castlevania. It’s insane. It’s chaotic and weird and bosses can attack you from across the castle. And you can collect and equip stuff and grind it up. It’s a super fun way to experience this franchise and I am begging you Konami, release it for the switch. Sadly, this is also where Iga leaves us.
- Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 – Ugh. Ok, look. The Lords of Shadow trilogy is a weird one. It reinvents the Castlevania mythos or reboots it to its own thing. And by the end of the first game, you find out that the first Belmont, Gabriel, (Leon in other iterations), actually becomes Dracula, and then Alucard (from Symphony) is actually one of the Belmonts (Trevor I think). And then in Lords of Shadow 2, you play Dracula in the modern era fighting against Satan, and demons, who sometimes have guns.
Look, I put some in there that are a little weird, by and large, the 3D Castlevania’s just aren’t as good. But they do deserve a place in the mention because they are part of the entire crazy culture of Castlevania. I love these games, and while I’ll talk more about where Iga went and what he is doing now next week, know that I am always hopefully waiting for the next Castlevania game.