Nerds love to get excited for Halloween, as being spooky and weird becomes socially acceptable for a moment. It’s the time of year when seasonal feature-writing reflects on the past, present and future of spooky video games. But that doesn’t mean everyone writes about games that make Twitch streamers pretend to shriek. Some games aren’t scary, but use horror imagery to evoke a certain mood, or just to be cool. With that in mind, I’m here to channel all this spooky energy towards one of my favorite game series at any time of the year. It’s time for a very special Castlevania ranking.
Despite Konami’s turbulent history and… damaged reputation today, there’s no denying its lingering prestige. Castlevania is a big part of that. While never making an impact on the level of Metal Gear, Castlevania has always been a game design measuring stick. That makes ranking these games super difficult, but I like a challenge. I’ve applied a few limiters to the list. First, I’m using tiers instead of individual rankings because I wanted to make my life easier. Second, I’m only ranking the “core” Castlevania games. Some of these have left the official Castlevania “timeline,” but were on it at one point.
All that said, I’m only taking this whole ranking thing marginally seriously, so feel free to yell at me about how wrong you think I am. I refuse to budge on F Tier though, sorry.
Lords of Shadow (all of them)
I honestly think developer MercurySteam meant well with Lords of Shadow. The team seemed to “get” Castlevania in some ways, and even went on to make a decent Metroid for Nintendo. But like that game, while it looks and swims like a duck, it doesn’t quack like one. The original Lords of Shadow is the most well-liked, but it spends too much time aping other AAA games to forge an identity of its own. It also features some frustratingly bland storytelling, full of cliché dead wife drama. Things only get worse as the series totally loses sight of any overall goal or theme. We ended up with a terrible 3DS platformer and toothless (heh) character action sequel. It seemed like Konami desperately wanted to make Castlevania a big deal here, and it almost worked. Except for all the parts where it didn’t.
Thanks to Castlevania Legends, F tier isn’t just my soapbox space to whine about Lords of Shadow. Despite its neat premise, featuring a woman in the starring role to further complicate the Belmont superpower-transferring lineage, this game is just bad. It exposes every single little flaw and limitation of the Game Boy and stands tall with some of the worst sprite art I have ever seen in my life. Legends was stricken from the series’ official timeline and remains a curiosity that costs way too much secondhand. It’s a shame Legends turned out the way it did, but it was pretty tough to make good action games for Game Boy.
Castlevania: The Adventure
It’s weird to get to the bottom of a “core” Castlevania list because these games are so good it’s hard to dunk on any of them. Then you remember Konami tried to smash Castlevania into Game Boy carts, and suddenly your work is done for you. Castlevania: The Adventure is disappointing in just about every way imaginable. The sprites are ugly, the levels are unfair, and everything about how Christopher Belmont controls is just wrong. Konami made a pretty dope remake of this one for WiiWare years later, but you won’t find that on Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge
I almost bumped this one further up, because it’s legitimately a big improvement. It even has an interesting story adding a messy chapter to the Belmont narrative and sets up the scenario quite well for a Game Boy game. But it’s still a clunky handheld game that can only do so much to capture the Castlevania magic. It opts for a more Mega Man-like level structure, and some of the later boss battles are maddeningly difficult (including one that straight-up reacts to your inputs like a fighting game boss). I always want to like this game more than I actually do, but I just can’t.
Super Castlevania IV
Super Castlevania IV is an odd one. It’s a solid action platformer in its own right and earns its spot in things like Nintendo’s classic games services. But Super Castlevania IV doesn’t properly justify itself in terms of the bigger picture. It’s sort of a remake of the original, retelling the Simon Belmont adventure and using it as an excuse to play with Mode 7. It’s visually stunning and has dope music. But considering the number in the title, it doesn’t do a lot to move the series forward, and the sprites are so big it has a negative impact on level design. It’s a solid game, but far from my first choice.
Circle of the Moon
Circle of the Moon was a GBA launch title, and everything about it shows. The visuals are too dark, the sprites are simple, and the music is good but optimized poorly. The story has nothing to do with the canon, and the extra abilities are powered by random drops. While it was super impressive for a launch title on a brand new handheld system, Circle of the Moon doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.
Castlevania 64/Legacy of Darkness
Before a “house style” was established, the Nintendo 64 saw a take on Castlevania with little resemblance to anything else. It was 3D but focused on platforming challenges. While there were some positives, it was a little too weird and janky for anyone but the most diehard fans. Konami gave it a second shot though, making a new version that was sort of a hybrid package. Most of it was a prequel, also included a near-complete remake of the first game. It’s hard to say what “Castlevania 64” even is, making it thoroughly fascinating but hard to recommend. It’s also, you know, an ugly Nintendo 64 game.
That’s a wrap on part one of our Halloween 2019 Castlevania ranking! We’re going all the way to S Tier in the next part, and that’s where things might get a little more hairy. Pitting excellent games against each other is messy work, and there are no right answers. Well, there is one right answer, and that’s putting Dracula back in the ground!