Castlevania 30th Anniversary | Top 10 Castlevania Games

By Rudy Lavaux 22.12.2016 10

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The Castlevania franchise turned 30-years-old this year, and over that long period of time, has proven to be one of the most prolific series of games of all time, with practically yearly releases for most of its life since its inception in 1986 on the NES and MSX systems. Not only has it managed to uphold mostly great standards of quality with most of its releases, but Castlevania has also been very influential in terms of game design, awarding it its place among the greatest and most fondly remembered game series of all time. The term "Metroidvania," which today points at a very specific subgenre of platform-adventure games, would not exist indeed if it wasn't for Konami's baby. Though it has been treated more lightly in more recent years by the company behind it, Cubed3 staff look back at 30 years of gaming history to highlight the ten greatest Castlevania entries Konami has ever put out. Let's run it down!

10. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

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Konami's Castlevania franchise is the most highly regarded across the industry not just due to its long-term existence, but its continually high standards across pretty much each release. The Game Boy Advance was privileged enough to house an extraordinary trilogy of Castlevania games from the Koji Igarashi era, with Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow, and whilst HoD let the side down slightly, nothing can be taken away from how fantastic CotM and the final iteration, AoS, were, and still are today.

Back when the original Game Boy Advance hit, people actually took issue with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon because it accompanied the handheld at launch, so was chastised for being so dark in graphical tone that even under a direct light-source people struggled to see exactly what was going on. Rather than this being the game's fault, though, it was mainly due also to the dire GBA screen with its lack of any type of back- or even front-lighting. Konami relented and tried to adjust Harmony of Dissonance to compensate, but many then bemoaned the fact that things were far too luminescent, thus detracting from the dark undertones that have been linked with Castlevania since its initial conception. The conclusion? Circle of the Moon was doing nothing wrong, and when played nowadays, there is more of an appreciation for just how impressive Konami's first GBA effort looked.

It wasn't just a looker, though, as Circle of the Moon's melodic soundtrack was praised from the rooftops by all and sundry, accompanying some extremely gratifying gameplay. Ever since Symphony of the Night hit the PSOne and revolutionised the Castlevania series, there have been constant associations, from both fans and industry-folk alike, with Nintendo's own Metroid franchise. This is certainly no insult at all as Konami ought to be praised for borrowing from the RPG-style of adventuring that worked so well and draping it across the GBA trio. The basic core remains, but Konami developed this considerably, with a sprawling castle sectioned off in such a way that players are encouraged to delve deeper and deeper, trying to uncover all of the mysteries within. A true masterpiece that has barely aged since release.
- Adam

9. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

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Following the unequivocally superb Dawn of Sorrow would be a daunting task for anyone hoping to deliver the same quality experience, but Portrait of Ruin managed to give a really good go. The anime style continued, and English voices were introduced for the first time, upping the cheese to even greater levels than before, but this game brought in more than a few new ideas to mix up the Castlevania formula.

Shrinking Super Mario 64's level system down to size, protagonists Jonathon and Charlotte accessed new thematic areas by jumping into various paintings dotted about Dracula's castle. Therefore, instead of one central location to explore, there was the added bonus of tackling different worlds outside of the castle itself. Whether it really made for a grander adventure overall is debatable, and those that preferred a better sense of freedom would likely lean towards picking Dawn of Sorrow over this one, given a choice, but it took little away from being a solid Castlevania experience.

Having previously experimented with a simultaneous two-player setup, Igarashi's team allowed players to readily switch between Charlotte and Jonathon at any time, even allowing both to be brought out, with the AI taking over for the second character. This opened the door to a range of scenarios and puzzles, where the pair must work together to bypass rooms and solve riddles. It wasn't perfect, but it worked, and offered two friends the chance to experience Castlevania together. With Nintendo's pretty robust online infrastructure in place, Igarashi didn't want to miss out on incorporating an online side to things, and thankfully, it turned out pretty well.
- Az

8. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse

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The final episode on the 8-bit platform was also not only the best to be released for it, but also one of the best games the system ever received, full stop. While it retained much of the stiff gameplay that defined the previous two titles, it also opened up things drastically and moved the series forward more than even its 16-bit direct successor would a couple of years later; for example, it featured four playable characters and allowed players to switch between two at any given time in the thick of the action. It was a ground-breaking feature that the series would have benefited from exploring more, but that would only ever be tried again in Portrait of Ruin on Nintendo DS.

Trevor Belmont, or Ralph. C if you lived in Japan at the time, played like your classic Simon Belmont. Grant the pirate could literally cling to walls and throw infinite daggers in the Japanese version, which made him completely OP, hence the change in the West. Sypha Belnades could use magic, and Alucard the Dhampyr had all the powers of Dracula himself, including the ability to transform into a bat. In addition to these, one of its defining features was its non-linearity, since several levels had branching paths, which meant that while it would only take about seven stages to reach the ending, the game actually contained double that amount, encouraging exploration.

Finally, in Japan anyway, Castlevania III contained an additional chip made by Konami itself, the VRC6, which helped improve the visuals by adding more memory, but more importantly, it brought additional saw tooth sound channels to the stock Famicom, which drastically improved the quality of both music and sound effects. The only things preventing it from holding up better today than other more recent entries are its stiff controls and unforgiving difficulty, much more so in the Western versions of it.
- Rudy

7. Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

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The switch to a different development team after Castlevania: Circle of the Moon contributed to give this second Game Boy Advance instalment a vibe that is much more reminiscent of Symphony of the Night, which did play in its favour at the time. It did not, however, feature all of the extensive gameplay elements of the PlayStation masterpiece, favouring instead a much more straightforward range of moves for the hero that are more in line with the more classic episodes of the series.

The hero only has its trusted Vampire Killer whip at its disposal, only being able to whip things straight ahead and being able to wave it around while remaining stationary. Classic secondary weapons are still present and can now be combined with a magic tome for added elemental effect that look fantastic on screen. Pretty much everything else is a direct copy/paste of Symphony of the Night, with twin castles to explore, brighter visuals, the same enemy encyclopaedia with item drop lists to complete, enemy and character sprites adapted directly from it to fit a smaller screen resolution, and funky Mode 7 special effects galore, making Harmony of Dissonance a much more visually impressive title than Circle of the Moon.

It has most of the qualities of the PlayStation title, making it indeed one of the more enjoyable experiences in the series, but it was held back by its lack of originality and a decidedly forgettable soundtrack. However, it did introduce the splendid character art of Ayami Kojima to Nintendo players, and that's something worthy of remembrance.
- Rudy

6. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

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The third Nintendo DS entry took the story back to the 1800s, after Symphony of the Night, where Shanoa, a member of the Order of Ecclesia, set up to keep Dracula at bay, sees her ritual to absorb the powerful glyph of Dominus to prevent the vampire's arrival stopped by her friend Albus, seemingly jealous at her being the chosen vessel. Cue a hunt for Albus to retrieve the stolen glyphs and a few surprises along the way.

Mixing things up once again, an overworld map sees Shanoa jumping from one different area to another, allowing quick traversal across the huge world, with quests returning from Portrait of Ruin to add some character interaction and replayability, but it is in the gameplay that the biggest change from its predecessors is noticed. Rather than equipping weapons on her person, Shanoa absorbs glyphs from enemies that act in place of them, whether it is magical rapiers or spells. They may act the same as real weapons, but when used, the magic meter drains, requiring the young woman to use her glyphs in the right moments, as she must wait for her magic to refill after use.

Order of Ecclesia, therefore, feels much more like classic Castlevanias than many before it, since the need to wait whilst magic tops itself up mean enemy and boss encounters must be dealt with cleverly, with bosses, in particular, requiring movement patterns to be learned. Whilst levelling up can help to add some advantages, it isn't enough, and studying enemies and using glyphs accordingly makes for a much more difficult, but rewarding, game. For something akin to the original games, Order of Ecclesia may be the best option as far as the DS trilogy goes.
- Az

5. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

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The final entry for the humble portable before the switch to the more powerful Nintendo DS helped close that chapter of Castlevania history with great fanfare. Not only was this the best episode released on Game Boy Advance, but it also innovated in a lot of areas. For one thing, this was the first episode of Castlevania to be set in the future, in the year 2035! A bold move indeed on the development team's part.

The second episode developed on a Nintendo system by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, Aria of Sorrow introduced the soul system, where enemies may occasionally allow the hero Soma Cruz, a young man with a strange gift, to collect their souls. These grant Soma a wide array of abilities that range from allowing him to throw more secondary weapons than in any other episode so far, but to perform a myriad of different actions, opening up the gameplay drastically.

The vast range of weapons from Symphony of the Night finally made a comeback, as well, bringing this portable wonder as close to the masterpiece it took inspiration from as the hardware itself would allow. Ayami Kojima lent a hand for the last time on a Nintendo system with the character art of this game, and they are absolutely gorgeous. Aria of Sorrow would only rank higher today if the technology itself had allowed it at the time.
- Rudy

4. Super Castlevania IV

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Castlevania's first foray into the 16-bit realm is a decidedly different beast. Although it carries on the arcade action tradition established in the previous games, Super Castlevania IV opts for more diverse locales and dangers. Dracula's Castle has rapidly expanded to include halls filled with ghostly dancers, long-forgotten dungeons ripe with the stench of blood, and rotating rooms that defy common sense. It's a game of constant ideas. Every stage is overflowing with creativity, offering surprise after surprise for even the most seasoned vampire hunter.

It is fair to point out that this is one of the easier games in the classic series, especially compared to Castlevania III and the X68000 entry. Simon is more durable than he's ever been, life-restorative meats can be found in candles as well as walls, and his angular-whipping technique is a bit overpowered. This makes for a more approachable game, and veterans are liable to find more of a challenge by imposing limitations. This can include relying less on special weapons, refraining from food, or simply not dying at all.

The greatest success of this entry is how it pulls together many crucial elements to deliver a Castlevania that everyone can enjoy. The controls are superb, the soundtrack is excellent, and most importantly, the game respects the player. Every stage and boss is appropriately balanced, so the player won't get stuck for an inordinate amount of time, nor find themselves bored out of their wits by overlong stages where nothing interesting happens.
- Gabriel

This is the first Castlevania game I played and I haven't since experienced one better. That's including Symphony of the Night, which I disliked because of the loss of the tightly focused linear format. It was an early release, so has strong association with a great time in my life. I was single in my own house when I bought this and spent many happy hours with it when the beer tokens ran low. Eight-way whipping is one of the main reasons why I found it hard to adjust to other entries in the series. Great level design incorporating some nice Mode 7 set pieces and an astounding soundtrack make up for the slightly jilted feel to the controls. I still have the cartridge, boxed with manual and in lovely condition, and is worth quite a few quid, but I can't see me ever parting with it.
- Davy

3. Akumajou Dracula X: Rondo of Blood

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Though classic level-based Castlevania versus Metroidvania could be only a matter of preference, highly subject to debate over which style should be considered the best... there is no denying that the classic style has never come quite as perfectly crafted as it did with this PC-Engine release. The only argument could be Super Castlevania IV's fluid controls versus the more tanky Richter Belmont of the CD release; however, what this title has over its SNES predecessor is originality.

Super Castlevania IV was more of a retelling of the original Castlevania, which itself has already been retold twice before in the Arcade and would go on to be retold for the third time two years later on the Sharp X68000. Akumajou Dracula X, though, went backwards a little bit in terms of gameplay, and went forward in pretty much all other aspects. A CD release, it offered the best Castlevania soundtrack ever, full stop. Not even Symphony of the Night can compare to the redbook audio afforded by the CD medium on NEC's machine. It offered fully voiced-over cinematics close to an anime style within the constraints of what the machine could afford, two playable characters, and a more non-linear adventure akin to the excellent structure of Castlevania III, whereas SCIV went backwards to a more straightforward approach.

Akumajou Dracula X, an originally Japan-exclusive entry, remained a very sought after title until its eventual re-release on the PSP in remade form, though the 3D graphics and clunky controls ruined it a little bit, but that included the original versions of both this and Symphony of the Night, so the compilation Dracula X Chronicles still comes highly recommended for those two alone. It is also still available to this day on the Wii Virtual Console, too.
- Rudy

2. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow

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The closest the 2D series ever came to replicate the excellence of Symphony of the Night happened when Konami released this as an early Nintendo DS title. 2D Castlevania remained very much secluded to handhelds beyond Symphony of the Night, as the series in its home entertainment form would soon after make the shift to 3D itself, never to come back to 2D on the big screen, at least for mainline entries.

No handheld before the DS would come close to the original PlayStation in terms of graphical fidelity, either, at least in the 2D department. In this regard, Dawn of Sorrow didn't disappoint. Everything that made Symphony of the Night great visually was made possible on the Nintendo DS, too. 3D background graphics, some excellent 3D modelled enemies in places, and a gigantic castle to explore in this 64MB cartridge game.

The only things holding back the title in terms of presentation and, by extension, in overall mood were the audio, which, quite understandably, never quite reached CD levels of quality, and the anime art style, which, while not bad by any means, does kill a little the overall level of coolness afforded by Ayami Kojima's masterfully designed portraits in the original PlayStation release, as well as GBA's Aria of Sorrow and Harmony of Dissonance. Everything else is right up there with the very best the series has ever offered, though—all of that on a handheld, no less.
- Rudy

1. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

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All these years later, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night remains the epitome of awesomeness. Born at a pivotal period, when developers were all getting into porting their classic franchises into 3D, this wrote itself as a big middle finger to the industry and went completely in the opposite direction, offering a game designed in the same way as those for previous generations of consoles, all tile and palette based, but simply more, better, faster, shinier.

The result is a game that, contrary to most of its contemporaries, stands the test of time better. Indeed, early 3D games are hard to look at these days, but pixel art-based 2D games of this calibre hold up well. It's tight, it controls wonderfully, and if all that wasn't enough, it paved the way for the next generation of Castlevania games by introducing single-handedly what we've come to know since as the Metroidvania genre. Symphony of the Night for the PlayStation did that.

This game was then ported, though admittedly not very brilliantly so, to the SEGA Saturn, with some extra content that remains exclusive to that platform to this day, and was re-released numerous times for various platforms since then, including the Xbox Live Arcade, on which it made waves by being the first title allowed to exceed the initial file size limitations imposed on the platform.

For all those characteristics of the stuff of legends, though, it did not shine in sales initially, but those that did play it remember how awesome it was and still remains. Subsequent Metroidvania releases in the franchise did not quite manage to capture the same quintessential quality, though some came close. The original Metroidvania remains the top one to this day, not unchallenged, but unmatched for sure.
- Rudy

What do you think to Cubed3's top ten Castlevania games? Do you agree with our list, or are we missing any entries? Does Symphony of the Night deserve the top spot? Share your thoughts, favourite games in the series and your fond memories from over 30 years of Castlevania below!

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What a series! Will it ever be the same without IGA, though? Or will Bloodstained by the way forward?

( Edited 22.12.2016 03:38 by Adam Riley )

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses

I still haven't properly played through Symphony of the Night or SCIV. Blasphemous, I know. One day I will rectify it.

I started with Dawn of Sorrow, and I was absolutely hooked! Love every second of it, and subsequently bought Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia. Missed out on the GBA ones too, sadly.

It's very sad what's happened to 2D Castlevania - the same as 2D Metroid. Konami has at least tried to continue it through mobile/digital shop releases, but it's clearly not the same without Iga.

Bloodstained is looking and feeling very promising. I backed on Kickstarter and played the first demo, and it's really good stuff. Gets the Castlevania basics down, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Wasn't a fan of the 3DS game...Mirror of Fate, was it? Looked and sounded similar, but just didn't feel right.

Intrigued about Bloodstained and hadn't realised there was a demo. Just looking it up now.

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses

Demo went out to backers, but... I'm sure it's around haha.

Mirror of Fate... yeah, was part of the Lords of Shadow series. Not exactly like these classics, to say the least.

Our member of the week

I never found the 3D Castlevanias to work well. Some of them were OK games, but none struck the right balance all round like these in the Top 10 did. Then there are some honourable mentions like the one on Megadrive which was a really good game too, but doesn't hold a candle to Super Castlevania IV from that same era in my opinion in terms of mood, and more importantly controls.

3D Castlevania was never quite done to replicate the same feel of the 2D ones. The N64 ones had horrendous camera issues (the second one slightly less so but that was still not super enjoyable), although the muddy dark graphics and actually interesting story did work in its favour, but the essence of Castlevania is a bit lost without a good soundtrack to accompany.

The PS2 ones (XBox if you count Curse of Darkness) were better, but still not quite up there. It had the feel of Symphony of the Night in the music and visuals, but I call them Corridorvania. They're just a series of empty corridors with very short draw distance, one after the other! Plus the gameplay, while vastly better than on N64, is still not quite as tight as in the 2D games before them. Finally, I actually prefer the plotline of the N64 games to the almost non-existant story of Lament of Innocence. Curse of Darkness was slightly better in that regard.

I didn't play the Lords of Shadows games except for Mirror of Fate (that I reviewed) but in my opinion, while they're perhaps good action games per se, at least that seems to be the consensus among fans, they're not great Castlevania games. You can tell it's not the same team behind them, so perhaps to players new to the series, they'll appear as great games, but when you come off such a long time playing the series since its early days... it doesn't feel the same anymore, it leaves you with a longing for what was before. Mirror of Fate was 2.5D, but that's the feeling I got out of playing it. Not a bad game for sure, but not a superb Castlevania like the ones before it.

The final nail in Dracula's coffin for me (pardon the pun Smilie) with the more recent games by Mercury Steam, is that they reset the storyline. They threw everything out the window to reboot it. The series didn't need a reboot, there was still room for more games that would have built upon the back story of already released ones. What happened in 1999 with Julius Belmont? Or how about a game about Morris Baldwin from Circle of the Moon? We know he faced Dracula before when he appears as an old man in that game, I want to know! But that will never happen now will it? Shame on you Konami for alienating fans of a franchise that had been running for 24 years up to that point. 24 years for nothing.

Cubed3 Limited Staff :: Review and Feature Writer

I hated Lords of Shadow. It's a beautiful game, but that's about it.
My review:

I'm not even mad about whether or not it's actually Castlevania. It's just a bad game.

( Edited 22.12.2016 16:54 by Gabriel PVJ Jones )

The WiiWare game Castlevania Rebirth is a nice game. It's short (no doubt because of the game size limitations imposed by Nintendo) but it's sweet to play. There's some hidden sections to find using keys that either reveal pickups or in one case, offers an alternate path which skips a particularly tricky boss. Looks and sounds great too.

 The 68000 version got a re-release on PS1 called Castlevania Chronicles which is another entry I really enjoyed. It has the original game and an arrange mode with some graphical and musical polish that tones the difficulty down a wee bit. You can also toggle movement mid-jump, and when you complete the game there is a time trial mode unlocked that keeps best times for each section/level. The disc also has a video interview with the game's producer. Well worth a look.

( Edited 24.12.2016 15:16 by davyK )

Well, these are the Castlevania games we've got reviewed, so if anyone wants to fill in the gaps then please feel free. There are some greats missing from the list, sadly.

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses
Our member of the week

davyK said:
The WiiWare game Castlevania Rebirth is a nice game. It's short (no doubt because of the game size limitations imposed by Nintendo) but it's sweet to play. There's some hidden sections to find using keys that either reveal pickups or in one case, offers an alternate path which skips a particularly tricky boss. Looks and sounds great too.

indeed. That was a reimagining of the original first Game Boy title. It almost made it in the Top. Would be 11th or 12th in my book, depending on whether I want to put it in front of the Megadrive one or not.

davyK said:
The 68000 version got a re-release on PS1 called Castlevania Chronicles which is another entry I really enjoyed. It has the original game and an arrange mode with some graphical and musical polish that tones the difficulty down a wee bit. You can also toggle movement mid-jump, and when you complete the game there is a time trial mode unlocked that keeps best times for each section/level. The disc also has a video interview with the game's producer. Well worth a look.

I didn't like at all the revised soundtrack in that version though. The FM synth original soundtrack was ACE though, Tower of Dolls was my favourite track off of it, I'm glad they reused that track in order of ecclesia. I believe you could play with the orginal music on the PS1 rerelease but I can't recall if they bundled the midi version or FM synth, or possibly both. Also, the PS1 rerelease packed lots of artwork by Ayami Kojima which is always nice. Never understood why she made Simon Belmont redhead though.

( Edited 24.12.2016 20:09 by RudyC3 )

Cubed3 Limited Staff :: Review and Feature Writer

No oringinal Castlevania? That game was awesome for how hard it was. My fav is prob the gba series, all three were great.

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