Castlevania's long battle with tone
Somewhere in the series' tangled history lies support for every interpretation, from feel-good to grimdark.
Last week, Jeremy weighed in with his review of the first season of Netflix's Castlevania animated series. Among his major criticisms is the way the adaptation revels in adolescent faux maturity while eschewing the self-aware sense of humor he considers an inextricable contributor to the games' appeal. This is always interesting to me, because I've seen other people attest to the opposite, taking it as read that Castlevania has always been a stone-cold fantasy epic wrought in iron and blood. This same cognitive dissonance arose a few years ago, when the willfully edgy Lords of Shadow games drew a marked contrast from the all-ages fare the series had settled into under Kōji Igarashi. The people on both sides have played the same series, so how is it that they come away with such contradictory impressions of it? Personally, I'm with Jeremy that an undercurrent of lightheartedness makes Castlevania what it is, but I wouldn't say anyone who disagrees is mistaken, either. The truth is that the series itself has repeatedly gone back and forth on this point over the course of its thirty-year history.
The first few games on NES bore a grim aesthetic, with dark colors, heavy shadows, and lots of pixel noise on environments to convey grit and decay. This at least partly came inspired from other visual media—namely, classic monster movies of the 1930s and onward. For the first game, that influence also led Konami to pack Dracula's ranks with creatures from those same productions, never minding how lost they might seem. Frankenstein's monster really hasn't any business hanging out in seventeenth century Transylvania, but here he is, along with some Egyptian mummies and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. On one hand, these characters are staples of the horror genre, but sheer exposure has long since softened their image into something more corny than scary, especially when they all get together in the same place. But Konami apparently wasn't angling to be taken seriously in the first place, as the game ends with credits for winking corruptions of famous names from Universal and Hammer horror films, like "Love Chaney" and "Boris Karloffice." While it's a memorable moment and easy evidence that Konami themselves weren't taking the game entirely seriously, it comes long after any player will have formed an opinion on the game's tone, if they ever make it to the end of such a difficult game at all—so it's understandable that it may not factor into some people's assessment.
Simon's Quest and Dracula's Curse readily discard the first game's farcical notions and allow their macabre visuals to drive the experience. Simon's Quest in particular is best described as "bleak," with towns that come off as paltry outposts amid forests and marshes that have become infested with monsters in the wake of Dracula's dying curse. The townspeople alternately offer perplexing advice and bitter accusations, and when night falls, they go into hiding as their streets are overrun by undead hordes. The final area is the ruined remains of Dracula's castle from the first game, which Simon finds uniquely devoid of threats—a beaten, forgotten tomb. A haunting melody is his only companion as he descends inescapable pits (a notable point of no return in a non-linear game world) into the buried basement where he might rid himself of his curse. Even today, it's rare to see a final area that exists not to pose a challenge but instead to impress a feeling upon the player; in 1987, it was practically unheard of.
Following the third game, Konami sort of hit the relief valve with Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun, a cutesy send-up of the series that eventually reached our shores in the form of a refined Game Boy remake called Kid Dracula. While ostensibly serving as the Parodius to Castlevania's Gradius, both games play out quite a bit differently from their source material. The hero isn't even a vampire hunter but a pint-sized, ten-thousand-and-nine-year-old version of the Dark Lord himself (having been asleep for ten thousand of those), who frolics through a condensed sample of typical Castlevania level design (spike crushers, traversable clockwork, and so on) before moving on to less familiar environments, such as an amusement park, a speeding subway train, and a quiz show hosted by a smiling Statue of Liberty. No one could mistake these games for anything but silly fun, but the fact that they were made in contrast to the main series indicates that at this point the latter was considered an essentially serious affair.
Super Castlevania IV leans into that impression, and it's a safe pick for the entry with the heaviest atmosphere. Despite being an early Super NES game, it makes unconventionally sedate use of the system's increased range of colors, focusing on stone and earthen hues, murky green woods, and darkened skies above. Similarly, the soundtrack passes up the simulated orchestral sound of something like ActRaiser in favor of a whole lot of drum, bass, and pipe organ, lending a downbeat, foreboding tone to Simon's journey across the Transylvanian countryside. Halfway through the game lies a stage that marks the end of that trek and the entrance to Dracula's castle; an eerie tune begins to play as Simon ascends the front steps to the open front door, yet the stage ends without confrontation as he silently steps inside. Several stages later, the same tune fades back to the fore in a corridor lined with braziers that light themselves as Simons strides toward Dracula's chamber. Just like Simon's Quest, Super Castlevania IV sets aside major real estate with no function other than building an oppressive mood.
Konami followed SCVIV with a remake of the first Castlevania for the Sharp X68000 computer, the PlayStation port of which made its way overseas as Castlevania Chronicles. Whereas the previous game had been a ground-up reimagining of Simon's first battle with Dracula, the X68000 game hewed closer to the precise structure of the original game while expanding upon it with a number of entirely new stages. As near as I can tell, the remake didn't share any staff with the original, making this an early example of a team of new creators interpreting what came before them and deciding what elements of it should be carried forward. As it turns out, they, too, decided to play up the horrific qualities, starting from an opening cut scene where hooded cultists gather before an altar with a pentagram hung overhead, their leader trembling ecstatically as he raises a still-beating heart to Dracula's coffin and crushes it in his fist.
The rest of the game continues to embrace the morbid and occult, from a snake strangling a cross in the background of the Medusa battle to a giant statue that cries tears of blood, with vanishingly few sources of comic relief. Block 7 is the most overtly gruesome, embellishing on Castlevania's Block 5 (comprising a dungeon, a laboratory, and a gallery where Death resides) with bloodstained walls, corpses abandoned in various states of dismemberment, cadavers hung from head clamps in the laboratory, and assorted body parts sitting in platters beneath bloodied carving tools. Once Simon makes his way to the gallery, he passes an enormous picture frame full of horrified, writhing figures half-embedded in the canvas. It's grim stuff, all right—although, like Kid Dracula, it speaks to the range of the series at large that this game feels decidedly like an outlier.
As if to prove the point, the very next game, Rondo of Blood, makes a dogged return to mirth. Sure, at first, it seems just as straight-faced as its immediate predecessor, down to a similar opening where a smirking man plunges a sword through a woman's chest as she lay nude atop Dracula's coffin. Blood is a common sight, with characters often hemorrhaging upon defeat—particularly Death, who gets messily decapitated by his own scythe, and even our hero, Richter, who explodes into a fine red mist as he dies. But at some point, the player will rescue Maria, a little girl in a pink dress. She tells Richter that she'll gladly help fight off the demonic forces of Dracula, and from that point on, all bets are off. If there's a single game that stratified the role of comedy in the series, it's Rondo—and if there's a single inflection point from which out-and-out silliness began flowing in unabated, it has to be Maria.
Far from a traditional vampire hunter, Maria fights using her animal friends and comically terrible singing voice, and she can double-jump by kicking off a cloud of magic sparkles. While playing as her, all the hunks of meat Richter can eat to restore health are replaced with such delicacies as candy, cake, ice cream, parfaits, and ramen. She's completely ridiculous, even more so because her power, mobility, and smaller hitbox make her an easy choice over Richter. In interviews after the fact, the game's staff tried to downplay her as a bonus off to the side, but she inevitably becomes focal to the game since there's hardly any reason not to play as her. They also put far more effort into her than a mere Easter egg would warrant: Aside from her diverse move set and food items, she has her own Game Over screen, stage titles, and cut scenes where she talks to other characters in place of Richter—including a hilarious ending where Dracula reads from the same spiel he gives Richter about mankind's self-destructive urges, and she just shoots back that she doesn't really understand all those big words.
Many of the games that follow Rondo are slow to follow its lead. Castlevania Bloodlines features a few absurd enemy concepts (particularly skeletons wearing nothing but green army helmets) to break up all its blood and guts, but it's mostly played straight. Castlevania: Dracula X tries to put the genie back in the bottle by demoting Maria to a passive damsel-in-distress role. The N64 games provide the unforgettable sight of skeletons riding motorcycles, but they're too committed to their cinematic aspirations to have much fun outside of that. But Rondo's direct sequel, Symphony of the Night, absolutely buys into the blending of high drama and utter nonsense. If anything, it doubles down on it, really.
Alucard is a stoic hero with a tragic past, and he's forced to revisit the trauma of his mother's death more than once on his quest to kill his father. Dracula comes as close as he ever has to texturing his villainy with introspection, and even Maria has grown out of her past zaniness. The castle is host to such grisly sights as Legion, a mass of undead figures woven into an enormous bleeding sphere, and Beelzebub, a giant, maggot-infested corpse hung from meat hooks on chains. At the same time...it's also host to a hapless skeleton perpetually chasing its own head, witches who morph into cats and scamper away when defeated, and evil versions of Dorothy's companions from The Wizard of Oz. Maria's special menu from Rondo has expanded to a long list of meals as anachronistic as a pizza box ("New York style!") and as generally out of place as nattō. Alucard can also find Secret Boots, which increase his height by one pixel, and peanuts, which he is unable to eat like a normal person. Symphony is a big game, and a lot of its goofier content takes effort to reveal, but any given player is bound to encounter some of it.
Following Symphony, assistant director Kōji Igarashi rose to become producer of Castlevania in general—a role with unprecedented authority over a series that had historically been passed from one team to the next. Igarashi's guiding vision finally brought some consistency to the games' tone, which is to say he lightened it up across the board. Naturally informed by Symphony, most of his output strikes a similar balance between pensive and playful, with his Nintendo DS games, which were openly targeted at younger audiences, arguably emphasizing the latter over the former. A game like Kid Dracula would have been redundant at this point in the series' history, with main line games that could serve perfectly well as their own parodies.
Tallying everything up like this, perhaps the reason some of us equate the series with humor is because that's where it began, as well as where it (effectively) ended. Beginnings and endings naturally stick out in our memories. But as we've also seen, the games didn't stay that way all throughout, and at different times they've seemed like they would fit just as comfortably on a metal album cover as in a Saturday morning cartoon. With all the series offers, it's understandable—inevitable, even—that each individual player may interact with different parts of it and extract different conclusions as to what it's all about. And none of these are necessarily wrong, because it's all in there. Castlevania contains multitudes, so we can all take what we like and leave the rest.