Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Haunted Castle - the Forgotten Castlevania Arcade Game!

Revisiting Konami's peculiarly obscure coin-op that shares practically everything with Castlevania except its title.

By: Jimbo X

When I say the words "horror," "video game" and "not Resident Evil," the very first thing that should enter your mind is, of course, Castle-by-god-motherfucking-Vania (official title: just plain Castlevania.) The series has given us literally dozens of outstanding games over the last 30 years, covering just about every platform you can think of, from the Nintendo DS to the MSX2 to the PC Engine CD to the Sharp X68000. But as beloved and venerated as the series may be, there remain quite a few odd duck installments that are still swept under the proverbial rug. There's the platformer parody on the NES where you fight KKK members with swastikas drawn on their foreheads, that one GBA Mario Kart clone featuring Drac hisself as a playable character, fuck, there's even a Tony Hawk knockoff where you make Simon Belmont do 720s and shit. But as weird as those side-steps for the Castlevania mythos may be, they all pale in comparison to the strangest and wackiest 'vania game of 'em all - 1988's Haunted Castle.

Released just one year after the original Castlevania hit the Famicom/NES, Konami's Haunted Castle is - for all intents and purposes - an arcade remake of the classic monster mash that shares pretty much everything with its forerunner except its title. To be fair there are a lot of subtle differences here and there, but by and large, it's freakin' Castlevania: The Arcade Game and one has to wonder why those wacky Japs didn't just up and call the coin-op what it obviously was. Alas, it did get us this bitchin' beyond words arcade flyer, which alone justifies the game's whole existence, regardless of the titling peculiarities. 

But what about the game itself, you may be wondering? Well, old Jimbo has you covered, since I recently did a whole playthrough of the title ahead of this, the most glorious of seasons. Buckle up, buttercup - things are about to get really fucking weird (and really fucking awesome) quicker than you can say "it's a terrible night to have a curse." 

The game begins with an opening cinematic that shows some dude with a blue mullet getting married, only for Dracula himself to fly out of the sky and pluck his bride away from him. And that's not the only oblique homage to Ghosts 'n Goblins, as evident by the very second the game begins proper. 

Your character doesn't have an official name, but he looks like Conan the Barbarian in Egyptian garb cosplaying as Simon Belmont. The pace of the game is much slower than the Castlevania Nintendo game, making it feel like a fusion of 'vania and Capcom's iconic (and hard as hell) graveyard crossing simulator. And yes, as you will soon see, this game is every bit as teeth-grindingly hard as Ghosts 'n Goblins, so if you're a hardcore old school gamer you REALLY need to pay attention.

The core gameplay is identical to NES 'vania. You whack bats, zombies and bone-tossing skeletons with your whip and collect hearts to power-up your side-weapons. Those side-weapons include bombs, boomerangs, a stopwatch, projectile crucifixes and flaming torches - and obviously, at least three of those never made it into the Nintendo game. So you amble across a graveyard and avoid random fire obstacles and flying statue heads, and then these trees come alive and try to grab you. There's not a whole lot of emphasis on platforming upfront, but yeah, that all changes shortly. After a bit you walk into a church, smack a hundred or so bats and then, it's time to do battle with TOPLESS Medusa! Hey, we all know gazing into her eyes will turn you into a statue, but prey tell, what happens if you just ogle her snake-titties instead?

Shit ... at least the dude in Ghosts 'n Goblins got a blowjob in a cemetery before his woman got kidnapped!

Stage two defies genre convention by being a right to left side-scroller. There's a whole bunch of fog in the background, obfuscating Drac's castle and it definitely looks cool as fuck. So you go down some stairs, enter a blue cave with bloody water and a whole bunch of Creature from the Black Lagoon ripoffs jumping into you then do some light platforming across some moving stones, which sets up a mid-level boss fight against a giant pink and grey snake.

After that same clay monsters come out of the walls and attack you, and eventually you resurface under a spooky red sky and the geographical design becomes very, VERY Rygar-esque. Then the sky turns black and you fight a skeleton snake boss. I guess now's a good time to tell you that, like in every other Castlevania game ever made, you can also upgrade your whip, including adding a fucking spiked mace to it. Interestingly, you can also swap out your whip for a long-ass sword, which seemingly does more damage despite having apparently shorter range than your default weapon.

Stage three kicks off and "Bloody Tears" starts playing and it's awesome. I'm not sure whether this game technically came out before or after Simon's Quest, but this might just be the BOSSEST version of the song I've ever heard. So, you're ambling around a castle, and knights and these little midgets start attacking you. There are portraits of Dracula on the wall and at one point you enter a portal to another dimension, fight a few shirtless harpies (yep, you get to see more pixelized nipples) and then you get shat back out into the real world so you can dodge falling chandeliers (thank you, Phantom of the Opera, for such a wonderful, easily reusable trope) and hit wraiths (or is it banshees?) in the fucking face, hard

So you go up some more stairs and fight more knights and midgets then fucking eyeballs start rolling after you. This leads to a boss fight against this stained glass mirror dude who looks like Ed Sheerhan dressed up as a lumberjack. Yeah, I have no idea what kind of crack cocaine the kids at Konami were smoking there. 

Enter stage four! It's another underground cavern, this one littered with mummies. There's a bit more platforming in this stage than in the previous levels, and it's starting to get a lot more challenging, too. Alas, the whole castle is a dull coffee brown color - talk about some boring level design. A new enemy type is introduced - this annoying ass, constantly cawing raven - and since it's only a few pixels wide it's ridiculously hard to hit. You keep moving down the iconic 'vania stairs and the boss fight is against this giant pulsating rock monster that for all the Rubles in Russia looks like he shoots shit globs at you. 

Stage five starts off with your avatar riding an elevator in front of a light green backdrop for about 20 seconds. There are no enemies during the section, so you just have to sit there and twiddle your thumbs with nothing to do - kind of a pointless sequence, ain't it? This time around there's a lot of Castlevania III-esque cog-work in the background, and of course, there's a fuck-ton more mummies and kamikaze skulls to deal with. So you keep going up the stairs until you have a boss battle with Frankenstein's monster, who is chained to a wall and just keeps shaking the screen so ceiling tiles fall on you. All in all, he's surprisingly easy to beat (just as long as you have a good projectile subweapon) and after you defeat him, he melts into a pile of bloody bones and it's really awesome-looking.

And that's our prelude for the sixth and final stage. You begin by crossing this dilapidated bridge in broad daylight, while killing a billion ravens and avoiding falling into the abyss when the bridge begins crumbling. Oh, and this part drags on for three minutes. Then you finally enter the castle, kill a solitary harpy and Dracula shows up - green skinned and rocking a bushy ass mustache, looking more like a Martian Pablo Escobar than Vlad the Impaler. Anyway, he pulls off all the usual Castlevania tricks. He turns into a colony of bats and teleports across the screen, then he turns into a giant glowing orb that then turns into a giant grey Dracula head that tries to bite you. Hit him approximately 657 more times in the nose and he finally dies, and as per franchise tradition, the final shot of the game is your avatar watching Dracula's castle crumble to the ground. But wait - they never tell you what happened to the dude's wife? Did she get rescued beforehand or are we to assume that Dracula just raped her and ate her? I mean, goddamn, that's not just a humongous plot hole, that's the VERY catalyst for the game in the first place - shit, at least Capcom had the basic human decency to give us some kind of closure, you cold, cold-blooded motherfuckers.

Oh, so that's why it's called "Bloody Tears!"

Even though Haunted Castle is a game with some very big problems - the stages are redundant, the jumping feels awkward, your character moves like he weighs 800 pounds and has a broomstick thoroughly embedded in his asshole, the enemies are cheap as fucking shit, etc. - it's still a really, really fun experience, pending you play it as a ROM and don't have to keep feeding the machine quarters every 15 fucking seconds. Feasibly, you can beat the whole thing in 20 minutes, but since you'll be dying every 20 seconds, I assure you this one will take you much longer than a half hour to finish.

It's not quite the perfect medley of Castlevania and Ghosts 'n Goblins we've always wanted, but it does come kinda' sorta' close. The gameplay (although occasionally frustrating) is definitely solid, and if you're looking for a Viagra overdose-hard old school challenge, this one will beat your ass ragged for days. In the overall pantheon of Castlevania games, it has to be somewhere in the top 20 - Lord knows, it's definitely better than just about all of the 3D games in the series, and after 20 years of MetroidVania, it is kind of refreshing to play a more linear 'vania outing again. 

Again, I can't say Haunted Castle is a game sans some issues, but as long as you can overlook some clunky controls and learn how to work around the game's iffy platforming, you'll probably find it to be a rather enjoyable - albeit often irritating - arcade sidescroller. Besides, it's a game that lets you kill a shit-flinging rock monster and bondage Frankenstein in back-to-back boss battles ... you really think I'm going to say anything bad about a title that delivers something like that


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