Played in the Konami Arcade Classic Anniversary Collection on PS4.
In this fairly good collection (thankfully Konami tasked the Arcade Archives team to do this one, and this one has a regular Arcade Archives release as well), there is something that will stick out from the many old shoot em ups that make up this collection, and that made Konami a premier videogame company, once upon a very long time ago.
Is the spooktacular arcade version… kinda of the original Castlevania title on NES, released in the west as “Haunted Castle”. And when i mean “arcade version”, i mean this isn’t a conversion, but a completely different game that uses different hardware and graphics, but still adapts the first Castlevania in gameplay and premise, the stages being original but also drawing comparisons to the NES game. To make things even odder, this isn’t even the first title in the series to do that.
You’re still Simon Belmont, but this time you’re facing against Dracula and his army of monsters because Drac “stole” your wife on your wedding day.
Yeah, that’s the main motivation, getting back your wife. If he had time, this Dracula would had roped her to the train tracks and left lit round bombs around it’s own castle to inconvenience Simon Belmont.
It’s an odd duck of a game, and it’s still quite obscure, i never even heard of it before i perused the collection myself, Konami as usual never pushed it even in retrocollection until now, and the only promotional material i could find is this incredibly cheesy flyer for the American market. Just look at it.
While the basic gameplay is the same (down to the way you climb stairs), the stages are quite different, they keep many Castlevania tropes and the general layout, but they often have weird new bosses and enemies like the eyes popping up of the wall… to “blink” a giant eyeball at you, which reminds – in many ways – of the later Castlevania: The Adventure for Game Boy. Or weird cringey shit like the portrait of a lady crying bloody tears… while a remix of “Bloody Tears” from Simon’s Quest plays in the stage. Or the final form of Dracula… just his giant head.
The weirdness doesn’t stop there, as you have an odd mix of traditional and non-traditional subweapons that won’t appear in any other Castlevania mainline game (like the boomerang), or often overlap, like the torch and the bomb being functionally the same. Even the cross doesn’t work as it usually does, but unleash “cross projectiles” that traverse in a straight line.
If that sounds interesting.. it is, and it looks very damn good for the time, it does, but it’s also a crappy game. The idea could work, but the gameplay is definitely made worse by its own arcade nature, even for the usual standards, Konami really made this one to extort quarters, as it’s way more unfair than it should, not only to the levels being full of random hazards thrown at you in ways you often can’t predict, but also due to some enemies taking ludicrous amounts of damage, often 4 times the damage you take from a random bat or crow, just for the hell of it.
Oddly, the typical issue of knockback isn’t as frustrating as in the mainline Castlevania games, you still get knocked back if hit mid-air, but not that much, if you stay on the ground you get damaged but NOT hurled backwards.
You may think i’m complaining about a fairly common trait of arcade games, made more obvious in retrospect, but Konami really took the piss, because the game doesn’t just stop there, but also lets you insert credits to heal yourself, which would decreases the number of continues available… but thankfully it’s emulated and in free play mode, so you can keep inserting credits and basically ignore it. Don’t be shy to save scum your way through the game, since it’s also plagued by really shit hit detection, Simon having a huge hitbox, and it requiring memorization above anything else, just memorization, not so much proper skill, full as it is of random bullshit that comes out of nowhere.
Most of the deliberate hazards are there to “spice up” the otherwise fairly flat, boring, uninspired level designs with a lot of nothing in it. Sometimes you can’t even tell exactly if you can jump on a surface, as it looks more like it should be background decoration. The worst example is the final stage being a ridiculously long stroll through crumbling bridge with bats that are near impossible to hit unless you already know when they show up, so you can attack in time. Then it’s time to face Dracula, in one of the more anticlimactic boss fights in the series, just piss easy.
Then again, most bosses can be made laughable easy to vanquish if you use the right sub-weapons, and this is also one of those games that is way harder (even if it’smostly fake difficulty) in the beginning or first half, then its becomes easier or more “fair”, at times going to the opposite extreme and being easy. It’s not that short for an arcade platformer, i’d say, it’s not that long either, but it just feels longer to beat since it’s cheap as hell to make progress in it.
Looking at its production history, it wasn’t even planned to be a Castlevania game, but was crunched to hell and put out in arcades kinda half-finished. It shows, due to the many bugs and odd niggles, like the rock golem boss lacking a death animation (it just has a death scream playing while the game freezeframes and fades into the map screen to show your progress), some animations looking kinda funky or stiff, the “Stage 1” text at the bottom left of the screen accidentally hidden by grass in the foreground, sometimes you get all your health back from defeating a boss… sometimes you just get some energy back. Stuff like this is common.
The stock wolf howl you hear when you insert a virtual credit is very cute. The music is the best thing about it, no joke, some pretty damn good work there.
While it’s also available as a stand-alone Arcade Archives re-release on modern consoles (as pointed out earlier in the review), i would recommend getting it in the Arcade Classic Anniversary Collection when it goes on sale, as in you also get many old school Konami spaceship shooters with it.
On its own, Haunted Castle is not good at all, not the worst game ever, but it’s unfair, unbalanced, it feels rushed and it just plays like a subpar platformer-action game, with very bad hit detection and Simon sporting a bigger hitbox than it should, uninspired level designs that rely more on random hazards (or odd shit all around) you can’t see coming or deal with the first time, as it relies heavily on memorization more than actual skill or challenge. Even more because of the arcade mentality of having to drain quarters from players, which this game exploited hard even for the times.
It’s an interesting piece of history for Castlevania fans, who still might get some enjoyment out of it, but it’s no wonder Konami never re-released it in western territories for decades, and let it slide into obscurity, which is mostly deserved in this case.