I’m in a whip-cracking mood today with Halloween on the horizon, so let’s run through my favorite horror-themed franchise: Castlevania. For those of you who’ve never played a Castlevania game (It never ceases to amaze me how many people have overlooked this classic series), know that the games range in play-style from linear action-platforming to Metroid-esque exploration to Ninja Gaiden-style 3D action. Though I prefer the “Metroid-vanias,” I’ll take Castlevania in any form I can get it.
Symphony of the Night is an masterpiece, and not just because it let you slash at a giant sphere of dead bodies.
To spice up the list, I’m withholding the excellent Symphony of the Night, which is the pinnacle of the series in most fans’ eyes (mine included). If your haven’t played a Vania, start with that one. If you have, look into these five games while the night is still young.
5. Castlevania (NES)
I pity the fool who doesn’t bring Holy Water to the Grim Reaper fight.
I didn’t play the original Castlevania until it’s Game Boy Advance re-release in 2004, so its #5 ranking has nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s simply a fun, challenging game that has aged better than most games from the late-80s. With just six levels, the original is super-short in terms of actual game length, but its brutal difficulty (and admittedly archaic jumping controls) makes it feel four-times its size.
How hard is it? Well, if you want to have any chance at defeating the later bosses in this game, show up to the fights with a full health bar. Having the right sub-weapon helps, too–just be prepared to lose your ax or holy water whenever you die… which is quite often.
4. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)
So what if his sword is thrice the size of you? You’ve got a halberd, man.
Dawn of Sorrow is the sequel to the final GBA Castlevania, Aria of Sorrow. Though I loved Aria’s gameplay concept (kill enemies to acquire “souls” that bestow abilities), all the soul-farming lead to unintentional level-grinding and thus a soft challenge. Dawn of Sorrow fixed the problem with a stiff difficulty that complemented the soul system, all while continuing the futuristic Vania tale of its predecessor.
3. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA)
A giant succubus riding atop a worm-headed skull: the ultimate male fantasy. Sort of.
Circle of the Moon was the first portable Metroid-vania, and thanks to an intense difficulty level, it nearly lived up to it’s PS1 predecessor. The game boasted a card-based power-up system for your whip, but what ultimately defined the game was how it managed to feel like a classic Vania in a Metroid setting. While Symphony introduced swords and button-combo attacks, CotM reached toward its roots and put the whip back in the protagonist’s hands. It also jacked up the challenge with tougher enemies and devastating bosses.
2. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)
Lighthouse crab Brachyura is my favorite boss in the series. After he chases you to the top, the only option left is to drop a spiked elevator on him. Epic.
In 2006 Konami changed the Metroid-vania formula by taking us outside the castle in the DS installment Portrait of Ruin (which barely missed cracking this list). Two years later, Order of Ecclesia followed suit by sending us to secluded lighthouses, mist-blanketed forests, and mountain passes.
And that was only the first half of the game.
Dracula’s castle returns in the second half, making the game’s world a blend of new-age locations and the classic labyrinthine castle. Throw in a mysterious new heroine and a modified version of Aria and Dawn’s soul-collection system, and you have the best portable Vania in the palms of your hands.
1. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (PS3)
Lords of Shadow is home to one of the most brutally gothic intros you’ll ever witness.
Many fans and critics dragged Lords of Shadow through the catacombs, claiming that it lacked a true Castlevania feel. While LoS certainly draws heavy gameplay influences from God of War, Ninja Gaiden, and Shadow of the Colossus, the total package is cloaked in a decidedly Vania atmosphere. Occult powers, vampires, and whippings are abound, and the storytelling has the looming, historical tone that the series has always thrived off.
Bells and whistles aside, Lords of Shadow took #1 thanks to its ridiculously fun and challenging combat. Put the game on Hard Mode, then take the time to experiment with all the whip combos (which include turning your whip into a buzzsaw), sub-weapons, and dodge techniques. You won’t be disappointed. Then brace yourself for Indiana Jones-style whip swinging, snappy quicktime events, and bosses that’ll have you trash talking your TV screen.
And hurry up. The sequel is just a few months away.