Franchise Festival #70: Castlevania (2D)

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be exploring the linear hallways and sprawling towers of Castlevania‘s 2D entries. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Though I will be citing my research throughout the article, I’d like to draw particular attention to a few major sources:

Table of Contents

Castlevania (1986/1987)
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1987/1988)
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989/1990)
Castlevania: The Adventure (1989)
Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (1991)
Super Castlevania IV (1991)
Castlevania Chronicles (1993/2001)
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (1993/2010)
Castlevania: Bloodlines (1994)
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
Castlevania: Legends (1997/1998)
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001)
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (2002)
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (2003)
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (2005)
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (2006)
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (2008)


For more information on the history of Konami, the studio responsible for Castlevania, please consult Lily ‘Lovely’ Bones’ Franchise Festival #35: Silent Hill.


Castlevania (1986/1987)

Little about the individuals who worked on the first Castlevania game, released in Japan as Akumajo Dracula (literally Demon Castle Dracula), is publicly known at the time of writing in 2019; the primary source for available information is a series of tweets by Sonna Yuumi, who was mentored by Castlevania creator Hitoshi Akamatsu while working on PlayStation fishing simulator Tsuridou (1997). Akamatsu’s passion for film – especially Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – informed Castlevania’s roots in classic Hollywood horror cinema.

The title screen instantly draws attention to Akamatsu’s film influences. Source: GameXplain

Its mechanical template, on the other hand, is fairly straightforward side-scrolling action-adventure. The player takes on the role of vampire slayer Simon Belmont as he infiltrates Dracula’s Castle, takes on a variety of ghouls and creatures drawn from Universal and Hammer monster movies across six stages, and finally duels Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire. In deference to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, Simon wields a lengthy whip which can be hurled out ahead of him at the tap of a button. He is distinguished from other contemporary platformer heroes by a rigidity of animation that prevents the trajectory of jumps or attacks from being canceled or reversed mid-action.

No time for skeletons, Dr. Jones! Source: GameXplain

Players acquire sub-weapons like throwing knives and holy water as they explore. These items, which consume a magic gauge powered by small hearts dropped from slain enemies or destroyed scenery, offer the ability to engage in long-distance combat. Keeping one’s distance from enemies – especially bosses like Queen Medusa and Frankenstein’s Monster – is critical due to the high level of difficulty and Simon’s very limited health meter. Sustaining enough damage results in a lost life, and losing enough lives forces the player to replay a stage from its start.

Frankenstein’s Monster moves slow, but his little hopping buddy will get you. This is where throwing knives come in handy. Source: GameXplain

Like many other games of the era, Castlevania obscured its creators’ real names behind pseudonyms in the ending credits sequence. Its developers – including composers Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashim,adesigner Iku Mizutani, and director Hitoshi Akamatsu – would consequently receive little credit for their work in the following decades. Happily, the popularity of the game’s 1986 Famicom Disk System release would lead to highly successful North American and European localizations on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1987 and 1988 respectively.

The MSX’s Vampire Killer is superficially similar to Castlevania but has enough visual and mechanical differences to suggest unique origins. Source: MobyGames

Castlevania was remade extensively over the following seven years. Ports produced for the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga feature poorly emulated mechanics and visuals which fail to duplicate the unique charms of the Famicom/NES original, though a 1987 arcade cabinet version called VS. Castlevania is largely faithful aside from its noticeably higher difficulty level. A Japan-only remixed title called Vampire Killer features puzzle-oriented variants on the six stages of Castlevania and was released by Konami only one month later on the MSX2. Due to the significance of its differences and the fact that it released so soon after the Famicom Disk System’s Castlevania, it remains unclear which was the original version of the game. Modern ports have been published individually on the Game Boy Advance, J2ME, Wii, Wii U, and 3DS as well as within the Castlevania Anniversary Collection released by Konami for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch in 2019.


Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1987/1988)

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987/1988) seems to have been a key touchstone for Castlevania’s sequel. Like Nintendo’s divisive experiment, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a dramatic structural departure from its direct predecessor. Similarly, both games integrate role-playing game (RPG) mechanics influenced by the skyrocketing popularity of the genre in Japan following the 1986 release of Dragon Quest. When asked, Akamatsu credited Konami’s Maze of Galious (1987) with his updated approach to level progression.

Maze of Galious is a 2D platformer for the MSX featuring RPG elements and non-linear exploration. Source: バイファイの局

Castlevania II’s basic foundation is built upon the original game, including whip-based combat and side-scrolling level design with visuals inspired by Universal films, though it otherwise has little in common with its predecessor. Stages are not discrete, and the world instead sprawls out horizontally to the left and right of the starting area. That starting area is a town filled with friendly non-player characters (NPCs) who will offer the player advice of varying accuracy and sell key items for the player character’s quest. The player character is again Simon Belmont and the narrative is set in 1698, seven years after Dracula’s defeat in Castlevania. Five pieces of Dracula’s body, which exploded in spectacular fashion at the climax of the preceding game, must be gathered by exploring manors around the landscape of Transylvania and then be reassembled within Dracula’s (now-ruined) Castle.

The quotes from villagers are sometimes helpful, but they’re never less than bizarre when interpreted as conversation topics. Source: SingingBrakeman

Other RPG mechanics include an inventory system and experience points; amassing enough of the latter by defeating monsters allows Simon’s health bar to expand. Death loses some of its sting in Castlevania II as well, as it simply causes Simon to lose experience points acquired since his last level-up and restart near where he fell. The game is otherwise quite challenging, though, as a day/night cycle keeps enemy strength alternating throughout the adventure. Towns, where Simon can recover his health and receive clues to his next destination, are also filled with zombies at night. The player’s ending is based on how many of these day/night cycles pass before Simon reaches Dracula’s Castle.

Nighttime in the woods is not where you want to be, though town isn’t much better. Source: SingingBrakeman

Castlevania II was released on the Famicom Disk System in Japan on August 28, 1987. A North American NES version followed in December 1988, though the audio quality of Kenichi Matsubara’s extraordinary soundtrack was diminished in the transition from floppy disk to cartridge format; a disk-based save mechanic was likewise replaced with a password system. Though much of its original art assets were lost in the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, Castlevania II was re-released alongside Castlevania and Castlevania III on the Windows PC platform in 2002 and then later on the Wii, 3DS, and Wii U Virtual Console digital distribution services. It was, sadly, the only game included in the 2019 Castlevania Anniversary Collection not to have its Japanese version added to the North American release via post-release patch.


Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989/1990)

The third NES Castlevania title is the first to have been published as a cartridge in Japan. Konami included a proprietary VRCVI sound chip in the Japanese version, co-designed by Castlevania III sound programmer Hidenori Maezawa, though this was omitted from the North American and European versions. Consequently, the game’s lush soundtrack was compressed from eight tracks to four in the process of localization.

Castlevania III is instantly recognizable as a visual update. Source: SingingBrakeman

This is not the only aspect of Castlevania III to have undergone a revision as it crossed the seas. The basic gameplay and visual design of all versions is functionally identical, but the difficulty is higher outside of Japan. Each individual enemy caused a unique amount of damage in the original release, but all enemies of each stage cause an identical amount of damage in the international edition; the amount of damage increases with each new stage. The final boss encounter with Dracula is also made more challenging by a less predictable attack pattern and a more punitive restart position when the player character loses. These rather idiosyncratic decisions, which have a negative impact on the game’s playability, were ostensibly undertaken to reduce the likelihood that North American or European players would complete the game during a rental period.

Dracula is harder in the American version. Be prepared to lose repeatedly! Source: SingingBrakeman

With regard to its underlying gameplay and level design, Castlevania III has more in common with Castlevania than Castlevania II. The player character, Simon Belmont’s whip-slinging ancestor Trevor, infiltrates Castle Dracula and defeats bosses in a prequel to the series’ original adventure. Stages are once again discrete themed obstacle courses rather than a single sprawling world, though all are connected by a non-interactive overworld map presented to players following each boss encounter. No inventory management or level-up mechanic is present, so players must once again rely strictly on quick reflexes to navigate stages and defeat monsters.

It’s not always clear what you’ll find by taking the high road or the low road between stages. Source: SingingBrakeman

Two concessions have been made to the series’ expanded mechanical palette, however, following its ambitious second release. Players now choose between two routes following certain stages, making no two runs through the game identical. Fifteen stages are included but players only see a portion of them on any given attempt at the campaign. Additionally, the player’s route determines which of three potential playable allies they can meet and recruit. These allies include Sypha Belnades, a sorceress; Grant Danasty, an acrobat; and Alucard, Dracula’s shape-shifting son.

Grant Danasty has a silly name to go along with his tragic past. Source: SingingBrakeman

Though it has remained a critical darling for decades after its release, due to its beautiful presentation and refinement of the series’ strongest mechanical elements, Castlevania III sold poorly at release. No contemporary ports were produced and fans would need to wait for re-releases on the Windows platform or Nintendo’s Virtual Console in the 2000s to replay the series’ best entry so far. The commercial failure of Castlevania III, particularly in Konami’s home country, caused the studio to pull Hitoshi Akamatsu off of the franchise he’d established and reassign him to a physical game center in Japan. Akamatsu would never again work on Castlevania, and would leave the industry entirely before the end of the 1990s.


Castlevania: The Adventure (1989)

The Castlevania series’ first portable installment was also one of the very first titles developed and released on Nintendo’s era-defining Game Boy platform. As required by the Game Boy’s limited color palette, Castlevania: The Adventure strips away the lush background imagery and colorful sprites for which the series was known but retains its gothic atmosphere and iconic sound design. Humorously, a number of localization quirks and narrative inconsistencies would obscure the identity of the player character and even the time period in which the game was set until cleared up respectively by its sequel’s instruction manual and later series producer Koji Igarashi.

Stages are timed in Castlevania: The Adventure, though the limits are pretty generous. Source: SingingBrakeman

In fact, the player takes on the role of Trevor Belmont’s descendant Christopher Belmont in an adventure set between Castlevania III and Castlevania. Christopher must explore four lengthy side-scrolling stages and then destroy Dracula. Though sub-weapons are omitted and the franchise’s iconic staircases have been replaced with vertically hanging ropes for ascent or descent between platforms, the basic gameplay formula of battling enemies with a whip and jumping over obstacles is faithful to home console series entries.

I took this capture to show the ropes which replace staircases in Castlevania: The Adventure, though I’d also like to draw attention to these goofy rolling eyeballs. Source: SingingBrakeman

A poor critical reception, due primarily to shoddy technical performance, would not keep a partially-colorized version from being included as part of the Konami GB Collection Volume 1 on the Game Boy Color in Europe in 2000. While the original version of the game would later be re-published on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service and in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection (2019), its most notable re-release is the WiiWare digital distribution platform’s Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth (2009). M2’s full remake of the original game integrates re-done graphics and elements from the home console series, including stairs rather than hanging ropes. Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth has been unavailable to purchase or download since the WiiWare service was discontinued in 2018.


Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (1991)

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, despite its title, is not directly related to the NES’ Castlevania II. It instead serves as a direct sequel to Castlevania: The Adventure again starring Christopher Belmont. Dracula arises years after his defeat at the end of Castlevania: The Adventure and kidnaps Christopher’s son Soleil, kicking off a mission to save the young Belmont. Christopher must pick up the whip once again and fight his way through four castles before taking on Dracula and a demonic version of Soleil.

A bat serves as the player’s cursor on the stage select screen, unintentionally implying that the player is Dracula. Source: SingingBrakeman

The game’s four initial stages – themed around clouds, plants, rocks, and crystals – can be tackled in any order before the player enters Dracula’s lair. While staircases remain absent, sub-weapons make their debut in the Castlevania Game Boy sub-series. Christopher can now pick up holy water and axes, which function as they do in in the console entries.

Backgrounds are more richly detailed than in the series’ Game Boy debut. Source: SingingBrakeman

As with its predecessor, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge was later re-released on the Game Boy in Japan as part of the Konami GB Collection Volume 3 (1998) and then on the Game Boy Color in Europe with partial colorization. The European GBC version of Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is the only international release of the game to feature the Japanese original’s cross sub-weapon rather than the axe which replaced it in its earlier localization. No WiiWare remake followed, so series fans who missed out on the Game Boy and Game Boy Color publishing runs would be waiting until 2019 to play the game on Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection.


Super Castlevania IV (1991)

The Castlevania series made its 16-bit debut on Nintendo’s Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1991 with a reimagining of the series’ first chapter. Though its story and protagonist are directly recycled from 1986’s Castlevania, it features entirely new graphics, stages, and mechanics. Its place in the series’ time-line was a matter of some contention until recently, however, as Konami USA’s localization of the instruction manual actually referred to it as a sequel to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest; this issue was only put to rest when Koji Igarashi, the franchise’s main producer from 2001 to 2014, directly addressed the inaccuracy of the North American localization.

The map between stages is more richly detailed than similar overworld outlines in earlier Castlevania titles, giving the player context for his or her surroundings. Source: SingingBrakeman

Super Castlevania IV‘s gameplay largely retains the stiff, methodical actions of earlier series entries but introduces the ability to slightly alter Simon’s trajectory mid-jump. Simon’s whip also extends across a full third of the screen and, if the player holds in the attack button, can be spun around after its initial strike. The whip can also now be affixed to hanging hoops, allowing Simon to swing across gaps or hang in place while the level shifts below him.

Simon has very strong upper body strength. Source: SingingBrakeman

Level shifting is one of the remake’s most noteworthy features, as it hinges on the SNES’ Mode 7 graphics engine. Backgrounds can be rotated, offering the illusion of a stage altering its floors and walls or a spinning tunnel surrounding the player character. No polygons are used in this rudimentary approximation of 3D, ensuring that performance remains steady.

A rotating tunnel is especially vertigo-inducing (in a good way). Source: Digital Foundry

The graphics and sound design of Super Castlevania IV likewise represent a significant departure from earlier series entries. Enemies and Simon are noticeably larger, increasing the likelihood that the two intersect and cause damage to one another but also enhancing the level of detail. Colors are more vibrant than they had ever been on the NES, though this does not negatively impact the series’ characteristically dark, gothic atmosphere. Composers Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo, similarly, deliver a soundtrack that is more moody and less propulsive than those of earlier games without compromising the franchise’s identity.

Somehow the presence of these jerk platforms that drop you to your death doesn’t keep the game from remaining popular. Source: SingingBrakeman

Super Castlevania IV would later be re-released on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console services. It then appeared on the SNES Classic miniature console in 2017 before being included on the Castlevania Anniversary Collection two years later. It remains among the most accessible and popular series entries nearly three decades after its initial publication.


Castlevania Chronicles (1993/2001)

Like Super Castlevania IV, Castlevania Chronicles is a reimagining of the series debut. Though it features updated sprites and adds stages which originally appeared in other Castlevania titles, it hews closer to the original game than its direct predecessor. In a nod to the series’ characteristically strong music, the soundtrack offers players the opportunity to choose between three different arrangements of a score composed by Shin-chan, Keizo Nakamura, and Hiroshi Kobayashi; one of these arrangements is hidden due to the composers’ opinion that it sounded unprofessional.

Castlevania: Chronicles is a beautiful reinterpretation of the original game. Its rich backgrounds are reminiscent of those which replaced the original black backdrops of the NES’ Mega Man 13 in the 16-bit Mega Man: Wily Wars. Source: World of Longplays

Castlevania Chronicles was initially released on the Japan-only Sharp X68000 platform in 1993 but was re-released internationally on the PlayStation in 2001. This version features new fully animated cutscenes in place of the original game’s lightly animated story sequences. The 2001 re-release may be most noteworthy for its role as the first producer credit assigned to Koji Igarashi, the former designer of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997) and producer for all other core series entries released between 2001 and 2014.

Note: Cover image sourced from


Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (1993/2010)

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood is the Castlevania franchise’s first CD-based installment and, due to that format’s high memory capacity, offers a unique audio/visual experience. It opens with an animated cutscene and features higher audio quality than any other series entry so far. The art style, more generally, is heavily indebted to anime sensibilities rather than the harder-edged Western-influenced art of earlier releases. While its gameplay is not fundamentally dissimilar to the series’ NES entries, as the player controls a warrior battling enemies across side-scrolling stages with a whip, its further development of concepts previously limited to Castlevania III results in one of the franchise’s most refined titles so far.

Rondo of Blood’s opening cutscene would look hopelessly antiquated only a couple of years after release, but it was very cool in 1993. Source: MobyGames

In particular, new protagonist Richter Belmont is tasked with rescuing four maidens who have been captured and imprisoned within Dracula’s Castle. When he saves a child named Maria Renard, she becomes a playable character in the vein of Castlevania III‘s allies. A more extensive script makes this change more meaningful since event dialogue and even the game’s ending is altered based on which character is being controlled by the player. Maria also makes use of powerful animal friends based on the Chinese Zodiac as her means of attack, reducing the difficulty of the game when the player is controlling her.

Maria looks innocent, sure, but here she is hurling cute birds at an armored knight. Those poor critters! Source: TAS Videos Channel

A branching level structure likewise echoes Castlevania III while improving upon it. Richter and Maria can determine a path through the castle by exploring and finding hidden stage exits rather than by selecting between two stages after defeating a boss. A stage can be retried from a selection screen following its initial completion by the player character, ensuring that a player need not attempt the game multiple times to see every stage.

What Dracula X Chronicles loses in clarity, it makes up for in spectacle. Source: World of Longplays

Rondo of Blood was released in Japan on the PC Engine CD-ROM platform, effectively ensuring that the game would not be released in North America (where that console had been more or less ignored). English-speaking audiences would need to wait for a Wii Virtual Console release in 2007 to play a localized version of the original game included alongside its 2.5D polygonal remake as part of the PlayStation Portable’s (PSP’s) Dracula X Chronicles. In the interim, a heavily revised adaptation called Dracula X (1995) was released in North America on the SNES. Though the 2.5D remake is mechanically faithful to the original, the SNES version removes Rondo of Blood’s non-linear stage progression and the ability to play as Maria. While Dracula X is generally considered a disappointing adaptation, it does feature enhanced sprite graphics not present in any other version of the game.


Castlevania: Bloodlines (1994)

The series’ next 16-bit title, this time developed for the SEGA MegaDrive/Genesis, was not originally intended to be a core Castlevania game at all. Programmer Toshiki Yamamura, graphics designer Teisaku Seki, and composer Michiru Yamane instead aimed to produce a game based roughly on Konami’s legendary series but with speedier action and a globe-trotting scope. Castlevania Bloodlines, which went by the name Vampire Killer in Japan and Castlevania: The New Generation in Europe, was consequently advertised as a spinoff (“Castlevania Gaiden”) in a preview included with the Japanese Rondo of Blood strategy guide.

The visual style is a bit smoother and more heavily shaded than earlier series entries. Source: SingingBrakeman

In keeping with their original vision, Castlevania Bloodlines features the first protagonist who does not make use of a whip; when the player begins the game, he or she has the opportunity to choose between whip-wielder John Morris and his friend, the spear-swinging Eric Lecarde. Earlier series entries had offered playable allies who made use of alternate weapons, but none had been available as a protagonist from the start. This design decision would set a precedent for future titles.

Castlevania finally gets out of Transylvania and lands in… Atantis? Source: SingingBrakeman

Castlevania: Bloodlines, as suggested by an interview with the developers originally published in Japan’s BEEP! Megadrive magazine, moves at a faster pace than its predecessors. Neither player character can alter the trajectory of his jump or cancel attacks, but both are more agile than the Belmonts. Both can also access unique portions of the game’s otherwise linear stages, too, as John can use his whip to swing from ceilings while Eric has the ability to perform a high jump after crouching for a brief time.

John uses his whip to access an exclusive portion of the Tower of Pisa level. Source: GameXplain

Interestingly, the narrative of Castlevania: Bloodlines is a notable departure from the increasingly established lore of the core Castlevania franchise. Taking its cues from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) and Hideyuki Kikuchi’s series of Vampire Hunter D books (1983-present), Castlevania: Bloodlines is set in the late 19th Century rather than the Middle Ages or Renaissance. In contrast to earlier titles, which had universally taken place in or around Dracula’s Castle, Castlevania: Bloodlines’ six stages are located throughout Europe.

Though Castlevania: Bloodlines moved the series’ art direction away from Western-style gothic horror and towards more manga stylings, it seems that the localization crew thought it too much too fast for North American and European audiences; the left images are the original Vampire Killer art while the right ones reflect alterations in the West. Source: Castlevania Wiki

In a first for the series, perhaps reflecting its strong popularity in the West even as sales had decreased in Japan, Castlevania: Bloodlines was released nearly simultaneously across North America, Japan, and Europe in March 1994. All versions feature localization quirks, including more traditionally masculine character portraits in North America and reduced difficulty in Japan, but are more or less the same game. Aside from being engaging in its own right, the game remains historically significant for its role as a bridge between the series’ past and its future: without dramatically altering the core Castlevania experience, Bloodlines emphasized anime-influenced character designs, agile movement, and a score by Michiru Yamane that fused her classical training with the series’ heavy metal influences. These elements would come to define the visual, mechanical, and audio palette of the series’ second decade.


Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

Three years would pass between Castlevania: Bloodlines and the series’ next entry. During that time, a team of staff who had worked on Castlevania: Rondo of Blood led by relative newcomer Koji Igarashi was assigned to develop a sequel. They first worked up a prototype for the SEGA 32X, an add-on peripheral for the SEGA MegaDrive/Genesis, called Castlevania: The Bloodletting. This project shifted to the SEGA Saturn and PlayStation before being canceled entirely in favor of a new game called Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

The only remaining hard evidence of Castlevania: The Bloodletting at the time of writing is this peak-’90s ad from a 1995 Consumer Electronics Show brochure. Source: Unseen64

In the mid-1990s, Konami seems to have been concerned about the franchise’s ongoing viability due to its linear level design and high difficulty. Consequently, they allowed Igarashi and his team to take the series in a new direction after the designer successfully made the case that the action-RPG aspects of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest offered the precedent for an alternate series trajectory. Igarashi also looked to Nintendo’s Zelda franchise for inspiration and adopted its heavy emphasis on retreading familiar territory to unlock unexplored areas using newly-acquired tools. This would later become known as “Metroidvania,” a term popularized by’s Scott Sharkey and Jeremy Parish, but the philosophy was known internally during development as “2D exploration action game.”

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night introduces fans to the richly detailed Bishōnen art  of character designer Ayami Kojima. Her style would become synonymous with Castlevania moving forward. Source: Castlevania Wiki

Though a playable opening sequence set four years before the balance of the story stars Richter Belmont and reinterprets the climax of Rondo of Blood, the player otherwise controls Dracula’s son Alucard throughout Symphony of the Night. Alucard has undergone a major visual update since his initial appearance in Castlevania III and now uses a sword as his default weapon. Though he begins the game with a diverse set of acrobatic actions that earlier protagonists could only dream of, he soon loses his powers and must regain them by exploring his father’s vast castle. Symphony of the Night‘s interconnected stage design is non-linear and opens up slowly as Alucard acquires new abilities like double-jumping or swimming. RPG mechanics likewise gate progression, as Alucard can collect new weapons and level up his stats by defeating enemies and amassing experience points.

Richter’s section culminates in one of the medium’s silliest exchanges of dialogue. Source: World of Longplays

In addition to a stirring soundtrack by Michiru Yamane, Koji Igarashi’s directorial debut also includes extensive character voiceovers for the first time. Rondo of Blood had featured brief instances of pre-recorded audio but nothing at the scale of Dracula’s notorious opening monologue from Symphony of the Night. The PlayStation’s CD format also allowed for pre-rendered computer-generated opening and ending sequences, though these were disliked by the development team for their failure to evoke the rich detail of the game’s sprite art.

Now why would anybody think a game with a map like this was inspired by Super Metroid? Source: MobyGames

That sprite art proved to be a point of contention in the increasingly 3D-oriented 32-bit era. Neither the PlayStation version of Symphony of the Night, nor the SEGA Saturn port featuring Maria Renard as a playable character, sold well. It was produced in small quantities and soon became a collector’s item during the early days of the commercial internet. Its critical appraisal was quite the opposite, however, and it became known as a cult classic among platforming enthusiasts soon after its release. This poor commercial performance is likely the reason that a port was canceled some time before its planned release on Tiger’s monochromatic handheld device.

At the adventure’s apparent climax, Alucard is confronted with a second quest within a fully inverted castle populated by new bosses. Source: World of Longplays

Its reputation would never fade, leading to a major re-release in 2007 on the Xbox 360’s Xbox Live digital distribution platform where it became the first title to break through that format’s prior 50 MB size restriction; this opened the door for more ambitious titles to be launched on the platform. A version featuring a new script and voice recordings was ported to the PSP the same year as a hidden feature on the aforementioned Dracula X Chronicles. The Dracula X Chronicles localization was republished as part of the PlayStation 4’s Castlevania: Requiem (2018), though the quirky original version remains accessible on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3 through the PlayStation Store at the time of writing. However players find it, Symphony of the Night is yet regarded as one of the greatest games of all time.


Castlevania: Legends (1997/1998)

The second Castlevania game of 1997 would be an altogether less ambitious affair. Castlevania: Legends, released in Japan on the Game Boy under the name Demon Castle Dracula: Dark Night Prelude, is intended to serve as the origin story for the Belmont clan of vampire slayers and features the 15th Century’s “First Belmont” Sonia as its protagonist. Its gameplay bears more in common with earlier Game Boy series entries than Symphony of the Night, though it does incorporate some non-linear elements from the series’ console outings.

Sonia is primarily distinguished from earlier series protagonists by her ability to crouch under platforms. This can be exploited to humorous effect in some areas. Source: World of Longplays

Sonia uses a whip to take on monsters large and small across six stages, though she can explore hidden passageways to find powerful items which impact the campaign’s ending. In addition to the basic platforming and whip-slinging fundamentals of Castlevania: Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, Castlevania: Legends introduces powerful soul weapons acquired from bosses. These replace the less flashy sub-weapons of those earlier adventures.

Castlevania: Legends‘ developers were mighty optimistic, leaving a sequel hook at the end of a game published very late in the Game Boy’s lifespan. Source: World of Longplays

Castlevania: Legends was poorly received by critics, at least partially due to its juxtaposition with the franchise’s radical reinvention on the PlayStation. Its presentation  was criticized for echoing an earlier era rather than looking forward. Koji Igarashi would later excise the game from the series’ official timeline entirely and it remains without a re-release at the time of writing in 2019.


Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001)

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, despite not being directly worked on by Koji Igarashi, clearly draws its inspiration from Symphony of the Night. The small screen of the Game Boy Advance (GBA) hardware would prove no impediment to the sprawling, non-linear stage design of the series’ second game in this style. Players take on the role of 1830s vampire hunter Nathan Graves as he explores Dracula’s Castle in an attempt to save his mentor from the vampire lord.

Circle of the Moon lacks the visual effects possible on the PlayStation but otherwise emulates the style of the series’ most recent console entry very well. Source: MobyGames

Nathan exclusively uses a whip alongside sub-weapons, unlike Alucard, but a new magic mechanic called the Dual Set-up System (DSS) allows the player to customize his or her avatar’s abilities. 20 unique Action Cards and Attribute Cards can be acquired from defeated enemies and combined with one another to create spells or weapon enhancements. The game offers a lengthy campaign, but a series of additional modes which alter Nathan’s stats and abilities can be successively unlocked with each subsequent run under these unique conditions.

It’s hard not to wonder if the devs had a clue about the name of Nintendo’s next portable console, though that feels like a poorly founded conspiracy theory given the game’s 2001 release date. Source: MobyGames

From Circle of the Moon on, all core 2D Castlevania games would be released on portable devices while home consoles exclusively received 3D entries. The series’ GBA debut was well-received critically and commercially despite lacking certain features advertised in pre-release coverage, including the option to choose between two player characters. The game’s peculiar DSS feature and comparatively dark graphics would later be criticized by Koji Igarashi and Circle of the Moon would subsequently be stricken from the official Castlevania timeline. Happily, Igarashi’s negative impression of the game would not keep it from being re-released on the Wii U Virtual Console in 2014.


Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (2002)

Having established a formula that worked on the comparatively low-investment portable format, Igarashi took over as Castlevania‘s full-time producer in 2001. As a follow up to his role producing that year’s PlayStation re-release of Castlevania Chronicles, he began work on an entirely new series entry which adopted the strengths of the Metroidvania format while avoiding the handful of problems he perceived in Circle of the Moon. The game’s GBA cartridge format would prevent Konami from revisiting Symphony of the Night‘s polygonal effects but would not keep his team from creating highly detailed multi-jointed and rotating sprites in the style of an SNES title.

Warp rooms offer some impressive visual flair, as Juste slowly fades into the light and stones scattered around the floor hover into the air and get sucked through the portal with him. Source: GameXplain

The player controls Juste Belmont, inheritor of his family’s famous Vampire Killer whip, as he infiltrates a mysterious castle alongside his companion Maxim in pursuit of their kidnapped friend Lydie. Set in 1748, Harmony of Dissonance serves as a sequel to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and a prequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. Igarashi was more interested than earlier series developers in fleshing out the mythology of the franchise, using his comparatively dialogue-heavy 2D entries to sketch in obscure eras in the struggle between the Belmonts and Dracula and explore how the story might evolve in the distant future.

You’re never alone against the darkness when you’ve got a sweet customizable wardrobe. Source: GameXplain

Gameplay is similar to Circle of the Moon, though it is intentionally less difficult. The DSS is abandoned in favor of upgrades to Juste’s whip and spell books used to enhance newly reintroduced sub-weapons. Juste is more agile than Circle of the Moon‘s Nathan, able to dash forward or backward with the tap of a button. Finally, the need to switch between two forms of the castle – Chaotic and Earthly – via portals to progress past obstacles echoes the dimension-shifting antics of Soul Reaver (1999) or Silent Hill (1999) in a 2D space.


Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (2003)

Veteran series producer Koji Igarashi and composer Michiru Yamane worked alongside newcomer director Junichi Murakami and others to develop the franchise’s third GBA entry even as development was underway on its predecessor. Rather than look backward to another historical era, Aria of Sorrow leaps forward into the speculative future of 2035 and introduces a new series protagonist named Soma Cruz. As an exchange student in Japan, Soma is tasked by a disguised Alucard with eliminating cult leader Graham Jones when he and childhood friend Mina Hakuba are mysteriously transported to Dracula’s Castle. A cast of colorful supporting characters, including United States soldier Hammer and Vatican witch Yoko Belnades (descendant of Castlevania III’s Sypha Belnades), livens up proceedings with extensive dialogue.

Aria of Sorrow is the first Castlevania title set in Japan, if only nominally so. Source: GameXplain

In contrast to its bold new story direction, its mechanics constitute an evolution on recent action-RPG series entries rather than genuine innovation. Harmony of Dissonance’s engine is reused and Soma controls similarly to Juste, though he uses a variety of weapons rather than the Belmonts’ trademark whip. Players who find the reflex-based 2D combat too challenging can once again acquire stronger weapons and level up their avatar to overcome even the toughest bosses.

Soma absorbs a new soul. This one, an ability soul, functions similarly to relics from earlier titles while other souls are more akin to sub-weapons or stat boosts. Source: GameXplain

For the third series entry in a row, a new magic system is introduced. Soma Cruz can absorb enemies’ souls upon their defeat, granting him a new ability. This so-called Tactical Soul system comprises 110 souls in all – one associated with each enemy – grouped into four types: guardian souls provide defensive abilities, bullet souls function as sub-weapons, enchanted souls modify Soma’s stats or latent skills without draining his pool of magic points (MP), and ability souls grant new navigation techniques that open up new areas to explore. As a nod to the popularity of collecting and trading mechanics popularized in the early 2000s by the Pokemon and Mega Man Battle Network franchises, players can link their GBAs together and exchange enemy souls if each has a copy of Aria of Sorrow.

The GBA couldn’t produce polygons, but Konami’s artist pulled out all the stops to create strikingly rich sprite landscapes. Source: GameXplain

The third time was the charm for the Castlevania franchise on GBA. Critical acclaim was near-universal, with reviewers and fans drawing particular attention to the game’s superlative visual design, level structure, soundtrack, and writing; the latter would come to define Igarashi’s tenure as producer for the franchise as a dense cast of uncharacteristically rich characters crowded the games’ increasingly compelling narratives. Though sales were shockingly poor in Japan, over 150,000 copies were sold in North America during Aria of Sorrow’s first three months on store shelves. Neither poor sales nor a surprisingly amateurish 2008 mobile phone port by California-based studio Glu Mobile dampened the sense that the series had finally found a true successor to Symphony of the Night; like its two GBA predecessors, Aria of Sorrow would be made accessible to audiences again in the 2010s through a port to Nintendo’s Wii U Virtual Console.


Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (2005)

Eschewing the franchise’s tendency to leap wildly across a 500-year historical timeline between entries, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow is a direct follow-up to the events of the previous game. Soma Cruz is again the protagonist and is rejoined by much of Aria of Sorrow’s beloved supporting cast. The narrative concerns this group’s assault on a castle created by a new cult that seeks to resurrect Dracula in 2036. The Tactical Soul system of the preceding game is likewise retained, though gathering multiple copies of the same soul can now enhance the strength of its corresponding ability.

Drawing glyphs proved a somewhat controversial decision, as it takes the player’s thumbs away from the buttons, but it is by and large successful. Source: World of Longplays

Two other systems are entirely new, altering some fundamental aspects of the series which had been more or less static since 1997’s Symphony of the Night. The first of these changes is input-oriented and only made possible through Dawn of Sorrow’s release on the Nintendo DS platform. A Magic Seal system sees players drawing glyphs on the lower of the device’s two screen using a stylus to finish off weakened bosses, updating the 2D franchise’s approach to input mechanisms for the first time since the introduction of shoulder buttons in Symphony of the Night. Familiars summoned through the use of tactical abilities can similarly be manipulated using the DS’ novel touchscreen.

Playing as a Belnades for the first time since 1989. Source: Pikasprey Blue

The second major new feature is a reference to Castlevania III, a game which had been comparatively ignored by Igarashi in his earlier focus on Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Rondo of Blood. Allies Yoko Belnades and Alucard take on the roles of Sypha Belnades and, well, Alucard from Castlevania III and can be controlled in a secondary quest where the player guides Julius Belmont through Dracula’s Castle. Julius makes use of a traditional whip rather than Soma’s assorted weapons and spells, switching to Yoko or Alucard as necessary to overcome environmental obstacles or exploit enemy weaknesses. Dawn of Sorrow was hugely popular despite being the first portable Castlevania title on a new platform not to launch alongside the hardware. Igarashi and his team wisely abandoned many of their experiments with the DS’ unique touch and microphone input devices, sticking only with those that did not obscure the franchise’s characteristic action.

For better or worse, Koji Igarashi opted to pursue a new look for the series with anime-inspired character art rather than the distinctive gothic Bishōnen style of Ayami Kojima. This was done for speed and as an appeal to a younger audience. Source: GameXplain

The game managed to retain the already-engaging plot and mechanics of its direct predecessor while simultaneously integrating surprising new elements which innovated and called back to one of the franchise’s most celebrated early titles. As with Aria of Sorrow, Glu Mobile published a shoddy mobile phone port years after the game’s initial publication, though this would have no real bearing on Dawn of Sorrow‘s positive reputation. Backwards compatibility on Nintendo’s still-supported 3DS hardware line and a re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console ensure that fans can still easily access the Castlevania franchise’s first touch-based entry in its original presentation.


Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (2006)

Based upon their positive impressions of the DS hardware, Igarashi and his team quickly began work on a follow-up. The platform allowed for noticeably more detailed sprites and backgrounds, bringing the graphics of 2D Castlevania titles into visual conformity with Symphony of the Night for the first time since 1997. Still, Portrait of Ruin‘s development team was primarily interested in how it might further exploit the DS’ unique hardware features.

Backgrounds can now be comprised of polygons rather than sprite layers. Source: World of Longplays

The resulting game is fundamentally similar to Dawn of Sorrow, at least in its presentation and basic gameplay outline. Players take on the role of two protagonists who must explore a non-linear 2D space and defeat Dracula using a combination of weapons and magic in 1944. Outside of that basic framework, though, much has changed.

The player has Claudette ‘Stay’ as Jonathan gets the Markt Street metro [sic] moving the only way he knows how – smacking a level with a sword. 1944 was truly a simpler time. Source: World of Longplays
In another nod to Castlevania III, players can switch between their two protagonists at will. Jonathan Morris, son of Bloodlines character John Morris, uses melee weapons while Belnades family descendant Claudette Aulin uses sorcery. The touchscreen is used to switch between the two or command the non-controlled character to carry out rudimentary actions like waiting in place. In the franchise’s first implementation of synchronous multiplayer, two players with copies of the game can each control a protagonist and work through the campaign cooperatively via wi-fi.

Jonathan and Claudette sync up to deliver a special attack. Source: MobyGames

As with the character of Jonathan Morris, the setting appears to derive inspiration from the series’ lone Genesis/MegaDrive entry. Players are not confined to Dracula’s Castle, but rather have access to a variety of gothic landscapes through portraits hung around the hub world. The maps within these portals are not as sprawling as most 2D Castlevania areas since 1997 but are less linear than the stages of the pre-Symphony of the Night era and offer a wide range of appearances.

It’s pretty cool to finally see proper Egyptian tombs in a Castlevania game. Source: MobyGames

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin was another critical success for the series on DS. It innovated less than its direct predecessor, but stood out as a visual and mechanical refinement of an already-popular formula. Its environments were among the most varied in any Castlevania title so far and it confirmed that the franchise could integrate multiplayer without compromising its unique horror identity. With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that the series’ next release would adopt a more conservative stance.


Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (2008) 

A decade of reliable critical and commercial successes would lead to one final title on the DS platform. Order of Ecclesia, the last traditional 2D Castlevania as of writing, combines elements of the pre- and post-Symphony of the Night era to produce one of the most holistically sublime titles in the franchise. It’s also exceptionally challenging.

Yet another artist has been assigned to the franchise, with Masaki Hirooka producing the impression of watercolors with her character portraits. Source: GameXplain

The player takes on the role of a 19th Century warrior named Shanoa who is chosen by the eponymous Order of Ecclesia to be the vessel for Dominus, three bodily-inscribed glyphs designed to defeat Dracula. When her friend Albus interrupts a ritual which would infuse her with these three glyphs and absconds with Dominus, Shanoa sets off in pursuit and finds herself in the mysteriously abandoned Wygol Village. The campaign sees her exploring the surrounding countryside and recovering villagers who have ostensibly been kidnapped and drained of blood by Albus as she seeks to solve the mystery of her erstwhile friend’s actions. The only way to achieve the true ending is by leaning in to the game’s RPG side and completing sidequests assigned by rescued villagers.

New locations appear on the map and can be selected as Shanoa advances in her quest. Source: GameXplain

Glyphs form the centerpiece of the game’s newest ability system, granting access to new skills and weapons when they are acquired and equipped by Shanoa. Level design is significantly more linear than any series entry since Castlevania: Legends, though the player can choose which stage to explore from an overworld map of Wygol’s surroundings; more stages become available as Shanoa defeats area bosses throughout the game. Foes are fewer in number than in recent Castlevania titles, though Shanoa’s health is correspondingly less abundant and enemies inflict more damage than they had in Igarashi’s other contributions to the franchise.

Bosses are fiercer than they had been in any other Igarashi-led Castlevania. Source: GameXplain

Order of Ecclesia proved to be one of the Castlevania series’ most critically successful releases. Its difficulty, rather than acting as a stumbling block, bridged the gap between the classic 2D titles with which fans had grown up and the engaging action-RPG elements which had defined the series since 1997. Koji Igarashi had ended his tenure as producer of the 2D series with a true classic.


Though Castlevania has produced its fair share of non-video game spinoffs over the years – including manga, pachinko machines, and a well-received Netflix television series by Adi Shankar – I will be focusing exclusively on spinoffs within the franchise’s native medium.

The first of these was not originally a Castlevania game at all. Haunted Castle, an arcade title released in 1988, was initially in development as an unrelated action-horror game. When it was still in an unfinished state six months into production, Konami opted to reskin it and retitle it as a Castlevania tie-in. Haunted Castle‘s final release resembles a graphically-enhanced interpretation of the first Castlevania game, with the player taking on six linear platforming stages as Simon Belmont. Its six stages are unique, though, and feature an even higher difficulty level than the series’ home console entries.

Dracula looks a little different in Haunted Castle. Source: MobyGames

The next Castlevania spinoff was a family-friendly platformer published exclusively in Japan on the Famicom in 1990. Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun is set 10,000 years into the future and stars a childlike version of Dracula as he attempts to regain his throne from a dinosaur named Galamoth. Its difficulty is lower than the core franchise, as it is directed towards a younger audience, and its mechanics feel closer to Capcom’s Mega Man than any other Castlevania title. The game’s chunky character sprites are cartoonish, apparently a parody of the gothic tropes which define its parent series. A Game Boy sequel called Kid Dracula was published internationally in 1993, while the Famicom original would be re-released on Japanese mobile phones in 2006 and then localized internationally for the first time as part of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection in 2019.

Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun is clearly a parody, but that didn’t keep its developers from creating some top-notch character sprites and stages. Source: SingingBrakeman

With mobile phones’ increasing ubiquity during the 2000s, Konami sought to exploit its IPs in new ways. Amidst its release of middling Castlevania ports developed by Glu Mobile, the studio turned to an internal team based in the United States to produce an entirely original side-scrolling title designed from the ground up for phones. The result was Castlevania: Order of Shadows (2007), a linear action platformer designed to evoke the franchise’s earliest entries.

Vertical orientation is a challenging aspect ratio for Order of Shadows. Source: MobyGames

Players take up the Vampire Killer whip as Desmond Belmont, a young man working with his sisters Zoe and Dolores to stop a sinister cult from resurrecting Dracula in the 1600s. The development team had originally planned to introduce a protagonist unrelated to the Belmont clan but eventually worked their narrative into the wider series mythos. In spite of oversight by Koji Igarashi, however, Order of Shadows would be omitted from the series’ official timeline alongside Castlevania: Legends and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.

Though Order of Shadows takes most of its inspiration from pre-Igarashi titles, it does feature dialogue and character stats in a manner reminiscent of later series entries. Source: MobyGames

Konami followed its most ambitious Castlevania mobile title with an iOS match-3 puzzle game featuring sprites drawn from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in 2010. Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night featured no involvement from veteran Castlevania staff and is, consequently, a generic experience connected with the Castlevania franchise through its art design alone. The game was de-listed from the Apple Store in 2016.

Players can cooperate to execute team attacks if in close proximity in Harmony of Despair. Source: MobyGames

The final 2D Castlevania spinoff at the time of writing is Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, a multiplayer action-RPG released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as a digital marketplace exclusive in 2010. Up to six players can connect using the Xbox Live or PlayStation Network online services and cooperatively explore six sprawling areas in the base game, acquiring equipment and treasure as they defeat enemies and bosses. The visual style is heavily influenced by Symphony of the Night, though it is the first 2D Castlevania to have been released for high-definition (HD) platforms.

When characters move away from one another in Harmony of Despair, the TV image actually expands to encompass the entire stage. Source: MobyGames

Harmony of Despair lacks any serious narrative development, instead referencing the series’ recent history through a structural conceit that brings together protagonists from various points in its timeline. Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Claudette Aulin, and Shanoa were available at launch, though additional characters and chapters have been added to the base game as downloadable content over time. Though the game has not been ported to more recent consoles, it was made accessible on the current generation of hardware through the Xbox One’s backwards compatibility program in 2019.


Castlevania contains multitudes. In spite of a seemingly limited premise – vampire hunter battles monsters in Dracula’s Castle – Konami has found ways to innovate and improve its popular IP over nearly three decades. Though its most controversial evolution would be the leap to 3D, as we will discuss in the next Franchise Festival, the shift from linear tough-as-nails platformer to Koji Igarashi’s “2D exploration action game” was nearly as momentous for the series’ long-term viability.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night represents a watershed moment in which the series transformed from an increasingly antiquated arcade ormula to one that could be iterated upon relentlessly over the following ten years. Its commercial prospects expanded dramatically in the 2000s, as did its critical plaudits, turning Igarashi into an industry legend in the process.

Still, this growth proved unsustainable and the franchise withered away following 2008’s exceptional Order of Ecclesia. Igarashi would leave Konami in 2014 to form his own studio and eventually crowdfund a largely successful Castlevania spiritual successor, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, in 2019. As with Wario Land, perhaps there is no room for Castlevania in the modern indie landscape. Metroid and Castlevania pioneered the “Metroidvania” platforming sub-genre employed by a staggering number of popular independent releases in the 2010s, with Axiom Verge (2013), Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (2014), Hollow Knight (2017), and Steamworld Dig 2 (2018) representing but a few. Even as it lies dormant, like Dracula himself, Castlevania continues to inspire excellence among its imitators.

What do you think about 2D Castlevania? Who is your favorite Belmont (or non-Belmont)? Do you wish that the series had stuck with its original style or perhaps evolved even more dramatically in the 2000s? What’s your least favorite way to fall into a bottomless pit?

Next week we’ll be covering the 3D entries in the Castlevania series. Here is a preview of other upcoming Franchise Festival topics (subject to change):

  • #71: Castlevania (3D) – October 11
  • #72: House of the Dead – October 18
  • #73: Clock Tower – October 25
  • #74: Uncharted – November 1
  • #75: Sonic the Hedgehog (2D) – November 8