I think it was while I was counting down my Top 25 Favourite Gaming Anthems (Part 1 here and Part 2 here) that I first noticed the unintentionally masochistic element in a lot of the games I’m partial too, which is surprising given how bad I generally am at them! Incidentally, that countdown is also the only time I’ve gone into my beloved Castlevania series here so far, when Divine Bloodlines from Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine came a close second to Commando on Commodore 64!
At some point we’ll definitely be coming back to both Super Castlevania IV on SNES and Symphony of the Night on the original PlayStation for a bit of a deep-dive into my two favourites, but for now we’re going to have a look at just about the last of them I’ve never spent a lot of time with… I was a bit of a late starter with Castlevania, as was the case with many console games, coming to it with Castlevania: The Adventure on Game Boy, then skipping its sequel to pick up again on the Game Boy Advance, with Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow, although it would take the 2021 Castlevania Advance Collection on Switch for me to actually finish them! In between, I’ve caught up with pretty much all of the rest, from NES onwards, just missing out on the Nintendo DS and Wii games for lack of owning them before their prices got out of control, as well as not really getting on with that Xbox one that has entire levels on a single screen! The rest though, with the possible exception of NES sequel Simon’s Quest and it’s incomprehensible puzzles, I pretty much adore, whether the classic platformers or the metroidvanias, but slightly less so the 3D ones! It’s a world I could happily live in, with its gothic opulence and Hammer Horror atmosphere, despite the often tear-your-hair-out difficulty!
Speaking of which, then there’s Haunted Castle! Although I have owned it on Switch as part of the Konami Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection since April 2019, and despite everything I’ve just said about Castlevania, apart from the first time I fired it up, I’ve never really had any great desire to do so again! There’s always been an inclination though, so I finally decided to bite the bullet, on the understanding that I could make it past stage one, because even by my standards there’s only so much I could talk about here if I didn’t!
As we’ve just established, Haunted Castle is an arcade spin on Castlevania, released by Konami in 1988, although it wasn’t the first – that honour goes to Vs. Castlevania, which was a North America-only arcade port of the 1986 NES original. Haunted Castle isn’t a port though, but a whole new side-scrolling (and sometimes up and down) platform adventure, designed specifically for arcade play and to take advantage of that hardware’s extra oomph.
As such, we’re also treated to an all-new story, involving you, original Castlevania and sequel protagonist Simon Belmont, out to rescue your brand-new bride Selena from the clutches of your nemesis Dracula. I really can’t put it any better than the official Konami take on it though… “Count Dracula sleeps for a long hundred of years. During this time, peace exists at the village and Dracula is nothing but a mere legend. However, one day a young couple named Simon and Selena were celebrating their wedding at the village’s church. The couple were enveloped with happiness, as the wedding bells rang, their future seemed blessed… Suddenly, the empty sky was covered with dark clouds and with a rolling thunder that shook the earth, Dracula has once again awakened. Asking for the beautiful girl’s blood, he flew down during the middle of the wedding and suddenly took the bride with him. Now in order to save Selena, Simon heads to the demon castle.”
After the brief graphical cutscene that explains all of that almost as succinctly, we’re in business and making our way across six stages that aren’t a million miles from that original NES game, starting in a graveyard and its various creepy catacombs, through the fog into fiery caverns and onto the castle’s decadent staterooms and corridors and crumbing ramparts towards Dracula’s lair. And good luck with that, because while other games in the series might have let you continue to your heart’s content after every game over, this one is letting you do it a maximum of three times, which includes the ability to fill up your health meter by feeding it money as an alternative – if you’re about to beat a boss, for example. And while other games in the series might also offer a level of fairness in the challenge, where you generally feel you’ll get by as you get better, this one is just outrageously difficult from the outset! And if you thought the amount of damage even first level enemies are going to do you was rough, just make sure you don’t mis-time a jump because that’s most likely going to mean even more immediate game over!
There does seem to be huge variation in difficulty depending on the version you play; until recently I’d ignored the Japanese version that was later added to that Konami compilation, but it turned out to be a bit more forgiving on enemy damage and checkpointing and continues, and that’s where I ended up finishing the game first. Up to then I’d mostly just played the first half of stage one of what I guess is the far more unwelcoming North American version over and over and over again! And that turned out to be mostly down to me though – I’m not defending the game at all, but once you’re through the graveyard in the first stage, you come to a mini-boss, which is a collapsing wall that hurls bricks at you as the rain starts pouring down for further distraction; now, I had no idea that whipping the bricks would stop their flight, and spent forever trying to time jumps and crouches around the onslaught! It doesn’t make it easy, but it helps, especially when your energy is already half-depleted before you even get there! Continue on, and you’ve got maybe werewolf things attacking you out of the trees with zero notice before you’re jumping between pillars, one of which causes the ground to catch fire, and falling down or even breathing too close to the dancing flames is a pretty certain game over. Keep going and you’ll reach the proper boss, Wicked Mermaid, although she seems to be Medusa, whose head you might know from generally flying about the place and being a real nuisance in most other Castlevanias! But that’s all assuming you kill the flurry of bats that are more than likely another game over opportunity just before she emerges from behind a giant cobweb! Once she’s in play though, she’ll come at you, releasing snakes at an interval I just couldn’t get my head around, but after loads more deaths and liberal use of jump-bomb-jump-bomb you might just about make it! Again, that’s the American version, normal difficultly, where I eventually got to stage three before jumping to Japanese because repeating stage one was actually kind of fun there where it just isn’t here even when you have nailed it! I’ll also note that there is an easy mode on the Konami compilation which maybe brings this version closer to the Japanese one, but does make the latter very beatable.
I did beat that one in the end on normal difficulty though (as well as the American one on easy), and based on that I have to say that Haunted Castle’s reputation for its stinky difficulty level is pretty much all founded in that first level! Repetition rather than skill means on American normal mode I can get past the wall with minimal damage now, and then get to Medusa mostly intact apart from a bit of bat damage, but I’ll generally be low on energy if I do beat her, which still isn’t guaranteed even though I know exactly how to! On all versions you do then get a bit of an energy boost while on the classic Castlevania between level progress map before embarking on stage two though. And if you’ve come this far with your credits intact, from here onwards it turns out that the game is actually well balanced (for a Castlevania!) with a bit of practice too – who’d have believed that! That said, there’s still a couple of notable, absolutely rotten difficulty spikes left… The first is around half way, where you’re climbing a grand, winding staircase (or at least a 2D representation of one), and where you need to get off, just before the top, is a knight and a leaping hunchback thing. And it’s almost impossible to get off because the awkward controls just don’t want you to! Continuing to climb onto a platform is an option, and actually this allows you to leap over that first knight, but then all hell breaks loose and suddenly there’s a ridiculous amount of enemies coming at you from everywhere! Then near the end of the game there’s a section where you’re automatically being propelled upwards towards your final destiny, flying past a load of platforms that you need to try and avoid getting your head whacked by, but there’s almost no way to avoid a lot of them even when you’ve worked out which direction you need to move in next. And that’s not what you need in preparation for your final showdown, or so you might think…
For all of the game’s difficulty and occasional unfairness, apart from what is potentially just my own inability to nail the timing for Medusa and her snakes, the rest of the bosses are, in the main, not so bad, and none more so than Dracula himself! This is in no small part down to being spoon-fed the right power-up just before each one, although the hearts you need to quickly collect from fallen enemies are a lot more scarce, and often tantalising out of reach behind another enemy as they disappear! I won’t turn this into a walkthrough, but as an example, in stage two you can stop time, meaning you can stop the bone dragon mid-flight and whack him quickly before he comes back to life. Then there’s a stone giant that needs a projectile to reach, like the boomerang you’re conveniently now holding, but for some of the other bosses, you can also happily beat them without any power-up at all – there’s a stained-glass solider that you simply avoid and whack, or for Frankenstein’s Monster you can pretty much run up and whack him too, pausing to avoid the odd bit of falling debris as you go. I’m not a fan of boss fights, so the easier the better as far as I’m concerned, but even I was a bit underwhelmed with the final boss, where an imposing Dracula disappears into a cloud of bats that only take a few hits of your cross power-up to become his final form, a colossal vampire head that’s just as easily dispatched. A regular Castlevania end-game cutscene later, and you’re back at the start for round two!
Apart from Dracula and Frankenstein, the bosses here do set Haunted Castle apart from the mainline games, though the majority of the regular enemies are going to be familiar, albeit with a twist sometimes, for example the skeletons that return a second after you kill them as a laughing, flying, almost unavoidable ghost. Otherwise, there’s the usual menagerie of bats, zombies, flea-men, mermen, mummies, knights and the like that you’ll be taking care of with your trusty whip at the beginning, but you can upgrade this to a spikey ball and chain or a sword as you go. Although the locations are pretty familiar, there’s decent variety in the gameplay throughout the six levels, veering from combat-focussed to a bit of straightforward fighting and jumping across platforms, to navigating moving platforms. And not forgetting that crappy on-rails upward scrolling impossible-to-avoid ’em up! Or maybe it’s just me being crap at games, although give a monkey a typewriter and sooner or later he’ll turn into Shakespeare, or something like that, so it seems!
Whilst you might not find any joy in Haunted Castle’s difficulty, you most certainly will find it in its aesthetics! And if you’re going to get stuck anywhere, the first level here is as good a place as any, beginning in front of a blazing sunset casting its orange glow from behind the mountains and onto the village behind you and the mass of crooked gravestones around you, before becoming purple as the mountains become more stark and the torrential rain starts to fall, welcoming that flying brickwork! From there, you’re treated to flames engulfing the swaying grasses, preceding the surprise terror attacks of those werewolves hidden in the shadows of the forest. The next stage begins with a primitive but effective fog not quite masking the terrors of Castle Dracula in the distance, before going underground and into a mass of supernatural tree roots hanging over a torrent of lava, before leading your through rocky caverns and into my favourite part of the whole game… The second half of stage two involves some precarious platforming across some petrified tree stumps topped with a metallic green moss, all reflected in a glistening, deadly pool below you, and backed by the most gorgeous flaming, volcanic sky. The castle is unmistakably Castlevania, but making the most of the arcade hardware to be both more grandiose in design and more corrupt in its details than previous games in the series. There’s a lot more to see in the character sprites too, which get some lovely detailing and highlighting on clothes especially, as well as subtle animations
There’s a fantastic moment in stage three, where you’re in some kind of decaying banquet room, and you walk past a huge portrait on the wall that’s crying blood, and it reprises a familiar tune from Simon’s Quest (and all over the place in later games), Bloody Tears. The music throughout is absolutely gorgeous, which is no surprise, but that arcade hardware allows for some real meat in the basslines, and an extra shimmer to the melodies, and they’re then perfectly layered to add tension and loads of variety to the overall gothic atmosphere. Sound effects have a real heft to them too, taking whatever booming magic is behind those basslines and turning it into a very sinister and thunderous thump, or the properly gutteral sounds coming from some of the monsters. And when everything combines, and you’ve got one of the more dynamic themes playing over the sickening whipping noise coming out of that ball and chain you’re flinging about at some undead thing shambling in front of a grand candlelit chandelier, you’ve died and truly gone to Castlevania heaven. For a few seconds at least, before you actually die. Again!
I think there’s a fine line between masochism and stubbornness when it comes to difficult video games. Back when Manic Miner was the only game you were getting between Christmas and your birthday, you had no choice, but with Haunted Castle I think there’s a bit of both! Stage one was certainly stubbornness – I paid good (day one) money for that Konami arcade collection, and while I might have got thirty hours of play out of Nemesis, Scramble and TwinBee alone, it’s all or nothing where cash is concerned! After that, though – apart from those ridiculous intentional or unintentional difficulty spikes – I’m not so sure; I kind of liked it, and I definitely liked beating it even if it was an easier ROM than I’d started on, so let’s stick on some stubbornness with a bit of sado-masochism on the side! Would I recommend it to a normal person though? Well, if you’ve run out of other Castlevanias, of course, but if you’re still to play Super Castlevania IV or Symphony of the night, maybe go there first. And if you’re still not sure, I promise I’ll come back and convince you on those very soon!