Haunted Castle is a strange early Castlevania game, down to its localized name change, weird American promotional poster, and presentation.
|Console||Arcade, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 4|
|Publisher||Konami, Hamster Corporation (PS2)|
|Release Year||1988, 2006, 2016 – 2017|
|Purchase (PS4)||Purchase from PlayStation Store.|
Oh, what in fresh hell is this now? What is with that super cheesy North American flyer of the game? Like, really?
I don’t know if it’s possible to make a Castlevania game any less cool. But then again, Maria Renarde in Rondo of Blood happened.
Yes, I said “Castlevania” game. There’s an arcade game with a generic name like Haunted Castle that is actually considered to be part of the Castlevania series. I don’t even know, guys. There’s just something off about this title.
So what we’re looking at is basically Akumajō Dracula, the arcade game. And there are a total of FIVE games with that title in Japan: this game, the original NES game called Castlevania, the obscure MSX game called Vampire Killer, Super Castlevania IV, and the Sharp X68000 game that would later be called Castlevania Chronicles for the PS1. Christ. I’m glad all of these games got different names outside of Japan, because every one of them is a distinctly different game. Worse yet, they’re all retellings of the same story.
At this point, I consider myself a solid enough fan of the Castlevania series. I played and reviewed some of the most obscure titles from the series, with games like Vampire Killer, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, Castlevania Legends and Castlevania: Bloodlines. And as of now, I’m adding Haunted Castle to the list.
So a quick bit of history. Haunted Castle is a game running on custom JAMMA-based hardware that was difficult to develop on. It came out a year after the mediocre Simon’s Quest. Conceptually, Haunted Castle didn’t start off as a Castlevania title. But at the time, Konami’s arcade dev team was working on a horror action game and wanted to add a Gothic atmosphere to it, so it took direct inspiration from the original Castlevania. The game went through a stressful development cycle with a small staff in a six-month period. It was bad enough to the point where a dev team from a different Konami project (Hot Chase) had to jump in to help out. So in a crunch period that lasted about a month or two, the game was fine-tuned but didn’t leave room for major changes. And despite the game still being incomplete, Konami released it into the arcades anyway. And the result? Poor critical reception and low success in arcades.
The game resurfaced on a Japanese disc for the PlayStation 2 called Oretachi Gēsen Zoku Sono, which is a compilation of various arcade games from different developers and published by Hamster Corporation. And more recently, the game is made available for the PlayStation 4 internationally, which is by far the most accessible method of obtaining the game.
What does Haunted Castle have in store for us? Well… weirdness, for starters.
Dracula, the Wedding Crasher
So here’s the premise of Haunted Castle, and it’s one of the weirdest ones in the series yet. Simon Belmont, the main hero of Castlevania and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, was going to be wed to a woman named Selena. Then the sky randomly turned dark, lightning struck a church, and Count Dracula appeared out of nowhere and took his fiancé.
You know what this silly intro reminded me of? The beginning of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You know, when a devil randomly shows up and kidnaps your girlfriend.
Really now, what is with these old horror arcade games and kidnapping the love of your life? Even Splatterhouse did this!
So, we’re really going down that damsel-in-distress route, huh? Count Dracula wanted to kidnap the bride of a particular vampire hunter. And of course, that vampire hunter got pissed off and primed himself to kill some nasty beasties. I guess Dracula conquering the planet with an army of undead soldiers is a side note here. But hey, who’s keeping track?
So right off the get-go, Haunted Castle definitely looks like your average Castlevania title. In fact, this is the first game in the series to have more advanced graphical capabilities, the likes of which we wouldn’t see until Super Castlevania IV in 1991.
But when people say graphics don’t make a game, they really mean it. And Haunted Castle is a prime example on why this is true.
While the game looks like Castlevania, it doesn’t quite play like Castlevania. At first, it seems like it. Simon Belmont can attack with his signature whip and jump. The enemies he kills are all manners of monsters and undead creatures.
Simon can also upgrade his whip, which will become a morning star in STAGE=02. And then a sword in STAGE=03. Wait, what?
Yeah. For one of the more questionable choices of weapons in Haunted Castle, Simon gets a red sword as his final upgrade. It’s not that I don’t think Simon should use a sword, but it’s the logic behind the upgrade. It’s like turning a dagger into a lance. It’s just random.
Speaking of random, the sub-weapons make a return in Haunted Castle, but not exactly in the way you remember them. You know what they usually are, right? Throwing daggers, holy water, a boomerang cross, a lobbing axe, etc. Plus you need to collect hearts as ammunition to use them (instead of whipping candles, you get hearts from defeated enemies). But instead of those older sub-weapons, we got…
- Bombs – throw at an enemy in an arc and explodes in one spot; similar to Holy Water in other games
- Torches – basically the same as bombs, so why does this exist?
- Boomerang – throw straight at an enemy; similar to the Cross in past games, but doesn’t come back to you for some odd reason
- Cross – fires two rows of crosses at an enemy; oddly enough, completely different from the Cross in other games
- Timer – freezes enemies for a few seconds; exactly like the Stopwatch in other games
Yeah… I’m not sure why this game decided to go with unique sub-weapons different from other Castlevania titles, but at least they’re there. So far, so good. It seems like the basic motifs of the series are here. So what’s the problem again?
Well, for one thing, the level design. It’s very flat and uninspired. I’m not exaggerating when I say half of the stages is just moving in a straight line while occasionally fighting enemies.
Wow. This game has a big thing in common with Castlevania: The Adventure. Bare bones and mostly empty levels!
And as I continued my playthrough of Haunted Castle, I noticed something odd. The game starts off brutally hard right away. To illustrate, your beginning HP is 16. Bats running into you will only inflict 2 HP of damage. But if the other enemies hurt you, they take away 8 HP.
HALF OF YOUR WHOLE HEALTH BAR.
Okay, I’m aware that arcade cabinets were supposed to be quarter-munching hogs back in the ’80s and ’90s, but what is this shit? Did Haunted Castle take another page from Ghosts ‘n Goblins with the “2 hits = death” approach?
Well… sort of. It is by coincidence that I started with the hardest version of Haunted Castle, which is version M. This is one of the three overseas versions of the game, out of a total of five (two of which are Japanese).
So there are versions M, K and E for overseas. M is the hardest with enemies inflicting a ridiculous amount of damage with each attack. K and E provide a more fair challenge, with the most obvious change being that enemies inflict far less damage. Then there are versions N and P for Japan, which are even easier; falling into pits don’t kill you, but instead start you back at the previous checkpoint.
Speaking of which, the game has checkpoints at specific areas in the stages. So whenever you die and use up a continue, you get to start over. But it looks like there is only one checkpoint per stage. And I guess depending on which version of Haunted Castle you’re playing, this could be either really annoying (because they’re spaced far apart) or just, “Mmkay.”
Graphically, Haunted Castle looks okay for its time and it can even look outright impressive. But there are certainly moments in the game where you feel that its overall look is incomplete and rough around the edges. For example, Simon Belmont’s walking animation just looks so awkward, as if he just dumped ass.
This looks like a nice mountainside with a courtyard transitioning to some woods. But if you look at the bottom-left corner, you will notice that the grass has obscured the “STAGE=01” text. For whatever reason, this text is not on the topmost graphical layer, something that really should be an easy fix.
Or how about drawing on a solid color with a bunch of random lines and call it a wall? Seriously, my eyes are bleeding here. I guess you could say I have…
YES! THE CRINGE IS REAL! THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT!
And how about we add a good segway while we’re at it?
STAGE=03 has a portrait of a woman literally crying bloody tears. And the stage music… is actually a remix of “Bloody Tears” from Simon’s Quest. So in case if you’re ever doubting that this is a Castlevania game and not some copycat, here is proof.
And while we’re on the subject of music, it’s probably the best thing about Haunted Castle. The compositions themselves are really good, even eventually getting remixes later in the series. “Cross Your Heart” is a good first stage theme.
And there is also “Don’t Wait Until Night,” which eventually gets mixed into “Heart of Fire,” creating the theme of Julius Belmont later in the series. I’d put this song up there with some of the most badass Castlevania songs in the series.
The sound design is alright too, though there is a questionable choice of a sound effect in the game. More specifically, the part in STAGE=02 where you would had to dodge falling rocks. When the rocks land on the ground, they make a cartoonish “CLUNK!” sound like you’d hear from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon like The Flintstones. I know this is a weird nitpick, but I just find it hilariously out of place in a game like this.
Love or Hate?
Going back to some of the game’s major flaws, let’s discuss continues. The game only allows three per playthrough, meaning you can only die four times. Once you used up all of the continues, you restart at the beginning regardless of the amount of progress you made. And that’s bullshit.
Furthermore, the game gives you the ability to use up your credits to heal yourself (+16 HP) for a maximum total of 64 HP. However, doing so will decrease your number of continues. So if you decided to use all of your credits to heal yourself, dying once will force you to start a new playthrough. Again, bullshit.
So basically, to do a full run on a real arcade machine, you’d have to spend up to $1.00 (four quarters/credits) per playthrough. And if you had 64 HP and died by falling into a pit, you would have a wasted a whole dollar. When you really want to beat this game and you’re playing version M of Haunted Castle, hoo… you’re going to leave a very depressed wallet in a matter of minutes.
Even on easier versions, Haunted Castle is not exactly a walk in the park. But for Japan’s versions N and P, falling into a pit doesn’t kill you, therefore you won’t waste money from a cheap death.
And even with that in mind, Haunted Castle isn’t a well-designed game. Rather than a matter of skill or luck, memorization of the game’s hazards will carry you through the whole playthrough.
Yeah, the game has some cheap scripted hazards, like statues tipping over into the foreground or a torch randomly setting the whole ground on fire. Or a room where the floor pushes upward and you’d have to dodge the incoming platforms above you. These hiccups of game design are beginner’s traps that will most likely hurt you the first time around. But once you see them coming, they’re not a threat to you.
You’ll also notice that Haunted Castle can be surprisingly merciful despite its punishing fake difficulty. Remember the infamous “knockback” effect that plagued so many older platformers? Oddly enough, it’s not present in this game. At least, while you’re on the ground. If you jump while locked into a certain direction, I guess you could call it a knockback afterwards? So most of the time, what happens is that Simon stays in place with a “damaged” state after taking hits. At least most of the time, you don’t have to worry about getting knocked into a pit.
And in the event that you die and lose a continue, you get to retain your upgraded whip (or I guess, sword) and sub-weapon. And even in some versions of the game, you maintain your hearts too. So at least the game doesn’t set you up for failure for your next attempt.
And I’m not exactly sure about this, but I believe you also regain health after completing a stage. But not always though. It seems whether you get it or not (and the amount you get back) is random. Aside from using your credits to heal yourself, this is the only time you get healed—since the game doesn’t feature breakable walls with magic healing porkchops in them.
Why can’t I hurt this giant turd golem?
While Haunted Castle has boring level designs, questionable hazards, and limited continues, probably the worst thing about its gameplay is its lousy hit detection.
Seriously, it’s even worse here than in Vampire Killer or Dracula X. Sometimes, my attacks have dodgy collision detection and don’t hit enemies like they should. I tend to see this problem the most with bats and bosses. The boss of STAGE=04, a giant golem, has weird hit detection for some reason. I can’t tell if its weak point is its face, its fist, or what. And to further confuse you, the golem has no death animation upon defeat.
And for some reason, Simon has a large hitbox. It’s bad enough to the point where he doesn’t necessarily have to touch an enemy directly, but rather just enter its vicinity to receive damage.
Probably the worst example I found here is one specific part in STAGE=03, where you’re warped into a mirror world and you must defeat three harpies. Most of the time, trying to kill the harpies without taking damage is near impossible because they take multiple hits to die. But I found a trick where you could kill them without taking damage: by moving behind them, then strike when they’re at around your height. For some reason, this works effectively.
The boss fights are somewhat interesting, though they can be too easy if you have the right sub-weapons with you. Medusa is much easier to kill with Bombs, the Timer makes the bone dragon into a complete joke, and Frankenstein’s monster will easily die to the Cross sub-weapon. The Golem seems to be the only boss with no obvious weak points because of the crappy hitboxes. It’s hard to say how much damage these bosses take when you attack them, because they seem to go down quickly.
When you somehow make it to the final stage, you’ll realize just how disappointing the whole experience is. Basically, STAGE=06 is just a straight shot to the Dracula final boss fight. The whole gimmick is that you must continue moving forward without falling from the crumbling castle bridge.
And of course, the level has to throw bats at you during specific points. To kill them without taking damage, you’d have to cherry-pick very specific points to jump and attack with your sword. If you fail to do this, you’re either going to stop where you are for a moment to kill a bat or take damage.
That’s basically 90% of this level. Walking and trying to dodge bats without falling.
The crumbling castle bridge is a nice setpiece that we would see in later games like Super Castlevania IV and Castlevania Chronicles. And generally, executed better. But in Haunted Castle, it’s a gimmick that seemed to excuse itself from constructing a proper level.
Then you fight Count Dracula. In his base form, he stays in the air for most of the time and has a tough time actually hitting you. Once you beat him, he turns into this hilariously bad final form: A giant head that might as well be a big red target that says, “Here. Kill me.” It’s almost as cheesy as the giant Dracula painting in Vampire Killer.
Dracula’s only attack as a giant floating head is spitting a single bat at you. If you have the Cross sub-weapon, he is super easy. No joke, but Haunted Castle’s version of Dracula is probably the easiest battle I ever played in the whole series. And that is saying something with a game series with both fantastic and terrible final boss fights.
So the game ends with Simon and Selena watching Dracula’s castle sink into a lake. And that’s it. No credits. The game just restarts you on a second round with slightly harder difficulty. Then you play until you use up your credits and possibly get a high score.
So that is Haunted Castle. Well… it’s not as mind-bendingly terrible as I was fearing/hoping for? Still, this is not a good title.
As the first arcade game based on the Castlevania series, it could’ve been much worse. And it’s certainly not near the worst arcade games of all time.
Haunted Castle definitely could’ve been a better game had Konami given the development team more time and manpower to complete it. But because of the short deadlines, it came out as a very flawed title that deservedly became obscure. It was a definitely a step in the right direction in certain aspects, but Super Castlevania IV would do a better job years later.
Nowadays, more game developers are realizing that time is a precious resource for projects. And if they want to succeed in making a good product, they may have to compromise and extend deadlines to come up with better games. While not every developer/publisher follows this trend, it’s good to see that more companies realize the folly of trying to sell rushed and incomplete products to dissatisfied gamers. And with the power of the Internet, user reviews and critic reviews are much more accessible than ever.
You could tell that Haunted Castle was a rush job and even Konami did a half-assed job in promoting it at the time. Nowadays, it’s just an interesting relic of the bygone days where a trip to the arcades was much more commonplace as a way to kill time after school. And even with mediocre arcade games like these, they surprisingly still make some great childhood memories.
- Decent graphics and animations for the time, though some aspects of them look incomplete.
- Overall fantastic soundtrack that even featured a great remix of "Bloody Tears." Decent sound design as well.
- The gameplay can be a bit forgiving at times, such as no knockback effect or retaining your items after death.
- Any version of the game other than M overall grants you an okay experience with the game.
- Flat and uninspired level design, where half of the levels is just walking forward.
- Version M of the game is nearly unplayable for beginners due to the ridiculous damage output from enemies and hazards.
- Only three continues per playthrough, meaning you must restart from the beginning if you die four times. Healing yourself with credits will decrease your continues.
- The game's design relies too much on memorization of hazards rather than skill or luck.
- Terrible hit detection.