Holy Diver

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Holy Diver Famicom game cover

Holy Diver is quite possibly one of the hardest retro games in existence. So why is it fun to get your ass kicked in this Castlevania clone?

Console Nintendo Famicom
Developer Irem
Publisher Irem
Genre Platformer, action
Release Year 1989
Purchase (Famicom) Purchase from eBay.
Holy Diver~
You’ve been down too long in the midnight sea~
Oh, what’s becoming of me~
Ride the tiger~
You can see his stripes but you know he’s clean~
Oh, don’t you see what I mean~
Gotta get away~
Holy Diver~


Yeah, obvious joke is obvious. Obviously.

So, guess what? There’s an 8-bit game called Holy Diver! Crazy, right? Who would’ve thought there would be a video game based on Ronnie James Dio’s Holy Diver album?

Well, this is more or less correct. Apparently, the game has no “official connections” to the album even though the game contains numerous references to Dio and heavy metal in general. It’s a safe assumption that the game’s title is deliberately referring to the famous heavy metal album.

And just look at the game’s cover. Then compare to the Holy Diver album art.

Dio Holy Diver album art

Yeah, even the game’s cover looks like it could belong to a heavy metal album. But little did you know, you could be looking at one of the hardest 8-bit games you’ll ever play.


Nintendo Famicom vs. NES

Nintendo Famicom vs. NES

People have known the NES library to be the home to some of the most infamously hard games in the world, but some games exclusive to the Nintendo Famicom even top those monsters in difficulty.

Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels gameplay

The most recognizable of these types of games is Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, best known as Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan. The original game was difficult but the sequel made it seem like a walk in the park in comparison. With multiple death traps and beginner’s traps that make you want to rip your hair out, it’s truly one of the most evil Mario games released by Nintendo.

Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryuu to Hikari no Tsurugi reinforcements

The only other game I played for the Famicom (at the time I’m writing this…) was the very first Fire Emblem, which I found to be one of the most difficult tactical RPGs I ever played and one of the most difficult in the Fire Emblem series.


So basically, we’re going to look at yet another one of those “no fucking around” type of games. Now is the time to jump on the tiger, because that is going to be the LEAST of your worries when playing a game like this!


Descent into Video Gaming Hell

Holy Diver Famicom title screen

Man, that title screen honestly looks pretty sweet for the 8-bit era. It gives you the sense that you’re going to be preparing for one HELL of a trip. And I literally mean HELL.

So yeah, here’s our backstory to the game. You’re playing as a sorcerer named Randy (a reference to Randy Rhoads, a guitarist who played with Ozzy Osbourne and Quiet Riot) and your job is to collect five emblem seals of the King Crimson family. Then you have to confront some evil emperor known as the Black Slayer and restore your family lineage.

Well, let’s get a move on! I’m ready for some metal!

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay

Well, here it is. Holy Diver for the Nintendo Famicom.

On its surface, Holy Diver looks and feels like a Castlevania game. The platforming is nearly identical, though you can control Randy during mid-jump. And instead of a whip, Randy shoots magical fire in three different directions. All you do is move through the stage and defeat its boss, then go to the next stage.

However, there are some differences. The gameplay is noticeably faster-paced, with enemies charging in quick. There is also a magic system similar to the one used in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, though there is no RPG element to it.

So at first, the game doesn’t seem so bad. The graphics look pretty nice, containing demonic imagery and hellish landscapes. The music, though it only has a few tracks, is pretty cool. It certainly doesn’t fuck around on the first stage, but it’s still beatable with enough diligence. Even the boss is pretty easy to beat. So, you get your first new spell: Blizzard. Pretty satisfying.

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay

But then, things take a turn for the worse in stage 2. This is where you fight imp archers, eyeballs and blistering ballsacks. If you’re smart, you would know that you need to get through much of the stage using the new Blizzard spell, which freezes lava and puts most enemies to a complete stop. However, the enemies have gotten more unpredictable and skittish.

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay

As you approach the end of the stage, you encounter the first irritating enemy in the game: a fire beast (undead dragon?) that quickly shoots fire. Unlike many weak enemies in the game, the Blizzard spell has no effect on this enemy so you have no choice but to kill it. And you have to fight a few of them in a row while other enemies are on the screen too. Jesus…

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay second boss

And then you fight the boss, which is this weird flesh with an alien-demon face. While you can destroy the boss’s projectiles, they come in really fast and do quite a bit of damage. It’s honestly quite unfair. But after some fucking around, I discovered that there’s an easy way to kill this boss.

Before the boss spawns, you can move behind him and he won’t harm you. That way, he can’t hit you at all after he spawns and he’s just a sitting duck.

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay

And then, stage 3. Here, you will encounter many fast-moving enemies that will swarm all over you. The Freeze spell works favorably for the first part of the level.

Also, remember those tough fire beasts you had to face before? Well, there are even more enemies like that. And you have to face a LOT OF THEM in this stage. So many that it kills the framerate when they’re all on the screen at once.

And from there, that’s when Holy Diver just constantly tells you to go fuck yourself for the rest of the game.

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay

And I’m not saying that lightly. There are regular enemies in this game that are even harder than the bosses. Probably the best example here is the golem enemy in Stage 4. The very first one you encounter drops an important powerup that you need to finish the stage, where you change into a dragon to fly over a large gap. However, this fucking asshole fires two different types of projectiles. They’re powerful and hard to predict. Even worse, the golem has a lot of hitpoints. And if he falls off the platform, you have to respawn him and fight him again. What the actual fuck.


Hell is an Understatement

At this point, Holy Diver just stops giving anything resembling a fair challenge. The difficulty does NOT loosen up, not even a little bit. Even when you manage to get through an extremely difficult stage, you’re faced with an extremely difficult boss.

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay

This column of eyeballs is, in my opinion, the cheapest asshole in the game. In this particular boss fight, there are several floating platforms that you can jump across over a bottomless pit. 95% of the time, a single hit from the boss will push you into your doom.

The problem here is that the boss’s projectiles come in too fast to dodge, so it’s likely that you’re going to die A LOT against this bastard. The fact that you had to go through a terribly difficult stage to fight this boss is more than enough an average gamer can bear, so losing here is just the absolute most frustrating feeling.

The Overdrive spell should do okay in this fight, but still. Go to hell, you giant stone dick.

But the heartbreaking truth here? We’re just barely halfway done with the game!

From this point on, you need to bring out your best spells possible and pray to your god for an enemy to drop a magic potion. You should now have the powerful Thunder spell, which can bring down tough enemies in one or two strikes—but of course, Thunder consumes a lot of magic.

You need to collect every permanent health powerup (red jars) and permanent magic powerup (wings) to increase your chances of survival. Every bit of it. Because if you think they will make the game significantly easier, hehe…

But at least you’ll live a little longer.

This goes without saying, but Holy Diver is what I call BULLSHITLY HARD. And I mean, going past very hard and extremely hard. It’s easily one of the hardest games I ever played in my life, rivaled by the likes of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Sorry, but I’m going to have to channel Angry Video Game Nerd here…

Holy Diver? More like Holy Shit!

Castlevania may have been a tough game not for the faint of heart, but practice and patience will eventually make you very good at the game. Holy Diver, cut from the same cloth as it may be, is not exactly the same way. Combined with…

  • No Mercy Invincibility frames
  • Knockback after getting hit
  • Regular enemies (particularly, the golems) that take a huge amount of damage to die
  • Regular enemies that inflict a huge amount of damage (starting with those fire beasts in the second stage)
  • Enemy attack patterns can be unpredictable
  • Absurdly difficult boss fights, some of which rely on a lot on cheap shots

…This game makes Castlevania seem like a joke. “Oh, you beat Castlevania? Big deal. REEL GAMURZ can beat Holy Diver and Ghosts ‘n Goblins without dying!”

Now don’t take me too seriously. If you feel that Holy Diver is an unfair game, I agree. This game can even make the most seasoned gamers throw their controllers in frustration. A single mistake can easily kill you and enemies can gang up on you without a second thought. To even get good in this game, you need lightning-fast reflexes and godly aim with your standard attacks. And of course, use magic every tough opportunity you get. And if you can do this and conquer the game, then you deserve a fucking gold medal.

Holy Diver Famicom gameplay final boss

And like games that troll you with absurd difficulty (I’m looking at you, Ghosts ‘n Goblins), Holy Diver decided to make the final boss easy.

Well, technically, if you try to fight the boss without spells, it’s an extremely difficult fight. But if you have plenty of magic left, you can bring it down by spamming the Thunder Spell. When you get to the second phase of this battle, you just need to keep firing at its weak spot as a dragon and it will go down quickly. Then, congratulations. You have completed one of the most difficult retro games in existence.

While Holy Diver can be an enjoyable platformer, I seriously can’t recommend it for just anyone. This game is for the most sadomasochistic of platformer fans. Even when you have the convenience of save states assisting you, Holy Diver STILL kicks your ass. It’s absolutely ridiculous on how unfair the difficulty gets. But if you’re feeling brave enough to ride the tiger and visit the midnight sea, then game on, my friend.

Holy Diver

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  • The gameplay is pretty straightforward like Castlevania, but has more depth with its magic system.
  • The graphics can look really good, especially in the middle stages.
  • The chiptunes are pretty cool.
  • The subtle references to heavy metal and hard rock figures are a joy to behold.


  • Enemies are generally unpredictable in both attack pattern and where they're going.
  • No Mercy Invincibility frames for you!
  • Knockback effect after getting hit.
  • Absurdly difficult boss fights, some of which rely on a lot on cheap shots.
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