Castlevania: A Dracula Masterpiece 90 Years in the Making
The making of Castlevania is the story of a game 90 years in the making.
We don’t know what the weather was like in the U.K. on May 26, 1897. A romantic individual, however, might say that all throughout the nation, it was a dark and stormy night. After all, that was the day a man named Bram Stoker, a business manager for the popular Lyceum Theatre, finally published the book that would turn him into a horror legend.
On May 1, 1987, almost 90 years to the day of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Konami released Castlevania in North America. The studio’s timing was as deliberate as its game design. Castlevania was meant to pay homage to Dracula and the popular horror universe the book had cultivated since its initial release.
That same romantic individual from earlier might tell you that the release of Castlevania symbolized the passing of a torch. Just as Dracula helped pioneer a horror renaissance in literature and film, Castlevania would become the basis for a revolution in horror gaming. The truth, however, is not quite as simple as that.
Neither Dracula or Castlevania were entirely the first of their kind. Bram Stoker did not invent the idea of the vampire, nor did he ever claim to. That honor is a little tricky to pin on any one individual, but one of the first documented works of fiction to tackle the subject was a 1748 poem known as The Vampire written by Heinrich August Ossenfelder. That poem, and a brief vampire craze in the early 1700s, was inspired by the rumors that two exhumed corpses in Serbia may have been vampires. Even in his time, Stoker was beaten to the publishing punch by Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a story about a lesbian vampire, and John William Polidori’s 1819 classic, The Vampyre.
Similarly, Castlevania was far from the first game to feature horror elements. What initially separated the game from the pack, however, were its influences and genre. Unlike games such as Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari that had attempted to capitalize on the latest horror hits, Castlevania’s influences can be traced back to the Universal era of horror films. It also didn’t try to scare players like 1986’s Uninvited did but rather take them on an adventure filled with allusions to classic horror. As part of the second wave of NES releases in North America, Castlevania’s approach to this subject matter helped it to become one of the first notable action platformer titles.
Dracula benefited from the same approach. It was published at a time when Victorian readers were obsessed with good adventure novels, which would help to explain why Stoker wrote Dracula to be just as much of an adventure story as a horror novel. The book was frightening to be sure (it was, perhaps, the scariest book of its time), but readers and critics back then were just as likely to speak fondly of Dracula’s more exciting moments as they were its macabre aspects.
One of the reasons why Dracula worked as an adventure novel was because of the character Abraham Van Helsing. Van Helsing was one of the first characters in all of vampire fiction that seemed capable of, and willing to, directly oppose these creatures of the night. He and his band of fellow hunters travel the world to confront Dracula and his vampire horde. This idea of a vampire hunter also allowed Stoker to craft a vampire that was worthy of hunting. His Dracula had many weaknesses for Van Helsing to exploit but was also capable of a great many powers that previous vampires did not necessarily possess. It is the dynamic of these two characters that allowed Dracula to function as a tale of good vs. evil.
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The benefits of this approach were not lost on Castlevania’s development team, who recognized that the idea of a vampire hunter vs. the world’s most feared vampire was a tremendous premise for an action game. They chose to use Dracula himself as the series’ main villain but refrained from having their game star Van Helsing. Instead, they created the very Van Helsing-like Simon Belmont, a member of a line of vampire hunters who must destroy Dracula when he rises every 100 years. Despite the fact that Simon’s primary weapon is a whip and Van Helsing never wielded one (that is most likely a reference to Indiana Jones), the two characters do share a fondness for wooden stakes, holy water, and killing vampires no matter what the risk.
Simon Belmont had to deal with a far wider variety of horrors than Van Helsing ever did, though. In his quest to reach the peak of Dracula’s castle and take down the lord of all vampires, Belmont encounters zombies, ghouls, skeletons, birds, and suits of armor. Even those are just the appetizers for the game’s boss fights, which feature game adaptations of some of horror’s most famous creations, like the Grim Reaper, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s monster. The inclusion of these creatures feels surprisingly organic. After all, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and the Mummy are all forever tied together by their film appearances during the Universal Pictures golden age of horror films.
What’s interesting about the inclusion of those iconic monsters in Castlevania and their shared legacy with the world’s most famous vampire is that neither Stoker or anyone from his estate ever intended for Dracula to become part of film history at all.
Bram Stoker may have wanted to see Dracula become a hit, but that did not come to pass during his time. Those that read the book at the time of its release could not stop praising it, but that didn’t translate into incredible sales. Its eventual entry into the public conscience can actually partially be attributed to a legal battle that ensued over the distribution of the 1922 film, Nosferatu (which was something of an unofficial adaptation of Dracula). As a result of that case, all prints of Nosferatu were ordered destroyed despite the fact that the movie was already an international success. Fortunately for film history, a print was discovered in the 1960s. As for that more famous 1931 adaptation of the book, Universal Pictures is the only studio to have paid for the film rights to the Dracula novel, although it subsequently was forced early into the public domain due to a clerical error in the U.S. publication of the book.
Because of the late success of Dracula (and other life occurrences), Stoker ended up going nearly broke. Stoker died before ever knowing the impact Dracula would have on the world. At one point, his wife, Florence Balcombe, even ended up selling Stoker’s handwritten novel notes at a Sotheby’s auction in 1912. She received just over 2 pounds for what would now be considered by many to be a nearly priceless treasure.
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Castlevania would suffer a similar, and morbidly appropriate given its shared history with Dracula, fate. Castlevania was met with critical acclaim both at the time of its release and thereafter. Fans who were able to navigate past its brutal difficulty soon fell in love with its horrific charms and classic adventure sensibilities (much like Dracula‘s original readers). The game’s sales don’t necessarily reflect how much some people loved it, though. Castlevania sold well enough to justify two NES sequels, but its final ranking among the best-selling NES games is somewhere outside of the top 40 or 50, based on which figures from that time period you believe.
Castlevania II and III didn’t fare much better in that regard. Actually, it wasn’t until 1997’s Symphony of the Night that Castlevania as a franchise began to make a name for itself among those who were not fans from the beginning. Even then, that title’s initial sales were underwhelming. Much like the 1931 film adaptation of Dracula, Symphony’s status as the boiling point of its source’s success is fascinating when you consider that both works significantly altered the original material. Universal’s Dracula greatly simplified Stoker’s novel in order to turn it into a digestible and cheaper film of the era. Symphony of the Night, meanwhile, adopted the Metroidfranchise’s style of gameplay in order to reboot the franchise and modernize the franchise. Despite those alterations, both Symphony and the 1931 adaptation of Dracula would go on to define the legacy of their respective properties in the eyes of millions.
As for what Castlevania’s lead director Hitoshi Akamatsu thinks of that, it’s difficult to say. That’s due, in part, to the fact the original Castlevania featured joke credits used to pay homage to horror movie icons, meaning that Akamatsu’s place as the father of Castlevania has only been established by others. In any case, Akamatsu disappeared from the video game industry in the early ‘90s after working on the first three games. While he would live to see Castlevania become a success, he eventually left Konami partially because they felt that the Castlevania series wasn’t successful enough. Like Stoker, his work was never fully appreciated at a time when he was able to reap the full benefits of his efforts.
These details make it easy to label the gamer who romantically remembers Castlevania as the same immediate groundbreaking sensation that Dracula was a fool who doesn’t understand the true story of either work. However, you must also remember that romanticism is nurtured by time. Time and perspective have allowed us to see that Castlevania and Dracula are indeed historical companions due to their shared aesthetics, influences, and legacies. While we may be tempted to “correct” history a bit by remembering both as immediate hits, the more fascinating story will always be how the eerie ways in which both these works seemingly died yet managed to rise from the grave stronger than ever before.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.