The design of classic horror- through the lens of Castlevania

So Kotaku has posted an excellent piece about enemy design and strategy in regard to the original Castlevania. You can read Kotaku’s article here.

Considering the general idea of their article, it’s interesting to reflect on the artistic achievement that Konami made in the original Castlevania game- and indeed the achievement that all of the well-programmed games on the NES represented.

I’ve always been of the mind that NES games were an odd case where form followed function. Designers of the era were working with what we would now, in retrospect, view as an incredibly primitive computer system, weak architecturally, a relic of a bygone age. One 8-bit processor. A paltry 2kb of RAM. Hell, the little thing could only display 48 colors. By modern standards, the architecture was laughable.

And yet, at the time, it was astonishing. The reader will perhaps forgive my  falling prey to the lure of nostalgia, if I have done so. My memory is clear enough to recall the system’s failings; the high price point of games, the absurd password systems, the constant graphical glitches, the games that wouldn`t play without the performance of a ritual that any gamer old enough to have owned an NES knows off by heart- an oddly exasperating  ritual that involved a certain technique of blowing air across the cartridge pins for increasingly longer periods of time before each time the game was played. The NES was in many ways a very flawed piece of equipment.

It was, however, those same limitations that gave the games their beauty and longevity. Kotaku points out in their article the Medusa heads that swarmed around the room in the original Castlevania, and explains the simple device that drives their movement, the sine-wave pattern. When I first played Castlevania as a child, of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea what a sine wave was, nor did I know what RAM was or how much of it was in my Nintendo, and I wouldn’t have particularly cared had someone attempted to explain those things to me. I was a child and I was lost in the maze of Dracula’s castle and what I did care about was making it deeper into the depths of that maze and seeing as much of Castlevania as possible before the cartridge had to be returned to the video rental kiosk at the back of the grocery store we had rented the game from- because in 1988 nobody in my neighborhood had money to buy games.

Forgive me, reader;  in my rambling I seem to have strayed from the point.

The simple truth of Castlevania, hell, the simple truth of the NES itself, was the interplay of art overcoming the limitations of form. The NES’s lack of ability to render much of anything convincingly led designers of the era to convey their art in the simplest effective forms possible, like a small sprite drawing of a floating Medusa head flying toward one`s simple sprite icon in a sine-wave flightpath, but there was a palpable tension caused by that, irreducible because it was already reduced to the most paltry level imaginable from an artistic standpoint. The punishing difficulty of Castlevania was a factor here as well, because if that Medusa head knocked your sprite icon off the staircase he stood on and he fell into the bottomless underworld of the screen, there were real consequences for that failure to progress. This brutal difficulty was a legacy of the arcade games that Castlevania descended from, where a player death meant another quarter earned for the machine, and Castlevania itself soon made an appearance in arcades under the name Haunted Castle. But the quarter-munching legacy of the arcades only heightened Castlevania’s ability to instill fear in the player- the game, simply put, was more than happy to kill you, and that meant every moment in the castle of Dracula was a moment spent walking on the razor’s edge between life and death.

I think that may be why I can still replay Castlevania today, why the game feels vibrant all these years later, while so many other games of that era, and games that followed, have fallen by the wayside and feel dated and stale. The beautiful simplicity of Castlevania- and the entirety of the older Castlevania oeuvre, for that matter- is timeless.

Oh, I should clarify- please don’t mistake this short article for a proper review of Castlevania. Castlevania would deserve a far longer and better treatment for a review. Maybe someday I will provide that, if it is requested by enough folks.

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~ by Redgoateerob on February 28, 2012.

2 Responses to “The design of classic horror- through the lens of Castlevania”

  1. Castlevania Review? Yes please…

    • Don`t worry; I’d lay even odds that the Castlevania review is coming, given time. It would be a frighteningly herculean effort to do justice to that game though, and that, along with the stack of reviews I already have planned, is why it probably won`t be for a while until you see it.

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