Anatomy of a Haunted Castle
Anatomy of a Haunted Castle
By Jared Petty
Oh, it’s this guy again. He can read my mind, y’all.
Why are you phrasing this as a question? You’re psychic. You already know the answer. Are you in love with the rhetorical? Are you just being polite?
Anyway. Yeah, Psycho Mantis, yeah, I do.
I like the ‘Vanias. Person with whip/sword/spellbook invades Dracula’s castle. Hero fights mummies, skeletons, and big skulls. Bodacious music ensues. Anime drama sometimes happens. Dracula is killed. Good times.
Among the massive Castlevania pantheon is a weird little game, a short, strange artifact of a very particular inflection point in history where the NES wasn’t quite yet king and arcades weren’t quite yet dead. Though likely the most concise of Castlevania games, it’s also the one you’ve least likely seen the end of. It’s tucked away among several Konami bangers on Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection alongside the likes of Gradius, Scramble, and Twinbee. What is this half-forgotten vestige of Castlevania lore?
Born after the successful debuts of Castlevania and Simon’s Quest on Famicom, Haunted Castle debuted in an age where gamers still crowded into arcades hungry for the most colorful, vibrant, synesthetic experiences available in electronic gaming. A gulf divided home console technology from arcade hardware: arcade games promised big sprites, more colors, rocking sound, and roaring music. Later NES programmers eventually found ways to bridge some of this distance with clever trickery and design, but in 1987 there was simply no question that arcades were the place to go for cutting-edge technology.
Konami created Haunted Castle after NES Castlevania as a reclamation project for another game that morphed into something of a remake of the original console game, a pseudo-sequel with the arcade player (and arcade operator) in mind. It presented the player with an enormous rendering of Simon that the NES could never have managed, a moody, atmospheric series of landscapes, huge bosses, and an arsenal of interesting weapons. And it provided the arcade operator with the perfect means to their goal: profit.
Haunted Castle is balls hard. I mean, we all know difficulty is a hallmark of Castlevania games, but Haunted Castle fuses the spirit of challenge inherent in the series with the “insert new coin every couple of minutes” axiom of the arcade scene. Simon moves ponderously, screen real estate is limited by the big sprites, and enemies hit very hard. Most insidiously, the final stage does not allow continues. You read that correctly. Die on Stage 6, and it’s over. You have to start again.
Fortunately, Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection presents two tools that rebalance the experience and give you a fighting chance to find and fillet Dracula: scalable difficulty settings and an instant save state feature that allows you to subvert the ridiculous continues condition.
To play Haunted Castle is to look through a window of time to a moment when arcades were desperately seeking a rejuvenation of identity, relying heavily on the emergent brawler and side-scrolling hack n’ slash genres in an awkward minute between conception and perfection. Ninja Turtles and Final Fight hadn’t yet arrived to show us how to really nail the proper walk-and-punch quarter-munch formula; fighting games as we know them today were years away. It’s genuinely weird seeing Castlevania thrust into such a context, but it’s also deeply interesting to see the experiment at work. After all, Castlevania can sometimes be at its worst when it gets weird (I see you there, Judgement), but it can also be at its best (looking at you, Harmony of Despair).
I already wrote about how the shooters alone make Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection a worthwhile pickup, but I think that, even as we enjoy stone-cold masterpieces like Gradius 2 and Scramble, we also take the time to remember other, odder games that we can now actually complete thanks to the application of some welcome quality of life improvements. So all hail Haunted Castle. See you in Dracula’s throne room. Maybe. Because man, that game is really hard.
Pre-orders for Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection are extended until January 15th, 2023! Don’t miss your chance to pick up this amazing collection!
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