No matter what you thought about the first season of the Castlevania animated series on Netflix– be sure to check out our review to hear our take— there’s no denying that it has brought the classic video game series back into the overall pop culture conversation. It’s more than Castlevania developer Konami has done for the franchise in the past few years, seemingly content to let one of its more popular and longest-running franchises slowly fade out of the limelight.
First debuting in Japan in 1986, Castlevania is one of only a handful of video games series to start in the mid-80s and remain relevant and active through the ’90s, 2000s, and into the 2010s with never more than a couple of years between major releases. What is even more astounding than Castlevania‘s longevity is its overall quality, generally producing quality releases– with relatively few duds. In fact, a “bad” Castlevania game still tends to be better than the lesser installments of most other franchises.
From its beginnings as a fairly straightforward action game, to its evolution into the so-called “Metroidvania” style that expanded the exploratory focus, to branching off into genres like fighting and puzzle games, Castlevania has taken a lot of different paths in its three-decade battle between good and evil.
Here are The 8 Best (And 7 Worst) Games in the Castlevania Franchise.
15. Best – Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
The penultimate portable Castlevania game of the franchise’s remarkable six-game run on Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, Portrait of Ruin smartly hearkened back to fan favorite Castlevania III by allowing players to switch between multiple characters on the fly. Being able to swap between whip wielder Jonathan and magic user Charlotte gave the game an extra bit of depth, especially during particularly inventive boss battles that sometimes required swapping at very specific points.
The other unique aspect of Portrait of Ruin is in the way it combined the two main styles of Castlevania games– the separate worlds within the game’s paintings felt almost like the individual stages of the classic games, while the each area was set up like a miniature Dracula castle to explore as with the Symphony of the Night et al. It is one of the only Castlevania games to bridge that gap and offer something for fans of both of the franchise’s main styles.
14. Worst – Castlevania Legends
Longtime Castlevania fans are familiar with the name Koji Igarashi– aka “Iga”– who led the franchise through its most popular and successful era. Among the contributions Iga made to the series was in trying to come up with an official timeline for the story and where each game falls within it. While he found a place for almost every Castlevania game to fit within the overarching narrative, there were two that he deemed non-canonical– meaning they “don’t count” within the official timeline– and one of those games is Castlevania Legends.
To be honest, losing Legends isn’t a major blow. While it remains the only completely female-led Castlevania game, that is really the only thing worth celebrating about the game. In a post-Symphony of the Night world, a bare-bones, very by-the-numbers Castlevania game just didn’t feel special anymore. It was also an 8-bit, black-and-white video game released in the late-90s, and– with the anomalous exception of Pokémon— that wasn’t blowing anybody’s hair back in the era of PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64.
13. Best – Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
After Symphony of the Night reinvigorated and reinvented the Castlevania series, gamers were hungry for a follow-up. So hungry, in fact, that they were willing to overlook the many flaws of Circle of the Moon just because it was the first game to feel like a direct successor to Symphony. By contrast, the third and final Castlevania game for Nintendo’s 32-bit handheld hasn’t lost a single bit of respect in the 14 years since its release.
Aria of Sorrow broke from Castlevania tradition by not taking place in some distant past centuries ago, but instead, in the future– all the way in the year 2035. The futuristic setting allowed for the series to have interesting environments and enemies thanks to the advanced technology of the time period.
More importantly, it is the first game to take place in the timeline after Dracula’s supposed final defeat in 1999, which means the story didn’t have to be yet another attempt to take the mighty vampire down. The result is a sucker punch of an ending that sets up one of the only direct follow-ups in Castlevania history…which (spoiler alert) we’ll be getting to later.
12. Worst – Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness
Castlevania‘s first attempt to go 3D was the Nintendo 64 game simply titled Castlevania, and like just about every other 2D franchise that isn’t Mario or Zelda, the transition to the third dimension was a rocky one to say the least.
Much of the issue with Castlevania 64, as it’s commonly known, is that the game had a very troubled production– by most accounts, the game wasn’t properly finished before Konami pushed it out the door. As such, follow-up Legacy of Darkness was as much the finished version of Castlevania 64 as its actual sequel. To be sure, Legacy is much better than its predecessor– but to be a truly good game, Legacy had to go a lot further than just being “much better” than C64. And it isn’t.
What we’re left with is a game that is a definite improvement on a terrible game, and a baby step in the right 3D direction, but still a game that is built on the foundation of an awful game. There’s only so much you can do to polish a turd, to put it bluntly.
11. Best – Super Castlevania IV
After seeing those first commercials for Super Mario World, Nintendo kids were so pumped to see what the powerful Super NES was going to be able to do to their other favorite NES franchises. In Castlevania‘s 16-bit console debut, they were not disappointed– the game was the perfect showpiece for the franchise’s jump to the new generation, as well as a showcase for what the SNES was capable of.
But Super Castlevania IV was more than just a fancy tech demo. The pseudo-remake of the original Castlevania was a great 16-bit representation of the like-a-glove gameplay and inventive level designs that had come to define the series, as well as introducing interesting new features.
One of the more innovative aspects of Super Castlevania IV was in the whip, no longer just a straight-ahead attack weapon. In the first– and so far only– time in Castlevania history, the whip had actual physics, and in addition to being flicked forward, could also be dangled and twirled around to wipe out approaching bad guys. The game was also the first time that the whip could be swung in multiple directions, as well as be used for swinging across chasms.
10. Worst – Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate
Although many diehard Castlevania fans complained that it was too far a departure from the series’ roots and tried too hard to replicate modern action games like Devil May Cry and God of War, the 2010 reboot Lords of Shadow was an extremely-well made game that was perhaps a better action game than a Castlevania game. But at least it was still a legitimately good game.
Then, everything went to hell– and not in a cool, Dracula kind of way.
Following the extremely disappointing Lords of Shadow 2, Konami desperately tried to salvage the reboot series they had very quickly screwed up by bringing things a bit closer to Castlevania‘s roots. The result was Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, a game which– apart from having an extremely cumbersome title– was a poor attempt to combine the 3D visuals of Lords of Shadow with the 2D gameplay of classic Castlevania.
2.5D, as such games are often called, can be great when done well, but in Mirror of Fate‘s case, it ended up feeling more like some misguided low-budget spiritual successor than a true Castlevania game.
9. Best – Castlevania (the original)
One of the reasons that NES games– and games from the 1980s in general– are still so beloved is because the best ones are timeless. Maybe they don’t look as groundbreaking as they once did, but they’re still a blast to play, the music remains catchy, and the visuals are still compelling in the way that classic animated movies are.
Among the games from that era that can still be revisited and enjoy 30 years on is the original Castlevania, an expertly-crafted side-scrolling action game that remains one of the best games in the franchise despite its simplistic nature compared to most of its successors.
Even though it lacks the complex narrative that the franchise would later take on and is basically just a battle against a series of Universal movie monsters, the whip-cracking action and fine-tuned platforming make it worth revisiting for both people who were around for its debut, and those simply looking to see where a series they probably joined much later got its start.
8. Worst – Haunted Castle
During the NES era, arcades made the jump to 16-bit visuals, and Nintendo’s 8-bit box couldn’t handle visually-perfect arcade ports. However, what many designers ended up doing is making up for the lack of graphical quality by making the games themselves much deeper, turning relatively straightforward arcade action games into more complex action/adventure games. Among the more notable games that looked worse but played much better in their transition from arcades to NES were Bionic Commando, Rygar, Ninja Gaiden, and Contra.
Castlevania was a home game first, with all the depth of a game that might’ve began as a simpler arcade game, just without the arcade game– a fact that bothered Konami, apparently. The company made the bizarre decision to do the whole process in reverse, taking an already deep and defined NES experience and dumbing it down for a much more streamlined– but yes, better-looking– arcade action game.
For a couple of years, Haunted Castle was the only Castlevania game with 16-bit visuals, but that novelty would be short-lived once Super Castlevania IV was released– making this strange game even less necessary than it was to begin with.
7. Best – Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
Even though most of the Castlevania games take place in a single timeline, with many characters and events being referenced across multiple games, the entries rarely ever directly lead into one another– there is generally at least a few years, if not centuries, between the events that take place between any two games.
One of the main exceptions to this rule is Dawn of Sorrow, which picks up directly after the end of Aria of Sorrow. It was extremely satisfying to actually get to directly continue a Castlevania game’s story for once, rather than have it take place years later with only a few callbacks to the previous game. The fact that Aria of Sorrow had what might have been the best story within any single Castlevania game to date made it the perfect candidate for a direct sequel, and to that end, Dawn didn’t disappoint.
Beyond just continuing a great story, Dawn is also excellent because it took pretty much everything that made Aria so fantastic and not only gave it a beautiful new coat of paint and better sound quality, but further refined its many great elements and systems into an even tighter overall experience.
6. Worst – Castlevania Judgement
As a concept, Castlevania Judgement is a solid one: a fighting game featuring characters from throughout Castlevania‘s history, including characters that wouldn’t normally interact because they are from vastly different time periods. But that’s about the only thing Judgement gets right.
First of all, the character designs are all wrong, redressing classic characters as if they were going to a bondage convention. The women are all way too sexed up, and not just in their skimpy leather outfits. In the game’s story mode, Maria’s plot literally revolves around her being insecure about her small breast size and her obsession with how busty the other women in the game are– “Even the vampire’s are bigger than mine!” is an actual line of dialogue. Uh, what?
The character designs are a fail, the story is a fail, and worst of all, the gameplay is an epic fail, relying far too much on blind waggling of the Wii remote without any semblance of coherent gameplay. If Maria really wants to experience a huge bust, all she needs to do is play this game.
5. Best – Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
There used to be this sense that Japan had all these great games that never came to the West. A lot of the time, that was unjustified hype, and the game(s) in question were nothing all that special. Sometimes, however, that game was something like Rondo of Blood— and both the praise and ensuing jealously were more than warranted.
While not quite as fully exploratory as the series would get from Symphony of the Night on, Rondo took the branching paths of Castlevania III and greatly expanded on them, packing levels with multiple routes and tons of secrets that ensured that you could play through the game 10 times and not have a duplicate experience. Add in the technical horsepower of the Japan-only PC Engine Super CD-ROM² system, and Rondo was an audio/visual treat that would set the standard for the franchise for years to come.
4. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
(Warning: This entry spoils the ending of the first Lords of Shadow game.)
At the end of Lords of Shadow, the reboot that perhaps wasn’t the best “Castlevania game” ever made but was still a great hack-n-slash action/adventure game on its own merits, there is a huge plot twist that reveals that the character you’ve been playing as the whole time is actually the human who first turns into Dracula. It’s a pretty awesome moment that was extremely satisfying for those who saw the game through to the end.
This meant that for the sequel, players would be controlling– for the first time ever– Dracula for an entire adventure, seeing his beginnings as the eventual big bad of the Castlevania world. The problem is, the game completely botches it. You spend a lot of the game sneaking around rather than getting to unleash Dracula’s awesome power. Worse, much of that time is spent sneaking around as a rat.
3. Best – Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
After the extremely divisive Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, the young franchise’s future was a bit in limbo. But Castlevania wasn’t ready to retire just yet, and the franchise came roaring back with the amazing Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
Pushing the NES to its technical limits, Curse not only looked and sounded better than most NES games, it was among the deepest side-scrollers released at that point. Branching paths and multiple playable characters– that you could change to on the fly, no less– made for an adventure that felt as big as any we could possibly go on with a whip-wielding vampire hunter and his cohorts.
While that didn’t quite end up being the case, it still doesn’t change what an epic experience Curse was and still is, and it belongs in the pantheon of all-time great NES games alongside even Nintendo’s own best. If you want to see where the series graduated from good to truly great, then buy, borrow, or download a copy of Dracula’s Curse and prepare for a treat.
2. Worst – Castlevania (Nintendo 64 game, aka “Castlevania 64”)
What do you see in that picture up there? That’s right, you see skeletons riding motorcycles. And so it goes with the completely silly– and completely awful– Castlevania 64, the series’ botched first attempt at 3D.
Maybe it isn’t fair to call the game completely awful, as there are some decent ideas buried in Castlevania 64. The problem is, those decent ideas are all wasted on a game with a buggy and unpolished engine, ugly (even for the time) graphics, and play control that makes it difficult to walk in a straight line.
Of course, even if the graphics, control, and play mechanics of the game had been great, none of that would’ve mattered as the camera is utterly broken and makes it basically impossible to see anything that’s going on. Just as well: the less you see of Castlevania 64, the better.
To be fair, Castlevania 64 had its fans when it was first released, and even got an 8.2 from both IGN and Gamespot. The best Castlevania games are great because of how timeless they are– and in 2017, Castlevania 64 just doesn’t hold up.
1. Best – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
In 1997, polygons and 3D were all the rage in gaming. As such, Symphony of the Night initially landed on the PlayStation with little fanfare. However, buzz spread and word got around that one of the greatest games ever made was the latest installment in the Castlevania franchise.
After an extremely cool opening– you literally play the final boss battle from Rondo of Blood— you are put in the shoes of Dracula’s half-human son, Alucard, as he sets about taking dad down. Breaking from several longstanding franchise traditions, Alucard uses a bladed weapons instead of whips, and he moves with fluidity and grace rather than the slow, plodding movement of previous Castlevania protagonists.
The biggest change by far was in the new structure of the game, taking cues from games like Metroid by having players explore a giant, interconnected area that forces them to find keys, switches, and new abilities in order to access previously-unreachable areas. This new “Metroidvania” style turned the franchise on its head, and most subsequent installments would follow suit.
Symphony of the Night is many players’ favorite game ever– and with very good reason.
What’s your favorite Castlevania game? Let us know in the comments!
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