Haunted Castle Revisited by Peklo
ooking back at the series, there are games that are recognized as classics, like Castlevania and Symphony of the Night. Then there are games which are well-remembered, if not loved, such as Super Castlevania IV, Dracula's Curse and perhaps the GBA 'vanias. Some are sought-after treasures of an era gone past, like Rondo of Blood and and the Sharp X68000 game (though remedied somewhat by IGA's commendable actions). Many fall into the 'just good' general area, and a few are disliked by the majority of fans (Legends, Curse of Darkness).
Where does Haunted Castle fit?
Quite honestly, the game is sorely overlooked.
Yes, the difficulty of the title is maddening. It is conquerable, but still very, very difficult. This is why the game is looked at with disdain. Because once you look past it, the game suddenly isn't that bad.
The year is 1988. For Konami, they're at the height of their fame. In the past few years, they've pumped out to-be-classics by the numbers, like Castlevania, Contra, Gradius, Metal Gear... they're living their own, personal Golden Age of Gaming. Some of the aforementioned had their beginnings at the arcades, but Castlevania, up until this point, was primarily a series played at home (disregarding the Nintendo Vs. release of the original). Which is odd in itself, since the gameplay lends well for the arcades, being tightly goal-based, action-packed, even containing a score counter. It's not a surprise that Konami would try to capitalize on this.
Haunted Castle is another retelling of the famous Simon Belmont's escapades to vanquish Count Dracula in his titular Demon Castle. But this time, with a classic twist. Big Si is getting married! Yes, the relentless vampire hunter finally discovered love, in the fair maiden Serena (or something, her name is not set in stone, really). This is unique for Castlevania. Stereotypical for the time, but nonetheless unique, especially in hindsight after 25 games as opposed to the preceding three outings at the time. So, at the wedding ceremony of SN'S, Dracula swoops down from the emerging storm clouds, captures Serena from Simon's side, and flies away cackling, goading his nemesis to follow.
What does Simon do? He clenches his fist, full of conviction, and sets out to right the wrongs.
Right from the outset, you will know that the aesthetics and the visceral aural quality of this title are its strongest points. Cross Your Heart, indeed. It's a mighty fine looking game. The palette is well-applied on the landscapes (the sheer variety is staggering, even on the first level only), the sprites are huge and detailed, and the hardware allows for all sorts of visual effects. On the first stage, you'll come across a rainstorm, a possessed wall which breaks into pieces and assaults you, a blazing hot sea of fire, and enemies that grow out of trees or emerge from under collapsed crucifixes. This is no light-weight, you'll be blown away by the imaginitiveness and execution of it all, that much is sure.
But how does it play? Well, to be perfectly honest, it plays like it should. The enemies come in endless swarms, the hit detection is such that you could lob a shoe five meters over Simon's head and he'd get a concussion, and dodging attacks is not an option because of not only that, but due to the protagonist's well-defined, yet cumbersome large frame. There is some good to all of this. Control over Simon is easy as pie, allowing much more jump control than his previous incarnations. When he takes damage, he doesn't bounce back and be immobilized for a moment; he simply hops up in pain, retaining his momentum, thus eliminating the danger of pitfalls.
Sub-weapons are procured on site as always, but man, do they play a central part here. Simon is, at his best, able to take most foes down with a few swings of his strongest primary weapon, the sword (he finally makes use of it! *fanboy moment*). The combat is smooth and precise, but he will be overwhelmed by the opposition at times, if he's not prepared.
The sub-weapons are life-savers. Two of them, in particular. Firstly, the cross. It is a bit different now. It's held up, and divine beams of the HOLY CROSS eviscerate foes as they travel forward. It is useful as a shield and a damage-dealer, especially against enemies that attack from undesirable angles (harpies).
The another is the stopwatch. What? Well, yes, this time it is actually useful, the best offense Simon has in the game, even. It freezes foes (bosses included), and Simon can hack at the defenseless foes in a rapid fashion. This strategy is best-displayed in the fight against the Bone Dragon King at the end of stage 2. He has no chance at all.
This brings about a curious tactic of play. Hearts are sparse in Haunted Castle, since there are no candelabras. Enemies are the sole means of getting them. Not only do they power the side armaments, but they also restore health at the end of stages. That's right, you have to pay for energy refills. No hearts equals a battle-worn Simon at the start of the next stage. Usually, there is enough hearts to go by, but conserving them is more important than ever. Do you use the sub-weapon, or store the hearts? This is something that works surprisingly well, and is the real kind of challenge that the series needs.
Haunted Castle did more than what it's given credit for. It is a display of wildly talented gamemaking, despite the numerous flaws. It has some truly memorable moments, such as the ethereal and sudden transit to a time-frozen, echoing dimension in the middle of stage 3 which is populated by harpies. The visually breath-taking stage 2, with its hazy view of the castle, murky caverns, and a mountainside which continues on to a walkway amongst cut-down, gigantic tree stumps. It also marks the first instance of a collapsing bridge leading to the Castle Keep, which the hero must traverse. The sights are so very impressive, that I liken it to Harmony of Dissonance at times, another visual beast.
Give it a chance, for it is more than is usually made of it. If you conquer the challenge, you'll surely come to like it somewhat. And for an old, forgotten game, that is a sufficient honour.
Now for that idea thing.
The game that could be
Haunted Castle is flawed. Heavily. But it's not a lost cause, far from it. I consider it a more complete package than, say, the DS games. There is something that draws me to it time and time again, and I would not like that certain quality to be lost to the times.
Why not remake it?
What, another Simon game? Yes, but hear me out here. It worked before. Chronicles was a remake of a remake, yet it still ruled. And that was only a rather minor facelift to an old classic (does not make it any worse for it, but yeah). Another thing that Haunted Castle has over Chronicles is that it doesn't follow the formula of the original as closely, rather, it reinvents it with completely new stages, music, and the plot premise. It's like Super Castlevania IV in that respect.
I suggest this to be put onto the PSP. Dracula X Chronicles, if anything, proved that remakes are awesome. And the possibilities of this! They can make it better. Far more than the original was, because this time the difficulty can make sense, since we're not pushing quarters in the machine to keep on playing. Not to mention the musical score, which has been recognized somewhat by Yamane and others in remixes. That can also be restored. Simon's design could also take some subtle hints from the original, blue-haired one. The campy plot is good material for a beautiful intro like DXC's, I can see the wedding ceremony taking place in my mind.
Since just one game would not probably please the general audience after a package like DXC, I say include the original Haunted Castle, and *wait for it*... remake Simon's Quest as well. Yes, this is the way to do it. They are the two parts of Simon's saga, and I consider them somewhat as sister games, due to the general obscure nature they both have and shared musical tracks. They could modify the stories to compliment each other, like having Simon's wife die in Haunted Castle's remake and then she being the one to tell Simon of his curse seven years later, instead of some random maiden in a dream. Then, name the package something like "Demon Castle Dracula", to hearken back towards Haunted Castle and being a direct translation from the original game's title.
This is the chance to better both games, and send a final, definitive tribute to Simon Belmont. It's a dream project that everyone would like to see come true, I'm sure.