Nobody dresses up like Frankenstein’s Monster anymore

Castlevania1

Castlevania (1988)

So what’s happened to all the good horror films, then? I wasn’t around for the 1970s, which is probably just as well because I’d have slipping in my own stools at some of the films. If it wasn’t Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it was The Exorcist. Actually, I watched The Exorcist at a far too young age, since me and my pals had heard it was the scariest movie ever made – but honestly, it’s fine.

It’s dated really, the effects and all. I won’t pretend our dungarees didn’t crumple a bit at the scene where she legs it down the stairs crab-style and makes this horrendous sound, blood going everywhere. But honestly, we’d all blown away something just like it in Resident Evil 2 that very day. We handled The Exorcist better than my mother and her pal who snuck into the cinema to watch it, anyway – the moment Tubular Bells started up, they screamed to high heaven and ran out the door.

The Ring and The Grudge seemed set to take up the mantle around the millenium, but I didn’t really rate their chances of scaring me out of my wits as such – until I saw bits of the original Japanese version of The Ring one night, and I thought that was it for me. My heart seemed afraid to beat, and there was an entirely new emotion permeating around my body. Fear? Adrenaline? This went beyond all that.

Vampires have terrible press now, and you can thank that witless Twilight series for that. Remember when Twilight was all the rage? I’m just glad that it was very slightly after my time, otherwise I could well see myself putting on plastic fangs before leaving the house and attempting to impress all the daft lassies who were into sparkling Robert Pattinson.

Could you have imagined? My pre-pubescent years were embarrassing enough already, pale and chubby as I was, without going out and approaching some alien Kristen Stewart lookalike and trying to give her wooden chatup lines as we both desperately avoided eye-contact with each other.

I wouldn’t have looked the part anyway. After all, has there ever been a fat vampire? All they subsist on is blood, after all. And garlic is obviously a big no-no. I thought they couldn’t have steak either, until I realised they meant the wooden kind, fed directly into the heart. Which is exactly what those girls would have delivered to me if I’d tried to win them over by saying, and I’m quoting verbatim here, “You better hold on tight, spider monkey.”

Nothing false, sparkly or cringey about the vampirehood in Castlevania for NES – it’s the big bad man himself, Count Dracula, and it’s up to you to stop him. Not only that, but he’s enlisted all of the top dogs from the horror genre over the years, all the way up to the Grim Reaper. You’ve got Medusa, Mummies, Frankenstein (ah, Frankenstein’s monster), bats and zombies, the whole lot.

What you don’t have is the aforementioned Sadako from the Japanese version of the Ring. You won’t have Kayako for that matter either. Konami also saved the Xenomorph and its legion of Facehuggers for Contra, which I’m pretty grateful about. And luckily, the NES couldn’t do first-person (although Shadowgate begs to differ), so a shakycam variant of Cloverfield wasn’t going to be possible.

That’s kind of a shame, because as mocked as that film was, I though Cloverfield was great. My favourite bit is when the girl gets bitten, starts looking more and more strung out and then you see the silhouette of her stomach exploding all over the place. I’ve often felt like that after a hangover takeaway, so it was really great to be able to relate to a cinema character like that, you know?

I can certainly relate to Simon Belmont’s pansy nature back in the 8-bit warmth of Castlevania. Get hit by an enemy and you get knocked back a few steps. Seems minor, but you won’t believe just how many bottomless pits seem to congregate behind you. And if you think your mighty whip can stand up to a bird in quick flight… guess again.

You’ll lamely try to jump-and-whip at the same time and get knocked back twice as hard into the abyss, whatever meagre upgrades you’d cobbled together going down with you. It gets so’s that it doesn’t even matter what your healthbar is like, or when the next porkchop that materialises from broken brick walls will come, because you’re going to be knocked into the drink anyway.

We have a fiendishly difficult game here, and there are no passwords you can use, but at least you can keep on going after each and every Game Over. I like that – it doesn’t matter if you die a hundred times, it’s all about whether you have the pride or indeed the stomach to keep going.

I have to be honest though, trying to grapple with the controls these days, I’d rather grapple with Dracula himself. Do you think Drac can wrassle? Could he counter an Irish Whip, or break out of a Crippler Crossface? I’m not sure, but here’s one thing that simply cannot be done – changing direction when you make the brave decision to jump. That is, of course, until you get that whack from an enemy, which’ll u-turn you faster than you can scream “ruddy bat”.

The Dracula novel, written by my compatriot Bram Stoker, describes any character having a slash as “making their toilet”. Plainly, Dracula’s interior designer didn’t know much about bathrooms, and he didn’t know much about the other rooms either because there’s traps, bottomless pits and spikes all over the place in here. But worst of all is his fixation on stairs. See, the interior designer was one of those types who imposes his own tired aesthetic on everything, and Drac, all awkward and afraid to point out the problem with the Emperor’s new clothes, found himself having to pretend he liked it to avoid the aggro.

You’ll spend at least half of the game taking stairs that travel left, right, up or down (which direction does a staircase go in, anyway?). Simon can’t jump or do much at all when he’s on the stairs, so he can prepare to be smacked in the face by bats, birds, monkeys and skellington bones while he slowly crawls up the stairs with the same economy of movement as Dracula’s cape wardrobe.

Yes, poor old Simon was in the horrors by the time I got to the end, but give me credit – the Medusa Heads were just getting ridiculous. I also fell through those pesky stairs a record number of times. The castle architecture hated me so much, in fact, that one of the towers on Stage 9 was giving me the middle finger. 

Get to Dracula’s lair though, and you’ll find yourself up against the hardest boss of the lot. Even after you’ve quite literally whipped his head off, he turns into a bug-eyed monster that jumps about the place with jazz hands out. Once you’ve managed to drown him in enough holy water, the game’s finally over and you can breathe that sigh of relief.

In classic Castlevania style you’ll watch the castle crumble against the bright morning. Then some parody credits come up, such as Christopher Bee starring as Dracula and Boris Karloffice as Frankenstein (just Frankenstein). It’s better than seeing credits for Yuukichan’s Papa and Fishman, but it really makes you wonder. 

Anyway, unlike the bizarre Leslie Nielson film, Dracula is never dead and loving it – he’ll be back to haunt the lands again soon, and it’ll be up to another Belmont to bone up on his horror films, grab the only whip worth anything in Transylvania and stop him. Same again in another 100 years?

31 October 2019

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