Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they’ve been chewing over. Today, Damien laments the fact that we’ve not had a ‘proper’ new Castlevania game since 2014…
Those of you who have visited this site regularly over the past decade or so might be aware that I’m a big fan of Konami’s Castlevania. Ever since I was first introduced to the vampire-killing franchise with the potent double-whammy of Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge and Super Castlevania IV in the early ’90s I’ve been utterly in love with it; the intoxicating mixture of gothic broodiness, engaging characters and fantastic music has made this my go-to series whenever I need a gaming pick-me-up. Sure, for every Symphony of the Night there’s often a Castlevania Judgment, but on the whole, this is a lineage of games that will always be close to my heart – despite the fact that Konami seems largely disinterested in adding anything meaningful to the franchise.
At the time of writing, the last mainline Castlevania title is 2014’s Lords of Shadow 2, which means the series has been largely dormant for eight whole years now. Sure, we’ve had welcome compendiums such as Castlevania Anniversary Collection and Castlevania Advance Collection, while the smartphone-only release Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls could, if you squint really hard, be seen as a new entry in the franchise.
However, for diehard fans, it feels like Konami has all but given up trying to keep Castlevania relevant in 2022, and instead relies on external forces – such as Netflix’s excellent animated adaptation – to maintain any degree of mainstream interest. Indeed, I’d argue there’s a genuine danger that many fans of said streaming series are totally ignorant of the fact that Castlevania video games exist at all.
As someone who has spent countless hours in the world of Castlevania – on platforms such as the NES, Game Boy, SNES, Mega Drive, PlayStation, N64, GBA and DS – I find this situation quite depressing. Super Castlevania IV is still one of the only video games that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I hear its soundtrack, and the likes of Dracula X and Aria of Sorrow are two of my all-time favourite games. For a time, it felt like Konami had struck upon a winning formula with its ‘Metroidvania’ line of titles, and the fact that we got no less than six of these across the GBA and DS still amazes me to this day; we really were spoilt rotten.
Despite the fact that it’s a franchise that has found its way onto a wide range of systems over the past three decades, Castlevania always ‘feels’ like a Nintendo series to me. I retrospectively explored the NES trilogy after becoming smitten with the series in the early ’90s but was still impressed with the tight gameplay of the original game – a game which began life on the Famicom Disk System in 1986 before being ported to the NES for western release in 1987. The second game, Simon’s Quest, is a title I’ve always struggled with (great music, though) but Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is an 8-bit masterpiece (and ironically was released in Europe after Super Castlevania IV). Granted, Vampire Killer arrived on the MSX home computer shortly after the original game was released on the Famicom Disk System so the franchise has technically been multiplatform from the very beginning, but it still felt odd to me to play Castlevania: Bloodlines on a Sega console rather than a Nintendo one – and I imagine I wasn’t the only one who felt that way back in 1994.
It’s ironic, then, that the best Castlevania is one that has never been on a Nintendo console. Symphony of the Night is often considered to be the best instalment in the series – it’s certainly my personal favourite – and it marked the beginning of the aforementioned ‘Metroidvania’ sub-series. A solid seller in Japan and North America (it flopped spectacularly in my native UK for some reason), Symphony of the Night was followed by a series of middling attempts to reconcile Castlevania with the world of 3D visuals; the two N64 games – Castlevania and Legacy of Darkness – were merely OK, while the PlayStation 2 titles Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness were enjoyable and lacklustre in equal measure. It fell to the GBA and DS trilogies to keep things ticking over – although, by all accounts, these titles saw diminishing returns for Konami in terms of both acclaim and revenue, which is why its alliance with Spanish studio MercurySteam (the same team that created Metroid: Samus Returns and Metroid Dread with Nintendo) was so significant. Even Hideo Kojima was involved – a sure sign that Konami was looking to take Castlevania to the next level.
There are some – myself included, to a degree – who aren’t totally comfortable with MercurySteam’s Lords of Shadow titles, but the first one – released in 2010 for the PS3 and Xbox 360 – was a shot in the arm for Castlevania, gaining positive reviews and selling briskly enough to encourage Konami to greenlight two sequels; Mirror of Fate for the 3DS and 2014’s Lords of Shadow 2. The former is a decent enough attempt to marry the Lords of Shadow rebooted universe with the ‘Metroidvania’ approach, while the latter is considered to be something of a disappointment. The departure of Koji ‘IGA’ Igarashi in the year of the game’s release ‘killed’ the Castlevania brand in the eyes of many fans; Igarashi famously went on to create Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a spiritual successor to Castlevania’s Metroidvania entries which itself has spun off Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2. While I’ve enjoyed all of the games in the Bloodstained series, I still pine for a ‘proper’ Castlevania packed with Belmonts and (of course) Dracula himself.
Castlevania’s fall isn’t something that’s unique in Konami’s stable of games, of course. Over the past few years, the company has appeared to withdraw from the industry and its enviable stable of properties has gone into extended hibernation. Metal Gear Solid, once the cream of the video gaming world, has experienced a fall from grace which eclipses even Castlevania’s; with the departure of creator Hideo Kojima in 2015, only one other game in the series has seen the light of day – the critically and commercially disappointing Metal Gear Survive. Meanwhile, Konami’s football series PES – once lauded as the best the genre could offer – has morphed into the free-to-play eFootball brand, with last year’s entry being rounded panned by critics for its bugs and lack of content.
Perhaps, on one level, I should be glad that Konami hasn’t attempted to revive Castlevania in any meaningful way; the last time it attempted to do that with one of its much-loved IPs, we got Contra: Rogue Corps, a crushingly disappointing action title that pretty much hammered the final nail into the coffin of that particular series. You could argue, then, that Castlevania is best left in the past, where we have plenty of amazing games to remember it by.
For me, though, that’s not good enough. The scope of this franchise is immense, and seeing the likes of Netflix take the complex and compelling lore of Castlevania and spin it into something that’s gripping enough to run for multiple series proves that there’s unfinished business in this world. What approach could be taken is anyone’s guess; could MercurySteam be entrusted with another 2.5D entry, given its sterling work on recent Metroid titles? Perhaps a 2D expert like Yacht Club Games or WayForward would be a good choice, especially if there’s a desire to replicate the ‘classic’ Castlevania vibe of the ’80s and ’90s?
Maybe it’s time to let a bigger team loose in the world of Dracula and the Belmonts, and give the franchise the opportunity to become a AAA offering once more – just as MercurySteam managed to do with the first Lords of Shadow game over a decade ago.
Whatever Castlevania’s future holds – and a recent rumour has given us hope – I sincerely hope that it can step out of the shadows and become a talked-about video game series once more, because its current malaise is bordering on the criminal; this is a line of games that deserves to be in the limelight, not languishing at the back of Konami’s IP cupboard, only to be dusted off to sell NFTs.
Further reading: Best Castlevania Games On Nintendo Consoles