Haunted Castle is the Castlevania game that nobody wants to talk about. The reason? It's, as the British would say, a load of rubbish. Just imagine a waste bin with a giant arcade cabinet firmly lodged in it by a disgruntled owner, and you have yourself Haunted Castle. The first thing you'll notice is that, unlike most Castlevania games, this one isn't actually called Castlevania. Maybe that's for the best because then Castlevania fans won't go hunting down this tramp stamp of a video game. Japanese fans could not escape this bond, as the game was named "Akumajō Dracula" in Japan, the same title that many Castlevania games bear.
While it's not openly expressed in the game, you do play as Simon Belmont. We first catch him leaving a church with his new bride, and at first, I was thinking, "Alright! Castlevania Dating Sim... and somehow I already won!" But things take a turn for the worse as lightning blasts out of the sky and shatters the church's cross. It's on! Next, a vampiric figure — presumably Dracula, unless he has minions that closely resemble him — steals the bride away. Simon, annoyed that his personal life and his professional life have just clashed in the least favourable way possible, now has to don a suit of leather armor from the truck of his Toyota Camry and hunt down Dracula like the lady-swiping dog he is. For an arcade game, the introduction and the dramatic musical transition between Mendelssohn's "The Wedding March" and just flat-out hell breaking loose as the vampire chuckles eerily, though he's a bit muffled, like he's laughing straight into a napkin.
So I've expressed my ire for this clump of catbox refuse, but let's get down to the game's biggest problem: its difficulty. Castlevania games are tough enough, but at least they give a fairly lengthy life bar and multiple lives to work with to help survive. Haunted Castle doesn't seem to want anyone to succeed because it gives you one life. Just one. And they're not even that generous with refilling your health bar after each stage — only partially so. There are two versions of this game that can be played, depending on how loving and kind your arcade owner is. There's the "K" mode, which I'll say stands for "kind", in which you get three continues, so every time you die, you'll have an opportunity to continue (up to three times) from the beginning of the stage where you faltered (no halfway points to be found). That's challenging enough, but there's also "M" mode. Let's call this "Maniacal Meatsucking Maddening Murphy-Bed-On-Fire" mode. You get one life to complete the game. Any death puts you back to the beginning of Stage 1. Why that is even an option is beyond me. This is the equivalent of giving a tightrope walker one chance to get across and having jagged spiked rocks below that will assuredly doom this person should they fall. Also, while we're at it, let's electrify the tightrope and put a burning candle just slightly underneath the other end. And Vaseline that rope. Yeah, that'll put the Konami in your trousers.
So how do we get our health back, you ask? Believe it or not, by inserting extra quarters — or "tokens" as the pilgrims would say — you can raise his health a bit. What's this? A video game company trying to pull off a cheap cash grab? Thank goodness this type of scam was never done again. But here's the kicker: if you actually max out the health meter (which, for some reason, can actually be extended beyond what you actually see, indicated by a number to the right of the meter itself), you won't be able to add to it any longer, either due to a glitch or because Konami STILL doesn't want us to win at Haunted Castle. Ever. It doesn't matter; I could probably spend a hundred dollars/pilgrim tokens and still fail miserably in the first half of the game, suffering humiliation in front of that one Castlevania fan who hangs around the dimly-lit arcade with a T-shirt bearing Simon Belmont's face and the caption "Whip it."
Everything in this game looks like it was scraped off in a doctor's office.
And the game is difficult in that everything is either hard to hit with your pathetic whip (relative to every other game) or just flat out unfair in execution. There's no warning about obstacles ahead. In Stage 2, rocks fall from the sky that are practically unavoidable and take a third of your health away. Skeletons that you kill have ghost skeletons that pop out without delay and lop off some health if you're not ready or quicker than John Wayne on an afternoon saloon safari. Most players won't get past the first stage, and if they manage to survive beyond that, there will be no enjoyable experience in store. The controls, while not terrible, make Simon feel like a stone golem rather than a person: heavy and incompetent.
Thank goodness that Simon can at least upgrade to better weapons. In Stage 2, he can find a hard-hitting mace, for example, which is superior to his lousy default arsenal. There are also sub-weapons in Haunted Castle, but they're not frequently found, plus the hearts normally used to power them are equally scarce. Bombs, boomerangs, and stopwatches are just a few examples of these, but with limited hearts to be found, they're not going to be of much assistance in fighting the always-welcome bat spawns spewed from Satan's loins.
It's a shame that Haunted Castle is so... haunted by its own arduousness because players will rarely get to see how good this game actually looks and sounds. For a 1988 arcade game, this one's beautiful and has artistic merits throughout, such as a girl's portrait that cries a trickle of blood. The sprites are pretty big, which is both pleasant to look at and a hindrance to use, because large characters means it's much easier to take damage. And the soundtrack is deep as well with plenty of booming instrumentation. Many of the songs in Haunted Castle ended up getting recycled in the Castlevania series, such as Bloody Tears, which was actually first used in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest but later appeared in other games. But, like I said, much of this beauty is hidden by the ugliness that is the flawed game design.
Haunted Castle: A game you probably haven't played and a game you probably couldn't play for long. It's amazingly unfair in its design, and although Castlevania games can be taxing, they were NEVER this rough on the player. Castlevania was already an established name, and its formula had already been solidified after the first two NES games (and one for the Japan-only computer system MSX2). Haunted Castle is more of an experiment in cruelty than an expansion of the brand, and I'm glad it's been fairly well-buried in the annals of time.
Haunted Castle? More like... Not Wanted Castle...vania game. Yeah.