By Joseph Walter
My first experiences with the "Castlevania" franchise were with Castlevania: The Adventure on the Game Boy, and then my friend's copy of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon on the Game Boy Advance years later, just for a few minutes before I had to get on the bus. Shortly after, I rented Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness from Blockbuster (and I now own that exact cartridge.)
What solidified my love for the series, though, was purchasing the original game, along with its sequel, for the old Nintendo that I had acquired from my best friend.
They were tough games to be sure, but the atmosphere and gameplay hooked me. Yes, even Simon's Quest's befuddling and cryptic scenarios fueled my imagination.
Before purchasing these games, or even playing them, however, my first actual exposure to the series was through its music. On a website that has certainly long since met its fate in the cyber-graveyard, my best friend and I (the same one who gave me the NES!) listened to spooky MIDI remixes of songs from the enchantingly titled Castlevania series. We were enthralled and even legitimately scared by some of the creepier tunes from the first three games, yet couldn't help but listen to them repeatedly.
The music has had that same effect on many over the years, and the games have become synonymous with outstanding music. Simply put, the soundtracks are legendary in their own right. But why is that the case? What's made them stand the test of time for so long? What sets them apart from their peers? Those questions hooked into me during the past few months, so I decided I'd tackle them in a series of soundtrack reviews. Some of these will be very well known and beloved, while others haven't quite gotten the recognition they may deserve and have been obscured by time and other factors. The twist is that, after talking briefly about each track, I'll discuss how the music stands out on its own, without the game to accompany it, along with how it meshes with the on-screen action.
So please join me for my stereotypically Castlevania-infused month of October, featuring OST reviews, and at least one article featuring the games as well!
Accompanying the classic scene of Simon swaggering to the Castle gates, ready for a night of hunting demons and killing vampires, we're treated to a brief seven-or-so seconds of a tension-fueling build-up that sets the tone for our journey through the haunted castle.
2. Vampire Killer
Perhaps the most famous of all the tunes in the entire franchise (and bearing the name of the legendary whip Simon wields), this creepy anthem fits nicely with the dilapidated courtyard and main hall during the opening steps of your journey. Not only does it keep up a spooky, tingly atmosphere with its chosen instruments, but it also manages to have a bit of a heroic, adventurous tone as you march onward.
Stage II finds my favorite Belmont warrior in the tower-like armory, filled with living armor, dangerous traps and, most notoriously, the infamous Medusa Heads and their queen, Medusa herself. "Stalker" reminds me a lot of "Vampire Killer," but has a more a tentative, cautious vibe. The feeling it exudes is akin to "this is going to be a long, perilous journey, and it's just the beginning."
4. Wicked Child
One of the more neglected tracks from the original game, yet one of the most dynamic is "Wicked Child." You're finally out in the fresh air after escaping Medusa in her crusty tower, but you're greeted by the nefarious Flea Men, who are just as cruel as the Medusa Heads. The song's sinisterly upbeat style seems to mirror the giddy bound of the Flea Men, convulsing madly as they are about to pounce. A catchy, interesting song that is begging for inclusion in future titles.
5. Walking Edge
After defeating the powerful Mummies, Simon plummets deep into the depths beneath the Castle, into a swampy, catacomb-like cavern, crawling with Mermen and other creatures, led by none-other than Frankenstein's Creature himself, along with the invincible Igor. This song exudes the feeling of the icky trudge through the sludge, while also maintaining a determined sensation as Simon strides onward, whip in-hand.
6. Heart of Fire
Upon the defeat of Igor and Frankenstein's Creature, the battered Belmont sieges the perilous dungeon to do battle with Dracula's right-hand man, Death himself. "Heart of Fire" is the perfect anthem for Simon's quest through the most difficult and dangerous location he's yet visited, electing to highlight the danger and willpower on this leg of the venture, Despite this, it does not forget to remind the player that they're deep in the heart of an evil castle by having a Bach-like musical bridge thrown in for good measure.
7. Out of Time
The aptly-titled "Out of Time" is used for our fateful journey through the Clock Tower, and features the kind of atmosphere you'd expect to face when under-pressure and running out of time. Once again being able to breathe the cold, night air, the brave Simon Belmont, high above the majority of the Castle, faces the most powerful legions of Dracula's aerial fleet before making it through the precarious Clock Tower. The song also inspires that feeling of determination that "Heart of Fire" did, letting you know that despite the difficulty at hand, you're reaching the last steps of this adventure.
As Simon walks up the enormous staircase to the Castle Keep, we're greeted with this ominous, unnerving theme for the Dark Lord himself, Count Dracula. During your bout with the Count, it continues. The main problem with this ditty, despite its calling to mind a perilous duel with Vlad the Impaler, and the air of regality it brings, is that it's very short and the repetitive nature can get on your nerves in the wrong way. Certainly an inferior song for this encounter when compared with the later favorite, "Dance of Illusions," which amps up the regality while maintaining a much more interesting melody and orchestration.
9. Poison Mind
The classic boss music, simply oozing with malicious intent. Its prickly, organ-like sound instantly calls to mind evil spirits and monsters on the search for your soul while also reminding us once again of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, at least in spirit. It gives off a hair-raising feeling, and is an excellent tune to accompany the confrontation with Dracula's strongest servants. However, much like "Nightmare," "Poison Mind" is unfortunately short and repetitive, but luckily, most boss encounters in this game are brief.
10. Black Night
"Black Night" accompanies Dracula's final, demonic form. It amps up the intensity to a new level compared to "Nightmare," but much like the theme of Dracula's first form, it's incredibly repetitive, and the high-intensity is far more grating than it is blood-pumping. In fact, it hardly conveys anything other than annoyance.
The victory jingle upon defeating one of the bosses is a cathartic and short piece that acts as both a relief from the harried conflict while also getting the player excited for the next level. It's a pleasant, empowering tune, and a departure from the mostly doom-and-gloom of the other tracks (and a stark contrast to "Poison Mind," giving it an extra boost of catharsis).
12. Game Complete
Perhaps even more cathartic than "Victory" is the lengthier jingle, "Game Complete." After defeating the Count once and for all (except for the next game, and the next game, and the next game, ad infinitum), it's a fanfare, praising you for completing the quest through this haunted castle and vanquishing its vampiric master.
Structurally the most interesting of all the tracks, it has that classic Konami sound while delivering a fittingly somber atmosphere while the faux-credits roll. It truly feels like a great adventure has come to an end, while the ruins of the structure in which you just battled for half-hour an hour, crumble under the rays of the rising sun.
A jingle you will hear often. A falling scale mimics Simon's toppling animation during his demise. Luckily, despite hearing it often (most likely in Death's stage), it never feels like it's mocking you, but it does sound like you're letting the game down. Almost like it's disappointed with you. Get up, Simon, you dingus. It's time to whip more things!
15. Game Over
Another short jingle that you might hear as often as "Death," "Game Over" is seemingly a morbid take on elements of "Stalker," and just screams defeat as the end peters out, mirroring the loss of hope you feel in regard to your ability to conquer the game.