Originally published in 1st November 2019.
It’s the week of Halloween, everybody! So it’s only inevitable that we have to bring up the video game that was inspired by the festive spooky season and Universal Monster movies: Castlevania.
Before Konami became “#F*** Konami”, the company was publishing and developing sequels, spin-offs, and what-not of its iconic “man versus Dracula” narrative and gameplay. But we have to wonder: which battle against Count Dracula is the best battle against Count Dracula?
That’s what we’re going to find out: we will be listing and ranking the sublime and subpar Castlevania games throughout the years. Excluding the Tiger Electronics LCD handheld games because we know that’s garbage.
36. CR Pachinko Akumajou Dracula (Arcade)
We are starting at the bottom of the barrel here: a Panchinko game that’s probably still putting Konami in the black because of their current profit strategy at the expense of pushing out quality titles that gamers care about.
Worse, it sells the gothic and monster with “EROTIC VIOLENCE” as one of its key features. We shouldn’t be surprised since this is the company that has turned a stealth franchise into a subpar survival game and giving a run-and-gun game an overheat and cooldown mechanic.
35. Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night (iOS/Android)
If you’re hankering for an iOS/Android Puzzle Fighter clone with Castlevania sprites, you can’t go wrong with this obvious cash-in. It’s not available now though, but at least playing this back in its mobile gaming heyday is way better than being #36.
34. Castlevania: Order of Shadows (Mobile)
In retrospect, Order of Shadows wasn’t a bad take on the nonlinear Castlevania platformer, especially since the game came out in 2007 and had to work with so many limitations with a pre-touchscreen mobile phone. It looks odd and controls weird, but it was ambitious in its undertaking.
We’d say give it a shot, but it’s pretty tough to find Java-format games in this day and age short of emulation.
33. Akumajou Dracula: The Arcade (Arcade)
A House of The Dead clone but with a Castlevania twist. Not exactly the most stellar of all spin-offs; it’s a mediocre time-waster at best and a wasted opportunity to go beyond a rail shooter at worst.
32. Haunted Castle (Arcade)
We’ll say this: the music in this Castlevania arcade port is decent. Everything else? Not so good.
From crappy graphics to cheap gameplay design marred by terrible controls (even for Castlevania games back in that time), it’s no wonder Haunted Castle is the hated black sheep among the other black sheep Castlevania spin-offs.
31. Castlevania: The Adventure (Game Boy)
The early arrival of a Castlevania game on Game Boy should have been a signal to take Nintendo’s first handheld console seriously. However, designing games for small-memory consoles and cartridges is incredibly challenging during the console’s heyday, and it really shows in this first Castlevania game.
Sure, it looked and sounded adequate for its time, but that’s it. The game’s controls and frame rate were sluggish and do not mesh well together. It also abandoned many Castlevania mechanics like sub-weapons and fun level design. Give Konami props for trying though.
30. Castlevania Legends (Game Boy)
How on earth did this mess up the Belmont’s Revenge template so badly? Castlevania Legends just didn’t control or play very well and it was pretty boring once you get down to the game’s core.
Its only saving grace is its magic story and trying to link main character Sonia Belmont with Alucard -which ended up being retconned a few years later. Other than that, it took Konami a while until the portable Castlevania games got their groove.
29. Castlevania: Dracula X (SNES)
This SNES port of Rondo of Blood looks and feels like the PC-Engine classic, but it sure as heck isn’t. Imagine the original game now with fewer levels, no alternate routes, and redesigned levels that turned tough fights to near-impossible feats of madness: that’s this bastardized port in a nutshell.
This is one miserable little pile of a port that really needed to be staked.
28. Lords of Shadow: Mirrors Of Fate (3DS)
The 3DS got the short end of the stick in terms of Castlevania games. MercurySteam somehow decided that the best approach at a new 2D Castlevania game was to take the worst aspects of the 3D Lords of Shadows combat and the Game Boy Metroidvania castle and level design. This resulted in a tedious slog of a game that should have been a monster-filled wild ride.
27. Vampire Killer (MSX)
What would happen if you took the NES version of Castlevania and turned it into an open-ended RPG with 80s gaming mechanics? A pretty confusing and uneven mess, even in an era where RPGs were getting their groove on with the niche gameplaying crowd.
Unlike the simple nature of the NES title, you have to guide your whip-savvy Belmont to find specific items and characters, backtracking through levels while avoiding bad guys. You also have a limited set of lives and no continues, making this journey all the more aggravating. Give it props though; its ambition and laying the RPGing groundworks for future sequels and iterations to come.
26. Castlevania: Judgment (Wii)
Don’t laugh: this 1-on-1 Castlevania 3D fighting game had some decent ideas with its playstyles and levels. But did it really need to exist? Even with its amusing storylines played out by characters redesigned by the Death Note artist, Castlevania: Judgment is just a notable cash grab.
Unlike others like DreamMix TV, this one is actually tolerable. In a way, paved way for Simon and Richter to be playable in Super Smash Bros Ultimate. At least, we would like to think that.
25. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (Game Boy Advance)
We’ll confess – Castlevania: Circle of the Moon impressed a lot of us with its aesthetics and its breadth during the Game Boy Advance’s debut year in 2001. However, time hasn’t been kind to the game thanks to other Game Boy Advance fares.
While its gameplay mechanic is nifty, it relies solely on luck. Coupled with sluggish controls and a ton of boring damage sponges for bosses, this is the chief reason why most retro gamers gravitate towards later GBA Castlevania fares. Circle of the Moon paved the way for better things, and now that those better things have arrived, you no longer need to play this curio.
24. Castlevania (Nintendo 64)
The worst 3D Castlevania made, bar none. For every wacky idea it introduces, like skeletons on motorcycles, you have to struggle with terrible controls and the awful 3D combat.
Add to the fact that the game was shipped incomplete, and you wonder why there were so many pissed-off Nintendo Castlevania fans in 1999.
23. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (PS3, Xbox 360)
This Lords of Shadow sequel had good ideas but MercurySteam didn’t stick the landing.
Making Dracula the playable character certainly was bold; forcing the almighty lord of vampires to timidly complete dull and punishing stealth sequences was the complete opposite of that philosophy. It’s another one of those Castlevania efforts that manage to achieve parity between good ideas and bad; the fact that the Lords of Shadow line ended here is no tragedy.
22. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)
This NES sequel was ambitious with its non-linear RPG undertaking; it learned the mistakes of the MSX version of Vampire Killer while turning this game into an epic quest of Simon Belmont trying to break his curse.
Sure, leveling up is a grind and it makes combat unnecessarily difficult, and it isn’t as focused as its prequel. But since you had unlimited continues here and if you can figure out the lies spewed by the townsfolk, you’ll eventually conquer it. Besides, if this didn’t’ exist, we wouldn’t be getting our favourite Castlevania games, right?
21. Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (Nintendo 64)
A vast improvement over the Nintendo 64 Castlevania. It feels and plays like a product of its time, but it at least attempts to correct most of its mechanics. Plus, it at least has way more focus than later 3D Castlevania efforts.
20. Dracula X Chronicles (PSP)
This package marks the first time Rondo of Blood was in English, legally, by way of a 2.5D polygonal remake. While it feels and plays alright, purists will find the controls a bit off and floaty; less precise combat if we’re being blunt.
The changes, while tailored for gamers in 2007, didn’t do much to make players swear off the PC-Engine original. At least you can play the emulated version of the classic here.
19. Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (Game Boy Advance)
The first portable Metroidvania by Symphony of the Night creator Koji Igarashi, this entry, unfortunately, had a pretty bad castle layout. While the gimmick here is cool -Juste Belmont has to defeat Dracula by leaping across dimensions and exploring parallel versions of the domain- the level design can get confusing. The aesthetics also do not help; they’re grating to the eyes and ears even for a Game Boy Advance game.
The action, however, is its saving grace, as it’s far more fluid and creative than Circle of the Moon.
18. Castlevania: The Rebirth (Wii)
While at first glance it looks like a remake of the terrible Castlevania: The Adventure Game Boy title, Castlevania: The Rebirth is a brand new title that just happens to feature levels from the Game Boy titles. This reworking comes equipped with proper Castlevania action and platforming mechanics, alongside some solid visuals and OST remixes.
Too bad it’s delisted with the demise of WiiWare, so you’ll have to find some other way to play it.
17. Kid Dracula (Game Boy)
Imagine Dracula as a child who can cast fireballs on his enemies: it’s Mega Man meets Castlevania in this goofy spin-off.
Featuring upbeat platforming and shooting action that balances the fine line between humour and homage, Kid Dracula is a surprisingly fun title that puts most of the bottom entries to shame even with its dopey remixes of Castlevania classics.
16. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
The sequels were subpar and went off the rails, but at least we’ll have this noble “clean slate” rebirth from MercurySteam that had the best of intentions.
The devs took a clean-break approach that allowed for new story ideas and new approaches to play. Granted, that “new approach” owes a lot to God of War, but it works for the most part. Solid minor battles serve as the ligament connecting grand boss fights and lots of traversal sequences centred around protagonist Gabriel Belmont’s whip.
What didn’t age well in retrospect was the clumsy-slash-pretentious script. Even the talented Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle couldn’t save the game’s flaming pile of a story.
15. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PS2)
This first attempt at a proper 3D Castlevania game isn’t perfect, but it at least did a few things right. The combat feels great even if it’s derivative of Capcom’s Devil May Cry series. The game’s music and graphics are just blissful to listen to and watch.
The castle layout and exploration, while repetitive at the mid and end game, is at least kept short and to the point. The fact that the game’s story establishes itself as the very first Castlevania and how the whole Belmont vs Dracula thing started is also a treat for fans.
14. Super Castlevania IV (SNES)
Super Castlevania IV recounted Simon Belmont’s journey through the original game in an expanded format that owes a great deal to Castlevania III’s expanded journey to Dracula’s castle. As an attempt to rework the 8-bit Castlevania concept for 16-bit hardware, Super Castlevania IV plays like no other chapter of the series.
Simon appears as a huge, hulking protagonist whose whip spans nearly the entire screen once powered up; to compensate, the action here moves far more slowly than in previous games and tends to be decidedly lower on difficulty. It’s a different take on action platforming, but still welcomed nonetheless.
13. Castlevania: Belmont’s Revenge (Game Boy)
Castlevania: The Adventure was intended to be a successor to the NES Castlevania games but went horribly awry. So the series had to look back to the older console-based adventure to get back on track and succeeded.
Belmont’s Revenge plays great, with smartly crafted action that brings the true Castlevania spirit to the humble Game Boy. Which isn’t to say it’s all business as usual; the castle setting that comprises most of the quest feels almost inspired by Mega Man. Regardless, it’s still a true blue Castlevania title made for the handheld.
12. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (Xbox 360, PS3)
Harmony of Despair is a case of using constraints of game design and assets to your advantage. Clearly designed as an attempt to create an online, cooperative Castlevania game with as small a budget as possible, it consists almost entirely of recycled material drawn from across the entire franchise, smashed together with little regard for consistency or cohesion.
And to be honest, it’s brilliant and plays incredibly well given its end goal. Players can team up to make a mad dash through multiple remixed versions of Dracula’s home, controlling characters ranging from 8-bit Simon Belmont to Order of Ecclesia’s Shanoa, battling a wide range of monsters and super-bosses.
Purists may say it’s a visual mess, but the whole thing hums with a sort of manic energy that never gives you time to stop and contemplate the strangeness of the whole affair. Besides, when’s the last time anyone’s ever played a couch co-op multiplayer Castlevania style action game? Exactly, which is why this final project from Koji Igarashi before his departure from Konami should warrant attention.
11. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS)
The Metroidvania approach was beginning to wear out its welcome by the time this DS title arrived. Still, it managed to keep things feeling fresh by mixing things up a bit.
Players controlled two heroes at once — whip-wielding Jonathan and spell-casting Charlotte — swapping instantly between them with the touch of a button. The game makes clever use of the dual-protagonist style, with levels and battles designed around the duo -Dracula’s team-up with Death is one particular highlight. Narratively, it works as a sequel to Bloodlines, and its portal-based structure allowed the action to range far beyond Transylvania.
It’s a shame the grindy weapon system and repetitive back half drag things down, despite all the obvious attention and care that went into the game.
And the less said about the cheap anime portraits, the better.
10. Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PS2, Xbox)
Arguably the best of the 3D Castlevania games in the 2000s, unfortunately saddled with the laziest subtitle in the series.
Curse of Darkness abandoned the look and style of Lament of Innocence in favour of a darker adventure that took tremendous liberties with the Castlevania concept. While it suffers from some pacing flaws and the clumsiness common to action games of the era, Curse of Darkness feels more like its own creature than any other 3D Castlevania outing.
It drops the whip-based combat in favour of shorter-range melee skills and places the burden of mechanical variety on the demons its protagonist, a former servant of Dracula called Hector, can synthesize and summon. Pretty nifty stuff. Too bad it was largely ignored by fans, though it’s nice that the Netflix Castlevania showrunners paid homage to the game with the inclusion of Hector and Isaac in the show’s second season.
9. Castlevania (NES)
Just like the first Super Mario Bros game was, the first Castlevania back in 1986 was a pioneer in slow-based action gaming featuring monster movie schlock icons and tough gameplay.
The level design and challenge was tough but fair. The music was awesome. The controls were tight. While it’s a shorter affair by modern standards, it still holds up well with its other peers because it’s the Castlevania game that knew what it wanted.
8. Castlevania Chronicles (PlayStation)
Yet another attempt to remake the original Castlevania, this is the best of them.
Originally released on the Japan-only Sharp X68000 home computer, it was remade for PlayStation with some new features years later. Either version you go with, you’re in for a visually stunning remix of the original NES classic with dazzling music and arguably the most difficult gameplay in the entire series. The kind of difficulty that is fair and not based on sloppy game and level design, of course.
Like Super Castlevania IV, Chronicles incorporates elements of later games into its expanded rendition of Simon’s journey. There is no shortage of new surprises ranging from stained glass windows that leap to life and attack, to swarms of monsters that attack you for trying to reveal hidden power-ups from the original game.
7. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)
In some ways, this entry is a refinement of the great ideas contained in Aria of Sorrow — not to mention a vast audio-visual overhaul made possible by the move from GBA to DS. However, Dawn of Sorrow falls somewhat short of its predecessor thanks to a few poor design choices that appear to have trickled down from the corporate offices.
The story and character art abandon the series’ painterly gothic mystery in favour of anime-style bombast; it’s an obvious bid to sell Castlevania to a younger audience. Worse, the boss battles are punctuated by an ill-conceived touchscreen gimmick in an attempt to show off the DS hardware; as if having a permanent map available on the second screen at all times wasn’t a big enough selling point.
Despite these shortcomings, Dawn of Sorrow has one of the best gameplay loops in the series thanks to its soul-capturing system. Oh, and the unlockable bonus mode is a heart-warming love letter to one of our top 5 Castlevania games on this list.
6. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)
Half Metroidvania exploration, half 2D side-scroller: Order of Ecclesia married the two concepts and made a better version of Castlevania 2. The entire adventure revolves around a town you’re holed up in; as you complete quests you fill it up with citizens who help you out with tips and hearsay.
It’s the last Metroidvania Castlevania that does a great job blending both the new and old aspects of the franchise, probably marred by its crazy difficulty curve.
5. Castlevania Bloodlines (Megadrive)
The reason this Megadrive entry is incredibly high up on the list is because of its outlier status. At heart, this is pure, classic whip-and-jump (and spear and jump) Castlevania action at its best with a few groundbreaking changes.
The adventures of John Morris and newcomer Eric LeCarde (a series’ first; a second new playable character at the start) helped pave the way for the likes of Alucard in his then “next-gen” debut. Not only that, the globetrotting scenario helped break the series free from the environs of Dracula’s castle.
Add to that some stunning music from Michiru Yamane and creative level designs that incorporate hardware-pushing tech tricks in a meaningful way and you have a forgotten Castlevania that merits rediscovery.
4. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)
This 1989 NES gem emphasizes on choice: a rarity in 2D gaming back in the day. Protagonist Trevor Belmont can travel one of several different paths to the end of the game, and he can team up with one of three different vampire hunters for help tackling Dracula … though pro players may elect to go it alone for that extra challenge.
The addition of partner characters opens up both new combat tactics as well as new ways to navigate the castle, giving an already expansive adventure more replay value -it’s roughly three times the size of the first Castlevania.
A true high point for 8-bit gaming, Dracula’s Curse remains exceptionally playable nearly 30 years later. Also, do try to play the Famicom version with the special FM chip; the music on that version is way superior to the NES version.
3. Akumajou Dracula: Rondo of Blood (PC Engine)
Made in 1993, this is hands-down the best 2D semi-linear Castlevania game in the franchise. It offers short-but-sweet platforming action that will test your skills to the fullest, awesome graphics and music, and branching paths for attentive players who dare take alternate pathways. There’s a ton of great action moments crammed in this PC Engine title; it wowed us back then and it still impresses up to this day.
It’s only bested by the final two games on this list because we now associate the Castlevania games as open-ended non-linear map-driven experiences. Even so, this entry has every other game beat in balancing tough challenges with precise controls and awesome-looking action setpieces.
2. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PlayStation)
Don’t act too shock seeing this PS1 classic in every top 5 Castlevania games list and feature; it damn well deserves to be here. This 1997 title singlehandedly defined an entire genre of games up until now. Indie game devs have SOTN’s blueprint to thank.
Drawing equal inspiration from landmark action RPG titles like Zelda II and Metroid, Symphony worked as a love letter to a decade of Castlevania adventures, a rousing defense of 2D graphics and gameplay in the face of an industry-wide shift to 3D, and a rich new evolution of platform gaming in its own right. This trifecta of trendsetting proportions features surprisingly deep simple jump-and-slash action thanks to the integration of role-playing and inventory systems.
“Dated” 2D graphics felt vital and contemporary thanks to the inclusion of loving details and subtle, cutting-edge effects. The soundtrack used the CD format to elevate the audio standards of a series already renowned for its killer music. Its only flaw is its underwhelming difficulty, but that’s part and parcel for a Metroidvania title.
P.S: Avoid the Sega Saturn version at all cost.
1. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Game Boy Advance)
Symphony of the Night revived the open-world 2D gaming genre (Super Metroid was first, FYI) and made it a viable game design template for many. However, Igarashi’s Game Boy Advance work succeeded the PlayStation classic on a lot of counts.
Granted, Aria of Sorrow didn’t begin to compare to SOTN in terms of tech — that’s a tall order for the humble Game Boy Advance — but both its game design and its narrative leave all the other Metroidvania chapters of the series in the dust. Aria brings the series forward into the future, positing a final decisive defeat of Count Dracula in 1999 — an event whose fallout drives the story here.
The plot, in turn, feeds into the core game mechanic, which allows hero Soma Cruz to capture the souls of defeated monsters and harness their powers as his own. Likewise, the castle here is perhaps the most interesting layout in the entire series, introducing tons of new enemies to deal with and giving players ample incentive to experiment with Soma’s newfound powers.
It’s a clever, replayable game that makes the most of its premise and setting despite the modest hardware that powers it. Adding to that, the game’s soul mechanic made Igarashi take that idea and implement it in a fleshed-out manner in his brand-new game that came out this year.