The first Castlevania game was released in Japan 30 years ago today. Known there as Demon Castle Dracula, Konami’s melding of 8-bit action and monster-movie horror stuck, and the resulting series became an industry staple. Through nearly 30 games and several major overhauls, one of Castlevania’s most consistent qualities has been its music, a collection of diverse and iconic songs that have a sound all their own. In this special edition of Let’s Playlist, we’re celebrating 30 years of Castlevania with a look back at the series’ soundtracks, sampling from the eclectic mix of styles and sounds that make this one of video gaming’s richest musical histories. And as always, we invite you to share your favorite Castlevania songs down in the comments—along with a YouTube link, if you can find one. At the end of the week, we’ll add your nominations to our playlist, which you can find right here, and share the final set in Friday’s Keyboard Geniuses.
“Vampire Killer” is as emblematic as video game music gets. The first theme of the first-ever Castlevania stage, the title is, of course, shared with your character, Simon Belmont, a hunter who’s out to vanquish Dracula. (It’s also the name of his clan’s sacred whip.) But the music itself is reflective of what Castlevania is at heart, less outright horror than a swashbuckling adventure with a monster-movie twist. The key is that combination of spooky minor-key melodies with rocking riffs and drums, riding a line between ghoulish and glamorous. As the series evolved, it took advantage of new technology for more lush aesthetics and implemented the sophisticated structures of games like Symphony Of The Night to match. The music transformed as well, becoming far more complex and diverse. But deep down, this “Vampire Killer” formula remained the core of the series’ sound and identity, the blueprint for 30 years of fantastic music and games. [Matt Gerardi]
As the series’ first foray into Metroid-style open exploration, Simon’s Quest has a mixed reputation, but the soundtrack is uniformly impeccable, including this track, which heralds the game’s transitions from day into night. Monsters get tougher and zombies start roaming the streets of town, but at least you’ve got some sinister organ beats and driving drums to keep you company on your quest for Dracula’s disembodied parts. More importantly, there’s a desperation to the song that captures what it feels like to be stuck in the middle of the woods when the sun goes down and the straightforward skeletons you’ve been beating transform into murderous werewolves. It might be a horrible night to have a curse, but hey, at least the music’s good. [William Hughes]
Castlevania III’s aural ambitions remain mind blowing. Composer Hidenori Maezawa helped create the custom VRC6 processor that came in the original Famicom version’s cartridge and gave the game five extra sound channels to beef up its songs. This innovation doubled the amount of sound channels available in the American NES version and led to two iterations of the game’s stellar score. Full up on the creepers and rockers key to the previous games, Dracula’s Curse saw Maezawa branch out stylistically with some jams that were plain funky. “Mad Forest” opens with a shuffling beat and bass groove to set the mood before horn blats kick off the synth melody in grand style. As warped love children of ’70s Genesis and Bootsy Collins go, “Mad Forest” is a banger regardless of the version you hear. The NES take rules because of how it isolates the break down 25 seconds in. The Famicom VRC6-adorned version fattens up the bass significantly. Brilliant, danceable, perfect. [Anthony John Agnello]
Castlevania’s life on the original Game Boy was tumultuous, with a trio of unusual attempts to translate the action of the NES series to something palatable on the wee green screen. Two of them were flat out bad. (Not even an Alucard cameo could help Castlevania Legends.) But Belmont’s Revenge, a sequel to Castlevania: The Adventure, was both a badass game and a showcase for precisely why the Game Boy’s sound chip is still a favorite instrument of chiptune artists to this day: The thing can start fires, and “New Messiah” is the resulting blaze. This is full-on rock ’n’ roll blitz Castlevania. A minor key melody sets the stage, a vintage desperate air settles in, then—blam!—here come the Game Boy’s tin-plated snare and bass. “New Messiah” teeters on discord throughout, but that bleeping melody—not guitar, not keys, but a chip sound all its own—builds it back up to tunefulness before plunging back down again. Both this song and this game were among the Game Boy’s best. [Anthony John Agnello]
There’s a distinctive dreaminess to the soundtrack of the first Super NES Castlevania game, one that sets it apart from the heavy rock influences that the rest of the series carries on its sleeve. Where another Castlevania game might have wailing guitar or sharpened snares, Castlevania IV uses ethereal organs or tinkling harps underpinned with drums that always sound just a little bit hollow or loose. Even fast-paced tracks like this one—which, along with its semi-sequel “Spinning Tower,” accompanies the game’s famous faux 3-D sequences in Stage 4—never lose that spacey quality. Like the level it’s situated in, “Rotating Room” transitions between a lot of moving parts, but its most notable section features a speedy organ backed up with a strident drum beat and rising synths. It really nails how disorienting these scenes are supposed to feel, as you dangle by a whip from a ring while the spike-filled room around you slowly turns. [William Hughes]
Super Castlevania IV brought the series to a new generation of consoles, but Rondo Of Blood, released just two years later and only in Japan, would prove to be the more transformational entry. It blew the series’ conventions out of the water, retaining its straightforward level-to-level structure, adding some anime flair both in and out of battle, and setting the stage for its sequel, Symphony Of The Night. Rondo’s team of composers harnessed the power of CD-ROMs to create an eclectic score with a depth of sound that was previously impossible. Several classic tunes return in rearranged form, but none sound quite as grand as “Bloody Tears.” Rondo’s take on this signature song—it has appeared in more than a dozen games since its Simon’s Quest debut—transforms its introduction into the full-bodied organ toccata it was always meant to be. It builds to a frenzy, then takes a back seat as the track shifts into heavy-metal adventure mode, the thunderous drums and furious bass pushing Richter Belmont further into the night. Between the ever-present organ, relentless rhythm section, and obligatory choral bursts, this interpretation is tremendous from front to back, filling every nook and cranny with some juicy nugget to sink your fangs into. [Matt Gerardi]
Kids growing up in Sega households didn’t get a whole lot of Castlevania in their diets. Symphony Of The Night, a series high point, made an appearance on the Saturn, but the only original Castlevania title to launch exclusively on a Sega console was the monster-slaying European road trip Castlevania Bloodlines for the Genesis. Being set apart from the mainline titles, Bloodlines was free to cut loose a bit, ditching the perspective of the Belmont clan and the series’ traditional gothic setting to focus on a pair of vampire killers during World War I. It also had a different sound, making full and glorious use of the Genesis’ sometimes-maligned sound chip. You can hear all the telltale signs of a Genesis track on “Iron Blue Intention”: the broad glub-glub of the bass, sounding as if it were being played underwater, the softness of the brushed drums, the tinny parp-parp of the trumpets. But through all those audio compromises, it’s still a rollicking and spooky action-horror tune, and a perfect Castlevania track. [Patrick Lee]
There’s something so sophisticated and urbane about Symphony Of The Night’s Long Library, due in no small part to the area’s theme, “Wood Carving Partita.” After fighting through hallways of petty hoi polloi foot soldiers and lowly skeletons, to enter the calm of the library and hearing those first delicate notes from the harpsichord is like a sip from a cool glass of water. It’s a truly lovely piece—layered but uncluttered, maintaining an even tempo that makes every jump and sword slash feel like a dance. Alucard will endure what he must to bring down his father, but for a half-vampire who battles against the legions of hell and chaos wearing a pristine suit of silks, the unruffled confidence of the “Wood Carving Partita” feels like the closest thing he has to a proper theme. [Nick Wanserski]
Appropriately, for a game about the undead, Castlevania has a penchant for reviving elements from its past, offering us a chance to hear old tracks tarted up and pumped through technologically superior systems. Castlevania: Circle Of The Moon was the first title in the series to appear on the Game Boy Advance, which would become its home for the next several years, and its soundtrack featured track after track of exquisitely reimagined tunes from previous entries. Among them is this take on the Bloodlines song “Sinking Old Sanctuary,” given new life by the Game Boy Advance’s plump, round synthesized bass line. One-one-two, one-one-two, it goes—a waltz so hypnotic that the whisper-quiet melody drifts through it like mist and almost gets lost. The Genesis, bless its heart, wasn’t capable of such subtlety. [Patrick Lee]
Like trying to squeeze your cat into a Halloween costume, Castlevania has struggled mightily with the transition to three dimensions. The series’ third 3-D entry, Lament Of Innocence for the PlayStation 2, attempted to make up for the previous Nintendo 64 games’ lukewarm reception by inheriting more of the 2-D titles’ beloved elements. That grab bag of positive associations approach is exemplified in “House Of Sacred Remains,” a kind of a greatest hits theme that used all the best, most recognizable elements of previous scores and crams them into one track. It begins with a solitary, mournful organ before introducing a dripping rhythm and synthesized chorus. There’s a swift transition to up-tempo smooth jazz, and a furious refrain of Phantom Of The Opera-level organ playing erupts before the piece calms again. Ultimately, Lament Of Innocence fell into the vast limbo of merely acceptable Castlevania entries, but even an average game can be graced by excellent music. [Nick Wanserski]
Michiru Yamane brought her decade-plus tenure as Castlevania‘s primary composer to a close with Order Of Ecclesia, one of the Nintendo DS’ best games, one of the series’ most interesting experiments, and easily the most unjustly ignored Castlevania. In overlooking the game where designer Koji Igarashi went for the gusto, people also overlooked Yamane’s most fully realized collection of songs since Symphony Of The Night. Her great skill was always in marrying slinky new-age melodies with solid dancey beats, and while the CD format of Symphony lent itself well to that style, the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS were less fitting. Ecclesia’s “Azure Wanderings” exemplifies how she recaptured her groove. Playful piano trills dance around the opening seconds of the song, their coy elegance gaining a threatening edge from the synth strings thickening up the background. Half a minute later, the strings and keys meet in the middle, revealing the curious, looping melody at the center. The tune sounds like Shanoa, Ecclesia’s star, moves, with each note a stride of long legs and raven hair. (Anthony John Agnello)
For its final iteration, Konami handed the series over to a young Spanish studio named MercurySteam. Its vision, the Lords Of Shadow trilogy, transformed Castlevania into a gothic soap opera that had more in common with the bombastic brawling of God Of War than Symphony Of The Night. The soundtracks followed suit, prioritizing grandeur and fury over the simple tunefulness of the series’ past. Here, in the last song of what’s possibly the last Castlevania soundtrack we’ll ever hear, all that angst melts away and leaves behind a gorgeous little dirge for this legendary series. Lords Of Shadow 2 might have been a dreadful way for Castlevania to go, but with “Credits 2,” one final cry that’s at once mournful and triumphant, the series seemingly marches off into that good night with its head held high. [Matt Gerardi]
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