Updated: Nov 21, 2022
I have to confess right off the bat, I never thought I'd be writing about Haunted Castle (Akumajou Dracula in Japan) so soon. In fact, I wouldn't have thought to write about Haunted Castle at all, except I happened to complete it over the weekend, a feat of which I'm extremely proud. And I did it without save states or cheat codes, just a lot of practice, dying and grinding.
Haunted Castle, of course, is a Castlevania title released exclusively to arcades all the way back in 1988. And in fact, the name Haunted Castle is a more accurate translation of Akumajou Dracula than Castlevania is (Akumajou Dracula literally means Devil's Castle Dracula). In Japan, the name Akumajou Dracula for the arcade release was chosen for brand recognition purposes. I'm not sure why Castlevania wasn't chosen for the western release of Haunted Castle.
In the interests of clarity before we properly begin, all screenshots contained therein are taken from the Japanese version of Haunted Castle - or Akumajou Dracula should we say - contained in the Konami Arcade Classics collection on Nintendo Switch. And now, without further ado...
Konami's Haunted Castle is a unique entry in the Castlevania series. For one, it was the first ever Castlevania title to be released in the arcades. Most games of the time that were released on arcade and later ported to home systems. With Castlevania Konami did the opposite, releasing the first three games in the lauded action-horror series to the home market first. Here's the release schedule:
Akumajou Dracula (NES) = released in Japan in1986
Vampire Killer (MSX2) = released in Japan in 1986 and Europe in1987
Castlevania (NES) = released in the US in1987 and 1988 in PAL markets
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES) = released in Japan in 1987, 1988 in the US, and 1990 in PAL markets
Haunted Castle was then released to arcades in early 1988 (Japan) and late 1988 (US), smack bang in the middle of the home releases. Even though Konami had already already released the open-world Simon's Quest on the NES, Haunted Castle's mechanics are modelled on the 1986 original. That is to say, Haunted Castle - like most early Castlevania titles - is a traditional 2D side-scrolling action-adventure game. Simon Belmont trapezes through linear six stages, whipping familiar enemies such as skeletons, bats, gill-men, knights, dwarfs, mummies and more. At the end of each stage Simon squares off against a boss creature, again drawn from the classic monster movies and the original Castlevania. Waiting for you at the end is Count Dracula himself! Simon starts his quest with a measly Leather Whip. It's not very powerful; however, along the way he can upgrade to a Chain Whip and later a Sword. Simon can also kill certain enemies to obtain certain sub-weapons, such as Dynamite, Boomerang and Timer, the latter freezing enemies for a short space of time.
In terms of controls, Simon is tankier and clunkier to manoeuvre than ever before. It doesn't help that the game is brutally difficult, despite its short length. But hey, at least it looks pretty. In fairness, Konami were able to do things in Haunted Castle that they weren't able to in the 8-bit games, like actual cutscenes and an improved soundtrack, including a re-worked Bloody Tears track in stage 3.
Speaking of cutscenes, the game opens with Simon and his wife just literally having got married in a nice, little church next to a lake surrounded by mountains. It's worth noting at this stage that Haunted Castle takes place in its own little continuity. But barely has the honeymoon begun when Dracula swoops down from his lair and snatches his beloved bride! Off Simon goes to rescue his bride before Dracula can indoctrinate her into the ranks of the Undead! By the way, this may be the only time in the Castlevania series that Simon is seen waring a tux!
Simon's quest begins in the graveyard at dusk, where he has to contend with skeletons, zombies, bats and weird spirit creatures that come out of trees!
Fallen enemies drop hearts and hearts power Simon's sub-weapon, so collect as many as you can! Walk along the low wall while you admire the majestic sunset.
Suddenly, the sky turns dark and Simon's in the graveyard proper. He'll be attacked by several zombies, so be on your toes! Beware some of the crosses and tombstones in the graveyard, as they crumble when Simon gets near them. Keep your distance or he'll receive some damage.
The mid-point of the level features a unique mini-boss - a great wall that blocks the way forward and suddenly comes alive when Simon gets close to it! It starts spitting bricks at him while a rainstorm rages.
A little after this encounter Simon will come across a line of braziers. The idea is to jump from brazier to brazier. They are seemingly cold as ash, however, as Simon keeps jumping one or two are knocked over creating a fire that sprouts tongues of flame upwards. Don't get hit!
Get past the braziers to reach a wooded part of the graveyard. Stay alert for the evil tree spirits that reach out for Simon!
Soon after Simon comes to a stone bridge. Here he'll kill a skeleton who'll drop the Dynamite sub-weapon. This turns out to be rather handy against the final boss of the area.
At the very end of the stage, Simon enters a ruined church, and waiting inside is a familiar foe... However, you'll have to wake her up first...
Kill the boss and Simon's off to the next stage. After our favourite barbarian clears a level, the player is shown a handy map of their progress.
Simon comes out of the woods in the middle of a fierce rainstorm. In a unique twist, Simon walks from right to left instead of the traditional left to right. The goal: to get down some steps into the caverns proper. Killing one of the enemies here on the surface will yield the Boomerang sub-weapon.
Kill the skeletons here but beware they'll give up the ghost - literally - and these spirits can deal damage. Crouching is the best way of avoiding damage. Up here you'll find the Chain Whip as well.
Walk all the way to the end and walk down the steps. Now we're in the caverns proper. To survive, stay on the upper levels as much as possible.
Carry on walking along the upper levels...
As you get near the end of this first section, you'll see a waterfall of... is it blood or lava? At this point, gill-men will jump onto the platforms and try and attack Simon. Whip them back to hell!
Jump off the final platform down to the ground below. Walk along and you'll have boulders chucked at Simon!
Reach the edge of the pathway and jump down into the gap. There are a couple of platforms that you can jump onto that will carry you down to the next section.
Reach the bottom and move towards the right, jumping from platform to platform to rocky outcrop until you reach steps that reach upwards.
Walk up these steps.
Crouch here to avoid the bats.
Walk a little further to the left to face a mini-boss! If you picked up the Timer sub-weapon a little earlier in the level, then the mini-boss is ridiculously easy.
Walk up the steps that appear after defeating the mini-boss to leave the caverns.
Get up onto the surface to be confronted by mud monsters. Whip them once then jump over them to avoid getting hit.
Get past the mud monsters to stumble onto a land of tall grey columns with a wall of dripping blood in the background. Your best bet is to jump from column to column to avoid the majority of enemies, that include skeletons, bats and gill-men.
Walk all the way to the right of the level - the area gets very dark - and its time to face the final boss! Again, it's very easy to defeat... so long as you have the Timer sub-weapon.
And with that, you enter Dracula's Castle, clearing another area!
Simon now finds himself in the castle hallway and confronted by annoying little imps that jump around all over the place. Should you be unlucky enough to have only the Leather Whip, it will take four hits to kill them. It's here that I had to grind for hearts for my sub-weapon.
Infuriating imps are not the only enemies that Simon encounters in the hallway. He'll also have to deal with deadly candelabra and knights.
Carry on walking right along the hallway as best you can until you're transported to what I assume is another dimension. Here Simon is confronted by three diabolical seraphim. If you have the Timer or Cross sub-weapons, they're quite easy to deal with.
Once you've killed them and you're back in the hallway, continue all the way to the right - past the banqueting table - until you come to several flights of stairs. Keep going right to the top, then keep moving to the right. Simon will be confronted by ghosts and knights...
You'll also be confronted by a disembodied pair of eyes... Keep walking right and reach the next flight of stairs. Climb up to the platform on the top-right of the screen.
Keep walking along the platform.
Then down the steps... Don't forget to kill the imps at the bottom of the stairs. Kill them and they'll drop the Sword ,AKA the most powerful main weapon in the game!
Keep walking to the left and into the chapel to confront the final boss... plus another of those annoying imps!
Once the boss is down for the count it's onwards to the next stage, the basement!
The basement has the look and feel of an underground cavernous temple with its high stone columns and burning candles. We're initially walking towards the left again, hacking away at bats and mummies.
Keep walking until you get to the stone platform that takes you to the level below.
Reach the lower floor and turn right towards another smaller stone platform.
Drop down again. We're moving towards the left once more...
Walk to the extreme left of the area killing bats, mummies and disembodied eyes as necessary and drop down. There's a stone platform to help you, but you don't need it.
Once at the bottom turn right up some steps...
Clear the four platforms above the running water.
Keep going right...
Drop down to the very bottom when you get to the two floating stone platforms.
Time to move left... again!
Walk left until you see another small floating stone platform. Drop down to the bottom.
You guessed it, we're going right again. You can stay on the above platform Simon is on in the screenshot below or drop right down to the bottom. Your choice. The point is we need to go right.
Go right to the end and jump on the the lowest of the two floating stone platforms then onto the second one rising above it.
The second floating platform takes you to the final boss of the stage...
This is the final boss of the stage. Having the Cross or Timer sub-weapon makes this fight easier.
Beat this hideous rock monstrosity and you're into the next stage!
Clocktower next and the first ting to do is walk left towards an elevator that will carry you upwards.
Be careful not to get hit by the floating platforms on the way up!
Turn right at the top.
Past these doors...
Up the steps right at the end...
Now you're in the clocktower proper! Keep going left.
Go past the clockwork gears, dispatching mummies, imps, crows and flaming floating skulls. The idea is to get up the steps to the upper level.
Turn left once up the steps... You'll be attacked by more flaming skulls.
Carry on right laying waste to flaming skulls, crows or knights that get in your way!
Get past the clockwork gears and up the steps to the next level.
Keep going up, killing any skeletons and mummies in your way.
Kill this skeleton to get the Cross sub-weapon.
The Cross sub-weapon!
Go down these steps to where the skeleton and imp are, then continue left.
Keep going left to confront the final boss of the stage - Frankenstein's monster! He's pretty easy if you have the Timer or Cross sub-weapon.
Congrats on beating him - a final confrontation with Dracula in the highest recess of the castle awaits!
The last stage of the game is the shortest, most boring, and most annoying of all. It's basically just a linear race across a bridge before it collapses. Along the way you'll have to contend with bats swooping in to hinder your progress.
It just carries on...
And carries on...
Interminably it seems...
Eventually you do get to the throne room... Before you confront Dracula, however, you'll have to take down one more seraphim.
Then Dracula appears and it's time for one more final showdown! He may have two forms just like his console counterparts, but Dracula is pathetically (and disappointingly) easy, especially if you have the Torch sub-weapon (this is found in one of the floating silverware pieces in stage 3).
Destroy him and you rescue your beloved, and together you get to watch Castlevania crumble into the sea!
And at the end, what do I think of Haunted Castle or Akumajou Dracula? Well, I don't hate it despite its flaws. Sure, it's slow, it's clunky, it's brutally hard, but it has its charm and its merits. The visuals can be nice in places - certainly they are an upgrade to what was possible on home consoles, and there are standout moments too (the portrait of the woman that sheds a single bloody tear, the wall that comes alive amid a rainstorm among other highlights). The game also changes some things up gameplay-wise to keep things fresh. You no longer whip candles, instead enemies now drop the hearts needed to power up the sub-weapons. Speaking of which, as few familiar ones pop up (Timer and Cross)) alongside new ones (Dynamite and Boomerang). The way the main weapons work is different too. Rather than upgrading one main weapon, you can now pick up a total of three, including a Sword that ends up being the most powerful weapon in the game. Plus the soundtrack is as excellent as ever.
On the other hand, Simon is built like a tank and moves like one too. The levels are linear and involve walking left or right towards the end of a stage. Some levels do have limited verticality that requires you to move up or down levels (or sometimes left to right and right to left in quick succession). However, they're still fairly linear. The difficulty level spikes as well. Some areas can be breezed through, others are brutally difficult (I'm looking at you stage 3). On the other hand, the bosses can be on the easy side, particularly if you have the correct sub-weapon. Dracula in particular is laughably easy, which is disappointing for a final boss. Compare that to the original Castlevania on the NES, where he's arguably the most difficult boss in that game (which makes sense).
After all that, should you play Haunted Castle? If you're a fan of the early Castlevania titles, I would say go ahead. So too if you like a stiff challenge (pun intended). Otherwise, it depends how patient and determined you are with older, clunkier games. It's a short game, but its difficulty means thst you could be at it grinding away for hours before making serious progress. I mean the game was originally designed to take your hard-earned coins... Once you get the hang of it, though, there's a modicum of fun to be had. I would say give it a go and see if its for you.