With a series as well-loved as Castlevania, Konami has sensibly approached celebrating the company's 50th anniversary by providing a game selection in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection with a sense of focus and balance. As opposed to Metroidvania games, the focus here is upon the traditional-style, stage-progression platforming from the earlier years of console Castlevania - so it unfortunately omits the 1986 MSX2 game Vampire Killer - with eight single-player titles spanning seven years, as they were released in the west from 1987 to 1994.
Seven of these games have been chosen from an understandably Nintendo-centric library of NES, Game Boy and SNES releases, but it's with the fantastic inclusion of the Mega Drive's Castlevania: Bloodlines from 1994 that Konami has applied a sense of balance to this compilation. With emulation experts M2 involved in development, the authenticity of each game is well preserved. There are also gratifying parallels in the game selection between the popularity of the first four numerically ordered Castlevania games, compared to two titles more restricted by the Game Boy hardware, alongside the slightly overlooked gem that is Castlevania: Bloodlines. This is all rounded out by the surprise inclusion of the more obscure, Japanese Famicom confined Kid Dracula.
The collection begins by setting out the core gameplay template with the first NES Castlevania game, released in 1987 in North America and Europe, and it has aged well considering it came out as early as 1986 in Japan. Its story follows Simon Belmont in 1691 as he wields the Vampire Killer whip to continue his family's legacy as a vampire hunter, by surviving the exploration of a Transylvanian castle, and ultimately defeating Dracula. The blueprint of traditional-style Castlevania games is etched in blood from the start, with linear advancement through careful platforming, and punishing progression as enemies like floating Medusa Heads knock reckless players backwards into instant death pits.
Patience is needed in learning the mechanics in the first title as a training ground for the traditional games as a whole, as hearts don't recover health but represent ammo for sub-weapons, and whipping candlesticks and walls uncovers meat to revive Simon's health meter. You must master the level layouts as well as the enemies' placements and movements, because each main stage is broken into checkpoints, as you gradually grasp beating each section. At this point you'll hopefully have enough health left to familiarise yourself with the patterns in the order of boss fights, which recur throughout the series as a monster movie mash-up of the likes of a Giant Bat, Medusa, Mummies, Frankenstein's Monster, Death, and Dracula.
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was released just over a year later in 1988 on the NES, and the famous quote as its day cycle changed to night stating "What a horrible night to have a curse" could be used as an allegory for how opinions have changed about this ambitious game. Today, Simon's Quest is cursed due to its nonsensical clues and cryptic use of items when progressing through non-linear areas, which are more akin to the design in the Metroidvania sub-genre. However, it was praised when it launched, as exemplified in CVG's Complete Guide to Consoles: Volume Two bookazine from the PAL version's release in 1990, which scored it 85% and commended the value of the exploration based design as Paul Rand explained, "If you enjoy arcade adventures, you’ll be battling with this one for weeks!" Yet, Simon's Quest is one Castlevania game where players are advised to consult a walkthrough when they become stuck.
The first handheld game in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection is the Game Boy's 1989 launch window title, Castlevania: The Adventure, which feels sluggish compared to the NES games, but it's still interesting to play a retro portable game on a modern console. Gamers may wonder with the inclusion of this title why the colourful pixel-art in Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth wasn't added to this compilation, since it was an M2 developed WiiWare remake. Regardless, Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge has more polish as the second Game Boy game included with this collection.
1990 saw the release of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse in North America, and its varied paths and four playable characters meant that the 8-bit NES template became refined, making it a highlight of this collection. It's a game with direct plot links to the 1476 setting of the recent Netflix Castlevania animation, and it still inspires titles like Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon today. Our sister site Nintendo Life recently covered news titled Behold The Tragic Tale Of The Man Behind Castlevania, which discussed the creative importance of Hitoshi Akamatsu as director of the three main NES games during an era when developer name credit was at times concealed behind pseudonyms.
The article describes how Akamatsu took inspiration from the whip lashing character of Indiana Jones, so it's interesting that Dracula's Curse released in Japan during the same year as The Last Crusade. The original article's source is from shmuplations, and this site provides a fascinating insight into a design philosophy that resulted in Dracula's Curse not only being the best NES Castlevania game, but also one of the best titles in the NES's library.
Also released in 1990, and localised in English for the first time, is NES Kid Dracula (Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun in Japan), which is a pleasant inclusion here as it feels like a Mega Man-style run-and-gun game, crossed with the Castlevania setting. This makes a nice palate cleanser from the main series' gameplay, just in case the classic games give you genre fatigue from their ferocious fangs. Therefore, think of Kid Dracula's bold, cute and colourful presentation as taking a similar approach to how Konami created a cartoony parody of Gradius in Parodius.
The final two games, Super Castlevania IV from 1991 and Castlevania: Bloodlines released in 1994, took the series into the 16-bit era, and they're both gloriously Gothic Castlevania titles, which warrant purchasing this collection on their own merits. Super Castlevania IV altered the feel and the accessibility of the gameplay mechanics by enabling Simon Belmont to whip in eight directions, plus it had impressive SNES Mode 7 rotation and scaling effects, as well as a fantastic soundtrack that increased the atmosphere alongside the wondrous background designs.
As the only non-Nintendo game, Castlevania: Bloodlines is possibly the most exciting inclusion in the collection, as by its release in 1994 Konami had developed great proficiency in 16-bit graphical design. It presented a later setting of locations around 1917 Europe and two playable characters, including the Vampire Killer whipping John Morris, and Eric Lecarde's vertical range with the Alucard Spear (spelt Alcarde). That Bloodlines released later in the Mega Drive's life - just six months before the 32-bit PlayStation launched in Japan - meant that it was missed by many, so it shouldn't be overlooked now it's been given a second chance in this collection.
The NES games established the importance and prominence of music in setting the atmosphere in the Castlevania franchise from the outset, with the compositions of Vampire Killer (first Castlevania), Bloody Tears (Castlevania II) and Beginning (Castlevania III) becoming recurrent, popular themes of the series. Castlevania: Bloodlines is also notable as being the first Castlevania soundtrack by Michiru Yamane, a composer who PlayStation gamers will recognise for her sublime work in PSone Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This information is detailed in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection's incorporation of a Bonus Book as an extra, including interviews with key creative staff, plus art galleries and design archives.
Admittedly - like the skeletons in the game - the extras are bare-bones, without any options menu button customisation, developer videos, unlockable cheats, or music libraries. The trophy list is also basic, based upon earning a trophy for beating each game, which is a disappointment compared to Castlevania Requiem's gameplay based trophies. However, there is an interesting replay function to record and re-watch your own gameplay, and the save option to continue from the exact spot of your last save state is improved over Requiem's checkpoint saves in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, because it makes the high difficulty of these games more approachable. As long as you don't mind save states disrupting the core gameplay mechanic of practising your skills to learn how to beat stages and bosses, the ability to save often will be a welcome addition in a well-rounded collection.
The eight retro games in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection focus on the early traditional platforming era from 1987 to 1994, and quality is assured in the four main numerical entries in the series. The way these games are balanced alongside the previously untranslated NES Kid Dracula, and the superb but overlooked Castlevania: Bloodlines on the Mega Drive provides value, despite limited extras beyond a bonus book and a replay recording function. There's also novelty from playing two Game Boy games on a modern PS4, but their inclusion highlights omissions of remakes like M2's Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth. Fingers crossed Konami consider this as volume one before sinking its teeth into further compilations, which will hopefully include Metroidvania games from the PSone, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS in the future.