Between the imminent arrival of Halloween, the continuation of Netflix’s cartoon miniseries and the recent influx of indie metroidvania games, now is the perfect moment to take a deep dive into the history of the Castlevania series and determine which battle against Count Dracula is the best battle against Count Dracula.
I’ve pulled together a list of every single Castlevania video game I could find this side of the old Tiger Electronics LCD handheld game. Some of them are remarkably terrible, but for the most part, Castlevania games hover somewhere between “good” and “masterpiece.”
36. CR Pachinko Akumajou Dracula
This Japan-only arcade amusement appeared right around the time it became clear that Konami was less interested in making video games than it was in slapping the imagery and names of its beloved game properties on unrelated ventures. To make things worse, it decided to sell this by-the-numbers gambling game with the promise of “EROTIC VIOLENCE.” A class act through and through.
35. Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night
Not a bad puzzle game (it’s pretty much a Puzzle Fighter rip-off with a Symphony of the Night theme), but this one ranks near the bottom of the list because it’s no longer available for purchase and doesn’t work on any currently-available phone or OS. A game that’s literally impossible to play is literally impossible to enjoy, and therefore it regrettably ranks way down here. That said, not playing a game is still a better experience than existing in the same plane of reality as that miserable pachinko game.
34. Castlevania: Order of Shadows
Like Encore of the Night, this game is no longer playable without hunting down a phone that hasn’t been available for a decade and therefore comes in way down here at the bottom. But, you know, it wasn’t a bad take on the nonlinear Castlevania platformer format, considering it had to work within the limitations of a pre-touch mobile phone. It’s clumsy and it’s weird, but it was ambitious for the platform it appeared on. You’d never want to seek it out to play it, admittedly, but there were certainly worse ways to kill time on a Java-format phone.
33. Akumajou Dracula: The Arcade
A mediocre House of the Dead clone masquerading as Castlevania. There’s a certain novelty in playing a light gun game with a whip, it’s true. There’s also a certain novelty in topping a nice steak with a scoop of ice cream. That doesn’t mean it’s something you should ever actually do.
32. Haunted Castle
Castlevania is good. Konami’s arcade games were good. So why was its Castlevania arcade game so bad? Blame ugly graphics, unfriendly controls and extraordinarily cheap game design put together to wring quarters from players rather than giving them a fair-but-challenging shot at taking down Dracula. At least it had cool music.
31. Castlevania: The Adventure
(Game Boy, 1989)
The early arrival of a Castlevania game on Game Boy should have been a signal to take Nintendo’s first handheld console seriously. Unfortunately, it mostly ended up symbolizing the challenges that dogged the console in its early days. It looked and sounded fine, but that was about all it had going for it. It ran sluggishly and demanded precision play that the controls didn’t really support. It also abandoned many core Castlevania mechanics, such as sub-weapons ... and fun.
30. Castlevania Legends
(Game Boy, 1997)
Belmont’s Revenge proved that Castlevania could work on Game Boy, so the fact that this third and final monochrome outing for the series played so badly was just inexcusable. To its credit, it did at least include some attempts at mechanical complexity with a decent magic system, and it attempted to lock down an origin story for the series by having its heroine hook up with Alucard to make lots of little Belmont babies (though this prequel attempt was stricken from the record by Lament of Innocence a few years later). Like The Adventure, though, it simply didn’t feel good to play, so all those good intentions amounted to nothing.
29. Castlevania: Dracula X
(Super NES, 1995)
It looks like the Super NES port of Rondo of Blood at first glance, but it definitely is not. Think of it more as the mutant step-sibling of the PC Engine game. It contained fewer levels and none of the alternate routes of Rondo, and the levels it did reprise were all redesigned to be vastly worse and crushingly unfair. The entire hateful philosophy behind Dracula X can be summed up in its encounter with Dracula, whom you have to fight while hopping around on slender pillars over a yawning abyss — a design choice that elevates a difficult battle to nigh-impossible. At least the music sounds nice.
28. Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate
While the HD reworking for consoles turned out slightly better than the 3DS original, it never crossed the threshold between “tolerable” and “oh no.” In attempting to merge Lords of Shadow’s grim, combo-driven, QTE-heavy style of play with the popular exploratory action of the DS and Game Boy Advance Castlevanias, developer MercurySteam managed to offer players the worst of both worlds: A tedious, ugly, slog through a lifeless castle. The only real pleasure here was in seeing just how goofy the remixed take on the older games’ storyline turned out to be. (Spoiler: Extremely goofy.)
27. Vampire Killer
Launching side-by-side with the original Castlevania in Japan, this alternate rendition of Simon Belmont’s journey to defeat Count Dracula didn’t turn out nearly as well. Its open-ended stages and incredibly slender RPG mechanics deserve credit for laying the groundwork for the metroidvania entries of the franchise, but here they mostly make for a confusing and uneven adventure. It takes a surprisingly long time to muddle through the fairly small stages since you have to find specific items and characters while avoiding bad guys that whittle down your health — and since Vampire Killer offers limited lives and no continues, every single screw-up makes it that much less likely you’ll see the ending. An ambitious game, but not quite a good one.
26. Castlevania Judgment
No one in the world asked for this game, except for whatever misguided Konami executive gave it a green light. A Castlevania fighting game, for Wii, with a motley cast of franchise characters redrawn by the artist of Death Note? Absolutely bonkers. That said, it’s not actually a bad game, just a completely unnecessary one. The fighting works reasonably well, and some of the character stories are amusingly daft. It’s no Smash Bros., but in a world where DreamMix TV exists, this actually isn’t the worst fighter Simon Belmont has appeared in.
25. Circle of the Moon
(Game Boy Advance, 2001)
Circle of the Moon made a great impression back when it was new (assuming you could actually see the dark graphics on the impossibly dim original GBA screen), but it hasn’t aged well at all. Not now that the existence of a nice-looking Castlevania game with a great soundtrack is no longer a novelty. Moon’s sluggish gameplay centers around a nifty mechanic that sadly relies heavily on random luck, and its enormous difficulty level stems from enemies being boring damage sponges rather than from any kind of clever design. Circle of the Moon paved the way for better things, and now that those better things have arrived, you no longer need to play Circle of the Moon. (But definitely do check out its killer soundtrack sometime.)
(Nintendo 64, 1999)
The series’ first foray into 3D was not great! For every fun idea, like skeletons riding around on motorcycles or Frankenstein’s monster chasing you around a hedge maze, you had to deal with decidedly un-fun factors like “clumsy controls” and “awkward 3D combat” and “miserable graphics.” Castlevania 64’s heart certainly was in the right place — the bit where making deals with a sketchy merchant would eventually consign your soul to Satan was clever! — but it has the distinct clumsiness of most 3D action games of the late ’90s. Also, it shipped incomplete.
23. Lords of Shadow 2
(PlayStation 3/Xbox 360, 2014)
While the second (actually third) chapter of the Lords of Shadow saga earns points for making a bold effort to do something new with its setting by placing the adventure in a modern-day city, it also takes a great many false steps. Making Dracula the playable character certainly was bold; forcing the almighty lord of vampires to timidly complete dull and punishing stealth sequences was ... maybe not so bold. It’s another one of those Castlevania efforts that manages to achieve parity between good ideas and bad, and the fact that the Lords of Shadow line ended here is no tragedy.
22. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Villagers lied; Simon died. This NES sequel didn’t lack for ambition, sending Simon Belmont across the entirety of Transylvania in his quest to break Dracula’s curse, but it’s pretty uneven. It lacks the focused design of the first game, playing more like a beefed-up take on Vampire Killer, and its quirky experience system makes combat extraordinarily difficult if you don’t take time to grind for levels. But does it matter? The frictionless continue system means there’s very little penalty for poor play; the challenge here comes from making sense of the utterly obtuse (and sometimes openly dishonest) clues from non-player characters. A brave attempt, but hardly an 8-bit classic.
21. Legacy of Darkness
(Nintendo 64, 1999)
The first N64 Castlevania shipped incomplete, so Legacy of Darkness arrived a year later to spackle over the gaps — and included entire campaigns for two additional playable characters. These days, Legacy would be a DLC update, but back in the day it appeared as a standalone cart that completely mooted its predecessor. It does incorporate some minor mechanical tweaks, but it doesn’t really fix the fundamental flaws of the first game’s design. Legacy of Darkness definitely feels like a product of its era, with awful 3D platforming and sometimes-miserable combat, but it also feels more complete than Castlevania 64 and less misguided than Lords of Shadow 2.
20. Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles
(PlayStation Portable, 2007)
This package brought Rondo of Blood to the West for the first time by way of a 2.5D polygonal remake. The remake is ... OK. It has the floaty feel and imprecise combat common to polygonal platformers, and it makes some changes to the layout and content of the game that fail to improve on the classic. The best thing about The Dracula X Chronicles, really, is that it includes a decent emulated version of the original Rondo of Blood.
19. Lament of Innocence
(PlayStation 2, 2003)
Konami’s first attempt to take the metroidvania branch of the Castlevania family into 3D turned out to be fraught with shortcomings. It plays like a less interesting rendition of Devil May Cry — lots of combo attacks — seemingly relying on its focus on mid-range whip attacks to differentiate it from the series from which it clearly draws its influence. While it plays reasonably well, its biggest shortcoming is in its castle design. Dracula’s home this time around looks beautiful, but it has a dull, drawn out, and decidedly repetitive layout. The need to wander back and forth through the same corridors over and over again (while fighting the same monsters) quickly saps the joy from the generally decent combat and lush soundtrack.
18. Harmony of Dissonance
(Game Boy Advance, 2002)
Speaking of wandering corridors, the first portable “IGAvania” has one of the most poorly laid-out castles in the series’ history. Technically, it has two of the most poorly laid-out castles in the series’ history, since the gimmick here is that Juste Belmont has to defeat Dracula by leaping across dimensions and exploring parallel versions of the vampire’s domain. It’s an interesting idea that doesn’t quite come together due to the bewildering layout of the maps — and the game’s eyesore color schemes and shrill soundtrack don’t do it any favors, either. What Dissonance does have going for it, however, is far more fluid action than in Circle of the Moon and a clever skill system that combines familiar sub-weapons with magic spells. It’s a troubled game, but it certainly has its moments.
17. Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth
Despite what the title would suggest, this is not a remake of Castlevania: The Adventure. Certainly it riffs on the Game Boy game’s content, but in truth this is a wholly original work that features proper Castlevania mechanics along with some fairly solid visuals and music. Although it doesn’t quite rank up with the true masterpieces of the series, it’s the last “classic” style Castlevania and in a lot of ways feels almost like Haunted Castle done correctly. Sadly, it too has been delisted with the demise of WiiWare, but it seems a lot more likely to be republished at some point than the series’ mundane lost mobile entries.
16. Kid Dracula
(Game Boy/NES, 1991)
This goofy spin-off stars a young vampire in a platform-shooter than feels for all the world like the Castlevania version of Mega Man. And that’s pretty great! Only the Game Boy version came to the U.S., but it’s more or less the same game as the Famicom cart minus the pointless quiz sequences. With whimsical, upbeat action that straddles the line between miniaturizing and satirizing classic Castlevania moments (along with riffs on King Kong and other media works), Kid Dracula is as fun as its dopey remixes of beloved Castlevania tunes would suggest.
15. Lords of Shadow
(PlayStation 3/Xbox 360, 2010)
Although the sequels went wildly off the rails, there’s a lot to like about the original Lords of Shadow. Rather than attempt to continue the Castlevania saga in 3D like Lament of Innocence, Lords of Shadow developer MercurySteam more or less 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 centered around protagonist Gabriel Belmont’s whip. Less successful: The clumsy-yet-pretentious script. Poor Patrick Stewart does his best as narrator, but even he can’t perform miracles.
14. Super Castlevania IV
(Super NES, 1991)
This, the purported inspiration for Lords of Shadow, was a reboot of its own in many respects. 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.
A killer soundtrack, a corny haunted house atmosphere and lots of interesting Super NES-specific effects make for a memorable journey, but the underlying gameplay suffers from the awkwardness of being, somehow, a dramatic reinvention of the Castlevania concept tied slavishly to existing mechanics.
13. Curse of Darkness
(PlayStation 2, 2005)
Ostensibly a sequel to Lament of Innocence, Curse of Darkness abandoned the look and style of that outing in favor 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 favor of shorter-range melee skills and places the burden of mechanical variety on the demons its protagonist (a former servant of Dracula by the name of Isaac) can synthesize and summon. While largely ignored by fans of the franchise, Curse of Darkness plays heavily into the second season of Netflix’s Castlevania cartoon, which will likely help improve its reputation ... at least somewhat, anyway.
12. Belmont’s Revenge
(Game Boy, 1991)
There’s something almost symbolic about the storyline that drives this second portable Castlevania entry. The premise: Christopher Belmont was supposed to have handed off the holy Vampire Killer whip to his son Soleyiu, but the kid went and turned evil, so it’s up to the old man to put things right. Similarly, Castlevania: The Adventure was intended to be a successor to the NES Castlevania games but went horribly awry, so the series had to look to those older console-based adventure to get back on track. 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 decidedly not-Dracula’s-castle setting that comprises most of the quest feels almost inspired by Mega Man. But have no doubt: This is Castlevania through and through.
11. Harmony of Despair
(PlayStation 3/Xbox 360, 2010)
Sometimes, practical constraints can suffocate the life from a game; but every once in a while, they work to its benefit. Harmony of Despair is a case of the latter. 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, weirdly, it’s brilliant. 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.
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. Every level turns sprawling metroidvania maps into a self-contained challenge to be beaten (with the help of friends) within a time limit. Unique and strange, it’s a fun finale to Koji Igarashi’s run as the series’ producer.
10. Portrait of Ruin
While the metroidvania approach was beginning to feel a bit long in the tooth by the time Portrait of Ruin arrived, 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 particularly inspired). Narratively, it works as a sequel to Bloodlines, and its portal-based structure allowed the action to range far beyond Transylvania. Unfortunately, the grindy weapon system and repetitive back half drag things down despite all the obvious attention and care that went into the game.
The series’ sole outing on a SEGA platform, Bloodlines feels like an outlier in a lot of ways. At heart, though, this is pure, classic whip-and-jump Castlevania action at its best ... or spear-and-jump, since this is the first entry in the series to give players the option to control a second, non-Belmont protagonist (one Eric Lecarde) from out the outset. Eric helped pave the way for the likes of Alucard, just as the globetrotting scenario helped break the series free from the environs of Dracula’s castle. Add to that some stunning music and creative level designs that incorporate hardware-pushing tech tricks in a meaningful way and you have a forgotten Castlevania that merits rediscovery.
It’s rare that a first entry in a series gets so much right its first time at bat, but Castlevania is a nearly perfect little gem of a game — a high point of the early NES library. It defined the series’ quirky mix of gothic horror and monster movie schlock perfectly. Its creative whip-based combat and tight, exacting control scheme paired beautifully with the artful level design and challenging (but never unfair) monsters to make a tough but manageable game. It raised the bar for music in games and locked down the basics of the series’ long-running Belmonts-versus-vampires saga. It’s a true classic, let down only by the fact that, at a mere six stages in length, it feels awfully slight by modern standards.
7. Dawn of Sorrow
In some ways 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 — 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 favor of anime-style bombast — a 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 Castlevania III.
6. Castlevania Chronicles
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 (at least, the most difficult that never strays into unfair or sloppily designed territory).
Like Super Castlevania IV, Chronicles incorporates elements of later games (even Rondo of Blood) into its expanded rendition of Simon’s journey, and there’s 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.
5. Order of Ecclesia
The final true metroidvania game, Order of Ecclesia does a pretty good job of synthesizing the appeal of that format while adding its own ideas to the mix. Foremost among those: A ragingly brutal difficulty level, intended to encourage players to make use of the granular, RPG-style attributes and weaknesses system. Even more interestingly, Order of Ecclesia attempts (20 years later) to put Castlevania II’s ideas to rights: The entire adventure centers around a town whose citizens have been abducted, and it slowly grows to become filled with citizens who offer non-misleading hints as heroine Shanoa liberates them from their vampiric prisons. It’s an excellent final statement for the series’ classic era, at once embracing Castlevania’s heritage while demonstrating that the formula still has room for innovation.
4. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
This would be a perfect NES action game if it weren’t for a miserable late-game design choice along the underground path to Dracula’s castle (it involves the need to climb falling blocks, using deadly hazards as stepping stones). Then again, that route is totally optional ... and on top of that, one of the playable characters has a power that renders the entire chore trivial. So is it really all that bad? And that’s precisely what makes Dracula’s Curse so brilliant: It’s a game about choice. 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 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 (it’s roughly three times the size of the first Castlevania) enormous replay value. A true high point for 8-bit gaming, Dracula’s Curse remains exceptionally playable nearly 30 years later.
3. Symphony of the Night
The most widely beloved entry of the Castlevania franchise by far, Symphony of the Night not only changed the direction of the series but also defined an entire genre of gaming. Drawing equal inspiration from its own predecessors and from landmark action RPGs 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. Seemingly simple jump-and-slash action enjoyed surprising depth 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. If the difficulty felt a little underwhelming and the surprise-twist second castle dragged overmuch, well, nobody’s perfect.
2. Aria of Sorrow
(Game Boy Advance, 2003)
Symphony of the Night did a lot well, and some of its best moments were never matched. But that’s not to say the game itself was never bettered, because Symphony assistant director Koji Igarashi bested his previous work a few years later. Granted, Aria of Sorrow didn’t begin to compare to Symphony 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.
1. Dracula X: Rondo of Blood
(PC Engine, 1993)
When it comes to Castlevania, no game more effectively encapsulates everything that defines the series than Rondo of Blood. Brisk, demanding platforming action? Check. Rewards for exploration? Check. Stunning music and artful graphics? Check. Inventive action set pieces and subtle hidden details? Check. Rondo set a bar for Castlevania that’s never been surpassed, embracing its history while demonstrating just how much depth and replayability can be squeezed into a linear action game. From the opening fight through the burning ruins of a village from Castlevania II to the dramatic kung-fu battle with Death silhouetted by a clock tower, Rondo demands top-tier gameplay and unflagging skill from players, but it always rewards their efforts with incredible surprises and fresh new challenges.
For years, this game remained a rare, expensive, import-only Japanese release, and it developed the kind of legendary cachet that tends to build up around such curios. What sets Rondo of Blood apart from those others is that once everyone outside Japanese PC Engine fanatics finally had a chance to play it, it absolutely lived up to its reputation. It’s not just the best Castlevania game, it’s one of the greatest games of all time.