Castlevania Series List

My friend Jon (Why Modern Video Games Suck) and myself have set up an initiative that lets us help each other play/watch/do a thing that we feel one or both of us needs to make sure we experience.  Since starting this adventure over two years ago we have suggested things to each other that we would easily have never done on our own.  The genesis of this train of thought sits somewhere between finally deciding to take the time watch Dragon Ball Z from beginning to end (I had seen it, he hadn’t) and wanting to complete the Endless Setlist in Rock Band together.  What this idea evolved into was a very serious commitment to continue taking each others suggestions and promise to fulfill them no matter what (and do them together, one guiding the other, or in the case of new things to both of us switching off every half hour).  Obviously, nobody has played EVERY great game or seen every great movie or TV show, but what we’ve been able to do was at least guarantee that we both knew what each other considered to be the great things.

Two years ago today I doubt either of us thought that we would have taken the initiative as far or long as we have.  To call our weekly Saturday event rewarding would be an understatement.  We DID watch all of DBZ, we DID beat the Endless Setlist.  To a certain extent I think we owed it to each other to make the other do some of these things.  How long had I suggested to him to borrow my copy of Vagrant Story?  I dunno, probably years.  How many damn games has Jon played that I didn’t even know existed, and how could I ever have found them on my own?  That shit doesn’t matter any more.  Anything that goes on the table gets finished.  What was just watching DBZ became all of DB, DBZ, DBGT (and all of the movies), Escaflowne, Berserk, Man vs. Wild, Deadliest Warrior.  What was just the Endless Setlist became the Mega Man challenge (1-10), the Final Fantasy Challenge (1-6), the Castlevania Challenge (all Castlevania games).  What was just something fun to do became a serious study of the history of game series’ roots, a study in their progression and as a result, a much better understanding of our favorite hobby.

So why talk about it now and why here?  Well…we just finished the Castlevania Challenge with the completion of Lords of Shadow last weekend (we played them all in order of release starting with the original).  I started to wonder if I should start placing all of these games from the same series into the Master List.  They certainly deserve recognition, but I don’t think it serves my purpose here to clutter my list with twenty or so games from the same series.  Instead, I had the idea to list them separately to be their own entity here.  I could do that in one big post and I figure it would be more poignant to compare them to each other anyway, having discovered the more than subtle changes that take place with almost every next entry.  I should be clear that yes, I did place Symphony of the Night in my Master List and that’s because it’s easily the best Castlevania game.  It’s the perfect representation of the series for the list and it will be the only one to make it there.  So without further ado, here’s my numbered list of every Castlevania game ever released in order of worst to best.  Enjoy!

*You might be asking yourself, “Where the heck is Castlevania: Judgment?”  We didn’t play it because of how much of a departure it was from the standard ones.  It’s apparently canon, but I didn’t find it appropriate for the purposes of this list.  Also this is MY list, not Jon’s or anyone else.  To be overly clear, his would vary from mine and I don’t want any of this to be representative of his website or his personal opinion in any way, shape or form.*

22. Castlevania: Lord of Shadow (Xbox 360/PS3, 2010)
I suppose calling the latest entry in the series the worst will surprise some people…oh well.  This game is as far from a Castlevania game as you can get, and on that fact alone it didn’t stand a chance.  I want to be very clear about this though, Lords of Shadow is not only bad for a Castlevania…it’s bad for a video game.  The story is bullshit (the “SHOCKING” ending that fucked everyone’s shit up was predictable to anyone who knew anything about Castlevania and just plain stupid).  I think the exact moment this game went from OK to no chance was when we were able to read IN THE MAIN CHARACTER’S PROFILE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE GAME that Gabriel was actually from the Cronqvist family.  Here’s a fucking lesson assholes:  When you out your main character as Dracula almost immediately and assume fans won’t figure that out, you probably have a bad concept.  When people (Castlevania vet or not) are able to predict almost every “twist” in your amateur story telling, you probably have bad writing.
Other things worth noting:
– the voice acting is terrible, (how and why P-Stew…HOW AND WHY?)
– not only does the game rip-off every popular game ever made, it rips off other popular non-video games as well.  Lord of the Rings comes to mind, Pan’s Labyrinth
– the action is boring, the millions of combos you can buy are completely worthless because there’s never enough time to pull off anything more than a 2-hit combo, AND if you could you still wouldn’t because they’re obscenely complicated and varied.  every enemy can be beat the same exact way anyway so it all becomes pointless to think about after about the first 30 minutes
– for as much as they tout the music, 50 man choir and what not, it’s extremely bland and I don’t even know for sure if there’s more than 5 tracks in the whole game
– Satan/God/Jesus.  really?  i know the Spanish are traditionally pretty religious… but come on.  FINAL BATTLE AGAINST SATAN, CHOKING OUT SATAN.  guys
– it’s way too long for how bad it is.  no sense of pacing or progression, areas don’t connect to each other.  actually there’s just a complete disregard for any sense of forward movement despite being the most linear game i’ve ever played, HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?
– useless/wasted/stupid  series shout-outs. horrible puzzles (that you can BUY THE ANSWERS TO)
There’s SO much more but I’ve wasted too much time already.  This game sucks hard and is easily the worst game in the series.

21. Castlevania Legends (GB, 1998)
Castlevania Legends is the fourth and last Game Boy entry in the series…and easily the worst actual Castlevania game.  The graphics suck even for a Game Boy, the music is OK, the story is stupid/non-existent (literally, the story and main character Sonia Belmont were stricken from the canon by series mastermind IGA).  All in all still a better time than Lords of Shadow, mostly because you can beat the damn thing in an hour or two.  I guess the coolest part about it is that you converse and fight with Alucard (?random?).  This is not exactly what I would call a gem, or even a good time…but definitely worth playing if not just to say “Yeah, I played that one”.  I consider that a badge of honor and not much else at this point.

20. Castlevania: The Adventure (GB, 1989)
The first Game Boy Castlevania doesn’t fare much better here.  The three Game Boy Castlevania games are a slightly modified version of the original Castlevania concept.  Instead of stairs, there are ropes.  You still go from stage to stage fighting the minions of Dracula, each level being capped by a boss fight.  Of the four games, the three more serious ones are mostly forgettable.  The Adventure gets the nod over Legends because it has better music and is more playable.  It stars Christopher Belmont, an ancestor of Simon, which gives the game more credibility and is good enough (apparently) to remain canon.  For some reason Dracula is Jewish in the Game Boy entries as well, as evidenced by the Stars of David decorating his boss room in these games.  Who knew?

19. Castlevania (NES, 1987)
I guess it might be a little strange to see the original this far down the list.  I’ve been known from time to time to succumb to nostalgia but it was absolutely clear to me through playing every game in order that the original Castlevania just isn’t that great.  I’m not going to sit here and tell everyone that it deserves credit for creating the legacy because what Castlevania eventually became so completely overshadows where it came from that I simply cannot deny that this game belongs low on the list, especially when you consider that every entry improves (if only ever so slightly sometimes) on the formula in some way.  It can’t even really compete with the platforming greats of that bygone era.  Mario and Sonic both easily trump Castlevania in playability and polish.  The difficulty is obscene, you have to constantly wrestle with the controls and Simon moves like a tank with its tread removed.  The whole stairs mechanic is executed hellishly (Am I on the stairs? Why can’t I jump and land on stairs? Why are the controls for moving up and down stairs different than moving back and forth?) and the whip upgrade concept is just simply a bad idea.  If the first candle we break is going to upgrade the whip every single time why in the fucking hell don’t we just start with that upgrade?  I don’t really understand.  The positives here are obvious.  The graphics and style are really cool, the music is legendary and the overall concept of Belmont Family vs. Dracula is frickin’ epic.  I think the best thing to take away from this is that Konami and the Castlevania teams deserve credit for constantly (sometimes slowly) evolving it from just a cool concept into something functional and cool.

18. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (GB, 1991)
Konami decided to revisit Christopher Belmont in a direct sequel to the first Game Boy Castlevania.  Belmont’s Revenge is the best (I think) of the serious Game Boy ones and mostly because it’s just all around better.  As far as the whole series goes, all of the GB iterations pooled near the bottom because they kinda suck.  Castlevania II wins out over the others because it’s as close to the original vision as they got on the Game Boy.  It’s easier than The Adventure, the graphics are slightly improved and the music is astounding.  On top of that, they added a layer of story that was mostly unseen in the rest of the early hand-held Castlevanias.  There was a huge drop off of fun in the late stages of the game because it got super hard (super dumb), but it’s a definite improvement over the harsh and un-fun other couple GB tries.

17. Kid Dracula (GB, 1993)
OK so Kid Dracula is this really weird kiddie styled Castlevania that capped off a pretty meager Game Boy run for the series.  I like it better than the other three for a few reasons, but mostly because it’s just so different.  And I don’t think calling something different than those other ones is anything but a compliment.  You play as a small Dracula-like child with white hair (it’s actually Alucard!!) to face off against this crazy dinosaur alien lookin’ dude named Garamoth.  Anyone familiar enough with Symphony of the Night will recognize the name, Galamoth, as the insane boss hiding in the lowest levels of the underground.  The fact that this enemy first used in Kid Dracula was carried over into the serious canon of the series shows me that there is a bit of respect out there for this goofy little game.  Kid Drake’s powers are cool and familiar (fireballs, turn into a bat) and the graphics are a league above the other Game Boy entries.  I guess the most important thing for me here is that this game is fun.  I just really liked its somewhat hokey little concept, its cartoony kid Alucard and how much more playable and polished it was compared to its hand-held counterparts.

16. Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA, 2002)
Ah yes, Harmony of Dissonance.  This was the second Metroidvania try on the Game Boy Advance right behind Circle of the Moon.  It was also Koji Igarashi’s return to handling the series after not being involved in Circle’s development.  I’ll be blunt…this game was a huge disappointment for me.  To a certain extent, many if not all of the ‘new format’ Castlevanias were a bit of a let down after SotN blew the windows out my car.  I suppose I can chalk some of this up to the system limitations, team changes and just getting comfortable with what Castlevania had become, but honestly, this game sucks.  It’s the worst of the new style and I don’t really understand how IGA could make a game like this after KCE (the people responsible for the awful Castlevania Legends) sorta set a fairly decent bar with their GBA game, Circle of the Moon.  I guess I just expected IGA to come out of the gates swingin’ and make another Symphony…but that didn’t happen.  I think they tried though, because Juste Belmont (gawd) is an Alucard palette swap and wildly inappropriate 3D graphics run amok all over the game.  Guys it’s a GBA, not a PlayStation.  Get over it.  The music is terrible too..the whole thing is just underwhelming.  It makes this spot on the list simply because it’s still a way bigger/better game than everything below it, but that’s about it.

15. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2, 2003)
The 3D Castlevanias!  Lament of Innocence was one of the infamously poorly received 3D iterations of the series.  IGA was on this one and it shows, sort of (whatever that means).  I’d like to go on record here and say that the 3D Castlevanias get a bad rap.  They aren’t horrible games at all.  In fact, outside of this series I’ve played much worse 3D action platformers.  I wouldn’t call this game great but it’s definitely worth playing.  The music is damn good, the graphics are too and while the story and voice-acting are nonsense there are definitely memorable moments here.  It’s also the Castlevania origin story, telling the tale of how the original Belmont, Leon, came to wield the legendary Vampire Killer whip.  There’s a workable map system taken almost straight out of the 2D ones that’s immensely helpful (why don’t more action games have functional and helpful maps? LOOKING AT YOU LORDS OF SHADOW) and for the most part the controls are responsive and functional.  I would never go on record saying that I LOVE this game but I didn’t mind playing it at all.  It’s a fairly disappointing origin story (Leon’s friend, Mathias CRONQVIST becomes Dracula right at the end ’cause he’s mad or something and the way the Vampire Killer gets its strength is from Leon murdering his wife with it…BUT you don’t even fight Dracula at all, Death is the final Boss) but it still has a little bit going for it in the way of shout-outs and series standbys.  I will kill you AND THE NIGHT!!!

14. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS, 2008)
This is another one that fell well below the expectations and I’ll you exactly why.  Aria and Dawn of Sorrow are awesome games followed up by another awesome game: Portrait of Ruin.  To say that the Castlevania series was hitting its stride at that point would be an understatement.  It was finally producing entries that could stand together with Symphony of the Night.  Because of this, I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable to have expected that trend to continue.  Order of Ecclesia is currently the most recent full Castlevania game that’s still a Castlevania at heart.  Instead of moving forward with this entry they decided to throw a wrench into the idea of progress and run straight backwards.  Physical attacks use MP.  I repeat: IT CONSUMES MP TO HIT SOMEONE WITH A WEAPON IN THIS GAME.  Why?  What logical human beings on a fantastic streak of making three spectacular games in a row would ever in a million years think that was a good idea?  Yeah the graphics are sweet, Shanoa is hot and all…the weapons and magic are pretty cool, but. BUT! REALLY?  FUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKKKK.  It’s so stupid.  There are other poor decisions here too.  None of the characters have any personality (Shanoa herself is a victim of amnesia/loss of emotion) the ‘surprise’ villain isn’t a surprise at all and the writing isn’t great either.  Maybe its placement this low on the list is just a result of its failure to live up to my personal expectations because the rest of the world seems to love this stupid game.  Is it because it’s the first canon entry with a female lead?  Is it the ability to pick which areas to go to on a world map interface?  Maybe it’s the levels very straightforward side-scroll’y feel that appeals to some peoples nostaligic hearts.  Fuck if I know.  What I do know is that this game wasn’t good and as far is this list goes I would call Order of Ecclesia the worst of  the good ones.

13. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES, 1987)
Alright, now here we go!  I loved Castlevania II!  It was evident to me almost immediately after playing this game that eventually the series was going to evolve from where god ole’ II started.  Castlevania II was extremely progressive for its time and that hurt it as much or more than it helped.  There were towns and shops, a day and night cycle, branching and optional pathways and an experience points system.  You can’t really lay much more groundwork than that.  Because of how primitive everything was back then these concepts didn’t come anywhere near working half of the time but it was heartening that they were even attempted.  Simon was back in action again and the cool plot was much more fleshed out than before.  You end up traveling (physically…on foot) to different locales finding five pieces of Dracula’s body in order to resurrect him and remove the curse apparently placed on him by Dracula at the end of first game.  Among the iconic memories that Simon’s Quest introduced to the world was the unforgettable song Bloody Tears, which like many of the great things in the series would get brought back and referenced to many times in coming iterations.  And how can we forget the hilarious text that appears when the day ends: “What a horrible night to have a curse”. Classic.  Castlevania II is an awesome game in concept but just an OK one in reality.  It fell pretty far down the list because it’s really hard to play, probably impossible to beat without a guide and just doesn’t quite live up to its own ambitious concepts.  Plus, the series would eventually get all of these concepts RIGHT in the future so kudos to Simon’s Quest for building the foundation.

12. Castlevania Chronicles (PS, 2001)
This is kind of a weird one!  Chronicles was a re-imagining of the original Castlevania that first released on the Sharp X68000 home computer.  Whazat?  What really matters is that it was eventually brought stateside on the regular old PlayStation.  To be very clear, this game is a complete overhaul of every aspect of the original.  From stage design, to music…bosses, it’s all there and all very familiar but has been completed re-done.  The most notable things about this game are also the reasons why it scores this high on the list.  The remixed music is unbelievably awesome, the updated graphics/sprites are beautiful, the controls are sound and the stages themselves are creative, varied and well designed.  I’ll take this one over the original any day, although it might be just as hard…

11. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA, 2001)

If you’re noticing a slight trend so far, don’t be alarmed.  As a general rule I find the Castlevania series does actually get better as time goes on.  New technologies brought these games the ability to flesh out bigger and better ideas (something IGA and Konami have plenty of).  It’s not a strict or linear progression by any means but through polish and constant tweaking the series continued to (usually) move forward.  Which brings us to Circle of the Moon.  This was Konami’s first attempt at the Symphony of the Night formula since that game’s release.  It clearly doesn’t compare but the idea itself of having this much content in a hand-held console game was fantastic.  For whatever reason Konami went with KCE instead of Mr. IGA, which is generally an indication of lower quality but there are many things that Circle of the Moon gets right.  The graphics are awesome and the music is phenomenal.  The castle layout is pretty cool, the different areas being somewhat unique and the bosses were completely original.  I did have a point in this game where I pretty much quit out of frustration but such is the beauty of this particular challenge:  we always had the other person to pick up the controller and forge ahead if we just couldn’t anymore.  You can definitely tell that this wasn’t an IGA experience…from the style to the dialogue to the story…but I would have you notice where this game placed on the list compared to IGA’s following attempt (Harmony of Dissonance), so maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world after all.

10. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES, 1990)
What a way to kick off the top ten!  Man, Castlevania III is awesome!  It was somewhat shocking to step back into a more linear game after Castlevania II went insane but it was definitely welcome.  Although at first III seemed to slip back into something not unlike the original, there were actually a ton of new/cool ideas used that elevated this game far beyond I and II.  Trevor Belmont was the hero here and he’s pretty bad-ass and everything but this time our Belmont wasn’t alone.  Castlevania III introduced three other playable characters in the forms of Sypha Belnades , Grant DaNasty and our home boy Alucard!!  BOOM!!  Other than the new awesome theme song, cooler levels and variety of playable characters, Castlevania III also left a strong legacy.  The great Ps2 game Curse of Darkness is a direct sequel.  The Belnades would become a name synonymous with the Belmont clan in later story lines.  Also, Alucard.  Grant and Sypha also both appear in the Wii fighting game Castlevania Judgment.  Many very important characters and origins can be traced back to this game and that’s pretty cool.  Castlevania, if nothing else, is a series that remains faithful to its history and being able to now follow all of these cool little plots and ideas back to their roots is really rewarding.  Here’s a perfect example: In Symphony of the Night, Maria mentions the name ‘Belmont’ to Alucard and in a thought bubble as they’re talking a small picture of the Trevor from III pops up.  Of course, Alucard is thinking of the one Belmont he knew personally (Trevor) because they fought together to bring down Dracula in Castlevania III!  How awesome is that?

9. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (Virtual Console, 2010)
Rondo of Blood was a Japanese-only Castlevania for a long time, but has finally arrived via the Virtual Console right here in 2010.  Starring the familiar Richter Belmont, Rondo was a direct prequel to Symphony of the Night.  To put it more properly, actually, Symphony of the Night is the sequel to Rondo of Blood.  It’s not a coincidence that this game is just above Castlevania II and III either, seeing as it’s basically a successful marriage of most of the concepts that those games were attempting.  Because of this fact, I would say that it’s required that any Castlevania fan go out and get it somehow.  Especially if you’re into SotN.  The game itself if pretty great, too.  Richter is a cool character and he wields your typical Belmont move set.  There are alternate paths in the levels and the story within the game is a bit more than what we’d come to expect at this point in the franchise.  I do want to make sure everyone understands that this game is broken, though.  It’s pretty hard to beat with Richter, which isn’t anything new for a Castlevania game…but there is a secret character (Maria Renard) that turns on the easy mode switch.  From the moment you rescue her you have the chance to choose between her and Richter for the rest of the game.  She’s actually pretty cool and when I played I chose her for most of the game.  Being a little cutesy girl type, she has these ridiculous abilities…like a cat that you can unleash, birds that fly diagonally upwards and a turtle shell she can hide in to protect herself.  The creators obviously meant for this to be a more silly mode for the game and it definitely shows.  That being said, it’s MUCH easier to beat the game with her…so it’s kind of a weird choice.  If you beat the game with her you even get a different ending and credit screen, which is a cool little detail that I really appreciate.  Maria is, of course, the same Maria in the green Mai Shiranui outfit from Symphony of the Night (if you didn’t put that together already).  When it’s all said and done and you do get to the ending battle with Dracula, assuming you are playing as Richter, you are treated to what you maybe didn’t know was a part of an actual game: the opening scene of Symphony of the Night!  Since we played these games in order of original release and I had never played a Castlevania game before I didn’t know that SotN started with the final battle from Rondo of Blood.  I’m assuming there’s a lot of you out there who, of the two, have only played Symphony…playing through to the end of Rondo will not only be a fun time but it’ll let you in on the actual story that brought you to that opening scene.  If you’ve ever wondered who Richter is and what that story is all about then look no further.  Rondo of Blood will definitely satisfy any need to play an old-school style Castlevania with the added benefit of expanding on the very cool story most of us already know part of.  Good show.

8. Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (N64, 1999)
I suppose this is where most people would think that I’ve gone off the deep end.  If you remember correctly, Legacy of Darkness is the almost immediate remake/redo of Castlevania 64.  What it adds is a new main character, Cornell the werewolf, with his own quest.  You can still eventually play as the other peeps who were in the original 64 if you choose, but for our purposes Cornell was the guy.  What struck me as very odd was that most people consider this game to be a complete embarrassment.  Was it extremely difficult? Yes.  Did it suffer from lame control issues? Yes.  Well, that sounds a sure shit lot like a Castlevania to me.  It also had the positive trademarks that every Castlevania usually does, awesome graphics and music, interesting concept and story…cool characters, series shout-outs, big and interesting boss fights.  All present and accounted for!  I don’t understand where the problem is here, honestly.  Maybe people were expecting a lot more from the series’ first 3D outing but I really don’t have any major criticisms to level against this game.  When I look back I consider it the one that took the most steps forward in terms of story presentation (besides SotN) and for the time it released, that was a big deal for the Castlevania series.  Stop hating on this game!  Emulate it or something so you can save-state and experience it that way…I’m sure you’d see it in a different light!  When you take away some of the cheap deaths you can really see how cool this game is.

7. Castlevania: Bloodlines (Sega Genesis, 1994)
Bloodlines is the one and only Sega Genesis Castlevania game and it’s pretty damn good.  It’s an old style side-scroller where you are given a choice between two characters to play the entire game with, John Morris or Eric Lecarde.  If you’re familiar with the series as a whole, you know that Portrait of Ruin is a direct sequel to this game…with Lecarde and Morris both central to the plot.  As with Rondo of Blood and Castlevania III, it’s quite beneficial to go back and find Bloodlines if you’re a fan of it’s successor.  Again, one of the best things about this series as a whole is that it insists on keeping it’s canon tight and never forgets where it came from.  Bloodlines is the perfect example of that!  Who would’ve thought that this silly Genesis Castlevania (the first and last of its kind) would persevere spiritually well into the current generation of gaming by way of its sequel.  The game itself doesn’t disappoint either.  It is wildly outside the box conceptually for a Castlevania game of its time, which hurts it only slightly, but recovers in its variety of gameplay and excellent graphics/levels.  Eric uses an upgradeable spear for battle and John your typical Belmont favorite, the Vampire Killer.  The stages you travel are not solely within Dracula’s castle or even in its close vicinity, but all over Europe.  This idea allowed the creators to make extremely varied locales, something Castlevania at this point hadn’t quite accomplished.  The whole game comes off a little bit like a parody of the entire series, but also somehow ends up being closest to the original source material.  There is a skeleton Nazi factory…an outdoor garden stage where roses and vines whip and wrap you up, but that just makes it more memorable.  The final boss is cool, the music shouts out to the original four Castlevanias (one for each of the first three stages, and IV right at the end) and I just don’t think I’ll ever forget many moments in this game.  Outside of Super Castlevania IV, this is the best 2D Castlevania game.  I would say it’s a tie between this and Rondo of Blood but that game without Maria is just way too frustrating, where Bloodlines is actually playable and fun almost all of the way through.


6. Super Castlevania IV (SNES, 1991)
Alright now here we fucking go!  Super Castlevania IV is the epitome of everything good about the side scrolling days of the Castlevania series.  Where should I even start?  This game almost literally took every single famous (or infamous in some cases) concept from the original game and improved it tenfold.  The graphics are stunning.  The music is mind blowing.  The gameplay is actually fun, and expanded with what we called whip physics.  You could now whip in any direction and even hold the button down to dangle the whip out and then move it around to constantly attack.  The platforming evolved in that you could use your whip to latch onto swing points.  The boss fights were intense and memorable.  What Super IV is really, is a remake of sorts of the original Castlevania game.  Or maybe a re-imagining?  Either way, none of it rehashes anything.  I like to think of Super Castlevania IV as the actual execution of what the original concept for Castlevania was in the first place.  None of the leveling up stuff, no crazy alternate paths or secret characters.  Just a damn fine side scrolling action game done to perfection.  The SNES gave them the ability to follow through on what we all knew the potential was for the series and they delivered big time.  Not one single aspect of this game is forgettable and it shall reign supreme as the true Castlevania experience as far as I’m concerned.  I would say more but if you consider yourself a gamer and you’ve never played Super Castlevania IV (me not too long ago) then you need to stop what you’re doing and go get yourself served a fucking history lesson bro.

5. Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PS2, 2005)
Before you cry blasphemy about how a 3D Castlevania made the top five Castlevanias of all time you should actually go play the game…all of it.  Curse of Darkness is basically the 3D follow-up to Lament of Innocence.  Where that game was mostly mediocre, Curse takes everything to a new level.  There’s just a lot to love here, so much about it is a solid and noticeable improvement in every conceivable way over their first PS2 try.  It clearly has the same engine, same concept and same almost everything…but it just does all of it better.  My god, if every sequel in any industry could take notes on the improvement Curse of Darkness made over the core ideas in Lament of Innocence we might actually start seeing worthwhile follow-ups to stuff.
Honorable mentions for advances Curse of Darkness makes:
1. The music in Lament was great…the music in Curse is astounding.
2. The combat is exponentially enhanced and expanded, giving you the choice between a plethora of different weapon types (think Symphony of the Night in 3D).
3. The save, teleport and map systems are all much more functional and user-friendly (thank god).
4. The VOICE ACTING AND CUT SCENES ARE SOOO GOOD.  A little DMC’ish at times, but done with a much more serious tone.  It’s surprising.
5. The story and characters are so much more memorable.  Hector is everything you could ask for in a non-Belmont Castlevania protagonist.  He has style, a personal storyline with purpose and a subtle magnetism about him.  You end up liking the character and that’s a good thing.  All that and you actually understand why he’s doing the things he’s doing (looking at you Lament and Lords of Shadow).
Something that didn’t get enough credit in the reviews that I read were the return of the familiars.  Instead of just following you around and sort of helping…they actually are a force to be reckoned with.  Not only that, but they evolve based on number of kills with certain weapons.  A newborn familiar may have 6 different growth paths based on how you fight while he’s around.  It’s really rewarding to see this system work so well.  There will definitely be times where your little (or big) friend will just run around and start making it rain on enemies you didn’t even know were on the screen yet.  It’s a sweet new concept that actually delivers, which isn’t always a guarantee in this series.  In general, what we have here is a great action game that ends up being somewhat unlike most other games of the same genre.  Koji Igarashi did a phenomenal job with improving on the mediocre Lament of Innocence framework to provide us with a shockingly good Castlevania in the third dimension.  I don’t even want to begin to imagine how amazing their next 3D attempt (starring Alucard…with the same team returning) would’ve been had it not been canned in favor of Lords of Shadow.  Also, shame on the community for not giving this game enough credit.

4. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA, 2003)
So begins the epic saga that is the story of Soma Cruz.  A fan favorite with good reason, Soma and Aria of Sorrow mark a distinct change in the direction of the series.  The game itself is set in the year 2035 and deals with *gasp* the resurrection of Dracula!  The major plot point that makes the two Sorrow games such a big deal is that it takes place after the much referenced Final Battle of 1999.  IGA is of course steering the ship here once again…and I must say, really hitting his stride.  One of the biggest pimps in the known universe, Julius Belmont, rolls up on Soma and co. and explains that he basically whooped up on Dracula in 1999 and his pussy ass won’t ever really be coming back.  What that means (of course) is that Soma Cruz is blessed/cursed with the reincarnated spirit and potential power of the infamous Dark Lord.  Castlevania story lines don’t get much cooler than this, man.  Julius’ powerful persona is only magnified by the fact that we have yet to actually witness the events of 1999 first hand.  He hangs out with Yoko Belnades (familiar name yet?), his sexy mage lady friend and basically decides that if Soma is somehow corrupted by the evil power he himself will layeth the smacketh down on you right fast…which he actually does if you end the game a certain way.  The intense story really adds a lot to the experience and I would actually say that the characters from this two game arc are easily the most memorable in the series.  Every aspect of Aria and Dawn of Sorrow are dripping with style, intensity and most of all, fun.  Because Soma is the heir apparent to Dracula, he has the ability to command the powers of the Dark Lord’s minions.  What could have easily been a gimmicky gameplay aspect is actually a superb idea executed perfectly.  You have a random chance to reap and then consequently wield the power of any random enemy in the game.  We all know the drill here, some are rare and harder to obtain while many are easy to obtain and somewhat useless.  Because of the way the system is implemented though, you will still find yourself trying out every new power regardless if it’s one from a stupid enemy type you’ve killed twenty times.  One really cool additional reason to farm souls is that it’s really fun to see what kind of powers you’ll get from series standby enemies that you’ve faced dozens of times over the course of many Castlevania games.  What power does a zombie give? A skeleton? How about a Lilith or ghosts, or bosses like Medusa?  The game isn’t perfect, obviously, and is ranked down to fourth for a reason.  The music isn’t memorable in any way, which is disappointing considering the weight of the story and the almost consistently excellent soundtracks of the later Castlevanias.  The soul system works well but in reality you end up finding one or two good ones that you’ll never switch out of as well.  Minor complaints, really.

3. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS, 2006)
Portrait of Ruin is a really interesting game.  It’s the previously mentioned sequel to the Sega Genesis game Castlevania: Bloodlines.  Actually, I loved this game.  You play as the son of John Morris, Jonathan Morris and his mage friend Charlotte Aulin.  Jonathan is, of course, the wielder of the Vampire Killer and the story of this game deals mostly with that legacy and what he must go through to unlock its (and his) true power.  Charlotte is solid as a backup character but can easily step into the lead role if you’re into using her.  What’s interesting about the game is that you can have both characters out at the same time.  The backup character, whomever it is, will attack automatically as you attack.  There are plenty of puzzles that deal with the concept of needing two people and for the most part they are executed thoughtfully.  The game also encourages you to use one character or the other depending on the situation, whether it be a certain bosses weakness is a magic spell or that a whip is more useful against a certain enemy type.  This is a dynamic that could have easily become a chore but the development team seemed to understand that for this concept to work you absolutely needed the ability to switch your characters around immediately and on the fly.  I would also say that Portrait of Ruin has the best and most varied level design.  Because the plot of the game has you stepping into magical living paintings, the creators were free to send our heroes to any type of locale they could dream up.  This idea allows us to experience really unconventional areas like a pyramid.  Pretty cool.  There are tons of series shout outs in Portrait and as always I really appreciate that.  Richter is available as an optional boss fight for Jonathan because he was the last true Belmont to wield the Vampire Killer and that’s just something Jonathan has to face if he wants to get shit done.  Also, the graphics are insane in this game.  For a while I struggled on where to place Portrait of Ruin…thinking it was going to fall at #2.  I really enjoyed the teamwork mechanic, the story and the music but in the end even the return of the legendary Eric Lecarde couldn’t compare to the soul-stealing, Dracula’s spirit bearing saga finale of Soma Cruz in Dawn of Sorrow.  Good show though, very cool game.

2. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS, 2005)
Whelp, here we are finally.  Dawn of Sorrow is the second best Castlevania game ever made and the closest IGA ever got to repeating the majesty of Symphony of the Night.  This is get the continuation (and probably ending) of the tale of Soma Cruz and those related to it.  Everyone from Aria returns for Dawn, including our great hero in disguise Alucard (Arikado).  It’s cool that they snuck him back in there for the story of Soma because, honestly, he should be there when we’re dealing with the permanent death of Dracula.  I kinda don’t really have much more to say about Dawn that couldn’t be taken straight from the blurb about Aria, except that everything in Dawn was done slightly better.  The graphics and music are spectacular, the shop and weapon mechanics are more interesting and this second half of the story is even more gripping than the first.  Julius and Yoko are back, so is the cool shop keep Hammer.  Here’s the deal…this game rocks socks.  It’s not really just that it’s the end of Dracula, but Dawn of Sorrow ironically sort of now represents the pinnacle (and end) of what Castlevania is and could be.  Portrait of Ruin was great and all but comes off slightly different because it’s a bit offset from the standard Belmont’s and Belnades’ thing.  I consider Ecclesia a disappointment so what that leaves us with is the two Sorrow games right at the top of the Castlevania hill.  A fitting end, yes, but sad in a way.  I guess I didn’t realize at the time that I was playing it that I may not see a game like it ever again.  And then to have it hint at Dracula’s final end…almost makes it secretly more emotional than they intended it to be.  It’s interesting that the later games pooled at the top but I really do credit Igarashi’s commitment to improving his series every time he made a new game in it.

1. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Full review here.

I can say with no reservations that Castlevania is one of the greatest and most important video game series’ ever made.  Zelda and Mario are about the only ones that can stand in the same arena with what Castlevania means to me as a person now.  To witness first hand the changes and growth that this series has made over its entire lifespan is an inspiring thing indeed.  I doubt any other series specific challenges will present anywhere near the amount of memories that I have with these games.  It’s embarrassing for Konami that they’ve shunned the mastermind who made this series what it is, because even though Castlevania has traveled down many roads, there are still so many it could yet.  It depresses me to think that we may have seen the very last of the true Castlevania games.  Hopefully anyone who reads this will come closer to understanding why Lords of Shadow is a complete and utter abomination.  The name Castlevania represents something special and has created a magnificent history (and a place therein) for itself.  To see it handled so poorly by people who so clearly don’t understand what they had in their hands just hurts me on a fundamental level.  I love Castlevania and to call playing them all rewarding would be a disgusting understatement.  Thank you and farewell Akumajo Dracula, it’s been a fun ride!