Castlevania: Mourning The First Good Video Game Adaptation

You might wonder why my spring reviews are being interrupted by a show that’s nearly four years old at this point, and is not made in Japan. The best reason for that is Castlevania is the single greatest piece of media based on a video game, and its final season is slated to air in only a couple of days. I always intended on writing an essay about it, but I never expected it to end so abruptly, and I can’t pass up an opportunity like this.

To brush aside what I’ve already mentioned, Castlevania the TV series is not Japanese is origin, although I don’t consider it to be any less ‘anime’ than something written, recorded, animated, and produced in Japan. Anime has long since transcended national borders, and Castlevania is so obviously borne from a deep passion for Japanese animation that it feels dumb and pedantic to say it doesn’t deserve to be called anime. Most anime outsources production to other countries, and Castlevania was a video game created by Konami, a Japanese company.

Even moving past all that, this series is a gift to otaku whether they like it or not. If you’ve ever wanted to get your friend into anime, but they can’t dive immediately into the weird depths that anime is capable of, Castlevania is a perfect jumping-on point. Game of Thrones might have tanked, but if something like The Witcher is any indication, it left a healthy appetite for dark fantasy among western audiences, and adult animation has never been more popular. Whether you’re a newcomer to anime or a veteran weeb, Castlevania is a valuable asset.

So in celebration and lamentation of one of my favorite shows ending, I have a rant to convince you to watch Castlevania if you haven’t already. If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about, and you can use this essay as a holy sword with which to beat the heretical ignorant masses into realizing that cartoons can be for adults, and vampires are still cool.

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The opening scene of Castlevania, revealing the grisly decorations outside of Dracula’s abode.

Castlevania is based on the game franchise of the same name by Konami, and is one of the most influential games of all time. It’s partly responsible for the popular Metroidvania genre, and even if Konami is never going to release another game, the ones we already have are treasures.

When I first heard of Castlevania the anime, I vaguely remembered some Gameboy games that were much too difficult for me as a child, and had a fragmented recollection of a friend’s house where I first heard the words Symphony of the Night. I was a promising young weeb at the time, and still clearing out the essentials to any beginner, because even your grandmother has heard of Fullmetal Alchemist by now. Still, the difference between American and Japanese animation meant little to me, and I decided I would watch it when it came out.

That first season was a trip; only four measly episodes long, but a trip nonetheless. Binge-watching doesn’t come naturally to me, but this might be one of the only cases where you could pull it off accidentally. In the span of two measly hours, I had exhausted all of the available content, and was peeved as a result. More than that, I was enraptured.

Castlevania presents the realm of Wallachia in the late 15th century, in what is now Romania. The people are under the thumb of the Catholic Church and still are under the process of shaking off the tyrannical legacy of Vladimir Tepes, also known as the Impaler, but better known as Dracula. The iconic villain from the games has been recontextualized as a sympathetic man grieving the loss of his wife; Lisa Tepes used her husband’s advanced science as medicine for townsfolk, but the Church feared her abilities and burned her at the stake. Dracula returns home to find his home in ashes and his wife dead, and declares a genocidal war against the humans that either collaborated in her murder or sat by and allowed it to happen.

The first season of Castlevania is brutally short, but it sets up the actual story to follow in the next season, so it’s more of a prologue. We soon meet Trevor Belmont, the drunken scion of the formerly great monster-slaying clan, as he’s forced to get his act together and cooperate with the sorceress Sypha and Dracula’s son Alucard. Together, the three of them set out to find Dracula’s castle and put an end to the vampire lord’s revenge.

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Promotional poster in the style of the classic Castlevania games, displaying Trevor Belmont standing before Dracula’s castle.

Immediately you are drawn in by the dark and moody atmosphere. The pixel art of the early games has been faithfully translated into detailed animation. The games, especially the early ones that this series takes so much inspiration from, were never heavy on plot, so the writers had a lot of work to do. These long-running characters were beloved, but their backstories were bare and their motivations often reduced to simple ‘I don’t want the human race to go extinct’.

There is a titanic effort being made to vividly recreate the landscapes of 15th century Europe, though this is not an idyllic portrait of the Renaissance. The locales of Wallachia and beyond are coated in blood and grime, but they’d never be so one-note, and are just as capable of rendering the kind of high fantasy ethereal beauty seen in Dracula’s teleporting palace, or Carmilla’s icy fortress in the barren tundra. Worldbuilding is an underrated essential when setting your story in a real part of history, but here it is a vividly painted canvas.

This is only amplified by the script and story, which grapples with issues as menacing as the monsters, but on a more sociological level. What first attracted me to this series was more than its stunning art and sympathetic villain, but how much of the first season is a brutal indictment of the corruption infesting the Catholic Church. The clergy might have lost relevance in the larger story of vampires, other dimensions, and great demons, but Castlevania began as a story of zealotry, hypocrisy, and the way that those in power will cling to it at the expense of the masses.

This tone and themes are what separates Castlevania from other video game adaptations. Most producers see a game as a way of making a marketable film with a built in audience, and the way to exploit that cash cow is to just take the plot of a game and slide it into a lazy movie for the small price of $120 million worth of CGI. Even worse, they often don’t just take the original story for their movie, they just take some names and concepts for the original and swap it out with the synopsis of a generic action flick, like some sort of Hollywood Mad Libs.

The creative team behind Castlevania don’t just have passon for the games, they see it as a vehicle to tell the kinds of stories that the games only hint at. The name recognition wasn’t a ticket to a successful series, it was the hard work of the talented creatives who had real reasons to be telling this story. This isn’t just how we get better stories, because Netflix execs don’t care about that, it’s how you get several valuable years’ worth of viewers coming back to your streaming service or network to watch the new season of Castlevania.

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Ooh, Alucard, you woke things in 2017 me didn’t even think were sleeping.

Video game adaptations don’t just fail because the writers don’t have a story to tell, although that’s part of it. Often they just can’t translate a piece of interactive media into a spectator sport like movies and television. The strength of stories like Resident Evil or Tomb Raider comes from taking these characters into your hands and working through them. No one is interested in Dracula killing off the human race because vague evil reasons, or why he keeps hiding cooked chickens in the walls of his castle. If you take away the gameplay, you have to put something in its place.

Castlevania is loaded with iconic and beloved characters, but most would not drive the plot of a four season show. In the second season of the show, Alucard ponders about how his mother hated that he was called Alucard, as she didn’t want him to be defined in opposition to his father. That’s more genuine characterization than he gets in the entirety of Symphony of the Night. That’s not ragging on any of the Castlevania games, or games in general, they just don’t often need fantastic plots in order to work.

I’ve said before that too many video games try to have cinematic stories, and they lose the charm of being games. Plenty of games have good stories, but the best are the ones that take advantage of being interactive media. The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption II don’t really care about being video games, they want to be Oscar nominees that you pay $60 and 20-50 hours of your life to watch.

Castlevania as an anime removes the platforming and exploration that made the games popular, and they substitute it with a wide world of rich characters with powerful convictions that put them at odds with one another. That applies to the main trio as well as the villains, although there’s very few characters in this world that are actually ‘evil’. That’s why dark and emotionally raw stories have become so popular in the last decade, even if the aforementioned Game of Thrones has forgot about it. We don’t often believe that the average TV viewer wants a show that is willing to challenge them intellectually, but the vast majority of popular and critically-acclaimed television in the last twenty years would care to disagree.

And if you’ve tuned out because I stopped talking about anime, don’t think that’s the exception. The three most popular anime of all time on MAL are Death Note, Attack on Titan, and Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, which all explore topics like war, genocide, and government corruption. Castlevania isn’t just in good company when it flexes its brains, it carries on a long tradition in both anime and television as a whole.

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Sypha, Trevor, and Alucard from the first season.

While gushing about Castlevania and waxing poetic about its palce in the canon of television, I barely mentioned how its animation routinely amazes, and in each season there’s a contender or two for fight of the year. I went on at length about how it has brains, but it didn’t stop with its studies.

Castlevania doesn’t have the long, storied, and troubled production that accompanies a legend like Attack on Titan, but that doesn’t make its conclusion any less important. Western animation hasn’t seen an ambitious story like this end since The Last Airbender, especially if you’re not counting the very best of movies with the names Disney and Pixar attached to them.

I might just be too attached to Castlevania in particular, because it feels like I always get on the bandwagon too late. This is one series I managed to watch days after its first season dropped, and I’ve faithfully kept pace with each new installment as they came. I didn’t even start keeping pace with seasonal anime until I started this blog, so my perpetual backlog meant I never got to share in that time investment that makes watching a series so intensely personal. As objective as I can try to be, it’s still worth your time to get in on a legend coming to an end.

I hope to get back to seasonal anime reviews after this, and I have the most coming out since I began writing here. In the meantime, follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress to get notified when those reviews come, and leave a like if I review your favorite show of the season. You could have predicted that this rant was coming if you followed me on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, but if you missed that and my other stray thoughts on anime, you can make up for it by heading there. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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