Castles Made of Pixels

I don’t even remember Castlevania III : Dracula’s Curse. I don’t remember one single thing about the game, not even the music. Yet, I felt compelled to buy Mondo’s double LP release of the soundtrack a couple months ago. Compelled may not be the right word. Possessed to buy it, maybe? It’s like a sickness, folks. An addiction. Maybe it’s because I figured I bought the first two Castlevania releases, so I needed to complete the trilogy? That could be. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Castlevania as a teen. That was one of the few games in my sad game-playing career that I obsessed over, but only three versions of the game. The original Castlevania on NES, Super Castlevania on the Super Nintendo system, and then Castlevania : Symphony of the Night on the original Playstation. Those three versions I loved and played like an idiot into the wee hours of the night. I’d load up on caffeine and frozen pizzas and battle all the ghouls and ghosts hidden away in Dracula’s various castles.

But not Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

But I gotta say, the music in that game was on point. For being 8-bit(or was it 16-bit by then?), the music really grabs you and pulls you into that world of darkness and doomed baroque romanticism. What’s most interesting is that the music reminds me of the neo-classical guitar of Ritchie Blackmore and that Swedish guy Yngwie Malmsteen. When I heard the second release in this Castlevania series I dubbed it “8-bit Yngwie”. It was sort of an inside joke between me and, well, nobody. Just me. Listen to the guitar/organ solos in Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” for the neo-classical reference. Imagine that done on 8-bit instruments and that’ll give you a good idea as to what I’m talking about.

The Konami Kukeiha Club is responsible for the music to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. I’m not sure if they’re an actual club, like with member cards and funny hats. I think they’re just an in-house music department at Konami that were responsible for creating music for Konami’s games. The list of club members is exhaustive, so I won’t list them. I’ll just say that there was a lot of work that went into creating the musical world in not only Castlevania, but so many other classic games that Konami gave us in the 80s and early 90s. What games? Contra. And a bunch more…probably.

I suppose I’ll just continue to keep buying these soundtracks up until I’m broke and selling them on Ebay in order to pay for college tuition or a ham sandwich for lunch. That’s what people with vinyl problems do. We justify these purchases with words and phrases like “nostalgia” and “childhood memories” and “collecting” and “I earned it, dammit!” I’ll have excuses till the cows come home as to why I need to buy these lovely pieces of plastic that are adorned with eye-popping artwork. Why?

Because I earned it, dammit!

Simon Belmont Blues

I remember it like it was yesterday(or maybe last week.) I spent a week at myCastlevania-image4 uncle Mark’s house in the summer of 1987. I went straight from the last day of school to his place where we’d hang out, eat junk food, and play video games. What I didn’t know was that my older brother was also heading over, though later in the evening after he got off of work. It was three dudes hanging out, stuffing their faces with pizza, watching horror movies, and playing NES games till the wee hours of the morning(I recall one night where my brother and I stayed up till my uncle got up to go to work the next morning playing 1942…oh, to be young again.) We’d rise around noon, eat a bologna sandwich, and do it all again. My brother and I would pile into his 1977 Cutlass and cruise over to the Concord Mall when we’d get bored. He bought Metallica’s Master Of Puppets on cassette that week, which then began my love of thrash and speed metal. We’d already gotten into Megadeth, Anthrax, and Suicidal Tendencies by then, but hearing “Battery” for the first time solidified the appreciation for all things heavy, loud, and scary for me. It was a week of learning, growing, eating, sleeping, and more eating and sleeping.

14017663_1066668100107102_1069778144_nOne night after my uncle got home from work he said he wanted to run over to the mall because there was an NES game he’d heard about and thought we might have fun playing it. We jumped in his car and headed to Kay Bee Toys and my uncle picked up what would end up being one of my all-time favorite video games. It was called Castlevania, and up to this point I was only a video game fan from a distance. Mostly because my parents refused to buy my brother and I a system, but also because I could never find a game that enthralled me enough to get obsessed with it. I’d rather be doing something else than sitting and playing digital basketball or riding a pixelated bike. I’d find out that Castlevania was different. We got home, popped it into the NES and what we found was another world. A Gothic realm where we played the protagonist Simon Belmont as he traveled the many layers and levels of Count Dracula’s castle, searching for the King of the undead himself. Each level has a boss you must defeat, and with each level defeated the bosses got harder(well, duh!). You battle Frankenstein and Igor, Mummy men, a giant bat, Medusa, the Grim Reaper, and then finally the big guy himself, Dracula.

The game immediately sucked me in and we spent the remainder of that week sinking into an NES abyss. I can only imagine we all looked like a bunch of bums sitting around in 2 day old clothes, hair a mess, and empty containers of bologna cascading from the trash can. It didn’t matter, because we had a goal: defeat Dracula. The game’s colors were bright and popped out of the screen, and the music was just as intense. For the time, it felt like an 8-bit symphony. All baroque and melancholy with intense bursts of energy when the game called for it. This was a game that begged to be played for hours and hours. Before Castlevania, games seemed to geared to either little kids or sports people. Nothing really combined horror with platform gameplay like that before. The goals were simple; walk along, whip the ghouls and monsters, collect hearts and extra weapons, kill the bosses, and don’t die. For me, this was the ultimate gaming experience. We didn’t beat Dracula that week, but we got pretty damn close.

14030633_1066668050107107_2099473691_n
Back cover artwork by Becky Cloonan

There were other games that came afterwards that tickled my fancy; games like Kid Icarus, Trojan, Contra, and even a couple Castlevania sequels were fun and had a similar approach to gameplay, but none hit me like the original Castlevania. After finding a glitch in the game where the system would freeze up as you threw the death blow at the Grim Reaper(the last boss before Dracula), I figured out if you paused the game just as you entered Death’s lair and let it sit for a few minutes the game would have a much less chance of freezing. I beat the game finally, and life in the village turned peaceful once again.

Many years later(30 to be exact), I see that Mondo is releasing a 10 inch of the soundtrack to the original NES Castlevania with beautiful new artwork by Becky Cloonan. The first thought that pops into my head is “I must own that.” Why do I need to own a 10″ record with 8-bit music from a 30 year old video game? Why would a 42 year old man need something like that? Let me explain something to you, there is no “why?” when it comes to your childhood. There is no “why?” when it comes to nostalgia. There is only “because”. There is only “mind your business, pal.” Am I going to be throwing this thing on the turntable every couple of days and pretend whip at imaginary ghouls as the chiptune music blows through my 3-way Pioneer tower speakers? More than likely no(though I have already done that.) But will I pull this record out occasionally and play it to remind myself of all the fun and anger I felt over the course of my teen years playing and dying and starting over and dying again whilst attempting to rid the world of the evil Count Dracula? You bet I will.

14030778_1066668030107109_2060437465_n
Inside gatefold sleeve by Becky Cloonan

I’m a collector of things I like, not things I’ll resell eventually, or use as collateral. I don’t buy something unless I’m going to enjoy hearing it. I don’t buy to buy. I don’t own museum pieces. I buy things that make me feel good and take me to a specific place in my head. Things that mean something to me. Castlevania exists in a chunk of my childhood that I look back at fondly and with much love. That week at my uncle’s house is one of them. Another is playing this Konami classic with friends stuffing ourselves with pizza and soda till 2am trying to beat the game. The anguish as the game would freeze on us one level before the end, and then the exhilaration of finally getting to the big man himself. This game didn’t make me into a video game lover by any means, but it did make me feel like I was a part of something. It was straightforward, simplistic in its goals, but hard enough to keep you coming back until you won. There were no fairies telling you to go the blue house in the haunted forest to find the purple key so you can open the green door in order to save the polka dot princess. Sorry, I don’t take orders well, especially from digital characters in a video game. Castlevania was simply walking through a castle killing monsters, devouring the hearts they left behind, and putting a stake through some bloodsucker’s heart. Simple. I wish real life were that simple.

So what happens if Mondo decides to put out Super NES’ Goldeneye? Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Until then, I’ve got some ghouls to whip.