Castlevania is a series with heritage. Since its introduction in 1986 it's rarely skipped a year, with 40 released titles spanning consoles, PCs and arcades. Over nearly 30 years, the backbone remains the same. The plot is an eternal repetition of the need for the Belmont clan (and occasional affiliates) to destroy Dracula who, against all odds, keeps getting resurrected in all manner of bizarre circumstances. Features and details may change, or occasionally be absent, but they're indelible parts of the series, always remembered, always returning.
Perhaps Castlevania's most polished and revered trait is its music. Stylistically phenomenal from the very beginning, nearly every title in the 28 year history is an aural delight. When Konami released an 18 CD soundtrack set in 2010, it didn't even have room for every great piece that's graced the series. Behind these iconic tracks is the work of some talented composers.
Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima created the original soundtrack for the first game, and it was a stupendous success. Their most famous track, and one of the most popular and reused in Castlevania history, is the backdrop for the very first stage; the awesomely titled "Vampire Killer". This music, and its subsequent remixing, provide a fantastic look at how Castlevania's themes have changed over the years, while keeping the spirit of the original compositions alive. First we'll begin with the NES original:
Castlevania has always been a blend of action and horror themes; it's never tried to scare the player, though its gothic settings and eclectic set of monsters require a certain kind of musical approach. To that end Kinuyo and Satoe established a kind of stylistic template here, using fast driving beats to evoke the excitement and fun while referencing the kind of melodies associated with classical organ music and early horror movie scores. What's most impressive about the version produced for the NES original is that it uses very simple synthesis to achieve this. There are only a few layers of sound occurring at any given moment but within that is an entire adventure. Whipping zombies, dodging bats, swearing at mermen - they're all contained in that one iconic tune.
Next up is the remake of the first game for the Sharp X68000 (which was also the basis of the Playstation 1 version, Castlevania Chronicles) which gives us a take on the tune that uses more complexity, evoking a slightly different feel.
It is, like the NES version, very raw; right from the opening moments it uses harsh waves that are embraced by the composer (it is hard to pinpoint exactly who is responsible for the arrangement) and even overtly electronic "random" beeps around the fifty second mark. There are two elements that I find extremely interesting in this arrangement; the first is the theremin-like breakdown at around 0:30. It sweeps through the notes in the same ghostly fashion that was so common in classic black-and-white horror and sci-fi films, a perfect evocation of the cinema Castlevania feasts on. The second element comes at about 0:52 and is a short synth organ sequence that is reminiscent of the classic music of Italian horror cinema, such as this piece by Walter Rizatti for Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery. That kind of association and influence only serves to lend greater atmosphere and interest to the arrangement and it shows how flexible the original creation. Elements are added and changed, yet the heart remains the same.
Over time Vampire Killer has been given a range of interpretations as the series itself has changed and experimented and these gradual shifts in style can be applied to the scores as a whole. There have been some very strange pit stops along the way, such as this techno misfire for the Saturn version of Symphony of the Night that just oozes with Sega cheese, or this electronic cacophony of garbage made for the arrange mode of Castlevania Chronicles. Despite these odd diversions the music of Castlevania has had an unequivocal move towards a stronger rock aesthetic, though never truly leaving its roots behind.
The PC-Engine title, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was the first in the series to try and introduce a metal element to the series. Some tracks - though not Vampire Killer which did make an appearance - feature synth guitars alongside a heavy emphasis on more realistic drumwork, and while not a complete style change , it marks that shift that would become more pronounced with time. A fantastic example comes from the opening moments of Symphony of the Night; it instantly hits us with wailing guitar work and bass drum hits that sound perfectly suited to a concept album from an 80s metal band. It's wild, new and strange but it still fits the action and horror template laid down by the first game eleven years prior.
Now it's time to jump ahead another 11 years to what is arguably the worst and definitely the most ill-conceived title in the series, the one-on-one fighting game Castlevania; Judgement. Whatever you make of the gameplay, its soundtrack is the logical conclusion of the metal influence on the series, as demonstrated by its version of Vampire Killer:
This version is a riotous explosion of metal and orchestral swells. Screaming out at us with multiple layers of guitars carrying the iconic melody, combined with driving bass guitar work and double-pedalled bass drums akin to Bolt Thrower and topped off with organs, chants and all manner of classical melodrama. The roots are clear, the central idea is the same, but it's a fervently different atmosphere that's being thrown at the player. For some people this is the destination they've always wanted for Castlevania music, for others, like me, they miss the synths and simpler approach, but thankfully we're all catered for.
This kind of progression can be traced across other unforgettable tracks, such as Bloody Tears that debuted in the second game, Simon's Quest or Beginning that first appeared in the third, Dracula's Curse.
Music and Castlevania are incontrovertibly connected, as evidenced by the many musically themed titles, and it's an incredible achievement that out of 40 titles only a few have betrayed that heritage. While I've only had chance to scratch the surface with Vampire Killer, I implore people to seek out and listen to vast range of wonderful pieces that could soon be your new favourite. There are classics worth hunting down, such as Castlevania 2: Belmont's Revenge, the second Game Boy title - pieces so brilliant and that use the sound chip so well I'd swear it could only have been achieved by magic. It's a delight and a testament to a series that's produced some of the best game soundtracks around.