Let's get the obvious out of the way, it sucks. Okay, that's probably an exaggeration, but given how good the two-dimensional installments are and always have been... mostly (looking at you Simon's Quest), one can't help but feel underwhelmed by the series' transition into the third dimension.
Before I go any further I think I should talk about what it means to be a Castlevania game in the two-dimensional form.
The original on the NES was a linear affair where players assumed the role of Simon Belmont and were tasked with vanquishing Dracula. It was all about haunting atmosphere, catchy tunes, and whipping monsters. It featured excruciating levels and ruthless bosses. It was all about putting you to the test, and making sure you were worthy of the whip and title, "Vampire Killer".
Simon's Quest was a bit of a deviation. It featured the same great atmosphere and some great tunes, but a lot of the rest of the game feels lazy. It's the precursor to the Metroid style 2D Castlevania has adopted since the success of Symphony of the Night. It was more an RPG adventure than a 2D action game this time around. Though the core gameplay was basically the same as the original, the level design, enemy design, and most disappointingly the boss design were all at a level so far below that of the original. I'd like to bring up the conversation aspect of the game for a point I'd like to make later on. Technically it was about as developed as other games at the time, but the characters spoke in riddles. There wasn't anything clear about what they'd say, and sometimes the NPCs would just straight up lie. Simon's Quest did however bring some notable additions to series. The exploration, shops, item collection, upgrades, and light leveling system all make their first appearance with this one, and it certainly can be praised for that.
Dracula's Curse was a return to the linear style and the same punishing difficulty of the original. It's generally considered the best of the NES trilogy. The most notable addition to the series was being able to play as different characters.
Super Castlevania IV was a remake of the original game with more levels, better graphics, and even more epic music and boss battles.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was the next major departure of the series and the blueprint of what the 2D side of the series has followed since. It borrowed the exploration, shops, item collection, upgrades, and a similar RPG leveling system from Simon's Quest, and added to it elements borrowed from Super Metroid, like the map and level/world design. The popular term for this exploration style gameplay is Metroidvania, on account of both Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night being excellent games featuring similar gameplay. And coupled with this style was the great Castlevania atmosphere, monster slaying, wonderful music, and epic bosses.
So, what does it mean to be Castlevania? With the games like the original, III, and IV being defining games of the series, challenging and satisfying gameplay is obvious. Symphony of the Night and to a lesser extent Simon's Quest, suggest that exploration, item management, and having a RPG leveling system are also important. And obviously the setting would ideally be consistent with that of medieval-fantasy.
The 3D games haven't necessarily been bad as far as games go, but as far as Castlevania games go, something is always off. The recent Lords of Shadow for instance, is an example of a decent game. However, it feels less like Castlevania and more like God of War. It has boss battles that could be described as epic, like the few that you must climb on top of a find weak spots similarly to Shadow of the Colossus. The problem with both of these characteristics is, that it simply doesn't play as well as the games it tries to emulate. Something always seems to get lost in translation with Castlevania's transition into 3D, and Lords of Shadow is just the most recent culprit.
It may seem like it'll never happen, like "the one" will never be released, but I have something to share with you. It's already here.
And it's been here since 2009 and it even has a spiritual successor that will be released later this year.
My friends look no further than Demon's Souls for your 3D Castlevania fix. Actually you probably should, because Dark Souls comes out in a few months as well.
Now I know you're probably thinking, "What does Demon's Souls have to do with anything? It's not even a Castlevania game, and it doesn't even have Dracula or his castle". I'd be inclined to agree with you on those points, but those points alone.
I'll ease you into it.
This is probably the most obvious similarity between both games. Both series' cast you as warriors that use weapons like swords or magic spells. Both are rooted in more Western Mythology, but neither series finds themselves restricted to those confines. Both have magic systems, and both dip into Holy magic while also having some traditional magic. In Castlevania III there is a character that utilizes magic. In most Castlevania games there are magic weapons such as holy water and holy crosses. Demon's Souls feels like it evolved what Castlevania had with its own use of miracles that were separate from the more traditional "magic" spells like a fireball spell.
It's more of a subtle choice, but important all the same. It's not necessarily as memorable or catchy as Castlevania's classic tunes, but it certainly feels appropriately epic and haunting, which leads me to my next point.
Haunting, Dark, and Chilling Atmosphere
In the 8-bit and even 16-bit days Castlevania was all about atmosphere. Actually 2D Castlevania has always been about atmosphere, and it is amazing that it could pull it off so well within the confines of two dimensions. One of Demon's Souls' biggest strengths is also its atmosphere. It features dungeons, dark, dank corridors, dirty mines, and the ambient noise just ramps up the immersion. The aforementioned music also plays its role at all the right moments. Even the gameplay adds to the atmosphere, but that'll be discussed later on. All of it adds up to make Demon's Souls one of the most atmospheric games of not only this generation, but of all time.
Punishing Difficulty and Epic Boss Fights
The Castlevania series has always been known for the relentless challenge it offers, and why don't you ask yourself what Demon's Souls is known for? Its difficulty, of course. Once again Demon's Souls feels like the natural evolution Castlevania's challenge. It forces player's into abiding by the rules of the game and isn't very lenient about mistakes and doesn't hold your hand, very similarly to the classic Castlevania games.The boss battles in Castlevania no doubt contributed to a lot of its difficulty and that is also the case with Demon's Souls. Death, Frankenstein and Igor, Dracula, all of them are some of the most intense and challenging boss battles from the original game. Demon's Souls does more than just provide a challenge with its boss fights though. Each and every one is creative and offers a new challenge, but this time it doesn't feel like the evolution of just Castlevania boss battles, but boss battles as a whole. And just to toot Demon's Souls horn a little bit more, there is even a boss battle in which you must engage another player, and you could even be that player. You can actually be a boss in Demon's Souls.
Story Takes a Backseat
The post-Symphony of the Night Castlevanias seem to be developing more and more of a story, but like most older franchises, the story is generally little more than something to keep the game moving. The same can be said of Demon's Souls.
Multiple Characters and RPG Elements
Some Castlevania games allow for players to play as different characters, and an easy comparison Demon's Souls class system can be made. Eventually players in Demon's Souls can gain all the abilities and strength and weaknesses of any other class, but for a one time playthrough people are going to play the game differently. Some people liked playing through Dracula's Curse as Alucard, some will play as Trevor, and the same goes for Demon's Souls with some people liking to play as a Mage, while others like being a Knight. Now, Demon's Souls goes deeper with its RPG aspects more than Castlevania ever has, but once again it feels like a logical evolution the series could have made, rather than keeping the basically fixed stat increases of level ups from Symphony of the Night. Then of course Demon's Souls has shops like Symphony of the Night and Simon's Quest, and like Simon's Quest you don't buy equipment with money, but with souls which are fairly similar to hearts, no? Demon's Souls goes deeper with its shops and adds a pretty deep weapon upgrade system. It all seems like stuff Castlevania could have eventually done.
This is arguably the most important part of my argument. To the casual fan of Demon's Souls this might seem a little out of place, but I assure you Demon's Souls has all the ingredients of Metroidvania. What's most interesting about it though is that it strikes a balance in being a straight up linear game, but also giving you the option to go back and play any level in search of better loot. It is almost as if they catered to both sets of Castlevania fans at the same time, the Super Castlevania IV linear style fans and the non-linear Symphony of the Night fans. You can do what most players probably did, which is just work your way through each of the worlds in a straight line, but there was always the option to explore. There are all sorts of paths you can take to reach the end of each level, and each path has its own branching paths to undiscovered secret areas and powerful weapons, rings, armor, or challenges. The messages on the ground from veterans will help newcomers understand what is needed to even be able to access certain areas of a level, and the message system as a whole is reminiscent of Simon's Quest's NPCs (or even old school NPCs in general, since a message will never say something new). You don't really ever know if a message is truthful or not until you find out for yourself, and they can be easily misinterpreted, vague, or even just a simple message put there to be fun. There are actual characters you meet in the game that are liars like there were in Simon's Quest as well. There are also some that aren't, and meeting all of the characters requires quite a bit of backtracking and puzzle solving. There is so much depth to Demon's Souls that so many players barely scratched the surface of and missed out on, and it's mostly regarding this, ever so praised when used in other games, Metroidvania gameplay.
It's probably unfair to call Demon's Souls "Castlevania 3D", because it is a game that can easily stand on its own. I just believe many of Demon's Souls better qualities to be overlooked, and by making these comparisons, perhaps they'll be easier to see. It's already forever made its mark with its innovative online features, such as invading others' worlds and the messages, which dare I say again, could have (but probably not) been something the Castlevania franchise contributed to gaming in order to stay relevant. Obviously Demon's Souls isn't a Castlevania game. It is much more an RPG than Castlevania ever has been, and because the story is irrelevant to Castlevania without Dracula or his Castle (though after Lords of Shadow who knows?) it is clearly not Castlevania 3D. Once again, From Software brought us gamers something truly magical, maybe even mystical, in Demon's Souls, and because it is strong enough to stand on its own two feet, it should. Still, Demon's Souls is very much what Konami should be looking at considering the future of its own famous franchise, not God of War.