An unrelenting classic
The storied reputation of the Castlevania franchise is no doubt partly due to the solid foundation of its initial installment. Konami's Castlevania for the NES went beyond just establishing franchise conventions like whips, hearts, and complete thievery of classic monster icons but additionally set series standards like great music, precision 2D gameplay, and the occasional bout of frustration. It's a true classic in every sense of the phrase and still holds its undead head up high amongst its contemporaries.
In Simon Belmont's quest to tell Dracula to put a stake in it, six stages of full of platforming action and bosses await him. Controlling Simon is easy thanks to the immediate responsiveness of his whipping and jumping. However, certain things will require a certain getting used to, such as the fact that you cannot control Simon in mid-air, and the at-times frustrating controls for going up staircases. You haven't played a Castlevania game if you've never cursed out loud for wanting to throw a subweapon near a set of stairs by pressing up and attack but instead are sucked into ascending the staircase and left completely vulnerable.
Otherwise, the basic gameplay is fun and rewarding. For being such a short game, the game's difficulty slopes up pretty quickly. The first stage is a complete breeze, but even by the second stage the pain of instant-death traps will probably be felt by first-time players. And that's to say nothing of the Frankenstein/Igor combo at the end of the fourth stage that will likely seem impossible to those who don't know the trick (hint: use the holy water). While the subweapons are extremely useful and can be borderline broken, nothing is truly impossible without them. The game is foremost designed around the use of your basic whip attack, which is one of the game's strengths. Having the skill and fortitude to defeat Dracula is still a satisfying accomplishment despite the decades removed.
The game's graphics are quaint if not a standout of its year, with detailed sprites and some pretty atmospheric backgrounds -- it's still cool to see Dracula's tower in the background near the end of the third stage. Castlevania doesn't quite have the face to charm nowadays, but its graphics don't detract from the gameplay, either.
The music and sound, however, is some of the best on the NES. The effects such as the cracking of the whip and the holy water explosion are nearly as classic and nostalgia-inducing as more ubiqitous ones such as the Super Mario Bros. power-up mushroom sound. But most of the audio credit must go to its highly memorable soundtrack full of hummable tunes that not only provide an upbeat backdrop but give each stage an additional sense of character and personality.
Castlevania has certainly aged -- pretty well, in fact. It holds up better than its direct sequel Castlevania II: Simon's Quest but doesn't quite have the variety of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse or other subsequent sequels (or even the many remakes of Castlevania itself!). But in many ways, from its gameplay to audio, the first title in the series still represents the purest, most condensed Castlevania experience you can have this side of the Symphony of the Night revolution of a decade later.