My Ranking of 2D Castlevanias

This list is exactly as it sounds: my personal ranking of the 2D games in the Castlevania franchise. It's one of the few long-running franchises where I've played basically every game, and thus feel qualified to rank. Note that I’m only including what I consider to be the “core” 2D Castlevania games here, which to me are the console games through Symphony of the Night, and the handheld ones after that. So no Game Boy games, multiplayer spinoffs, 3D games, etc. This ranking is based on my personal, subjective preferences alone, and I will amend it over time as new 2D Castlevania games come out (so probably never). Hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading!

I want to make another note here. Unlike the other series I’ve ranked, I came to most Castlevania games very late. When and where I played them certainly colors this list, and if I had played them all as they came out I would likely see them differently. But it is what it is, and just something to keep in mind!

Last updated on May 16, 2019 (original list creation)

See my other rankings of: Metroids | Marios | Zeldas | Final Fantasies | 2D Castlevanias | Fire Emblems | Gaming Years | Consoles and Handhelds

List items

  • Rondo of Blood was the pinnacle of the classic Castlevania formula, and to me, the pinnacle of the entire series. It had it all: great art, great music, great pacing, a great difficulty curve, great controls, and plenty of flair (including some awesome set pieces). I even came to it nearly 25 years late, and it still felt great to play. The clunkiness and dated design that can sometimes plague the older games were nowhere to be found, and I didn’t even miss the sprawling castles of the later games. Instead, Rondo focused in to create the best pure whip-swinging action in the series, and remains the best embodiment of what Castlevania is all about to me.

  • I think a few Castlevania games following Symphony of the Night executed its formula just as well (if not better), and Aria of Sorrow was the best of them: it nailed the pacing, difficulty, world and enemy design, and introduced an awesome new magic system. Absorbing the souls of defeated enemies offered a fresh twist on both combat and exploration that made this game feel much more dynamic and alive than the other games in this style. Toss in perhaps the best castle and most interesting story in the series, and you had one of the most well-rounded and compelling Castlevania games.

  • I never had the reverie for Symphony of the Night that most people do: I think it had some meaningful issues in its pacing and (lack of) difficulty, and its change in structure didn’t wow me like it did most. Some caveats aside, this was still a fun, stylish Castlevania adventure, with strong art, music, and moments more than making up for the occasional lackluster game design. And it did modernize the aging series to set the stage for a number of strong sequels, while simultaneously proving that 2D games still had a place as the medium transitioned to 3D. I give it props for that.

  • Circle of the Moon gets its share of flak, but to me it was the best blend of the two Castlevania styles. It offered the intense whip-swinging action of the classic games, then set it within a contiguous castle as established by the later entries. I often struggle deciding which style I like better, but Circle of the Moon made that a moot point. I also think it has some of the coolest art and music in the series, and I found its magic system intuitive and fun to experiment with. If the difficulty curve had only been more balanced, I could easily place this one even higher.

  • Castlevania was freaking rad. Sure, it can feel a bit clunky and dated today, but it was a super impressive debut for the franchise that got a lot right up front. Most of the series' staples were there from the start, and in some ways it had a purity and spirit that many of its sequels strayed from. And hot damn, I still think its soundtrack is easily the series’ best: there’s seriously not a weak link on it. Castlevania was amazing in its day, and I still think it’s pretty cool decades later. That counts for a lot in my book.

  • For better or worse, Dawn of Sorrow was a direct follow-up to Aria of Sorrow. That meant it retained that game’s excellent pacing, difficulty, and customization (and also looked much better on new hardware), but it was less impressive simply by not doing much new. I also think its castle was not quite as well designed as Aria’s, and I really disliked the forced use of the touch screen after boss fights; that drove me nuts. Otherwise, this was another great Castlevania game, one that executed the formula about as well as any.

  • Castlevania IV’s “haunted house” vibe was different from the jaunty action of its predecessors, and while it could move a bit slow at times, I was into it. It was a fresh retelling of Simon’s debut adventure that made its pivotal moments much more cinematic, and added some fun abilities like diagonal and flailing (?) whip attacks. I could have done without some of the Mode 7 goofiness, but hey, we got the Theme of Simon out of this game. I’ll excuse a lot for that.

  • You know, Bloodlines was pretty weird. But I like it for its weirdness, not in spite of it. Don’t get me wrong; it pulled off the classic Castlevania formula just fine, and was a surprisingly balanced game that holds up today. The weirdness came in the monster designs, which were, um... I don’t even know where to begin. They were special. But they made me smile as I whipped my way through WWI era Europe in search of vampires.

  • I was initially disappointed by Order of Ecclesia on two fronts. First, I felt its disjointed world was a step down from the singular, sprawling castles of its predecessors. Second, I felt that the formula was getting long in the tooth so many games in, and this one didn’t do enough to advance it. I still hold both of those gripes, yet they seem more minor in retrospect. Otherwise, Ecclesia was noticeably one of the more balanced and polished entries in terms of pacing, control, and difficulty. That level of execution is certainly enough to warrant praise.

  • No game on this list suffered due to my tardiness more than Castlevania III, which proved very difficult to play 25 years after the fact. I found it to be the most brutal in the series by far, and not in a fun way: infrequent checkpoints and long corridor crawls packed with tedious and obnoxious enemies made it an exercise in patience and memorization as much as anything. Castlevania III brought a lot of great ideas (and music) to the series that I respect, and I’m sure it was as great and important as everyone says it was in its day. But today, for me, it mostly serves as a reminder of why we’ve moved on from “Nintendo hard”.

  • Portrait of Ruin was a perfectly good, if pretty standard Castlevania game. I thought the dual character setup was handled well, with different strengths and weaknesses providing good reasons to use both characters; their joint attacks were cool too. But its level design was pretty average, and the endgame was too much of a repetitive slog. That made it fail to stand out to me following so many stronger Castlevania games, even if it was still fun.

  • I found Harmony of Dissonance to be very boring. Where most games in Symphony of the Night’s wake had a new twist, or simply executed its formula better, this one felt like an uninspired and unchallenging retread. That’s primarily due to its poorly designed castle, and how a second, parallel version of it appeared halfway in, which led to a lot of backtracking through the same dull rooms. Even the music was boring, which is a Castlevania crime.

  • Castlevania II didn’t do it for me at all, for a lot of the same reasons it’s considered the black sheep of the franchise: a poor translation combined with overly cryptic clues made a walkthrough virtually required, and there was way too much rote grinding and backtracking. The action itself wasn’t as good as its NES counterparts either. There were some potentially neat ideas in its open world (and some great music), but the execution was just not good.