It’s no surprise that a horror film buff such as myself is a huge fan of Castlevania. But while I enjoy the endless slaughtering of Dracula, both styles of Castlevania, as action-platformers and exploratory adventures, and the all the horror inspirations, what I love most about the series is its music. I consider the original trilogy to have some of the best soundtracks I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to on the NES. As time went on and new technologies made their way into gaming hardware, Castlevania greatly benefited from these improvements made in audio quality and song length. Today, we’ll briefly look into how the transition into the 32-bit generation affected the music in one of my favorite franchises.
Rondo of Blood tracks often opens with hard-hitting percussion and a synthesizer lead that get you pumped to whip some fire breathing bone pillars in the face. Stage 2A’s song expertly mixes electric guitar with synthesizer, giving you those rocking tunes needed to prepare you for Dracula’s Castle. The tempo perfectly matches your march along the bridge over the lake, playing for just the right amount of time before making your arrival. Some might not the more poppy vibe of Rondo of Blood’s soundtrack, but I feel it fits well with the less serious, anime aesthetics, of its cutscenes and official art.
While the audio benefits from the use of red book audio alongside the PC Engine’s onboard sound chip, you can tell that it’s being held back by the sound capabilities of the console. It still has that distinct midi sound that while enjoyable, feels rooted in older console hardware. It doesn’t have that giant leap in quality you’d expect from CD, with many of the tracks feel right at home with what was being done on the Super Nintendo. Rondo of Blood’s soundtrack is a fantastic bookend to the classic era of Castlevania, both in gameplay, and music, but it was only a glimpse of the potential we’d see on the Playstation.
As we move to Symphony of the Night, we see longtime Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane’s masterful use of drums and synthesizers. From the opening organs to the outstanding percussion, Marble Gallery is a multilayered musical treat. Jazzy drums, the faintest whispers of bongos, and an insanely catchy synth riff complement the stage’s sprawling marble hallways and stain glass windows. Each instrument is crisp and clear with a nice punch to them. It’s a vast improvement from the tame midi instruments in Rondo of Blood, all while taking more risks stylistically.
Yamane’s work on Symphony of the Night is some of the best the series has ever seen. The sense of grandeur emanating from her arrangements have only truly worked within the confines of CD-ROM technology. When you look at her work on Aria and Dawn of Sorrow, you can tell it’s a composer struggling against the sound capabilities of the Gameboy Advance and DS. The low-quality audio fails to capture the complex, multilayered sensibilities of her work on Symphony of the Night.
Now, as we move onto the next game, we should make note of the Nintendo 64’s sound limitations. Given the data limitations of N64 cartridges, it must have certainly made creating music for the system a challenge. There were many amazing soundtracks crafted within similar limitations in the 8-bit and 16-bit generations. However, as CD-ROM technology became a standard for home consoles, gamers expectations for musical fidelity and length grew. Yet, even when directly compared to CD based consoles, many composers were able to arrange standout soundtracks for the Nintendo 64, and Castlevania is no exception.
Castlevania 64’s Maze Garden, takes on a much more sinister tone than what the more upbeat songs we’ve heard so far. Opening with a slow, echoing drum beat, you get this feeling of impending doom. As the high tempo synthesizer begins, you can feel the steps of death approaching closer. All of a sudden, as you slowly make your way through the maze, outcomes Frankenstein’s creature with a Chainsaw for a hand, chasing you. Ready to cut you into pieces.
The music does a great job of giving players an overwhelming sense of dread. But at only 50 seconds, it loses some of its impacts. Had the arrangement had a little more time to build up the anxiety of running into the Gardener, it would have worked perfectly. However, despite the technological limitations of the Nintendo 64, composers Masahiko Kimura, Motoaki Furukawa, Mariko Egawa were able to arrange a soundtrack that still works despite the system’s flaws. They created somber, ambient tracks that might not compare to the extravagant music found in Symphony of the Night, but are still a blast to listen to and help establish the frightful tone and atmosphere Castlevania 64 most definitely needed.