Making a proper video game animated adaptation: Castlevania (Netflix)

It’s been a struggle to resist my urge to watch the new Castlevania series on Netflix. As a huge old fan of Konami, I’ve grown to detest the company over the last decade. It wasn’t just their incredibly disrespectful treatment of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima that garnered such hatred. Konami has long track record of screwing their developers. Pushing Koji Igarashi into mobile game development, Purchasing and then retiring the Hudson soft brand, the disbandment of Team Silent. And of course, Bomberman: Act Zero.

But Castlevania is near and dear to me, and the prospects of never getting another proper game have left me wanting. I felt conflicted. I had sworn off Konami. I promised myself I would never engage in anything new they produced. So why now? What pushed me into watching the latest Netflix original?

When the series was first announced, I expected to see yet another cash grab by the lovely folks at Konami. After the wave of Konami pachinko machines, it didn’t look like we’d ever see another meaningful use of their properties again. But as reviews started to come out, there was a much more positive reaction than I had anticipated. I was at a crossroads. Watch the series and break my promise, or get over myself and possibly have a good time?

I thought about how much I had written about the series on my blog. How despite the many years that have passed since the last proper Castlevania game, I was as passionate about the series as I’d ever been. So, I gave in. However, I’d keep my expectations low, as I was still not convinced an animated Castlevania series would win me over. Oh, how wrong I was.

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Produced by Adi Shankar and animated by Frederator Studios and Powerhouse Animation Studio, Castlevania is a retelling of the NES classic, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. After his wife burn is burned at the stake, Dracula declares vengeance against the people of Wallachia. Trevor Belmont, the last heir to the legendary demon-hunting clan, is reluctantly pulled into Dracula’s quest for revenge. Without giving too much away, the story is compelling and should be a good start for anyone unfamiliar with the series. However, what I want to talk about is what makes Castlevania such a good adaptation, where so many others have failed.

A good adaptation begins with a fundamental understanding of the source material. You have to understand it’s appeal before you ever hope of successfully translating it into another medium. That’s why Marvel’s cinematic universe succeeded while DC struggled for so long. Films like Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros. thought they could coast by on brand name alone. From day one, they had no intentions of appeasing fans. Mortal Kombat was the best to come out of that era because despite how campy it was, it captured the essence of the series. Much like the games, it was written as a cheesy throwback to 70s Kung Fu films and it worked. Albeit, it isn’t the greatest movie out there, but I’d certainly take it over Street Fighter any day.

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But as video game adaptations continued to become more faithful to their respective series, we didn’t see all that much improvement. Assassin’s Creed might be more accurate to its source material than say Super Mario Bros, but it still fails as an adaptation. The writer didn’t understand that fans don’t give a shit about the sci-fi modern-day setting. It was a basic lack of understanding from the onset that killed the film. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are. If you don’t get the appeal what you’re working on, it is going to be reflected in your script.

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Castlevania understands what the games were all about, doing an immaculate job at capturing the tone and atmosphere of the franchise. The adaptation harkens back to late 90’s, early 2000 anime, filled with gratuitous violence, a mature art style, and plenty of humor. I could easily see Castlevania fitting right alongside Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Hellsing.

Given the amount of story in Dracula’s Curse, it’s impressive how well writer Warren Ellis was able to fill in the blanks. Nothing feels out of place, from Trevor’s ill-mannered demeanor to the religious zealots who have doomed their country. Ellis put a lot of care put into making sure the lore was authentically captured without having to compromise on his original ideas. For only having 4 episodes, it’s wonderfully paced, giving you plenty of time to get to know Trevor, develop the religious state of Wallachia, and balance out the action and character development.

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The artwork is remarkably faithful in its emulation of 90s Japanese animation. I bet if you told someone that Castlevania was animated by a Japanese Studio, they’d believe you. And how fitting, as the original Castlevania was developed by the Konami, a Japanese pachinko manufacturer, ugh, I mean game developer. The character designs are reminiscent of Ayami Kojima designs through the game series. I’m particularly fond of Trevor’s design, but it could just be my love for fur coats.

The art style is at it’s best when depicting the cold, brutal nature of Wallachia. Dead bodies being thrown over bridges, people’s eyes getting gouged out; It definitely utilizes its R rating. Castlevania is never afraid of shying away from gore, making up some of the best moments in the entire show. The ending of the first episode is not for the weak of stomach, but man was it glorious.

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The animation can be inconsistent at times, with characters looking stiff and slightly off model during heavy dialogue scenes. Having said that, Frederator Studios and Powerhouse Animation Studio flex their animation prowess when it matters most, with some captivating and intense action sequences. The massacre at the end of the first episode, Trevor’s use of the vampire killer is a marvel to look at, and the sword to sword fight at the end are all brilliant pieces of animation and make me excited to see what’s in store for the next season.

My biggest complaint, outside of its short length, is that the music is mediocre, failing to reach the heights of game composer Michiru Yamane work on the series. Then again, that is a mighty task to accomplish so it’s not surprising. Nothing particularly stands out and that’s the problem. For a series so renowned for its music, the soundtrack is a crucial component that shouldn’t have been overlooked. For how much fan service Castlevania has, it was an oversight to not inject classic Castlevania themes into the arrangements. All we are left with is a bland soundtrack that fades all too quickly into the background.

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What’s most painful about the series is knowing that nothing will come of it. Even if Konami decided to make another Castlevania game, they’d just outsource it to foreign developers, and we all know how well that went with Lords of Shadows. Still, it’s nice to enjoy something new from the Castlevania franchise for a change. The length of the show is definitely a tease, but I can’t blame them for wanting to have a test run before committing to a full series. Castlevania isn’t exactly relevant.

Yet if you can look past the low episode count, and your a fan of the games, go out and watch it immediately. A second season with 8 episodes has been announced and slated for release next year. Now, all we need is to get Igarashi to get these guys to adapt Bloodstained and we’re all set!

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