Netflix’s Castlevania – finally meeting the gamer’s test

All things Retro video-gaming are en vogue right now. SEGA are putting out games for free via mobile apps, Nintendo is selling as many mini versions of old consoles as they are their latest console, the Switch. Now Netflix revives a lost franchise from the dead, pulling it from the death-grip of gaming’s sleeping giant, Konami. Castlevania is back, and this time it’s a TV show, but does it do enough to seduce Gamers and casual viewers alike? Matt Lambourne, one of Failed Critics’s resident gamers, delves into the darkness to tell you more.

(Note: there will be spoilers!)


For many years, Gamers have suffered the indignity of seeing their most beloved franchises turned into insufferable movie cash-ins. Super Mario, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and many more have all tried to make the jump to the big screen but have typically been grossly misunderstood by studios trying to adapt a shit script into a video-game license whose resonance and loyal following guarantees a quick buck.

Oddly, Castlevania isn’t one of those series. It’s never been a super high selling franchise, regardless of what system it has been on over the years. Right from its inception on MSX2 home computer, alongside the Nintendo Famicom Disk system (NES in the west) version, right up to the series’ undoubted high point on the PlayStation with Symphony of the Night, Castlevania has never been the system selling, super mainstream success that its reputation might warrant.

However, it is gaming’s benchmark for ultra-tough and unforgiving game design, all whilst establishing a unique game lore that borrows from Bram Stoker’s origins, but schisms into a universe all of its own making; a  mixing pot for all vampire, Universal monster and mythical creatures. Castlevania is adored by its passionate followers, and making a TV series based on a universe with already defined ideas and storylines is a tough task. Series writer Warren Ellis and Netflix have managed to triumph where so many movie makers have failed, and the reason for this is very similar to how Marvel have repeatedly hit the jackpot in the MCU… their creators respect adore the subject matter.


Overture

Let’s dig into the TV show and where precisely in the vast Castlevania chronology it is based. The Netflix series begins with a wonderfully written exchange between a mysterious man and Lisa (Emily Swallow), an aspiring doctor and believer of Science in the dark age of religious foreboding. She approaches the castle of an unknown man who is rumoured to possess knowledge of advanced healing, this turns out to be non-other than Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula) (Graham McTavish), who welcomes Lisa into his home but appears to be more concerned with maintaining a fearsome image than he is helping our heroine.

Lisa however is unimpressed and unmoved by Vlad, and appears to break down his barriers with her charm and willingness to treat him as an equal. Before we know it, the two agree to exchange knowledge for lessons in etiquette before the series time-lapses into the future and things begin to warm-up, literally.

An unknown period has passed, and Vlad has left his homeland of Wallachia to walk the Earth as a man, as he was encouraged to do by Lisa, who is now his wife. Whilst she has remained home to provide aid to the local villagers using her arcane Scientific prowess, the Church has become fearful and likely resentful of her ability to garner public adulation and have forcefully taken her to be tried and burned at the stake for alleged involvement in witchcraft.

Lisa is painfully burned alive as the local villagers cheer on and the Church leaders justify their actions with absurd rationale. At the same time as Lisa’s life is extinguished, Vlad returns to the family home to find it raised to the ground, and is informed by one of Lisa’s patients of what the Church has done. Up until this point, Vlad has appeared all too charming and likeable, but soon reveals the true extent of his power; and his hate for mankind.

He teleports in a stream of flame to where his wife’s body has just crumbled to dust, and delivers a terrifying warning to the villagers that they have one year to make their peace with God before he unleashes an army from the depths of hell upon them. With that, we are then taken to a tavern with several men drinking, which introduces us to one Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage).

No Castlevania is complete without the ‘Vampire Killer’ whip, the Belmont family heirloom and destroyer of the supernatural.

Bloody Tears

And this seems a good point to discuss where the scene so far brings us in the gaming universe. The start of the TV series falls in line almost exactly with the storyline of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse from the original NES trilogy of games. Whilst it is the 3rd in the main series, it actually predates the events of the first two games and follows Trevor Belmont, the last in a lineage of Vampire Hunters, who has been summoned out of exile by the Church following the emergence of Dracula’s dark armies all over Europe.

This is slightly different to what we learn about Trevor in the first series of the Netflix show, whereby The Belmont clan are excommunicated from the land by the Church and has not been summoned to return, but has simply stumbled into Wallachia’s hour of need whilst traveling the country. And this is an important distinction between the game and the TV show, as there is only enough room in this primitive game cartridge for one threat, and that is reserved exclusively for Dracula and his minions. Whereas the series is equally focused on the threat of the zealot leadership of the Orthodox Church.

You could even call this opening series a genesis story for the new Castlevania universe, and how the Church’s oppression and abuse of power is the catalyst for the rise of Vlad Tepes as the evil Count Dracula that we are more familiar with in common legend. And this is one thing that the show is doing extremely well: it is rationing our glimpses of Dracula, much like we wouldn’t encounter Dracula until the end of any of the video-games. As such, the Church is front and centre as the villain of this piece. Their desperate urges for power over the community at all cost brings the darkest possible evil to their land. Prior to that, Vlad had only become tired of the pettiness of humans. He now only exists to destroy them for taking away the one thing he loved.

Visually, the series does away with the semi-medieval attire of its cast from the video game of Castlevania 3 and upgrades the look to the Bishōnen-style (beautiful person) inspired look introduced into the series in 1996’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night via talented designer Ayami Kojima, a look that has remained in the series ever since.

So now we have a hybrid Castlevania continuity. One that respects and pays fan service to the source material, whilst expanding upon it for the greater casual audience, and delivers a grim and violent world akin to what viewers have recently become familiar with in fantasy shows such as Game of Thrones, American Gods and The Walking Dead. I’m actually quite taken aback by how violent this show is! I’d have forgiven them for implying some violence but actually hiding it to allow for a young audience, but this is the ultra-violent, adult orientated Castlevania that long-term fans have always dreamed of. It is also not scared of potentially offending followers of Christianity/Catholicism and paints the Church in a very poor light for the sake of our entertainment.


Vampire Killer

Trevor (well voiced by Richard Armitage) is a very likeable anti-hero. He is confident but flawed, highly effective in combat and has enough moral compass to take the high ground in this cesspit of a world in Wallachia, yet he is also crude and dismissive. I sense his personality is shaped by a mindset born from years of online behavioural study, someone who is so confident he is always right, that the other side will not get a look in even when it’s obvious they are correct.

There is a particularly satisfying scene in Episode 4 where Trevor identifies a Priest in the crowd that he has already had a skirmish with and talks down his arrogance as a purveyor of the Church and the might of God, leading to a mob of villagers taking lethal justice against him. It’s these triumphs of dialogue that really make Castlevania the show stand out on its own two-feet. The game is constant action, whereas the series has fleeting moments of gore-dripping violence sandwiched in between highly absorbing and exploratory conversation.

As an owner of several of Castlevania’s high-points, I can vouch that the Netflix series certainly meets ‘the gamer’s test’.

For a 4 x 20min series, we have established some very detailed motivations for key characters such as Trevor, Sypha (Alejandra Reynoso), Alucard (James Callis) and of course Vlad Dracula himself. It will be interesting to see how series two further develops the gains made from series one. Will the Church continue to be front and centre now many senior clergymen have been disposed of in the opening episodes, or will it purely focus on the heroes and their battle against the army from hell, and perhaps traversing the Demon Castle itself?

Either way, I’ll be waiting with bated breath for the second series, and if you haven’t indulged yourself yet, you absolutely must. Castlevania is a breath of fresh air in a graveyard of zombie-esque video-game/movie crossovers that failed to stake the viewer through the heart.

And the best part of it, is that you can enjoy yourself, assured that Konami have nothing to do with it.

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