Certain literature speculates Dracula’s ability to create soul clones. These living vessels contain his spirit, essentially becoming copies of the Prince of Darkness. Some soul clones grew to become powerhouses in their own right. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon could stand as a video game example of this concept. The soul of 8-bit Castlevania lives on Inti Creates’ classic homage, itself a precursor to the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Through authentic design and a sprinkling of modern tweaks, this bonus title manages to stand beside its old-school cousin.
Curse of the Moon lovingly recreates the vintage Castlevania experience. Romping through pixelated Halloween backdrops feels, for better or worse, as it did in the 1980’s. Climbing stairs means locking into a commitment of combat-restricting vulnerability. Taking damage knocks players backward, often into other enemies or a deviously placed pitfall. The great retro soundtrack upholds the series’ legacy for awesome tunes. You’re still striking candles and other fixtures for items, though hearts actually increase health, while bottles replenish the weapon meter–a paradox for the Castlevania faithful. Curse of the Moon feels like it emerged from a time capsule in mostly the best ways.
Instead of controlling one evil slayer, players take on a party of four. Zangetsu leads the charge as a balanced hero wielding a sword ala Alucard. Miriam, my personal favorite, boasts a far-reaching whip, ground slide, and high-jump, making her the most versatile of the bunch. Alfred, an alchemist, has the lowest HP but sports a suite of powerful spells best-suited for specific situations. Finally, Gebel is a sort of demon whose magic spread shot is bested by his near game-breaking power to fly freely as a bat.
Heroes are easily swapped on-the-fly using the shoulder buttons. Each has their own health bars and even dedicated sub-weapons, which lends to gameplay variety. Though Miriam became my main, mixing and matching each character’s abilities grew more fun, and strategic, over time. It’s fun to eradicate ground threats as Zangetsu before smoothly switching to Gebel to thwart aerial attacks. Some powers can even be combined together to creative effect. I toppled a boss when I activated Alfred’s protective fire ring and changed to Gebel. Alfred’s fire ring transferred over to him and, by using Gebel’s bat form, I hovered over the boss’s weak point. I dealt continuous fire damage while simultaneously avoiding ground attacks.
Heroes have independent health bars. If someone dies, they can’t respawn until the full party goes down. This setup brings a welcomed layer of strategy. Miriam became my go-to, which regularly put her in harm’s way. Whenever she bit the dust, I had to rethink my approach with the remaining characters I was less comfortable with. This can sting because although levels can be beaten with anyone, certain secrets are only obtainable with a specific power. For example, far off platforms that only Gebel’s bat form can get to.
Levels themselves are relatively straightforward in the first half but noticeably spike in difficulty towards the end. The last two stages, in particular, became devilishly perilous, and the jump almost felt too jarring. Boss battles follow a similar trajectory. I had little problem trouncing the first 4 or so but business picked up substantially with the last couple. Thankfully, the encounters themselves are enjoyable enough and some show a fair amount of creativity. Two standouts include battling a foe inside a large treasure pit and fighting a tough-as-nails vampiress.
For those looking to relive that old-school experience, “Veteran” difficulty keeps players on their game by limiting lives to three. Otherwise, a smart “Casual” setting retains the game’s challenge but grants unlimited lives and eliminates that pesky knockback. This acts as a great option for easing in uninitiated players. It also works for people like myself: experienced fans who’d rather skip the stress of monitoring lives. Regardless of your choice, generous checkpoints make Curse of the Moon a more approachable title than the games it emulates–a change I’m ultimately grateful for.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon offers a fun little appetizer until Ritual of the Night’s main course arrives later in the year. It’s a good snapshot of what made NES-era Castlevania a blast while ironing out a few, but not all, of its less savory traits. A nostalgic appreciation helps with overlooking this style’s more antiquated quirks. Thus, it may take newcomers a little longer to get on board, but the game is far from impregnable. As with Dracula, no matter how many times others try to revise or update Curse of the Moon’s style, the classic formula still manages to hold up.