The Music of Castlevania 1 to Bloodlines
The 8-bit Castlevania entries is one of the gold standards of gaming that makes the NES great. It differed from the norm and innovated ways that are often taken for granted. As opposed to Capcom's Ghouls n' Ghosts, Castlevania took its horror spin relatively seriously, credits notwithstanding. Yes, it makes little sense why the entire Universal Horror monsters line-up was all present and accounted for - the Egyptian mummies are probably unrelated to Bram Stoker's Dracula, after all. But the game's eerie cinematic opening, the march in between levels, dilapidated castle setting, grotesque zombies and skeletons and enemies made for a unique visual experience. There's little reason to doubt why it stuck out as a more mature game on an otherwise family friendly console. You would need to dig deeper into the NES library to find a true horror title on the system.
The franchise soundtrack is no exception and is tied closely to Castlevania presentation. It is one of the most endearing and enduring elements of the series. Each games' soundtrack stands on its own, but the compiled OST of the franchise is nuanced, unified, and full of surprising depth and variation. This was a time period where developers were still writing the rules for how to score ongoing franchises so the creative decision behind the music of a franchise was a genuine innovation.
All three of the NES games as a result have a fairly tight and singular sound world, engaging in similar compositional ideas that become more pronounced as the series progresses. When the franchise jumped to more robust audio technology, the music of Castlevania becomes a completely different beast. The NES' sound chip allowed for simple electronic sounds in the form of basic audio waves (square, sine, etc.). Sampling, even though capable on the NES, was typically avoided due to precious disk space. When the series jumped to the 16 bit era, the ambiguous elements of style and orchestration on the NES could elaborated. As a result, the SNES, Genesis, and TurboGrafx-16 CD entries all share a number of songs but arrange them in vastly different ways.
The legacy series: Castlevania I-III, Haunted Castle
When discussing the NES games it is best to group them all together. This is both for ease of discussion and because the three games have very similar sound design. The "legacy" entries into the franchise contain perhaps some of the most well known tunes in the video game history. As a result, the franchise reuses certain tracks on a game by game basis.
Castlevania is where the series starts and more or less defined what the follow two games will sound like. The heavily syncopated rhythm with the octave leaping bass in "Vampire Killer", the first level of the game, is present in nearly every level track of the game and is very common amongst these three games (as well as most Konami games of this era). Every song is also in a minor mode, which is a bit unique. While the levels have a distinct Konami esq. rock like drum accompaniment (indicative of their style and the era), there are still numerous baroque influences that dot the OST. The "Alberti Bass" figure that accompanies boss fights and the second phrase of the level five music are perhaps the biggest indicators of a Gothic/baroque influence. Even though "Alberti Bass" figures relate to classical technique, it's especially synonymous with older harpsichord and clavecin music so the intent is rather clear. This baroque sound becomes a mainstay, particularly in Castlevania II. And the soundtrack has its own internal design. Another element in Castlevania soundtracks is the reuse and reframing of prior tracks. For instance, the opening prologue music is reused in the fourth level of the game . Still, the game does suffer from having its music worked on by two separate composers, Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima, not in cooperation. As a result some tracks sounds decidedly more gothic and baroque (those by Yamashita) and others sound less so (by Terashima). Of course a lot of this was not known since the original credit was to "James Banana." A breakdown of the track authorship (as well as a great interview) can be found here.
Several tracks from Castlevania, but not as many as one may expect, appear in later entries of the series. The best example is probably the most famous track in the series, "Vampire Killer ." This song really does stand out as one of the most well known single tracks in video game history and has been aped at a nearly countless number of times. This might be due to it being the first song in a relatively difficult game and may very well be the only song most people got to hear in the game before powering down their console after being unable to navigate eponymous castle's notorious stairwells. "Vampire Killer" is alluded to in Castlevania II's soundtrack (the track name "The Silence of Daylight ") and it appears verbatim in Castlevania III, where it is referred to in the music test as "Deja Vu" . From then on, "Vampire Killer" has appeared in almost every Castlevania game with several noteworthy exceptions (the initial PS1 release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and the Sorrow series on the GBA and DS, an interesting and intelligent decision as in those games you play as vampires and not vampire hunters). Other tracks from Castlevania make it off console and appear in sometimes random ways. The name entry music, which was only present in the Famicom Disk System version of the game, appears in Harmony of Dissonance, a reference very few would catch. The death jingle is also identical throughout all the NES games, and appears in the SNES and TurboGrafx CD entries.
Castlevania II is often maligned for its cryptic gameplay. This may be conjecture, but most of this is second-hand complaining through the Angry Video Game Nerd's review. That said, Kenichi Matsubara's soundtrack is a marked step up from the original Castlevania, perhaps the result of being the work of one composer with a single vision instead of two. The syncopated, rock/metal rhythms are still present because, well, it was that era of Konami. However, the trademark gothic and baroque sounds that were hinted at in Castlevania are now fully formed. The game over music and the ending sequence music are almost too obvious to even be worth discussing. The track "Bloody Tears " is the most well known in the game and alongside "Vampire Killer" one of the most well known tracks in the series and gaming. The opening bariolage followed by a more rock-like anthem genuinely sets a new standard and expectation--a seamless blend of pop rock and the baroque. For me personally, the track "Dwelling of Doom " is the standout song from this game. "Bloody Tears" has the benefit, like "Vampire Killer", of being the most often heard track from the game. But "Dwelling of Doom" makes compelling use of the NES sound-chip hardware, changing and blending wave forms, elongated note attacks, and portamento that are absent in the rest of the soundtrack. All this combined with an striking half-diminished 7th arpeggio run (one of the few in any NES soundtrack) makes for a very memorable track in an unmemorable game.
Castlevania III's soundtrack is then even more impressive as it's roughly as long as the two other games' soundtracks combined. "Vampire Killer" is brought back in its original form and appropriately accompanies Castlevania III's version of the castle foyer from Castlevania. The track " The Beginning," the first level track, is (like "Bloody Tears" and "Vampire Killer") the one track that gets reused from this game the most frequently. It's used in some form in all three of the 16 bit games but is seemingly not as enduring nor as popular, probably because of it being the last of the three legacy games. Other tracks from this game do to pop up occasionally but with no specific consistency. For instance, the music for the final stage of the game (titled "Pressure") appears in Circle of the Moon as a boss anthem. But the most striking part of Castlevania III's soundtrack is the appearance of ambient tracks. Songs like "Nightmare", accompanying the 5th level of the game, defy simplistic stylistic descriptions and crosses into the realm of soundscape, which is an altogether uncommon musical decision partly due to the limitations of the NES sound hardware.
Before moving onto the 16-bit era, it is worth talking about ports and system differences. First and foremost, while most non-Japanese gamers are only familiar with the NES release, the original version of Castlevania and Castlevania II were for Famicom Disk System. The first game sounds identical, but the second game has a vastly different sound despite using the same music. This provides the soundtracks a crucial extra channel of audio, with a very distinct sound using wavetable synth. Still, not much in the realm of orchestration and instrumentation is possible considering the hardware is still only capable of simple sine and square waves and unable to emulate actual instruments. Most people seem to prefer the coarser sound of the NES version of the games, so the extra audio channel is probably not a major factor.
The Japanese version of the third game, Akumajou Densetsu also contains the VRC6 memory mapper, which adds three extra sound channels: two pulse wave channels and one sawtooth. Konami was no stranger to extending the sound hardware of its systems, as it also produced the SCC sound cartridges for the MSX, which allowed for greater expanded music capabilities over the standard PSG. As a result, Akumajou Densetsu sounds much richer, with fuller sound effects that make use of multiple sound channels. It was skillfully converted to the NES, whose hardware was not able to support extra sound channels like the Famicom was. The only two other games that used this memory mapper were Esper Dream II and Madara, both RPGs released only in Japan. Still, it has a very distinct sound that has earned it fans from across the video game music spectrum. Jake Kaufman's soundtrack to the 2014 indie game Shovel Knight utilized the sound of this chip.
What is worth discussing is the arcade release, Haunted Castle. Like Castlevania II, this entry is maligned and since it's not a very good game (in addition to it being obscure at best). As such the game essentially non-canonical. The soundtrack, however, is the first time we have the opportunity to hear what Konami's composers may have hand in mind with relation to the orchestration of the series. Written again by Kenichi Matsubara, it seems only fitting that the one track from the NES games that carries over is "Bloody Tears." The upgrade from the NES Ricoh RP2A03 chip to an FM synth is an obvious upgrade in sound. And because this was the original composer of Castlevania II we can safely say that this is the fully realized version of the track.
The 16 Bit Era
This leads effectively into the 16-bit generation. While the Sega Genesis entry into the series, Castlevania Bloodlines, sounds very similar to what was in Haunted Castle (most certainly a byproduct of the Genesis' Yamaha YM2612 chip) the SNES entry, Super Castlevania IV, went in a completely different direction. In many ways, Sega does do what Nintendon't but the reciprocality is equally true.
Super Castlevania IV seemingly turns away from Haunted Castle and even the entire NES' propensity for a more rock and metal like sound. Instead, composers Sotaro Tojima and Masanori Oodachi rely on what the SNES sound chip does best which is orchestral samples. They pivot the OST to a symphonic sound. As well, they introduce far more ambient tracks. Drones and even soundscape are all too common in this soundtrack and was technologically impossible on prior hardware. This is all the result of Sony's S-SMP sound chip which allowed for more complex sampling and synthesis (as opposed to the Genesis' YM2612). In many ways, the onus to produce good samples and sound was more of a burden to the composers but in the hands of good programmers and composers the SNES was capable of some of the most memorable soundtracks of all time.
Super Castlevania IV is no exception. In spite of it being an early release, Sotaro Tojima and Masanori Oodachi made fantastic use of the system's ability for a more complex range of sounds and dynamics. Their instrument choices are especially telling--strings, organs, harpsichords, flutes, and timpani form most of the backbone of the soundtrack, although they are still accompanied by a more rock like fair in the form of a drum kit and electric bass. Many tracks also eschew the more standard song like format of the last games (with perhaps the exception of select tracks from Castlevania III) notably "Into the Castle " which is especially cinematic since it accompanies literally no on-screen action other than the player approaching the castle by bridge. As well, several tracks within the game "remix" themselves. A good example is the track "Death Tower " followed by the "Rotating Room " music, which gives the game an especially tight internal congruency. Odd meters and rhythms also litter the track in especially odd place. The rhythm in "The Sunken City " is a Latin-esq compound meter as is the "Pillared Corridor ." But perhaps the most surprising track comes at the very end, when battling Dracula himself which reuses the music that was in the prelude to the game itself (which was once again used during the castle approach). Especially when contrasted with the boss rush theme, "Room of Close Associates" , the final track to the game is, while slower, far more evocative, cinematic (especially considering there is no break between when the music for the level starts and when the fight versus Dracula begins), and even sinister than any of Dracula's prior music. Furthermore, the reuse of the opening scene's music effectively ties the game together in a form of bookending and a definitive sign of the more cinematic approach to scoring.
The final stretch of the game is what perhaps sets the standard for the rest of these games: the reappearance of the tracks "Vampire Killer, " "Bloody Tears ," and "The Beginning " from Castlevania I, II, and III respectively. This decision is especially indicative of intelligent scoring and storytelling. The entire game thus far has been you, Simon Belmont, approaching Dracula's castle. It only makes sense that the most memorable tunes appear at Dracula's castle as you near the end of your journey. Playing to the SNES' strengths, these tracks are presented orchestrally, a pronounced about-face from the FM synth sound of Haunted Castle. "Vampire Killer" is especially well done in this version using nearly every sampled instrument in the game. The detuned piano and timpani give the track a much needed umph, propelling it away from being a perhaps goofy throwback into a sound that is both genuinely heroic but at the same time dark. "The Beginning" is perhaps comparatively weak. While still a good tune, one can't help but feel that the track is hampered by the insistence of retaining the rock/metal bass line from the NES track. Still, the appearance of new counter melodies (notable in the string lines) and fantastic orchestrational touches particularly where all the other voices cut leaving a solo flute over a static string line that is then answered by a solo horn.
Unfortunately, when discussing either the SNES or Genesis soundtrack they all feel hopelessly in the wake of soundtrack for Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (composed by several musicians, including Mikio Saitou) or at least when it comes to audio fidelity. Rondo of Blood, of course, has the distinct advantage of being released on the TurboGrafx-16 CD / PC Engine CD, a format which allows it for an especially robust redbook audio soundtrack. The channel limits of a sound chip are a non-issue when you have the CD-DA and redbook audio, bypassing the limitations of the system's native sound chip. In fact this format and the higher memory capacity for audio is what allows Rondo of Blood to contain substantial voice overs.
Rondo of Blood presents yet another stylistic about-face, turning away from the more orchestral and cinematic score of Super Castlevania IV in favor of a distinct early 90s J-pop and rock sound. The stylistic change makes all too much sense. Rondo of Blood sounds like an early 90's anime soundtrack because Rondo of Blood is meant to look like an early 90's anime. The shift in tone really is a hilarious relic of the early 90s. The gothic and Universal horror elements are thrown aside in favor of a more Japan-friendly anime aesthetic. The new Belmont, Richter, is anime-handsome, Dracula is a bishonen, and all the female characters' hair match a bag of skittles.
Like Castlevania IV, "Vampire Killer," "Bloody Tears," and "The Beginning" make a return. They are predictably more robust than the SNES version and have new verses and melodies which is especially welcome. The track to the final stage, "The Den," is a mashup of "Vampire Killer" and "Bloody Tears" with some allusions to "The Beginning." The melody from the former track is interwoven with the arpeggiated opening from the later. Similarly to how Super Castlevania IV reminds you with its music that the end is near, Rondo of Blood does an equally excellent job and is especially rewarding since prior to that final stage odds are (unless you took an especially odd path through the game) you have already heard all three tracks separately.
The standout is this game's version of "Bloody Tears." In addition to an extra verse, to finally hear the opening played on a relatively authentic sounding pipe-organ is genuinely cathartic. The opening is also altered, providing much needed and welcomed variation. Considering the creative and artistic decisions behind change Castlevania's aesthetic to be more anime compliant, to then alter the iconic track in such an obvious way was almost certainly a conscious decision, as if to say this is a new Castlevania. For the legacy series of games, this is probably the definitive version of "Bloody Tears."
Other musical references to past games are made, the most notable is this game's boss-rush level in which the player has to fight souped-up versions of all the Castlevania bosses. Fittingly, the music is an orchestration/remix of the boss theme from Castlevania.
When all this is considered, Castlevania: Bloodlines at first seems at first like a step backward. This is not say Bloodlines has a bad soundtrack, quite the contrary it might actually be musically the strongest. However, when compared to the cinematic edge that Super Castlevania IV has and the sheer fidelity of Rondo of Blood, Bloodlines feels demonstrably weaker. As alluded to, this is partly due to limitations of the Sega Genesis' Yamaha YM2612 sound chip. It is not possible imitate what the SNES and TurboGrafx-16 CD could do, or at least imitate them convincingly. As a result, this game sounds very similar to Haunted Castle which similarly relied on FM synthesis as opposed to sampling. For Genesis fans, this is more or less par for the course. This chip is what gives the Genesis it's very distinct sound which is neither inferior nor superior, only different. In the hands of good composers the Genesis can be played as an instrument unto itself. Fortunately, Michiru Yamane is a good composer and treats the Genesis chip appropriately, as an actual musical instrument.
"Bloody Tears" makes its predictable reappearance and sounds strikingly similar to Haunted Castle - again due to the YM2612 chip. It is the least interesting of the three 16-bit versions of the song. Rondo of Blood has extra verses and variations, Super Castlevania IV has striking orchestral elements. Bloodlines only contribution is an extended cadence where the track loops. This can be excused since "Bloody Tears," as well as the other legacy tracks "Vampire Killer" and "The Beginning ," has a relatively minor appearance in the game.
Yamane then deserves an immense amount of credit and respect for this soundtrack which is largely original music, especially when compared to Rondo of Blood which seems to be mostly remixes. It is only fitting that she would go on to be the primary composer for most of the future entries in the series. Musically, she does a better job than almost any of the other games in realizing the polistylist fusion of genres presented thus far in Castlevania. Even with the limitations of the system, there's an immense amount of diversity. The most obvious standout of her OST is the stage 2 music, "The Sinking Old Sanctuary." It's a complex and heavily syncopated melody in a compound meter of 6/8 time - which perhaps can be seen as nod to the Super Castlevania IV soundtrack. In actuality, of the original music in the 16-bit era this one might be the most memorable in part for it being reused in the GBA Circle of the Moon. An orchestral version of the track also appears in Legacy of Darkness for the N64. The following track in the game, "The Discoloured Wall" is an especially strange track. Harmonically it is the most dissonant composition in the series thus far and rhythmically it's also a contender. Again, Yamane's ability to create vastly differing sounds and atmospheres within the same game yet make it feel fitting is a rarity in game music. Internal references within Bloodlines are also present. The music for level IV ("Iron Blue Intention") has a strikingly similar melody to the music from the first stage ("Reincarnated Soul"), which rhythmically and melodically similar to "The Beginning." Bloodlines also has the distinction of referencing music beyond the classic series. In the final stretch of the game, "Simon's Theme" from Super Castlevania IV makes an appearance as well.
Overall, the 16-bit games all have vastly different and viable approaches. But, knowing where the series went it seems logical that Bloodlines, even though it's the runt of the litter and largely uncanonical, would go on to define most accurately what the later games would sound like.
Through looking at all of these games, one can see how the sound world of Castlevania was seemingly splintered but at the same time relatively unified. This is no small feat: every game in the series until Yamana took over after Symphony of the Night had different composers. The fact that there is any commonality between all the games should be considered a victory in of itself. Yamane's approach fittingly is where the series went in subsequent entries, particularly the GBA and DS entries. It seems like a shame that the more experimental parts of Castlevania IV were never revisited, but Rondo of Blood due to being so intrinsically tied to a very specific era of gaming seems fitting. The only time tracks from Rondo of Blood have appeared in other games, outside of the "compilation" games like Harmony of Despair, are Symphony of the Night and Portrait of Ruin which makes sense since they are direct sequels. That said, it is fun to hear "Richter's Theme" reused in an interesting way during his boss fight in Symphony of the Night (a track titled "Blood Relations"). Actually it seems that stopping a discussion about the soundtracks of Castlevania before Symphony of the Night is only half the story. For good reasons Symphony of the Night is widely considered to be not just the best OST in the series but one of the all time great soundtracks. Symphony of the Night would be an entirely separate article and would justly deserve that level of respect and detail.
Regardless, Castlevania is a series that is rich with lore and its music reflects that. That same lore is also a bit wacky... which is also conveyed in its music.