This is the end, my friend.
Funnily enough, the last level of Castlevania turn out to be less difficult than you’d expect — certainly much less difficult than it would seem on paper. Or maybe these stages just seem that way, since you only have to make it through two stages, and the boss doesn’t send you all the way back to the start when you lose. After the repetition fomented by the Creature and the Reaper, the final level is remarkably breezy.
Stage 16 begins with a sort of reprise of Stage 9’s bridge: A straight shot of crumbling masonry over a bottomless pit, with the solidity of sporadic ivy-covered towers providing welcome safe ground. The difference between the two bridges is that rather than serve as a home to minor foes like Medusa Heads and ravens, Stage 16’s expanse is patrolled by half a dozen giant bats.
That’s right, the “minor” foes here are the first level’s boss repeated six times over. Although RPGs these days frequently do the “early boss as late-game mob” thing, I’d never seen anything like this the first time I played Castlevania. After forcing my way past the Grim Reaper, finding myself confronted with a string of bosses just about made me keel over in terror, easy as the bat boss was individually in its original context.
Fortunately, it’s not too hard to rush past this section. The bats take a beating, but if you wear them down one at a time and play smart, you can get through OK.
Finally, Stage 17 is the first-ever instance of the clock tower. It’s an intimidating cacophony of moving pieces and erratic foes: The hyper-detailed backgrounds and moving gears create a sort of visual noise that makes the already dangerous enemies — more eagles dropping off flea men — all the more distracting. Even if you can disregard the busy level design, the enemies are pretty dangerous. The last time the eagle/flea man combo appeared was on a broad plain of flat ground where the flea men landed on equal terms with Simon and could be dispatched with ease. Here, that’s not a given. The uneven, multi-tiered terrain makes the flea men far more unpredictable: Will they land above you? Beside you? Above you? Will they jump away? Up? Down? Go for the throat? Lurk and attack when you venture onto the stairs, where you’re more vulnerable? Modern Castlevania games tend to throw Medusa Heads at you in the clock tower, but for my money these guys are way more dangerous.
The funny thing is that the clock tower itself consists of only two screens, and you’re descending. For all that terror and intimidation, it’s not too completely difficult to just blaze through here. The run-up to the clock mechanism sets you against a handful of skeletons in a fairly open and straightforward structure. And once you’re down the tower, the final room of the castle is empty and harmless. As is often the case with these old games, it was the limitations and freshness of the game experience that made it so daunting. Once you get the hang of it, it all seems so brief and simple.
And finally, the very last section of the game: Dracula’s chamber, suspended impossibly from the side of the castle over the inky night sky. In a stunning act of mercy, this becomes the continue point every time you die. Not only that, but there’s a hidden, invisible ledge that lets you power up before facing the final boss. [Edit: I’m a liar! Those are only in the remakes, but you’re welcome to try a leap of faith and see how it goes.]
I love this area. So much detail packed into so little space: The face of the clock, illuminated by moonlight. The wine red of the bricks contrasting with the green over the creeper vines spreading across the castle stone, all pasted against the midnight blue of the sky and the deep black of the stone shadows and distant forest. Dracula himself lurks in a coffin within a room that appears to be lined ceiling-to-floor with windows — not really the ideal setting for a dude who can’t face the sunlight, but maybe he just figured it would be cool to paint his walls the color of the night sky.
Dracula comes in two flavors: Original vampire and gigantic demon. This is a pretty impressive encounter for 1986. Dracula rises to fight you once you enter his lair, but the somber music doesn’t change. This first phase of the battle requires patience more than raw nerve, because he’s mostly invulnerable as you warps around his lair; the only times you can hurt him are when he pauses to attack with a spread of fireballs that fly at an angle from above, forcing you to leap carefully and methodically.
Whittle him down and everything changes, though. His head flies off, the music stops, and suddenly — chaos! Dracula transforms into this huge frog-demon accompanied by intense, repetitive music. The demon attacks with mostly physical strikes, leaping high and low and occasionally breathing fireballs. It’s powerful, dangerous, and nerve-wracking. The one good thing about it is that Dracula’s demon form can be stunned with the holy water that he stashed in a candle in his bedroom, leaving it frozen and vulnerable to attack.
The sense of satisfaction when you finally collect the jewel that drops when Dracula is destroyed cannot be understated.