When I first heard that Castlevania was becoming a Netflix series, I'll admit I was extremely skeptical. When studios announce there will be a TV show or movie based on a popular video game series, you imagine what it would look like and then remember all the bad- to extremely-bad screen adaptations of video games (eg, Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter, Doom, Assassin's Creed). Video games translated into animated cartoons have been slightly more successful (eg, Pokemon, Kirby, Sonic X), but I'd still rather be playing the games themselves. For me, most adaptations don't work because the pacing of a TV season doesn't match how most video game stories are told. This mixed record also means many of these projects get canned before production.
Specifically, Castlevania is difficult to adapt as a TV show. The games are more about maze-like level design, famously stilted dialogue, some difficult platforming sections, and whipping Dracula's army into dust. After watching the brief four-episode pilot run (the second season, an eight-episode arc, has been renewed by Netflix), I came away a bit impressed. I'd play a game based on this take of Castlevania.
Season one is loosely based on Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, the NES prequel to the original Castlevania. In the game, you play as Trevor Belmont, who can partner up with one of three partners to take down Dracula: Sypha, a sorceress with no reach but access to magic; Grant, a pirate who can climb walls and change direction mid-jump; or Alucard, Dracula's son with the abilities to shoot fireballs and transform into a bat. The game has branching paths with four different endings. Which one you receive depends on which additional character you beat the game with, if any.
Like a lot of the earlier Castlevania games, Castlevania III's gameplay is difficult because of its pixel-perfect platforming sections and infrequent checkpoints. However, the game's story presents the Belmont family not as your typical protagonists, but as heroes ex-communicated from the church with supernatural abilities, all to end Dracula's reign with the crack of a whip.
**SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING FIVE PARAGRAPHS REVEAL SEASON ONE'S STORY ARC. SKIP TO THE LAST PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT IT SPOILED.**
The show takes a similar tack to Castlevania III's plot, though with more of a slow burn. The first episode explains Dracula's motivations on why he is bent on destroying humanity. It opens with a doctor named Lisa visiting Dracula's castle in the name of science and improving local healthcare, whose residents are superstitious of medicine. Dracula reluctantly agrees to open up his laboratory to her, sparking a romantic relationship between them. Fast forward 20 years later, Lisa is burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft in front of a crowd by the church. Pissed off, as this is the only woman Dracula has truly loved, he vows to release his hellish army in one year if the party responsible isn't sacrificed. This is more motivation than Dracula has ever really had in a Castlevania game, and the show nails the look and feel of his vengeful fury.
The ensuing episodes build up tension slowly, as we're introduced to wandering drunk and last remaining Belmont family member, Trevor. For me, Trevor was the weakest part of the show (though ably voiced by Richard Armitage, best known for his role as Thorin in The Hobbit movies) until the action started going. Trevor finds himself caught up in the town's drama when he stands up for an old man representing the Speakers, a group of secluded monks trying to help the town. The church's evil bishop blames the Speakers as scapegoats for the Dracula calamity.
Questioning outdated religious beliefs drives this Castlevania universe. Trevor's family has been excommunicated from the church for dabbling in the supernatural, and the Speakers have been shunned for researching magic. Sypha, who becomes a factor in the last two episodes, believes in the power of scholarship over dogma, but still believes in folktales enough to pursue the fight against Dracula. The Netflix series was scripted and produced by Warren Ellis, famed comic book writer of Transmetropolitan and co-writer of Dead Space. His work often explores whether or not knowledge-seeking is a threat to the common good.
There are lots of winks-and-nods to Castlevania fans, and the show doesn't shy away from the gore and violence the games always include. The combat sequences shine in terms of animation, and characters really bleed and curse a lot. The dialogue captures some of the campiness of Castlevania, though the best moment is one particular scene featuring the bishop and one of Dracula's demons talking about what's really at stake.
If anything, the last moments of the final episode highlight where Castlevania hasn't been as good in recent games. Trevor and Sypha discover a mechanical lair underneath the town that houses a supernatural being, setting up a tense one-on-duel between it and Trevor. This sequence reminded me of why I come to the Castlevania series: boss battles where I feel like I'm barely surviving with the abilities I have. The duel ends in a draw, and the former adversary joins Trevor and Sypha in their quest to take down the vampire lord terrorizing the land. It's a fun reveal and a good jumping off point for the second season.
Hopefully the show will make good on the deep lore and interesting characters that the Castlevania series has built up. I'm a little stunned that Konami, the-once-prolific-games company, approved this. On the games front, Metal Gear Survive is looking to be their last new project for awhile. However, Forbes recently reported that Konami is expressing interest in developing a new Castlevania game for the Nintendo Switch, after the relative success of Super Bomberman R and positive fan response of this show. If a TV show can convince Konami to make more games, that would be great, especially if its story ties in to the show's plot. We'll have to wait and see when season two comes in 2018.