Castlevania is more impressive than The Last of Us

Richter Belmont in the latest Castlevania series
Richter Belmont in the latest Castlevania series Screenshot from Castlevania: Nocturne
We are living in a golden age of video game adaptations, especially for those of us old enough to remember when Mortal Kombat: Annihilation hit theaters like a thrown wet turd. Two of the best have been Netflix’s Castlevania and HBO’s The Last of Us. While the latter is extremely good, the former is by far the more impressive accomplishment.

There was never any doubt that competent producers and directors could make a decent screen adaptation of The Last of Us. The zombie post-apocalypse game set a high-water mark for prestige interactive drama in 2013 that has still rarely been topped. Its cinematic cut scenes, touching script, and incredible voice acting left a near-perfect template for anyone who wanted to give it a go.

When the show did finally hit the screen, it was almost too good. Scenes, blocking, camera shots, settings, and dialogue were lifted from the source material so faithfully that it made me wonder if I should just go back and play the game instead. With a few notable exceptions like Bill and Frank’s extended story and the introduction of new villain Kathleen, the series was functionally identical to watching a cutscene montage.

Which is not a bad thing! The television show drew in people who weren’t really gamers and now wanted to give playing them a shot. That, coupled with the introduction of tons of accessibility options in modern titles, has opened gaming up further than it’s ever been. On top of that, the series was just thoroughly enjoyable.

But let’s look at Castlevania. Like a lot of franchises that have their roots in the 1980s, the games are often more of a vibe than a coherent storytelling device. Well into the Symphony of the Night era, which the current series Nocturne is based on, Castlevania was an interactive abstract rendition of gothic tropes linked through levels and a few key mechanical traits. The lore, while impressive for the NES, is nowhere near what The Last of Us offered.

Despite that, the Netflix series has perfectly captured that vibe and turned it into one of the best animated shows of the last decade. In their first game, Trevor Belmont and Sypha Belnades have little character development besides marrying after they defeat Dracula, but the show gives them proper arcs and personalities. Richard Armitage’s drunken carriage crash version of Trevor may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s undeniably more compelling than the 8-Bit sprite version ever was. After all, there was never anything in the old game manuals (ask your parents, kids) that said Trevor wasn’t a PTSD-ridden alcoholic.

There are so few moments of outstanding storytelling in the original games that it’s amazing when they do show up in the series. When “Bloody Tears” started playing during the episode “For Love” I jumped up off the couch. The show even recreated the ending of Dracula’s Curse by having Trevor and Sypha stand on a cliff overlooking the castle.

It’s even more striking in Nocturne. By the time of the game Rondo of Blood, the series still wasn’t know for its plots, but they were leaning even further into the overall aesthetic. There are moments when Nocturne feels like it is shooting the opening of Rondo directly into the script with a hypodermic needle. Even the famous carriage chase sequence gets subtle nods through new villain Bathory’s constant train of horse-drawn entourages.

Castlevania had much less to work with when it was putting together its story. There were a handful of sketches that couldn’t rightfully be called characters, some decent locations, and a dozen stock monsters from film and mythology. From that, the first series produced a compelling tale of unlikely friendships and the corrosive power of grief. Nocturne is even better, adding in deep question about revolutionary politics and race over the usual Castlevania mishmash of horror and glamor.

There was so little in the toolbox when Netflix started with Castlevania. The Last of Us had its entire first season essentially mapped out. True to the mechanical hallmark of later Castlevania games, half the fun of the television series was figuring out where to go without any sort of guide. The showrunners pulled that off magnificently against all odds. Fond as I am of The Last of Us, Castlevania is more pioneering, daring, and impressive as a video game adaptation. 
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner