The animated Castlevania series on Netflix show adapts the popular action-adventure franchise’s third entry into a four episode first season…and hot damn is it good, even becoming the first video game adaptation to receive a “Fresh” certification from Rotten Tomatoes. Four episodes is a bit of a tease and possibly the result of Netflix trying to hedge their bets against yet another failed video game adaptation. Fortunately for them, and infinitely more fortunate for us, the show is a hit and has received a second season order of 8 episodes immediately following its release! I’ll be waiting patiently for that second season, but in the meantime, I want to take a look at what made Castlevania the first quality video game TV series.
***Slight Spoiler Warning***
A Sympathetic(-ish) Villain
The first episode functions as a sort of prologue, offering audiences a glimpse into Dracula’s life prior to the season’s main events. Viewers are introduced to him at a moment when he is somewhat vulnerable and open to the idea of trusting humans. This doesn’t last long, however, and it’s when we see this trust shattered that Dracula becomes a true, motivated character and not just a looming evil. Though this depiction is brief it made me actually want to root for the vampire…for a little while at least. Regardless of how he’s portrayed in the rest of the season, the sympathy inspired towards the Count doesn’t fully goes away even as he starts to perform characteristically Dracula deeds.
A powerful introduction to a complex character, Castlevania’s first episode is effective at drawing viewers of all kinds into the series. Rather than protracted exposition, we are immediately ushered into the series’ universe with an emotional story that establishes key characters and points of conflict for the rest of the show. This makes the first episode an excellent point of entry for both new audiences who have to learn why they should care about this fantasy universe and fans of the games who want to see how the series’ mythos will be adapted. It’s not necessarily a flashy opener, nor is it the best episode of the season, but it juggles many responsibilities remarkably well and effectively sets the stage for the rest of the series.
Adapted but Consistent Universe
This decision to flesh out a character that is, in most games of the series, merely a shadowy embodiment of evil, is emblematic of the show’s attitude towards the franchise’s mythology in general. Castlevania is an expansive franchise with a complicated sense of continuity and mythology. Yet the show manages to bring together aspects of the franchise, from characters to items to religious motifs, and include them while not letting them get in the way of creating a compelling fantasy world.
The show’s got it all: Belmonts, whips, demon monsters, and magic powers. All of these things help to assure viewers that this is a Castlevania show. Rather than stopping there, however, the show also commits to its world and characters. The country of Wallachia feels like a real place with conflicts between religious groups, disgraced noble houses, and a population of people who are struggling to get by. The show’s universe recalls the dirt and grime fantasy of Game of Thrones while adapting the franchise’s essence into a unique gothic tone. The fact that this tone remains intact demonstrates that the Castlevania TV show understands the essence of its roots.
The Right People for the Job
If you dive a bit deeper into the show’s production it becomes clear why this is the case. Showrunner Adi Shankar, famous for his bootleg fan films of Power Rangers and Punisher, is a longtime fan of the video game series, calling Symphony of the Night one of his favorite games. When asked by Rotten Tomatoes why he was able to succeed in adapting a video game where many others have failed, Shankar said, “The struggle for a lot of people adapting video games is they aren’t gamers. They don’t actually like the thing.” In contrast to this, he says, “[The Castlevania show] is something that was made for fans – actually made for fans, not at fans.”
Having a team that understands the core of the source material is essential to successfully adapting it. Shankar and his team are not bound by the game’s narrative or gameplay elements, but by their deep understanding of what makes Castlevania great. This is why, even as they adapt, change, and explore new areas of the source material, every second of the show feels like how Castlevania should feel. That distillation of the game’s essential tone and feel is the show’s most significant achievement.
More to Come
The first season of Castlevania isn’t perfect. There is a bit of cliché here and there, the pacing can feel off at times, and four episodes only allows so much time for all the things we want to see. But these feel like small complaints when taking into account how solid of a foundation the season sets up. In addition to properly adapting a video game series, the hand-drawn animation is beautiful, especially when characters use the full-range of their abilities in combat, and the characters themselves have distinct and likable personalities. Yet, in so many ways this first season feels like a teaser, like an excellent appetizer before a sprawling main course. With the story now in full swing and a clear direction for the continuing narrative, the quest to defeat Dracula has all the pieces set to put together something truly spectacular. It isn’t a major motion picture yet, but as the first video game adaptation to really “get it,” Castlevania is shaping up to be the epicenter of something big.