Netflix’s Castlevania anime has done what many thought was impossible — it’s a good video game adaptation. The eight-episode sophomore season, which dropped this past Friday, is a legitimately good supernatural drama, with top-notch vampire-slaying action. If the half-as-long first season seemed like an extended prologue, Season 2 barrels the story forward in a thrilling but unexpected way, and in the process it totally throws out a core tenet of not just basic video game design, but the foundation of the Castlevania video game series: There are no “levels” in Castlevania.
**Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for Castlevania Season 2**
To be fair, the Castlevania games don’t have any explicitly defined levels like Super Mario Bros.’s iconic “World 1-1.” But exploring Dracula’s Castle in the games does tend to reveal distinct levels, even if they’re not in a hard-set order, and players can, for the most part, leave and re-enter levels however and whenever they please. Castlevania is one of the two franchises that gave the “Metroidvania” genre its name (the other half of this portmanteau comes from the Metroid series, naturally). In these games, the player explores a large, interconnected map. Gameplay isn’t on rails, but by discovering new secrets or unlocking power-ups, players can gain access to new areas, with the very gameplay encouraging a sense of exploration and investment in the character.
Various parts of the castle have distinct appearances and themes. Castlevania veterans have braved gnashing machinery in eerie clock towers, dueled with ghosts in vast gothic ballrooms, and whipped man-eating plants in moonlit courtyards. As players explore each level, defeating each boss, they grow closer to their final goal — defeating Dracula.
Castlevania Season 2 throws this idea out the tallest window of Dracula’s Castle. It’s not until the penultimate episode that the heroic trio of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades, and Alucard enter the castle, and once there, they defeat some low-level grunts, all of Dracula’s vampire generals, and Dracula himself over the course of a single episode. Trevor Belmont is a speedrunner, essentially.
Given the slow, deliberate pace of the first season and the extremely character-heavy six episodes that preceded this showdown, viewers likely expected a much longer assault on the castle. Perhaps the trio would start at the bottom and work their way up, discovering new parts of the castle and defeating familiar mini-boss characters along the way. Instead, it all happens at once, with our heroes obliterating Dracula’s henchmen before ultimately taking him down too. It’s only during that final fight with Dracula that he and Alucard drop into other areas of the castle, though these amount to scenic cameo appearances rather than a new level.
A long, more broken-up assault would certainly feel more video game-y, which might be why the show didn’t go in that familiar direction, and why the season is such a thrill. When a player is in control of a character’s action, the repetitive nature of gameplay — explore an area, beat the boss, unlock the item, repeat — is fun because the player has agency.
On TV, though, such a format can start to feel like wheel-spinning, delaying the main action for the sake of a longer episode count. Castlevania deliberately built up its characters and laid out the stakes so it could unleash all the action and tension in one intense episode. The fighting, much of it set to one of the best songs from the video games’ soundtrack, “Bloody Tears,” is slick and expertly choreographed, with each of the three heroes getting a chance to show off their martial prowess.
Trevor winds the Morning Star around him with deadly grace as Sypha seamlessly turns the very elements into ever-morphing weapons. Meanwhile, Alucard and his floating sword cut through enemies as if the pair were dancing, their enemies' severed limbs just new decorations for the dancefloor. The ending comes quickly, but the visuals make the payoff worth it.
Castlevania could not have existed without the video games, especially its direct source material, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. That doesn’t mean that it needed to slavishly adhere to the format and tropes of the original medium. Castlevania’s not replaying old levels, it’s giving audiences something unexpected — a slow burn leading to an explosive, compact finale. Perhaps that’s part of why the series was able to do something else unexpected and surpass the low expectations for a video game adaptation.