Castlevania, Anime and the Futility of Video Game Adaptations

Written by on July 20, 2017

“Chasing the dragon” is an ancient slang phrase of Cantonese origin from Hong Kong, in reference to the feeling a drug addict gets when they first get high. The process of chasing the dragon begins with the first, glorious high. Everything feels fine. The person who induces the drug is floating through time without a care in the world, entranced by the endorphins being released through their consumption of the drug. Soon, though, the high fades. Life comes crashing down, as the user’s mind races as they return to the Earth they so desperately wished to escape from.

The user comes back for more, hoping to regain that lightning in a bottle they felt when they first used that drug. More puffs, more needles, more drugs are consumed until that person quickly devolves into an addict. They are chasing the dragon. They are hopelessly grasping for the feeling of that first high once more, reaching for the stars, but crashing back down to the ground with nothing but track marks to show for their struggles. They can try and try and try again, but they will never recreate the euphoria that befell them the first time they experienced it.

Castlevania protagonist, Trevor Belmont

For everyone who plays video games, our dragon is the feeling we get when we’re playing. The way movement feels in your favorite Call of Duty. The depressing realization that you’d spent the last 30 hours leveling Aerith up only to have her get stabbed by Sephiroth. The laughter from your friends as you compete in an intense game of Mario Party. The ethereal joy that comes from listening to the soundtracks of previous entries to the series in Final Fantasy XV. The sweat furrowing on your brow after you finally take down Father Gascoigne in Bloodborne. This feeling is what film and television studios have been trying to tap into ever since games were realized as a legitimate medium.

This is because video games possess a dimension that no other medium in contemporary popular culture exhibits: interactivity. The thick-with-three-Cs atmosphere of Bioshock works because you are the one in control of your own destiny. You, the player, know that, with one wrong step, there’s going to be a very large, very angry man in a diver’s suit ready to drive a drill through your stomach. I can’t help but feel as though all the suspense and pants-wetting paranoia from Bioshock would disappear in a live action movie.

In my opinion, this could be the reason that virtual reality hasn’t taken off in the gaming sphere recently as many game companies predicted. Virtual reality’s major selling point, placing a player literally in the middle of their game, surrounded by all of its grandeur to lose yourself in, is just a slight extension from what has existed in the medium since the 1990s.

Thus, what’s the point of adapting a video game to appear as a television show or movie? What do these studies stand to gain by trying to capture the magic that we felt as children when we first booted up our favorite games, knowing full well that it is impossible? Why keep chasing that dragon?

I think the most obvious answer is that people will pay for something that makes them feel like they’re a kid again. But live action video game films have been so painfully disappointing that they’ve become the laughingstock of the movie industry. They are not referred to as “bad movies” anymore, rather as “good video game movies.”

Some of the most recent fighters on the scene of video game movies have ranged from painfully average to really bad to forsaken by everything that has ever been considered holy. I can specifically remember the way I felt when I synchronized my first viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed. I was on Cloud 9. No one could stop me. I also specifically remember how I felt when I finished watching the Assassin’s Creed movie with Michael Fassbender, like a satanic elephant was sitting on my chest and wouldn’t move until every last drop of joy had left my withered body. A human being simply cannot do a leap of faith into a haystack below without mangling himself in the process. The suspension of disbelief is gone.

I despise video game movies. Not because they’re all that bad, which they are, but because they drain the magic from something that can only deliver that magic. Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet and Clank, Warcraft. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Doom or the world-renounced Super Mario Bros. all came woefully short to capturing the magic of their video game brethren. It just wasn’t the same.

But then, it came. Like it descended from its own personal spot in Valhalla to grace us lowly earthlings with its power and might, came Netflix’s messianic anime adaptation of Konami’s action-adventure game Castlevania. Four 23-minute episodes released onto Netflix on July 7, 2017, and they were fantastic. I am so happy to say that. A video game adaptation exists that genuinely feels like an extension of the game franchise itself, not as some tacked-on imposter that survives off of its name alone.

Adi Shankar, Executive Producer of Castlevania

It was almost as if Castlevania knew it was its own final hope. The fact that the show’s runtime was a measly 94 minutes felt like it was a trial run, as if Adi Shankar, the man behind the idea, just wanted to show us that it was possible to make a video game adaptation that didn’t suck eggs. The show is just what a Castlevania show should be: violent, gorey, hilarious, over-the-top and just downright weird. The show works because it felt just like the games. Movies like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider felt more like parodies of their source material than anything, like they were trying to make a joke out of some game mechanics that never made logistical sense.

Castlevania also works because its action scenes were able to be as jaw-droppingly outrageous as they needed to be. This is a luxury not afforded to live action films because much of the action is fantastical as opposed to grounded and gritty. Take Final Fantasy XV’s precursor anime series, Brotherhood, for example. Now imagine if that was live action. Yikes. It sends shivers down my spine just imagining how a major film studio would make a live-action warp strike look.

Castlevania was gruesome. This one poor guy got his eye ripped out, and then got the other one stabbed by a flying pike. Children are literally ripped in half in this show. No holds were barred. Everyone dies, and it’s almost as if Shankar and his cronies had a competition to see which one of them could produce the most squeamish death scene imaginable, and I imagine they came close.

Anime is the way forward for video game adaptations. Shankar is already working on an Assassin’s Creed anime series, which hopefully can heal some of the wounds left by the 2016 film and its most recent video game entries. He has also been quoted as saying that he would “love to do” an R-rated Mega Man series. I don’t want to think about that right now, because I might uncontrollably burst into tears with excitement.

So here’s to Castlevania, Adi Shankar and every brilliant mind who worked on it. Maybe we’ll never seize that dragon we’ve been chasing, but at least Castlevania shows us we might get close.

Black Squirrel Radio