After the unevenness of the fourth area, Castlevania‘s fifth set of stages picks up the pace with a challenging level trio that make use of all the skills a player has acquired to date and tells a concrete visual narrative in the process.
After having re-entered the castle through the catacombs (or whatever) and defeating the Creature and his annoying jump-buddy Igor, Simon emerges into what is clearly a dungeon. Manacles hang from the walls, and heavy metal grates bar doors built into the back wall. Skeletons — probably the remains of those who died here, but I’m not asking — patrol the grounds. A new addition to the bestiary here is the red skeleton, which cannot be destroyed, only stalled. Strike a red skeleton and it collapses only to rise again a moment later. Kind of like Dry Bones from subsequent Mario games, except a little more gruesome — as the manual says, both their immortality and coloration comes from the fact that they’re soaked in blood. Neat!
Of all the stage clusters to date, this one arguably tells the most convincing story with a limited set of tiles. All three stages use the same gloomy grey stone backgrounds and slightly too-bright blue bricks, but the nature of the backgrounds slowly changes as you climb from one floor to the next. The dungeon ends once you move to Stage 14, becoming instead some sort of laboratory full of beakers, tubes, Van der Graff Generators, and lots of fresh corpses to experiment on (some still in their coffins!). It totally makes sense that this would exist on the other side of the dungeon from Frankenstein’s Creature — no doubt it was built here, staggered through the dungeon, and took up residence in the viaduct.
New to this section is the dread Axe Knight, which is way the heck more dangerous than the spear-carrying knights that patrolled Stages 04-06. Those guys didn’t really use their weapons to attack, and they didn’t have much in the way of defenses. Axe Knights can fling the axes from which they derive their names to attack either high or low from a distance; meanwhile, they carry shields that block several hits from subweapons, meaning Simon’s best offense is to go with basic whip attacks.
All of this culminates with Stage 15, which takes the form of the most brutal gauntlet so far. The lower portion isn’t so tough and actually serves the valuable purpose of kitting Simon out with gear if he dies in the section ahead… which he probably will, given its difficulty.
See, this final hallway is filled with the most infuriating combination of enemies imaginable (save flea men): Axe Knights and Medusa Heads. The former pose formidable physical barriers to progress, forcing Simon to stand and defeat them, while the latter flutter up and down and pose a more dynamic threat as you balance your attacks and defensive maneuvers against the knights. One foe or the other on its own would be no big deal, but in concert they’re absolutely deadly.
The upside here — and there is an upside! — is that once you learn the rhythm of your foes, they actually become an asset. This is ever the way of Castlevania: Master the rhythm and everything falls into place. Stage 15 contains a boomerang and just enough Hearts to power it as you take on the knights and Medusa Heads. Chuck a handful of boomerangs and manage to take down a few Medusa Heads and some of the high-thrown axes and hey presto: You’ll inevitably end up with a triple-multiplier for the boomerang.
And you’ll need it, because the boss here at the end of Stage 15 — the Grim Reaper itself — is very nearly impossible to defeat without a juiced-up boomerang or holy water. I did it once, but only once, and I’ve managed to lose even while in possession of a triple boomerang far more often than that. Death is a bastard. While the Reaper itself mostly just drifts around the screen aimlessly; the real threat comes in the form of its scythes, which appear three or four at a time in random spots around the screen and home in on Simon. You can destroy the scythes by whipping them, but they’re small, fast, and move very quickly. Even if you avoid them all and manage to destroy them, in the time it takes to do that you won’t have hurt the Reaper a bit. And then the next wave of scythes materialize and home in to kick your butt.
The best solution therefore is to chuck boomerangs like crazy. And even then, that’s no guarantee of success. Actually, the bestest solution is to chuck multiple holy waters and stun lock the Reaper, but that’s more easily said than done; there’s no holy water in Stage 15 (unless you get really luck with a rare random drop from an enemy), meaning you have to carry it in from a previous stage. That’s pretty tough to do, and you only get one chance per continue. And even then, stunlocking the Reaper still leaves all those scythes flying around, ready to do you in….
Yeah, good luck with this one.