Image of Simon's asymmetrical shoulder armor not mine, obviously, as I was playing on my PSP.
I'm glad I finished it, and that's not something I would have said a couple stages back. It's still the least of the tellings of Simon's (first) quest outside of further obscurities like Haunted Castle and Vampire Killer, but the final stages do finally pack some of the Castlevania small touches and humor that tell of care - ridiculous full-body plate knights that come screeching onscreen like they're late for class on Saved by the Bell; a Frankenstein fight that you're actually supposed to skip entirely by fleeing to a nearby staircase and jumping over him when he dumbly passes beneath you; mandragora that burst from vials in background bookcases and waddle around all proud of themselves for escaping. Following on the mirror gallery and doll tower, I liked the macabre & surrealistic gallery of paintings lining the hallway leading to Death and the uniqueness of making the first part of the final stage an armory. Despite the hugely unbalanced difficulty, the title does feature a few smart gameplay decisions: some enemy setups designed around the deft usage of subweapons (this is probably the pocketwatch's star outing), and some smart combinations of enemies and environmental obstacles...but there are so many places where they just packed in one too many of those obstacles to be reasonable. There are also a couple inexcusable jumps in the final approach to Dracula's keep that are quite literally pixel-perfect, one foot hanging off and all, which represent the game's meanest, cheapest trick - and the issue that aesthetically, Chronicles is considerably less impressive than a launch game on a system from the previous generation. It's the most brutal stage-based Castlevania I've played, though that's greatly through cheapness and therefore not a compliment.
Ranking the "walk right until Dracula is dead" installments in order of descending difficulty, I'd have to go:
- Chronicles (Original Mode)
- III (toughest of the well-designed games; hard as nails but fair and extremely smart)
- the original
I should point out for fairness's sake that I haven't beaten the first Castlevania (just got to the last stage) and that I beat Rondo with Maria (the correct and actually fun way). Despite this, I'm pretty assured of those rankings. I know the placement of IV is unpopular, but the game has a lot of bullshit that's popularly overlooked because too many influential people played it in their childhoods and therefore have the bullshit muscle-memoried away. If I had to put Belmont's Revenge on the list (I got stuck at the Stage 2 boss in the first Castlevania Adventure and found nothing compelling me to go further), it'd probably go above Rondo - the game's a cakewalk until Drac's castle, but the ridiculous Dracula fight takes more time than the rest of the game combined, and that's with a walkthrough. The platform limitations make the Adventure games so different, though, that I don't think ranking them against the rest of the pack is relevant.
Curse of the Moon would be below everything. Curse 2 is a bad game that doesn't deserve to be in the company of the rest and needs to go sit in the corner and think about what it's done.