Castlevania Original Soundtrack EP Review: Shoulda Stayed in The Grave

Mondo's first Castlevania music release on vinyl looks great, but these legendary tunes deserve better treatment.

Premium collectible brand Mondo Tees has thrown its hat into the ring as the latest contender in the video game soundtrack vinyl free-for-all. While Mondo has distributed game vinyl for other parties (mainly Data Discs) and has published dozens of film soundtracks, actually producing game soundtracks is a new move for them.

Impressively, the company has landed a big name right away: No less than Castlevania, Konami's vampire-hunting series, perhaps even more famous for its intense electro-gothic soundtracks than for the games themselves. Based on the publisher's first release, however — a standalone 10" EP containing the soundtrack to the original Castlevania for NES — I find myself wishing Castlevania's rights had ended up with a different publisher. It's not that this release is terrible, but as series with soundtracks as exquisite as Castlevania's deserves more love than this debut EP demonstrates.

Mondo is first and foremost an art and collectibles company, and it definitely shows in the Castlevania EP. The music itself clearly comes as a secondary consideration to the packaging and design, which isn't entirely uncommon in the game vinyl trade; a huge percentage of the market consists of picture discs and other choices that compromise the music. Given this franchise's place in game music history, though, it seems a mistake to make that tradeoff here.

In terms of packaging, of course, this EP is stunning. The record sleeve consists entirely of original artwork by Becky Cloonan, with Simon Belmont standing defiant on the front cover atop a pile of defeated skeletons beneath the grinning visage of Count Dracula. The back cover features a great rendition of Medusa, and the interior gatefold spans both sides of the record with a beautifully redrawn rendition of the in-game castle map. It's lovely work all around... but the fact that there's no imagery from the original game whatsoever speaks to the underlying intent of the release. This is not a work of meticulous reproduction but rather a attempt by Mondo to put their mark on a beloved franchise. Which is fine, it's what they do... but it represents a strikingly different mentality from audiophile and game history-oriented releases such as the SEGA records Data Discs has been producing.

That mindset carries through into the record itself. There's not really all that much music to be found in the original NES game — about a dozen tracks and jingles, most of which consist of 45-second loops — and as such, Mondo has produced the record as a 10" 45rpm EP, with about seven or eight minutes of music per side. That results in a pretty steep price — the company is selling the record for $20 plus shipping — but vinyl isn't a poor man's medium, so the dollar-per-minute ratio isn't entirely unheard of.

It's the actual production that disappoints. In contrast to boutique gaming labels that have taken great pains to re-record game audio from the original sound hardware, Mondo appears to have simply taken existing CD arrangements that have been floating around for 20 years and converted them to vinyl. This becomes evident in "Walking on the Edge," the fourth stage theme that closes out side one: The second loop of the track includes a medley of overdubbed sound effects, exactly the same as the arrangement on the Symphony of the Night Limited Edition Soundtrack Sampler that shipped with the original Japanese version of that game. If you were hoping Mondo would take this opportunity to remaster the audio from the NES (or Famicom Disk System — the EP opens with the FDS-only name entry tune "Underground"), well, keep hoping.

Despite the disappointment of this release's lack of archival official artwork, there's no fault to find in the brilliant gatefold rendering of the in-game stage map — by far the most appealing aspect of this EP.

Even more frustratingly, Mondo has chosen to master this LP at an unusually high volume — it's by far the loudest record I own. I generally listen to records through a pair of open-ear headphones plugged directly into the turntable, bypassing the option to adjust EQ or volume, and this record comes close to being unbearably loud. This hasn't been a problem with Mondo's film score releases, so I'm not sure why this particular disc is mastered so aggressively. The audio volume itself isn't the issue, though, but rather the fact that it's so amped-up that the bottom end of some of the more energetic tracks suffers from blown-out distortion. This effect is almost unnoticeable on the first side of the record, which consists largely of more mellow and less bass-centric tracks, but it becomes a serious distraction on "Out of Time," the urgent stage six theme.

When you compare this release to something like Data Discs' recent Out Run LP, its shortcomings are hard to overlook. The Out Run record took a small amount of music and gave it room to breathe, complete with top-flight remastering, and it incorporated an entire side of supplemental tracks to flesh out what would otherwise be a terribly brief disc. Or consider how Brave Wave treated the Street Fighter II soundtrack, incorporating mixes from across multiple variants of the game and the game hardware.

Castlevania is ripe for similar treatment. There's no shortage of arranged versions of Castlevania's compositions out in the world, from the original game's MSX parallel release to the Castlevania Chronicles remake for PlayStation; even if Mondo didn't want to go to the trouble of properly remastering these tracks, they certainly could licensed some additional arrangements to create a comprehensive Castlevania soundtrack. Instead, they've produced a pricey record that makes for a nice art collectible but does absolutely nothing to preserve game history, better the art of game music, or offer a new perspective on a landmark work. It's a disappointingly inessential release for a soundtrack that deserves deluxe treatment, and it bodes ill for the company's other upcoming Castlevania records.

Special thanks to DLoh and Noe V. for helping to procure this record.

Tagged with Castlevania, music, vinyl.

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