Probably the earliest games to have any kind of references to Catholicism were the Castlevania series. Originally premiering on the NES with the game Castlevania, the series was a set of typical action platformers, but with a classic horror twist (so instead of fighting mushrooms/turtles and aliens, you were fighting bats and mummies and demons and, of course, vampires). The basic plot for most games in the series is simple- some member of the Belmont clan of vampire hunters must fight his way through the titular castle and defeat the evil Dracula. While it has never been the main focus of the series, the Catholic Church has always been featured in the lore as the group organizing the fight against Dracula, usually by supporting the Belmonts or supplying other combatants while that family is missing. I figured I could go through a few games in the series and discuss the role of the Catholic Church in each specific game (spoilers inbound for each!) Also note, this post won’t really go into Catholic theology at all, just the role of the church in various games.
First up is Castelvania 3: Dracula’s Curse for the NES. The basic story of the game is that once again Dracula has shown up to wipe out humanity and this time it is up to Trevor Belmont to stop him. Along the way he recruits the help of other people he meets including Dracula’s son Alucard, a pirate named Grant Dynasty and a magic user named Sypha Belandes. Not a whole lot of Catholicism on the surface, but the connection is made clear in the lore within the instruction manual. Before Trevor Belmont, the Church sent soldiers to defeat Dracula themselves (as they mistrused the Belmonts) but failed. After that failure, they finally agree to send Trevor and support him. In addition, Sypha Belandes is actually an agent of the Catholic Church. When she was a young girl she was being raised by evil witches, but after they were defeated she was taken in by some nuns. Once she was older, she decided to use the magic from her childhood to fight for good. While these two references to Catholicism are pretty simple, it is a lot for an NES game as religion was typically removed from the western releases of games at the time.
Next I want to talk about Symphony of the Night. Released in 1997 on the PS1, it focuses on Alucard as he tries to figure out why Richter Belmont is trying to revive Dracula a year after defeating him. This game is actually pretty light on the references to Catholicism, but I still wanted to mention the game because it will matter a little later. Over the course of the game, you get a flashback to Alucard’s childhood where a mob burns his mother at the stake, believing her to be evil for marrying Dracula. It’s important to note that it is a local mob that does the killing, not the church. While some superstition seems to have motivated the mob, there isn’t really any explicit connection to religion in this execution. Other than that, there are a few visual references to Catholicism (such as the chapel area of the game) and some easter eggs (like a confessional for ghosts you can visit). Many people consider this one to be the best in the series, so while Catholicism may not come up much it still is worth playing.
Next I want to talk about 2008’s Order of Ecclesia for the DS, my personal favorite in the series and the game that most prominently features the Catholic Church. The game takes place in the 1800s while the Belmont family is missing. Without the Belmonts to fight Dracula, the Catholic Church created the titular Order of Ecclesia to train fighters defeat him on when reappears. The main character, Shanoa, is a nun raised by the order for this purpose (side note- one of the only good redesigns for the Castlevania Judgment fighting game was Shanoa’s which gave her more of a nun look than the original game did). Over the course of the game, you come to discover that the leader of the order is just trying to use Shanoa to gain Dracula’s powers for himself, leading her to have to defeat both him and Dracula when the order is destroyed. One of my least favorite plot twists these days is the whole “good religious organization is actually evil,” but honestly it didn’t really bother me that much in this game. I think the reason is that it’s not that Catholicism or even the order itself that is evil, but the leader who was using it for power. Still pretty cliche, but it didn’t bother me like it normally would.
Next is 2003’s Aria of Sorrow for the GBA. The game takes place in 2035 after Dracula was finally defeated for good in 1999. It follows Soma Cruz as he is sucked into the castle during an eclipse and tries to find a way out. Most of the heroic NPCs in the game are church agents sent to investigate why the castle has returned, including Yoko Belandes (a descendant of Sypha), Arikado (actually Alucard) and the mysterious J (actually Julius Belmont with memory loss). After it turns out that Soma is actually the reincarnation of Dracula, it is the church characters that work to bring him under control and prevent him from giving in to evil and losing his mind (or if you get a bad ending, you can play a separate game mode mirroring Castlevania 3 where Julius, Yoko and Alucard have to fight Soma as Dracula). While the Catholic Church isn’t mentioned much directly in this game, the characters associated with it are portrayed in a heroic light, in contrast to many other games out there.
Looking at these games, you can see a basic theme running across them. The Catholic Church is the heroic organization preventing evil from wiping out humanity. This role essentially the same as that of the Catholic Church in exorcism movies, the group that fights evil in the world (you don’t go to a Prodestant minister for an exorcism after all). I imagine the reason for this connection in the game is because of the series’ ties to classic horror. If the game was just about random monsters, there wouldn’t really be any need to include religion and potentially risk alienating some of the audience (like in Zelda or Contra for example). That said, I’m glad it worked out this way. Since so many games portray Catholicism (or its surrogate) in a negative light, it’s nice to have at least once game in our favor.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the Castlevania animated series on Netflix. This show was a massive, MASSIVE disappointment to me that can be tied to the head writer, Warren Ellis. Ellis is a pretty radical atheist which really shows in the various work he’s done in comic books. The big problem with the series is that Ellis took the plot of Castlevania 3 and changed what was unique about it (Catholicism good) into something super cliche (church bad, poor o’l Dracula misunderstood). There are a few different examples. First, Alucard’s mom is explicitly killed by a church leader (eventually Bishop) for being thought a witch. This change was particularly obnoxious to me since it’s pretty ahistorical. The inquisition types were actually the original fair legal system, with most of the negative actions people attribute to them really belonging more to local powers. On top of that, they can’t even use the excuse that they are trying to be more realistic because it takes place in the 1400s in Eastern Europe, which would need Eastern Orthodox characters involved rather than Catholic if you were going that route. Second, they changed Sypha’s backstory. Instead of being a magic use raised by nuns, she’s now more like a science gypsy that knows magic because her people ignored the church when they tried to suppress the knowledge. This change was annoying both because it was a very explicit change to get rid of a positive Catholic character as well as because it’s preaching the modern, ahistorical idea that the Catholic Church was suppressing science and that humanity be way more advanced without them. Anyone who studies the history of Europe would know the modern sciences developed explicitly because of Catholicism, not in spite of it (it is no coincidence academic regalia makes professors look like priests and religious). The funny thing is despite most of these changes, the show still kind of accidentally implies Catholicism is true, as holy water blessed by a priest is effective against the demons and more that one character seems to know for sure that God exists, so it doesn’t even really go full atheist in spite of Ellis’ best efforts. And lest you think I just don’t like it for making changes to the story, I will mention one real quick I like. They explain that the reason so much modern technology is in Castlevania is because Dracula is kind of a scientist and has developed it centuries in advance due to his immortality. I like that idea since it’s a clever solution to why the castle has so many anachronisms and why Alucard’s mom would seek him out. Overall though, I dislike the Netflix series for taking one of the few series positive on Catholicism and turning it on its head in the most cliche way possible.
So barring the Netflix series, Castlevania probably has one of the most consistently positive portrayals of Catholicism in all of video games. While it may not really go into the religious aspects of Catholicism at all, the fact that the church is acknowledged as a force for good is already a much better portrayal than other games. It really is too bad that Konami has basically left video games, limiting the chance of future installments in the series. On the bright side however, the Bloodstained series by Koji Igarashi (who made many of the more popular Castlevania games) seems to be keeping the church in a positive, background role. It’s nice to have at least one thing that isn’t trying to convince everyone that you were actually the true evil all along.
Song of the Post-
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood