Rare is the video-game adaptation that pleases, well, anyone, let alone stands as a worthwhile work in itself. Vulture’s own almost-definitive list of video-game film adaptations last year — it eschewed animation, and somehow missed Detective Pikachu — ranked the films from “least bad to absolute worst.” (We were very generous to Sonic the Hedgehog, likely because we understood how hard it must have been for Sonic to lose his human teeth.) On television, the ’90s delivered two good animated video-game adaptations, Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? and Earthworm Jim, and one occasionally charming one, the first season of the now-interminable Pokémon series, among a slew of duds. And until 2017, that was it: Earthworm Jim was the best video-game adaptation. Then came Castlevania.
The series, an anime-inspired action-packed gorefest with a script balancing the grimdark with the cheeky, made a bloody splash upon arrival. Viewers loved it immediately. For the most part, so did critics. And over the course of four seasons, its explosively detailed but initially slightly stilted animation was fine-tuned as the adventure-oriented plot grew in scope and theme. For a show adapted from a dungeon-crawl game series — even one rooted in the works of Bram Stoker and so influential that it helped define, and name, a gaming subgenre — its progression from hacking and slashing into patient world-building and character development is fairly remarkable, especially once it starts asking such Nietzschean questions as whether the most horrific monsters humans can imagine are much different than they. Arguably, it almost lived up, in the end, to the anime that inspired it.
Although the recently released fourth season was the show’s last, Netflix is reportedly looking toward the future of the franchise. (A spinoff. What else?) But for those hoping to slake their bloodlust a little sooner, there’s a whole world of sanguinary anime — with and without vampires — out there just waiting for viewers to sink their teeth into. Here are a handful to start with.
This long-running manga series by Kentaro Miura — who died suddenly last month at 54 — has gotten the anime-adaptation treatment three times in as many decades: the now-classic 1997–1998 series Berserk; a 2012–2013 film trilogy, Berserk: The Golden Age Arc, retelling much of the first anime’s story; and a sequel series to the trilogy, also called Berserk, which ran from 2016–2017. The original is the best here, although the film trilogy arguably comes close, and if your favorite parts of Castlevania were its most brutal, that’s the one to watch. Like the Castlevania series, the Berserk franchise is a dark fantasy inspired by medieval Europe filled with mercenaries and unholy creatures and is, to put it mildly, exceptionally violent. (The protagonist’s name, Guts, is about as on the nose as one could imagine.) But however savage Castlevania gets, it never even comes close to the horrors of physical, sexual, and otherworldly violence in Berserk’s infamous eclipse sequence. Be warned.
Where to watch: Berserk 1997, Amazon (for rent or purchase); Berserk: The Golden Age Arc, Netflix; Berserk 2016, HBO Max
The Blood series
Mobile Suit Gundam and Akira veteran Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s award-winning 2000 film Blood: The Last Vampire may not be a household name for Western anime fans, but it was influential. It also inspired a couple of spiritual sequels, the 2005–2006 series Blood+ and the 2011 series Blood-C. Each work has its own quirks — the film feels the most like a traditional vampire story, for instance, while Blood-C throws in dashes of Lovecraftian lore and Japanese folklore. Still, the crux of each story line is similar: A school-age girl named Saya is charged, for one reason or another, with hunting a species of blood-eating monsters. As one might expect from something with the word “blood” in the title, each interpretation of Saya’s tale is pretty bloody. And while the original is still the best, all three are enjoyable watches.
Where to watch: Blood: The Last Vampire, iTunes or Vudu (for purchase); Blood-C, Hulu
The humans in the medieval world of Claymore — named for a BFS of Scottish origin — live on an isolated island, which is likely the worst possible place to live when your society is infiltrated by the shape-shifting, man-eating, near-invulnerable monsters called Yoma. The only defense? Claymores, genetically engineered warriors that are half-human and half-Yoma. Gruesome? Check. Evil plots and shadowy underground organizations? Check. Badass combat? Oh, most definitely. The show, based on Norihiro Yagi’s manga series, even inspired a video game for Nintendo DS. Its style? A Metroidvania, of course.
Where to watch: Hulu
The Fate series
This absurdly extensive series, based on the visual novels — a sort of video game/novel hybrid — by the Japanese game company Type-Moon, has so many entries it would require a list of its own to lay them all out. But any honest triage would recommend Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (not the original Fate/Stay Night, it is worth noting clearly) as the entry points here. The concept powering all entries in the series is a bit convoluted, but the short version is that each show focuses on a different group of seven mages who summon Servants, the reincarnated spirits of historical or legendary heroes and villains, to modern times to fight on their behalf in an attempt to win a wish-granting object called the Holy Grail. This is not, in fact, the Holy Grail, despite a gender-swapped King Arthur Pendragon playing a major role in both of the above-mentioned shows. But it doesn’t matter, because you get to see said gender-swapped Arthur (Artoria, obviously) have it out with Gilgamesh and Alexander the Great, among many other historical figures, in some of the most delightfully over-the-top fight scenes imaginable. There aren’t any vampires in these installments, but if you really need one, one of the Servants in Fate/Apocrypha is none other than the historical figure Vlad III of Wallachia, more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula.
Where to watch: Fate/Zero, Netflix; Fate/Stay Night, Netflix/Hulu; Fate/Apocrypha, Netflix
The Hellsing series
The not-so-coy titular nod to Count Dracula’s fictional archenemy Abraham Van Helsing should be enough to woo Castlevania watchers. If it isn’t, it’s worth noting that there’s a character named Alucard in this series too, although the two are little alike. This is another anime successful enough in Japan to generate plenty to watch: the 2001–2002 Hellsing series; the 2006–2012 original video animations, also called Hellsing in Japan (and Hellsing Ultimate in the U.S.); and a three-part OVA prequel, Hellsing: The Dawn, from 2011–2012. Hellsing centers on an eponymous royal order of Protestant knights, founded by Van Helsing himself, dedicated to hunting down the undead and other supernatural baddies in service of the English monarchy. But if that’s not enough of a draw, note that there are Nazi vampire battalions in it.
Where to watch: Hellsing and Hellsing Ultimate, Hulu
The many adaptations of novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi
Hideyuki Kikuchi is one of Japan’s most popular light novelists in the horror genre, and the Vampire Hunter D series is arguably his best-known work. It’s been adapted for the screen more than once, but its first anime incarnation was in 1985 for an OVA film directed by Toyoo Ashida, which adapts the first novel in the series. The film was initially described as a “dark future science-fiction romance,” which tracks for much of Kikuchi’s works, and is pretty much catnip for genre lovers, boasting both a post-nuclear apocalyptic world and vampire lords and hunters. It was arguably the first horror anime to ever screen in the U.S., and although it’s hard to find now, it influenced a swath of other Kikuchi adaptations, most of which were directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Those start with 1987’s Wicked City, Kawajiri’s debut, which involves an alternate dimension filled with demons that occasionally intersects with the human world and the secret agency dedicated to keeping humankind safe. It’s as packed with supernatural action as it is uncomfortably horny, which is very; an influential film, it nonetheless came during a period in which the misogynistic themes that some anime are known for tend to be overtones rather than undertones. In 1988, Kawajiri followed up Wicked City with Demon City Shinjuku. As its title might suggest, the film’s plot involves the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo getting destroyed and haunted by demons.
Then, in 2000, after Kawajiri had spent more than a decade inching toward a truly worthy adaptation of the works of his now-friend Kikuchi, he directed Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, based on the second sequel to Kikuchi’s original novel. This film was specifically made with American audiences in mind, and it’s the smoothest watch of them all, eschewing the uncomfortable sexuality of Kawajiri’s earlier films and animated with surreal beauty. The catch? It’s not streaming — unlike Wicked and Demon. But Kawajiri and Kikuchi are both involved in a new, forthcoming CG-animated series adaptation of Vampire Hunter D. There’s a catch here too, though: While it was due to release last year, COVID-19 set back production schedules. Seems even vampires are susceptible to global pandemics.
Where to watch: Wicked City, Tubi and Pluto TV; Demon City Shinjuku, Amazon Prime