Castlevania – NES

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Honestly, I swear I’m going to get around to Radiant Historia and Twilight Princess one of these days!

I have a problem, which you’ll soon recognize, of gravitating toward longer games–Final Fantasy, Xenosaga, Fallout, etc–which all have the ability to keep me entertained for hours on end, but don’t exactly provide reams of reading material to those of you kind enough to listen to me ramble like an old man telling stories of “the war” and “kids these days” and other cliches of the sort. So to appease the hungry beast that is the internet, I’ve shot through a few quicker games for some material.

So here’s Castlevania! A horror/adventure/semi-platformer for the Nintendo Entertainment System. You play as Simon Belmont, intrepid vampire slayer on a merry romp through Dracula’s castle armed with only your trusty whip–one of the kinkier, yet lesser known methods of destroying vampires.  Yet business must be good for everyone’s favorite impaler since his ventures apparently merged with every other horror movie from 1920 to 1960, and other famous denizens of the genre appear to be doing Vlad’s dirty work for him while Simon works his way up the corporate ladder.

Yet I still have a problem since I want to review Castlevania, but I’ve never managed to power through to the end before.  NES-era gameplay relied on extreme difficulty to promote replay value.  While Nintendo managed to create a regiment of games with a 20+ year fan base, more than a few fans would have appreciated the chance to play through more than the first three levels.  Once or twice.  After all, I did shell out 50 bucks a piece for these things at a time when my allowance was 50 cents a week if I kept my bedroom clean and did all my chores, and let me remind you that the front-loading design of the NES meant that the games I could pay for wouldn’t always work.

All things are possible, though, through practice, so now that my system reliability allows me to play whenever I want, I hunkered down and did what any self-respecting player who wanted bragging rights would do.  That’s right, I cheated my ass off and used save states.

No, I don’t actual claim to have legitimately beaten the game. Yes, I’d still like to do it the old-fashioned way.  However, considering how often I had to reset my fight with Death in the penultimate stage, it would have taken me days to get good enough to beat him–only if I never shut off the machine. Continuing after a game over means you have to plow through parts of the game you know you can finish only for a meagre shot of honing your skill on an enemy who will, in all likely hood, present you with instant death (both literally and metaphorically, in my case). Image

Despite the cleverness and creativity NES developers put into their games, if I had to rate their bag of tricks to up replay value on a scale from “Hand Purse” to “Mary Poppins,” it wouldn’t even hit the scale.  They didn’t have a bag. They had a sheet of fabric, torn, threadbare, and vaguely malodorous from being passed around by so many games.  I can imagine the meetings they had at work. “We’ve got an idea for a game!  We’ll build a tone reminiscent of classic horror films, using well-known monsters as the stage bosses!”  “Great, but what reason will they have to play it again? Should we rely on detailed level design and dark, catchy music?” “No! Let’s just up the difficulty so they’ll only be able to play the first three levels!”

Brilliant idea. See, I like Castlevania. I liked it enough to play those first three levels over and over again, and the game does have a lot going for it. But as I mentioned, NES games cost $50 a shot, which means the game ran me over $15 a level. Not particularly a wise investment.  Between that and the fact that Simon handles like a combination of a refrigerator and a lemming add a level of frustration that I commonly despise in more modern games.

Seriously, though, I don’t exactly feel inclined to cooperate with a protagonist who hurls himself meters backward, often off the nearest ledge, every time he gets a paper cut.  Watch the speed runs on youtube–players manipulate the distance you launch yourself when hit to add distance and height to jumps.

Yet we still play this game–I still play this game–years later, and Konami finds the series profitable enough to have made well over forty installments since this game appeared in 1986.  For all its faults, something must more than make up for it to give it such a reputation.  I believe it relies heavily on the tone.  The game opens as Simon approaches the gates of a crumbling, Gothic castle in the middle of night.  From there, background design only gets more detailed, giving the player a sense of placing themselves in a classic horror setting using only the 8-bit technology of the NES. Image

Pitting Simon against well-known baddies, such as Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, Death, and Dracula, gives players a sense of familiarity with the game.  NES games relied on the instruction book to provide the premise of a story, so employing characters that already had stories built a solid texture into the experience.  Furthermore, the power-up tools–holy water, crosses, daggers–are also staples of the horror genre, which furthers immersion.  In a system limited to 8-bit processing, Konami employed a string of techniques to expand Castlevania beyond what the NES could actually accomplish by itself.  This contributes to the long-lasting value of the game and makes it still worth playing today.Image

Also, not to backpedal too much, but while the difficulty exceeds reason, the fact that the game poses such a strong challenge does make me want to return.  It becomes a goal, rather than just a game.  Sure, it induces wrathful symptoms–shaking hands, throat sore from screaming, frothing at the mouth–but at its heart, the difficulty shows that the game cares enough to make you want to come back. I’ve heard the sequels surpass the original in difficulty, but I still look forward to summiting K2 after climbing this Everest.

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