Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – NES

RetroArch-0731-164721

Ah, the Halloween season is now in full swing…by which I mean it’s late-October. And although I can use the month to justify a spurt of survival horror (the likes of which may resurface in December or January, considering my recent purchases), it’s important to remember that not all horror is “survival.” Well, technically speaking everything is survival. Mario has a strong desire to avoid Bowser’s incinerating halitosis, Pikachu tends to fight more effectively with regular trips to the hospital, neglecting your tamogachi/giga pet may have no lasting effects but makes you feel like a careless murderer, and whenever I leave my house I tend to subconsciously scan the area around me for ways not to die. But I digress. What type of writer would I be if I let an October slip by without reviewing a game from a series arbitrarily chosen to represent horror? This year, having been derelict in games from non-disc systems, I thought I’d dig into the one NES Castlevania game I’ve as yet overlooked, Simon’s Quest, in which Simon Belmont slaughters armies of werewolves, undead, and even fucking chtulu monsters, but still reacts to water like a cat with a heart condition tied to a bowling ball.

RetroArch-0731-142326

You know, I always hoped those two would get together. Now that Simon has craptivated the vrampire’s heart, they might move on to krissing, or even something more serious, like frucking.

The story, as told by the instruction manual, picks up where the last game left off (not yet realizing that sequentially numbered games have to skip along a timeline like Quentin Tarantino at Old Country Buffet). Simon Belmont has gotten a bit cocky after putting the legendary vampire king to rest “once and for all,” but a beautiful woman appears to him in a vision and tells him he’s been cursed. In order to lift the curse, he has to assemble Dracula’s body parts, set them on fire, and then kill Dracula again, which sounds an awful lot like how he got into this mess in the first place. In spite of the fact that no intelligent, rational person would put their complete faith into a hallucination who gives them a dangerous quest based on some vague notion of a curse without providing so much as a description of what said curse actually does, Simon gladly accepts the quest.

RetroArch-0731-131723

The goal of each dungeon, naturally, being to locate the unguarded magic bowling ball and poke it with a stick you bought from the RE4 merchant.

Simon’s Quest feels like Konami looked back on the previous Castlevania title and felt it came off a little heavy on the castle without including very much vania. So this game gives you free reign of Transylvania, letting you do all the typical video game stuff like barging into people’s houses, slaying a disproportional amount of apex predators roaming the countryside and city streets, and rolling around in poisonous marshes with nothing but a stick to protect you. Along the way you can buy weapon upgrades and find or buy items that augment your skills and abilities. Simon’s Quest is the hipster Castlevania—it was doing Metroidvania before Symphony of the Night made it cool. Granted, this early attempt at flirting with an interesting idea feels about as awkward as my first middle school dance, complete with the raging erection over something that hadn’t quite developed yet, it’s definitely a good thing even if no one involved had any idea what to do with it. (An open map with branching paths clearly had a lot of potential, but after descending into a dark, murky cave, the last thing I expect to find is a warm, inviting town.)

2016-07-09 08.11.48

“There! That’s how you put a dead body together!” [Victor Frankenstein shakes his head slowly.]

Case in point, item collecting is fun in Zelda and Metroid, but despite being a horror game, it felt…let’s go with “out of character”…for Simon to wander through the countryside with Dracula’s viscera stuffed into his pockets, whipping out various body parts like his own personal multi-tool, or wearing them like the latest fashion trends. Furthermore, I’m not sure the random assortment of body parts Simon finds would, even accounting for dark magic, add up to a vampire. Forgoing the usual collection of torso, legs, right arm, left arm, head, Simon instead collects Dracula’s rib, heart, one eye, a fingernail, and somehow this curse-breaking spell can get DNA information from Dracula’s ring. Considering both the lackadaisical effort in reuniting the scattered remains of the vampire and the fact that none of those things actually burn very well, it’s no wonder that Vlad comes back to life at the end for one last hurrah as an obligatory final boss battle. Although to his credit, he’s quite a bit smarter than Gannon. In Zelda II, Link quests to stop the pig lord’s revival. In Castlevania, Dracula gets Simon to do the dirty work for him. (But then again, that makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever seen Captain N.)

RetroArch-0731-140723

One hand on the railing, feet firmly on each step, no sliding down the banister and you can slay those monsters *after* you’re on solid ground!

Typical NES Castlevania controls apply here. Simon still moves like a drug mule running Ambien and one of the condoms broke. He can equip secondary weapons that by the end of the game kill enemies as effectively as coughing on them and hoping they come down with a severe cold in a few days. Fortunately you can upgrade your whip, permanently, four times, and the fact that these upgrades are spread out over the game makes it feel like something a little more valuable. In the original—as well as Castlevania III and many of the games to follow—you only have to whack a few candles and if you don’t have a fully upgraded weapon after breaking open two or three of these waxen piñatas, it feels like the game has cheated you. As usual, going up and down stairs is a bit of an ordeal, as this brave, Herculean vampire slayer also epically listens to his mom when she tells him not to screw around on the stairs: he refuses to run, jump or throw weapons, and will only whip enemies providing he can keep one hand on the railing at all times.

RetroArch-0731-124550

And, lo, Jesus said unto his disciples, take care of the poor, but let them not into the house of the Lord during the zombie apocalypse, for yea, we have a good thing here and outsiders may forsake us.

As one of the earliest games to have them, Castlevania’s night-day cycles makes the game interesting…if by interesting, you mean infuriating when you’re looking for a shop and arrive just as the sun goes down so the shopkeep won’t let you inside. Night prevents Simon from entering buildings. Monsters double their life total, and drop more hearts. Of course, since Simon and Link shop for wallets at the same 8-bit store, he can’t carry more than 256 at a time, so night usually just means harder monster and standing on a wall, flipping through facebook while you wait for the sunrise.

RetroArch-0731-151740

Long overdue for retirement, Death practices his golf swing.

All in all it’s a rather odd game. Often maligned for its confusing layout, unclear purpose, and depending too much on backtracking, I have already pointed out that the layout, purpose and backtracking with new items to access new areas put Castlevania on a lot of people’s map with Symphony of the Night and other metroidvania style games. But I can’t disagree that something is wrong with Simon’s Quest—it’s boring! While other games are detailed and use vibrant colors, this one looks like Konami painted it with their toddler’s water-color set where all the paints have mixed together. The enemies, even at night, put up only a token resistance. All the dungeons are staffed by the same bored and confused skeletons. There are only three real boss fights, and even Death comes at you with the defeated apathy of a cop who’s ready to retire because he’ll never stop the endless wave of life he’s dedicated his…life…to stomping out. When you die, you restart with full health on the nearest safe ground to where you were, and don’t lose anything except hearts—if you have to continue your game—but like I said before, this punishment is like pouring a single bucket of water into the room with you to deprive you of air. If you haven’t played this game before, pretty much all you’d need is a decent map and you could get through the game in an hour or two.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 – PS3, XBox 360, PC

How-will-the-game-end-620x

Trevor and Alucard claim to be the same person, but I distinctly remember seeing them both in the same room together in Castlevania III.

As much as I love the Castlevania games, the series feels like developing a relationship with a teenage boy with an identity crisis. Is it an action game? A horror game? Does it want to try adventuring, or whatever Simon’s Quest was supposed to be. Will it feature classic horror monsters, mythological creatures, or make up my own? I actually rather liked when it started dressing in black, wearing heavy eyeliner, and presented itself as an emo/goth version of Metroid. But it’s also tried on RPG clothing as well. So although I can still fault them for this, I suppose I ought to have expected the new development team would ask “What game do Castlevania fans want to play?” and answered not “Castlevania,” but “God of War and Assassin’s Creed.”

 

church_lady_could_it_be_satan-1

If you’re old enough to get this reference, gently rap your cane against your walker.

In short, LoS2’s story puts you in control of Dracula, formerly Gabriel Belmont, the rebooted series’ patriarch (sorry, Leon) of a famous line of vampire hunters whose career objectives very much exclude “Become an undead demon prince and feed off the blood of the innocent.” However, suicidal games tend to send the wrong message (and really don’t put up much of a challenge), so the development team replaced the final boss with Satan, who apparently has spent the last few thousand years picking up every cliched, convoluted tantrum ever thrown by a Bond villain. Teaming up with his LoS1 enemy, Zobek, a monk who gives off an evil-Professor-Xavier vibe, Dracula wakes up in modern times and fights his way through a setting with very little Castle and practically zero Vania in order to bring down an evil pharmaceutical corporation, which I guess will lead him to the ultimate Evil.

 

Castlevania-Lords-of-Shadow-2-RealGamerNewz-9

Gabriel Belmont, meet your descendant, Ezio Belmont.

When Kratos–sorry, I mean Gabriel–doesn’t romp through stages filled with mythical monsters, tearing through anyone and everyone he meets and wearing their internal organs as costume jewelry, Ezio–sorry, I mean Gabriel again–plays itsy-bitsy-spider in extended climbing sections that derive player enjoyment from pushing the directional stick in the direction you want to go, then watching Gabriel swing over to the next conveniently placed handhold, completely forgetting that vampires–even in the Castlevania series–have the ability to turn into a bat and fly. Like Kratos and Ezio, Gabriel lumbers along in a hulking slouch, doubled over from the body suit of extraneous muscles he totes around. This sack-of-testosterone design seems to have taken over character design, presumably to appeal to the modern breed of misogynistic he-man wannabe gamers, but belonging to the old school breed of nerdy, sports-hating 1990s gamers, I find it hard to control someone like Ezio Auditore and not picture a guy in a big white hoodie trying to waddle around in Jncos.

 

castlevania_lords_of_shadow_2_prohozhdenie-1397378516

Play that funky music, Goat boy!

Out of all the game comparisons I could make, God of War and Assassin’s Creed aren’t exactly the equivalent of calling LoS2 “an overcooked casserole of coding leftovers baked from meats that were rancid the first time around.” For the game to deserve an insult like that, it would have to merit a special level of bad comparison. Like to the stealth sections of Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. While most players find gimmicks like quick time events as pretentious bribes to make people think they can interact with the game, forced stealth sections such as in Phantom Hourglass and LoS2 actually blow holes in the plot so wide you could actually build the next Castlevania game inside of it. The idea of an enemy that can’t be fought ever takes a lot of the luster out of Satan. If, by the end of the game, you can kill the King of Hell, the Prince of Lies, and the source of all wickedness and Temptation this side of Oz, but still can’t risk being seen by a low-level goon for fear of a flash-boiling from their flame throwers, why aren’t the goons in charge? Or at the very least, why wouldn’t Satan force you to fight them? Yes, it would ruin the game and render it unbeatable, but maybe the developers should consider that for a good long while. And I can’t even decide if that actually improves on the extended stealth section in a garden full of crunchy leaves, after which you do fight and destroy the boss who was hunting you. I guess Konami really loved its sadistic idea to put bells in the fight, like the Garradors in Resident Evil 4. I shot a projectile to ring a bell, darted the other direction, and had a brief vision of a giant hoof in my face before having to restart the level.

 

Projectile

It looks bad, but he actually just won the pie-eating contest from “Stand By Me.”

While I always wondered why Bowser didn’t simply dig an uncrossable pit of lava with no platforms, Castlevania places Dracula partly in his own castle, explaining how he can traverse some of the more convoluted architectural choices, such as every door, monument, mechanism, and hidden bonus requiring his personal blood sacrifice to activate. Once, however, I got turned around, and had to cross the same bridge three times in five minutes. As it required a blood sacrifice each time, I can’t help but think that even a vampire might get a little dizzy. I would have to imagine Dracula has a pretty dangerous morning routine, gnawing open his wrist to flush his toilet, then trying to make toast, but needing to squeeze out a few extra drops when the toast comes out black the first time. The fact that he could easily fall into a river of fire if he gets a little woozy makes me think there could have been a simpler design for his home. Still, it almost feels like a reasonable option in this world, since characters constantly projectile vomit enough blood to put out a burning building faster than the New York City Fire Department during a tsunami.

Alucard

Alucard, who reversed his father’s name in order to oppose all that Dracula does, turns out to be more helpful than a boy scout.

One thing I can say about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is that it has boss fights. Lots of boss fights. I can’t really say whether this improves the game or not. Some of them have a really inspired design to them, such as the obligatory end-game fight with Death. Others just feel like “press square until the monster dies.” During one fight, the boss encased herself in a hamster ball, which I had to pound mercilessly with a weapon slower than a tortoise with down syndrome, without pausing, while she and her two minions pressed their attacks. Even when I turned down the difficulty to “easy,” I could only beat this one by getting lucky. Early in the game, I spent over an hour fighting the gorgons, trying to figure out the convoluted button combinations required to throw an ice bomb. As a result, I have a few suggestions for any would-be game designers in my audience: the option to shut off the QTEs? Brilliant. Shutting off stealth sections would have been preferable. Even more so, not programming stealth sections in the first place. But one thing you really need to stop doing? Having bosses repeat phrases during battle like Dora the Explorer’s map.

TOYMAKER_610

Quack, quack, quack!

2415904-clos2_screen_08

Shortly after this, his father Darth Belmont comes to his aid.

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow – NDS

CastlevaniaHere at RetroCookie, I like to keep October dedicated to the Halloween spirit. I do this mostly because Anne has such an obsession with horror that if you wrote “Boo!” on a cardboard box she’d watch it for ninety minutes (two hours if you tell her you found it in an alley and try to pass it off as a true story), but I also recognize that video games, generally science-fiction or fantasy by design, also host a plethora of inspiring, interactive horror, that can inflict sensations and emotions via the interactive medium that movies simply can’t. So realizing I’ve given the Nintendo DS about as much attention lately as I’ve given my 10,000-steps-a-day exercise regimen, I thought I’d pick from the magnificent library it has to offer, and since I can’t let a Halloween season go by without writing about Castlevania (a tradition that dates all the way back to last year…as soon as this article posts), I thought, “What game could better embody all things horror and create the mood for ghosts and goblins and monsters and republicans than Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow?” As it turns out, many. Many other games.

Right next to the Evil Petting Zoo.

Right next to the Evil Petting Zoo.

Dawn of Sorrow picks up where the GBA installment, Aria of Sorrow, left off. Apparently, Konami liked the idea of sorrow. Because I can’t think of any emotion I’d rather feel when playing a game than crippling, unyielding sadness. If you missed that one, it took all the gloomy atmosphere, classic horror monsters, creepy crumbling castles and all things Transylvania, and replaced it with a flying labyrinth over a very Anime-esque Japan and Soma Cruz, a protagonist who dresses as though shopping for a European Men’s Carry-All. Soma discovers he carries the reincarnated soul of Count Dracula, and evil wants it back. Dawn of Sorrow begins as the leader of a bizarre cult accosts him on the streets of Japan.  This post-modern Jim Jones doesn’t take kindly to the fact that Soma doesn’t want to share the evil with everyone else (Quick: What do you get when you combine a Democrat and a Republican?), and she brought two candidates for the position of Dark Lord who intend to murder him and take back the evil by force. But not until they give him the chance to gallivant through the castle, equipping himself with top-notch weapons and armor, leveling-up by slaying monsters, and recruiting the souls of his fallen enemies to invest him with their power. Because reasons.

MonsterRight from the get-go, Dawn of Sorrow gives off a Blues Brothers vibe, a sort of “Let’s get the gang back together for one last adventure” scenario.  Immediately after the first monster rushes all the characters from Aria of Sorrow show up to let us know they haven’t gone anywhere.  Hammer arrives to profit on impending doom, Julius Belmont pokes his head in trying not to look like the game should star him instead of Soma, and Arikado appears, pretending that by not wearing a cape and pronouncing his name with a Japanese accent, no one will know his true identity. Then the characters appear here and there throughout the game contributing bits of dialogue to what passes for a story.

That may sum up Dawn of Sorrow’s major flaw, right there; it tried to have a story.  The original Castlevania games didn’t need any more plot than “Let’s go kill us some vampire!” And when Dracula’s Curse started introducing rudimentary dialogue, it only gave us enough to suggest an interesting back story behind the characters. All the charm in those games came from using familiar monsters as enemies and bosses. While the original game pit you against Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, Medusa, and Dracula, Dawn of Sorrow gives you…some guys. Just some dudes. They have some minor powers, but nothing really interesting, and they go down fairly easily. Hardly something you’d expect from a candidate for the position of Supreme Vampiric Evil.

When zombie T-rex starts crawling out of his skin, even Chris Pratt runs away.

When zombie T-rex starts crawling out of his skin, even Chris Pratt runs away.

I might come off as overly harsh toward the game, but I actually really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the aspects I enjoy make it play exactly like Aria of Sorrow, Symphony of the Night, and all other Metroid-vania games. You still romp through the same castle, looking for the same abilities, fighting the same generic monsters…in a way, Castlevania resembles porn. New material doesn’t necessarily make it better, and we still look for all the same parts we looked for before, but everything has a slightly different layout and position that keeps it interesting enough to spend three hours every night on it. So even though the story flounders like a school of mackerel dumped into a Taco Bell parking lot, the idea of dashing through the castle slaughtering monsters like Abraham Van Helsing turned into the Incredible Hulk still makes the game well worth playing.

Connect the dots. La, la, la-la!

Connect the dots. La, la, la-la!

I should note, though, that as a DS game, Konami felt obligated to include a touch mechanic. Every time you defeat a boss, you have to draw out a magical seal on the screen or the enemy will regenerate a set amount of HP and you’ll have to whittle it down again. This doesn’t really detract from the game, but I can’t honestly say it adds anything to game play either. It more feels like a token gesture, a feeble attempt at striving for praise from game developers, who just may end up humoring Konami like a child who brings home a picture that looks like the creation of a blind elephant with a crayon and suddenly wants to become a professional artist.

alucardscreenDawn of Sorrow has one really cool aspect–which, apparently, they also included in Aria of Sorrow and I just missed–that lets you play as Julius Belmont if you meet the right conditions at the end of the game. Almost like Zelda’s second quest, this opens up access to an entire game with different mechanics. You control Belmont, the rightful protagonist of a Castlevania game, as he hunts down Soma, who has given in to his hate and joined the Dark Side of the Force. Rather than equipping souls, Julius has access to the traditional sub-weapons from the NES Castlevania games, and much like Dracula’s Curse, he can recruit sidekicks, including Alucard, who retains the same abilities he had in Castlevania 3. As soon as you find all the playable characters, you have access to all areas of the castle, and since you presumably learned the secrets and layout the first time through the game, you don’t have to spend as much time squinting over the tiny map with a high powered magnifying glass, looking for every spot you may have missed a door or a branching path. To balance this out, however, they removed all healing items, so it becomes a major grind, especially near the end of the game.

If you get lost, just look closely at the map for the one span not fully enclosed by the white border.

If you get lost, just look closely at the map for the one span not fully enclosed by the white border.

So maybe it doesn’t play as an homage to classic horror, and maybe it does just rehash an old Castlevania formula…which in turn rehashes the classic Metroid formula…which attempted to combine Mario and Zelda…and maybe I can’t say anything both original and positive about it. But…I forgot where I was going with this. Just enjoy the game. And happy October…I have a special edition planned in a few weeks, so look forward to that.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence – PS2

Here Leon Belmont laments his boy band hair style.

Here Leon Belmont laments his boy band hair style.

A word of advice for any game developers in my reading audience: if you make a game with the potential to give the players a stroke from the sheer force of disappointment, don’t use the term “Lament” in the title. People use the word to express negative emotions. “I lament the fact that my girlfriend dumped me for a homeless transsexual,” or “I lament the fact that my foot fell off and I went blind because I didn’t manage my diabetes,” or in this case, “I lament that an extremely promising origin story from a beloved childhood game franchise turned out mildly less interesting than the stuff that comes out of my cat.” Released in 2003 for the PS2, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, offers players a backstory on the Belmont clan and there eternal struggle against Count Dracula and his light fixtures, as well as showing us the birth of a vampire, a glimpse into the terror and horror of a story so sub-par that a 100% historically accurate account would have entertained me far more.

Only a Belmont dares to stare down a gorgon. Seriously...eye contact. You can't do it. Don't these people ever read?

Only a Belmont dares to stare down a gorgon. Seriously…eye contact. You can’t do it. Don’t these people ever read?

I had the misfortune of seeing Dracula Untold the day after I began playing Lament of Innocence. Even that pales in comparison with the real Vlad Tepes; seriously, did we really need the vampire angle to make him interesting? The guy’s friends nicknamed him “The Impaler.” In real life! Want to know what they call the primary antagonist throughout most of Lament of Innocence? Walter. And nothing gets me shaking in my boots more than the dread of a confrontation with the villainous Walter the Vampire. Bram Stoker’s novel works because it took a real life legend and added horrors on top of that. In fact, the early Castlevania games did the same thing. Can’t write a story for an 8-bit console? Why not use creatures that already have one. We didn’t need cut scenes or text because when we saw Dracula, we already know him and his reputation. We presume he has a pike waiting in the closet, just for us. But an origin story that goes in a completely different direction actually ruins that for us. Imagine getting to the Blair Witch’s house only to find a 17-year-old girl dancing naked at the solstice, or if the gun in Saw fired a nerf dart, and Jigsaw jumped up, smiled, and yelled, “Gotcha!” It takes the fangs out of biting horror, and a monster trying to gum you to death feels more annoying than terrifying.
Lament of Innocence opens with the protagonist, Leon, running. Apparently Konami attributed the success of Symphony of the Night to its opening scene, rather than clever RPG combat system and Metroid Style exploration. Nope. Players don’t want that. Get rid of them. We only need to see someone running. That’ll set up sufficient premise and conflict. Unlike Alucard’s mad dash for the castle gates, though, Leon comes to a halt when a man steps out of the woods. He introduces himself as Rinaldo Gandolfini, a name indicating his role in the story only slightly less than if Konami had called him “Merlin-wan Kenobi” or “Yoda Dumbledore.” Leon reveals that the vampire master of the castle has abducted his betrothed, Sara (*cringe* Really? Running to the castle to save a girl? Can’t we think of anything original anymore? Why not make him collect coins and jump on a flagpole at the end?). Rinaldo, in turn, explains that Walter the Vampire runs a most-dangerous-game sort of operation, and wants Gandolfini to sell equipment to potential victims. He gives Leon a whip. A whip made with alchemy–I know my high school chemistry teacher often wound up with Medieval weaponry as byproducts of chemical reactions.

I don't know about violence against women, but I feel the sudden need to abuse myself.

I don’t know about violence against women, but I feel the sudden need to abuse myself.

The game, feeling guilty for killing your interest with a painfully long cut scene, proceeds to make up for its sins by giving you a five hour interlude of gameplay before the next bit of story.  Keep in mind I use that term loosely. In one of her videos, Anita Sarkeesian specifically mentions this game as a cliched example of violence against women used as a poor replacement for male character development. Here, I have to disagree with her, not because I think anyone can justify the violence in any way, but because Konami had zero pretenses that they wanted to develop anything in this story, least of all character! Leon expresses the personality of a sack of flour. None of the bosses stick around long enough to say or do anything interesting. You don’t encounter Walter the Vampire until the end, at which point the real villain reveals himself as–spoilers!–some guy they mentioned once offhandedly! The girl amounts to nothing but a pretty face covering a sack of cliches. Rinaldo has a little bit of history that makes him mildly interesting, but honestly the whip had more charm and charisma than any of the animate characters in this game.

...and they'll probably find it. Every day. Between 4:30 and 10:00 depending on lattitude and time of year.

…and they’ll probably find it. Every day. Between 4:30 and 10:00 depending on lattitude and time of year.

While the original Castlevania told a rich story with no words at all, Lament of Innocence showed us that Konami should, indeed, not use words to tell stories. With one-liner gems such as “Carve their suffering onto your body!” or “The force of your grief can only make me stronger,” the game succeeds as an unintentional comedy, while simultaneously working to undermine any interesting, meaningful interaction between characters. Close to the end of the game, after Sara asks Leon to kill her and infuse her soul into the Vampire Killer whip, and Leon laments her death and his role in it, Rinaldo offers sage advice and motivation by saying, “Hang in there.”

hang in thereBut I’ve lamented the story long enough. I should lament the game for a while. As I mentioned, the game departs from the RPG-style leveling up and the Metroid/Zelda style exploration and item hunting. Leon enters the castle and immediately begins to wage murderous war on torches and other light fixtures in what would soon become the traditional Belmont fashion. He can tackle five stages immediately in any order, each stage completely independent from the others (a few locked doors require keys located in other stages, but no level has more than one of these, and they only lead to optional relics with benefits on the same level as alternative medicine). Each level pretty much involves running a gauntlet of monsters, most of which you can just skip past by skirting the edges of the room, trying to avoid eye contact like an acquaintance you see in public but really don’t feel like talking to. Most levels require access to hidden areas, which poses the only true challenge, as the dearth of secret areas generally shuts off your brain to creative ways to access them. (How should I have known the game wanted me to jump on the plant monster to reach a ledge too high to see normally?)

Bad controls plague the game. The brief tutorial gives you profound advice such as “Do a double jump” or “latch on to stuff with your whip,” without really bothering to explain how any of this works. I mostly figured it out after a few hours of play, but still didn’t always know which ledges I could grab on to, or what fixtures I could whip. Games that involve 3D platforming usually execute moves with all the grace of a one-legged, drunk elephant with vertigo, but poor jump mechanics on top of that means that sometimes it took me six or seven attempts to jump onto a knee-high ledge right in front of me.

When a bad guy comes along, you must whip it. If his shield is very strong, you must whip it.

When a bad guy comes along, you must whip it. If his shield is very strong, you must whip it.

I can’t say I entirely hated the game. For a hack-and-slash, it kept my attention long enough, providing a decent amount of challenge as well as a recurring issue where bosses would kill me just as I reduced them to one hit point left–and one case when Walter and I both killed each other at the same time. The game doesn’t last too long, which helps prevent me from getting bored. I might even play it again, if I got into the right mood. However, I lament the fact that I got through the game without the threat of impalement, and I may refuse to accept the game as cannon, just so it doesn’t ruin the traditional horror atmosphere of the rest of the series.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Playstation 1, PSP, Sega Saturn

Fortunately, this time, you actually have a character and not just a spelled-backwards name.

Fortunately, this time, you actually have a character and not just a spelled-backwards name.

In the spirit of the approaching holiday, I’ve decided to visit some horror classics–other than Resident Evil. Yet, as last week’s Onimusha entry exemplifies, sending a fully armed character into a gauntlet of monsters who charge at him with the survival instincts of a depressed lemming don’t often contribute to a sense of dread in the player. As such, sometimes we overlook games belonging to the genre, despite, say, a gloomy castle setting, epic fight with death personified and a legendary vampire as the primary antagonist. Yes, the Castlevania series, originally a tribute to classic horror, may have spent its creative load and gathered together such an eclectic collection of anything vaguely monster-ish that it feels like remaking a Roman Polanski film with Mel Brooks (as an alternative joke, try “replacing Harvey Keitel with Harvey Korman”). Also, none of the monsters or levels may have ever scared me as much as the difficulty. However, it still has all the telltale details of horror; creepy castle, monsters, an antagonist who several characters refer to as a vampire, despite never biting a single neck. So while I can reasonably include it in the horror genre, and with Halloween next week, let’s examine Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, to see why everyone raves about this thing.

How to identify a vampire...well, he doesn't brood, sparkle, play awesome thunder baseball, chase teenage girls, or drive a volvo, so no. Keep looking.

How to identify a vampire…well, he doesn’t brood, sparkle, play awesome thunder baseball, chase teenage girls, or drive a volvo, so no. Keep looking.

First of all, a few weeks back I lamented the loss of 2-D Metroid games, asking where they went after Metroid Fusion. Well, I found them. They crash landed in Transylvania. Also, Samus traded her energy beam for a sword, her power suit for holy relics, and space pirates for horror monsters. Also, she became a guy. And half-vampire. And now she levels up. Symphony of the Night combines RPG elements with Metroid-style gameplay, meaning it connects with the previous Castlevania series only through a handful of characters and having the same number of dimensions.  The legendary half-human son of Dracula and long-time acquaintance of the Belmont clan, Alucard begins this game dashing toward the castle at an exciting pace. For some reason, he wants to get inside before nightfall.  At least, I assume he has a reason. Dracula hasn’t come back to life, Alucard doesn’t know anyone has planned a resurrection, and he doesn’t even know the identity of the castle’s lord. So he wants to get inside and slash up the joint because…angsty teens need to flout their fathers’ authority?

A reunion of four characters who, if you remember Castlevania III, never actually met each other, except for Trevor

A reunion of four characters who, if you remember Castlevania III, never actually met each other, except for Trevor

Lack of motivation aside, the game plays a lot like a hybrid of Metroid and Castlevania (thus earning the newer games in the series the oh-so-very-clevery term, “Metroidvania”). Rather than the level-by-level design, an unstated assumption in NES-era games, Dracula opted for an expansive, labyrinthine castle built with special architectural oddities–high ledges, platforms, spikes, etc–that prevent anyone from actually accessing any useful areas of the castle. Fortunately, he scattered enough relics to imbue any burgeoning vampire killers with the necessary superpowers to overcome these barriers. Thus Dracula ensures his own demise, but only by vampire slayers with creative problem-solving skills and enough patience, determination and mental instability to keep running circles through the castle, stabbing walls in hopes of finding a pot roast. Along the way, Alucard picks up a number of weapons, armor, capes, accessories and pot roasts, which augment his stats in addition to leveling up the old fashioned RPG way–repetitive monster murder.

Despite the innovative–well, for Konami, at least–game play, Symphony of the Night does retain one core element of earlier Castlevania games: whenever Alucard takes damage, he summons up all of his 300 years of teenage angst, taps his inner Mario, and hurls himself backwards with all the might of a melodramatic lemming caught in a wind tunnel. I realize that Konami includes this element as a challenge, that recovery from taking damage makes the game harder, but I feel like they’ve passed the limit with this mechanic. Often times when fighting a boss or, even more infuriating, the flying medusa heads, Alucard will hurl himself halfway across the screen until he hits the next enemy, which will launch himself in the opposite direction back at the first. On these occasions, I had no choice but to set aside the controller and simply watch the game bounce him back and forth like a tennis ball at the Wimbledon championship.

Cloud of noxious gas and monsters falling out of the sky...this picture needs no caption.

Cloud of noxious gas and monsters falling out of the sky…this picture needs no caption.

When he does manage to plant his feet on the ground, though, Alucard has more options at his disposal than the typical Belmont.  Rather than fighting like a plantation overseer, Alucard generally uses swords, which he finds throughout the castle. In abundance. In fact, not counting the one-time use throwing weapons, the game offers you over 70 different swords, rods or maces, ensuring that about 80% of the time when you discover a new weapon, it won’t have nearly the attack power as the one you already have equipped. Equally useless, you can buy magic spells that require Street-Fighter-like inputs to execute. One marked as “Heal HP by shedding blood,” seemed to have no effect than to slightly lower my MP–no blood shed required. I found that the standard jump-and-slash routine worked for all but the most difficult of bosses, so the spells function about as effectively as parrot feathers–very impressive but do nothing to enhance the flavor. By picking up relics in the castle, you also gain the ability to transform into vampirey things, like a wolf that can trot casually and bark at things, a bat that can fly until colliding with any particles floating on the breeze, or a cloud of mist which, once upgraded to a poison gas, allows the player to drift through the castle with the silence, deadliness, and physical appearance of a good, rancid fart.

He's one bad mother--shut yo' mouth!--I'm just talking about Shaft!

He’s one bad mother–shut yo’ mouth!–I’m just talking about Shaft!

Many games feature multiple endings, but Symphony of the Night offers the added bonus of denying half the game to you if you get the crappy ending. Dracula’s moonlit chamber, as well as the surprise boss fight, become available as soon as you take the little leathery training wheels off your bat wings. However, if you fight all the optional bosses in the first half of the game, get all the proper items and cut scenes, and interpret the riddle “wear in the clock tower” as referring to the long hallway filled with clocks (instead of the area outside Dracula’s chamber like in every other Castlevania game), you’ll get an artifact that lets you see the invisible demon possessing said surprise boss: Shaft! (Who is the thing that would resurrect his vampire king? Shaft! Can you dig it?) If you aim for Shaft, he’ll run off into the sky and summon a new castle. The game continues and Alucard has to fight his way through the same castle he just went through, only upside-down. I guess inverting the map made for easier work for the programmers.

So we fight a massive sphere of conglomerated corpses in a room that makes the Paris Catacombs look cheery...but we fight Dracula at the end? Have you no sense of escalation?

So we fight a massive sphere of conglomerated corpses in a room that makes the Paris Catacombs look cheery…but we fight Dracula at the end? Have you no sense of escalation?

While the first half of the game focuses on exploration and accessibility of new areas, the inverted castle hearkens back to the hack-and-slash roots of the series, where all you do is hunt down the new bosses to capture the relics of Dracula so you can face Shaft. And then Dracula. Here you fight dopplegangers of yourself, Trevor, Sypha and Grant (from Castlevania III), series favorite Death, Beelzebub, and a number of other monsters that would easily make a much more epic final boss than Dracula. Who, by the way, bears as much resemblance to a vampire lord as a xenomorph bears to Bill Nye.

I think, though, that Symphony of the Night deserves the hype it receives. While I usually think that including a character named “Alucard” represents a witticism long since dried up, set on fire, peed on, and then left to dry up again, they actually turned him into a real character with conflict and a beef with his dad, even if he didn’t really have a reason to show up at this castle in the first place. This game may even have a leg up on the original NES version on account of players actually having a chance to finish it. Barring the Resident Evil quality voice acting and a handful of demons that make kitty cat noises, they did enough to revitalize the series, resurrect Metroid, and then promptly use up all that new vitality on about seven thousands sequels.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse – NES

RetroArch-0611-134745In my Aria of Sorrow review, I confessed that I had previously had all the contact with Castlevania that one might want with a $50-or-less prostitute, rather than with a long-running, beloved horror game series. After finally beating the first game (admittedly, through the liberal use of save states), I thought I’d enjoy running through the other NES installments, playing them as I may have back in the late 80s. Unfortunately, the very special brand of whale shit we get from Simon’s Quest will require more practice in meditation and emotional control, until I reach a state of tranquility that enables me to transgress some of the most awful gameplay this side of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So instead I worked my way through Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

RetroArch-0611-160656A few hundred years before Simon Belmont whipped it good through Transylvania, a similar problem came along for his great-grandfather, Trevor. At that point, the Church had excommunicated the Belmont family because the scared people, a problem that today would have earned the Belmonts a position as Cardinal, or at the very least GOP Congressional candidate. However, when Dracula moves his family to town, guess who comes crawling back to the scary, superhuman vampire killers. Trevor has to fight his way through the Transylvania countryside to rescue powerful figures imprisoned by the vampire, and he can take one of them with him on his journey. Afterwards, he whips his way through a castle in exactly the same condition that we see two hundred years later with Simon (at least Dracula likes to keep his home in a consistent state of disrepair) until he comes face to face with the D-Man himself.

RetroArch-0611-155840Returning to the form of the original, the game opens with a powerful image: Trevor Belmont kneels in prayer at the remains of an altar in a ruined church, then stands up. It’s simple, uncontrolled by the player, and makes an extremely powerful statement. I can’t exactly describe that statement, but believe me. Statement. It makes one. Anyway, from there, the action begins. Much like the first game, Castlevania III has elements of platforming, elements of run-and-gun games like Mega Man, and elements of moving a refrigerator from a truck into your 3rd-floor apartment. Yes, dysarthria must run in the family, as Trevor, like Simon, moves, turns, jumps, and dodges with the urgency of a rascal with low batteries. At least in this game, this feels deliberate. While Simon came off as obnoxiously suicidal, hurling himself backwards and off any nearby ledges at the slightest stub of a toe, Trevor’s movement issues play off the random attack patterns of the enemies, a move that ramps up difficulty rather than simply frustrates players.

RetroArch-0611-173952Don’t get me wrong, though; it frustrates players as well. However, Simon’s Quest deserves recognition for its contributions to Dracula’s Curse, namely unlimited continues and a password system. Konami still made this game harder than Chinese calculus on viagra, but at least now you don’t have to slog through the first few levels only to never see the later ones. Theoretically. Furthermore, this game lets Trevor partner up with other skilled characters who have a beef with the head honcho. Grant, the acrobat, moves faster than Trevor and can cling to walls and walk on ceilings. The infamous Alucard has a mid-ranged attack in up to three directions at the same time, can turn into a bat, and single-handedly begins the phenomenon of the Japanese spelling Dracula’s name backwards as if they’ve discovered the most clever, insightful and symbolic literary device and not at all a stupid trick to come up with a funny name. Sypha, another vampire hunter, also allegedly has some reason you’d want to use her instead of Trevor. Apparently she can use magic, although I got stuck with her for the majority of the game and never quite figured out how. Trevor has the strongest attack, and generally works better than the others, but occasionally their skills (especially the acrobatics) come in handy. Furthermore, to get these characters, the map offers multiple paths, allowing a different play experience each time through the game.

Interesting side note, something I wish I had known going into the game; you can only take one character with you at a time. If you pick up Grant (the first one available), and then run into either Alucard or Sypha, they’ll give you the option to take them with you. If you accept, Grant ditches you without warning.

RetroArch-0611-135219Beyond that, the game does justice to the original. The music and scene design creates a worthwhile atmosphere, sub-weapons (all exactly the same as before) add variety to strategy. Death still puts up a bitch of a fight, and you fight Dracula in the same room at the top of the stairs with the same crescent moon in the background. If you liked the first game, you’ll like this one too. Probably the only drawback, bosses don’t stand out as famous monsters. Sure, a few of them return, but I like to think that the others asked for too much money to appear in this game, so Konami had to find other actors willing to play the parts.

RetroArch-0611-174633

Dracula’s Curse also employs a primitive sort of New Game + concept. Not uncommon for games from the 80s, finishing the game gives you the ending credits–which differ depending on which character you got stuck with–and then plopping you right back at the beginning of the game, still with the character you picked up (and apparently, you can’t get the other characters…at least, I couldn’t get Grant again, after he ditched me with Sypha on the previous round). However, on the second play through, it ramps up the difficulty from “brutally punishing” to “setting your couch on fire with rage.” The levels have extra enemies, and some end-game enemies replace simpler, easier to dodge monsters from earlier on. I’ll confess I only lasted two levels on this setting.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – GBA

Aria of Sorrow Box Art
I have a confession to make; I had never played a Castlevania game other than the NES installments until recently, when I picked up Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. But hey, I enjoyed the 8-bit games enough, and this one has a really cool name. Sad to say, Aria of Sorrow involved no singing whatsoever, and I only approached sorrow somewhat at the beginning of this sentence when I said, “Sad to say.” I noticed some angry characters, some scheming characters, and some characters completely devoid of any emotion or motivating force at all, but no one felt even a little down, even at the mortal wounding of one of the NPCs. So the title may have misled a little; the Venture Bros. proved that you can call yourself “The Monarch,” but if you dress yourself and your henchmen in butterfly costumes, your intended intimidation will fall drastically short.

Furry and *Fabulous*!

Furry and *Fabulous*!

But titles mean very little, so why not dig into the game itself? The player takes control of Soma Cruz, a young boy whose fur-trimmed coat suggests his mother would have preferred a girl, and whose name suggests his father hoped for an iced tea or a bowl of instant ramen or something. Soma and his female companion, Mina Hakuba–whose name may or may not irrelevantly suggest “Mina Harker”–intend to watch an eclipse, but end up in Dracula’s castle instead. “How?” you might ask. Well, I might ask it too. They encounter Genya Arikado, a poor transliteration for “Alucard,” proving once again that the Japanese can’t imagine a wittier or more clever thing than spelling Dracula’s name backwards. They never do this with anyone else. Tnomleb Nomis didn’t struggle against Asudem, Nietsneknarf and the Repaer Mirg in the first game. Why, WHY must we always spell Dracula backwards?

Anyway, Arikado tells Soma he possesses a dark power, which apparently inspires him to wander through a castle filled with monsters. In between the action, he runs into a large cast of characters who almost never interact with each other, only appear two or three times, and have virtually no effect on the story at all. First you meet Graham Jones. “Hi, I’m a missionary,” he says. Then Yoko Belnades says, “Don’t trust Graham!” And of course the next time you meet him, Soma cries loudly in lament, “Why! You were so friendly to me!” A member of the Belmont clan–the real Castlevania protagonists–appears to tell you of a mystical whip with the power to defeat Dracula, after which he vanishes from the game and you hear no further word from him until your next playthrough. Finally, Soma also encounters an American who came to the Hakuba shrine to sell weapons without the least awareness of the irony or satire he portrays. Then you fight either Graham or the reincarnation of Dracula–the game leaves that up to the imagination–and Arikado appears once more to tell you to click your heels together three times to warp you and Mina–who by this point has had less effect on the course of events than the font on the title screen–off to safety.

Fin.

General Soma Crosses the Delaware

General Soma Crosses the Delaware

Although I intend to argue that the gameplay makes AoS worth playing, I feel I need to point out how they ruined a potentially good game by trying to introduce a written story. Remember the original game? How Simon began by walking up to the gate with the silhouette of the castle in the distance, and how the iron bars swing open to beckon him inside? That definitely set a strong atmosphere. Remember the detail of the backgrounds? Torn curtains, cracked bricks, crumbling stairs? Remember the bosses? The Giant Bat, Frankenstein, the Mummies, Death, and Dracula himself? These guys worked because the players already knew everything about them. We recognized them and they instantly evoked images of stories and horrors we already knew. And the entire game told this story with no more than the five words that explained the menu.

Old friends. Still a bitch, but I guess that's one of the two things you can always count on.

Old friends. Still a bitch, but I guess that’s one of the two things you can always count on.

Aria of Sorrow doesn’t live up to that level of design. Some enemies and one or two bosses might make cameos, but if anything, they rely on previous knowledge of the series.  Some areas have very intricate backgrounds, but not all of them, and the dull colors of the Game Boy Advance don’t jump out at you like the vibrant NES color scheme, which pits deep-blue backgrounds against the complementary orange of Simon’s sprites. If anything, the script dumbs down the effect, making it into more of an inane, B-Rated, anime-style story, rather than “Castlevania,” a game that stands on its own reputation.

However, I don’t intend to argue that the game fails to entertain. You just may have to focus on the gameplay elements rather than the script that crawled out of the trash of a third-grade English class. Here, the game actual improves on the original.  If we establish the analogy that Simon Belmont handles like a sluggish, poorly maintained Model-T with only a few drops of gas left, then I can describe Soma Cruz as the Delorean from Back to the Future.  Exploration and character advancement incorporates Metroid-style abilities, obtained usually by picking up an item after a boss fight.  By the end of the game, Soma can double jump, high jump, slide, float, backdash, and even turn into a bat, all features that allow him to reach new areas for more exploration.

One of my favorites. Packs a litle more punch than a cross-boomerang.

One of my favorites. Packs a litle more punch than a cross-boomerang.

The game uses an RPG experience system, allowing the character to level up after defeating enough enemies, and equip weapons, armor, and accessories found or bought in the castle. Furthermore, Soma’s dark powers–as the game so poorly explains–allow him to literally beat enemies to death with their own souls. Replacing the secondary weapon mechanic, he can equip absorbed souls to use enemy abilities against them. The player retains souls for the duration of the game, but carry the drawback that since you obtain so many of them, it can take some time to figure out a boss’s weakness, and by then you may have used up your MP. Potions and other items, as fitting for Castlevania, haven’t really decided if they actually want to join the game, and you’ll encounter them sparsely; mostly, you’ll have to buy them.

aria_8_168While I seem to have written a great deal more about the lack of quality in the story than I have about the virtues of the actual gameplay, keep in mind that very little of this game actually requires you to follow along with the characters and their hopes and dreams and wishes on rainbows. In fact, I got through the entire game without really understanding…well, anything.  The game succeeds at providing a fast-paced combat, and while combat and level grinding could theoretically get tedious, Castlevania knows when to quit. I needed less than five hours, even with grinding, to finish the game. Aria of Sorrow knows about its issues, but covers them up by knowing when to quit. Not exactly a stunning endorsement of the game, I know, but for someone interested in either Castlevania or action-horror games, and even to some extend RPG fans, AoS provides a decent enough experience.