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.

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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.

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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.

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.