Friday, February 12, 2010

Castlevania Series

Hello, Space Monkees!

As per every video game article I write, for some reason this series is 100% Japanese.  Will there come a day when I finally find an American game interesting enough to write to necessitate writing something about it?  Probably.  But until that day, most I'll just ignore them all since most western games are needlessly violent and gritty, horrifically ugly thanks to a foolish goal of photorealism, and shooters of some kind or another (I hate shooters).  So instead, here's a Japanese series.

At the very least, this isn't Square Enix or Nintendo.  Instead its Konami!

Back in the era when Nintendo ruled the universe, Konami made a series of very popular and excruciatingly hard games based in the lore of classic Universal horror movies called "Demon Castle Dracula".  But we Americans, knowing better, renamed the franchise to the much cooler-sounding title, "Castlevania".  The early games were crude, you ran around with a whip and beat the shit out of Dracula at the end of his side-scroller castle (which I assume is called "Castlevania", none of the games have ever answered that).  The action was good, but your character was... fragile.  And slow.  And couldn't step in water.  And really got messed-up on the stairs.  Luckily I was born many years after this period ended, and so I missed the nearly entire thing, save for one remake.

Instead, I ignored the franchise until, oh... last August.  My story with this series begins back in E3 2009, when I was watching the trailers following the conference looking for some Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda stuff.  One of those trailers was the most awesome trailer ever.  (Watch it, seriously.  It has Patrick Stewart!)  My mind was literally blown right out the back of my skull from how awesome that trailer was.  Following cleaning my wall of brain bits of neural fluid, I decided to look the series up a bit more.  Previously, all my Castlevania experience was from the Angry Video Game Nerd's first review, and that didn't paint a pretty picture.  Somewhere within my searching, I found a series of artworks for Castlevania's "Dissida", a game called "Castlevania Judgment".  This time I had the exact opposite reaction.  If the trailer for "Lords of Shadow" was the most awesome thing ever made by man, the artwork for Judgment was by far the worst.  They were awful.  They were abmoninations.  They were a mockery of every single standard of aesthetic beauty from cave paintings to the present day.  Please, do yourself a favor and do not look them up.  You'll be a saner person for it*.  So at this point I was very intrigued.  How could one series provoke such opposite reactions of joy and horror in me and not be Final Fantasy?  I had to play one of these games.

Lucky for me, this latest generation of handhelds has seen no less than four Castlevania game releases.  So not only could I explore a brand new series, but I could also do with the cheap convenience of the DS and PSP.  My first step was "Symphony of the Night" since the Internet people say its the best of the series.  As a general rule, I always try to start a series with whatever is considered its finest achievement, that's probably a good tip right there.  Anyway, the problem was that my Symphony was bundled with another game called "Dracula X Chronicles" a 2.5 remake of some old-style Castlevania game made God-knows-what-system back God-knows-when.  So before I could reach the cream of the crop, I'd have to play through this game.  ("Symphony of the Night" is a hidden unlockable that will take you days to find - or you use GameFAQs.)

"Dracula X" was not such a great game at first.  Its a level-based sidescroller that would be entirely linear if not for a few alternate paths here and there "Star Fox 64" style.  You start out with a dude named Richter Belmont, who is easily the slowest and most pathetic video game character I've had to play as since... well, ever.  This isn't the NES, people!  Richter only has a whip, and he doesn't attack all too quickly.  He also can't run.  So while eighty zombies are tearing me to shreds, Richter will just do a leisurely stroll through the level like nothing is wrong.  He has no double-jump, instead just this terrible black flip thing.  I was ready to throw the game out and abandon Castlevania altogether until GameFAQs told me of another way:  Maria Renard.  Maria is a little girl you can rescue in one of the early levels, and then she becomes an alternate playable character.  And she is fucking gold compared to Richter.  She runs for one thing.  Also she has a double-jump, and a nice slide dash move, and she can attack about three times as fast and with twice the range as that worthless Richter dude.  The only downside I can see is that Maria fights with owls, which is a little weird.  But she's the only way to play that game, trust me.  "Dracula X" is hard, one of the hardest games I've ever played.  Dracula himself took me three days to beat.  Even so, with cute little Maria, this game is actually not bad.  I don't know what kind of people play this game with Richter, and I really don't want to meet them.  They're obviously deranged.

So that leads me to "Symphony of the Night".  This game is actually a direct sequel to "Dracula X", but this time neither Maria or Richter are central characters, though they do show (Maria is now grown-up and little fetching in a new outfit).  Instead its Dracula's own son, Alucard.  And no, not the happy fun "Hellsing" laughing Alucard, instead its somebody completely different.  Alucard is pissed-off at his father for something that happened in "Castlevania 3" I think, it doesn't really matter.  Since Castlevania has risen once again, Alucard is going to run in and kick some serious ass.  This game was at the time of its PS1 release, completely different from the older games in the series.  Its still side-scrolling, but instead of levels you explore the entire massive castle in a labyrinth of rooms, boss fights, and items to uncover.  The exploration is what I really love above everything else in this game.  The castle is alive, and there's so much to find, its just wonderful.  I love the feeling of wandering deep into the maze without knowing if you'll ever find a Save Point.  There actually is a system behind the battles this time, with RPG mechanics hiding in the background.  So Alucard will find new weapons and armor to equip and gain levels with killing enemies.  Its all not particularly complicated, which is good.  Kill things, gain EXP, numbers go up.  That's all you ever needed, wasn't it?  The game is actually really good looking for 2D.  Alucard's sprite is probably the most beautiful bit of spriting ever done for a video game.  He's animated in a brilliant way that makes his actions seem fluid and realistic.  You don't need 3D for characters to come to life, "Symphony" taught me that**.  But with this transition to a new style of gameplay, the difficultly was not at all limited.  Bosses in this game are real challenges, and coming up with strategies to defeat them are what make this game come alive.  I never could find a good way to beat Galamoth, so instead I just bought tons of Potions and threw everything I had at him until I won... somehow.  This was a load of fun, and one of the best games I've ever played.  The plot isn't Shakespeare, but the action is where its at.  And the horrible voice acting of the PS1 version has been replaced, thankfully.

After that, I was in love.  So in rapid succession over the last five months or so I bought all three DS Castlevania games.  They all were good, but none of them seemed to live up to "Symphony"'s standard, and I don't just mean graphics.  This is probably because Konami doesn't actually make new Castlevania games.  Its the same game, over and over again.  No, I don't mean like the old Zelda joke that every game is just a rehash of the last one.  Its the same game.  Literaly, you'll run into the same enemies, with the same sprites that were used ten years ago o n the PlayStation.  As an example, in "Symphony of the Night", you'll run into an enemy that is nothing but a giant ball filled with zombies that shoots lasers.  Its a freaky, awesome boss.  But by the third time I fought it a few games later... things weren't so cool anymore.  They don't even come up with much new music (the music is awesome), they just remix old songs.  Bloody Tears, a super-cool song from "Castlevania 2" has been remixed like eight times now.  These DS games are pretty much rehashes of "Symphony" just with different layouts and weirder battle systems.  For example, "Dawn of Sorrow" requires that you steal enemy souls to get new weapons and learn skills, which changes nothing to the game.  All that is changed is that you spend hours killing the same enemy over and over again trying to get their soul to get the next sword upgrade.  The later "Portrait of Ruin", which was a step-up, just has two playable characters.  That's it.  Two characters.  Also forget about any kind of continuity to this series.  Its actually worse than Zelda because Konami keeps on saying some games aren't canon, but then they are again.  Who knows?  Who cares?  I've killed Dracula like five times now, it doesn't matter to me.

Don't get me wrong, these are still great games and they're all worth playing (except "Dawn of Sorrow", that you can skip).  But still, can we have a little variety to these handheld games?

I would play the console games, but I've heard nothing but bad things about them.  And as for "Judgment", don't make me laugh!  Interestingly, the artwork for that game is even more offensive now since I know who these characters are.  Poor Maria, why did they turn you into a lolicon Vietnamese sex slave and cage your owl inside a staff?  Why?

But then there's "Order of Ecclesia", my personal favorite out of the entire series.  You play as Shanoa, a witch who never wears a back to her outfits.  She runs around trying to find Albus, the Balthier-clone on the picture up there who has gone insane and is trying to become Dracula.  The big change this time is that you don't spend the entire game inside Castlevania.  Instead you can wander around a World Map and visit a town.  This minor change gives a much greater feeling of freedom to the games, I think.  Alucard might be cool, but Shanoa is a far prettier character to play as.  I'm also a big fan of the battle system, where basically everything is a spell.  You don't have a sword, you summon one to kill enemies with.  It plays about the same, but somehow this system makes it work with a faster pace and a deeper system.  However, this is all my opinion.

So there we are.  Its been a nice ride with this series so far, despite some bumps.  It seems that the "Symphony" style of gameplay is coming to an end, however.  For now, the series is moving into its future... which is with Patrick Stewart with the certain-to-be-awesome "Lords of Shadow".  I'm realistic about that game, its certain to be a linear adventure game without any of the exploration that I fell in love with.  But it has Patrick Stewart!  Make it so, Konami.  I'll be there.

* For example, I've seen all those artworks and now I run for the hills every time somebody says the word "Boojum".  AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

** Unfortunatly very few games seem to have reached that level.  "Chrono Trigger" came close, that's about it.  And since 2D is basically dead now, nobody will ever try.


  1. I own all 5 games on a Nintendo handheld (2 on GBA, 3 on DS), and I love them. My favorite is still Portrait of Ruin, just because it had the best gameplay (and Charlotte).

    Though, if you like them, why not play Metroid? They are the same formula.

  2. This post reminds of a conversation I had with a friend just the other day.
    HIM: "I'm making a Final Fantasy game that fuses all of the Final Fantasies together."
    ME: "How can you do that when they're all so diff..."
    HIM: [Throws hand up in protest] "Don't say that. They're all the same. THEY ARE ALL THE FREAKING SAME."
    I don't really know what that speech has to do with anything either.

  3. I actually did play a Metroid game recently: "Metroid Zero Mission". Castlevania has it beat by a mile, trust me. I didn't like the Metroid Prime games because they scared me...

  4. Its not really fair to lump every American developer to to ceartin aspects you dont lie in a game. Hell 5th cell created Scribblenauts and they were a American developer, Insomniac and Naughty Dog (both american developers) created the accaimed Jak and Daxter, and Ratchet and Clank series.

    By the way, you should try out Castlevannia IV, all the stiffnes from the previous 3 games are gone, and the controls are much more fluent than Dracula X.

  5. I loved the new Castlevania trailer. If the games 3d, I hope they don't screw it up like that Castlevania game on the N64...

  6. The only Castlevania game I ever played was a 3D one on the original Xbox. It sucked so much that I never even thought about picking up another one. I've heard good things about the DS titles before, so maybe I should try one of those.

  7. @Drake The 3D Castlevania games all suck. If you want a good one, pick up one of the DS ones. Don't do Order of Ecclesia, though: great game, but hard as hell.

  8. If you should ever play a linear Castlevania title, that ought to be Super Castlevania IV. It's for Super NES.
    That one is linear, but the game play is really good and simple. You can actually whip in all directions, which gives you much more control. It's basically Dracula X with better controls.

  9. B-but... Judgment is a pretty cool game... Who cares that the art was all done by the Death Note guy?! IT'S AWESOME. 'Nuff said.

    Also, you should get Super Castlevania IV. It's the best of the original Castlevanias (unless you count SotN). You can download it on the Wii Shop Channel... if you have one...