Castlevania-thon 2014 – Simon’s Quest-roid-vania

October 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Richter Belmont iconOutside of a couple of genuinely nonsensical puzzles, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest really doesn’t seem that bad to me. Admittedly, it is the weak link in the original NES trilogy, suffering from some really poor design decisions and sloppy programming. Maybe I’m just familiar enough with the game that its curve balls don’t catch me off guard, or maybe my gamer instincts are subliminally guiding me. But it’s not quite the impossible mission that its reputation suggests.

The two sticking points to me are: 1) having to equip a crystal and crouch next to a “lake” to make a secret path appear (this is actually done twice in the game), and 2) equipping a crystal and crouching next to a dead end to make a tornado appear and sweep you to another part of the game world. But if you have these two parts memorized, it’s not too hard to fumble your way to the end of the game. Even the invisible pits in the mansions aren’t really that bad. Early on, they line up with background objects, like columns and gates, so you can easily guess where they might be, and enemies don’t walk over them, providing yet another clue. Even when they do catch you off guard, they never drop you to instant death (as far as I’ve experienced), so it’s not entirely unfair.

Screenshot - Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

Simon’s Quest is generally considered the precursor to the “metroidvania” formula (if not the first) that would eventually become the norm for the series. In a way, however, it sort of feels more like it’s modeled after Zelda II: The Adventure of Link rather than Metroid. It doesn’t have an overworld, but it does have dungeons in the form of mansions, towns with people you can interact with, and some awkward RPG elements. Interestingly, Koji Igarashi (who did not work on Simon’s Quest) once mentioned that when he was working on Symphony of the Night, he thought he was imitating Zelda instead of Metroid.

Simon’s Quest is a flawed game, to be sure, but I wouldn’t call it bad. It’s mechanically sound, and even though I’m always reluctant about going into it, I still usually come away satisfied.

In any event, I’ve finished Simon’s Quest. I didn’t try to do anything special for this playthrough, so I didn’t go for the best ending or anything. But now I’ll move on to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, and it will probably be the final game in this year’s Castlevania-thon. I’ve never beaten it with recruiting Alucard before, so I think I’ll give that a go.

Castlevania-thon 2014 – Back to Basics

October 24, 2014 2 comments

Richter Belmont iconOK, so it’s been a while since the last time I played the original NES Castlevania, and I was a little out of practice. It took some time for me to get back up to speed and re-learn the best method of getting through the game, and even then, I wasn’t able to do a no-death run. However, I did manage to do a one-death run (got annoyingly knocked off the bridge before the clock tower), and since we’re nearing the end of October, I’ll be satisfied with that.

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about the original Castlevania. It still holds up as a solid game today, and it was a good foundation for a great long-running series. Replaying it almost feels like visiting a historical landmark. The gameplay, the characters and the music that we’ve come to be so familiar with, and that has resurfaced in so many subsequent games since, all began right here (and, I suppose, in the MSX game Vampire Killer). I guess this is true of many classic games, but it’s hard to think that at one time, the original Castlevania was the only Castlevania, with nothing in front of it or behind it.

Screenshot - Castlevania

It was also one of the first games I was exposed to on the NES. I was probably about eight-years-old and my family was living in an apartment at the time. We had some neighbors that had an NES, and they had a pretty good collection of games for it, too, including many standards like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Contra, Double Dragon, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-out. I wasn’t very good at any of them, but I remember one of the neighbors could get all the way to at least the Grim Reaper in Castlevania.

When I eventually got my own NES and subsequent Nintendo consoles, I remember renting other Castlevania games over the years, but strangely, I didn’t actually start buying them until after the turn of the century. I don’t know what took me so long.

Anyway, I now move on to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. It’s not one of my favorites, but not necessarily a bad game, either.

Castlevania-thon 2014 – Dracula X

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Richter Belmont iconI had never played the SNES version of Castlevania: Dracula X until it was released on the Wii U Virtual Console earlier this month. I knew it wasn’t going to be as good as Rondo of Blood, but I wanted to check it out anyway and see how it stacks up as its own game.

I suppose the strangest thing that stood out to me is that, in some ways, it feels a little more like a Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins game than a Castlevania game. Enemies are placed in really inconvenient places, and there’s a little bit of trial-and-error involved in learning how to deal with them. But then once you know how, it’s not really a problem, so I can’t say it’s unfair (for the most part). The game also tends to punish you for careless jumping, so movement needs to be very methodical. Heck, even the map screen looks more like a GnG game than Castlevania.

My biggest criticism, however, is that parts of the game feel just a little lazy, or at least uninspired. For example, in most Castlevania games, there’s an unofficial minigame where you try to pose the main character in a cool position just as the screen freezes when you collect the orb at the end of each stage. However, collecting the orb in Dracula X causes the screen to immediately fade to black. (I still like to back flip through the orb for good measure.) This isn’t a big deal or anything, but it’s such a consistent tradition in the classic games that its absence is conspicuous, and there’s really no reason the developers couldn’t have included it.

castlevaniadraculax_1

Also, the backgrounds look nice enough, and a couple of stages even have some nice special effects, but overall, they don’t quite pop. Compared to games like Rondo of Blood or Super Castlevania IV, both of which are filled with setpieces, Dracula X is pretty standard “walk forward and whip things.”

The music, however, is excellent, continuing the tradition that even the weak Castlevania games have good soundtracks. Even compared to the CD audio of the Rondo of Blood, the SNES does an impressive job of recreating the tracks.

castlevaniadraculax_2

And at the end of the day, despite my misgivings, I have to admit that I don’t think it’s a bad game. Even if the level design is not the greatest, the core mechanics are as solid as ever. The simple act of traversing the stages and whipping enemies still manages to be fun in and of itself. It’s not going to become my go-to Castlevania or anything, but it was oddly satisfying.

Next, I’m going back to the very beginning: the NES version of Castlevania. I haven’t decided if I’m going to set any specific goals for it, or just do a straight run-through. I once got very close to doing a no-death run, so it might be within my ability to go the distance with that. I can also try a no-holy-water run, but I think that might actually be harder.

Arcade Mania – Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest (1986)

October 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Icon - Joust 2The very first thing I posted on this blog was an Arcade Mania article for the original Joust. It’s been over three years since then, so it’s about time I covered the sequel!

Released in 1986, Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest is pretty much everything you would expect in a sequel. It has the same basic gameplay as in the original, but with many new twists added. Instead of having only one stage, Joust 2 has several that change between waves. There are new enemy types, including a boss fight with a giant “black knight.” Bonuses can be acquired by landing on buttons that appear on the ground. You also have the ability to transform your ostrich into a Pegasus at any time with the touch of a button, although it makes your character much heavier and more difficult to handle.

Of course, the graphics and sound have been upgraded, as well. While the graphics are still fairly simple, the stage layouts are much more varied. Some of the artwork was inspired by artist M.C. Escher, who was known for creating illusory images. This leads to gimmicks like enemy ostriches spawning out of the shadows of the mountains in the background. There are also some voice samples in the game that add a nice touch.

Screenshot - Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest

Image source: vgmuseum.com

Unlike the original game, Joust 2 make use of a vertically-oriented monitor. Personally, I don’t care much for this, as it makes the play field seem very claustrophobic. Combined with the much more complex level design, it makes Joust 2 a far more difficult game than its predecessor.

Still, it has a certain charm to it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anywhere near as successful as the original, and so it’s an extremely rare arcade game. I’ve certainly never come across it in the wild, and in fact, I’m not sure I ever even knew it existed until it was included on the original Midway Arcade Treasures compilation for the GameCube, PS2 and original Xbox. The only other times it has been re-released were on Midway Arcade Origins for the PS3 and Xbox 360 and Arcade’s Greatest Hits: The Midway Collection 2 for the PS1.

It’s an interesting curiosity, at the least, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the original.

Castlevania-thon 2014 – The Saga is Concluded (sort of)

October 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Richter Belmont iconThis whole “Castlevania-thon” thing started taking shape two years ago when I decided to play through all the Castlevania games I own in order of the official timeline. My effort in October 2012 was really only halfhearted, though, as I didn’t put too much effort into actually getting through the games. Still, I managed to complete five of them, including Dracula’s Curse, Adventure Rebirth, the original Castlevania, Simon’s Quest and Harmony of Dissonance. Last year, I charged through Super Castlevania IV (which I wasn’t able to play in 2012), Rondo of Blood, Order of Ecclesia, Circle of the Moon (not canonically part of the timeline, but whatever), Bloodlines, Portrait of Ruin and Aria of Sorrow. Not bad considering that the “metroidvanias” are much longer than the classic linear games. But I didn’t have time last year to finish the final game in the timeline: Dawn of Sorrow.

Well, now it’s finished, and my two-year journey is compete.

It’s been several years since I last played Dawn of Sorrow, but I really enjoyed giving it another run-through. Usually in revisiting these games for the Castlevania-thon, I try to do something I haven’t done before. For example, last year, I played through Order of Ecclesia in Albus Mode. For Dawn of Sorrow, I started a New Game+ on Hard Mode, and that made the game quite challenging in the later areas. Also, I was surprised to see that I had not gotten 100 percent of the souls. I thought I had done that, but I guess I was thinking of Aria of Sorrow. I was only missing three, so it was pretty easy to finish that off.

Screenshot - Castlevania: Dawn of Sorror

It’s always really satisfying to play through Koji Igarashi’s Castlevania games. For all the criticism they may get for recycling assets and following the same basic formula, they really are fun, solid games with lots of cool little details. It’s interesting that despite being distinctly different from the classic linear games in many respects, they still feel very much like Castlevania, both in atmosphere and in gameplay. Iga really “got it.”

And now, it begins again. I’ll be moving on to Castlevania: Dracula X on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’ve never played it before, so I’m looking forward to checking it out!

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