FGC #495 Castlevania Judgment & Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

This is gonna be weirdYou want a videogame crossover, you’ve got options. But apparently you can’t have all the options.

The Castlevania franchise is fairly unique, as, right from its third entry, its creators decided to introduce different time periods. Like Zelda, it was determined you could only tell the same story with the same hero so often (apparently twice), and it was time to move on to a different epoch with the same basic trappings for the next adventure. However, unlike in The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania seemed to revel in introducing completely new characters with every age, and (depending on the quest du jour) also introducing an additional supporting cast or secondary antagonists. Unfortunately, all of these “extra” characters were always disposable, as all Castlevania ever really needed was a Dracula and a hero that could menace bats. This meant that, by about the mid 2000s, there were a handful of really great characters across the Castlevania franchise that only ever had one or two chances to shine. Such a waste. Why can’t all of our Castlevania stars find a way to play together and get along?

So why don’t we have a Castlevania Crossover featuring all our favorites? And, if the first one doesn’t shake out, let’s do it again!

It started with Castlevania Judgment. At a time when nearly every Castlevania title was sentenced to the miniscule portable systems of the time, there was much excitement about the first “real” Castlevania title on the Nintendo Wii (the dominant console of the era). But then Castlevania Judgment was… not what anyone expected. Anyone.

Get 'emFirst of all, it was a fighting game. But that could work! Castlevania is a platforming franchise, but it’s also always been about little more than burly dudes with long hair fighting demons from Hell. And that’s, like, 90% of fighting games (the other 10% are just karate tournaments), so that is a good fit. And this was during a period when fighting games were generally pretty experimental, so, before fighting games settled back into just being online matches to mirror the arcade fights of days long gone, the time was right for an innovative fighting game based on action/platforming gameplay. And a fighting game would be ideal for the Castlevania heroes that, since Symphony of the Night, had gradually been accruing more and more “moves”. Alucard could utilize an entire army’s worth of weaponry, magical spells, and an inexplicable jump kick. He could put Guile’s lousy sonic boom to shame without even trying.

Unfortunately, Castlevania Judgment was (to put it charitably) a little too experimental. It was neither fish nor fowl: in trying to be a fighting game that aped the motions of an action/platformer, it created an environment where the two fighters didn’t really know if they should be dodging encroaching zombies or attempting to punch (whip?) their opponent. Combos are futile when you might be interrupted by an errant jumping fish, but dodge-rolling around the arena while Dracula just stands there drinking wine is equally ineffective. And the way the movesets were limited for “simple controls” (the calling card of a game designed for the assumed-to-be-casual audience of the Wii) wound up contributing to many fighters that were savagely unbalanced. Yes, I know Maria was always better than Richter in their debut title, but getting wrecked simply because one player chose a little girl and her owl in a fighting game is an entirely separate experience. There’s a skeleton of a good game here (ha! Topical Castlevania metaphor!), but it needed another game’s worth of tweaking to hatch an actual enjoyable, enduring experience out of this egg (are there any monsters that “hatch” in Castlevania? Bah. More of a Metroid thing).

Hi, DadBut there was one place where Castlevania Judgment excelled: plot. Wait, no, that’s a lie. The plot is a stupid excuse to pull various Castlevania characters from 1456 to 1942 to fight a Grim Reaper from 10,000 years in the future. It’s barely worth mentioning (which is really sad when there’s a skeleton at the end of time involved). But what’s great about this title is that all the various stars of Castlevania are all allowed to interact. Finally! In fact, it involves a number of heroes and heroines that were nearly totally mute in their initial appearances, so we can finally see what’s going on in Simon’s head. It’s not all just terrible nights to have a curse! And the crossover of Judgment allows for the insanity of great grandpa versus distant descendant, which allows for even more story fun. It may be little more than fanservice, but, for a fan of the franchise, Castlevania Judgment justifies itself through its cast’s interactions. It didn’t matter that the art style was a few too many bodies short of a Legion, what mattered was that this was Eric interacting with Grant, and that was pretty damn cool.

But, for a videogame, gameplay is key, so Judgment is simply remembered for being a complete flop of a Castlevania experiment. It was by no means the “Castlevania returns to consoles” that everyone wanted. It was some weirdo title featuring the cast of Death Note, not Castlevania HD. No, if we wanted that, we had to wait for the “real” Castlevania HD: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair.

And that one was an odd duck, too.

Don't step on meSuperficially, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is nothing we haven’t seen before. Literally! C:HD is entirely assembled from Castlevania assets scrambled together from previous titles. It’s mostly just the IGA-vania titles (starting with Symphony), but there are also some significant Rondo and even 8-bit influences to be found here. And the gameplay, on a superficial level, is exactly the same the likes of Alucard or Shanoa have seen before: venture through a giant maze, stab some demons, collect a glut of treasure, and beat the damage-sponge of a boss. All very familiar, and, given this was at a time when we could rely on seeing a 2-D Castlevania title every other year or so, it was something that felt almost… extraneous.

But interpreting Castlevania: Harmony of Despair not as “this year’s recycled assets” but as a crossover culmination of the previous decade’s worth of Castlevania content paints a different picture. This is Metroidvania action in its purest form, which is something that is usually only available upon completing the latest Castlevania adventure. You don’t have to spend half of this title waiting to earn a double jump, or blow hours finding the right room that contains the right story flag to find the next area. This is just running, jumping, and exploring huge maps and battling worthy bosses. Exploration through unlocking has fallen by the wayside, yes, but what is left in its place is an uncontaminated Castlevania experience where you can just enjoy the innumerable of abilities of your chosen protagonist. If Castlevania is about man versus castle, then this is Castlevania to the Castlevaniaest power.

And the multiplayer options available to this title add a whole new dimension to the experience. You can cooperate! You can compete for treasure! You can select a character with a wildly different movement skill, and giggle as your ground-based buddy has to watch you fly through the sky on magnetic wings. There are a million ways to play with friends, and the “HD” of Harmony of Despair lends itself to a wonderful online experience where these enormous levels can easily house six active vampire killers. What we have here is not only a pure Castlevania experience, but a purely fun experience as well.

I am despairingBut there ain’t no plot. There’s no reason to do anything in Castlevania: Harmony of Despair past scoring points and clearing stages. You play C:HD for the same reason you play Madden or Tennis: just have fun with the game. And, while that is certainly a valid reason to play any videogame, it feels like a loss for the Castlevania franchise. Alucard likely would have a lot to say about pairing up with the reincarnated, pretty-boy version of his father, but C:HD doesn’t want to delve into that conversation. C:HD is about a magical book that contains magical heroes fighting a magical castle, and it’s nothing more than that. Everyone involved is just a 2-D simulation of their “real world” counterpart, and, while this is a crossover for every manner of sentient armor in the franchise, it is not a crossover for the iconic characters of Castlevania.

Which raises the question: which Castlevania Crossover wins? Castlevania Judgment eschewed typical Castlevania gameplay, but reveled in the personalities of its popular protagonists. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair was Castlevania gameplay taken to its most logical (and fun!) extreme, but reduced its iconic heroes to little more than different jumping stats. And the winner? Well, they both lost. Castlevania Judgment is regarded as an embarrassing diversion for the franchise that was never to be revisited again, and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair puttered out so completely it didn’t survive long enough to release its final planned DLC (Hammer! We could have had Hammer!). In both cases, both Castlevania Crossovers were disappointments to the curators of the franchise, and likely contributed in no small part to Castlevania rebooting and/or becoming a series of slot machines. Considering both Judgment and Harmony of Despair were epitomes of different aspects of the franchise, it’s rather depressing to see them both become epitaphs for an era.

But, hey, maybe watching the franchise die is appropriate for a pair of titles where you’re encouraged to kill Dracula about 17,000 different times. That dude can’t reincarnate forever!

FGC #495 Castlevania Judgment

  • Get 'emSystem: Nintendo Wii. This means it is technically also playable on the WiiU, but it was never officially ported to any other system due to, ya know, the embarrassment.
  • Number of players: If they’re fighting, they’re coming in twos.
  • Favorite Fighter: There’s no doubt about it, Maria Renard is a beast. I don’t care if she’s a 15 year old acting like a six year old and is mostly doing her damage through a particularly superb owl, she’s simply the best. And in this game where everyone looks like they spent a little too much time at Hot Topic, I’m also very happy to see that much pink.
  • Your Mileage May Vary: One big problem a number of people had with Judgment is that it includes characters from time periods divorced from their initial, iconic introductions. Sypha is a fledgling sorceress that has never encountered Alucard, Maria is a petulant teenager obsessed with “maturity”, and Bloodlines’ Eric is a petulant brat. This is a far cry from how these heroes act in their source material. However, I’m all for it, as I am a firm believer that people change over the years, and, sure, the stoic and dedicated “Wind” may have been a bit of a pissant when he was a kid. Who wasn’t? For anyone curious, this is basically a reverse “Cranky Old Man Luke Skywalker” syndrome, and I’m okay with it.
  • Why is this happening: It turns out that the whole plot of Judgment is the result of the evil plans of Galamoth, the future tyrant dinosaur wizard that cannot deal with Dracula being more powerful than a tyrannosaurus. This means that, ultimately, this title is another spinoff of Kid Dracula.
  • What’s in a name: Judgment only has one “e” in it.
  • Superb OwlDid you know? Of the default, non-DLC, non-needs-another-game-to-unlock characters, only Alucard appears as playable in both Judgment and Harmony of Despair. Shanoa joins Judgment if you connect Order of Ecclesia, and Maria and Simon both were added to C:HD as DLC, but only Alucard is there in both from the beginning. And he’s not even a Belmont!
  • Would I play again: I have a certain macabre fascination with this title. I don’t hate it… but I’m not really anxious to play it again. I like thinking about it, though!

FGC #495 Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

  • System: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The Playstation 3 version has local multiplayer, but the Xbox 360 version can be played on the Xbox One, so one might be more available than the other.
  • ZOOM!Number of players: Six. That… rarely happens.
  • Favorite Character: Shanoa if we’re talking about the default cast, but Yoko Belnades if we’re including DLC. What? I guess I enjoy dark magician girls.
  • Your Mileage May Vary: The “grinding” nature of Harmony of Despair and its rare boss drops is rather unpleasant. If you want the best gear, you’re going to repeat the same levels over and over, and there’s never anything fun about that. But then again, the whole point is to play these levels repeatedly to get better “scores”… so maybe this is a good thing?
  • But the DLC level that is just the entirely of Castlevania 1 as one complete map is the best, right? Oh, absolutely.
  • Love that castleDid you know? Even if he’s only 8-bit, with his double jump, slide, and collection of subweapons, Simon Belmont in Harmony of Despair is actually the closest he’ll ever be to his eventual incarnation in Super Smash Bros Ultimate. Granted, he’s still mostly just copying Richter… but it works!
  • Would I play again: Man, it sure would be nice to get an online gang together to raid Dracula’s castle again. You definitely lose something when you’re playing this game alone, but just revisiting it for this article reminded me how fun the whole experience could be. I’m sure I’ll be stalking those halls again soon enough…

What’s next? Let’s see what happens when two entire games ram straight into each other. Please look forward to it!

This is what Konami wants

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