FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

BLOCKS!My fiancée will tell you quite loudly and clearly that she does not play videogames. My fiancée is also a liar. She plays videogames. She just doesn’t play “videogames” as she thinks the world defines them. She plays Candy Crush. She plays some other game that looks exactly the same, but involves farm animals. I think there’s another one with soda. She plays these games constantly, whether we’re sitting watching a movie or traveling to the wilds of Canada. And Pokémon Go! When it’s raining, she will get in the car, and drive around the neighborhood for hours looking to find a shiny or conquer a local gym. If this were a MMORPG, she’d be sitting at a computer for hours, but since her chosen raids are partially based in the real world, she’s not really playing a videogame, you understand. I proposed to her with a friggen’ Pokéball, for crying out loud!

Sparkles

But, no, she doesn’t play videogames. Yes, I completely understand that compared to my gaming habits, she doesn’t “play videogames” (she doesn’t even have a videogame blog! Can you imagine?), but to claim that she doesn’t play videogames at all seems… disingenuous. She doesn’t play the same kind of videogames that are traditionally covered on this blog, but she absolutely plays videogames. And, what’s more, these are not simple, even-your-grandma-can-play games. She routinely plays games that involve experience points, rationed continues, and complex resource management. There’s no judgment against supposed “casuals” here, videogames are videogames, and whether or not a Pikachu or some manner of sentient fruit is involved is inconsequential.

Blocks!One videogame my fiancée plays is Tetris. According to her own words, it is her favorite videogame (which, reminder, is something she doesn’t play). She’s been playing it for years, and notes that during some of the less hectic times in her life, she played quite a lot of it. She’s good at it. I can say with firsthand knowledge that she kicks ass at Tetris, and I have the recorded play sessions from Tetris Effect to prove it.

And, given I believe this is the first I’ve ever mentioned my fiancée on this blog, I feel I should note something else: she’s a bit of a… let’s say… completionist. She pathologically cannot deal with leaving tasks unfinished, and her Type A personality compels her to complete goals to the best of her ability, earn an A on that math test, and then win the big football game because she spiked the final 3-pointer (she tells me she also understands sports better than I do). She deals poorly with losing for any reason in any way, and, officer, I assure you this black eye of mine is from walking into a doorknob, and certainly not because the dear love of my life threw a chair at me when I caught a rare Pokémon before her. As a result of this personality quirk that she honestly and wholly admits is an issue, we don’t often play competitive games together. Even if I win, I lose, so let’s play some games where we either cooperate or work in parallel. It’s better for our collective mental health.

So I really should have known better than to suggest we play Puyo Puyo Tetris for crossover week (“week”). I should have used my good eye to foresee the inevitable.

WeeeeeFor those of you unfamiliar with the title, Puyo Puyo Tetris is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a puzzle game that combines Puyo Puyo and Tetris. For those of you unfamiliar with Puyo Puyo, it’s a color-block matching game that has visited America in various disguises over the years. For those of you unfamiliar with Tetris, welcome to Earth, and I hope you enjoy your stay on our humble planet. In both cases, we’re dealing with games where objects fall infinitely from the sky, and you must carefully manage these bits and pieces so they “clear” and your play area is not filled with so much useless junk. And this version of these respective games is predominantly based on the concept of multiplayer, so you also have to deal with offensive “junk blocks” that are generated by your opponent doing well. It’s not enough to play the game with skill, you also have to be wary of your rival playing the game with that same skill, but faster.

But just because both games are involved, don’t think they don’t completely interact. Back in the Super Nintendo days, we had Tetris & Dr. Mario, but that title was little more than an excuse to tape two Gameboy games together and sell the package for $70. Tetris and Dr. Mario intermingled about as much as Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 in Super Mario All-Stars. Puyo Puyo Tetris is another story. You can play head-to-head Puyo Puyo or head-to-head Tetris, but you can also play Puyo Puyo while your opponent picks up a game of Tetris. And it’s not simply “parallel play”, a properly completed Tetris can send junk sailing over to your Puyopponent. And it doesn’t stop there! There are other “versus” modes available that involve both games, like a puzzle speed run mode (called Big Bang Mode because “puzzle mode” sounds like a punishment), or another option where the game rapidly alternates between Puyo Puyo and Tetris boards. There’s even a mode that combines Tetris and Puyo Puyo into one focused game that adopts blocks and puyos from both franchises.

I think it was that mode in particular that caused my fiancée to start shouting expletives I cannot repeat on this blog.

I have no ideaLook, Tetris and Puyo Puyo being played in a sort of parallel is one thing, but outright combining the gameplay of both into one complete board is borderline crazy. The benefit of both of these games is that, individually, there isn’t much that has to be learned or understood to get going. Yes, there are complicated techniques involving starting combos or focused spinning or whatever in both games, but they’re both superficially very straightforward. Match the colors, line up the blocks. Empty spaces bad, alternating colors bad. The end. The best puzzle games are instantly understandable, and both Tetris and Puyo Puyo fit that bill. This is literally the reason your grandpa wanted a Gameboy. But Tetris + Puyo Puyo is confusing. Clearing a line requires using Tetris blocks, while popping puyos require puyo bubbles, and you don’t always have access to either kind of block. What’s worse, there are some moves that don’t seem to have obvious consequences, like how squishing some puyo bubbles with tetris blocks looks like you’re clearing out the clutter, but the bubbles will respawn and fall shortly thereafter. It’s something that happens every time, but it’s not immediate or often enough for a player to quickly distinguish whether these “junk blocks” are the result of something done by the player or their opponent. It creates a sort of “stress” that is not the traditional “things are getting heated because the board is filling up” stress, but more of an “I have no idea why things are happening or how I can make it better” stress. And it occurred to me that this stress could be very traumatic for some people right around when I won a match and my dear fiancée hit me with a folding chair. She is normally so respectful of the furniture!

And this might just be the pain meds talking, but there’s a certain… beauty in this crossover chaos.

What?Tetris x Puyo Puyo loses something. It loses its simplicity, and, with that, it loses its immediate and obvious accessibility. It loses an “easiness” that has been comfortable for decades. But it gains something in exchange. It is more complicated, but that complication adds nuance and techniques that would otherwise be completely absent from the experience. It adds a whole new dimension that was never there before, and would be completely impossible to so much as touch in the normal, base games. I have played a lot of Tetris games over the years, but they’ve always been constrained by being… Tetris. Adding Puyo Puyo to Tetris creates a whole new world of possibilities, and, while it does take some time to learn, it is an actual new experience. Tetris Effect, you’re great, but this is a genuinely, wholly fresh experience, and it’s satisfying to shift over to such a change once in a lifetime.

Tetris loses a little bit of itself. Puyo Puyo loses a little bit of itself. But what is gained, the final gestalt of the merging of these two things, that is greater than the two original items. Sometimes it’s hard to learn the ins and outs of this new…. thing, but it’s worth it. Both games are better for having crossed over.

Oh, anyway, did I mention I’m engaged?

She sparkles

I did? Yeah, there might be a metaphor here.

I love you, honey, and I’m looking forward to our crossover continuing.

Now… uh… could you put down that tire iron? I promise I was only kidding about playing Mario Kart…

FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

  • System: My understanding is that this is available on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and Steam. However, there are also versions available in Japan (from 2014!) for Xbox One, 3DS, Wii U, Playstation Vita, and Playstation 3. This game is more traveled than I thought!
  • Number of players: Four player split screen action! Online modes available, too! It’s all very crazy and/or fun!
  • Favorite Mode: It’s the Puyo Puyo x Tetris mode. Did you get that from the article? I like new things right now. That may change in the near future.
  • But seriously folks: My dear fiancée is not physically violent. If you are in a relationship with someone that abuses you, physically or mentally, and you don’t have any options, please seek help. There are many highly trained counselors and nonprofit organizations out there that can help you, even in our current, nebulous existence. And I am not saying this because someone is holding a frying pan to my head.
  • Let's go!How about that Story Mode: Is this what it’s like for other people playing Kingdom Hearts? There are just all these weird anime characters with silly hair running around and shouting at each other for level after level, and, eventually, it is revealed this is all because “god” is angry and lonely and might need a hug. Or to play Tetris. And then the universe is saved thanks to a robot that sounds like a Pokémon.
  • Did you know? This is the first American release of a straight Puyo Puyo title since Puyo Pop Fever in 2004. Everybody counts the years between Metroid releases as some sign as to whether or not the franchise is dead, but nobody gives a damn about when Puyos haven’t been seen for a decade….
  • Would I play again: Just as soon as the swelling goes down, I think we could try playing this one again. I am going to have to find some manner of anchor to confirm the Switch isn’t tossed across the room, though.

What’s next? Enough with the mushy stuff! Our final crossover title is going to be the best crossover game released in the last decade. Please look forward to it!

WINNER

MKK: Kronika & Cetrion & Geras

Netherrealm’s own Injustice (1) does not get enough credit for having the best damn concept for a fighting game Story Mode ever. Fighting games are wonderful for story telling in videogames because they don’t really have “mooks”, and your hero du jour can reach a heroic finale without having to incidentally kill millions of anonymous randos. Cloud Strife is a moral paragon that has saved the world in multiple ways… but he still slaughtered a healthy 90% of Shinra’s security staff across the planet. Most of those guys were just making minimum wage, saving up gil to buy some Cura material for their sick grandma! Guile, meanwhile, saved us all from the tyranny of M. Bison, and he’s only marginally morally compromised because he once had to punch a green, electrified orphan. Basically, fighting games, almost as a matter of course, follow much more cinematic through lines, and incidentally don’t have to waste time with Big Bad Sol Badguy grinding rats for experience.

Kanon!
This is kanon!

Unfortunately, this is terrible when your roster doesn’t meet the demands of a complete story experience. Skullgirls launched with a cast of like 1.7 playable fighters, so, in order to integrate actual gameplay into its story, every skullgirl had to fight every other skullgirl like 16 times. And, given you saw the same fights with generally the same excuses over and over again, it gave the initial impression that the whole of the Skullgirl Universe was a city street measuring about five feet wide. Similarly, anyone that read the Mortal Kombat comic adaptations could tell you that the MK universe had this problem for a while, as a host of incidental fighters had to be introduced just so Liu Kang didn’t win every last tournament in a single issue. Later Mortal Kombat games/stories filled these holes with larger rosters of various Order Realm denizens, but their necessity to the plot was… dubious.

But Injustice! Now there was a clever story! In short, it featured the roster of Earth 1 fighting their intermittently murderous duplicates from Earth 2 (not actual designations, shut up, nerds). And that’s amazing! It immediately doubles the “roster”, and all you have to do is get Batman a slightly different suit (and that man loves to have a complete wardrobe). Now you can have Flash fight Green Lantern all you want, and it makes perfect story sense, because this is the evil version of the Green Lantern. And you can have the good Green Lantern fight the other Flash, and it doesn’t seem redundant, because this Flash prefers Shadow the Hedgehog to Sonic. He’s a totally different character! You can even make the final battle a fight between Superman and Superman, and it works! Street Fighter can never come up with a decent reason for a bad guy to fight a boss character (Vega got bored? Is that his whole ending?), but Injustice can use its narrative conceit to justify a canonical mirror match! It’s a thing of beauty!

Theoretically identifying their own greatest trick, Netherrealm dabbled in this concept for Mortal Kombat X. In arcade mode, there were a number of “alternate” fighters that seemed to exist in a separate kanon where the likes of Liu Kang or Kung Lao grew old and became the creepy uncles to the next generation. In story mode, meanwhile, there were the undead revenant versions of these same fighters, and here Cassie identified the zombies with unusual blades (“does that lady have a lethal fan?”) as threats. So, while it was completely outside of the usual kanon, you technically could play as a pair of different Scorpions in Mortal Kombat X. Hooray for variety!

She seems nice

But Mortal Kombat 11 decided to take it all a step further. The basic plot of Mortal Kombat 11? Kronika, Titan of Time, has decided that Raiden has overstepped his authority, and now Kronika is going to mess with all of time in order to put the lesser god in his place. But who cares about that? It means we get two kanon Kitanas! Hooray!

Though I suppose we should talk about Kronika, Mortal Kombat’s first female final boss. Give or take the duo of Quan Chi and Shang Tsung, she’s also the first final boss in the franchise that is…. How to put this… Quietly all powerful? She can control all of time, she can “rewind” your movements, and she can even perform a fatality that is essentially an eternity of suffering, but… but she’s not very swole. MK final bosses are traditionally hulking monstrosities, and even when they’re on the smaller side, they have a tendency to command all the powers of the roster’s souls or some other such thing. Kronika mostly just floats there, and doesn’t really knock around your fighter with anything but sand(s of time) magic. Her greatest attack is tossing a t-rex at ya, which, yes, that’s pretty rad, but it’s more on the dinosaur than the titan to do the damage. Basically, the point here is that, as a final boss and the theoretical source of all despair in the Mortal Kombat universe, she comes off as a little lacking compared to the likes of unstoppable foes like Shao Kahn or that immortal dragon dude. She’s a mage in barbarian world, and Skeletor is definitely more fondly remembered than Evil-Lyn.

And it doesn’t help that her dastardly plan alternately portrays her as all-powerful and marginally brain dead. It’s always a problem when you have an immortal that has clearly not learned even basic lessons about evil plan caretaking, but here we have a woman that theoretically lived through multiple iterations of the universe, and she still doesn’t have a friggen clue how to stop one karate man. Here’s how this all goes down:

1. Raiden kills Shinnok at the end of Mortal Kombat X. … Okay, he doesn’t kill him, because he can’t be killed, but he does leave the former elder god a sputtering, decapitated head.

2. Unfortunately, Shinnok’s removal from the board goes against Kronika’s grand scheme for the universe, so Raiden must be stopped.

3. Kronika summons various Mortal Kombat stars through time from the era of roughly Mortal Kombat 2. This includes bad guys (that she will recruit for future plans) as well as good guys (that she will assume are going to hang out at Denny’s and not interrupt any evil plans).

4. MK2 Raiden is among the summoned good guys. As part of a “rule” that has never come up before and will never be explained, there can only be one Raiden at a time, so “present” Raiden (MK10 Raiden) is blinked out of existence. This leaves us with only MK2 Raiden, who has all the powers of MK10 Raiden, but does not have all the plot baggage of having spent the last two games occasionally crossing into Dark Raiden territory.

She seems nice

5. But eliminating one Raiden is not enough, Kronika wants to reboot the entirety of the universe to revive Shinnok. In pursuit of her goals, she has her team of time displaced baddies (and Jax) generally mess with the good guys.

6. This is because Kronika needs to tap into some raw power reserves to reset the universe. For instance, Shang Tsung had a well of souls that would help, and she has to collect the power from there. The good guys try to stop her, but fail. No one stops to consider the fact that Shang Tsung apparently had enough power on tap to obliterate all of time.

7. Eventually, it is revealed that Kronika only fears one thing: the combined power of Liu Kang and Raiden. Thus, Kronika has pitted Liu Kang and Raiden against each other in every iteration of the universe. This has happened dozens of times before, if not hundreds. Raiden already killed Liu Kang once in this universe, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but, wait… did Kronika just bring another Liu Kang from MK2 back with the other time-displaced losers? Oh crap! She did!

8. Okay, okay, don’t worry about it. This shouldn’t be a problem. MK2 Liu Kang was killed by MK2 Raiden a few years back during that version of MK3, so Kronika can probably just nudge Raiden into doing that again. Raiden, just let the rage take over and…

9. Dammit! MK11, Undead Liu Kang just kidnapped and absorbed all the powers of MK2 Liu Kang. Now he’s Liu Kang². Okay… okay… we can still deal with this. Liu Kang² doesn’t like Raiden, so unless “good” Liu Kang overtakes “bad” Liu Kang…

10. Fudge! Liu Kang² and Raiden have literally fused into one being. That was the one thing Kronika didn’t want to see happen! I’m sure she can handle…

11. Liu Kang-Raiden (Liuden?) defeats Kronika, and is now the God of the Universe.

So, yeah, Kronika basically ushered in her own destruction. But at least her time travel powers effectively doubled the roster, making the story mode a lot more interesting! Good job, stupid!

But why did Kronika care so much about Shinnok and his “grand place” in her various schemes? Well, because she was Shinnok’s mama. And you know who else is Kronika’s brood? Cetrion, the Elder Goddess of Virtue and Nature.

Pretty butterfly

Cetrion is another character that has theoretically been bumping around the universe since the first Mortal Kombat. She’s the Elder Goddess of Virtue and Nature, and, given how much punching takes place in this universe, she’s essentially the combo god of war and peace like the Grecian Athena. Also like Athena, she can actually handle herself in a fight, and has an interesting fighting style that involves a whole lot of elemental magic. Fireball, tree branch, rocks, strong gust, fireball again, repeat until the other guy falls down. So, yeah, she might be literally the most benevolent deity to ever grace Mortal Kombat, but she’s still going to kick your ass.

Unfortunately, Cetrion doesn’t kick much ass in the actual story of Mortal Kombat 11. She’s literally a god-level threat, and she’s at least generally annoyed by the death of her brother/mortal enemy, but she mostly spends her time being Kronika’s lapdog. What’s worse, her whole “deal” appears to be being a goddess of “good” that is continually committing heinous acts, and the best she can do for pathos is occasionally note “oh, maybe eating the souls of all those innocent monks was… morally gray?” She does wholesale murder the entirety of the rest of the Elder God Pantheon (off-screen), though, so she takes the stage with a healthy body count, at least.

For a divine being that is meant to be the opposite number to a main villain from the franchise, Cetrion seems almost entirely like an afterthought that could be dropped from the story without losing a single beat. And you know what? She probably is an afterthought. Kronika, Titan of Time, is currently the only fighter in all of Mortal Kombat that is a boss that is in no way playable. Granted, that’s likely just an accident of being the last boss currently in MK kanon, as many other bosses started as unplayable before being selectable in later titles. But that quirk of design was likely noticed during MK11, so Kronika’s finer points were split among two selectable fighters. Cetrion is the “all powerful” goddess that can use divine attacks with a predominantly haughty demeanor, and Kronika’s time abilities drifted over to our final MK character, Geras.

Nice gauntlet

Geras is Kronika’s Goro. However, rather than being a hulking monster, Geras is meant to be “unbeatable” in a completely different way. Geras’s defining ability is that he exists “at a fixed moment in time”. What does that mean? Basically, he’s unkillable. Chop off his head, gouge out his eyes, or even just inflict a particularly nasty papercut, and he’ll revert to an earlier point in time when it never happened. And, taking a page from Injustice again, he has Doomsday’s signature ability to remember and react to whatever killed him the first time. So, basically, Geras is a dude that has been killed hundreds of thousands of times over the course of multiple timelines, and now he’s here staring down a 20-something with a pointy hat. Who do you think is going to win?

And, since the whole regeneration thing is a completely boring power for arcade mode (Sonya Blade is a generic human that is still fighting after surviving 6,732,601 fatalities and counting), Geras also seems to possess a baby version of Kronika’s time powers. He can freeze his opponents in place, create a time clone, or just manipulate literal sands of time because why not. He can even screw with the fight timer, because, ya know, time. Honestly, it’s a pretty innovative way of incorporating “time attacks” into a franchise entry that is all about time travel. Double points to Geras because we’re dealing with a fighting game where the entire plot is about fighters being plucked from across the time stream, and the best anyone could come up with is “what if the guys from Mortal Kombat 2 came back?” You can do better, MK! You could have Abraham Lincoln battling Socrates as guest fighters, and it would make total kanon sense! Follow the excellent and creative example of Geras!

Regardless, Geras’s contribution to the overall story is right there with that lack-of-Abraham-Lincoln boring thinking. He’s Kronika’s Goro, and, rather than using that level of intimidation to actually do anything memorable, he’s mostly just a go-fer. It’s established that he is effectively invincible and scary, but he doesn’t actually kill a single fighter. No kills! In Mortal Kombat! Hotaru at least messed up Sub-Zero, and the best Geras can manage is threatening Cassie Cage. And when he finally comes to blows with Raiden, he is instantly and effectively neutralized by the thunder god dropping him into a mystically bottomless ocean. Geras is supposed to be an unstoppable monster, but two separate versions of Johnny Cage manage to outlast him.

They're friends!

But it’s not like that matters, as the universe at large doesn’t last much past Geras’s defeat. Kronika is defeated by Fire God Liu Kang, and, given Kronika messed the universe up but good in her misbegotten attempts to reboot existence for the hundredth time, Raikang is left with the job of recreating the Mortal Kombat universe. What shape will it take? What fighters will we see in the inevitable Mortal Kombat 12? Who knows! But there is one thing I know. This is the end of this iteration of the Mortal Kombat universe, so, having covered every last kombatant, I can safely say that this has been a komplete guide to Mortal Kombat kharacters.

… At least until the next DLC.

Thanks for reading.

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

FGC #494 Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team

It's time for teams!Now let’s talk about the infamous “Wolverine” style crossover.

You may be aware, but Wolverine is a particularly popular character from Marvel Comics’ X-Men. He was originally introduced as yet another thing/Canadian/person The Incredible Hulk could punch, but he joined the X-Men roster shortly thereafter, and his reputation rapidly escalated from there. People have been trying to nail down the source of Wolverine’s overabundant attractiveness practically since his debut in 1974, but no one (least of all Marvel) seems to have a clue as to what has made Wolverine one of the most essential comic book characters of the 20th century. Is it the readily accessible weapons? His tendency to not follow orders? The fact that he’s a grizzled old man palling around (and occasionally flirting) with teenagers? That mentor thing he had going with Jubilee and Kitty Pride? The cigars? Whatever the cause, Wolverine is popular. What’s more, it is known that Wolverine is popular. This ain’t no underground “you heard that Squirrel Girl is good?” situation, this is phoenix-fudging Wolverine, and he’s the king of the world. He had a movie. Or seventeen. Wolverine sells! And Wolverine can sell anything!

So it’s only natural that “Wolverine stops by” has become a comic book genre onto itself. If you’ve got a new Marvel comic book that needs a few more sales, summon Wolverine. He doesn’t need to actually do anything, and he doesn’t need to be on any more than one page, but as long as he can be part of the cover, you’re all set! Maybe you’ll get lucky! Maybe Wolverine will actually offer your hero/heroine advice and a few zingers before he wanders off to wherever Wolverines go when they’re not on camera (I’ve always assumed Wolverine used that infinite healing factor to successfully weather course after course at the Golden Corral), but don’t count on Wolverine lingering around for too long, because he’s a very busy mutant, bub. And this trait has now transcended genres, as Wolverine appears in other movies when the X-Men need their special guy to push a few more tickets. Stan Lee may have invented the cameo trick, and now Wolverine is Stan Lee. We’ve come full circle! So, don’t worry, if you need your character or franchise to be more popular, all you need is Wolverine. Put no more thought into the process than that. Just get Wolverine on the line!

But Wolverine apparently wasn’t available for a certain collection of battlin’ toads, so Billy and Jimmy Lee are going to have to put in an hour.

BLARG!Now, it is hard to believe in this our year of perfect vision, but back in 1993, Double Dragon was a hot franchise. There were three “main” Double Dragon titles on the NES, an arcade presence, a number of spin-offs available on things like handhelds, an animated series, and a movie on the way. You know who else could be described in that exact manner? Super Mario. Double Dragon was, in the videogame realm, on the exact same tier as Mario (give or take Captain Lou Albano). Nowadays, people barely can remember Bimmy and Jimmy exist, but back when the Battletoads were trying to make a splash, they were a hot commodity.

And make no mistake, Battletoads really wanted to be on that same popularity echelon. Battletoads had an unmistakable connection to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from their initial appearance, and many people took their general “irreverent” tone as a clear parody of the other fighting amphibians. But if you were to explore the Battletoads’ initial comic debut in Nintendo Power, you’d find that these heroes were 100% serious about being the next big thing with a very serious backstory for very serious fans. Zitz is really some nerd named Morgan that got stuck in a virtual reality machine that links to an actual reality! And then that premise was dropped (or at least ignored) for an animated series where the ‘toads are plucked out of another dimension to pal around our Oxnard, California and defend us from the Dark Queen with Looney Tunes-esque attacks. Pew pewDiC produced this animated Battletoads pilot, and then went no further. DiC also ran Street Sharks to a full series. That had to sting. The Battletoads needed something to put the franchise on the map, and Double Dragon seemed to fit the bill.

So this led to Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team… which is a particularly misleading title. Yes, the Battletoads and The Lee Brothers unite to fight a collection of allied opponents, but there’s no actual “team” involved behind the scenes. This is clearly a Rare joint, and a Battletoads game through and through. In fact, give or take the graphics involved, this title is little more than the original Battletoads game with seemingly random Double Dragon guest stars. There’s a speeder bike. There’s a vertical ropes course. There’s an inexplicable gameplay shift where you wind up playing Asteroids for some reason. The heavies of the Battletoads brand all return for boss battles, and the Double Dragon opponents… Well… That’s where it’s most obvious that this is a Battletoads game with special guest star Wolverine Double Dragon. What’s the tell?

Roper!
Willy – Double Dragon (Arcade) 1987
Roper!
Willy – Double Dragon 2 (Arcade) 1988
Roper!
Roper – Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team (NES) 1993

They couldn’t even get the Double Dragon’s main antagonist right. Okay… yes, the people behind Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team did correctly stick Abobo right there in the first level, and he has his proper ‘stache (depending on the port). But the boss of the third stage is “Roper”. Roper is the name of a generic mook in the Double Dragon franchise, and that ain’t him. This character, complete with his signature weapon, is most commonly referred to as “Machine Gun Willy” by the fans. According to the lore, his full name is Willy Mackey, and he’s the main antagonist of Double Dragon and Double Dragon 2 (give or take the wonky “interpretation” of the NES versions). He is the leader of the Black Warriors. He is the one that orders the kidnapping of Marian. He is the final boss of one Double Dragon arcade cabinet, and penultimate boss of another one.

And here he’s got the wrong name, and he’s the boss of the third level. Robo-Manus, the robot that is barely animated, earns a higher standing than Billy and Jimmy Lee’s greatest foe. And who is the “new” main antagonist that is capping off the Double Dragon side of this crossover? It’s “Shadow Boss”, a character that technically appears in no other Double Dragon game, but vaguely recalls the antagonist from the animated series. He also resembles a ripped version of Burnov, that one tubby guy with ill-fitting pants from the first level of Double Dragon 2.

Shadows!!
Burnov – Double Dragon 2 (Arcade) 1988
Shadows!!
Shadow Master – Double Dragon Animated Series / Double Dragon V 1993
Shadows!!
Shadow Boss – Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team (SNES) 1993

Dudes at Rare apparently didn’t feel like getting past the first, Abobo-based level of Double Dragon, and decided to wing it from there. Who’s this guy from the arcade intro with a gun? That’s probably Roper. Let’s go with that, and see if we can devote more pixels to rendering Dark Queen’s ass.

So, yes, it’s pretty clear this is a Battletoads game that suckered Double Dragon into shedding a few more popularity points. Did it work? Of course not. The Double Dragon movie bombed, the franchise floundered from there, and the Battletoads had already hitched their dingy to a sinking ship. One last Battletoads arcade game was released shortly thereafter, and then too did the Battletoads retire from gaming for decades. Double Dragon never brought Battletoads the fanbase they so desperately craved, and only the innovation of internet memes would ever get the ‘toads any attention.

This seems wrongsBut this humble crossover did at least try. It succeeded as a shining example of a Wolverine crossover. Double Dragon stopped by a Battletoads game, and that’s all the effort anyone wanted to put into this project. Excellent stealth Battletoads 2, Rare, and good try on attempting to boost your visibility with a more prominent franchise.

Just… maybe next time you should figure out who Wolverine actually is before you have him drop by…

FGC #494 Battletoads and Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team

  • System: This one got around. The NES and Gameboy versions are fairly impressive for their tiny bits, but the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis versions are where you see some pretty graphics. The Battletoads did know how to feature a little spectacle.
  • Number of players: Two. And you have your choice of all three Battletoads. This is the first game where that actually happened! But I suppose you should choose at least one Lee Brother…
  • Port-o-Call: Which version should you get? Well, the gameplay is miraculously pretty much exactly the same across all versions, so if that is your concern, don’t worry about it. From there, if you’ve got the option, you probably want the Super Nintendo version, as choosing the other 16-bit version will brand you a Sega Kid, and who has the fortitude to deal with such a moniker? Though, like Mortal Kombat, the Genesis version actually includes blood on defeated opponents’ portraits, so if you’re all about the violence, head over there.
  • Art Style: It’s important to note that the NES version of this title paints the Lee Brothers as a pair of really buff 80 year olds.
    They're twins!

    They’re coming to help just as soon as their grandson gets the wireless working!
  • Secret Truth: Willy probably got renamed to Roper thanks to his level including Battletoads repelling hijinks, thus earning the stage the title “Ropes and Roper”. Always go for the easy pun!
  • Did you know? The Nintendo Power comic that gave us the origin story of The Battletoads was written by a Rare employee, Guy Millar. The cartoon adaption was written by David Wise, someone who did not have any involvement in the production of the games, but did have the exact same name as the David Wise that composed the Battletoads videogame soundtrack. Weird.
  • Would I play again: This is an easier experience than Battletoads (1), but it also feels like the game runs out of steam somewhere around the fourth level. From about Level 5 on, it feels less like the eclectic action game of earlier levels, and it becomes little more than a rote beat ‘em up. So I’ll probably just play the original or the arcade game if I want a Battletoads experience. And it doesn’t even rank as a Double Dragon experience…

What’s next? What happens when a franchise crosses over with itself? Twice? Let’s find out! Please look forward to it!

Bad Queen