Tag Archives: Koji Igarashi

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 #443 Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

NOTE: This article contains spoilers for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. I’ll be light on the spoilers for Bloodstained… but I will have to reveal the identity of the final boss/finale. You’ve been warned!

Here she comes!Now let us compare the feminist themes of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia.

In so much as a videogame can have a central “visionary”, we’re going to blame Koji Igarashi for a number of games for which he was writer, director, producer, or all of the above. So let’s produce a list of games credited to IGA…

  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
  • Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
  • Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
  • Castlevania: Lament of Innocence
  • Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
  • Castlevania: Curse of Darkness
  • Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
  • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
  • Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth
  • Otomedius Excellent: For Some Reason
  • Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

That’s a lot of Castlevania! And, of all those Castlevania games, exactly one game had a solo playable female character. Other than that? Yoko got to stretch her legs in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, but she was permanently tied to an amnesiac and a dhampir. Charlotte was half of the duo of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, but there was still no Charlotte (“Charlotte!”) without Jonathan (“Jonathan!”). And what of every other woman in IGA’s Castlevania universe? Well, they’re all either shopkeeps, damsels to be distressed, or literal monsters. The final boss is never a woman (okay, it’s always Dracula, but it’s always a man summoning Dracula), the rival character is never a woman, and a lot of Wallachian women don’t even have walking animations. And that’s pretty depressing, particularly given we were coming off Rondo of Blood, where Maria kicked unholy amounts of ass before being relegated to crushing on Alucard in its (IGA-penned) sequel.

So, suffice to say, one might be forgiven for not having much hope for Shanoa, star of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia or Miriam, lead of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. In fact, it’s entirely possible both of those games are rather disgusting from a feminist (or even just human) perspective, as… Can we take a minute to review how these characters gain new abilities? The stars of many Igavanias simply collected equipment (incidentally, all of these stars were male). Soma of the Sorrow duology gathered souls from defeated monsters, but these souls were happy little wisps that Soma “devoured” while light-headedly puttering around. And the anti-hero of Curse of Darkness forged his own monsters in a proactive manner. Meanwhile, our female leads have to stand around and absorb magical glyphs into their exposed backs (and there’s an odd emphasis in the dialogue on the word “flesh”), or, we’ve got Bloodstained’s…

That stings

And, just in case you though that little flourish was there for some “horror” graphical curlicue, Miriam elaborates on the feeling of absorbing a shard:

Owie

So, congratulations, player! Every time you gain a new skill to advance Miriam on her quest, you are literally torturing her.

That’s… not a great thing to see happen to your female protagonist. It’s an even worse thing when not a single male in the “horror” series suffered violent repercussions for, ya know, amassing powerups.

And, yes, we’re also dealing with worlds where literally every other woman involved in the plot is either a monster or… nonexistent. Shanoa has three other important people in her life: the guy fighting Dracula, the guy reviving Dracula, and Dracula. Miriam at least has one other (adult) woman in the plot, but the finale reveals that she was Dracula (at least She-Dracula) all along. In both cases, there are random female NPCs standing around and dispensing sidequests (so we’re at least on better footing than the first six Star Wars films), but it’s still pretty noticeable that there’s an unmistakable testosterone cloud floating around every character that is actually relevant.

But at least there are catgirl monsters skulking about! There are always catgirl monsters for some reason!

Add it all up, and you would likely expect Order of Ecclesia and Ritual of the Night to be equally abhorrent when it comes to portraying a healthy 51% of the population. But what if I told you that Ritual of the Night is a significant improvement over Order of Ecclesia? Koji Igarashi actually learned something in ten years!

This is offensiveOn the surface level, Shanoa of OoE and Miriam of RotN are remarkably similar…

FGC #442 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

BLOOD!Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night reminded me why I actually enjoy my favorite genre.

We live in confusing times. Just a few years back, it seemed like it was easy to define the direction of gaming. AAA was king, and, if anyone was “involved” in videogames, they knew that the next big thing was inevitably a franchise with intense graphics, open-world sandbox gameplay, and RPG-like elements. Or… something. Look, what’s important is that every gaming news site out there was telling us that the hottest titles available all cost the gross national product of South America, required twelve craptillion hours to produce, and were available now for your Playstation X or FourBox or whatever.

But things are different now. It may just be my old man imagination, but it seems like the videogame industry has finally adjusted to accommodate both AAA games and less intensive, but dramatically easier to produce, “indie” games. (In many cases, these “indie” games aren’t independently produced at all, but it seems like such an unintended slight to refer to them as “budget” or otherwise lesser titles. Though one could suppose that the “budget” thing really is the biggest factor here…) Back in the Playstation 2 days, it was newsworthy that Katamari Damacy was a “budget” title at its initial $20 MSRP. Now, presumably thanks to the advent of digital storefronts and more accessible development tools, games that could likely be best described as “light” are available at $20 just as often as the latest release drops on the same storefront at $60 (or $90 for that all-important day one edition). This has had the wonderful side effect of reviving certain genres and playstyles, so “the arcade experience” has finally resurfaced along with other categories that include “pretty much Zelda” and “shoot ‘em up (without exploitation)”. And, of course, the metroidvania has returned to us. In fact, the metroidvania has returned to us in spades.

MEOWIt seems like there is a new metroidvania released every month (every seven seconds come Fall). And, like a sucker, I have a tendency to throw myself into about every third one that comes down the pike. I like metroidvanias! I have liked them since Super Metroid (“What about the original Metroid?” “We don’t talk about that”). And I suppose that, like a plumber that is permanently thirsty after an unfortunate detour through Desert Land, I am always going to be starved for more metroidvania content. I can’t even say that I will wait to finish one metroidvania before I start the next one, as it appears I am playing another metroidvania while I am writing this very article. Load times are writing times, people! I’m a very busy man, and I have to see that sweet 100% map completion achievement somehow!

But that’s the exact problem I had that I hadn’t realized until playing Bloodstained: Not all metroidvanias are about completion.

I admit that I have played a number of metroidvanias in recent years, and now I’m pretty sure that I played them all wrong. For an easy example, I can look at Metroid 2, Metroid 2, and Metroid 2, all games that were reviewed recently (“recently”) for this site. And if you look at those articles, you will note that two out of three of those games were completed and reviewed (“reviewed”) within days of their release. How did I do that? Well, obviously, I completed the titles as quickly as possible. Why did I do that? Well, that’s simple: it’s a videogame, it’s a challenge, and you’re winning if you finish the challenge the fastest. Yes, I can and absolutely will go back to “100%” the title, but I’m going to do that as quickly as possible, too. I noticed that door I couldn’t open quite yet, you better believe I’m going to come back later and nab every last expansion pack and powerup bonus. After I’m all done with that, I’m going to check a FAQ and/or forums to learn what I missed, and maybe review a few speedrun strats. Then, after I’ve seen my own fastest run through the latest SR388, then, maybe, I’ll put it all down, call the game complete, and see you next mission. …Which might happen about seven seconds later with a certain robot named Fight…

And Bloodstained taught me that no, you’re wrong Goggle Bob. Stop and smell the roses (that may or may not be expies for medusa heads).

Too hot todayLet’s address one thing before we go any further: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is by no means a perfect game. For one thing, the bosses suck in all kinds of different ways. Practically every creature has way too much HP, you see the same stupid patterns over and over again, and there is just no universe where certain samurai bosses needed “reprise” fights (particularly in light of the Boss Rush mode). I’m pretty sure I distinctly enjoyed, like, one boss battle, and everything else was either way too stupid/easy or way too frustrating thanks to stupidity/endurance. And I’m playing on Switch, so let me tell you about how, every once in a while, I am reminded of Super Castlevania and the kind of slowdown that I thought was relegated to games from thirty freaking years ago. Oh, and speaking of thirty years ago game design: there is the occasional bit in Bloodstained that might have been more at home back in Simon’s Quest, the infamous Castlevania title that told players to literally bang their heads against the wall. At one point, I (a person who famously plays a lot of videogames) was completely stuck for finding a solution to my current predicament, and it turns out the resolution involved talking to a random NPC out in the castle boonies. Why would I ever do that? Who knows, but I couldn’t see a single clue to lead me in that direction, so I was stuck randomly wandering all over the map.

And… I enjoyed that.

I didn’t know what I was doing, and I enjoyed that.

It has been said a thousand times that the appeal of a number of videogames and their associated genres (that is to say, all the games that copied the original title until they were defined as belonging to a genre) was always their level of freedom. Grand Theft Auto 3 is a title that was probably completed by about 25% of its players, but was somehow still enjoyed for hours upon hours thanks to all the fun one could have with a cheat code and a rocket launcher. Skyrim probably has something to do with terrifying dragons, but it is also a cheese wheel discovery simulator. And The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows for a Link that can ignore the literal apocalypse and dick around discovering tree poop for entire months. Freedom is the name of the game!

Another terrible night for a commuteBut “freedom” is something that is generally lacking in 2-D adventures. Mario might have been able to find a key or two in his 2-D outings, but those levels were still “courses”, not “environments” (and you could likely claim the collectathons of the late SNES era were Mario and others growing against their 2-D confines). And while there were a few 2-D games based on exploring, that entire perspective has always been about finding the next checkpoint or powerup that helps you to find the next powerup. There’s a reason that Metroid rewards you with its heroine in her knickers for a speedy run through Zebes, and totally ignores how you used your grappling beam to teach the etecoons how to love. The point of a 2-D adventure is not to “have fun” in the environments, it is to find the optimal way to move forward, to gain more skills, and then see what’s around that next bend. The fun is in the discovery of new areas and powers, not in simply reveling in the areas you’ve already traversed.

But when I got stuck in Bloodstained, I discovered that I actually liked playing around in this haunted castle. I didn’t have any new abilities. I didn’t have some grinding goal. In fact, I didn’t have a damn clue where I was supposed to be heading, or what I was supposed to be doing. But I was at least at the point in the game where Miriam’s moveset is more robust than your typical Castlevania protagonist. It was fun to play as Miriam, and, as a result, it was fun to revisit older areas with Miriam. It was fun to see monsters that had previously been a detriment, and were now a possible source for new and exciting items. It was fun to see old areas, and enjoy the ambiance of any given room in a capacity beyond just randomly hitting walls and hoping for a meat drop. I want one, too!It was fun! It was fun exploring the world of Bloodstained not for some overarching goal, but just exploring for the sake of exploring! Like some kind of fancy-pants, city-slicker 3-D game. And even if I wasn’t making any “plot” progress, I was still collecting a host of materials, shards, and experience from my unplanned sojourn. Even when I’m not doing anything, I’m doing something! That’s the sign of a good videogame!

And, ultimately, I feel like that is the source of the good from the “vania” side of the metroidvania equation. My personal theory for years has been that Metroid games are better than Castlevania games. Why? Well, if you find a Super Missile container hiding behind a wall while exploring Zebes, you can enjoy that Super Missile upgrade whether you’re at the start of the adventure or heading toward the final confrontation. Meanwhile, while exploring Castlevania (or… Igavania? Huh?), you might find a +1 sword hidden in a concealed room. But you’ve already discovered a +4 sword. Why would you ever bother with such a piddling weapon? Congratulations, you found the secret, and it’s completely useless. Why did you even bother exploring?

But that’s only true in a bad Castlevania. In a game where your every undertaking is enjoyable, then finding even the crappiest of swords is enjoyable, because you enjoyed getting there. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is such a game. Bloodstained is fun to play, and, in that way, encourages the player to stop and take it all in. Every movement, every monster, every gigantic severed dog’s head (it’s a weird game) contributes to an overall feeling that is bizarrely welcoming. Yes, Bloodstained predominantly takes place in a deadly castle filled with murder-beasts, but it also feels like Iga is inviting you to his magical kingdom (that incidentally contains giant werewolves). It’s fun to play Bloodstained, and it’s fun to be in Bloodstained.

Ante Up!I feel like that is something I forgot along the way. Through the portable metroidvanias, through the reimaginings of other titles, and through the current bounty of excellent indie titles, I’ve been focusing on “beating” these ‘vanias. And, while that is a perfectly valid approach to any videogame, somewhere I lost the simple ability to enjoy the moment. Stop, smell the zombies. and encounter a castle on its own terms. With an interesting moveset and environments, Bloodstained encourages exploration as slow and meticulous as the effort it inevitably took to build this kingdom.

Bloodstained isn’t a perfect game. It might not even be a truly great game. But it is a game that encouraged me to look at games differently, and that’s always perfect.

FGC #442 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

  • System: Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC, and Switch if you’re nasty. Vita and WiiU are right out.
  • Number of players: There’s some manner of multiplayer somewhere in here, right? For all I care, it’s single player, but I’m pretty sure there was a stretch goal somewhere in there…
  • Kickstart This: Yes, I contributed money to see this game produced. Do I feel that influences my own opinion on the game? No. Considering I am really terrible about checking any developer update emails, I’m going to go ahead and say my “production credit” is just an eternal reminder that I reserved this game way early.
  • Favorite Shard: Being able to manually “aim” Miriam’s hand is the perfect middle ground between your average metroidvania and Samus Returns’ continual aiming. And the best use of aiming Miriam’s hand is to shoot a bevy of True Arrows right at your opponents. There’s nothing finer than seeing a goopy zombie puddling around with arrows in its knees.
  • Look out!Boss Battler: It seems like the bosses that were most difficult in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon have been converted to extremely easy encounters for this adventure. In particular, Andrealphus, the bird-armor thing, goes from the biggest bad to the smallest chump. Though I suppose a lack of pits really takes something away from the poor guy…
  • Say something mean: The entire first area is terrible. Bloodstained offers easily the worst opening I have seen in a videogame in years. Miriam starts off too limited, the areas are claustrophobic, and the boss of the area is just the worst. Did someone demand a really s*** prologue area? Because we got a really s*** prologue area.
  • Did you know? While Dracula technically doesn’t appear in this game, the ultimate impetus for the final villain of the game is very similar to the motivations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So even when the count doesn’t show up, it seems he has an influence on final bosses.
  • Would I play again: I feel like I got everything I wanted out of this castle, but I’m certainly going to dive in when further character DLC drops. I will be returning to this magical land once again. Actually, come to think of it…

What’s next? We’re going to continue our Bloodstained coverage. Kinda. Next up is Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, and we’re going to play a little game of compare and contrast between the seemingly very similar protagonists. Please look forward to it!

Robin!

FGC #418 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

Blood!Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the rare game that is so good, it makes old games better.

Full disclosure: I have a complicated relationship with the early Castlevania titles. To elaborate, I am referring specifically to any Castlevania game that was released prior to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (which I now realize that, thanks to the unstoppable march of time, is approximately twelve billion years old). But back before Alucard ever earned his first crissaegrim, there was the Belmont clan, and its unyielding pursuit of the death of the undead. And… I kinda didn’t like those Castlevania games? Maybe?

It’s complicated. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest was one of my first NES games (and, thus, one of my first videogames, period), and, as anyone that has ever banged their head against Deborah Cliff will tell you, it is a deeply confusing and difficult game. Luckily, I had an older neighbor (he was, like, twelve!) who shared tips and tricks on how to traverse the Wallachian countryside, and Castlevania 2 was less “impossible” and more “inordinately difficult”. I could send Dracula back to his grave! It… just took a password that unlocked all the items (and maybe I still died a thousand times). Oh, and I would totally glitch out that one jump in the graveyard area. What does it matter if Simon drowns? He’ll be better in no time.

Whip it good!But Castlevania 3? Now there was a game. It was another of my precious few “original” Nintendo games, and an air-mailed Christmas gift from my grandparents (who had fled to warmer climes for the holiday season). As a game I could immediately identify as both “advanced” (look at those amazing graphics!) and “clever” (four playable characters! That’s as many as a full gang of Ninja Turtles!), I was fairly convinced I enjoyed Castlevania 3. After all, I played Castlevania 3 so many times, I had all but mastered such advanced techniques as Grant’s wall hugging and Alucard’s surprisingly weak fireblasts. I was a Castlevania master!

And I think I only ever made it to level… four.

Yes, I could plug in “Help Me” and use that password everyone ripped out of Nintendo Power to skip straight to the good Count, but did I ever legitimately beat back Death with my NES Advantage? Never. Did I ever even approach the Doppelganger? Nope. And, as I can very vividly recall, that room with the falling blocks was the absolute end of many a playthrough. If Alucard ran out of hearts to bat his way up that chamber, I was just done. Don’t have time for this nonsense!

Which… was kind of the point. I continued to purchase and/or rent classic Castlevania titles (Bloodlines comes immediately to mind as my most rented Genesis title), and I unequivocally enjoyed that franchise… but it wasn’t Mega Man. It wasn’t Mario. In fact, Mario might have been the biggest reason I could never truly enjoy a Castlevania game. Even if I couldn’t put it into words at the time, I still had some thought in my head regarding that whole “joy of movement” theory. Mario was unmistakably fun to control. Simon Belmont? Not so much. His movements were restricted. He had a terrible jump, limited offensive options, and didn’t gain magical invincibility that killed every zombie in his path even once. And the average lifespan of a Belmont? Not very long when you consider how easily a single decapitated medusa could shove that entire clan into one of a thousand bottomless pits.

In short? It sucked to be a Belmont. And who wants to play a game where you have to suck?

Magic!Unfortunately, in the time since the Castlevania “classic” series reigned supreme, I have become a cranky old man. As such, I rarely have time nowadays for games that I do not immediately enjoy. Many JRPGs have fallen by the wayside simply because I cannot deal with another tutorial dungeon explaining how fire beats ice. Perfectly competent platformers have gone ignored because I bounced off the main character’s art style. And I’m not afraid to admit that I dropped at least one “game of the year” just because the hero’s initial movement speed was “too exhausting”. Suffice to say, I was not exactly expecting to dive into an “old school” Castlevania with the same gusto that a more grilled cheese-based Wee Goggle Bob was once capable of mustering.

But Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon was more than a little surprising.

First of all (he said, 700 or so words in), Bloodstained: CotM is just plain fun. It is aping Castlevania 3 like a monkey mimicking an orangutan, and it hews so closely to the “original”, it’s almost a surprise that Miriam can’t stick to walls. You start with the base, limited protagonist with slow, but functional, movements, move on to someone a little weaker, but with greater agility and range, pick up a squishy wizard with extremely convenient spells, and finally gain some brooding dork that craps fireballs and occasionally morphs into a bat. Unlike Castlevania 3, though, you do have the option of switching between all four combatants at once, which wildly increases the odds you’ll ever bother with that weakling mage. And that also means stages are designed around every possible party combination, and… that’s where things get complicated.

Stairs!It is very likely that, upon playing B:CoTM for the first time, the player will choose to recruit every last ally, and utilize their skills in every possible combination across all levels. Once that task is completed, a new mode will unlock wherein all the extra allies are available from the start, but Zangetsu (the ersatz Belmont and initial playable character) is missing in action. And he’s not missed! It’s pretty clear that Zangetsu is the Zeppo of these Marx brothers, and you’re much better off using literally anyone else. Miriam has mad ups, Alfred can blast any boss, and Gebel can scratch those hard to reach places. Who even invited that Zangetsu nerd in the first place?

This, naturally, will lead a curious player toward trying that initial mode again, but this time, using only Zangetsu. He’s the worst, but that just makes him a “secret” kind of hard mode, right? Not quite…

Zangetsu has two options for a solo outing. On one route, he may choose the bloody path of literally murdering each of his potential allies. And the prize for his sins will be access to new offensive and gymnastic skills. A homicidal Zangetsu can acquire a sweeping slash, high-speed dash, double jump, and a “charge attack” that would put a certain Mega Buster to shame. And then he’s the best character in the game! Without a question! Who even needs friends when you can slash an enormous turtle monster in half! I am become Death!

But then there’s “true” solo mode. Friendly Zangetsu acknowledges that all these wizards crawling around are creeping him out, but doesn’t kill a single one of them. Zangetsu must soldier on with his meager skills, and thus the player must learn to deal with a lame jump and Link’s Adventure-level weapon range. Zangetsu is pathetic, and every challenge becomes actually challenging, even for someone that has already saved this world three times or so.

But you know what? It’s doable.

Not a vampire!Bloodstained: CoTM is built for a full party of moon murderers (I miss just saying “vampire slayers”), including at least one dude that can magically become invincible, and another than can fly literally anywhere. Its stages are also designed for just the guy who can barely jump. In fact, the game is designed equally for both eventualities, and offers a wildly different experience for either choice. And, crucially, this means that the choices the player makes over the course of the adventure are significant. You don’t need a “Miriam will remember that” prompt to tell you something significant has happened when you’re too busy fighting your way over a bottomless pit to notice, and the “penalty” for literally killing a possible helper is immediately revealed in a sudden change of moveset. But, by the same token, these important choices may create a game that is more or less difficult, but never a game that becomes a complete cakewalk or impossibility. Everything here was carefully designed around players playing the game their way, and that allows for an inordinate amount of fun.

And, yeah, that’s something Bloodstained: CoTM learned from Castlevania 3, too. Heck, you could even claim it learned it from the original Castlevania. After all, tell me you’re not playing two different games depending on whether you decide to bring a bottle of holy water to a Frankenstein fight. The “old school” Castlevania titles might not have been as much fun to play as Mega Man, but in their limitations, they created an environment where the player had more choices than any title that involved a tanooki leaf.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon taught me that the original Castlevania titles were always more than they seemed, and didn’t need to pull in a single vampire to do it. Mimic a franchise, and somehow make the base franchise better? Pretty good trick, Bloodstained.

FGC #418 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

  • System: PC, Nintendo Switch, 3DS, Sony Playstation 4, and Vita. Sorry, this will be the only Bloodstained merchandise appearing on the Vita.
  • Number of players: One is good enough.
  • Pimpin!Favorite Boss: Hey, it turns out all these jerks have names on the official website! Valefor, the giant monster wearing a pimp hat, is my clear winner. He’s made of gold! And tries to kill you with gold! And can occasionally summon monsters made of gold! That’s solid gold, baby!
  • Out of Order: Did anyone else find Bathin, the light speed lizard that haunts the mechanical library, to be easier than literally every previous boss in the game? Its super fast attacks would be impossible without those target reticules, but with giant flashing “don’t stand here” signs all over the place? Not so much.
  • Favorite Character: Good call on making Miriam, the star of the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, arguably the most useful character. Sure, she is lacking in health or very strong attacks, but agility goes a long way in the 2-D world.
  • Favorite Reason 16-Bit Graphics were invented: Nothing interesting about the main characters really comes across with these faux 8-bit sprites, but Gebel really loses something when lo-fi. He’s supposed to be adorned with blood-purple stained glass across his flesh, but here? Here he’s just Alucard.
  • Would I play again? Odds are really good! Maybe I’ll even give that boss-rush a chance! Or maybe I’ll actually keep playing the parts of the game I enjoy! Who knows what the future holds?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Alfred Chicken for the Super Nintendo! There we go! There’s that randomness we all love and crave! Please look forward to it!

Choo Choo!