Tag Archives: metroidvania

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 #412 Metroid: Other M

Let this be Goggle Bob canon: I refuse to believe Metroid: Other M exists.

Some franchises dance all over the place. Before we even hit Nintendo’s third console, Link had already explored Hyrule through overhead exploration and 2-D jumping. Kirby saved Dreamland, and then had time to play mini golf before becoming a pinball wizard. On other systems, Sonic the Hedgehog explored a Game Gear labyrinth as easily as jetting across Mobius. And Mario? Mario had wildly different gameplay just between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2, left alone later games featuring age regression. In short, if Nintendo had announced that Super Mario 64 was going to feature Mario riding a giant bunny as he hopped across the universe, we all just would have understood that that would be Mario now, and it’s no use lamenting the inevitable absence of our beloved fire flowers.

But Samus Aran and the Metroid series? For a long time, that was ol’ reliable. Metroid, Metroid II, and Super Metroid were all very Metroid. Even Kid Icarus couldn’t make that claim! In a time when most games were still discovering what would eventually be their defining traits (Star Fox is still working on that), Samus Aran had it all figured out. Run around an abandoned planet, collect powerups, fight a dragon man, and call it a day around the time that the last metroid is in captivity (or completely obliterated). This was tried and true gameplay, and Super Metroid was such an amazing title, we didn’t need a new one for nearly a decade.

WeeeeeBut when Samus finally returned (again), we were greeted with two new branches on the Metroid family tree. On one side, we had what was essentially Super Metroid gameplay, but now married to a more robust (and chatty) hint system. Metroid Fusion was superficially very much like Super Metroid, but it forsook the deep well of loneliness of the earlier titles for a more story-based adventure. But on the Gamecube, we saw Metroid Prime, a game that, by all rights, should have been absolutely terrible. It’s a FPS! Of a Nintendo property! Samus is all about finesse and exploration, not tanking around boring hallways! We were all convinced Metroid Prime would be awful, but it was quite the opposite. Through some dreaded alchemy, Retro Studios managed to transmute the gameplay and feeling of Metroid into a FPS format with nary a zoomer left on the cutting room floor. The game may not have been perfect, but it was certainly impressive, and it corralled the interest of an avowed FPS-hater like myself as well as those that actually enjoyed the genre. Metroid Prime brought Samus Aran into the 21st Century, and, more importantly, was a hit in every conceivable way.

And the trajectory of the Metroid series seemed to support Prime over any alternatives. Metroid Fusion saw one direct sequel/prequel, and then not another peep out of 2-D Metroid for years. Metroid Prime, meanwhile, saw two sequels across two platforms. And its DS spin-off title was the pack-in demo for the Nintendo DS (just incidentally one of Nintendo’s most successful portable systems). And there was a pinball game for some reason. Straight through to the Metroid Prime Trilogy for Nintendo Wii, it was clear that Metroid Prime was Metroid, and other interpretations of Samus Aran were destined for whatever solar system used to host Zebes.

And then there was Metroid: Other M. Metroid: Other M is not a Metroid Prime game. Metroid: Other M is something… other.

SCREETo be clear, despite the fact that I have implied otherwise on the site, I do not think Metroid: Other M is a terrible game. M:OM has a terrible plot, and arguably everything about its characterization of Samus Aran does little more than subtract from her story/character/any concept of fun (seriously, Nintendo, literally all of your iconic women are diminutive blondes, let Samus be an inexplicably purple-haired seven foot body builder). It’s noble to feature a heroine suffering from PTSD (reminder, this game takes place shortly after Samus took two hours to blow up her home planet), but there’s a difference between “this is clearly weighing on her” and “Ridley turns her into a blubbering child”. And, heck, some of this would probably even work if Samus wasn’t a woman, as then her submission in the face of a father figure or need to be literally rescued from her most consistent and present enemy would maybe be the slightest bit less sexist. And, heck, I’m not even complaining from a “feminism is good” perspective, I just want to see the same kickass warrior woman that learned how to scale walls from little green men that could sing her theme song. That Samus Aran is gone! I want her back!

Crap, that paragraph was supposed to espouse the good in M:OM. Take two…

Metroid: Other M is an interesting experiment in moving Metroid’s normal 2-D action into a 3-D world. Against all accepted standards for such a thing, it completely ignores the analogue stick, and employs the cross-pad exclusively. This should work as poorly as any other 3-D game running on a “lesser” controller (see Head, Metal), but the Bottle Ship is deliberately made with this sort of 2.5-D gameplay in mind. And it works! Samus can certainly run in a circle, but a number of corridors generally bump into the 2nd Dimension anyway, so it feels completely natural to launch into a space jump like in the Metroid adventures of yore. Aiming is fairly automatic, so that clears that spatial hurdle, and, give or take a few spots, the bosses are pretty fun from an action perspective for possibly the first time in the franchise (sorry, Kraid). And the Bottle Ship is just plain entertaining to explore to boot. It’s not too big, not too small, and, while it’s no Zebes, it’s certainly a fun spot to spend a few hours hunting down missiles.

Ultimately, if you can ignore the plot, Metroid: Other M is a fun game.

For the N64.

ChillyWe might be living in a world where Metroid Prime 4 is on the way, but back in August of 2010, it seemed like Nintendo wanted to put the genie back in the bottle. Metroid: Other M notably seems to ignore the more significant character beats of the Prime series (this Samus Aran is not The Hunter that petrified an entire space crustacean race) but also ignores a host of innovations from the series. Metroid Prime proved that Samus could work in a fully 3-D world, but Other M walks that back to a pseudo 3-D. Prime 3 made Wii aiming the most fun it has ever been in a FPS (disagree? Fight me), while M:OM’s missile aiming is inconvenient and cumbersome. Even Samus’s model, thin and lithe like a mecha ballerina, can’t hold a candle to the mobile tank seen in the Prime series. Yes, it might make a little more sense that this Samus can roll into a perfect sphere, but, bad news, that has always been completely bonkers. In short, despite Metroid Prime nailing the Metroid aesthetic and gameplay right out of the gate, Metroid: Other M feels like a stumbling attempt at bringing Metroid into the next generation.

In other words, it feels like a Mario 64 to Super Metroid’s Super Mario World. It’s the Ocarina of Time to A Link to the Past. And none of those games were ever bad… they just might not have been as innovative after a solid decade of advances. Mario Galaxy built off the base of Mario 64. Metroid: Other M built its house on the sand.

Metroid: Other M is not a terrible game. But it is a game that deliberately ignored its own past, and suffered for it. And, through that suffering, it seems it is doomed to be forgotten.

… At least on this site. Let us never speak of it again.

FGC #412 Metroid: Other M

  • System: Nintendo Wii. Despite being released for the most popular Nintendo system in the history of money, this title dropped to bargain basement prices almost immediately. I guess it may have resurfaced on the WiiU, too.
  • Number of players: One day we’ll see a multiplayer Metroid title… That plays like Knuckles Chaotix.
  • Just primeGod Damn this Plot is Terrible: Okay, look, this could have worked. Samus has obvious parental issues (what with her biological parents becoming Ridley chow), and I could totally believe a game where Samus is deliberately limiting herself to impress her father (figure). That could actually be an amazing idea for a Metroidvania style game: you have access to everything immediately, but using the wrong items too early earns you a bad grade and a stern talking to. That could be fun! But that’s not what’s happening here. What is happening in this game is that Samus is being completely subservient to some random dude that just popped up, and, considering he has her walk through an active volcano without protection, it’s hard to imagine this jackass has our heroine’s wellbeing in mind. It is… very hard to justify.
  • Ridley is too Big: Oh, and then we get the nonsense with noted space dragon Ridley scaring Samus until her clothes fall off. How the hell does that make any sense? Why would you design a “power suit” that can teleport into nothingness the moment the exact person that requires protection is frightened? And why is Samus afraid at all, considering she has personally killed Ridley 6,416 times? Is it because she found out he was a Pokémon? That was rather unexpected.
  • And what about those parts of the game where you have to stand perfectly still, and look at some random thing, and make sure the game knows you’re looking at that random thing, or else you can’t advance or do anything? Screw those.
  • Favorite Powerup: The screw attack is more fun here than in the Prime franchise. M:OM gets some things right.
  • Did you know? There is a bug in Metroid: Other M that will permanently lock a door in Sector 3, and thus forever prevent the player from completing the game. This isn’t the worst thing in the world that could happen.
  • Would I play again: Play what? What game were we talking about?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bonk’s Revenge! And that’s kicking off a special theme week! What’s the theme week? Guess you’ll find out! Please look forward to it!

ROAR

FGC #339 Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

Here comes a special boyCastlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is likely the most ill-advised videogame in gaming.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was not made for sequels

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (no additional verbage) was a Playstation 3/Xbox 360 game meant to revitalize the Castlevania franchise. Koji Igarashi held the reins of the Castlevania universe for years, and, in that time, he produced exactly one (1) decent console Castlevania. Granted, it was one of the best games of all time, but every time Iga hit the consoles again, we wound up with something… less than stellar. The PS2 outings were rote and boring, and the Wii saw a Castlevania fighting game that was maybe the most bonkers bit of plotting in an already supremely bonkers franchise (Super Mega Death traveled through time so Maria could be jealous of Sypha’s rack). None of these games presented any sort of justification for Castlevania to exist on the “next gen” consoles, and, since portables have long been considered the ghetto of gaming, Konami was understandably concerned about its Castlevania franchise. If one of your top franchises was simply languishing in the portable market, how could you ever marry said franchise to successful slot machines?

Lords of Shadow was basically a gritty reboot for an almost accidentally gritty series. You’ve got a Belmont hero, but now he’s working for a very real and very present Christian church. You’ve got your old standbys like the werewolf, succubus, and Grim Reaper, but now they all have tragic backstories with (fantasy) logical origins (if you ascend to Heaven as an immaculate being, obviously your body stays behind and becomes a vampire slut). The environs are more Lord of the Rings (popular at the time), combat is more God of War (also popular at the time), and everything is a lot more bloody (always popular). Lords of Shadow does a lot to simultaneously distinguish itself as a fresh, new look at Castlevania and be, incidentally, an experience that is fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the HD action game flock (of 2010 or so).

ScaryBut LoS did one remarkable thing: spoilers, but you were Dracula the whole time! Gasp! You were playing through the secret origins of this brand new Dracula, and now you’re the Lord of Darkness himself! And the final boss is Satan. Yes, that Satan! Dracula is kind of a good guy! Or something!

And the only problem is that that’s a neat trick, but you can only do it once.

The whole “you were the bad guy all along” thing is a great twist, but it doesn’t really lend itself to a franchise. It can work in many pieces of media, but for a videogame, you inhabit the protagonist, so the fresh new nasty boy either has to be the final boss of the next adventure (because killing off the previous protagonist in any lesser manner would be an insult to the first game), or said “villain” has to be supremely misunderstood. In fact, it seems like the Lords of Shadow staff realized this immediately, and tacked on a postlude that featured New Dracula awakening in modern times. Cool! He’ll be “misunderstood”, but Dracula in modern times is a fresh new direction for the Castlevania franchise! Maybe a sequel could work!

The sequel absolutely doesn’t work

Let's reflect on thisOkay, maybe the real sequel does actually work, but Castlevania: Chain of Memories absolutely does not.

So, first, in order for this whole game to work, we have to retcon in Gabrielle Belmont, star of Lords of Shadow, and his brand spanking new son who never got mentioned before this very moment. Okay, Gabrielle was a prophesized warrior that was incidentally being controlled by Patrick Stewart, so, sure, maybe the family bought into not telling Gabrielle “for his own good”, and, since the player exists behind Gabe’s eyes, we just weren’t privy to that information. Fine. But this also means the story has to start a maximum of twenty years (good hero’ing age) after Gabrielle became Dracula, and… is that going to work? Gabby kind of accidentally became Dracula, so is he going to settle into the whole “malevolent dictator” thing that quickly? And Lords of Shadow started in 1000 AD or so, so how does humanity even get to the modern era teased during the LoS finale if Dracula has been awake and active for the last millennium? So many questions!

But, okay, let’s move past that. Let’s just say that Dracula is simultaneously very quick to come into his powers, but very slow to actually do anything with his powers. And, hey, that’s basically the original canon, right? Oh, wait, no, there’s always a Belmont slapping down that Dracula before he can do anything. But we’ve got Belmonts here, though, right? Like, that’s the whole point of the “Gabrielle’s son” conceit, right? Sure, we’ve got (new, LoS) Trevor Belmont here, husband of Sypha, and he’s going to… Wait. Wasn’t the whole point of LoS that a Belmont became corrupted to become Dracula, so we’re not so different, you and I, and all that riot? So if we now have a whole crop of Belmonts… what was the point of this new franchise again? Castlevania, but with slightly larger trolls? I thought this was supposed to be new? This franchise really isn’t built for soldering on pieces of an already convoluted franchise. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is a real live person wearing a cartoon princess dress, and that’s not a good look.

Same Trick, Two Games

ALUCARDIn Lords of Shadow, Gabrielle Belmont is eventually revealed to be Dracula.

In Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, Trevor Belmont is eventually revealed to be Alucard.

There. Just saved you all twenty hours of “mystery”.

“Linear” is not a dirty word

Presumably in order to build tension for that all-important Alucard reveal, Mirror of Fate is played in a sort of reverse chronology. First you play as Simon Belmont, who is being helped by a mysterious white-haired ally. Then you play as said ally, Alucard, who is fighting Dracula, but he doesn’t quite remember why. And then, finally, you play as Trevor from twenty years earlier, who is eventually defeated by Dracula in order to be revived as Alucard. It’s all very clever and cute and mysterious assuming you didn’t guess that exact twist from the first trailer. And even if you managed to go into the game fresh, you’d have to have the intelligence of a fleaman to miss all the anvilicious clues being dropped every ten seconds. And, oh yeah, if you played the first game, you’d be expecting that exact twist, and why the hell would you be interested in such a tiresome sequel if you didn’t play the first game?

It's not really a spriteAnd, frankly, it is heartbreaking that the plot seems to be stuck with this en media res nonsense, as there are a good number of characters and events along the way that really benefit from linear understanding. There is very little benefit to a new player being confused by Simon’s “mysterious ally”, but there is emotional heft to be gleamed from Simon being assisted by his cursed ancestor. The Daemon (ugh) Lord was mutilated by Trevor, and then revived by arcane science to return and menace Alucard… but when you first encounter the mechanized monster during Alucard’s story, he’s just another unrecognizable, barely threatening boss. And it sure would be nice if we weren’t saddled with yet another immortal protagonist that is suffering from amnesia just as long as the plot demands!

A linear Mirror of Fate wouldn’t have solved all of the story’s problems, but it would have made a number of the generational plot beats wildly more effective. But, no, I guess it wouldn’t be a Lords of Shadow game if the gameplay didn’t end in a shocking (not shocking) revelation.

It’s a metroidvania without the exploration

Enough about this silly plot! How’s the gameplay?

Not great, Goggle Bob.

ZZZZAAAPLords of Shadow was an attempt to turn Castlevania into a new God of War-like franchise. And it was mostly successful! But for the portable version, the decision was made to return to the metroidvania-like format of the last decade’s worth of portable Castlevania titles. This was a clever move, and an obvious way to bring lapsed Castlevania fans back into the fold. Don’t worry, old fans, this franchise is still for you! Look, here’s a platinum-haired dhampir exploring a big ol’ castle just for you.

Except… everyone involved kind of forgot how a metroidvania game works.

First of all, this adventure was doomed from the start, as the three different characters in three different stories (and 2.5 different time periods) kind of preclude the traditional “one big castle/planet” of most metroidvanias. But it could still work! Order of Ecclesia and Portrait of Ruin both had “level” like areas, so it’s not completely alien to the genre. Oh! And the “generations” thing could lead to a lot of different, fun puzzles! Break a gateway in the past to allow for entry in the future! Drain the moat as Trevor so Simon doesn’t have to take a dip! It could be a thing of beauty!

But, no, it was not to be. Mirror of Fate put an emphasis on two things: plot and battles. We’ve already covered the plot ad nauseam, but be aware that no “time travel” shenanigans are allowed when we’re telling a very serious story about seriously inept Belmonts (you just have to kill one vampire! One!). And that leaves us with the combat, which is…. kind of sad.

Moving right alongThere’s a reason that the greatest heroes of 2-D just jump. There’s a reason previous Belmonts were limited to a whip and a few subweapons. There’s a reason that even the mightiest of blue bombers are limited to a life of pew pewing. 2-D combat can only be so interesting. When you have a limited field of movement, you have a limited set of abilities, and whip/dodge/jump only gets you so far. In many Castlevania games, this is masked by a great wealth of monsters from across time and space. In this Castlevania game… not so much. Lords of Shadow seems to put a premium on combat with recurring enemies in tight corridors, but, give or take a few interesting boss battles, it feels fairly flat. And when you hang a game on something that feels perfunctory, the entire game feels kind of boring.

And, when you get down to it, that’s the problem with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate. Everything about it winds up being tedious and predictable. And hanging a flagship franchise on a game that is that boring is… ill-advised.

FGC #339 Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

  • System: Nintendo 3DS initially, and then an HD version was released to follow Lords of Shadow 2. This is basically the same trajectory as a certain Kingdom Hearts game, which is never a good sign.
  • Number of Players: Technically four playable characters if you include the opening tutorial, but only one player at a time.
  • Favorite Monster: The Executioner is a wonderful bit of Mirror of Fate storytelling.

    Grrrr

    He’s not just a scary giant, he’s a scary giant with brain problems. Be sad for the hulking creature chopping your protagonist in twain.

  • Absolutely Favorite Part: So this game has fall damage. That’s terrible for a metroidvania. But! The fall damage scales to the height you’ve fallen, so a falling just a little over a body’s height will cause little tiny damage. This pairs wonderfully with any given character’s blood-curdling scream o’ death, which triggers no matter how the protagonist dies. This all adds up to an unstoppable shriek of agony every time your health is low and you miss the last step on a staircase… and I can get behind that.
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Trevor is now the first son of Dracula and the new Alucard. Simon is a deadly barbarian that is the first Belmont to defeat Dracula (with a little help). Sypha… is an obedient and immediately dead housewife. Woo.
  • Did you know? It seriously bothers me that Trevor starts with a double jump, but Alucard, who is Trevor, has to earn the skill. It kinda bothers me how much this simple bit of gameplay bothers me.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely not. Not ever. Bah! You make-a me so mad!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Tekken 3 for the Playstation! Let’s see who can become the King of the Iron Fist after most of the cast retires! Please look forward to it!

Youch

FGC #328 Metroid: Samus Returns

Samus is baaaaaackIt seems hard to believe, but, after years of Metroid 2 being the black sheep of the Metroid family (or at least its most ignored entry), we now have three different perfectly valid Metroid 2 experiences readily available. The original Metroid 2 is right there on the 3DS Gameboy Virtual Console, AM2R is an amazing fan remake available in the secret corners of the internet, and now we have the official Nintendo reimagining, complete with amiibos and an honest-to-God advertising campaign (admit it: it’s hard to remember if Federation Force actually happened). Metroid 2 is king of the Metroid Hill, and it’s great to see there’s a Metroid Hill in the Nintendo Kingdom at all.

Of course, it’s not so great that Metroid: Samus Returns is the Metroid 2 I’m least likely to ever play again.

That sounds a might pessimistic, so let’s first cover the good stuff. First and foremost, somebody at Nintendo learned from the Metroid: Other M debacle, and Samus Aran is now delightfully mute. Granted, there’s something unnerving about the fact that the only way Nintendo seems to be able to maintain their bad ass bounty hunter’s bad ass status is through keeping her from opening her mouth for an entire adventure… but still! Samus is cool, calm, and collected, and, at no point does she worry about “the baby” or space dragons that may or may not have eaten her parents. That’s what we like to see! And, while she doesn’t talk, she does take a few moments to have “cool” moments in cutscenes (like casually blasting a defeated foe post battle), so what little personality that seeps through is Adam-free and Aran-appropriate. Oh, and this game has the Screw Attack! That’s a great little item. Love that thing.

….

And now for the bad parts.

I think it all boils down to one thing: this video game is too video game-y.

OMEGA!Yes, this is an odd complaint, but it’s valid for this interpretation of SR388. Metroid 2 was a game about a made-up heroine fighting random space monsters until there were no space monsters left. It’s a videogame, and it’s not like someone put serious thought into the ecology of the planet that houses frightening space bugs living among infinitely spawning flying worms. But… that seems reductive. Despite the small screen, despite the complete lack of color, and despite the music that was clearly composed by randomly spitting on a Casio from a distance of at least eleven feet, there is a lot of care and consideration in the original Metroid 2. The “Metroid life cycle” is ridiculous (jellyfish -> bug -> bug with tusks -> fat dragon -> tyrannosaurus), but it seems… possible. Metroids are a weird and wondrous species, and, sure, some of them can breathe fire, but it does make a certain amount of sense that they wouldn’t be amoeba-looking “larvas” for their entire life cycle. Butterflies don’t look that much like caterpillars, after all. Similarly, the other creatures of SR388 seem like actual fauna that might have to live side by side with space vampires. Metroids are given a wide berth, and, aside from the occasional errant robot, if it moves on SR388, it’s staying clear of those apex predators. In fact, this is epitomized during the final area of Metroid 2. The Queen Metroid’s lair is completely devoid of non-metroid life, and this leads to entire screens of Samus exploring empty corridors.

Unfortunately, the staff of Metroid: Samus Returns likely found those vacant hallways boring, because that kind of environmental storytelling is absent from this iteration of the Queen’s Lair. Now that area is choked with rampaging robots, angry bats, kamikaze bugs, and murderous hedgehogs. This is just like the area before, which is crowded with rampaging robots, angry bats, kamikaze bugs, and murderous hedgehogs. And the caverns before that also include rampaging robots, angry…. You get the idea. Yes, as you progress in the game, you gain new and exciting ways to battle these monsters, and the different areas generally have different layouts and configurations so it doesn’t all become rote after Area 3, but… It gets exhausting. Samus’s armor has been reduced to Fusion levels of softness, and, at all times, you have to be on guard, else you’ll lose an entire energy tank to an errant angry bat. So you’re always defending yourself, always in rooms filled with rapidly respawning opponents, and always… drained. There is no rest for Samus, because this is a videogame, and if you’re not doing videogame things at all times, what’s the point?

Hey little duderAnd if you think this is an exaggeration, consider that the larval metroids appear in this adventure just as they did in Metroid 2, Super Metroid, and almost every other metroid game. The difference here, though, is that when you clear a room of metroids, and return to what should now be an empty room, there are now all new monsters skulking about for your endless fighting pleasure. Yes, this game can’t even let Samus rest for three hallways.

This need for a constant stream of encroaching encounters is obviously to showcase the new combat features of this Metroid adventure, but… they’re not that great, either. Don’t get me wrong, the new multi-directional aiming is a godsend, and the whole “melee counter” system is fun and exciting when you smack that X button right in time, but it’s more… videogame problems. The average metroid boss battle (which happens somewhere around forty times over the course of the game) involves a lot of hopeful chucking of missiles at a weak point that may or may not be guarded by random electrical discharges at the moment. But you can counter at just the right time, and blast off half a metroid’s health in one quick quasi-QTE. Obviously, the fastest way to clear SR388 of its indigenous life forms is to exploit these counter moves. But it quickly becomes clear that if you miss an early pass at your counter opportunity, it’s often faster to just suicide poor Samus (only takes like three hits anyway…), restart the battle, and save yourself ten minutes of clumsy missile aiming in favor of thirty seconds of mastering the counter timing. This is generally just convenient with the alpha metroids, but it’s practically essential by the time you get to the “invincible for 90% of the match” gamma metroids. And, given the vast time difference between countering vs. not countering, victory over I call him Hoagieany given boss feels less like “mastering” the encounter, and more like “Oh, I finally hit X when I needed to.” It’s not about skill, it’s about following the pattern like an obedient puppy. And the last thing Samus Aran should be is obedient.

And for further evidence, please find me someone that enjoyed that Digby the Drillanaut boss fight. That was the most “this is a pattern, follow it” boss I’ve seen since the NES days.

Now, I want to make something clear: none of this makes Metroid: Samus Returns a bad game. I enjoyed my time with the game, and my hand may have cramped into a Kid Icarus claw from playing the game nigh-continuously since its release. I did not rest until the last Metroid was in captivity, and the game was good enough to hold my interest through repeated demoralizing game overs. But am I going to rush back and play it again? No. Going to fish out every last item because they stuck friggen plasma beam doors randomly in the first area? Nope. Hard mode? Absolutely not. Even the old standard of “it’s a Metroid game, now do it faster” doesn’t seem at all appealing. Sure, I could do this quicker, but it would be because I’d be able to best the various bosses faster… assuming my counter timing skills stay consistent. If not, I’ll be spending another hour taking down four damn omega metroids, and I really don’t want to do that ever again. Heck, I’m not even sure I want to see another one of those stupid snail monsters again. How can the most elite bounty hunter in the universe be thwarted by a mollusk!?

Grab 'emSo here’s the state of 2017: we have Metroid 2, which is the deeply flawed story of a bounty hunter eliminating space monsters on their home planet. We have AM2R, which is a remix of that story with modern design conventions and a loving attention to detail. And we have Metroid: Samus Returns, which is a videogame.

… I’m pretty sure I have other videogames to play.

FGC #328 Metroid: Samus Returns

NOTE: Spoilers may appear in this area…