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FGC #515 Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

BLOOD!Let’s talk about that thing that all the hep cats know how to do: act like you know what’s up.

Today’s game is Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. C:RoB is notable for being the Castlevania game that was featured as part of the intro to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and, arguably as a direct result, being one of the most important Castlevania games in the franchise. Castlevania: RoB was the last of the “old school”, action-based Castlevania titles before Symphony took the franchise in the general direction of metroidvania for decades. It’s also the game that, due to laziness and/or homages, provided roughly 70% of the sprites that would be reused ad nauseam for the following 60,000 games. I mean, there’s a good skeleton of spritework here, but if you’re reusing stuff from 1993, it’s going to get a little brittle. Ha ha ha. Bye bye. Whether it was intentional or not, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood wound up defining Castlevania for multiple hardware generations. You’d be hard pressed to find a single sequel that had more of a lasting impact on its parent franchise.

So it’s kind of a bummer Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was impossible for American audiences to play for about fifteen years.

WeeeeActually, let’s go ahead and aim for the highest end of the bummer scale: Castlevania: Rondo of Blood being tied to the Japanese exclusive PC Engine CD was a mega bummer. Castlevania: RoB is a pleasure to play, and it is a game that revels in the best of its NES ancestors while employing a controller with a very Famicom-esque 4-button setup. Two years after the experimentation of Simon Belmont’s 8-way whip and myriad of buttons in Super Castlevania, this is the franchise returning to its roots with jump, attack, and (generally) familiar sub weapons activated by holding up. The select button activates the new item crash ability, but, aside from that bit of heavy heart consumption, this is basic Belmonting back in action. And Castlevania is anxious to welcome its hero back with open (skeleton) arms, as all of the stages are pure Castlevania goodness built exactly for a man that jumps rigidly and whips even… uh… rigider. In truth, Richter Belmont is slightly more nimble than his less acrobatic ancestors, and Castlevania has learned how to adapt. He might not yet have a slide or rising uppercut, but he does have a backflip, and many a monster now has a pattern that is perfectly dodge-able with this unique version of the double jump. In short, like Trevor and Simon before him, Richter is facing challenges that are perfectly calibrated to his exact moveset. Unlike many (many, many, many) action platformers of the time, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was made with precision and care.

But there’s more to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood in the “care” department. Case in point: Richter, as part of the animated introductory sequence, looking over this old map left to him by his ancestors:

Unfurled!

I know that map! That looks like the map from Castlevania 1! Right there in the intro! This game knows Castlevania! That game I played!

And there are innumerable other overt Castlevania references throughout the game. The first level takes place in a burning town that is straight out of Castlevania 2. Richter and Maria become partners with a handshake that evokes the partners of yore. Shaft summons a legion of monsters that match the bosses of Castlevania 1. A ferryman promises to take you somewhere good, and a certain familiar mask breaks apart to reveal your opponent. Over and over, Castlevania: RoB practically shouts adulations about its exalted ancestors, and, if you’re on the same page, you’ll be shouting with glee in unison. Did you see that main hall with all the zombies? Leading to the giant bat’s decomposing arena? That’s some good Castlevaniaing right there!

But… to what end? Does Castlevania: Rondo of Blood need all these references to past titles?

Ol' FrankConsider Rondo of Blood’s place in the Castlevania canon at its release. It was, effectively, the fourth Castlevania game. There were the portable adventures, but, at the time, the Gameboy was considered “less than” its console big brothers, and Christopher Belmont was nary worth a second glance. Super Castlevania was an amazing game, but it was a “retelling” of Simon’s journey, and nearly all of its innovations were dropped for Rondo (and other future titles). And Haunted Castle? The arcade game? Let’s go ahead and label that as mythical as Akumajou Dracula X68000. So, yes, while it might not be a technically accurate way of labeling the game, Rondo of Blood is, at least in spirit, the fourth Castlevania title. Simon Belmont’s initial quest, Simon Belmont’s horrible night to have a curse, Trevor Belmont’s big ol’ vampire party, and now Richter Belmont’s time to shine. It’s a pretty straight line across the franchise there, and blatantly calling attention to your forbearers doesn’t seem all that essential at a time when Mario or Link would practically toss their entire canon for their latest game (Mario is…. let’s say he’s a baby this time, and he was raised by dinosaurs). Seven years is all that separated Castlevania 1 and this quasi Castlevania 4 (maybe 5? Maybe… 9?), so why revel in the past when the past was barely even passed?

Well, if pressed, let’s blame this gal:

Let's shake on it

Maria is a departure for the Castlevania franchise. History may not have always been Belmonts fighting Dracula, but this is certainly the first time the Prince of Darkness had to deal with a girl hurling doves at his face. Maria is supposedly twelve but acts like she’s five, wears a pink, frilly dress, and occasionally summons a kitten to fight her battles. For a franchise that often touts itself as “gothic horror”, Maria is an aberration like no other. Sypha was a serious magician that deliberately hid her gender to succeed in the male-dominated field of vampire-slaying, Maria is going to sing off-key at an army of golems on her way to “the bad man”. Graphically or tonally, Maria is something the Castlevania franchise has never seen before.

This is hotBut even beyond her heavy dosage of shocking pink, Maria is a whole new animal for the Castlevania franchise in a different way. Both Maria’s offenses and her acrobatics completely alter the flow of RoB. There had been more nimble characters in Castlevania before, but Grant never had the ability to rapid-fire a boss into submission, and Alucard’s bat-like maneuvering cost more hearts than it ever gained. Give or take the greater fragility of youth (Richter has learned how to take a hit over the years), Maria is better than Richter in every way that matters. She can mass-murder medusas en masse, and then double jump up a staircase to find a bonus shortcut. There are entire stages that can be outright skipped with her absurd mobility while Richter is stuck fighting that damned naked werewolf yet again. It’s easy to say Maria “breaks the game”, adding a sort of “easy mode” to a franchise that previously was celebrated for its technical difficulty.

But that’s cool, because Rondo of Blood earned this easy mode.

In some lesser version of Rondo of Blood, Maria would likely come off as some manner of Zero in Mega Man X4 situation: this game was made for Maria Renard, and Richter is only there because the director decided to throw the “old fans” a bone (“I guess it is his franchise… I guess…”). But, no, it is clear from every carefully placed block, pit, and enemy that this is a game made for a Belmont. This is a Castlevania adventure like any other, and a malicious mummy is no mere Family Guy-esque shallow “reference”, it is a pact with the player that this is the real deal. Yes, there’s a little girl over there that can completely tear Shaft a new one, but she’s just an option, not the star. Richter is the hero. Richter is the guy that can backflip away from a fireball, and he’s the hunter that is going to be responsible for Death’s dental bills.

SURPRISE!Castlevania: Rondo of Blood knows what’s up, and uses that knowledge to slide in a few perversions to the Castlevania formula. This is a game that knows its past and present, and, as a result, defined the franchise for the future. C: RoB is a game that was created with perfect precision.

… And if you want to see a version of Rondo of Blood that completely lacked that meticulousness…

It's the Dracula X!

Well, the Super Nintendo “version” is right there. And let us never speak of that square ever again.

FGC #515 Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

  • System: I understand there was once some manner of system called a PC Engine CD? Sounds… unholy. But this is available as part of the PSP Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (though forbidden on the Vita TV), on the Playstation 4 Castlevania compilation (but not the other Castlevania compilation), the Nintendo Wii when that storefront was available, and now on the Turbo-Grafix 16 Mini. Play it on the mini. It has the controller this was always meant for.
  • Number of players: Richter or Maria, you can still only do it alone.
  • WeeeeeeePort-o-Call: The PSP remake, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, certainly brings the game into the 21st Century, but it seems to unnecessarily suck all the candy-colored joy out of the game. I can understand why this was done (Castlevania is a very serious franchise for very serious people that eat meat out of walls), but it squashes a healthy amount of the original’s charm. Or, put another way, Maria is wearing pants now. Just let the girl be her anachronistic self!
  • What’s that sound? The original has some seriously weird sound effects. Like, “sound of a buffalo farting out pre-digested wheatgrass” weird sound effects. They happen constantly. I am loving it.
  • Favorite Boss: Undead Shaft is a hoot. Please keep summoning bosses I already defeated! I love being reminded of earlier areas by being assaulted by rotting dragon flesh. … Wait, does this mean Rondo contains references to its own, immediate past? Hm.
  • BOOMDid you know? Koji Igarashi has stated in interviews that Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Castlevania 3 are his two favorite Castlevania games. Well duh.
  • Would I play again: In a skeleton’s heartbeat. Wait… Uh… Can I just say yes? This is one of the best Castlevania games out there, and it justifies the TG-16 Mini all on its own. Bedrock of the Castlevania franchise, and certainly worth another play.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Celeste! It’s about the climb! Please look forward to it!

It's a Dril thing

FGC #512 Crystal Castles

Draw that mazeCrystal Castles is a 1983 arcade title that invented videogames. Doesn’t that seem important? Doesn’t that seem like a reason Crystal Castles should be remembered as more than a Wikipedia article titled “Crystal Castles (video game)”? Crystal Castles defined gaming, and you’ve got to sort through a disambiguation page to even find it? Bah!

Don’t believe me? Here’s a partial list of how Crystal Castles was a might more important than some yellow hockey puck that clearly had a better publicist.

There are 37 levels, and that’s it!

What is even happeningRemember playing Donkey Kong? Pac-Man? Space Invaders? Remember beating those games? Yes? Liar! You may have dropped DK from the highest tower, or witnessed the birth of Pac Jr. in Ms. Pac-Man, but you can’t beat those early arcade hits. Why? Because they literally never end. They’re programmed to loop forever and ever. This was a deliberate move, as this was back in the day that the longer a game went on, the more quarters it could suck from unsuspecting pockets. Who would ever want to play a videogame they had already finished?

Well, the designers for Crystal Castles decided that maybe a videogame should, ya know, end. Crystal Castles has a level structure that should be very familiar to modern audiences: there are nine “worlds”, and each “world” contains four “stages”. Difficulty progresses as you climb higher in the worlds, and every fourth stage features a sort of quasi-boss when Berthilda the Witch stalks the land.

And if that sounds like the exact structure of Super Mario Bros, congratulations, you understand why Bentley Bear should be just as popular as Mario. … Okay, that might be a stretch, but Berthilda should at least be allowed to come to Bowser’s kart races.

There’s an actual ending!

This is the endIf there are a limited number of stages, there has to be a finale, right? Something to find at the end of the rainbow to confirm you’re worthy of that pot of gold? Well, after clearing 36 stages, there’s the END level, a simple stage that seems to be an outright reward for making it to the furthest possible point in Bentley Bear’s world. Clear this (surprisingly) easy denouement and you’ll be rewarded with a special message broadcast directly from the black void of the arcade cabinet.

I give up : you win
You must be a video whiz

Oh man. I’m a video whiz? Screw modern day achievements and trophies, I just want to be a video whiz! It’s not enough that the other guys at the arcade know I’m on the high score table, now the fourth wall is broken, and Crystal Castles itself knows that I’m the goddamn best there is. This simple message makes it all worth it!

There are secrets to find!

Enjoy your eggsBut if the game ends with the declaration that the player is a whiz, then why would said player ever play the game again? Points? Bragging Rights? No, of course not, the greatest design secret is secrets. There are secrets to find in Crystal Castles, and you have no way of knowing how many there are. Some are straightforward, like jumping in secret locations to find extra lives or a warp between stages. And those might be ideal for speed runners and alike, but they’re not on the same level as secrets that are completely meaningless. And bonus points if the secrets are meaningless and sound like playground rumors. Jump in one particular spot in the first level a hundred times (!), and you’ll see the words ATARI appear over and over in the following stage. Mysterious letters will appear if you jump in a precise location on level 5-4. Why would Franz X. Lanzinger, creator of Crystal Castles, flash the initials FXL across the screen? It’s a secret to everybody. But you’re going to keep playing Crystal Castles to discover all those secrets! Hey, is that castle shaped like the initials at the top of the high score table? Is there anything else like that? Maybe you should try jumping around that nondescript corner over there. You might find something cool!

There are Unique Monsters (with unique weaknesses)!

The monsters!But then again, assuming you’re going to see the finale of Crystal Castles at all is a bit of a stretch. Crystal Castles takes a lot of practice, as, like many modern games, you need to “learn” the game before you can make any headway. Sure, you might be able to conquer a level or two with your first few quarters, but you’re going to hit a brick wall about as soon as the later stages ramp up the difficulty. You might not have to face the Bed of Chaos, but attempting to round up all the gems (yes, Bentley Bear collects gems, not edible dots like his gluttonous contemporaries) quickly becomes perilous when nefarious crystal balls are rolling around at Mach speed. This world gets more and more dangerous as the castles grow in complexity, so seeing one of gaming’s first endings is unlikely for a novice player.

But Bentley Bear is not without options for defending himself. Bentley doesn’t have a punch, fireballs, or some catch-all “power pellet”, but every one of his opponents has a weakness, and knowing what’s super effective is what is going to take you to the top of the league. Evil Trees are vile pursuers, but they will pause if they’re leapt over (which, yeah, if I was a mobile tree, I’d be stunned by someone vaulting over my branches). The Gem Eaters are monstrous beasts that devour your beloved gems, but they can be taken off the board entirely if Bentley tackles them while they’re eating. And even Berthilda the Witch, Bentley’s greatest rival (… that mostly just putters around in a square and doesn’t bother anybody but please don’t think too hard about that), is weak to Bentley if he grabs a magical hat, thus proving the dichotomy of prey becoming predator when a proper weapon changes hands. Bentley is going to get every last gem, and he’s going to do it because he lives in a world where every rock can meet some paper.

There’s inherent Tension!

THE BEES!But not all of Bentley’s obstacles are surmountable. Bentley is a bear, so, of course, his ultimate rival is a swarm of bees. Apparently the bees have been pursuing Bentley his entire life(citation needed), and they are always a step or two behind him. Thus, if Bentley spends more than approximately twenty seconds in any one place, the swarm will descend upon him, and it’s bye bye bear boy. What can Bentley do? He doesn’t have many options other than to collect all of the gems as quickly as possible, and move on to the next wing of the castle as soon as that familiar buzzing starts. Was Crystal Castles the inspiration for later titles that feature continually hunting monsters like Resident Evil 3 or Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within? We have no way of knowing, but I am currently accepting any and all art of Bentley Bear hanging out with Jill Valentine. I think they would be friends.

There’s this Dancing Skeleton!

Dance, my pretty

Skeletons are as videogames as health-restoring apple pie. It is good Crystal Castles identified this fact before Simon Belmont started his eternal quest of skele-cide.

But does Crystal Castles get remembered for anything?

The short answer is no. Crystal Castles was an Atari game, and, much like many of the pre-Mario mascots out there, Bentley was forgotten by the time the likes of Mega Man and Vic Viper flew into town. Like Pitfall Harry or that duck from Adventure, Bentley defined gaming for the future, but was completely forsaken for more marketable heroes. Now he’s doomed to fill out the background of parties and let other stars shine in the foreground.

Also dance

Bless you, Crystal Castles, and thank you for establishing the standards of gaming.

FGC #512 Crystal Castles

  • System: All sorts of ancient systems, like various Ataris, BBC Micro, and the Apple II, but then nothing else for a long time. It often pops up on modern Atari compilations, though, so the Atari 2600 version is on the Playstation 4 with its arcade counterpart, and the 2600 version is available on the Evercade.
  • Number of players: Two, but alternating. You have to share this bear.
  • So pleasantWhich Version: The home, Atari version of Crystal Castles isn’t as faithful as Dig Dug. The good news is that all the nuance of the arcade version is there (with interesting mazes and unique enemies and all that), but there is a dearth of gems about the titular castles, and that changes the whole game. The arcade version basically asks you to walk everywhere to obtain every gem, whereas the Atari version is more about aiming for those distinct gems that are randomly scattered about. It leads to a lot more precise steering of your favorite bear, and feels extremely separate from the OG version. That said, it’s still a fun time, so give it a shot.
  • So is Bentley Bear the most important bear in all of gaming? No. That would be Kuma from Tekken, but thank you for asking. Freddy Fazbear would be right up there if he were an actual bear.
  • One Dirty Trick: In the later levels, Bentley’s favorite powerup, the wizard’s hat, bounces all over the stage. Now, I’m not going to claim that Nintendo stole this concept for the eventual, similarly invincibility-inducing Starman, but Bentley’s headwear does bounce around in a pretty familiar manner.
  • Further Monsters: The warp zone areas seem to be mostly populated by ghost creatures. This is some fun narrative framing for “you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be” when cutting across the castle’s shortcuts. Environmental storytelling!
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I really thought this was Mr. Do. When Random ROB chose Mr. Do some time back, I legitimately thought to myself “Oh, that arcade game with the trackball and the castles.” I was mistaken. Sorry, pre-Nintendo mascot creatures.
  • Did you know? The band Crystal Castles nabbed their name from a line from the old She-Ra cartoon, so they have absolutely nothing to do with this videogame. Forget I brought it up.
  • Would I play again: This game is history! Ancient history! And I’m no time traveler, so I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this Age of Atari any time soon.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Willow for the Nintendo Entertainment System! You are drunk, ROB, and when you are drunk, you forget that I am in charge! So let’s go steal a baby! Please look forward to it!

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 #468 Shovel Knight

For shovelry!Just the other day, my father walked into my kitchen, and, because I had carelessly left a fresh delivery on my kitchen counter, my dad asked what exactly he was looking at.

“What’s Shovel Knight from?”
“He’s Shovel Knight. From… Shovel Knight.”
“Oh. So is that a movie? Comic book? Comic book movie?”
“Nope, it’s a videogame.”
“Oh. Does he… uh… dig?”

Yes dad, Shovel Knight does dig. And he bounces and battles dragons and saves the love of his life and brings hope to all the people of his homey little hamlet. And he’s been around for six years, and he’s rocketed from nonexistence to possibly the most adaptable character in the last few years of gaming. And, yes, he’s a little golden amiibo that is sitting on my kitchen counter.

And considering that all happened thanks to fan support, focused marketing, and damn good gameplay, it’s hard to believe Shovel Knight’s giant blue helmet isn’t the face of gaming of the last decade.

Now, it’s an easy thing to imagine Shovel Knight sprang into existence in the Spring of 2013 when the official Shovel Knight Kickstarter kicked into high gear. Or, perhaps, you would like to attribute his creation to when Nick Wozniak and his team first pioneered the concept over a lunch “that got too serious”. But to truly understand the origins of Shovel Knight, you have to go back to the late 90’s or so. Back at the turn of the 21st Century, 2-D platforming rapidly went from “is videogames” to “oh God everything that is 2-D is trash, strike it from thine sight”. For reasons that are still mysterious to even our most learned historians (though there is a hypothesis that Gamepro may have been involved), this kind of thinking persisted through many years, causing many a beloved franchise to embrace 3-D or die. Mario 64 was a revelation, Mega Man X7… less so. But the belief that a game could not be 2-D seemed to Shinyhold fast for a decade, and the only place you could find such an experience would be in the Gameboy ghetto of game development. It’s telling that one of the most popular games of 1997 had to retreat to the portable space, while its 3-D rival of the year managed to dominate the console industry for years to come. The message to game producers was clear: you weren’t going to get anywhere with 2-D. And doubly so if you were dropping cutting edge graphics for a “retro” experience. That kind of nonsense best be relegated to some manner of easter egg. No one would every buy a retro platformer.

So it makes perfect sense that Shovel Knight’s initial fundraising goal of $75,000 was quickly surpassed, and Yacht Club collected over four times as much funding ($311,502) in less than a month’s time. Shovel Knight’s audience was starved for Shovel Knight-esque content, and, while the yolk of 3-D oppression had been shaken in the years leading to 2013, it was still a time when the prospect of something “like old Capcom games” was going to appeal to a very dedicated subset of nerds. This meant that the whole of Shovel Knight’s “bonus” content was funded before ol’ SK officially touched his first trowel, so a game crammed with amazing content was forthcoming. 14,749 people were ready for some amazing retro action that would be shared with WiiU, 3DS and PC players shortly.

And, from a gameplay perspective, Shovel Knight did not disappoint. Shovel Knight is an excellent platformer that borrows liberally from the entire NES library, but combines all those pieces to be its own exceptional Voltron. Shovel Knight’s downward stab was apparently inspired by Link, but his greatest hopping challenges seem to evoke Ducktales more than anything. And the “arc” of the quest is much more akin to Mega Man, what with clearly defined “gimmick” bosses (Propeller Knight and Gyro Man were separated at birth) and stages that rely wonderfully on their masters’ theming. And maybe that world map is supposed to suggest Super Mario Bros. 3. Or those upgrades are supposed to remind us of Samus Aran’s evolving arsenal. And there were a few items that inched closer to modern sensibilities, like the collectables that advanced replay value (often hidden in accompanying “challenge” areas), or the death system that was a lot closer to Dark Souls than Darkwing Duck. But wherever the inspirations originated, Shovel Knight combined all of its pieces to be an extraordinary experience. Join the clubAnd it didn’t hurt to see a cast of memorable characters fighting through an unforgettable tale of loss and tragedy (and eventual triumph). Wrap this all up with a host of modern “achievements”, and Shovel Knight was one of the finest games of 2014.

But it wasn’t anywhere near done.

Shovel Knight was everything anyone could want from a retro platformer, but it wasn’t the complete game that had been funded a year earlier. All of those bonus bells and whistles would gradually dribble out over the following months and years. Things like Gender/Body Swap mode was little more than a (staggering and inclusive) skin for our heroes and villains, but Plague of Shadows was practically an entirely different game labeled as merely an “expansion”. The adventure, now featuring the morally gray Plague Knight, was a whole new way to play through familiar levels, and featured an added “town area” and a few other extras (peculiarly powered by washing machines) to boot. This was released alongside a number of quick challenges for Shovel Knight, and, coupled with some new console exclusives (and, uh, additional console releases, too) like challenges from Kratos and The Battletoads, it was clear that Shovel Knight’s additional content wasn’t going to be some hastily manufactured DLC.

And let me tell you, about a year and a half later, just in time for the release of the Switch, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment proved Shovel Knight “DLC” was going to be a lot more than a meager expansion.

Spin it!Plague of Shadows was an all-new story with an all-new character (well, all-new for control purposes), but it still saw its hero (“hero”) venture through (most of) the same levels as Shovel Knight. The new play style radically altered your options for traversal, but it was still just a game starring Luigi instead of Mario (well, Super Mario Bros. 2 Luigi, at least). Specter of Torment reused those same levels, but modified them to the point they are barely recognizable. And that’s a good thing! Specter Knight possessed his own moveset, and, rather than mere rehashes, all of his stages were modified to be challenging for that specific moveset. This made Specter of Torment a complete sequel to Shovel Knight! Well… that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe it’s more akin to a romhack? Or, like the NES games Shovel Knight so adores, it’s an “old school” sequel. Almost all the same assets, but rearranged so completely as to be practically unrecognizable. A shining example of the proper way to recycle pixels.

And, oh yeah, Specter Knight is a blast to play as. He’s the Zero to Shovel Knight’s Mega Man (or… uh… Scrooge McDuck?), and really feels like he belongs in an entirely different game. Which is appropriate, as his “entirely different game” seems to only reuse the general aesthetics of its prequel/sequel. The world of Specter Knight goes to some very unexpected places (like the origins of Shovel Knight’s best gal pal), and eschews some gameplay conventions (like the world map) while picking up all new challenges (like an endless tower of pain)(and grinding! Like Sonic!). It’s still unmistakably Shovel Knight, but it’s a whole new experience through and through.

SPIN FOR YOUR LIFEAnd then, in 2019, they did the same thing again with King Knight and Shovel Knight: King of Cards. Give or take one extremely subjective card game (I hate all card games [even that one], but my understanding is that some weirdos can enjoy such a thing), King Knight’s adventure is another slam dunk. The general tone (and lighting) seems closer to its OG Shovel Knight origins, but Kingy’s quest to be king of at least something features dramatically shorter levels and more bite-sized challenges than any of the other campaigns. And that’s a refreshing change of pace that additionally gives some of the gimmicks of the previous tetralogy some room to breathe. Green goo and a bouncy-butted beetle finally get a showcase in their own, complete level! Considering the number one complaint anyone ever leveled against Shovel Knight was that its stages were too long (which, seriously, you gonna complain about there being too much game to play? Philistines), King Knight’s King of Cards is a sequel to Shovel Knight that listened to its greatest detractors. Yacht Club learned something!

And then, to top it all off, Shovel Knight dropped its own version of Smash Bros. You can control every knight! And make ‘em fight! And most of the significant NPCs are PCs now, too. So, finally, you can see who would hold ultimate victory in a battle between Mona, Baz, Mole Knight, and those purple goo monsters from the final tower. And, for being an 8-bit redux inspired by a game that originally appeared on 64-bit hardware, it’s pretty damn impressive. It can get a little confusing when you’re trying to find your sprite against similar colored backgrounds (or against similar-colored enemies), but the designs of the Shovel Knight cast compensate for a lot, so you can usually tell the difference between a Shovel Knight and a Black Knight. And if you can’t? Well, just go ahead and have fun with it. This is an 8-bit platformer fighting game, after all. It’s supposed to be about as chaotic as a bucket full of enemy crabs.

Get up thereSo that’s 3.5 games, right? We’ve got Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows as two pretty similar experiences, but Specter of Torment, King of Cards, and Shovel Knight Showdown are all as different as Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3. Showdown is practically an entirely different genre. I’m going to call that a total of 3.5 games that all fall under the Shovel Knight umbrella.

And it all came from one Kickstarter.

And if you bought the initial Shovel Knight at launch, the whole package cost a measly twenty bucks. You’re actually rewarded for being an early adopter.

Shovel Knight is a game that seemed to last a decade with its various expansions, but, more than that, it is a shining example of what was possible for a few brief years in the 2010s. Kickstarter was an extremely popular platform earlier in the decade, and, while it produced many excellent games and projects, it is primarily recounted now by any number of fans who wound up burned by creators who had the collective managerial skills of a hamster (and not that hamster with the hardhat). Kickstarter and alike is now seen more as a generally reliable healthcare plan than a platform that might create the next game you’ll play for five years. But in the last decade, it was responsible for Shovel Knight. And the triumph of Shovel Knight paved the way for oodles of retro platformer titles. Was every retro game good? No, of course not. But they never would have seen the light of day without Shovel Knight blazing a trail. And, while this trend is likely coming to its close, the current digital marketplace does speak to Shovel Knight’s success.

And, as appropriate for a knight that came from the crowds, he has now returned to the crowds as the most cameoed newcomer of the decade:

Smash it Good!
Slash it Good!
Bonk it good

Not bad for a dude that didn’t exist when the decade started.

Shovel Knight is the 2010s distilled down to its purest, more hopeful form. It is an experience that could only come from one time in gaming’s history. And it’s a damn fine game to boot.

2010: The decade of Shovelry.

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

  • System: Whaddya got? Nintendo 3DS, WiiU, and PC to start, but eventually shovelry spread to the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and the Amazon Fire TV (for some reason).
  • Look away!Number of Players: 2-Players was eventually patched in (with or without amiibo), and Shovel Knight Showdown is 4 players simultaneous. But most people think about the single player campaign, because Shovel Knight appeals to lonely, insomniac nerds.
  • Just play the gig, man: Did I mention the music was amazing? Because it is. Jake Kaufman seems to be responsible for the majority of amazing American soundtracks for the decade, and the addition of one of Mega Man’s composers is just the perfect addition. The fact that every song gets a little in-game director’s commentary is pretty boss, too.
  • Favorite System: Shovel Knight appeared across multiple platforms, but the 3DS version still might be the best. It has 3-D and the ability to quickly switch between items (or whatever they’re called in the version du jour). Battletoads are no substitute for being able to avoid a pause menu.
  • Lucasian Problems: Kudos to Shovel Knight’s team for not returning to Shovel of Hope with every update to “backdate” changes from later expansions. It would be the easiest thing in the world to sneak in “remake” NPCs that allude to what happens in other knights’ adventures (or, hell, advertise those experiences), but Shovel of Hope remains unmolested and devoid of unnecessary changes. Thank you for the restraint.
  • Favorite Character: Percy the Horse Scholar. I will not be accepting questions at this time.
  • Go Toads!Amiibo Corner: Naturally, I preordered the Order of No Quarter amiibos when they were first announced. That was in the fall of 2017. They were released in December of 2019. That might be the longest preorder for a videogame-related item I’ve ever maintained. Good thing I still care about collecting every damn amiibo in existence!
  • Say something mean: Propeller Knight’s stage is the worst in every version/adventure. This isn’t because of the frequent bottomless pits (though, admittedly, that do not help); it’s the auto scrolling areas, and spots that may as well be auto scrolling because you need to wait for a cannonball or wind gust. I hate waiting! I want to run! Don’t hold me down, Propeller Knight!
  • Did you know? Shovel Knight is almost a NES game… though it does include three additional audio channels and four extra colors not available to original Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. There are some other “tweaks” here and there, too, but what’s important is that the screen shakes during explosions unmistakably like in an old school game.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely. This is the cream of the crop for 2-D platformers, and I love me some 2-D platformers. Long may his shovel reign!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Sword for the Nintendo Switch! … Yeah… that was a totally random choice, and not the result of me putting a hundred hours into the thing over the last few months… Yeeeep! Gonna be a totally randomly chosen modern game next week! Please look forward to it!

Shake it