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FGC #639 Castlevania: Curse of Darkness

Welcome to CastletonEven if you bury it under a pile of bad ideas, a good idea can shine through.

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was the second Castlevania title released on the Playstation 2. Opposite a time when traditional, Symphony of the Night-like 2-D Castlevania titles were annually appearing on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS, Konami attempted a pair of “next gen” Castlevania titles on the Playstation 2 (and Xbox, if you’re nasty). The first, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, was an effort to stick a conventional Belmont into a 3-D battle castle. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, either. So the promise of the franchise iterating on that experience two years later with Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was encouraging. This could be more than a simple “Belmont with a whip” game. It could be the “modern” Castlevania, where a super-powered dude (why is it always a dude?) with a host of magical abilities and a seemingly infinite menagerie of esoteric weapons stomps through the Castlevania countryside. And… Oh! What’s this? We all had so much fun with Soma Cruz and his ability to manipulate Dracula’s powers that we are getting a whole new Castlevania concept: A Devil Forgemaster. The protagonist for Castlevania: Curse of Darkness is someone who previously “forged” the armies of Dracula. That sounds interesting!

In fact, the concept of a “Devil Forgemaster” hits all the buttons you need on a Castlevania game. First of all, it is just plain good lore to, after decades of vampire slaying, finally reveal why Dracula has a castle hopping with infinite fleamen. Previously, we were forced to conclude that the Lord of the Night went off and recruited an army of frogmen during some Belmont downtime. Now we know the real story: all those devils were forged by one or two adepts in Dracula’s employ. Dracula is royalty! Of course he subcontracts! But even more important than the story implications are the gameplay possibilities. A Devil Forgemaster should be able to draw on all the powers of those little devils, right? So you can immediately unleash the stony gaze of Medusa? The endurance of Frankenstein? The strangely kung-fu-based abilities of the Werewolf? And a host of special abilities means a number of different ways to keep a new castle appealing. The devil army can do more than double jump and break open walls, so more powers mean more ways to traverse the eponymous Dracula’s castle. When the biggest problem with Lament of Innocence was that the castle was exactly as boring as twenty different hallways sewn together (throw in a bathroom somewhere, guys), the mere mention of a Devil Forgemaster immediately ups the potential ante.

Rip and tearUnfortunately, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was not to be the (vampire) savior of the franchise. Hector is certainly the Devil Forgemaster that was advertised, but it turns out that such a position does not confer all the abilities that could be imagined. Hector gets a double jump and a host of (forgeable!) weapons, but beyond that, the “Devil Forgemaster” conceit is reserved exclusively for a system that looks a lot like Symphony of the Night’s seven-year-old familiar system. There are five required innocent devils (and a bonus sixth one if you feel like playing with a pumpkin again), and they all come with abilities of varying utility. The bird-type devil helps you to glide over a pit, while the faerie devil opens treasure chests that are (for the first time in the franchise) locked. Unfortunately, aside from the devil’s ability to sink into the floor, none of these abilities are new or even remotely stimulating. What’s more, these innocent devils are maddeningly generic, so whereas “golem” is a Castlevania mainstay, your Magmard companion looks like it could have originated from Final Fantasy as equally as Castlevania. And that is definitely the problem when it comes to the black mage-looking mage-type devil. But even if you are happy with these designs, those abilities are still lackluster, and the environments of the castle match that lack of creativity. So, yes, get ready for another endless series of battles in boring hallways, but with the “upgrade” of now there is a skeleton bird flapping around behind you. And, lamentably, a skeleton bird can carry only so much on its bony wings.

Good rock pileHowever, beneath the muck of a boring Castlevania adventure, there was apparently a story worth saving. When presented in 2005, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness had the most generic Castlevania plot outside of “Belmont slays Dracula”. In the grand tradition of Shaft and his plan to pit two vampire hunters against each other, there are two Devil Forgemasters, and Dracula’s ultimate goal is to possess one of them to return to menace Trevor Belmont. So, in being manipulated into this goal by Death, Hector gathers strength across the area to eventually face Isaac, who thinks he is the puppet master influencing his former comrade. Isaac was responsible for the death of Hector’s wife, at least! Regardless, these two parallel Devil Forgemasters have a simple yin and yang dichotomy, as Hector left Dracula’s employ years earlier in defense of the human race, and Isaac stuck around because he is some kind of sadist (and possibly masochist! Check out that outfit!). In the end, it is an extremely cliched retelling of the same old IGAvania story, complete with a persistent villain that is supposed to be ultimately sympathetic despite a body count climbing up over the hundreds. At least he is not as bad Dracula! That dude eats people!

But the allure of the Devil Forgemaster was just too much…

Up we goThirteen years later, the Castlevania Netflix series premiered its second season. Whereas the first season was little more than an expanded movie meant to introduce the main players of Castlevania 3, the second season of Castlevania is where the animated series became a proper series. A cast of supporting characters appeared in Dracula’s castle, and among them were two vaguely familiar faces. Hector returns looking much the same, and continues his job as a guy who makes monsters for a living while being weirdly fond of the people about to be eaten by his monsters. But Isaac is changed dramatically, shifting from a red-haired friend of Voldo to a solemn African man that holds a quiet grudge against humanity for his childhood enslavement. And while the details of being a Forgemaster are different in this iteration of Castlevania, both men are still filling the same general role of filling Dracula’s ranks only to later strike off on general missions of mayhem/salvation/revenge. In fact, as the show proceeds through another two seasons, these two Forgemasters become prominent characters in their own rights, often overshadowing the more popular heroes’ adventures in punishing priests and participating in twincest.

And Gogglebob.com is not going to officially recognize the Castlevania Animated Series as the best thing since sliced skeletons, but it is an entertaining, original take on the Castlevania franchise. It has its share of problems (not the least of which that every character in a Warren Ellis-based universe must be an asshole at all times or they crumble to dust), but you cannot say it was not unique. And unique is exactly what Hector and the whole concept of Devil Forgemasters deserved. In a franchise that has been languidly heisting mythological and movie monsters since its inception, the distinctive idea of a Devil Forgemaster deserved Lad?a similarly distinctive story. And the tales that are told of Hector and Isaac in Netflix Castlevania are nothing if not exceptional (at least one narrative includes a floating ball of corpses! You don’t see stories like that in dusty old books!). Somebody finally waded through the boring game of Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (or at least its Wikipedia page), and sifted out the best concept that experience had to offer.

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness was a middling Castlevania title, but, over a decade later, it was forged into something worthwhile.

FGC #639 Castlevania: Curse of Darkness

  • System: Playstation 2 globally, and Xbox if you were in the USA. I wonder if Japanese collectors jockey on eBay for that rare “American” version of Curse of Darkness.
  • Number of players: A Trevor mode may be eventually unlocked, but you won’t see the ability to play as two characters during this Castlevania.
  • Say something nice: I am a sucker for monster breeding, so I will admit that I enjoy the whole “evolution” aspect of the Innocent Devils. I like using a spear over and over again to see if that will change my golem into, like, a different golem. It is the little things in life that make castles worth storming.
  • Take what you can get: There is a complete “material/crafting” system here. There are scads of stupid doodads to pick up if you want to forge the more interesting weapons, and there is even a “steal” system so you have the ability to nab even more items from opponents. And it all adds up to a fat lot of nothing, as it is the same endless arsenal as other Castlevania titles, just now with extra steps. Boo.
  • Feeling better?Favorite Innocent Devil: Oh give me a home, where the hulking golem roam, and the skies are not darkened all day.
  • An end: The trigger for Hector’s quest is that Isaac is responsible for executing Hector’s wife. Over the course of the adventure, Hector is aided by Julia, who is eventually revealed to be Isaac’s sister. At the close of the story, Isaac has ultimately been killed (or turned into an innocent devil?… He isn’t Isaac anymore, at least), and Hector is anxious to rest with his forged monster buddies. Julia offers Hector sanctuary, and it appears they are going to have a deeper relationship from there. So, in summary, Isaac killed Hector’s wife, so now Hector is going to bone Isaac’s sister.
  • It’s about time: This is also the Castlevania that introduces Saint Germain. Saint Germain is a time traveler, and seems to be part of that time travel plot that was teased across multiple Castlevania titles. Either because of the reboot and/or because Koji Igarashi never really knew where he was going with all this, all of these random time travelers across the Castlevania franchise never really added up to anything. Maybe they were meant to retcon any continuity errors? Or offer an excuse as to why you can always nab a pocket watch that defies space and time? Whatever. At least Saint Germain has a dapper outfit.
  • Did you know? Appropriate for a guy that looks like he might be a carnival barker, Saint Germain is the only character so far in the Castlevania franchise to break the fourth wall and directly speak to the player. Or the camera just didn’t pan around, and he was actually babbling on to a particularly attentive skeleton warrior…
  • Would I play again: I will be honest, I started playing this game again when I got the Wild Arms 3 Let’s Play going (as I was testing capturing directly from my Playstation 2 with different looking games), and it took me months of playing off and on to actually complete the thing. It is a slog! And not the good kind of slog (that would be Slogra, who does appear in this game). So, no, I am likely to play literally any other Castlevania again before getting back to this one.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Resident Evil 4! Let’s stop by a quaint Spanish village and see how the local populace is dealing with the current economic crisis. Please look forward to it!

It was the best part
Oh! This happened in the show!

FGC #604 Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

Reflections are importantCastlevania: Harmony of Dissonance was released back in 2002 on the Gameboy Advance. It was the first Koji Igarashi-directed metroidvania to follow the wildly successful Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and would be followed by the critically beloved Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow a year later. While many at the time lauded Harmony of Dissonance for being a step up from the non-canon, non-Iga-directed Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, in the years since, Harmony of Dissonance has gained the reputation as one of the “lesser” Igavanias. Nobody seems to claim it is particularly bad, but the understood consensus is that you would be better off playing literally any other metroidvania in the franchise. Iga was still getting used to portable Castlevanias, guys, play one of the games after he found his skelelegs.

And that is a damn shame, because Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has some great ideas that were never seen in the franchise ever again. Take for instance…

Juste Belmont is all you need

This guy looks familiarCastlevania stars Simon Belmont. Castlevania 3 stars Trevor Belmont. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood stars Richter Belmont. And then we got Castlevania: Symphony of the Night starring Alucard, and we only ever saw one Belmont in a headlining role ever again. Juste Belmont is that Belmont, and he’s here to chew bubblegum and whip skeletons (and he’s fresh out of bubblegum).

Juste Belmont plays like a Belmont. There is no gimmick here, no secret power that makes Juste a creature of the night just like his opponents. He runs. He jumps. He attacks with a whip of clearly defined length, and flicks its limp form around to block medusa heads at will. He can perform some of the “later” Belmont abilities, like the slide and backward dash. He even has a forward dash, because some weirdo gave the Gameboy Advance an L and R button. But, a few extra skills aside, Juste is familiar, and a clear descendant of Grandpa Simon (and maybe the old man that trained Richter a few decades later).

And in the friggen Castlevania franchise, it is nice to play as a Castlevania protagonist.

You could claim there is a clear dichotomy between Simon-like protagonists and Alucard-like protagonists in the Castlevania franchise. Soma is an Alucard. Shanoa is an Alucard. Castlevania-wannabe Miriam is an Alucard. But claiming there are only two options is reductive. John Morris of Portrait of Ruin is very close to being the typical Belmont, but there is a lot more nuance and variety to his moveset. Or, put another way, there is no way Juste Belmont could ever turn into an owl. It may be a result of the presence of Charlotte, but, one way or another, John is no Alucard, but he certainly is not a straight-Belmont, either.

And having a 100% Belmont on the team makes for a different, unique game. Juste eventually gains a “super jump” to traverse long vertical passages, but, for the majority of his adventure, he is stuck with little more than a regular Belmont arc jump. And that changes the castle dramatically! There is no expectation here that you will eventually be able to fly into narrow passages as a bat, or “mist” through glass windows. Juste is stuck with legitimate keys-as-keys, and a castle that could reasonably be traversed by a human on foot. And that’s the rub! Belmonts are humans, and that appropriately restrains the Castle to something that is never going to require reversing gravity or filling in map squares by bumbling around as a wolf.

It is nice to be human sometimes and know that castle completion is not tied to some esoteric ability you will find five feet before Dracula. HoD perhaps hampers itself too much with its human protagonist, but a more thoughtful sequel could use this “limitation” to open all sorts of doors.

But speaking of being a Belmont…

The Vampire Killer is all you need

Nice viewLook, I like variety as much as the next guy. I like finding peanuts and learning that Alucard must toss them in the air to get so much as a bite. I like earning the “curry” power, and forcing an ability-copying boss to chuck hot plates like it is his super power. I like there being two different fairies, one with inexplicable piano prowess. I enjoy the sheer breadth of nonsense “stuff” that appears in the Igavania titles, and I appreciate every time I find a new secret or ferryman skulking around in the shadows.

But, dang, sometimes I just want to play a videogame, ya know?

The thing about variety is that is causes choice anxiety. You have a sword, right? And it is fast and strong, but there is a stronger sword that is slower. Which is going to perform more damage per second? Which will allow you to quickly backdash away from danger? Which has the more powerful “arc” to blocking enemy fireballs? They have elements, too? So is the holy sword going to cut down all these undead foes, or are some of these monsters supposed to be resistant to the light of God? Is this one of those franchises where fire beats water, or the opposite? Thunder do anything for anybody? I have a fast, lightning-based sword, but is that going to do zero damage to rocky enemies? Am I thinking of Pokémon again?

Then there’s Juste. Juste doesn’t have to have a brain in his head, because he has a whip in his hands.

The Vampire Killer is supposed to be the greatest Dracula murderer of all time. It was all Simon, Trevor, and Richter ever needed. Juste wields this same weapon, but is allowed to have a little customization. With the right item, it can shoot fireballs like Christopher Belmont, change elements for weakness hunting, or just plain upgrade to stronger versions like back during the Quest days. In general, it is linear progression with the tiniest bit of customization for particular circumstances. And that’s great! You don’t have to spend the rest of your day worrying distinguishing between +1 Pow or +1 Speed when “have whip” is all you need to know. There is joy in finding the secret sword that makes farting noises when it hits skeletons, but there is also joy in not having to worry about your equipment screen, and ignoring any worrying about bringing the wrong hammer to a guardian fight.

Sometimes, the Vampire Killer is all you need… and that never happened in a 2-D ‘vania again.

And on that note…

Mundane Monsters are all you need

Prior to Harmony of Dissonance, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon introduced the concept of particular monsters dropping unique abilities. After HoD, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow pioneered a system whereby literally every monster dropped some kind of attack, ability, or upgrade. This became the standard for Castlevania titles going forward, and now it seems completely normal to fight mermen over and over until you can breathe underwater.

Harmony of Dissonance made no such attempt at having a wholly unique “ability drop” for every monster lurking around the castle. And, not coincidentally, Harmony of Dissonance also included this creature:

Creepy Crawly

Now, I’m not saying that when you grant every monster a unique, obtainable ability, you lose the chance to make some gigantic weirdos that have nothing to do with “can throw spear” or “+2 Con”, but… It does seem like more than a coincidence that we never saw that dude again.

Nobody wants to grind a hundred skeleton spiders.

Two Castles are all you need

Out and inCastlevania: Symphony of the Night turned the franchise on its head by including an entire hidden castle in addition to the “traditional” solitary sanctuary of Dracula. Later titles would either stick to one large castle (the Sorrows, Bloodstained [which we are still claiming is a Castlevania]) or one castle plus a number of “level” areas (Portrait, Order of Ecclesia). Never again did the franchise try two separate, but similar, castles.

And two castles are the exact right number of castles to have!

The concept of a “dark world” works similarly to time travel in many videogames. In short, you have two distinct areas, but they influence each other in interesting ways. In the time travel adventures, you can usually affect change in the past that dramatically impacts the future. The classic “fill a lake in the past, see a future where a desert becomes a forest in the future” dichotomy serves as an easy example here. Similarly, you can have “light/dark world” situations wherein one area is a funhouse mirror version of another area, but making changes to one “castle” can drastically impact the other. The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past or Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver are the classic examples here, but many videogames utilize these dual worlds to create exciting scenarios and save on assets. An evil mirror world is fun and economical!

Unfortunately, for having two castles (both distinctly noted as being formed from two differing minds), Harmony of Dissonance whiffs on doing anything interesting with the concept. Whether there was ever meticulous thought put into the differences between the “normal” and “chaos”-based castles is irrelevant, as the end result is a castle that is effectively double the size, but with very few actual parallels. Yes, you might find some similar or “reference” monsters in comparable rooms. Yes, you are likely to see a few more deadly monsters or blood-red sunsets in the “bad” castle. But, beyond a few extremely basic “wasn’t this room a little different over there” situations, this is a complete waste of a brilliant idea. Harmony’s two castles could be so much fun in a different, more considered game.

This is funAnd that is the tragedy of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance: there are a lot of appealing ideas here, but they ultimately add up to an experience that is aggravatingly rote. With proper budget, drive, and familiarity, a direct sequel to HoD’s ideas could be one of the best titles in the franchise. As it is… well… Let’s just say that Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow keeps getting paired with HoD in collections, and it is obvious which game you should play.

(And in case you’re curious, it is the one that actually had its own sequel.)

FGC #604 Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

  • System: Gameboy Advance on two separate occasions! Later, we had a WiiU release, and now it is on modern systems thanks to the latest Castlevania Advance Collection.
  • Number of players: This Castlevania quest is even more solitary than usual. Do you learn that weird shopkeeper’s name? That seems like it should be important! Guess we are sticking to one player.
  • Story Time: Props to HoD for featuring almost exclusively two characters: Juste, and his frenemy Maxim. Literally no one else matters in this story of childhood friends having occasional spats over kidnapping other childhood friends, and that kind of laser focus on the task at hand is great in a Metroidvania. I guess Death gets to squeeze a word or two in, too? Who cares? That dork is a little too Strider this time, anyway.
  • Love this bossThe Other Hero: Naturally, Maxim mode is unlocked upon completing the game. And Maxim rocks! While the meticulous planning that went into producing this Belmont-based adventure goes right out the window the minute Mr. Triple Jump appears on the scene, it is fun to see how much of the castle can be explored immediately without a need for keys or teleporters. Give Maxxy a way to level up, and it would likely be one of my favorite “other” modes in Castlevania history.
  • Favorite Sub Weapon: Juste has distinctly Sypha Belnades genes, and can utilize magical books to powerup his attacks. Unfortunately, this skill is completely useless, and should be ignored. Sorry, Great Gramma Sypha, you cannot beat traditional holy water.
  • Favorite Boss: Speaking of Sypha, two Castlevania 3 bosses return in modern-ish form: the Skull Knight and Cyclops. Cyclops is my favorite in the game, as he looks so goofy compared to his original, menacing sprite. Skull Knight does get a rad laser, though…
  • Interior Decorating: Apparently, that “Furniture Room”, where you can collect various tables and candelabras and such to decorate one tiny cube in Dracula’s Castle is a holdover from an idea that was nixed during the production of Symphony of the Night. This would have absolutely made sense for Alucard, as he would logically have his own room in his father’s castle. But Juste Belmont? A man who knows damn well that castle is going to collapse seven seconds after whipping an evil count? He should know better than to put effort into trimming such a damned castle.
  • ClassyDid you know? The doors that Juste uses to travel between the two castles look just like the portals the Doppelganger used in Symphony of the Night. Does this mean Alucard didn’t kill a monster, but an alternate universe duplicate? Probably not! And don’t suggest that again. Alucard has enough guilt without potential murder-suicides!
  • Would I play again: Probably not. Or at least not for another few decades. I want to see the HoD sequel, but the actual game isn’t all that fun… particularly when nearly every other Castlevania would be a better time.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Curses ‘N Chaos! We’re going to celebrate the Day of the Dead with a visit from Castlevania ‘n Curses’ old friend Death. Please look forward to it!

WRONG

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Straight to hell!Let us consider the economy of Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (and how it has screwed me up to this day).

Castlevania 2 is an ambitious NES title that is also extremely broken. Much like Link’s second adventure, the curators of the Castlevania franchise decided to branch out in a more explore-y direction with Simon Belmont’s second quest. Unfortunately, it seems that the Goddess Zelda watches over all of her titles and guarantees proper Q&A testing… while Dracula just gets a graveyard duck. Or the graveyard duck was intentional! Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest has a legendarily inscrutable localization… but it ain’t that great in the original Klingon, either. The NPCs of C2 go out of their collective way to be cryptic at best, and downright dishonest at worst. There is a bad merchant in this town? Are you referring to how the ability to buy a white crystal over and over again is broken, or am I searching for a hidden dealer somewhere around here? And do not insult that kind lady peddling Holy Water. I wouldn’t be able to beat Dracula without her!

So is Simon’s Quest broken? Well, yes, because those ending screens are pretty damn fractured by any rubric. But is everything before Dracula’s defeat broken? Well, no, just all the information that the player needs to successfully complete this quest is some combination of esoteric and obfuscated. Finding your first mansion housing a rib might be child’s play, but knowing from there that you have to kneel at a nondescript lake or show a bleeding heart to a ferryman (or that said ferryman is apparently canonically cursed!) is the kind of thing you would never in a million quests personally discover “accidentally”. Some hints in the Japanese version were mangled for the American release, and we can blame a number of Debora Cliff head injuries on this simple fact; but, even then, you kind of have to “know” that the crystals work when you are just standing around… And “stand still and wait” is not exactly the prime way a videogame works. Simon’s Quest is not broken in every way, but a clear explanation of what is happening and what should be done would certainly help a fledgling player. Just give me a ferryman that outright states that they are looking for something, and we can go from there!

And then there is the economy of Simon’s Quest.

Just don't look!Previously on Castlevania, hearts fueled “sub items”, and that was it. There were moneybags that provided points, but there was nothing to buy. A heart “bought” you the ability to fling a dagger, though, so you had something you wanted to ration and “save” for the rough spots. A proper cross boomerang and the hearts to fuel it could be the difference between life and death. This would be the standard for Castlevania games after Castlevania 2, too, and we would not see exchanging currency for goods and services in the Castlevania franchise again until Symphony of the Night ten years later.

But in the meanwhile, here was Castlevania 2. Before you even leave the first town, you are introduced to the concept of trading hearts. In fact, items available in the first town are very clearly outlined as…

Buy Once, Use Forever Items

My aching crystal50 Hearts will get you two different items in Castlevania 2’s first bout of commerce. Local townsfolk will note that thou must purchase a White Crystal, but the Holy Water is available, too. And both items are literally essential to your adventure. The White Crystal will allow access to (or at least illuminate a hidden platform in) the first dungeon, which is a vital stop on the way to earning Dracula’s Rib. But do not discount the Holy Water, as you absolutely need its ability to break “soft” blocks. Oh no! You’ve only got fiddy hearts in your pocket when the game starts, and you need a hundo! Time to get to farming skeletons!

And you will want those extra hearts, as Holy Water, the White Crystal, and the eventually available basic Dagger are all the best items to purchase. The Holy Water not only unlocks previously inaccessible areas, but also is the most straightforward item in the game for consistently hitting enemies below Simon. The Dagger might fly much straighter, but it is also much more powerful, and can completely supplant the whip if you are saving up for something better. And the White Crystal? Not only do you need it for basic platform-seeing purposes, but it also has a resale value! You can trade the White Crystal for the Blue Crystal, and then trade up further to the Red Crystal. All of those crystals are critical, and, given a lack of fast travel or mobile merchants, you really shouldn’t leave home (town) without it!

Unfortunately, not everything in Castlevania 2 has the same kind of utility. Let’s just go ahead and whip that notion in the bud…

Straight Upgrade Items

STAY AWAYSimon already killed the only vampire that ever mattered, so the legendary Vampire Killer whip is apparently sitting on a shelf back at the Belmont estate. In the meanwhile, Simon has pulled out the trusty leather whip that he picked up down at the Transylvania S&M store (Grant DaNasty’s Nastiest Emporium). Unfortunately, this budget whip is far from the best, and a variety of other whips are available from more savvy storefronts. Would you care for a Thorn Whip? Chain Whip? Chain Whip with little star dealy bopper? You’ve got options!

Or… you have no real options at all. Unlike many modern games, you absolutely do not need to upgrade your whips sequentially. You will likely find a vendor for the Thorn Whip before anyone else, but, if you save your hearts, you will eventually find that Morning Star shop, and own the best whip hearts can buy before anything else. In fact, if you really know what you are doing, you can farm nighttime zombies, make a beeline for that miraculous whip, and wield all the power of Lucifer before entering your first mansion!

And there is a valuable lesson here: why waste your hard-earned hearts on anything but the best? Only one whip can be upgraded (for free!) to the critical Flame Whip, and only one whip has the power to fell Death before he can make his lethal approach. Why bother with anything less? The Chain Whip is one of the most expensive items in the game, and it is literally completely worthless if you can afford a Morning Star. Save those hearts! Go for the greatest! Do not waste time on incremental upgrades! Shoot for the gold!

But you may have to blow a few hearts along the way on…

One and Done, Limited Items

Eat it, orbYou may make an immediate run for the Morning Star, but there is one thing standing in your way: a deadly, life-draining swamp. The only solution to surviving this problem is to purchase some Laurels, initially only available about as far east as you can get without the aid of a tornado. Laurels make Simon temporarily invulnerable, and that is just the right level of vulnerable you need for a purple swamp filled with fire-spewing beasts.

But Laurels come at a cost. In an effort to guarantee Simon is not invincible forever, Laurels are limited items that can only be used a set number of times. You buy two Laurels, you get to be invincible twice. Pretty straightforward! In a similar manner, there are Oak Stakes, purchasable only within haunted mansions, which are essential for unlocking Dracula Part Orbs ™, and are immediately consumable. And, while it may seem like they are wholly optional, bulbs of garlic fall into the same category. Garlic initially presents as simply an offensive item that works similarly to the Holy Water of Castlevania (1), but it also summons random Romani in graveyards to distribute daggers and bags and whatnot. You could get through the whole of CS2 without a single clove of garlic, but it is going to make your life better in more ways than one if you shell out for that veggie.

And, give or take experimenting with garlic in any old graveyard, these one-and-done items are all very situational. You could use a Laurel anywhere, but you probably are going to conserve it for the moment you approach those shining, purple shores. Garlic is rarely necessary for average encounters, so save it for shop summoning or the occasional pizza. And you only ever need one oak stake per mystical orb, so you can stow that away until you need to earn a fingernail. In short, once you have a relative idea of what you are doing, you will never be in a situation where you can potentially “waste” one of these valuable, limited items. Short of whiffing it big on tacking an inanimate circle, you are not going to “accidentally” need another 50 hearts for a replacement anytime soon.

Wish I could say the same about our final category…

Freemium Items

MortThe Silver Knife can be found by properly placing garlic in the graveyard. The Gold Knife can be recovered from a downtrodden Death. And the Sacred Flame is hiding in a dark dungeon, but free for the taking if you gaze with Dracula’s eye. They are freebies! Items of absolute importance (well, maybe the Silver Knife is kind of a waste), and unerringly useful. The Sacred Flame is like an advanced Holy Water that can immolate Freddie the Claw Skeleman without a thought. And the Gold Knife can re-kill Dracula before he even has time to teleport out of his coffin. No wonder Death was hanging onto that blade!

But there is a bit of a drawback to these weapons of Drac destruction: they each cost hearts. Each of these items is free to add to your inventory, but cost a heart per use. And one or two hearts may not be the difference between life and death, but you need as many of those hearts as possible for all the finest upgrades. You need a new Oak Stake in every mansion, and who knows when you are going to have to reup on Laurels? And, if this is your first time venturing through Castlevania (or you just have a terrible memory), you would not know if you needed additional hearts for anything else. That Morning Star cost nearly every heart you could ever have, but is there something better out there? Some armor, maybe? Blue Ring? It worked for Link…

And, if you have not already guessed, this is why I never use the Silver Knife, Gold Knife, or Sacred Flame.

Sure, I may have hearts to spare by the time the final mansions are being raided, but would I ever use a weapon that consumes two whole hearts per use to clear those areas? Certainly not. I might need those hearts for later! Using these freemium items may make my life easier, but what if they are going to make my life worse when I need to grind for more hearts? And Dracula isn’t dead yet! What if I get up to his final chamber, and I run out of hearts!? I would have to engage with actually fighting Dracula the real way, and I simply do not have that kind of time. I would rather make every other part of this game harder than ever even think about wasting my valuable cash on something as trivial as my 10,000th violent skeleton. I’m saving up for that vacation home Simon is never going to use!

Er-hem.

Anyway, Castlevania 2 is apparently why I don’t play mobile games. Thanks for reading.

FGC #593 Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

  • What a horrible night to have a swampSystem: Nintendo Entertainment System to start, and then it at least showed up on the recent Castlevania collection for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It was also on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. Sorry, Castlevania 2 does not see as many releases as Mega Man 2.
  • Number of players: Simon is facing this horrible night to have a curse alone.
  • Forever Apart: The various chunks of Dracula could also be considered usable “items”, but every other item save the initial rib is so… not useful. Also, can we take a moment to acknowledge that an official body part of Dracula is his ring? Not a single limb in there, but we somehow need his signet to cross his dumb bridge? And, while we are looking at lugging around bits of the count, is his complete lack of a brain there to account for his generally braindead plans? When you have to rely on the wizard Shaft to get things done, you know you are missing some pieces.
  • Boss Time: Castlevania is a franchise known for its bosses. And, in C2:SQ, there are a whole two of them, and you can walk right past one. Nobody likes you, Death! Camilla and her bloody tears is required, but only on the technicality that she drops the cross item that allows access to Dracula’s ruined castle. At least these jerks respawn for any potential rematches. I would not say no to seeing that in Symphony of the Night…
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I played this game so much as a child, I memorized the code that grants all the items. It is complete gibberish, but I can recall this random assortment of letters and numbers immediately. If you ever see me in person, quiz me! I would transcribe it here, but I don’t feel like having Google steal my code for maximum Laurels.
  • I do not talk about musicAn end: Damn is it hard to get the best ending without optimizing dang near everything. Also, is it really worth it? Because it sure does seem like the accompanying text for any given ending does not match what actually happens. And, ya know, there is that whole “Simon dies almost every time” thing. Dude just cannot catch a break.
  • Did you know? According to the Castlevania timeline, Simon killing Dracula, blasting him into literal pieces, reassembling said pieces, and then immolating the count all over again only bought the world fifty years of Dracula-free time. Juste, Simon’s grandson, was the next Belmont to take up the whip chronologically in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. And Juste only had to beat Dracula once to keep Drac chilling until Richter time.
  • Would I play again: Yes. Dammit. It’s a Castlevania game, so I will blow my hard-earned hearts on any version of it that is ever released. Put this sucker on a cell phone with in-app heart purchases, and I’ll buy it, too.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Aero Fighters 2! Take to the skies! To fight! In flight! Please look forward to it!

I can!

FGC #563 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode & Wallachia Reign of Dracula

Thighs!Look, I’ve had a few “rules” for this project from the very beginning. One of those rules is that I not exclusively focus on the big, obvious titles. Stretch Panic needs love, too, and we don’t have to spend all day talking about Super Mario Bros. 3 and its infernal hopping shoes. This is basic stuff, people, and, while I feel I need to address a few games before I wrap up this blog around post #655 or so (less than a hundred to go! I’m sticking to that! Probably!), I am doing my best to not make this blog an endless parade of Final Fantasy titles. There is still time for the likes of Mappy Land!

But, my good dudes, I have a confession to make: I can’t stop posting about Castlevania games. I’m sorry, but they are so… what are the words I’m looking for here… They are so simultaneously rigidly defined, yet variable. There are always the same basic pieces in play, but there are so many ways those components can be arranged that you get a different game every time. Sometimes there is a single castle, sometimes that castle gets flipped upside down, and sometimes you are just stalking around the countryside looking for ribs. You’ve got options! And combine that with gameplay that is similarly “familiar, but different”, and you have a franchise that could prompt this humble blogger to write literally volumes.

So imagine my relief when the gods gifted me two Castlevania games that weren’t really Castlevania games. I don’t have to reset the “days since a Castlevania post” sign now! Hooray!

Let’s start with the Not-Castlevania game that is the most Castlevania: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode.

Flip alongFirst of all, it is known that this blog has previously based entire articles around DLC expansions. So let us be clear here: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode is not an expansion. It is not bonus content. It is an entire game. Why is it so easy to plainly state that? Because B:RotNCM is exactly the length of Castlevania (1). It is by definition a complete game because it apes a complete game in unmistakable ways. There are 5.5 stages with six bosses. It is a complete journey through one (1) haunted mansion, and contains grinding gears, underground waterways, and a surprisingly survivable fall from a tower. There is an axe-bone, shard-stop watch, cross-boomerang, and dagger-uhhh-dagger. This is Castlevania to a C, and, if your only memories of Castlevania exist within a fog that can accumulate over a few years, you would be forgiven for believing this is little more than a remake with HD graphics (and maybe a few serial numbers filed off the Medusa Heads).

But, like a good Castlevania title, the devil’s in the details (vampire’s in the variables?). While Miriam may initially appear to be as limited as the strong-but-crotchety Simon Belmont, actually playing with your protagonist reveals that she has all the finesse of the much more acrobatic Richter Belmont. And that’s kind of amazing! Bloodstained: Classic Mode effectively marries the energetic options of Castlevania’s final “level-based” 2-D hero with the general, measured layouts of the franchise’s premiere. This creates the unrivaled experience of producing a Castlevania game that has a laser-focused path to victory (no branching rivers in this Castlevania adventure) but with a heroine that can afford to backflip away from an encroaching flea-monkey. And when you start finding the “secret” ways to use Miriam’s entire arsenal…

Weeeee

Well, who needs Grant when you’re a one woman army of super powers? Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode initially gives the impression of a nostalgic rehash of things that came before, but is its own experience in all the right ways.

And, speaking of surprisingly innovative titles, there’s Wallachia Reign of Dracula, another game that follows a warrior woman fighting a castle lord through a very different path.

The bestiary has defined Castlevania practically from its inception. You fight Dracula, obviously, but on your way through his humble abode you also battle a Greek Gorgon, a bat of unusual size, Egyptian pharaohs, and Frankenstein(‘s monster buddy, Flea Man). In later games, Dracula’s menagerie would expand to include elder gods, headless pirates, and an arguably extraneous number of succubi. You could imagine an entire tale about where Dracula found all those malcontents! Bloodstained, Classic Mode or no, followed this template while swapping gorgons for dullahans, but still retained much of the (public domain) cast of characters. The message is clear: If you’re going to fight Dracula/a reasonable simulacrum of a nefarious count, you’re going to have to put your weapon of choice through more than a few zombies.

Wallachia Reign of Dracula poses a different question: what if Vlad III Dracula aka Vlad the Impaler was just, ya know, a dude that liked impaling?

Don't look backElcin is a woman that had a seriously bad Tuesday when Vlad invaded her hometown, kidnapped her brother, and killed her parents. Elcin vowed revenge, and took up a bow and sword to track down her tormentor and kick his ass straight off his throne. But Vlad isn’t going to take this insurrection lying down, so he sicks his entire army on the poor woman. And that army? Well, there are a lot of soldiers. Some of the soldiers are abnormally tall, and a couple of ‘em have horses. There are also some really agile dudes that flip around with deadly claws. Oh! And there are a few dogs, hawks, and bears, too. Other than that? Sorry, this Vlad is entirely mundane, so there isn’t a reanimated skeleton to be seen. There are plenty of corpses, as Vlad is still just wild about impaling, but those carcasses aren’t going anywhere. There is horror for Elcin to encounter, but those horrors are no more fantastic than a visit to a funeral home (well, at least a funeral home in a remarkably bad neighborhood).

But a mundane world does not mean Elcin is trapped in a boring game. Wallachia Reign of Dracula publicly advertises that it is a retro title in the vein of Castlevania, but it is much closer to an old-school “arcade action” arcade title like Magic Sword or Willow. And that’s pretty great, as that whole genre seems to have fallen by the wayside as retro titles continue to revisit the likes of Mega Man or Final Fight. The concept of occasionally jumping over obstacles but mostly wholesale murdering a pile of anonymous grunts with long range weapons needs love, too! And you’ve got a sword that works more like a shield for incoming projectiles, too, so there is more nuance here than “grab a turbo controller and let those unlimited arrows fly”.

Look out for jugglersIn fact, it is somewhere in that meticulous combat that Wallachia Reign of Dracula feels the most like a Castlevania title. Even when there aren’t werewolves stalking about, there is still pressure around every corner, and the most important decisions you ever make are regarding threat control. You can take the time to stop, aim, and shoot at that solider that is pacing back and forth on that platform, or you can ignore him, and hope he doesn’t shoot back. Choose your own adventure! And, while such a choice may seem simple in and of itself (how long will it take you to aim? A second? That’s time that could be spent jumping!), the real challenge starts when there are moving platforms, flaming catapults, and an entire tank bearing down on your heroine. Now what do you do? Now what do you prioritize? Make your choices fast, because you’ll be dead on the ground if you can’t reach the verdict. But don’t worry, you do have a few extra lives before the next continue, so if you choose wrong, at least you can see how it might have been if you had just used a charge arrow on that bear instead of relying on rapid fire. Soon, you’ll be reflexively sniping down murderous hawks with ease, but when you first encounter these challenges, there is much to consider before making your (possibly fatal) move.

And this is the true essence of Castlevania. There may be a thousand variables in a Belmont adventure, but, in the end, it’s about choice. It’s about situations where you can go left or right, and, head’s up, right is going to get you killed. In the “old school” games, like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode or Wallachia Reign of Dracula, these choices are generally about monster management. Do you really want to waste your hearts chucking axes at a bone dragon, or do you trudge up those stairs while it is still tossing fire all over the place? In the “Metroidvania” titles, these choices are generally less deadly, but choosing to explore a random nook or cranny may reward (or punish) your protagonist in a myriad of ways. Castlevania is about choice, and games that truly carry on the spirit of Castlevania know that. Both of these featured games know that secret of Castlevania, even if they choose different paths to teach that lesson.

… And, man, I’m going to have a hard time claiming this article wasn’t about Castlevania…

FGC #563 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Classic Mode

  • What time is it?System: Wherever Bloodstaineds are sold. Playstation 4, Xbox One, Steam, and Nintendo Switch all seem like viable options.
  • Number of players: Miriam can’t even bring along an old lady shouting for blood on this solitary journey.
  • Hey, wasn’t there another Bloodstained “classic mode”? Yes, but that experience is much more of… how to put this… a modern interpretation of retro. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is a game that very dedicatedly included new and interesting features that would never have been possible in an OG Castlevania. And, complete with the sequel introducing a dog mech, the whole thing is a lot closer to a Mega Man X / Zero title, anyway. It can’t be “classic” if your hero spins around in the air with a sword twirling in an endless circle.
  • What about Ninja Gaiden? Oh, screw (attack) you.
  • Favorite Boss: I appreciate that the Mummy du jour is replaced with a pair of doppelgangers. I generally welcome the ways the bosses have been adapted to their “modern” forms, but far too many of them seemed too… familiar. At least the doppelgangers weren’t instantly recognizable exclusively for their obvious connections to the past… even if they are equally weak to “holy water”.
  • Did you know? My solemn belief is that there is no way that Dullahan boss wasn’t also a reference to that wannabe Terminator from Contra 3.
  • Getting toward the endWould I play again: This is a difficult choice! Like, I very much enjoy Classic Mode, but it is also just close enough to other experiences so as to feel… unnecessary? Basically, I have the capability to play Castlevania (1) again, and I don’t do that often, because I usually play the later Castlevania titles. And, in a similar manner, I think I would play Curse of the Moon 2 again before Classic Mode, simply because I like its gameplay options. Will I ever play Classic Mode again? Probably, but it would be as more of a curiosity in a few years than the feeling that I really need to play the game again. And Bloodstained keeps producing other great expansion content, too…

FGC #563 Wallachia Reign of Dracula

  • I know that guy!System: Nintendo Switch ‘n Steam seems to be the answer here. Maybe it will see other systems, but hopping on Switch is enough for me.
  • Number of Players: You’re doing this one alone.
  • Favorite Opponent: You cannot go wrong with fighting bears. They’re so… bears.
  • More Power: “Subweapons” seem to be split into categories. There are special arrows that appear in specifically limited quantities (similar to the items of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and there are helper characters that are powered by collectable orbs (like the old days of Castlevania hearts). On the plus side, the ally abilities are pretty damn powerful, and can absolutely demolish a boss or two. On the other hand, there were occasions where I traipsed through an entire level and never gained enough orbs to use one of those attacks once. I like a screen-clearing attack as much as the next guy, but this seems like it could have been balanced better.
  • More connections: WRoD and Bloodstained are connected in more ways than their obvious influence. For one thing, Elcin can earn Miriam’s default outfit from Bloodstained (but, unfortunately, she doesn’t get to meet a murder barber that can change her hairstyle). Also, both WRoD and B:RotN Classic Mode limit the ability to see the entire game if you play on Easy Mode. This is universally a dick move, and I don’t care who hears that.
  • Let's roll!Did you know? There are two distinct places in this game where a mysterious “fog” is piped into a room, and then “supernatural” things happen, like Vlad’s bride becoming a succubus, or a dragon statue breathing fire. This is a pretty unique way to sneak something more fantastic into a game that is very grounded, and I encourage more videogame protagonists to get super high while battling evil. Yoshi was cool with it.
  • Would I play again: Probably yes. This is a fun “arcade” style game, so I’m probably going to stick another quarter in there in the future. The first few levels are very smooth, so I could see playing them while waiting for my latest Switch purchase to download.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kirby Super Star for the SNES! Speaking of franchises I can never stop talking about, here’s Kirby! Six times! Please look forward to it!

Just shoot arrows at it