Tag Archives: Koji Igarashi

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 #524 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2

Note: This article will contain spoilers for Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2. And maybe a few for Curse of the Moon 1 while we’re at it. The spoilers will be kind of dry, but there is discussion regarding the final boss, so you have been warned.

Aw, my blood got stainedToday, we’re going to talk about comradery, and wanting to jump in a bottomless pit when your buds aren’t around.

Previously on Gogglebob.com: I played Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (1), and declared it the greatest thing since the invention of the magical whip. It took the basic concept of Castlevania 3, refined it to more modern sensibilities, and created an experience that was at once familiar and entirely new. What initially looked like a simple retread of an 8-bit title quickly blossomed and revealed itself to be so much more. And a significant factor in that bombshell was the general surprise of how all the characters could be utilized in wildly different ways. Miriam could be an expert ally with amazing agility and attack range, or you could sacrifice her on the end of your blade and gain a new attack. Your choice! And the levels were designed for any and all choices, so you could technically tackle the tower with a Zangetsu flush with companions or little more than a piddly sword. Play on Casual Mode if you stick to only the sword! You’ll thank me later!

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 could have repeated the (exemplary) pattern of its progenitor. This could have been another expertly crafted game where you have a choice between joining some pals, going alone, or forfeiting friends for even greater abilities. Maybe throw in an extra boss for some particular “runs”, and call it a day. Zangetsu is a generally aloof protagonist, anyway, so even after his “real story” was released, a tale of Zangy equally joining or rejecting a dog in a mech wouldn’t be seen as a departure for the character/franchise. And the only reason we got B:CotM2 was because B:CotM1 was unbelievably well-liked, so a sequel that is “more of the same” would be wholly acceptable.

But no, Curse of the Moon 2 distinctly sets itself apart from its predecessor. CotM2 is a game about friendship, and relying on others.

Buzz buzzThe first difference here is obvious: you can’t not have a buddy in Curse of the Moon 2. Whether you want her or not, Dominique is going to be joining your quest after the first level. Robert is enlisting after a fight with Princess Toadstool. And Hachi the dog is going to be your constant companion after punching a train. These are your cohorts, and you’re stuck with them for the adventure. And that’s good for the player, ultimately, as the obstacles of CotM2 are built for a full party. It’s not just about Robert’s gun or Dominique’s spear being useful on occasion, it’s about how all the allies can work in concert to reach new and unexpected areas. Dominique uses her pogo jump to reach a high wall, Robert clings to the side for a moment, and then Hachi horizontally hovers to a valuable powerup. We’re all buds working toward a common goal! CotM1 seemed built for different characters to clear different paths, but challenges were generally constructed for allies working separately (give or take some transitive spells). Alfred’s fire shield could get you past a barrage of arrows, but Miriam, Gebel, or Zangetsu would be completely flummoxed by such a barrier, and be effectively useless. The same question in CotM2 could have multiple answers (Robert’s crawl, Hachi’s invincibility), so it seems the designers decided to add additional “challenges” to the same problem. Now you’ll need Hachi’s berserk mode, but then quickly switch to Dominique’s pogo spear to avoid taking a hit from another opponent. Everybody is working together so well!

And that is probably a big influence on why losing a comrade in CotM2 leads to some very… deadly situations.

Watch those tentaclesBoth CotM1 and CotM2 have the same “lives” system. In normal mode (Veteran? We’re calling it that? Am I old?), losing a “life” while playing as a particular character does not mean your precious life counter depletes, it simply means the impacted character is taken off the board. In order to lose an entire life, literally every character has to perish. In many cases, this is an ideal setup, as simply losing a companion means you can respawn somewhere close to your death (rooms aren’t all that big), while an entire lost life means being set back to a candle that resets a full third of the level. And losing a companion isn’t hard! Alfred or Robert both have health meters that would qualify as uninsurable preexisting conditions, and practically every character has issues with knockback. It doesn’t matter if you’re navigating those haunted corridors with perfect precision, if the wrong bird bumps into you at the wrong time, you’re going down in the drink. And that’s it for your chosen buddy!

But, while the systems in both games may be the same, the worlds of CotM1 and CotM2 couldn’t be more different. CotM1 was built for one hero at a time, but CotM2 continually introduces challenges that encourage cycling through your entire repertoire. One hallway is filled with frogs that require stomps from a robo-dog, the next room is lousy with axe knights that could stand to be introduced to a rifle, and then you need the spear of a nun to take out rows of wannabe zombies. You are continually and constantly thrust into situations where you have to use the full party in CotM2. But what happens when you don’t have a full party? Well, it gets dicey. When you need a ranged attack, and all you have is a sword that could barely qualify as a letter opener, you’re going to have a bad time. When you can see a high path overhead, but your bounding beauty is otherwise engaged with Death, you’re stuck knowing you missed out on a We're working togetherbetter route. And then, ultimately, what’s the point? Your favored companion is gone, it is going to be a pain in the ass to make it across these chandeliers as Robert, why not end it all? Just toss yourself in a pit and be done with it. You might lose a little progress, but you’ll be reunited with your friends in death.

And it seems like a terrible moral, but that seems to be the point of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2.

There are four chapters in CotM2. Each “chapter” is basically a run through the same levels (give or take a little variability for the final level/boss), and is lengthy enough that it would be considered an entire game back in the olden days. The first chapter sees Zangetsu’s initial assault on demon-kind, and, as the levels progress, he gains new companions and skills. At the end of this initial chapter, one of his new friends is devil-napped, and the remaining group decides to venture through Chapter 2 to perform a rescue. This creates an interesting situation wherein you now have 3/4s of the party from the start, but, since one companion is missing for the entirety of the chapter, said ally’s absence is continually felt as early as the second level. And, depending on if Zangetsu is diligent in using his current allies to find fresh, hidden paths, it is entirely possible Chapter 2 will be a complete failure, and then Zangetsu will be forced to tackle a third chapter with an entirely different host of partners. These new buddies (or old buddies, as they are the cast of CotM1) offer many different options to separate them from their metaphorical descendants… but they’re still not the same companions you’ve been utilizing for the previous two chapters, so situations where “oh, Robert would be great here” quickly erode into a feeling of “Aw, I miss Robert”. Finally, after all that, the final chapter is unlocked, and now you have the option of using the entire party of both games, but you have to pick and choose who you’re going to “rescue” from each level before tackling the final challenge. You miss Hachi? Well, go get ‘em! You could have a full party of everybody, or simply make a beeline to the finale with only your trusty sword to guide you. Hey! For the first time in CotM2, you have a choice! It took a while, but we’re back to the freedom of CotM1!

Except… you don’t have a choice. You never had a choice.

It's too hot todayThere’s something else new in CotM2 that hasn’t been mentioned yet: between every level, there is a brief scene between the current members of Zangetsu’s party. In snippets of life that only take seconds at a time, we initially see reluctant associates begrudgingly tolerating each other between battles. Then, when one is taken from them, the remainder mourns, but resolves to see the situation (and their hearts) mended. When Zangetsu is reunited with the familiar cast of his first adventure, they spend their downtime laughing and jocularly carving ice sculptures (as you do). And, finally, when everyone has convened to build a spaceship to fly up and murder the moon, conversations between the assembled hunters seem fun and lighthearted. Everyone fights evil across multiple dungeons, yes, but they actively become friends during that time. To ignore the bonds that have been formed would be as unbecoming as ignoring how many shortcuts Gebel can use when he transforms into a bat.

But even if you do ignore the obvious fact that Alfred is going to invite this whole gang to his wedding, you can’t escape your companions. Since the option finally becomes available during the final chapter, you may assume that taking Zangetsu alone to the final battle would result in a unique, albeit lonely, ending like CotM1. Unfortunately for all the dedicated loners out there, that does not happen. Zangetsu may approach the finale of CotM2 alone, but his companions will return for the ultimate battle, and they will assist Zangetsu whether he likes it or not. In the end, whether you decide to retrieve the best pup (and the rest of those hangers-on) doesn’t matter: the bonds you’ve formed are going to be there regardless.

This is familiarSo maybe it’s appropriate that losing an ally during a level feels like a setback every time. Maybe diving into instant death to retrieve a buddy is right in a game that puts such an overt emphasis on friendship and comradery. Maybe the fact that you absolutely have to rely on your party, one way or another, is the most distinct way Curse of the Moon 2 chose to distinguish itself from its predecessor. This is your traditional “8-bit sequel” that reuses monsters, characters, and other assets; but it also found a new and interesting way to present its franchise. Curse of the Moon 2 is its own animal with its own moral about the importance of friendship and the necessity of relying on others.

… Or you can just unlock solo mode, and ignore the whole thing…

But still!

FGC #524 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2

  • System: Looks like this one is on the Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. Did it make it to the Vita this time? No it did not.
  • Number of players: And just to add to the friendship, this game is two-player simultaneous. I would really like to try that sometime! Apparently it even allows for a Tails-esque “mascot” second player! They got my letters!
  • BiteyFavorite Character: I really want to say Hachi the Dog. He’s awesome, and his hover and nigh-invulnerability is always useful. That said, Robert seems like the most unique member of the cast (more so than the dog riding a robot? Really?), and his crawl, rifle, and wall jump are all extremely…. I guess “interesting” would be the right word. I didn’t use him as much as the rest of the cast, but I wanted to figure out where he would work best, and that means a lot in this well tread genre. He’s new and different, so the Mega Man X character gets second place. … Or maybe I’m just partial to Bobs
  • Favorite Boss: Once again, the official website apparently names most of the bosses. And they’re pretty neat! It seems like the “sub” Bloodstained games put a lot of macabre thought into their monster messes. Titankhamun, the giant mummy, wins my vote here, as he’s responsible for a frantic battle that rewards Robert’s participation. Projectiles can come in handy when your opponent is filling the screen with ‘em!
  • Boss Rush: Speaking of which, unlocking the Boss Rush after clearing the advanced versions of the bosses on parade like four times, and then starting the actual challenge with the “original” bosses is… a little confusing. I literally don’t remember the first chapter at this point! How was that dragon supposed to work again?
  • Begin Again: Is there ever an explanation for why the ever-changing gang has to retreat back to the first stage for every new chapter? I mean, aside from it being an excuse to play through the whole of the game again? It seems like that volcano would be a pretty safe place to rest and regroup…
  • I can hear these blocksGoggle Bob Fact: I wasn’t planning on reviewing this game after the original Curse of the Moon. This is mainly because I feel like I review way too many Castlevania games as it is. … Or… almost Castlevania games. Regardless, the friendship factor was pretty interesting, so congratulations to the Curse of the Moon 2 staff on actually making something new and interesting for the franchise(ish).
  • So, did you beat it? As if you can’t tell from the spoilers-abound, yes, I beat every last route and option within said routes. However, I’m not going to tackle the freshly updated higher difficulty levels, because this game is hard enough on Veteran mode. Zangetsu can barely survive this horrible night to have a curse as it is!
  • Did you know? With current technology, it is impossible for a Welsh Corgi to pilot a robot. I’m sorry.
  • Would I play again: It would be pretty fun to see how Ultimate Zangetsu completely wrecks house through Chapter One. Hmmmm…..

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Parodius! Is… Is that the franchise, or a particular, never-localized game, ROB? I have to figure something out? Okay, fine. Stupid robot. Guess we’ve got Parodius up next, somehow, gang. Please look forward to it!

Good dog
Third best commute I’ve ever seen

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 #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