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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

MKK: Drahmin & Moloch & Mokap & Nitara

Look out!

Drahmin and Moloch are a couple. To be specific, they’re a couple of oni. Oni are a specific “breed” of demon in the Netherrealm (home to Scorpion, Quan Chi, and Adolf Hitler). They have a codependent, Jay and Sadistic Bob-esque relationship. Their place in the story was that they assisted Quan Chi in escaping the torture of Scorpion, but were left behind when Quan Chi actually made his way out of that literal hell. Shang Tsung, ever scheming to have a backup plan (because he fails so often), decided to keep the oni on speed dial, and turn their feelings of betrayal against Quan Chi should the need ever arise. Of course, Shang Tsung is an equally awful employer, so he just kept Drahmin and Moloch in the basement, waiting for a revenge that ultimately would never come. Sorry, guys. Other than tossing Scorpion into the Soulnado during their lunchbreak, Drahmin and Moloch didn’t do much for anybody, least of all themselves.

Drahmin is the more mundane of the two oni. Apparently he was born a human, but became the most hated of all creatures in this or any other realm: a landlord. He was damned to the Netherrealm for holding people’s homes as a commodity, and eventually mutated into an oni. He wears a magical mask that restores rational thought, but if he removes the mask, he becomes a mindless, vicious monster that posts on Reddit about the graphical fidelity of high-definition consoles well into the morning hours. He also has a spiked club permanently bonded to his right arm, and is constantly circled by a swarm of demonic flies. He has a tinder profile, but no one ever swipes right.

He's got a ball!

Moloch is the “monster” sub-boss of MK: Deadly Alliance. Like Goro, Kintaro, and Motaro before him, he is meant to be a brick wall before facing the real final boss(es) of the title. Moloch was born an oni (I have no idea how that works) and he has a gigantic stature, three eyes, blue skin, and a wrecking ball that he holds in the palm of his claw. As of this writing, he is the last “giant monster” sub boss that was introduced in the franchise, as future games either used gimmicky humans (like a team of Noob & Smoke), reused previous big bosses (say hello to Goro again forever), or saved their big guy for the real finale (behold the glory of Blaze).

Drahmin and Moloch both return for MK: Armageddon, but no one bothers to explain where they’ve been since MK: Deadly Alliance. I guess they just hung out in the basement when the temple exploded? Or they went back to Hell for some… Hell snacks? Whatever. The franchise doesn’t care, and neither do I. Drahmin and Moloch both seem to exist as an excuse to wedge some more visually interesting kharacters into the roster, but there isn’t much there beyond “Hell’s enforcers”.

He lost his ball!

Mortal Kombat 9 and onward seems to agree with me, too. Moloch and Drahmin are beheaded at Quan Chi’s behest in the MKX comics. This might be kanon, as Moloch’s severed head is tossed out as an opening taunt by Quan Chi during some Mortal Kombat X intros. But Moloch’s corpse also appears in Goro’s Lair in Mortal Kombat 11. And he’s got a head! This is so confusing! Maybe that’s just some other, somehow less interesting oni. Though I don’t see how any creature could be less interesting than Moloch…

Oh, wait, my bad. There is a kharacter less interesting than Moloch. Here’s Mokap.

Flawless

Mokap is a motion capture (get it?) actor that is inexplicably pulled into Mortal Kombat tournaments. He’s the super-secret kharacter of MK: Deadly Alliance, and he’s pretty much just there as a goof. Apparently he’s a tribute to Carlos Pesina, the motion capture actor for Raiden in the original MK Trilogy. This is kind of amusing, as Carlos is the brother of Daniel Pesina, the actor who played Johnny Cage (and Scorpion/Sub-Zero), who became such a persona non grata at Midway, the writers revenge-killed Johnny Cage like sixty times in two games. Oh, dang, I guess this trivia does make him more interesting than Moloch.

Regardless, Mokap is technically, kanonically present for two Mortal Kombat games (MK: Deadly Alliance and then MK: Armageddon), but he doesn’t actually impact anything. Given he doesn’t seem to be dead, he probably didn’t actually fight anybody, and just got the heck out of dodge once he saw a dude chuck a fireball across the arena. Smart guy.

Anybody left in Deadly Alliance? Hopefully somebody actually interesting? Oh! I remember now! The vampire lady!

ORB!

Now, this is entirely conjecture, but I’ve always had the floating theory that MK: Deadly Alliance was originally conceived as a Vs.-style tag-team fighting game. I’ve never seen any real evidence of this being the original intent, but it seems like nearly all of the fighters have thematic or general reasons to be paired up in duos across the roster. To wit:

· Shang Tsung and Quan Chi are the titular Deadly Alliance
· Kung Lao and Kitana are the “good” opposite numbers to the Deadly Alliance
· Johnny Cage and Raiden are the other obvious heroes in Liu Kang’s absence
· Sub-Zero and Frost are master and student
· Bo’ Rai Cho and Li Mei are Outworld buddies that wind up as master and student
· Sonya Blade and Jax are Special Forces comrades
· Mavado and Hsu Hao are the Red Dragons
· Kenshi and Kano are both being hunted by the Red Dragons
· Drahmin and Moloch are the oni duo
· Mokap and Blaze are the secret fighters
· And Reptile and Cyrax are the “masterless” wanderers that have teamed up at the behest of a vampire

These pairings account for the entire roster save two kharacters: Scorpion, the eternal loner (until he becomes un-undead later in the series), and Nitara, the vampiress that has successfully tricked Reptile and Cyrax into doing her dirty work. Do Scorpion and Nitara have anything to do with each other? Not in the least. Am I implying that there should have been some contrived reason for these two to team-up? Of course not. But what I am saying is that if Nitara did have a partner in some way, maybe she’d be part of the MK mythos for more than about thirty seconds.

ORB!

First of all, Nitara is definitely a vampire. It’s her race. She’s got wings, she drinks blood, and the Sun of Earthrealm will kill her. But she is allowed to wander around Outworld’s purple haze with impunity. Unfortunately, she’s pretty much stuck in Outworld, because her home realm, Vaeternus, was conquered some centuries ago. But there is a way out! Apparently some glowy orb hidden in lava is the only thing keeping Vampire World tethered to Outworld! If Nitara could find a way to shatter this orb, she’d be able to return to Castlevania with impunity. And Nitara had a plan for that! She just needed one robot, and a lizard man to help control the robot. Where was she going to find one of those…

Luck smiled on Nitara the day she found Reptile. She bribed the cold-blooded warrior with a sword of his ancestors (she actually found the thing in a Cracker Jack box, and Reptile knew this, but he was just happy to receive a gift from anybody), and demanded he incapacitate Cyrax, a robot man that had wandered into Outworld in pursuit of something to do. Reptile obeyed, and this left Cyrax damaged and without a way home, so Nitara made a deal with the cyborg: retrieve this orb dealy in a lake of lava, and I’ll send you home. Cyrax trusted Nitara completely (robots and vampires always get along [it’s in the Bible]), performed her task, and was sent home without so much as a kiss on the robo-cheek. Nitara destroyed the orb, her realm was instantly separated from Outworld, and she awoke back on the (presumably not at all sunny) shores of Vaeternus. Happy ending all around!

Nitara then found an excuse to return for Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, as she had to defeat Ashrah, a demon from Mortal Kombat: Deception that was making it her job to kill anything demonic or demon-adjacent. Apparently vampires qualified. Nitara set off to defeat Ashrah, but, like everybody else in MK:A, she died in the melee. And she didn’t even get to be revived in the new Mortal Kombat universe or comic book. Her last known whereabouts involve MK11 Erron Black casually noting that they used to date. Hey! There would be a good tag-team partner!

Oh, and that orb thingy? Turns out that was the incubation “egg” for the revival of the Dragon King. When Nitara broke it, she freed her realm, but she also released a spirit that possessed Reptile and transformed him into Onaga, the Once and Future King of Outworld. How did that work out? Well…

Next time: Onaga and his favorite idiot.

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

Get on the mana train!Once again, this old man is wondering about the world that may have been.

Today’s game is Trials of Mana, the sequel to the venerable Secret of Mana (and descendant of Final Fantasy Adventure). Unlike practically every other title in the Mana franchise (did you know there was a TRPG? Oh, and that weird “action” one for the PS2?), Trials of Mana follows Secret of Mana in an iterative manner. Secret of Mana was a gigantic mess of ideas slapped together for a hypothetical/doomed system that was never meant to materialize, and, yeah, it kind of played like something that was never really prepared for the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, I will defend the fun of Secret of Mana until my dying day (I’m considering an epitaph that reads “Here rests Goggle Bob, and Secret of Mana was good, actually”. It’s the only way future generations will know!), but even I know in my heart of hearts that the game is a hot mess. The battle system is half-baked, the world itself has a number of “cutting room floor”-based dead ends, and the plot is a hodgepodge of different concepts that eventually culminates with a skeleton wizard out of nowhere. Trials of Mana seems like an honest attempt to take the best ideas from Secret of Mana, improve on them, and produce a game that could be its “intended form” from the start of its production. Does it work? Well… mostly.

LOOK OUTFirst of all, let’s address the biggest issue with Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana: magic sucks. There is no “quick casting” in either title, and, whether you want to cast a simple healing spell or summon a meteor from hell to rain unholy destruction upon the battlefield, you’re stuck cycling through random menus, waiting for casting, and then pausing any and all action while the spell animation completes. Trials of Mana works slightly differently from Secret; Secret would freeze only the target of most spells, while Trials freezes all of the action on the screen for every single casting. And, against all odds, somehow both systems are the absolute worst. When your opponent is frozen in Secret, you can just pile on the commands (and faerie walnuts) to stunlock your opponent into oblivion. It’s not very… strategic. This is avoided in Trials of Mana, but the constant, never-ending pauses thanks to friends and foes casting spells completely obliterates any sort of combat flow. And Trials somehow makes the worst even worse, as many bosses are programmed to counter magic spells, but, thanks to the inherent lag in the magic-freezing, it’s very difficult to perceive the if/then of countering that is inevitably going to get your party killed. So, if you somehow wound up with a mage on your team, maybe it’s best to let them sit there and do nothing, because it’s always fun to have a character on the roster that is (going to make you) dead weight.

Though maybe it would be a good idea to take a look at the whys of whether or not a mage is currently weighing down your team. Not unlike many games of yesterday and today, Trials of Mana starts with a clutch of unfamiliar characters, and you are asked to choose half of them to be your traveling party. The first character you select becomes the focal protagonist of the adventure, and the second two both play out their signature stories in brief, “aside” arcs. To be clear, this does not employ the modern/Dragon Quest method of having a main character that is 100% meant to be a player avatar that eventually earns some narratively well-defined, though multi-choice, companions; no, in this case, six different playthroughs of Trials of Mana could potentially feature six wildly dissimilar protagonists. And the difference isn’t merely cosmetic: each of the heroes has their own hopes and dreams, but more importantly, they have their own final dungeons and final bosses. CENSOR THISThere are three “pairs” of overlapping finales within the full cast of six, so it would technically require three different complete cycles through Trials of Mana to see every last dungeon and enemy the title has to offer. And, yes, if you’re curious about every story in the Trials of Mana universe, you’re going to need six different runs of a 15-20 hour game (good news: you’ll probably cut that down to ten hours by your fourth quest).

This, naturally, brings us to the topic of alternate realities.

There are six protagonists in Trials of Mana, but only one hero can ever wield the singular, titular (in Japan) Mana Sword. And, as mentioned, each pair of heroes has a unique antagonist. Riesz and Hawkeye, for instance, battle a vampire, a cat lady, and some manner of plant prince; meanwhile, Kevin and Charlotte are pitted against a murder clown and another damn skeleton wizard. Naturally, it is the choice of protagonist that determines the final boss, and the other antagonists are forced to screw off and die at the midpoint of the adventure to make room for the real big bad should they not be the focus of the story. It just wouldn’t do for Riesz to not battle the woman that murdered her parents, so, sorry Gourmand, you’re going to have to leave now. Where do murder clowns go where they die? Batman should look into it.

However, this creates some interesting plot gulfs for our potential heroes. Take Duran, the stalwart knight of Trials of Mana. If Duran is the hero of the piece, he fights against the nefarious Dragon Lord and his disciple, the Darkshine Knight. Eventually, Duran learns that the mysterious Darkshine Knight is in fact his father, a knight named Loki who once fought against the Dragon Lord, and was presumed dead by his best friend, the good King Richard. To say the least, the relationship between the orphaned Duran and his now malevolent father is a bit strained, but it all works out for the best when Duran and Darkshine Loki reconcile and the Dragon Lord is tossed down a conveniently located open shaft to nowhere. Or something. Look, what’s important is that Duran gets an amazing amount of closure on the whole psychologically traumatized orphan thing, and Darkshine Knight gets to die knowing that his son has grown into a noble, strong, Level 40 young man. … Or he doesn’t, because Duran wasn’t the main character, and all he does is stand motionless in the throne room as a completely forgettable NPC. Getting better!In this situation, the Dragon Lord is slain by whoever winds up being the real big bad, and Darkshine sticks around long enough to deliver a dragon obituary before peacing out to nonexistence. Duran never learns of his lineage, and Loki never sees his son again. Oh well! He’s not the main character! Don’t worry about it, audience! Somebody else got a happy ending! Just be happy with that!

But that’s the kind of thing that inevitably bothers me. Sure, it’s only one iteration of the story, but, in one universe, Duran is left not knowing for the rest of his life. He could have been a hero with a healthy memory of his undead father, but, no, now he’s likely going to be in therapy for the rest of his days. Poor dude didn’t get a faery companion, a father, or magical friends that may or may not be able to transform into werewolves. In one universe Duran is the Hero of Mana, in another, he can barely leave a room.

And in one universe, a young Goggle Bob played Trials of Mana. In another, he didn’t get to play the game “for real” until he was in his 30s.

Trials of Mana was never released in America (in this timeline). It did eventually receive a fan translation, though. I played that game on a creaky old laptop without a properly working soundcard (ah, college life), and, while I certainly enjoyed the experience, it wasn’t exactly all that notable. It was a Super Nintendo game being played concurrently with the heyday of the Playstation 2, and Trials of Mana didn’t come off as revolutionary when Grand Theft Auto 3 was also on the menu. And, yes, the format didn’t exactly help, as my beloved laptop (so beloved because it actually allowed me to not be glued to the computer lab at 3 am) was barely capable of supporting the full Mana experience. I played Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3) because I felt like I had to complete such an important part of Squaresoft history, not because I was anxiously looking forward to the next level.

And then, sometime in my 20’s, I managed to score a repro SNES cartridge of Secret of Mana 2 in English. I played it for about five minutes before growing weary of holding a SNES controller again.

They're asleep!Finally, a few weeks ago, Square-Enix deigned to release Trials of Mana for the Nintendo Switch in glorious American-o-vision. And, for the first time since I ice skated uphill against my old laptop over a decade prior, I played through the entirety of Trials of Mana. And it was rough. The music and graphics are still gorgeous, but all the quality of life improvements that modern JRPG/action titles have presented since the turn of the millennium are sorely missed. The class system is opaque, equipment juggling is unpleasant, and, let’s be honest, who has the time nowadays to complete an entire game three different ways for miniscule plot changes? There are two whole dungeons I missed on my playthrough? Who cares! I would have to complete 80% of the game again just to see a new variation on a cave? I’ll youtube that different final boss, thank you. I am a very important man with very important places to be. That fro-go place can barely open without me visiting!

But in 1995? Back then, this all could have worked. The era of the SNES saw a Goggle Bob with a significantly greater tolerance for bullshit. Back then, a new game only came down the pike (of my parents’ wallets) every six months or so, so a title with three different completely separate paths would have been more than welcome. Spell animations wouldn’t have bothered my young mind, because, I like the turtledamn, did you see those graphics? And the class system that practically requires a FAQ to enhance your party? You better believe I wouldn’t give a damn about proper character optimization. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word “optimization”! Probably literally!

In short: if Trials of Mana had been released in its proper epoch, it might have been one of my most beloved games. It might have been another Final Fantasy 6, Secret of Mana, or even Chrono Trigger.

There’s an entire other timeline out there where Trials of Mana is important to me. Here, in this reality, it is a random novelty that happened to show up on Nintendo Switch.

Trials of Mana, I’ll always wonder if you were meant for better things…

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

  • System: Nintendo Switch. It originally appeared on the Super Famicom in some lucky regions, though.
  • Number of players: Is there really multiplayer available for this game? I know there are reports that the remake won’t have multiplayer “like the original”, but I thought this was another Secret of Evermore situation where the original only had multiplayer thanks to enterprising modders. I’m going to tentatively call this one single player. Maybe it’s just two, but not three? Dammit.
  • What’s in a name: “Trials of Mana” may as well be nails on a chalkboard to my ears. It’s Seiken Densetsu 3, you jerks! Or Secret of Mana 2! Trials of Mana? Really? Because “Trials” starts with “Tri” and that’s marginally related to the number 3? Is that the best you could do? Obviously, the title should be Secret of Ma3a. I mean, duh. Come on, Square Enix, get on the Mana Beast.
  • Speaking of names: Don’t tell anyone, but I can’t even get my own naming conventions together:
    ERROR TYPE MISMATCH

    It’s a secret to everybody.
  • Favorite Hero: Kevin is a bruiser that can transform into a werewolf to cause even more bruises. And he can learn healing magic, so when he’s not bruising, he’s keeping the party alive. And he can learn a spell that transforms physical damage into MP refills, so his bruising can become an unlimited healing battery. Kevin is my hero.
  • An End: During the finale, the previously mentioned Super Werewolf Kevin learns that his best friend is still alive (because Kevin is really bad at identifying a heartbeat) and was accidentally buried alive (by Kevin), his mother is dead, and his father is a complete dick. Couple this with previously transforming his rival into a baby that wanders off into the woods, Kevin has a really weird life.
  • TOTES MCGOATSFavorite Benevodon: We’re really calling them that? Okay, fine. My vote goes to Dolan, the gigantic goat monster that scales an enormous tower just to reach out and touch some Mana Heroes. Also: you can’t tell me that Dolan wasn’t originally intended to be the God Beast (there!) of Darkness, as how could a gigantic goat not fit the ol’ dark arts?
  • Did you know? Heroes of Mana, a strategy RPG for Nintendo DS released in 2007, is a direct prequel to Trials of Mana. It features most of the parents of characters from Trials of Mana, and includes a number of locations and antagonists (a few of them in surprisingly heroic roles) as well. It’s kind of a shame that no one cared about the Mana franchise in 2007, so this title is almost entirely forgotten.
  • Would I play again: Probably! Never mind the upcoming remake, I will probably give another Trials story route a shot at some point. It might be a while, but the gameplay of Trials of Mana works well on the portable Switch, so I’ll probably play it again as one of those “I can play and watch TV” situations. I’ll save state the story scenes for when I have a spare moment to pay attention…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight! Let’s boogie! And put the gun down! Absolutely boogie without firearms! Please look forward to it!

RUN AWAY

FGC #418 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you know what? It’s doable.

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

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

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

FGC #418 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

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

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

Choo Choo!