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FGC #613 Santa’s X-Mas Adventure & Hades

They're like the same gameSanta’s Xmas Adventure Complete Edition ostensibly should be the most Christmas-y game available for my Playstation 4. However, when Santa’s Xmas Adventure appeared on a Black Friday Sale, I also picked up a physical copy of Hades, a title about a dude trying to escape some pretty hellish circumstances. And you know what? Hades might just be the most yule title in the inventory right now.

So let’s see how ostensible Christmas title Santa’s Xmas Adventure stacks up to Hades.

Christmas is about Presents!

Santa’s Xmas Adventure is straightforward. You know the elves? And all the presents they make for children? Well, those Tolkien-rejects done messed up this holiday season, and now the presents are spread all over the North Pole. Santa must venture out into the cold all on his lonesome to retrieve the presents, and only once his sack is filled to the brim with gifts will Christmas truly begin. Go, Santa, collect all the presents for everlasting peace!

Very puzzlingExcept there is a significant step missing in this Santa’s Christmas quest: he doesn’t actually give any presents. While Santa collects all the lost presents, he patently ignores distributing the presents to all the good little boys and girls of the world. I understand that some Santa’s Xmas Adventure fanfic rectifies this issue by creating unique scenarios wherein Santa flies presents around the world at (apparently) the speed of light, but the actual game does not include any present delivery.

Meanwhile, Hades is lousy with present giving and receiving. Zagreus is going to fight his way through every last level of the Underworld on his way up to the surface, but he wouldn’t make it past his first surprisingly fast fat guy without a boon or two from the Olympians. Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, and a whole host of other gods are continually offering their assistance to Hades, and, while these boons are fairly random, they are indispensable when Zagreus is mowing down plague rats. Zagreus gets by with a little gifting from his friends.

But gifts are not a one way street! Zagreus may return the favor by offering gifts of his own to gods, friends, and skeletons. By the time Zaggy is making significant progress in his Sisyphean journey, he is bubbling back up at home with a whole host of presents for any friendly that happens to be skulking around the great hall. And is there anything more Christmassy than giving the family dog some extra pets and an ambrosia treato?

‘Tis better to give than to receive, and Zagreus knows that better than Santa.

Hades: 1
Santa’s Xmas Adventure: 0

Christmas is about making lists, checking them twice

Check it as many times as you needIt is right there in the song: he is making a list, and he is checking it twice. Santa is known for his list keeping, but isn’t this a tradition that has transferred to us mundane humans? Of course you are getting gifts for immediate family members, but which of your friends rank? Are you going to the Hallmark store for your coworkers? Did Debbie in accounting rank this year, but Judy at reception is right out? And don’t forget to weigh all of your buddies against shipping times! I know Jimmy is a fan of all those etsy stores, but you better order that custom keychain two months before his favorite holiday!

Hades is a rogue-like. In a way, Christmas is a rogue-like. You make progress, you do good, you do bad, and, no matter the end result, it is still going to be something you have to do again next year. And, in much the same way you gradually get better at giving your friends and family gifts (or just learning that some people are only ever worth a Shrek 12th Anniversary Commemorative Ornament), you will gradually get better at guiding Zagreus to the surface. And lists help! There are lists to spare in Hades, with everything from the prophecies that offer rewards for performing specific actions, to oodles of skills and abilities to upgrade. And, like in real life, the lists serve to simultaneously highlight your goals and allow you to make informed decisions. Sure, you might die if you do not get that triple attack bonus/a gift for Steve, but wouldn’t you rather score something so much more useless because it allows you to put another check next to a name on a list? You know what is really important, right?

Santa’s Xmas adventure just lists whether or not you have collected all the presents in a level, and how many presents you need to unlock the next area. Ho Ho Ho-Hum.

Hades: 2
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 0

Christmas is about Santa

Surely Santa’s X-Mas Adventure is going to score the point here! This is a game all about a magical bearded dude in a red robe who judges…

SANTA!

Okay, both games get a point for that one.

Hades: 3
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 1

Christmas is all about Winter

So icy!Santa’s X-Mas Adventure nails this one! Santa must trawl all along the North Pole to find his missing presents, and the environment is veritably the reason for the season. Santa’s home is known for its icy conditions, so that lends itself smoothly to sliding blocks around to make a path for jolly ol’ St. Nick. Granted, games have made the “slide blocks” concept work without blizzard conditions before, but it is nice to have an explanation for why your cursor can modify the landscape. Couple this with the endless snow during the game, and Santa’s X-Mas Adventure has got the Solstice Season down pat.

Except… well… It’s hard not to give Hades a point here, too. The concepts of temperature and seasons are woven so subtly into the narrative, it is impossible to ignore how Winter is just as important to the quixotic quest as a certain three-headed dog. Zagreus was born and raised in the underworld, so he literally does not understand an environment that is completely lacking in a steady stream of lava. Upon reaching the surface, Zagreus is shocked by the snowy landscape, and, from that point on, he gains the ability to utilize the cold (of grandma) as a chillingly effective offense. In the land of the hot, the cool is king! It may be hard to pin down an exact year for Hades’ origin, but it can be said with some finality that it takes place during a (the?) winter.

So, yes, everyone is a winner for this Winter Solstice.

Hades: 4
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 2

Christmas is all about the music!

I like it hereHades has some rocking tunes (played by one of the most famous bards in the business). Unfortunately for our rankings, Hades contains exactly zero verifiable Christmas songs. A tune or two may include some bell, but that is as good as it gets.

Santa’s X-Mas Adventure meanwhile… Wait… Dammit! There are no Christmas songs in this Christmas game. Terrible! I mean, nobody is demanding Mariah Carey do some licensing for a game that started out as a cell phone distraction, but could we grab a few public domain ditties for a little more Christmas cheer? A very chiptune Silent Night? A carol about caroling? Something?

Hades does not receive a point, and Santa’s X-Mas Adventure loses a point. This is the only fair path.

Hades: 4
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 1

Christmas is all about family!

All about the familyThere is the theory that if there was no Christmas, someone would invent Christmas. Christmas comes at what has historically been the worst time of the year; a time when the crops have all frozen, we must rely on the leftovers of whatever is immediately available, and, if you leave grandma outside too long, she’s not getting a tan, she’s losing a toe. It is only in the most recent years of human history that “the winter” was anything but a death sentence, so it is only natural that everyone would come together during these trying, annually precedented times and find a way to celebrate. Over the years, it has gone from celebrating what might be the last stretch available with loved ones to a time when Debbie from accounting xeroxes the bottom of her elf costume during company cocktails, but it is still a celebration in defiance of a world that seems to be trying to kill you and yours.

But it ain’t always pretty.

We humans huddle together with our tribe when facing brutality, whether that brutality come from unfeeling elements or other tribes. This does not mean our own “tribe” is a boundless fountain of love. This does not mean we even have to like our own tribe. It simply means that those that we band together with have the tiniest bit of empathy, and are going to be more useful in times of danger than a blanket made of angry weasels (Winter is rough, man). As everyone knows and is reminded this time of year, visiting family may lead to a warm bed and a few gifts, but it may also lead to conversations that remind you that you inadvertently belong to a “tribe” that also includes an unhealthy amount of hate, fear, and blockchain evangelists.

When you get down to it, Hades is about that same thing. Hades is the story of a father that lies for altruistic reasons, a son that demands to know the truth, and a mother that genuinely wants to help, but is too hurt to do so (or she doesn’t understand how boats work). Everyone else is trying to assist in some way or another… though sometimes that support varies from doling out boons from the heavens (which, ultimately, is the Ancient Grecian equivalent of mailing an Amazon gift card) to rounding up your sisters to actively attempt murder (the toughest of loves). Friend, foe, or puppy that desires satyr snacks, they are all cooperating with our hero in some way, and they all have their own motivations for doing so. And, in some of the most twisted ways, every one of these characters cares for Zagreus. They are a family. And Hades is about family at all times.

Santa’s X-Mas Adventure features a Santa that might not even have a family. This is a Santa Claus entirely alone in a cold, endless winter. This is a depressing Santa. Nobody wants that!

Hades: 5
Santa’s X-Mas Adventure: 1

Happy Holidays, everybody. Now go out and use those gift cards to score the hottest Christmas game available, Hades.

FGC #613 Santa’s X-Mas Adventure

  • Okay we're done with this nowSystem: This has to be a graduated mobile game, right? Regardless, there is definitely a Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 version. Maybe it was just designed for the Switch? Touch controls seem kind of natural…
  • Number of players: Santa is a lone (timber) wolf, baby.
  • So it’s a puzzle game? Yep, just move blocks so Santa can walk to the goal. You are supposed to gather presents along the way, but you don’t strictly have to do that to unlock graduating levels. Eventually, the game ends when the heat death of the universe guarantees that human life can no longer survive.
  • What’s in a name: This is definitely Santa’s X-Mas Adventure. One must assume that Santa’s Christmas Adventure was already taken. Either that, or Master Xehanort stole naming privileges.
  • Did you know? Frosty the Snowman, It’s Beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Let it Snow, and Little Drummer Boy are all copyrighted Christmas songs. The Wassail Song, We Three Kings, and Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella are all public domain. Choose wisely.
  • Would I play again: It is nice to see a game that is unashamedly cashing in on grandmas that don’t know what to get their videogame playing grandchildren. I appreciate that. This is a terrible, boring videogame, but I appreciate its Christmas chutzpah.

FGC #613 Hades

  • Bounce backSystem: Oh, good, a game with an actual Wikipedia entry… PC, Mac, Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series XS… Yes, this is the new Shovel Knight for “awesome and available on damn near everything”.
  • Number of players: It seems like finding some way to DLC two player content would be the exact kind of thing that would happen to this critical darling, but I think it remains single player.
  • So, did you beat it? I refuse to even acknowledge any “no boons, infinity heat” challenge runs that are out there, but I did see to it that this family could experience something like a happy conclusion. I mean, it really is kind of impressive that there is a legitimate “ending” for a game that is meant to loop infinitely.
  • Favorite Weapon: Exagryph, the Adamant Rail, is my end all and be all. In any game that puts a premium on health (well, technically, that’s every game, but something like Mega Man is a lot more generous with the healing), I am going to take the choice that allows me to win… but be way the hell over there. And some of the tracking powerups allow for a complete lack of aiming, which is great for my sniper-adverse ass.
  • Most Hated Boss, Oh my God: Theseus and his bull buddy can eat a whole trash bag of expired gyros. I conceptually understand that they are the “master class” for Elysium, and basically only use attacks that imitate the minions that were creeping around the afterlife for heroes. But! They’re both way too… is random the right word? It feels random! They might be as carefully patterned as every other boss, but, yes, that fight feels random, and that is the enemy of fun in a rogue-like. … Yes, I know rogue-likes are random incarnate! Shut-up!
  • PlinkDid you know? “Classical” Zagreus seems to be most remembered as the son of Zeus, not Hades. This is presumably because Zaggy’s mother is fairly consistently Persephone, and Hades’ involvement is nebulous when you’re talking about a guy that ultimately seems to have wound up as a Dionysus-esque party god. He’s generally associated with being dead or a god of the dead, though, so he is an excellent choice for a professional Hell escaper.
  • Would I play again: If I had played this game in 2020, it likely would have been my game of the year. Oh well! It’s still pretty damn amazing in 2021, though! Oh, speaking of which…

What’s next? The time has come yet again for the annual year end round up, so the first post of 2022 is going to be the best of 2021. Please look forward to it!

FGC #610 Samurai Shodown (Franchise)

So badassI have learned that I am here for the weirdos.

Samurai Shodown is not my franchise. I am a fighting game fan, and have been since I first saw a furry Soviet dude power slam some guy with too many skulls. But, by the time Samurai Shodown was appearing in my local arcade, there was already a myriad of options that more easily drew my attention. If I wanted a basic 2-D fighting game, I’d play Street Fighter 2. If I wanted to see a little super violence, I’d play Mortal Kombat. If I wanted to see a weapons-based fighter, I’d play Soul Edge/Soulcalibur. If I wanted to plug some quarters into a Neo Geo machine, I’d go with something along the lines of King of Fighters (Fatal Fury also qualifies there). Hell, even vaguely recognizable, possibly historical figures fighting was available in World Heroes, and that game had a mecha-Hitler you could pummel into the pavement. In short, Samurai Shodown held the unfortunate position of being a fighting game that looked pretty good, but was also popular at the exact same time some of the best fighting games of the era were receiving routine updates/players. Or, put another way, not only is Cammy going to grab my attention faster than Neinhalt Sieger, there are also a few more potential opponents crowded around her cabinet. Sorry, SamSho, I’ll get to you in another thirty years.

And… uh… here we are.

On my grand list of games I want to cover before this FGC project ends (I currently claim I am stopping at FGC #655… a full hundred articles past the last point I said I would stop…), I have a meager handful of fighting games remaining. Every title from that first paragraph has been examined and reexamined (sometimes ad nauseum), so now we are down to fighting games that are… let’s say… exploratory? Games wherein I do not have encyclopedic knowledge of ridiculous plots or muscle memory that will allow me to toss out down-downforward-forward-punch fireballs until three years after I’m dead. Some of these “unexplored” games on the list are amusing misfires, but I will admit I was expecting a lot of the Samurai Shodown franchise. After all, I had at least played this in the past, and, though these play sessions may have been tremendously shorter than any time I spent with Guilty Gear, they were enjoyable. And I always appreciated the Samurai Shodown characters that appeared in other games. That bird with the hawk? She seems nice! It should be fun and enlightening to play through the Samurai Shodown Neogeo Collection and see what this glorious franchise has in store.

And I found it… underwhelming.

Get 'em lil dudeTo be clear, “underwhelming” is the exact word for this situation. None of the Samurai Shodown titles appear to be outright bad. The gameplay primarily seems to be focused more on defense than offense, but, make no mistake, you can attain a victory by going in with swords blazin’. Or maybe no swords! Characters in most of the games seem to have two distinct playstyles: with or without weapon. Be disarmed as the result of a button mashing contest, and you have to rely on your fists for a moment or two, which makes for a fun change in tactics. It’s like you’re playing as two characters at once! I am always down for that! And, while the “Engrish” and general story is simultaneously noteworthy and forgettable, there is definitely something happening here. Bushido and all that riot is great, but I am going to stand at attention when some nerd cuts down a pair of trees without even trying. Oh, and who doesn’t like some random dude running around in the background of battles tossing off powerups? There is good stuff here in Samurai Shodown!

But it all felt very… slippery. Not talking about the controls, mind you, those are perfect and responsive. Just, somehow, the whole experience felt forgettable. Like whether my chosen samurai won was going to be quickly forgotten. Or, perhaps, how my fighter won was what would be forgettable. I understand that, once again, this is not my game, so it is entirely possible I was missing something, but the general reason I won any given match seemed nebulous. And, in a fighting game, that makes everything feel unusually light. Across the multiple Samurai Shodown games, there are multiple ways to win a match… Or… More accurately, there are multiple ways to practically instantly drain a life bar. And, while slicing off the limb of an opponent feels like it should be remarkable, when you stumble on “I guess that special move just does that sometimes” it feels… wrong. Did I really win? Or was that more of an accident than my usual victories? Whatever the root cause of the issue, this made the various SS titles feel insubstantial in their gameplay.

MAGIC!But that does not have to be the be all and end all of a fighting game. A fun cast can completely rescue confusing gameplay. The previously mentioned World Heroes was not a great game by any means, but it did include a football player fighting Jack the Ripper, so it more than qualifies for gold status. Samurai Shodown’s cast meanwhile… Well, it is hard to judge some of these characters in 2021, as, like Samurai Shodown itself, there are clear examples of “this was done better elsewhere” through the decades. Like World Heroes already had a pretty good Joan de Arc analogue, so Charlotte is lacking. Haohmaru, the games’ marquee hero, feels like a lesser Mitsurugi of Soulcalibur. Hanzo the ninja could not be any more generically “this is our ninja” if he tried, and I’d rather pick up Red Earth if that is all that is available. Weller the American “I wanna be Japanese” character is so much more distinctive as Bang of BlazBlue, and I’m pretty sure Kyoshiro Senryo was one of the final bosses in that Simpsons beat ‘em up. It is no wonder that Nakoruru wound up as the persistent Samurai Showdown rep, as “has a bird” separates her from much of her fighting game sorority (though her general “fighting shrine maiden” thing causes her to blend into the anime trope ether).

But there was one character that seemed tremendously less forgettable than his contemporaries: Genan Shiranui, aka the little green guy with a claw.

Get 'emArguably, this is another example of “done elsewhere”, as Genan and his obvious spiritual brother, Earthquake, both resemble SNK/King of Fighters characters Choi Bounge and Chang Koehan. And if you wanted to claim that it was a coincidence that there was a King of Fighters influence, please note that Genan’s surname is Shiranui, the same as Mai Shiranui, heroine of Fatal Fury and King of Fighters. And, oh yeah, Mai (or at least her identical, historically appropriate ancestor) outright appears in Genan’s Samurai Shodown (1) ending. So, ya know, wearing influences on their sleeve there.

But Genan is memorable all on his own. He is green. He is wearing torn clothing that tells more of a story with visuals than Jubei can hope to muster with an entire story mode. He is constantly licking a metal claw, which is probably unsanitary. His background involves implied cannibalism. He apparently has a pair of kids that hide in his sack-clothes. This is the exact kind of eccentricity I want from a fighting game character, and it was clear right from the first Samurai Shodown that Genan was gonna be my guy.

And then the franchise dropped him like a rotten potato as of Samurai Shodown 3. Dammit! Only two games for my green meanie!

While I tried to soldier on with some pale dork with blue hair… it just wasn’t the same. I have to assume that Genan was nixed in an effort to make Samurai Shodown slightly more realistic (in a universe where people routinely, graphically die before being revived by a quarter), or to pad out the roster with slightly more distinctively “Samurai Shodown” characters (there was that brief period in the 90’s when crossovers and/or homages were considered bad). Whatever the cause, Genan was gone before we truly knew ye, and, in his absence, everything about Samurai Shodown became slippery again. Oh, build up a rage meter to do super moves? Ho-hum. I don’t want red skin. I want it green, dammit! And, given how the franchise seemed to drift into generally more serious settings over time, I was convinced Samurai Shodown was never going to have an entry that was “for Goggle Bob”. Not the end of the world, there are plenty of fighting game franchises that I can enjoy; but it would be a hard confirmation that this wasn’t “for me”.

Then I got to Samuri Shodown 6. Then I got to this nonsense…

What is even happening here?

That appears to be some manner of ancient puppet automaton, and it is fighting… a dog. Just a dog.

I am here for that.

Samurai Shodown 6 is a “dream match” title that includes a playable version of practically every character that had appeared in Samurai Shodown up to that point. Genan is back. Earthquake is back. That big red guy that was a mix of Genan and Earthquake is back. The flag dude hidden character is back. And speaking of “hidden” characters, every pet and animal is playable, too. Are they effective? Not remotely. But sometimes you just want to play as a monkey. It worked for Eternal Champions (no it didn’t). And the new characters of Samurai Shodown 6, like a swan-turned-maid and a chubby guy who really likes fireworks, all exude a noticeable air of levity. Ocha-Maro Karakuri, that mobile puppet up there, seems positively mundane in a roster that includes an anime pretty boy that is based on historical jackass/president Andrew Jackson.

DO NOT LIKEAnd it wasn’t until I hit Samurai Shodown 6 that I realized that this kind of nonsense is exactly what I want. Who have I always gravitated towards in other fighting games? Blanka. Tung Fu Rue. Cyrax. The misfits. The absolute last fighter I ever pick is your typical Ryu or Bruce Lee clone du jour. My favorite fighting game is a title wherein you can have a multi-tentacled god team up with a teeny tiny robot servant working alongside a member of S.T.A.R.S. This is why the other Samurai Shodown titles seemed boring to me! I simply cannot enjoy a videogame unless the character select screen includes a healthy number of people that have absolutely no business being in any sort of polite society, left alone a videogame (sorry, Dr. Faust, you know it is true). Apparently I do not care if there is an amazing combo system, intuitive gameplay, or the best netcode in the universe. All I want is some dork cosplaying as Freddy Krueger (and, no, actual Freddy doesn’t count).

Is Samurai Shodown ever going to be “my” fighting game franchise? No. But does it remind me what I actually want in a fighting game? Absolutely. Give me a little green weirdo any day of the week, and I’ll give your game a fair shake.

And if you want to have a brand new, modern edition of your franchise, and you choose to drop said weirdo? Well, don’t expect me to buy a season pass anytime soon…

FGC #610 Samurai Shodown (Franchise)

  • OuchSystem: Samurai Shodown is supposedly the fighting game that put the Neo Geo on the map. But I don’t see no King of Samurai ’99 on my Playstation! Whatever! The franchise has been on practically every system from a certain epoch (take a look at that Gameboy version sometime), but the collection is currently available on (mostly) modern consoles like Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One. Most of what you see here is via Switch and PS4.
  • Number of players: This isn’t Super Samurai Bros, so two players.
  • Who let the dogs out? Perhaps, once you get past the violence, rage, and weapon-combat, the defining characteristic of Samurai Shodown is how many fighters have pets and other auxiliary sprites as “backup”. It would certainly explain why bird-lady is so heavily featured in crossovers…
  • Favorite Character (not the green guy): It’s the red guy. Youkai Kusaregedo is a gigantic monster that first appeared in Samurai Shodown 5. He is described as an undead devil that was a “very kind man” in life, but was also a cannibal. That… is certainly a type of kind. Regardless, now he is a hulking beast, and I am only mildly disturbed by the fact that his canon story is that, in a fit of hunger, he devoured his pregnant daughter. I like playing as him, but I’m not inviting him to Christmas dinner anytime soon.
  • Land of the Rising Fun: I am required by law to note my favorite bit of Engrish from Samurai Shodown 2.

    Funster!

    As a noted funster, this had to be logged.

  • Lost in Translation: Maybe Samurai Shodown is supposed to be funny, but got lost in translation? Like, there are some goofy, tropey fighters skulking around, and maybe their intrinsic humor doesn’t come through in a different culture. Nicotine Caffeine has to have something going on here.
  • Let's go nutsThe Black Swan: Iroha is a scantily clad maid premiering in Samurai Shodown 6. She was previously a swan, but transformed into a woman wielding guillotines so as to get closer to her master. And that master? They are supposed to be the player. So, yes, this character is a walking fetish in more ways than one. Is it any wonder she got her own spin off game, and was some of the earliest DLC for the latest Samurai Shodown?
  • Favorite Samurai Shodown Title: As if it was not obvious, Samurai Shodown 6 wins here. The recently released Samurai Shodown 5 Gold is very close to 6’s complete nonsense, but, to my knowledge, you cannot play as a dog in Gold. You can do that in 6. Twice.
  • Did you know? The one character that had been previously playable but is not in Samurai Shodown 6 is Hikyaku, the delivery man that runs through the background in other Shodown titles. He was playable in the Gameboy port of Samurai Shodown as a bonus for anyone that deigned to play a Neo Geo fighting game on the friggen’ Gameboy, but was never available on a big boy system. If you are unfamiliar with the Samurai Shodown franchise, Here we go againjust imagine a playable version of the postman from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. This is also a likely explanation for why he was never seen again.
  • Would I play again: There are so many good fighting games out there! Maybe I’ll hit the modern SamSho when all the DLC is on sale/includes my boy.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… The Misadventures of Tron Bonne! We’re going to go on a misadventure, Miss Tron! Please look forward to it!

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 #601 Psychonauts 2

This article contains spoilers for Psychonauts 2, primarily in regard to a lore twist that is learned approximately halfway through the game. If you have had long conversations with Ford Cruller, you know what I am talking about. Anyway, you have been warned…

THE PSYCHONAUTS!My grandfather was the eldest of seven brothers. As confirmed by those granduncles and practically our entire extended family, my grandfather was always known as a generally kind man who was also very quick to anger. And everyone thought this was wholly justified! He had to “keep in line” his younger, male siblings with very little help from a father growing up, and then he was a navy man just in time for World War II. He spent all day on a boat with a metaphorical collection “brothers” that all had to be disciplined and controlled, and… well… I don’t know if you have ever dealt with a man before, but they can get kind of rowdy. So is it any wonder that his experiences from childhood to young adulthood stayed with him his entire life? You cannot just “turn off” the person you have been for twenty years, and if that means you occasionally must throw your drunken brother-in-law off a balcony to make a point about being civil at dinner parties, so be it (also, in my grandfather’s [legal] defense, it was not a particularly high balcony). My grandfather lived to be older than most, and, even through to the age when he was frequently napping in the living room lounger, his whole family continued to have explanations for any temperamental shouting matches. He’s always been like that. That’s just who he is.

Until it wasn’t who he was.

Today’s game is the venerable/mythical Psychonauts 2. Psychonauts 2 is here! It was released! After 16 years of absolutely no Psychonauts (Gogglebob.com does not recognize the existence of virtual reality), here is Psychonauts all back again. And it is no exaggeration to say that Psychonauts is “back”, either. If your number one complaint about Psychonauts is that it never should have ended, Psychonauts 2 has got you covered with everything from the original, and a host of quality-of-life improvements to round out an “and then some”. Psychonauts 2 starts with a Raz that already knows the essential skills from Psychonauts 1 (sorry, invisibility, I said essential), and escalates from there with confidence that the audience does not need an entire level to understand PSI blasts again. All new abilities are then introduced, challenges are expanded, and, by the end, Raz will be thought-grappling while bossing a clone around with the best of ‘em. It is remarkable all on its own that Psychonauts 2 is simultaneously exactly more of the same, and something wholly new and different. This is the game Super Mario Bros. 2 could have been! If that wasn’t awful!

Connect the thoughtsAnd I would be remiss if I did not note that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Psychonauts was one in a seemingly endless parade of collectathons that had been going strong for ten years when it was released back in 2005. But now it seems like the idea of searching environments for hard-to-find collectibles has fallen by the wayside, and Psychonauts 2 is an example of a lamented evolutionary dead-end that that did not survive to see 2021. Chasing figments or hooking hidden keys to hidden chests feels simultaneously antiquated and refreshing when the best other titles of this era can manage is a sidequest or two where you must rescue three cats. Three cats!? You lifestream-addled morons! This friggen’ foyer has 17 tickets to find, and five more scavenger hunt items just to add a little flavor. Is this the kind of gameplay that is sustainable for title after title demanding you achieve 101% to see a marginally satisfactory ending? No. Of course not. That’s why so many people in Liberty City had mental breakdowns when photographing graffiti and seeing a “1/5,000 found” notification. But now, as likely the one game this year that is going to ask you to achieve “Rank 102”, it is a much easier pill to swallow.

But a collectathon can only work if there are interesting worlds in which to do your collecting. Mario 64 had portraits that doubled as portals, Banjo Kazooie had entire realms inside its haunted castle (wait… that was just the same as Mario…), and Psychonauts has always been about exploring the mind. And abstract psychological concepts are fertile ground for a dungeon or ten! Psychonauts 1 featured bipolar disorders transformed into theatres and Napoleon complexes transferred to gigantic boardgames. Psychonauts 2 ups the ante (literally) with hospital-casinos, gameshows, and germ-riddled bowling alleys (uh… that is better than it sounds). It is a joy to explore these abstract worlds with concrete platforming abilities, and slingshotting over a gap to find some emotional baggage or sneaking under a bridge to find a bright idea is consistently pleasant. These “mindscapes” are beautifully realized from a conceptual and level-design standpoint, and every opportunity to enter a new level feels like a gift. Look, Ma, now I can jump in this crazy bee lady’s brain! Wonder what I’m gonna find there!

But there is one important difference between Psychonauts 1 and Psychonauts 2…