Detailed design notes on Zelda, Castlevania and Mega Man
January 29, 2013 1:49 PM   Subscribe

The blog of video game journalist Jeremy Parish, ToastyFrog GameSpite, has four in-depth, stage-by-stage, exhaustive examinations of classic 8-bit game design: Castlevania, Castlevania II, The Legend of Zelda, and Castlevania III. They are required reading for prospective game designers. (Complete links inside. Mega Man fans, look here.)


Simon Belmont's graphics
Area 1 (entrance, Vampire Bat)
Area 2 (hallways, Medusa)
Area 3 (walls, Mummies)
Area 4 (tunnels & courtyard, Frankenstein's Monster & Igor)
Area 5 (armory, Death)
Area 6 (clock tower, Vampire Bat gauntlet, Dracula)
Shot Multipliers

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

Introduction & Premise
Hearts & Day Cycle
Villagers (the lying bastards and the Graveyard Duck)
Simon's abilities, enemy nerfing
Castlevania & Dracula

The Legend of Zelda

Level 1 (the door trick, Stalfos, Gels, Keeses, Goriyas, Bow, Boomerang, Aquamentus)
Level 2 (Ropes, Moldorms, Goriyas, Magic Boomerang, Dodongos)
Level 3 (Zols, Red Darknuts, Raft, Manhandla) and
Level 4 (Vires, Stepladder, two-headed Gleeok)
Treasure Listing
Level 5 (Gibdos, Blue Darknuts, Pol's Voice, bomb upgrade, Recorder, Digdogger)
Level 6 (Wizzrobes, three-headed Gleeok, Magic Wand, Red Gohma)
Level 7 (the "rest level", bomb upgrade, Aquamentus)
Secret Caves
Level 8 (Blue Darknuts, Blue Gohma, Magic Key, Magic Book, 4-headed Gleeok)
Level 9 (huge layout, Silver Arrow, Red Ring, Ganon)
Overworld Enemies
Underworld Enemies
Second Quest

Castlevania III
Block 1 (town ruins, Skeleton Knight)
Block 2 (optional level, town clock tower, going through the level twice, Grant)
Block 3 (misty forest & cliffs, Cyclops, collecting Sypha)
Block 4 Sypha (ship, Medusa, Mummies and Cyclops)
Block 5 Sypha (tower, Frankenstein's Monster)
Block 6 Sypha (the waterway, twin Skeleton Dragons)
Block 7 Sypha (bridge, Mummies, Cyclops and Gargoyle)
Block 4 Alucard (swamps, Vampire Bat)
Block 5 Alucard (approach to the castle, Alucard)
Block 5-7 Alucard (underground passage, Skeleton Knight, advanced version)
Character assessment
Block 6 Alucard A (castle cellar, Frankenstein's Monster)
Block 6 Alucard B (Roman ruins, rising water, skeleton dragon king [fought twice])
Block 7 Alucard (falling and melting block puzzles, Mummies, Cyclops and Gargoyle bosses)
Block 8 (the castle itself, Castlevania 1st level reprise, Death)
Block 9 (climbing the castle wall, the Doppelganger)
Block A (the Clock Tower, Dracula)

BONUS: Forum user Glass Knuckle's epic-length thread A Critical Look At Mega Man Stages (warning: will take days to get through, because he means ALL Mega Man stages, through the sequels)

Interesting facts gleaned from the series:
- In the first quest, all of Zelda's overworld secret passages are optional except those which lead to dungeons (which have clues).
- In Castlevania, every platform that looks like it's floating in the air is actually supported by background scenery. This continues (to a lesser extent) in Castlevania III.
- In Castlevania, great care was taken so that the castle is a consistent place. Pillars that extend between two screens match up between them.
- In areas with flowing water in Castlevania III, if you happen to have Sypha with you with the Ice magic, you can freeze it, a cool effect that makes these sections much easier.
- The most powerful weapon in Castlevania III is Sypha's "weakest" subweapon, the Fire magic, which does twice the damage of the maxxed-out whip.
- There is a stage in Castlevania III, the Skeleton Dragon King, where the boss is fought halfway through, but escapes with four health left, which you have to knock off of him at the end of the level (while the water level rises beneath you).

Castlevania III was changed in non-trivial ways between the Japanese and American releases. The music is different; although the tunes are generally the same in structue, the Japanese release (which unlike the first two games wasn't originally a Disk System game) includes extra sound hardware in the cartridge that provides extra instruments. Also, Grant's abilities were changed: in Japan, Grant can always throw Daggers. In the US, they gave him the ability to use the Dagger Subweapon, in addition to the Axe. And enemies do damage by creature type in the Japanese version, while in the US version they do damage depending on where in the game you encounter them (like the original game). Because of this, the Japanese version is a little easier than the American version.
posted by JHarris (27 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
I can't wait to spend all day reading this!
Also, the Hyrule Historia just came out and my friend at Dark Horse hinted the next book would be about Metroid.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:59 PM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Awesome. Had no idea Parish was doing this. I've been meaning to do a playthrough of Zelda again recently so this will help me accomplish it on a slightly higher level.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:02 PM on January 29, 2013

Having naturally dived straight into the Mega Man thread, gotten through half of MMI and skipped straight to II, the first huge revelation I had was that somehow I missed out on I Cannot Defeat Airman.

Today will be well spent.
posted by darksasami at 2:31 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had was that somehow I missed out on I Cannot Defeat Airman.

You know about OKKUSENMAN!, right?
posted by curious nu at 2:47 PM on January 29, 2013

Thanks for this! I remember recently impatiently waiting for the Castlevania 3 articles to appear one at a time! These brought back tons of memories.

Also, there's a translation patch for the aforementioned Japanese Castlevania 3, though it's totally playable without it. Definitely recommended, either way!
posted by destructive cactus at 2:51 PM on January 29, 2013

Man, this is an absolute treasure trove. Sorry for not finding anything wittier to say, but great post, JHarris.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:28 PM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Jeez and dang! I can't believe I have completely forgotten about Toastyfrog and all that rot. Anyone remember his Thumbnail Theatre posts?

That Castlevania article is really great and for some reason gives me the warm fuzzies. I feel like really examining these things that have taken up so much of our time is a worthwhile pursuit. For me, growing up, videogames weren't just leisure but serious diversions that were worth thinking and talking about. I'll never forget being told to quit thinking so hard about these stupid things only to find people just like me all over the world thanks to the net.

I'm not entirely sure where I am going with this but I felt like it belongs here. Thanks for the awesome post, JHarris. I'm going to be up very late, thinking, reading, and gaming tonight...
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 3:54 PM on January 29, 2013

Castlevania was the game that got me to save up a summers' worth of lawn mowing and birthday money for the express purpose of buying a NES system in spite of all the games I already had for my Commodore 64. I played it through a couple of years ago, and it's still really good - such a good sense of mood and place, and the gameplay (jumping, whipping, using subweapons) has a solid feel that a lot of other NES platformers lacked.

I really kind of hated Castlevania II, which might be why I never bothered to get Castlevania III back when it was contemporary. It may be time to go scare up a cartridge on ebay.
posted by usonian at 3:58 PM on January 29, 2013

Castlevania might be my favorite NES game, other than the original Zelda and Zelda II. I've completed it many times. Just a couple of nights ago I finished it after dying once, and I've done it once before on one life. (The thing that always gets me is the final stretch before Dracula -- rushing through the Bat Gauntlet depends on what random actions the enemies decide to take, there's a Dagger in the next section that I frequently forget about and accidentally collect severely harming my chances, and the workings of the clock tower itself, while extremely short and containing a pork chop, is filled with those damn birds and flea men in the worst possible terrain to fight them in. I can usually get through alive but hardly ever will full health, which you really want to have for Vladdy.)
posted by JHarris at 4:14 PM on January 29, 2013

The more I think about Simon's Quest, the more it angers me: because I remember loving Castevania the first, I was psyched about the sequel, I saved up MAD birthday/lawn mowing money ($44!) and...


It's weird to think about now, because for all the lovely praise the guy in the article gives it (and he's right about every point: it was a very ambitious game), GOD it was boring. But I played it. I read Nintendo Power and compared notes with friends and spent hours puzzling that shit out; all the stupid false hints, the items that didn't make sense, the tedious grinding and deaths that didn't mean anything. But I played it, because what else was I going to do? I bought the thing. The game was broken and terrible, and no one told me. I could have been developing a skill, or reading a book, or at the very least, playing Bionic Commando again.

It WAS a horrible night to have a curse; the curse was loving video games and being too young to know that when a game is miserable and frustrating and boring it's not because you're not playing it right or because you suck at it, but because the game is broken and poorly conceived. But who's going to know any better? Video games are still fairly new, and hey, kids get angry about stupid shit all the time, who cares? It's enough to give an already sensitive kid a complex that will make him question his every move and every upset he has forever.

Fuck you Simon's Quest, that horrible night has NEVER ended for me.

ok it wasn't really as bad as all that, but man that game sucked.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 4:35 PM on January 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Is there a January best post contest going on??

Seriously though, great post JHarris.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:41 PM on January 29, 2013

JHarris, thanks for the kind words and the links. Being a fan of the game design writing you've published, I'm flattered that you found my own musings worthy of sharing.
posted by jparish at 5:03 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Zelda's one of those games that just looking at the map takes me back. But then, I've always obsessed a little over world maps: Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy...I could tell my own stories for hours using those maps). What a revelation the Zelda world map and game mechanic was at the time. Hell, the NES was just mind blowing (well, to 6 year old).
posted by smirkette at 7:20 PM on January 29, 2013

Simon's Quest and the first Zelda were two of the few games that I would just go, as a kind, to spend time in. They were like auxiliary backyards. I could achieve stuff in them if I felt like it, but I could also just go and be there. I liked to hang out under the mansion-lake, particularly.

I am gratified that someone else noticed the "dollar sign" motif, unintentional as it probably was. Some of those sprites didn't make sense to me. The hanging men behind the orb in the final room of the mansions have always looked to me like turbaned, merchant-ish men who have been caught and hanged. It only now occurred to me that they're just skeletons.

Until I was much older, I didn't understand that sometimes -- if I had trouble with a video game -- it might in fact be that game's fault. I thought it was my fault, and if I couldn't do well with a game, it was either because it was too hard for me or it was boring (depending on my level of self-esteem that day). I was fully grown before it even occurred to me that there might be something slightly awful about the villagers in SQ. It just seemed natural to me that NPCs lied or said useless things.

As many times as I've played it through in the past twenty-odd years, I cannot believe that I did not realize that you could use the time-stop capacities of the mansions to do your grinding. As a kid, it took me quite a while to figure out what the point of day and night was -- hell, I would hide out on a ledge in town at night until the zombies went away.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:42 PM on January 29, 2013

jparish: Thanks for the complement. But you shouldn't be so modest, these are about among the few good 8-bit design discussions I've seen.

For something it seems like half the internet seems to be talking about, there is AMAZINGLY little solid, nuts-and-bolts design discussion like this going on. Super Mario Bros. has been done a bit, but not a lot else. These things, and the Mega Man examination as well, are the beginnings of an actual low-level examination of how these games work, taking into account typical player expectations, knowledge and opportunity as he progressed through the game.
posted by JHarris at 9:26 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is there a January best post contest going on??

I've been considering this post for a while,a fact I mentioned in one of the recent Zelda threads. I had considered waiting to Zelda Day (there's like two of 'em now, one in less than a month), but him finishing up the Castlevania III one was what decided me.
posted by JHarris at 9:28 PM on January 29, 2013

Simon's Quest and the first Zelda were two of the few games that I would just go, as a kind, to spend time in. They were like auxiliary backyards.

Considering Miyamoto was inspired by his childhood adventures of exploration, it's telling that Zelda evokes a strong sense of place for many people.
posted by ersatz at 3:31 AM on January 30, 2013

Several times here I have defended Zelda's willingness to put in secrets to find that have to be stumbled upon, found either completely by accident or from a search. I do so because none of those secrets, in the first quest at least, are necessary to win the game.

Particularly, I don't defend Simon's Quest in this regard, because it has secrets that are much harder to trigger, and are necessary to make progress. I'm particularly thinking of the white, blue and red crystals, each of which are necessary at a particular place in the game, where you have to have the item selected and do a maddeningly arbitrary thing in order to move on to a required area.

Not all of the townspeople in Castlevania lie to you, but most of them do. I would ordinarily appreciate that -- it doesn't make sense that Joe Blow in Alba would know how to defeat Dracula's evil curse, after all, and it doesn't matter as much that some people mislead you as that at least one person tells the truth. But none of them tell you that ducking at the side of that lake for several seconds while the white crystal is equipped will open the way to a mansion.

I really like the idea that miscellaneous things that aren't heralded by the game might have some effect, possibly beneficial, because it fleshes out the game world and makes it feel a lot less like a sequence of hoops you jump through and then you win. But the way CII does it practically demands that players either look it up in Nintendo Power (which is what I did) or be stuck until you happened to divine what the designer was thinking when he made the screen.
posted by JHarris at 4:16 AM on January 30, 2013

I like the observation how the 3/4 top down view of Zelda I made up feel like forward progress. And big points for the Dungeon Man reference.
posted by fleacircus at 6:17 AM on January 30, 2013

JHarris, you bastard, I'm gonna spend all night here! :) Thanks, this is awesome. I cannot help myself, I love these things...!
posted by barnacles at 8:10 AM on January 30, 2013

Is there an entry for dungeon 4?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:25 AM on January 30, 2013

Dammit JHarris, I have stuff to do!


This looks incredible. Other than the Mario/Duck Hunt combo that everyone who has an NES has at least two copies of, Castlevania + Castlevania II were my first games for the NES. I had gotten $40 for my birthday to spend, and I could pick either a single "new" game, or two older games. Since the NES was a new addition to our household, all NES games were relatively new to me, so I went with the Castlevania combo, having heard great things from a friend of mine who would bring his copy of Nintendo Power in every month so we could drool over the new games. I beat Simon's Quest within the year, but it would be literally years before I would even meet Dracula (damn Grim Reaper!).

I remember the day I finally beat Death and made it to the final level. I paused the game, ran down the street to my best friend's house, and told him he had to come with me so we could finally see the final moments of this game that had eluded me. It took me a while, if I remember correctly, to finally get to and then beat Dracula, but I do remember it being much, much less brutal than Death.

To this day, Castlevania is still one of my favorite video game series ever, even with the later 3D entries being a mere shadow of the joy of the 2D entries. Castlevania I, III and Symphony of the Night still get playthroughs every couple years by me. In fact, even though the DS games were new to me when I finally got around to getting my DSi, they still invoked a level of nostalgia due to how much they take from SotN. And to this day, I can't think of a platformer that invokes the companion-obtaining/leaving mechanics and storylines half as well as III does.

Don't even get me started on the music of the Castlevania series.
posted by mysterpigg at 8:31 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is there an entry for dungeon 4?

It's in the same post as 3.
posted by fleacircus at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I really need to play Zelda properly.. I rented it for a weekend when I was a kid, but that wasn't nearly enough time to really get oriented and go all the way through the game; I do clearly remember having a hopeless sense of how big and explorable the world seemed with only a couple of days to play it.

In college I bought a used copy of Castlevania: Bloodlines, the only Castlevania title released for the Sega Genesis. I never did play it all the way through... partly because I had college stuff going on but also because it didn't capture that mood that I & II did. The rippling-muscle character and boss graphics are kind of cheesy.
posted by usonian at 9:41 AM on January 30, 2013

Beating Death in Castlevania I:
Method 1: If you have 20 or so hearts, Holy Water and at least double shot, you've won. When the screen scrolling has stopped, position yourself so you can jump and leave holy water on the platform in the upper-right corner of the screen, where Death will show up. Immediately begin leaving holy water there, so Death descends into the fireball. He'll be paralyzed in the familiar way. So long as you keep dropping holy water, this paralysis will never end, and he'll keep taking damage until he does. Best of all, since he never settles into his initial position, the scythes never appear. You'll be in no danger at all -- which is good, since the Holy Water is a difficult weapon to bring to the fight since it's not available in that block, and because of the axe armors and medusa heads in the lead up to it.

Method 2: There is a Boomerang earlier in the stage, so if you don't have Holy Water you should always be able to bring this in. Spend a little time beforehand using it on the red skeletons and candles at the top of the first area of the stage, to build up hearts and to build the Boomerang up to Triple Shot. Get into a good place in the bottom left corner from where you can fill the screen with Boomerangs; the idea is to take out the scythes primarily, but you should get a lot of incidental hits on Death. You really must focus on the scythes: if you let even one through you're going to take at least one hit, the scythe won't be destroyed by the collision so you might take another, and even at full health you can only take four. The worst thing that can happen here is Death randomly decides to move down into your spot, but to take out the scythes you must have some way of destroying the ones that appear inside the platforms here. You might have some success with shooter tactics lure the scythes towards one side of the long central platform, then run to the other. They'll follow you horizontally, which is the angle Simon works best at.

More info: Death moves semi-randomly around the screen, "jumping" (more like floating) around from place to place. When he stops in a place, that's when scythes appear. If you destroy all the scythes in one set as soon as they appear, no more will show up to replace them until the next time he comes to a halt after a jump. Well, I have very recently heard something interesting about Death that I hadn't realized before: each place he stops on the screen, he has set locations where he makes scythes appear. If you memorize those places, you can be prepared for the scythes before they show up.
posted by JHarris at 11:50 AM on January 30, 2013

Good info on beating Death, JHarris. It is funny, going back now and playing the game, I use a completely different strategy than I did back then. Other than using it to take out Medusa, I don't think I realized until I was much older just how insanely overpowered holy water can be in Castlevania I. Which is odd, because, well, look how easy Medusa is with holy water. And sure enough, it works great on both Death and Dracula, yet somehow, little me still insisted on using boomerangs in both cases (though as you mentioned, the use of boomerangs on Death is mostly due to the lack of holy water in that block). In fact, I got good enough with the boomerangs when it comes to beating Dracula, that my college friends were incredulous as to why the hell I was letting the holy water in Dracula's chamber disappear, considering how easy his second form is with it. To be fair, I was just as stunned when I first saw Death beat with holy water. It was a moment of "Eureka!" mixed with intense rage.
posted by mysterpigg at 12:13 PM on January 30, 2013

I much prefer fighting Dracula with the Boomerang because Holy Water is only effective against his second form. With Boomerangs and good timing, not only do you have little to fear from his fireballs, but you can earn up to 3,000 every time he attacks. Castlevania has some design problems when it comes to scoring -- if you destroy more than one enemy, or even enemy missile attack, with a single subweapon use, you earn more points Mario-style. But the scoring is way out of scale with the rest of the game. You earn an extra life at 30,000 and every 50,000 after that, and Dracula uses the fireballs a lot, so it's not uncommon to get enough points in a single fight to earn an extra life. You get an additional 50,000 and thus extra life when you beat him, which can help out out a great deal on a second loop through the game. (The game actually play a bit different on the second trip through -- there are new secret point items, and even an additional extra life or two, on the second loop, and some enemies appear in more places, notably bats and medusa heads. All hits do four bars of damage though.)
posted by JHarris at 5:07 PM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

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