What A Horrible Year To Have A Curse
September 29, 2016 6:25 PM   Subscribe

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Konami's iconic horror series Castlevania, USGamer has put together a retrospective of the series' history and influence and the AV Club has picked it's favorite songs from the soundtrack (YouTube link). If you want a trip down memory lane, VG Junk has a loving review of the first game, Dracula X, and a collection of Symphony of the Night ephemera. Or refresh yourself on what made the series so mechanically great with Tim Rogers essay In Praise of Sticky Friction.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants (24 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for the great Castlevania links! I'm sad that we here in the states got poorly treated when it comes to the series, especially with the music. I'm also pretty disappointed that Konami seems to have zero interest in making any new entries, the GBA / DS games were just about as pure an experience as I want in a portable game.

I am constantly referencing Tim Rogers' friction categories with my friends. It's a really, really insightful look at the way that games subtly imply power and control.
posted by RubixsQube at 7:35 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, which should be good, but that's still IGAvania. I'm playing Bloodborne as a Belmont with a whip cane, which is as close as we'll get... if Konami had any sense they'd hire From Software to make a Castlevania with the Fox Engine, but they won't.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:36 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bloodstained won't come out until 2018...and it's also tough for me to trust Kickstarted video games. And it's that 2.5D that makes things feel swimmy and sparse. I guess I am an old person in that I just want more sprite-based truly 2D Castlevania games. Just more Portrait of Ruins, or Order of Ecclesias.
posted by RubixsQube at 7:47 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you were a real old person, you'd want linear action Castlevanias... I kinda feel like there are enough 2D Metroidvanias out now.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:48 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, the fun we used to have sitting around making up lyrics to the Castlevania music!

Fish man...
Fish. Man.
FiishmanfishmanFISHmanfishman, fish man.
Fish man fish
Man fish man
Fish man fish,
We're the fish men!
(Doo doot doodoo DOO)
And we fish, man!
(Doo doot doodoo DOO)
We're the fish men,
And we fish, man,
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:50 PM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Symphony of the Night is so goddamn good.
posted by clorox at 8:40 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here's a Retronauts episode on Castlevania, hosted by the author of the USGamer article.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:23 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Phil Sandifer recently wrote about Dracula X. It's not a very good essay, but I feel duty-bound to complete it.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 10:13 PM on September 29, 2016

The original Castlevania is one of the finest video games ever made. At the very least, it is one that was thought out the best. I have completed it many many times, and have done it on one life. I have looped the game five times on one "credit," and maxed out the score.

Jeremy Parish (who wrote the lead article, BTW) went into some of it in his excellent series on the game. Here are some notes, some from there, some my own:
  • How it seems real effort went into making the map screen match the game.
  • How the pillars on a low level matched up with the same pillars extended into an upper level.
  • How all the "floating platforms" that are part of the background, at least, have some piece of scenery supporting them.
  • How you can see parts of later levels in silhouette in the background in earlier levels. Check out the backgrounds on the bridge in Block 3 sometime....
  • How the powerups are so intelligently placed, both to aid and to annoy (daggers are controller-throwingly crappy).
  • How the game's challenges are placed out and considered to gradually increase the challenge. How both the main levels and the bosses are their own challenges, and with good strategy you can nullify the challenge from one or the other but not both. That "strategy" is getting the Holy Water, which makes four of six bosses simple, but the Holy Water is the least useful weapon to have in the main part of a stage. But the funny thing is, there is a Holy Water hidden in every level....
  • How the game gives Simon one great trick, the range of his whip, and then gives him situations both easy and hard for the whip to overcome. Zombies? Easy! Sine-wave bats? Rather harder! Medusa heads? Go to hell. The whip is difficult to master, but that's why you get sub-weapons, each of which overcome one of Simon's key limitations: Dagger (range), Axe (height), Holy Water (raw power, attacking at Simon's feet), Boomerang (range with penetration) and Watch (giving Simon several seconds to dodge frustrating enemies).
  • How even the most devious challenges have tricks to defeating them, but the tricks are not easy to discern.
Example 1: Medusa heads.

Frustrating, right? How they always seem to hit you?

Did you notice there's nothing at all random about their movement? Did you know, if you're in the middle of the screen and stand still, they always miss you? Did you know, if you're on a straightaway and just run forward into them, they also always miss you? That can't be an accident!

Did you know they always appear from the direction you're facing, and at a regular pattern, so if you turn around for a moment at just the right time, you'll be facing a head chasing you instead of coming at you?

You can get down a pattern of jumping and whipping them out of the air. You can spam subweapons to make them much less of a threat. Even with all these things however, you still get caught up by them once in a while. You can do a lot to diminish the threat they pose, but you can't eliminate it entirely. THAT is great design.

Example 2: The fishmen in Stage 10.

The first stage of this block is the flooded passage level, the one where you have to jump between precarious moving platforms, dealing with ill-timed bats, and sometimes fishmen jumping out terrifyingly close to you.

Like medusa heads, they always come out on a timer, and there is actually nothing random about their behavior. And the first loop through the game, fishmen are actually somewhat courteous, and will never leap into the air directly beneath your location. You still have to deal with their descent, though, and the bats attacking, and fireballs spat by fishmen who have landed on solid ground. Stage 10 is a notorious sticking place for many players.

When you beat the game and come back to Block 4 on the second loop, the difficulty is jacked up quite a bit. Actually, the increased difficulty really only holds for the first four blocks; Blocks 5 and 6 are nearly identical to the first loop. So, Block 4 is really the game's last stand. If you can consistently beat it and everything up to it, you have defeated Castlevania.

Perhaps because of this, the fishmen in Block 4 no longer kindly avoid leaping out of the water if you're directly over them. The only way to avoid dying to them is knowing where they'll leap from, and just not being over that spot at the moment they spawn.

Unfair, right? Having to memorize an obscure series of locations and constantly making sure you're not over one when the fatal leap occurs, right? How is a player supposed to know that?

Well it turns out, there is a tell to the fishmen's spawn locations in this stage. When I first noticed it, I thought to myself, how diabolical. Once you realize it, you'll never forget their spawn locations again. It works in the first loop too, but it's less essential. Here it is. This is a spoiler, but you probably won't notice yourself your first dozen games anyway:

With two exceptions, fishmen can only spawn directly beneath candle locations.

If you whip a candle, fishmen can still spawn there, although if you're wise you've already on the move forward. This is a tremendous aid to getting through Castlevania's most chaotic level. The two exceptions are both at the moving platforms with the low-overhang ceilings, which is important because you have to duck to get through those places because the ceiling is so low, and so, if a fishman leaps beneath you, you take the damage but the ceiling keeps you on the platform!

Note: Fishmen do this in Stage 2 in the first Block as well, but of course it's much less important there.

Check it out for yourself in this YouTube playthrough starting in this area.

Extra: This video shows the locations of many of the hidden items in the game. Mind you, some of them only appear starting on the second loop. (And note, I know of at least one secret that's not in the video....)
posted by JHarris at 1:48 AM on September 30, 2016 [37 favorites]

You just blew my mind.
posted by ELF Radio at 5:06 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I listen to Dracula New Classic a lot.

Also A+ post title. "What a horrible night to have a curse" is my little mantra when things start to go shit.

(That and "Iffy. It's all looking very iffy tonight.")
posted by curious nu at 8:30 AM on September 30, 2016

Anyway now I know what I'm playing through this weekend.

I'd be interested in learning of spiritual successors to the original CVs, too. Everyone likes to go the Metroid more than the Castle route, it seems.4
posted by curious nu at 8:32 AM on September 30, 2016

I think the best old-school Castlevania is IV for the SNES. Maybe not as brutally hard as some of the others if that's your thing but harder than the Meteoidvanias anyway (plus it's pretty long if I recall).
posted by atoxyl at 9:49 AM on September 30, 2016

Bloodlines (black sheep Genesis entry) is also underrated.
posted by atoxyl at 9:51 AM on September 30, 2016

I think the best old-school Castlevania is IV for the SNES.

I hate to outright contradict people, but IV is the game I personally think it went off the rails. IV has so many cool bits, but the design itself is much less tight. The subweapons, for example, are much less essential in it because the whip is so much more versatile, and subweapon management is most of the strategy in classic Castlevania.

The others: I is nearly perfect, II is best forgotten, and III is a deluxe version of I, although its Doppelganger boss is poorly made.
posted by JHarris at 12:02 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm happy to be contradicted because that means I get to argue with somebody about something! (Obviously this is entirely personal preference and mine are pretty subjective but I'll tell you what they are.) I chose to mention IV and Bloodlines specifically as a response to the OP containing Dracula X (haven't played the PC Engine version) because to me that's the weakest of the 16-bit Castlevanias - though in reality they're all pretty good.

- IV has beautifully layered scrolling backgrounds and great music. That cave level - I think it's the third one, or the second depending on how you look at it - gives me chills to this day. Despite flashier graphics on the surface the SNES Dracula X (again, I know) seems to be built with less care and attention to detail.
- I like the more versatile whip personally. This isn't actually a big deal to me one way or the other but I do.
- More importantly, IV has a *slightly* more fluid feel to the controls overall. One doesn't have to go full SoTN but I think it was a mistake to go back to a chunkier Belmont.

It does get a little slack in the middle though - most of my memories of that game are the first five or six stages plus the last two. That's not really uncommon though for Castlevanias.

My affection for Bloodlines is probably mostly for the novelty of the same basic game on a different platform with different graphical/platforming tricks, Genesis FM sound, slightly skewed setting, etc. And I recall it being pretty solid mechanically. I don't really know if it's fair to say IV is better than I or III I'm really mostly comparing it to its own generation.
posted by atoxyl at 1:11 PM on September 30, 2016

II is best forgotten

whips at dawn
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:15 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

I loved the second one. It had a low-pressure continue system that allowed me to just wander around in it while thinking of something else, which was what I chiefly preferred to do as a kid.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:55 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

II was still pretty cool, it's just of a different character than I and III (my kid mind was totally unbothered by this; it paralleled SMB that way).

III is crazy impressive on a technical level (it has few peers in terms of graphics, sound, and sheer scope on the NES) and really fun to boot.
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 10:10 PM on September 30, 2016

I always appreciate that JHarris won't talk about the usual games (in this case, Symphony of the Night).

So, at some point I wrote an online guide to Order of Ecclesia. It follows the post-SOTN format, but it had two throwbacks to the older games that I loved: i) You had to reach the castle so the game wasn't confined to it ii) It was more difficult than recent games and the game allowed you to have different loadouts to face different enemies. It's the first and only game I bothered to write a guide for and it has mostly been forgotten nowadays, but it was a good game.

And since it's a lazy Saturday, might as well add a word about the portable CV games.

Circle of the Moon was another underrated CV game, for GBA. Part of it is due to graphics as it looked kinda grubby although the colour palette is fitting the tone of the game. It also has a card game mechanic for special attacks, which is not awfully well-explained and which can be ignored. The game starts with your character getting thrown down a massive shaft from Dracula's room into the bottom part of the castle. Navigating the castle is hard both due to the enemies and because of the game twisting the paths you can take. It has less pronounced but strong metroidvania elements, compared to future titles or SOTN, and it is very successful in creating the atmosphere that makes you buy into the games fiction.

It was followed by Harmony of Dissonance. The character sprite is bigger (similar to SOTN) and the graphics are improved, with some interesting stylistic choices. The game takes you throughout the castle in a twisted, yet mandatory path and only lets you explore late in the game. The book and the cross power-ups are thoroughly broken and can kill most bosses with ease and the end of the story isn't something you haven't seen before. I enjoyed playing it, but I haven't felt the urge to revisit it.

The last GBA game was Aria of Sorrow and for my money it may be the best later-day Castlevania. It follows the imprint of SOTN but it's fully sprite based, character controls are tight, the rpg elements are enjoyable and the soul mechanic can be used effectively although it has filler. The sense of place of the game is fantastic and even though it's an all together different beast from the first Castlevanias and considerably easier (rpg elements versus pure action adventure), it's among the greatest metroidvanias for my money.

The first DS game, Dawn of Sorrow, is like Aria of Sorrow but with more 3d graphics and an unnecessary touchscreen gimmick after each boss. Due to the popularity of the DS it seems to be more popular than Aria of Sorrow, but it can seem a bit too similar at times. Great little game in any case.

It's follow up, Portrait of Sorrow, was more troubled. You could switch between two characters, which wasn't of much use throughout the game. While exploring the castle, you would go into paintings that opened up sub-levels... kinda like Mario 64. The painting stages were large enough to hold one's interest, but breaking the game into stages didn't really work and at a late point the player has to go to four stages that are mostly recolours. Considering that a lot of enemies had been used in SOTN/AoS/DoS before, the game elicits a sense of deja-vu. It's a shame because this game has a very enjoyable alternate mode. SOTN and all the GBA/DS games, apart from CotM, have alternate modes that usually play more like traditional Castlevania games or are harder. Portrait of Sorrow has the Sisters mode, where you control the twin vampiric, flying antagonists attacking by using the touchscreen like a Castlevania shmup and it's a lot of fun. The last DS game was Order of Ecclesia (see above).

There was only one game for the 3DS, Mirror of Fate which was developed by the studio that made the other Lords of Shadow games. Unfortunately, its emphasis was more on a combo battle system so that it didn't really keep my interest.

I cut my teeth on Castlevania with the portable Game Boy games, which are not exactly masterpieces, but worth a mention in any case.

The portable games drew inspiration mostly from Symphony of the Night's approach and did a good job providing quality metroidvanias before the genre got in vogue again. Sometimes they played it safe, but they did many things right.

Happy birthday, Castlevania.
posted by ersatz at 2:00 AM on October 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Sorry to break with your expectation ersatz....

All those games are good, and I've owned most of them at one time or another, all except HoD and (sadly) OoE. The Aria games are very nice yes. They're all great, my only "problem" is that the Castlevanias I and III were really so well-thought-out generally, but their design depends on them being mostly linear games, without much ability to go back, which is against the whole purpose of a Metroidvania.

Metroidvanias are an interesting category. To some they are like the perfect genre, but I've observed that that perceived perfection often leads to a kind of sameness between games, that they often all have the same kinds of upgrades and design flow, and it's difficult to add aspects to the games that don't feel like gimmicks.

Secret areas are an interesting addition (and many exploratory Castlevanias have substantial secrets, like "second castles" that requires special means to unlock, or even an entire optional game area that's difficult just to enter), and the two-character system from PoR was an interesting change of pace. But the only substantive improvement on the base formula that I can name since Super Metroid is Metroid Zero Mission's introduction of intentional sequence breaking, that is, purposely letting players who have mastered exploration beyond item checks if they can find the secret way. I loved that, and it'd be awesome to see an IGA exploratory Castlevania-style game designed that way.
posted by JHarris at 4:04 AM on October 1, 2016

About the second game--

It's not actually bad for what it is. I greatly admire the devs having many villagers give outright false information, so players would have to track false leads, because why would you expect random folk to know all of Dracula's deepest secrets? (It was that way in the Japanese version too, BTW! Not changed at all for oversea audiences!)

It's just that I and III are among the very best games on the NES, and I would say of all time, while II is unfortunately chock full of grind.
posted by JHarris at 4:13 AM on October 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the traditional Castlevanias are pretty much a different beast and I didn't get into them since they were covered upthread.

Metroidvanias are in general a different genre, in which to innovate. An area that has not been explored as much is the environment as storytelling that Super Metroid (or even Metroid II) did quite well. I thought Axiom Verge did quite well (power-ups separated from weapons, glitches, stronger art style) even though I was expecting a Metroid rehash when I started playing. Have you played it?
posted by ersatz at 6:41 AM on October 1, 2016

I think II is a good game brought down by a few bad decisions (squandering the townsfolks' dialogue and the asinine state of the bosses). It's like 75% there. Solid C.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:42 AM on October 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

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