Retro Gaming Project #1: Castlevania [NES]

Castlevania [NES]

System: NES
Genre: Platforming
Publisher: Konami/Nintendo
Developer: Konami
Release Date: September 26, 1986

My first Castlevania game was the PS1’s Symphony of the Night. I bought it on a whim, not knowing what to expect despite seeing great review scores. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the game’s mashup of action, platforming and RPG styles, all while providing a massive castle to explore. Even the notoriously bad dialogue did nothing but enhance the experience.

Since then, I have played many of the handheld Castlevania titles, most of which are near the level of quality of Symphony of the Night. I have always been embarrassed to say, however, that I have never played anything before SOTN. Wanting to play through this series from the beginning was a BIG reason why I started this retro project.

Entering the gates of Castlevania.

It seems unlikely that Konami knew what they had on their hands while making the very first Castlevania. Surely they couldn’t have expected a seemingly generic horror game to spawn more than a dozen sequels spanning over 25 years. But alas, that is what happened despite its humble roots.

Castlevania begins with our whip-carrying hero, Simon Belmont, approaching the castle’s massive entrance gate. He makes his way through the courtyard, cracking open lamps to obtain hearts and weapon power-ups, before entering the castle itself. The castle shows its age right off the bat, as its wallpaper has random tears, exposing the brick beneath. Simon is quickly greeted by zombies, moving much faster than you would expect, but they can be eradicated by a simple crack of the whip. Candles can be broken for more hearts and items, and the path is generally straightforward.

It doesn’t take long for shit to get real.

Whipping a large skeleton, one of the more easier enemies.

While the first few levels aren’t too difficult, the game sees a drastic spike in difficulty about halfway through the campaign. Medusa heads fly through the air, determined to knock you off the ground and into the deep, dark abyss below. Tiny flea men bounce around as if all hopped up on caffeine, sporadically moving about while constantly bumping into Simon. Getting hit by an enemy in the later levels takes up a significantly larger amount of his health, often causing cheap and frustrating deaths.

Don’t get me started about the bosses. The battles against Death (level five) and Dracula (the final boss) are among the hardest I have EVER played in a video game. It took me a hell of a long time to just get to Death, but no matter what I tried I could not beat the bastard through conventional means. Dracula was just as bad, although his second form doesn’t hold a candle compared to the first.

Frankenstein & Igor, the bosses of stage four

There are unlimited continues, thankfully, but they generally place you at the start of the stage upon going through the original batch of lives. So yeah, Simon has to make his way past all of the Medusa heads, Axe men, flea men and random other horror enemies before facing that son-of-a-bitch known as Death.

What makes the game most difficult are its decidedly poor controls. Simon cannot control his direction once in the air, and he can only crack his whip straight ahead. When he is hit by an enemy, he goes flying several feet backward. This leads to some infuriatingly cheap deaths, particularly from those blasted Medusa heads or flying bats that show up at the most inopportune times.

Climbing the stairs to that son-of-a-bitch Dracula

Borderline extreme difficulty be damned, this is still Castlevania, and damn if it isn’t fun. The classic, sexy 8-bit tunes, the campy horror atmosphere, the random inclusion of cooked turkey hiding in the walls… this is what it’s all about. I haven’t been as pissed off at a video game as much as this in recent years, but I couldn’t stop playing it anyway. A great start to an impressive franchise.


Video Game Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow [Xbox 360, 2010]

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Mercury Steam/Kojima Productions
Release Date: October 5, 2010

It’s no secret that I love the Castlevania series. I got hooked thanks to the PSOne classic, Symphony of the Night, and had a blast digging into the older titles (not to mention the later SOTN-like handheld sequels). I even enjoyed their first 3D offering, Castlevania 64. So naturally, I was excited to play Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (LOS), last year’s title that Konami went all out on — sparing no expense in terms of presentation. While LOS certainly looks good, the problem is that this is a generic adventure game masquerading as a Castlevania title.

You play as Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a group of holy knights who protect citizens from supernatural creatures. After his wife is murdered by one of them, Gabriel embarks on a journey to bring back his wife while subsequently saving the world from evil. This storyline is a complete reboot of the franchise, but it still doesn’t feel like anything new. I never played the Castlevania games for their stories, but Lords of Shadow just feels like a generic fantasy plot that is anything but interesting. This wouldn’t be a huge deal if the game didn’t feel the need to shove cutscene after cutscene down your throat, almost begging you to acknowledge it as a respectable story. I couldn’t get into it, but this wouldn’t bother me if the gameplay were solid. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

The game plays out like a poor man’s hybrid of God of War and Uncharted. Combat is typical hack ‘n slash fare (using a chain whip), with buttons for both “light” and “heavy” attacks. As you kill more enemies, you can unlock new, more powerful combinations, and you are given a helpful handbook to remember all of them. The game also uses the same type of magic/health systems found in God of War, even going so far as to require collecting six cogs to upgrade your meters. If you have played God of War or any other hack ‘n slasher from this generation, you will feel right at home here. There’s nothing new to see.

The Uncharted influence comes in the way of its handling of platforming elements. Gabriel often has to jump from ledge to ledge while hanging around on the side of a building, occasionally using his chain to rappel him to distant areas. Rappelling is actually a bit of a problem — there were several instances where I was rappelling down the side of a building then immediately died after reaching some sort of imaginary boundary line. Apparently the rappel can only work at various distances depending on whatever the game feels like at that particular moment. This leads to obnoxiously cheap deaths. Thankfully, checkpoints are generous, but this is still an annoyance that could have been easily fixed.

A tried and true staple of the hack ‘n slash genre are epic boss battles. Lords of Shadow tries its hand at this in the form of Titan battles. By all means, fighting these Titans should be badass. They are HUGE, not dissimilar from some of the gods in God of War. LOS’s problem is that these boss fights are painfully boring. It doesn’t take long to figure out the pattern to take them down one limb at a time, and winning ultimately amounts to climbing up them, hitting some relics and dodging their attacks. This wouldn’t be so bad if the entire sequence wasn’t horrendously slow. These fights go on far too long since the Titans take their sweet time doing anything, and every time something happens the game feels the need to show a pointless cutscene. Thankfully, there are only a handful of these segments in the game, but I can’t help but feel there was a lot of potential wasted with them.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

That’s really the story of Lords of Shadow: wasted potential. It all starts with the new envisioning of Belmont — this kid is devoid of any personality, has poor voice acting and looks like Generic Video Game Hero #3999573. The game’s environments, while absolutely beautiful, feel hollow and uninviting. The game attempts to create the feel of a wide open world, but it actually comes across as boxed in. Only narrow sections of the massive environments are open for use, which makes the gameplay feel like it is stuck a generation behind. LOS also uses a fixed camera, and it is absolutely horrible. The camera angles have a habit of changing at the most inopportune times, causing more cheap deaths and hiding crucial game elements.

Simple tweaks here and there would have led to an infinitely more rewarding experience. It’s not that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is necessarily a bad game, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything particularly well. Everything here has been done before, and the total sum of all parts is merely average. It’s a shame that Konami felt the need to add the Castlevania name to this title because Lords of Shadow simply represents another failed effort to “upgrade” the series.

5/10 – average

List: Top 10 Video Games I Just Can’t Quit

A couple of weeks ago there was a “Freshly Pressed” blog post that caught my eye. This post, titled “Video Games I Just Can’t Quit,” was about the author’s list of games that he kept coming back to time and time again. I was very intrigued by this idea, and have been thinking about my own personal list since initially reading his. Here’s what I have come up with, a list of games that I continue to play over and over regardless of their age:

Super C [NES, 1990]
1) Super C [NES]
I have fond memories of playing this with my brother when I was a kid. In typical Contra fashion, the game is hard as hell. I think we only beat the game once or twice back then… it was brutal.

Dr. Mario
2) Dr. Mario [NES]
Man, I can’t even tell you how hooked I was on this game. We used to have insane Dr. Mario marathons in college, even developing a ranking chart for everyone who played regularly with us. My roommate was always #1 on the list, but I was a close second. Ah, the good ol’ days… Even today, my girlfriend and I bust it out from time to time.

3) Tetris [NES]
For some reason, old puzzle games got a lot of “airplay” in college. My buddy Roy and I would play Tetris all the freakin’ time, often listening to The National while doing so (an odd mix, but it worked perfectly). I still have some version of Tetris for pretty much every system I own today.

4) Super Mario Bros. 3 [NES] & Super Mario World [SNES]
My two favorite Mario games. I still play them every now and then, picking up right where I left off. My girlfriend and I are working our way through SMW again, this time collecting all of the Yoshi coins and hidden items. Good times.

5) Golden Axe [GEN]
One of my favorite beat ’em ups. It’s still fun to relive the glory days as Gilius Thunderhead, that badass axe-wielding dwarf.

6) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night [PS1]
Believe it or not, this is what introduced me to the Castlevania series. The cheesy dialogue, the incredible soundtrack, the exploration gameplay, the inverted castle… this game has it all. Now that I also have it for the PSP (via the Dracula X Chronicles disc), I can play it anywhere.

7) Star Ocean: The Second Story [PS1]
I have probably started and stopped this game at least a dozen times. I still have a save file that is in the final dungeon, but I have been stuck on one of the last bosses for YEARS. Someday I will pick this back up and finally beat the damn game, and it will be absolutely glorious.

8) Suikoden [PS1]
Still one of my favorite RPGs to this day. I played through it multiple times and loved trying to recruit all 108 characters. Although many prefer the second game, I still think this one is best by far.

9) Quake III: Arena [PC]
Back in high school, my friends and I used to get all of our daily work done in “Computer Lit” (or whatever the basic computer class was) as fast as we could so we could play this. We had some furious deathmatches back in the day, and it remains one of my favorite FPS titles to this day. I never could master that damn rail gun, though I was pretty lethal with the rocket launcher and plasma gun.

10) Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 [PS2]
This is the best all-around Tony Hawk game and it features some of the most memorable levels in the series (Airport, anyone?). This is one of the rare games where I had so much fun that I went through and beat the game multiple times with different skaters. I can still pick it up and play it today while remembering most of my special trick combos. Best skateboarding game ever, in my opinion.

So there you have it, my list of ten video games I just can’t quit. Working on this list has just made me want to go back and play all of these again.

How about you guys? What games do you keep coming back to?