Friday, July 9, 2010

GamesTM and the State of Castlevania

A couple of months back I was interviewed by the folks at British mag GamesTM about the Castlevania series. The issue has finally made its way overseas to the US, and it should be available at most Barnes and Noble stores, so check it out!

I haven't actively kept up with the Castlevania Dungeon since starting Hardcore Gaming 101. It's not that I've had a falling out with the series. Oh no. It's mostly because writing about a variety of games is way more interesting than obsessively capturing sprites, cataloging them in tables, writing captions and doing all of the tedious gruntwork. I do admit my enthusiasm starting to wane a bit around the time that Dawn of Sorrow came out, though. I remember getting into an Internet fight with someone on the Dungeon forums who accused me of being lazy when doing descriptions for the same redundant castle areas over and over. My defense was "If Konami's not going to try anymore, then why should I?" How can you say anything more about the same Clock Tower you've been going through the past four games?

Still, though, saunter into any random NeoGAF thread on Castlevania and it's mostly complaining about how the series has gone downhill. The most recent developments have not been great - that stupid iPhone puzzle game is embarrassing, and while I haven't played the upcoming XBLA multiplayer thing, it looks tragically hacked together. Still, though, I don't exactly hate IGA the way the most vocal fans seem to, but then again, they seem to be looking for different thing in their Castlevania.

The biggest complaint is towards the level designs, and how large and aimless they are, and how the monsters are tremendous pushovers - I believe the hip phrase is "monsters on shelves". It's all true, but that seems like it's missing the point. I feel that criticizing the level design in an IGAvania is like criticizing the level design in a typical hack and slash dungeon crawler. It's not really about platforming challenges but just about the exploration, soaking up the atmosphere, experiencing the ever-crisp controls with its gorgeous 2D sprite animation, finding what cool random loot you can pick up (and the crazy powers they give you) and hopefully listening to some rad music. That's why the atmosphere is so important, and it's actually why I like Portrait of Ruin so much compared to the other DS games, whereas most seem to regard it as a black sheep. It also had new some locations to explore that went outside the Entrance Hallway/Underground Lair/whatever else rut that it'd gotten itself into. Exploring the streets of London or the Egyptian pyramids was quite cool, and it definitely has the best soundtrack of the bunch.

Order of Ecclesia has become the new fan favorite because it actually makes things more difficult, and cuts down on the backtracking by implementing a map screen. I wasn't a big fan of either of these changes, honestly. They ultimately made the game more difficult by jacking up the hit points of the enemies and forcing you to pay attention to elemental alignments to do any semblance of damage. I don't mind this, but I do mind the boss battles, which, while technically far more well designed than anything since the pre-Symphony days, tend to grow tedious simply because it takes way too long to kill them. I don't mind being a given a small margin of error, where three or four stray hits can completely kill me - the old games worked like this too. But even the most exasperating Dracula battles, like at the end of Castlevania III, were over in a minute or two. In Ecclesia, even when you've properly equipped yourself, you're hitting the same enemy dozens and dozens of times, slowly chipping away at their invisible life meter until it gives in or you die. It's an element of modern game design that you see a whole lot in 3D games - long and drawn out sequences versus short and sweet ones.

I also thought that the game world broke up the atmosphere. A lot of the fun was getting a sense of the world through a map which slowly revealed itself over the course of a few hours. That cohesion was totally missing. In an older Castlevania game, you could say that, for example, the town was located between the forest on one side and the caverns on the other. Here, none of that geography matters - it's just a place you point to on the location selection screen.

Still, Ecclesia is legions beyond anything else Konami has been doing with the series lately. Beyond the stupid spinoffs, I'm not sure how much high hopes I have for the new game. It might be alright, but if it was hard to get excited over Dante's Inferno since it was just a God of War clone, why should we except better from Lords of Shadows? Better music, maybe? Even the extremely regrettable Judgment had an alright soundtrack. It's hard to see what else that's uniquely Castlevania they can bring to the table, other than whip controls and the whole vampire bit.


  1. I agree with you about Ecclesia; it was better than what they've been doing, but it still wasn't as good as internet communities make it out to be. But maybe it really is time for this series to die. I just recently finished Curse of Darkness and, while the 3D games DO retain the feeling of a Metroidvania, I found myself comparing them to Devil May Cry and how that series is much better (and they also have elements of Metroidvanias, go figure!).

  2. Perhaps the Mega Man 9/10 route...playing up the game's old school roots might be a better direction for this series. Something "Nintendo Hard", but with a short and sweet level design as a down-loadable game for 8-10 dollars USD.

  3. That's sort of what Castlevania Rebirth tried to do...except its levels were too long and its graphics were....well, not bad, but felt cobbled together.

  4. I beat the original Castlevania for the first time a few hours ago. I was amazed by the atmosphere the game created and the gradient of difficulty it presented. You learn how to fight enemies individually early in the game and then deal with swarms of them later. It makes for a challenge, but it's definitely a fun challenge.

    I sort of want to play more of this kind of game via Castlevania III, but I am intrigued by Order of Ecclesia. Any suggestions on which to tackle first?

  5. I'd like to see them make another game in the style of Castlevania 2. The only real problem with Castlevania 2 is that many of the clues given to you re so cryptic that it's head-bangingly difficult to figure out what to do next without outside help, and that's an easy mistake to avoid making again.

    The core game was great, though! You had a big, connected world filled with interesting areas, villages, dungeons, and secrets to uncover. It combined the best of Castlevania with the best of games like Zelda or Legacy of the Wizard, and I think it deserves to be revisited.

  6. I lost interest around the time of the first DS release.l Despite completing it I can't even remember its name.

    I really like IGA though, a lot. He's awesome. He says stuff like: introduce your children to 2D sprite based games so future generations can appreciate them and they don't die out.

    An anecdote in the relaunch EGM spoke of how some executive who grew up with the NES was loving the hell out of Megaman 9/10, but his kids who only knew polygons couldn't relate to or grasp the games at all. I can't stomach Atari 2600 games, having grown up with a Famicom.

    IGA might be the hero classic gamers don't realise they need. At the very least, I'm extremely pleased he's still working in games development. I just wish they'd give him a budget and freedom to work on new IP.

  7. the only castlevania games i've played are the three gba ones, and i liked them. maybe because they were very metroid like (another game series i really enjoyed) or maybe it was just the combination of exploring platformer and grinding equiping rpg elements.

    i'd play the ds games if i had a ds, though i've tried the original arcadey platformers and didn't like them much.

    one thing i didn't like is the huge amount of story aswell as the rather odd attempts to 'freshen' the game. some gimmicks work, some don't and some (like the terrible fighter on wii) don't work in the slightest. though the new puzzler one looks interesting.

    prehaps instead of trying all these new things and attempting to expand the game in ways it's not meant to be, they should just make a new game that is like the gba games but with a bigger castle/s and beter graphics, maybe even hidden goodies everywhere.

  8. Castlevania is a long running series. It doesn't need to die off. The radical reinvention the console games have been taking haven't been doing much good either? My suggestion? First, Konami should lay off the Castlevania games....But not forever, or even until the end of this console generation. Maybe 2-3 years. Maybe a remake of Castlevania II (with the obvious better translation, graphics, music, overall design) with the final castle being the entirety of Castlevania 1. Maybe a combination of Rondo Of Blood and Symphony Of The Night. Or maybe neither of these, I'm not sure if these are the best of ideas. Annyways, they should take that time to work on some other games (maybe 2D Metroidvanias that are distanced from the Castlevania series so they can feel free to inject some freshness). Then, after that time, they should think about how they can make a new console 2D Castlevania, while making it just as relevant as the original, Super Castlevania IV, or Symphony Of The Night (although I think SotN wasn't like by the press when it came out, so that may be a bad example). They could do so much with a console that they may not have the budget to do on a handheld.

  9. Isin't the wiiware castlevania a semi remake of castlevania II?

  10. Not to kiss your butt, but I could not agree more with everything you said.