Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Archive for July 2012

Podcast: The Final Countdown, Part 2

leave a comment »

We continue our Final Countdown series that swaps the wonderful stories associated with some of the most beloved games of all time.  Again, little discussion as to whether or not the ranking is valid and much more on the interesting stories and memories that came from them.  This time around Fred from Gaming History 101 is joined by Trees from EZ Mode Unlocked (Colm from the T4 Show couldn’t make it, but was present in spirit) as they tackle even less games than the first show but with equally fun stories.

Podcast Powered By Podbean

Listen to this episode
Download this episode (right click and save)

Our podcast site and feed – Please Note: all shows in this feed are also found in our podcast section on this site.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 30, 2012 at 11:29 am

Posted in podcast

Tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Review: Castlevania: Bloodlines (Genesis)

leave a comment »

Console: Sega Genesis
Released: 1994
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Mega Drive? Yes (as Banpaia Kira  Translation: Vampire Killer, Castlevania: The New Generation in Europe)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Hard
Played it as a child? No
Value: $23.07 (used) $59.99 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $25-$50 (used) $60-$350 (new) on eBay
Digital Release? No

Review

Just like today there was fierce competition between the two main 16-bit consoles, SNES and Sega Genesis, that necessitated exclusive games.  Aside from the first party developed titles, third-party developers could opt to either create the same game for both consoles or create completely new ones.  In the case of many Disney games, like Aladdin or The Lion King, different companies developed the game on each console but the basic concepts and level design would remain consistent regardless of which version you purchased.  Konami, on the other hand, would usually make completely different exclusive titles that played to the strength of the specific console it was designed on.  There was no way this developer, who was free to release games on any (and every) console not to create games for both.  Castlevania: Bloodlines is a side story game, much like Rondo of Blood, that played to the audiences that came running to Sega’s edgy console.

At face value, Bloodlines just seems to be another Castlevania game that steals the opening level and music (Vampire Killer) from the original and goes on to create a hodgepodge of levels.  In truth, the game has a surprising similarity to Vampire Killer (on the MSX in Japan) and Akumajo Dorakyura or Castlevania X68000 (a Japanese Sharp 68000 game that was later re-released worldwide on PS1 as Castlevania Chronicles), making its gameplay style different from most iterations in the US.  Like Vampire Killer the levels are divided into rooms, each one getting their own section (ie: Stage 1 is broken into 8 sections), but unlike that game there’s no need to find a key or puzzle elements.  Connections to Castlevania X68000 are a bit more direct since the game was basically a redesigned PC port of the original, so you’ll mostly see similar levels (like the water rising/falling level) and difficulty (as in extremely difficult) curve.  It all just comes together as a wise choice to demonstrate to those with a Genesis that this is not your typical Castlevania and it also distinguishes it from the other titles on Nintendo’s consoles.  The gameplay video below shows off many of these tricks.

In Bloodlines you control either John Morris (from USA) or Eric Lecarde (from Spain) as they roam parts of Europe in search of Dracula in a plot that much more closely resembles Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Castlevania has always followed the Dracula lore but it was always more like the Universal Studios horror films from the 1930s than the classic novels.  According to the game John is a descendant of the Belmonts who for some reason is the same bloodline as the Morris family and follows Elizabeth Bartley as she tries to resurrect her uncle Count Dracula (oh and if you’re wondering Eric tags along because Elizabeth turned his girlfriend into a vampire).  Throughout the game you will go to various European countries as you chase down Elizabeth, who is apparently also responsible for World War I as this game takes place in 1914, and eventually fight off Dracula once resurrected.  John Morris uses the standard whip (Vampire Killer) and Eric employs a spear (Alcarde, a bad European wordplay on Alucard, Dracula spelled backward), which allows for different gameplay style depending on your hero.  How this all seemingly fits into the Castlevania lore is a clear afterthought, especially because these side stories were probably never intended to be cannon and none would be had Symphony of the Night not been such a breakaway hit and the sequel to Rondo of Blood.

Aside from the game design, Bloodlines integrates yet another impressive example of fully using a console’s hardware.  There are dripping water and blood effects, rotating level effects, foreground/background effects, reflective water effects, and even levels that divide your field of view or turn the world upside down.  I am constantly amazed by how well Konami can show off its ability to design games for consoles that consistently raise the bar in terms of what is graphically possible all while making sure the game is both well designed and fun to play.  Since this is on the Genesis, which had a strong reputation as being the console that pushed the limits of content, especially violence, Bloodlines has plenty of blood and gore.  Enemies die in a shower of blood (as do the protagonists) and drop to the ground in a gushy mess, blood drips from the ceiling, and tortured bodies sway on hooks in the background.  Ironically Sega’s internal ratings board gave the game a GA (equivalent to that of a G or PG in movies), which doesn’t seem consistent with the content and is probably one of many examples as to why it was best that an outside entity like the ESRB rate games.  Another staple of the Genesis are the awkward sounds and music generated by the Yamaha X68000 sound chip (which was basically the internal components of a Master System used as a sound processor).  As a result the game has that chiptuned drowned out audio that was so common of Genesis games but makes me cringe given that I’ve heard the amazing and crisp sounds of the previous games, especially on Sony’s sound chip in the SNES and the great Redbook audio of the PC-E CD. 

I never got a chance to play this game as a child, but going back to it I’m surprised how different it is from other games in the series, especially if you’re not into rare or imported Castlevania/Akumajo titles.  At the same time the game has a fierce difficulty and the broken up levels make it feel almost too divided for the kind of flow most people like starting with Rondo of Blood.  Still, it’s a technical achievement for the Genesis and probably explains why we haven’t seen it emulated on the Virtual Console – I would imagine this was a tough game to emulate although I’m certain it can be done on the freely distributed PC emulators.  Also those of you in Europe playing The New Generation have a censored version that removes all instances and visuals of blood, removes Eric’s impalement death animation, and also has a rearranged version of enemy placement that can fluctuate difficulty significantly from the original version.  Oddly enough, the Australian version of New Generation pulls from the Japanese version and thus has nearly no censorship.  As a Castlevania game it is an acquired taste, especially with the side plot and complete change from traditional style, but as a Genesis/Mega Drive game it’s a great show-off piece to just what that system was capable of.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 25, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Review: Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (PC-E CD)

leave a comment »

Console: PC-Engine CD (Japan)
Released: 1993
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Japanese Title: Akumajo Dracula X: Chi No Rondo – English Translation: Devil’s Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Hard
Played it as a child? No
Value: $83.00(used) Unknown – this usually indicates none have ever been sold (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $90-$120 (used) N/A (new) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console and remake on Dracula X Chronicles (PSP) – $9.00 (VC), $15.00 (PSP) digitally

Review

Akumajo Dracula X: Chi No Rondo is one of those games that you either know about or you don’t.  As a side story to the series, appearing on the PC-Engine CD no less, I don’t think Konami ever intended the game to be popular but what it does for the Castlevania formula is worth noting.  Rondo of Blood (as it is known in English) follows Richter Belmont, a descendent of Simon and Trevor, in a side story where he seeks out Dracula to recover his girlfriend Annette.  It takes place in Germany, I think (I’ve never played the game in English), and the cutscenes even contain German dialogue with Japanese subtitles.  Thanks to the RAM and CD format of this title, it also features amazing sound design and an anime-like style.  Oh yeah, and until recently it was never released outside of Japan.

When you first start playing the game, it comes off as just another hodgepodge Castlevania game that fuses aspects of all the previous titles into one new hybrid, just like Super Castlevania IV.  It isn’t until the third level (although technically Stage 2 because there’s a prologue) that you start to discover this game is different from previous iterations.  There are secrets all over the place, from ledges you can’t seem to reach or locked doors that most first time players won’t have the key to.  Levels vary in length depending on the player because although you start the level in the same place, there are often multiple ways to complete a level.  You can even find and unlock Maria, a handmaiden, early on in the game and she becomes a playable character.  As many have noted it begins concept that would later become Symphony of the Night and spawn the controversially named MetroidVania string of titles.  I think what strikes Rondo of Blood as the best title in the series is that it can be enjoyed by fans of both the linear titles and those who prefer the new massive map exploration (ie: MetroidVania) iterations.  Without a doubt, it’s a game that should be played, especially at the ridiculously low price and amazing emulation on the Wii Virtual Console – this was a title no one ever guessed we’d receive.

Innovation in level design isn’t the only significance of this game.  Due to its almost non-existent localization, this title is the only chance most American’s have to see things like dripping blood, topless female enemies, and plenty of religious iconography like crosses, all of which had been previously censored in Nintendo’s US localization process.  The gameplay is sharp and responsive, which is necessary to tackle some of the brutal later levels that are a testament to both platforming and battle.  In this newer title Richter cannot whip in several directions like Simon could on the SNES, and the feature would never again find itself into a Castlevania title – you can speculate on whether Konami felt it broke gameplay or if it was in there just to show off Simon swinging from his whip on an SNES launch title.  Boss battles almost require that you have played the original games and can respond to the patterns of new bosses as both will make an appearence and can kill you quickly.  By the time you reach Dracula you’ll already be tired, only to battle this brutal boss in a nightmare scenario that only exists in Castlevania.  Not only that, this was the first game that included saving, which is intact in all re-released US ports, so the game can be finished if you have enough time and patience.  Even longtime series producer Koji Igarashi started his career working side jobs on this title (he gets a special thanks in the credits).   Rondo of Blood truly had it all, I just can’t figure out why Konami kept it so tightly out of our hands.

I guess if you’re Konami you can attest that the game we got here, Castlevania Dracula X (known as Vampire’s Kiss in Europe) on the SNES was supposed to be our version of Rondo of Blood but the two couldn’t be more different.  Konami completely redesigned the anime art style to more of a gritty realistic feel parallel to Super Castlevania IV.  Many of the sets the levels took place on were replaced completely and the level design became completely linear, forgoing the exploratory nature of the original.  Maria can be found, but she is not playable afterward.  Furthermore, the final battle with Dracula is quite a bit easier and features a pathetic ending.  In Japan the port was called Akumajo Dracula XX because it was supposed to be sort of a remix of the original and critics panned it both here and overseas for being a pathetic attempt to port the original.  That’s not to say Dracula X is all that bad, it just pales in comparison to the glory that is Rondo of Blood.

This title is more for the big time gaming nerds, classic collectors, and fans of all that is Castlevania.  Then again, at $9 I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to give this one a try, if only because it blows away many modern games and definitely withstands the test of time.  If you’re still not convinced or interested to see it in action, I’ve done a brief video playthrough below:

Written by Fred Rojas

July 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Review: Super Castlevania IV (SNES)

leave a comment »

Console: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
Released: 1991
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Super Famicom? Yes (as Akumajo Dracula – English Translation: Dracula’s Castle)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Mild
Played it as a child? No
Value: $22.79 (used) $189.95 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $20-$30 (used) $150.00 (new) and $500 for first edition (v-seam) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console – $8.00

Review

It’s pretty much understood that Super Castlevania IV is merely a remake of the original Castlevania, however for many reasons it is a significant game in its own right.  In Japan the game held almost the same name as the original (Akumajo Dracula) and in the lore and instruction manual in Japan it literally has the same plot.  For the US release, Konami attached the “IV” as well as giving a slightly different story that suggests the events of this game take place immediately following the second game, Simon’s Quest.  Even though both the developers and the fans agree it’s not a sequel, the two games have little in common with one another.  While it’s a cool experiment with many gameplay characteristics, some that would never return and others became series staples, Super Castlevania IV was also a flagship title for the SNES to show off all the things the various modes (including the overhyped Mode 7) could do to a game.  Think of it as a fleshed out action platformer tech demo that was far more interesting in retrospect than Pilotwings.

The game debuted in America during the holiday season in 1991, the same year the SNES would fly off shelves for all the eager gamers wanting to get their hands on Nintendo’s newest console.  Much like the launch of the NES, it was just one of those Nintendo games that you knew you had to pick up (Konami was the top 3rd party developer for the NES and that trend would follow it through the launch, if not entire lifespan, of the SNES).  Super Castlevania IV did not disappoint either; all of the attributes that gamers loved from the original games – moving clock tower, lively multi-track synthesized audio, a horror gothic theme – returned.  Thanks to mode 7 graphics, there were even fake 3D effects like the big rotating cylinder in level 4 or the waterfall and chandelier effects in others.  As for the soundtrack, the song’s Vampire Killer (top track of the original), Bloody Tears (Simon’s Quest theme), and Beginning (the infamous song that defines why you want the Japanese version of Castlevania III over the American one) all returned in a new format.

Super Castlevania IV has unique levels compared to the original, which is why I view it as a re-imagining (if anything) rather than a remake.  Basically there are now five levels leading up to Dracula’s castle (the original started you inside the castle) and six re-created levels (representing the six of the original game).  In addition to completely new levels, the locations and enemies are also replaced, which is why it wasn’t difficult to sell this game off as the fourth title in the series – truthfully it’s the purists that focus on the lore and chronology, which series writer/producer Koji Igarashi is one of the biggest sticklers for, that make this game technically a remake and not an unique title.  All of the traditional gameplay mechanics are present, but some significant enhancements make the game more friendly to the typical gamer.  First and foremost, the ability for Belmont to whip in any of the eight directions was huge because part of the challenge of the original games was getting you to face whatever was coming for you in order to take it out.  He could also hold his whip out, allowing projectiles to be much easier to handle.  I think in truth the multi-directional whip was not intended to make killing enemies easier, but rather a bi-product of that ability being added so that Belmont could now attach to and swing from elements in the world.  Also improved was the ability to attach to stairs while jumping and easily walk up them by simply pressing up, another challenging attribute of the original games that may not have been intended.  These features, especially the directional whip, made Super Castlevania IV a much easier game than its predecessors and depending on who you ask is either a great or a horrible thing.  I appreciate the fact that it shows off most of the classic game design without completely turning off today’s audience, it’s a game you can show to friends and they won’t quit after the first few levels. 

Super Castlevania IV is the most definive game of the original format.  It combines all of the great features of previous titles and re-invents them into a unique mixed bag of the NES originals.  To the purists, it’s probably the easiest one to skip and not too high on the priority scale, but if you’re only going to play one game to get you in tune with what we all loved about the early games, this is the best way to do it.  From this point on the series takes an interesting and impressive turn, but looking back I always get a smile on my face when I play this quirky show-off of the Super Nintendo’s technical capabilities.

Like many other games in the series, this game was changed between the Super Famicom (Japanese) version and the Super Nintendo (US/Europe) version.  All crosses and connections to religious icons have been removed, blood in level eight has been changed to green to represent acid, and the topless statues in level six now wear tunics.  In addition the aforementioned changes that made the Japanese version a remake of the original and the SNES version a sequel to Simon’s Quest (Castlevania III was a prequel that took place well before the original).

Written by Fred Rojas

July 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Review: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

leave a comment »

Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1990
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Famicom? Yes (as Akumajo Densetsu – English Translation: Devil’s Castle Legend )
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $12.25 (used) $172.82 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $15-$20 (used) $289.00-$500.00 (new) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What are you supposed to do?

Castlevania III returns to its roots and is an action platformer.  Unlike the original, the game isn’t entirely linear, giving you branching paths along your way.  Of the game’s 15 levels, you will play 9-10 of them depending on your decisions, eventually making your way to Dracula.

Review

As one of the later games on the NES, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is surrounded by technical mastery.  In fact, it utilizes such an expansive amount of supplemental hardware (ie: chips) that the Japanese version isn’t even capable of working with the NES (unless you modify it, of course) and the US version is incompatible with “famiclone” systems.  For all that work, however, Castlevania III is a great title that impresses on all fronts.  Back to the extra hardware – the memory management controller chip, version 5 (MMC5) allowed the game to be playable on the NES albeit at the cost of some of the impressive sounds and graphics in the Japanese version.  This doesn’t mean it’s bad by any means, the game still looks and sounds better than a majority of games ever released on the console, it’s just that the Japanese version is a bit better thanks to the VRC6 microprocessor.  Normally I don’t gush on video game soundtracks, because save for a select few I don’t really consider it a notable factor.  This is one of those rare cases that I must say the game sounds amazing, in any form.  1up’s own Jeremy Parish captured the difference in a YouTube video that I have provided below so you can hear the difference for yourself. 

Sound and graphics aside, the game also introduced some play mechanics that were pretty ahead of its time.  The ability to select your path to Dracula is a big one, especially when you consider these games had mega replayability without branching paths, now you needed to play the game multiple times just to see every level.  Since this game is a prequel to the original, you play as Simon Belmont’s distant relative Trevor Belmont, who can join forces with allies in this game as well.  For the first time in the series, you weren’t limited to jump and whip mechanics, you had other gameplay choices.  Grant DeNasty, a wall-walking pirate, could throw knives as projectiles and reach parts of levels no one else could.  Sypha Belnandes used magic for several effects and made range battle tactics an easy win in boss battles, but took more damage than any other character.  Alucard, the son of Dracula, was also a playable character that had the aspects of his father, including the ability to turn into a flying bat.  Depending on the path you take, any two of these characters can be found in a single playthrough and you can swap between Trevor and his ally at will, but you were only allowed to have one ally at a time.  What surprises me most today is the fact that although these characters and their play styles are very diverse, the game isn’t really broken in any way by using any of them.  I’m sure the branching paths allowed the game to streamline the levels each character could be in, but no one character makes the game much harder or easier, so it’s really just who you prefer to play as.

Level design was also greatly improved with large multi-screen stages and vivid backgrounds.  While the original and the sequel had a handful of good enemies, the overall number of unique foes was small.  By the third game there were more new enemies to experience and plenty of bosses that hadn’t yet been exhausted by the first titles, despite some of them making a comeback.  It also focused on many aspects that are commonplace in the Castlevania series today, like a clock tower level and underground water-filled caves.  No doubt about it, Castlevania III had it all and anyone who had the game at the time was proud to own it.

While knowing the differences between the Japanese version is cool and everything, the reality is that few of us (myself included) will ever be able to play the original Japanese version natively on a console.  I do own Akumajo Densetsu and I can play it on my NES (thanks to an adaptor), but I do not own a Famicom and will not import one solely to play this game in all its technical glory.  On the other hand, emulators these days are capable of playing that game with expanded soundtrack and everything if it is a big deal for you.  Otherwise just pick up the original US version and be prepared to get lost in yet another iteration of the adventures in Dracula’s castle.  It also helps that the game isn’t as brutally difficult as the original Castlevania, but don’t worry, you will definitely be challanged.  Castlevania III also offered a glimpse into the great action platformers we would see on the horizon of the 16-bit generation.

For those with a Wii it’s only 500 points on the Virtual Console (and you importers can get Akumajo Densetsu in all its advanced graphics and sound glory on the Japanese VC).

Written by Fred Rojas

July 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Review: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

leave a comment »

Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1988
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Famicom? Yes (as Dorakyura Tsu: Noroi no Fuin – English Translation: Dracula 2: The Seal of the Curse )
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $4.80 (used) $195.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $15-$20 (used) $400.00-$1,000 (new) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What are you supposed to do?

Control Simon Belmont through an open world and collect the five scattered body parts of Dracula and a magical cross.  Once all of these items have been discovered, Simon returns to Dracula’s castle and assembles the parts to fight and kill Dracula, who has put a curse on Belmont.  Depending on how fast you can complete the game, you will be given one of three endings.

Review

In Konami’s follow-up to Castlevania, the developer attempts to refine the game mechanics and make the sequel quite different from the original, as many NES games at the time were doing, with RPG elements.  Simon Belmont can level up, purchase upgrades and weapons from townspeople, and freely explore an open world.  The gameplay of fighting enemies remains mostly the same, however with the new open world format there is little direction as to where to go but blocked paths and out of reach ledges due to not having the right item streamlines it into a somewhat linear experience.  In addition, day and night cycles keep the player on their toes as night time removes the safety of villages and doubles the strength of enemies.  At face value the concept of this game was great, but there are some big issues that prevented us from enjoying it then and now. 

Nothing in this game is explained to you and this is one of the few games that not only suffers bad translation, but contains hints and villagers that will flat out lie to you.  According to longtime Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi (although he did not work on the NES games), the game design specifically had certain people mislead and lie to you although there were often subtle hints leading you in the right direction, most of which were lost in the game’s spotty translation.  This means that you never know who to trust and without a guide, I’m hard pressed to see how anyone who hasn’t already beaten the game would have the time and patience to do so.  For those appreciating bad translations, this has some of the greatest lines out there, especially thanks to almost no punctuation.  My favorite is, “Get a silk bag from the graveyard duck to live longer,” which should have a comma between graveyard and duck.  I still laugh out loud now when I think about the days and days I scoured the land looking for the infamous graveyard duck.  Another one that is not nearly as funny because it involved the only way to get to one of the mansions was, “Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole.”  There are tons of these phrases in the game that reference moves or actions that you simply have no idea how to do and, shocker, can’t actually do.  What this clue is trying to tell you is that you need to equip the red crystal, go to Deboarh Cliff, and duck down until a tornado comes to take you away.  How anyone ever figured this out is beyond me (and probably ended up getting revealed in Nintendo Power after a Konami PR rep sent the “tip” in).  Anyway, if this hasn’t discouraged you yet, here is a link for more hilarious things villagers said that had you hunting down actions and items you’d never find.  Trust me, get a walkthrough.

Graveyard Duck by lynxieles

When you strip away the poor dialogue and actually know what you need to do next, Simon’s Quest isn’t half bad.  It’s got some great mechanics, the level design is decent enough so that you’re challenged without losing your mind at the unfair parts of the game, and the forward thinking mechanics can be appreciated.  It’s not really a hard game, especially when you know what to do, but you’ll want to do most tasks so you are as prepared as you can be for that Dracula fight.  I always like to test myself to get the good ending (7 days or less), which is more of a speed run challenge than a good way to enjoy this the first time.  Back in the late 80s, though, without a clue as to what to do, most of my friends and I just walked away from the game shrugging, thinking we just didn’t get the premise and what to do (this happened quite frequently in those days).

Quick side note for this game and its place in the Castlevania series.  In Japan, Dracula 2 is one of the few games in the series without Akumajo in the title, so its easy to miss.  Not only that, many people have a deep hatred for the game and slam it at any cost.  Additionally it was only available on the Famicom Disk System, or FDS, which makes it extremely difficult to play nowadays with the low reliability of that console (although it is in the Japanese Virtual Console).  Because it was on a console that supported saves, a password system had to be implemented for the NES release and explains the long and frivolous passwords you had to write down if you wanted to pick up where you left off after turning off the console.  Many FDS titles that later released on NES have this password feature for compatibility, but when you consider how much better the cartridge preserves the game, I’d say we got the better deal.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Review: Castlevania (NES)

leave a comment »

Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1987
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Famicom? Yes (as Akumajo Dorakyura)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Hard
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $12.87 (used) $55,000.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price (eBay): $15-$20 (used) $1125.00 (new) NOTE: This copy is revision A and thus has a lower value.
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What Are You Supposed To Do?

This is a linear action platformer.  Many attribute the Castlevania series as an RPG or action RPG, whereas aside from the second title in the series, it has never really been.  With no real inventory to maintain and no story elements to speak of, this original title is all about jumping and killing enemies.

Review

Castlevania released early in the NES life cycle and for that time seemed to be the culmination of everything you would want in a video game.  Hitting store shelves early summer of 1987, most NES gamers had either just gotten or were hoping to get the console in the near future and word was getting around that this was one of the pivotal titles to play.  You control a hero, Simon Belmont, who has vowed to hunt Dracula in his own castle.  In the game you encounter all types of horror staples such as bats, zombies, and Medusa heads all while tackling large scale boss battles with famous monsters like Frankenstein, the Mummy, and even Death himself (aka: the Grim Reaper).  As a young boy, this sounded like the most amazing game in the world and I was even happier to find out it delivered on all fronts.  Castlevania is a difficult and wild ride through a haunted castle of horrors that holds up even today, albeit at the cost of your sanity with the Dracula battle.

Probably the most significant part of the series is Simon’s whip, which has been a series staple until the game migrated to the Gameboy Advance.  It begins with a short and standard whip that can be upgraded twice, once to add a mace and again to double its length.  Like so many other games of the time, the trick is to fully upgrade your whip (easily found in destructible candles and other menutia of the world) and not die.  Fortunately the game goes out of its way to upgrade your whip as soon as possible, so you have to really try to not bring the full whip into most of any level and all boss battles.  What the series does to even out your extremely effective ranged weapon is the fact that Simon can only whip in one direction, straight in front of him.  This means you have to be on the same level as your enemy, which is dangerous since getting hit not only drains life but knocks you backward (and Castlevania is a game chock full of pits, so there’s a good chance one is right behind you).

Unlike many NES titles of the time, Castlevania has a manageable difficulty that requires you to memorize enemy and boss patterns to overcome.  It doesn’t do random pop-ins or unfair circumstances that are intended just to make you die – if you fail in Castlevania it’s because you made a mistake.  Dying will send you back to the beginning of the level you were on, but with six lengthy levels the trick is really just to power through as unscathed as possible to give you the best advantage to tackle the boss.  Dracula provides the only tense battle and that’s purely because you have to beat him multiple times without dying and his pattern isn’t really tough to memorize, but tough attacks to avoid.  I have honestly never beaten Dracula outside of emulators where save states make him a breeze, but I can consistently get to him on the actual NES game.  If you are a fan of classic gaming and haven’t played Castlevania, you owe it to yourself to pick this up, especially for $5 on Virtual Console.

When the game originally released in Japan on the Famicom Disk System (FDS) and featured a unique soundtrack, name entry, and save state.  It was later ported over to cartridge format for the Famicom and of course for worldwide release on the NES in North America and Europe.  This game has multiple titles including its original Japanese title Akumajo Dorakyura (Demon Castle Dracula), an MSX2 version for Japan/Europe called Vampire Killer, and an eventual arcade port known as Haunted Castle in America.  The MSX2 is not a simple port of the game as it contains different level design and a skeleton key collection system that not only opens doors to the next area but also opens chests with items (such as the shield that would be integrated into Simon’s Quest, the sequel).  Haunted Castle also has completely unique level design and a heavily ramped up difficulty, not to mention only allowing you to continue 3 times regardless of how many quarters/credits the game has in it (no wonder it wasn’t popular in the US).  It was also re-released on the Gameboy Advance under the NES classic series.  Although there are plenty of similarities, both Super Castlevania IV (SNES) and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (N64) are viewed by this site to be unique titles from the original, although they are both clearly “remakes” or “retelling” versions of the original game.  Given the way remakes are coming out left and right these days, it’s not accurate to refer to them as such because they do not adhere to the level design, game structure, enemies/bosses, and gameplay of the original.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Feature: Castlevania Retrospective

with 2 comments

Few titles that started life on the NES still exist today.  Of those titles there are even fewer that weren’t developed by Nintendo.  Konami is one of the few companies that has a list of titles like this, although many of them suffer from very few updates and recent iterations such as the Metal Gear (Solid) series and Gradius.  Castlevania does not have this problem.  In fact, it still seems to withstand the test of time and despite trying to reinvent itself so many times, celebrates at least mild success with each new iteration.  As a gamer who got his first console, an NES, in 1988, I have literally grown up alongside the series and played most titles it has to offer.  If you don’t know Castlevania or have never played a single game, this will hopefully explain why you need to.

Scattered Start

Unlike the trends of the late 80s, Castlevania started life on Nintendo’s console(s) and was then ported all over the place, including to arcades.  Because of the strong Japanese connection and the fact that several versions of the series remained locked and unlocalized in Japan until recently, you will notice lots of import talk here (which is why you may want to follow the links provided, all connected to information content solely on this site).  It was one of the first games to appear on the Famicom Disk System (FDS) in 1986, about three years into the life of the Famicom (NES) in Japan, and saw a release on the MSX2 a month later (entitled Vampire Killer).  Both games are similar, but Vampire Killer is more of a discovery and puzzle game that required the finding of keys whereas Castlevania is as linear as it gets.  The arcade port, Haunted Castle, is just a brutal version of the original with different (and worse) levels with some spruced graphics.  As the smoke cleared at the end of 1986, it was clear that the most popular version was the original on Famicom (often nicknamed as Akumajo, a shorthand of the Japanese title) and it was ported to NES consoles and in cartridge form on the Famicom. 

Its success as an action platformer that basically told the story of a hero fighting many of the original Universal Studios monsters solidified an immediate sequel.  This time around the gameplay of the first game would be combined with a few of the upgrade elements found in Vampire Killer to make for a true action RPG, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.  This title contained a save system, full inventory that had you collecting and using items, day and night cycles, and hub towns for you to heal up.  Sounds great, right?  Wrong.  Just like many other Nintendo staple sequels (Super Mario Bros 2, Zelda II: Adventures of Link, Metal Gear II: Snake’s Revenge) changing up the formula proved to be unpopular with gamers.  Simon’s Quest suffered specifically because it was another game that started life on the FDS and had to be converted to cartridges for worldwide distribution (which explains the long passwords necessary when saving was removed).  This game is somewhat boring when compared to the tense gameplay of the original and it’s completely unfair that the game literally lies to you.  I’m not even kidding, citizens in towns will mislead or misinform you on purpose and it has been revealed that this was also the case in the Japanese game, so it wasn’t a localization or translation error. 

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was the third and final NES title and put somewhat of an end to the Simon Belmont storyline – he would return in various forms.  What’s significant about this game is how impressive it was, both gameplay and technically, and is even heralded today as the best game technically on the console.  Both the Famicom and NES versions needed to have special chips put in to work thanks to a great soundtrack and certain graphical effects like in the clock tower level.  In Japan the Famicom could support external sound chips so the VRC6 added an extra sixth sound channel and provided percussion and synthesizer sounds as well as allowed for impressive upgraded graphics and special background effects.  The NES couldn’t support external sound chips so the Memory Management Controller (MMC) chip was given its most impressive revision, MMC5, and allowed the NES version to come out albeit at the cost of lesser graphics and sound over the Japanese counterpart (some hints of nudity were also censored in this version).  This is why Castlevania III was very difficult to emulate early on and clone consoles still cannot support the game.  Aside from the technical feats, Castlevania III provided a rich story, branching paths that the player controlled (you wouldn’t see every level in a single playthrough), and companions that Simon could switch out.  Each of the three companions also had special abilities like climbing on walls and even Dracula’s son, Alucard, was one of the playable companions.  It took the concept of the original and turned it into a dynamic title that I could not get enough of while waiting for my parents to finally give me a 16-bit console for Christmas. 

There were 16-bit console games – Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X on SNES and Castlevania: Bloodlines on Genesis – they were mostly remakes or more attempts at the original concepts.  In the meantime, a niche title in Japan on the PC-Engine CD console, entitled Akumajo Dorakyula X: Chi No Rondo or as it was later known in America Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, would begin to reinvent the series for future iterations.  Rondo still provided a linear experience, but there were discoverable offshoots and hidden rooms that started to make you feel like it took place in a real castle.  Boss battles could come at any time, creating a now common “sub boss” mechanic in the game.  It also gave tons of nods to the original game like having the original town from Simon’s Quest burning as the background to the second level or beginning another level with a boss rush of most of the original game’s bosses.  There was even a character, Maria, who could be found and unlocked for you to play through the game with and you could save and quit.  While there would be an altered port outside of Japan, Dracula X on SNES, none of these great features made it into that version, thus removing the big draw to this side story (Maria could be found but wasn’t playable).  Thankfully it’s now easily available on PSP (Dracula X Chronicles) or as a separate virtual console game that is a direct port of the PC-Engine CD title.

Crafting a Castle

As the 32-bit generation approached and Konami began reinventing its properties for the newfound Sony Playstation, Castlevania received a facelift and reinvention that resulted in probably the most popular game in the series, Symphony of the Night.  This new title created an actual castle, complete with map, that was open to you from the beginning to explore and try to live.  It has often been compared to the same gameplay style as the Metroid series, where the only thing stopping you is not having the right equipment to overcome and obstacle and promoted exploration and caution, lest you encountered a big boss out of nowhere.  This comparison is why the loved/hated nickname “Metroid-vania” has been attributed to titles like this. 

From this point the series would split literally down the middle, with 3D rendered worlds and games would be released on home consoles (starting with Castlevania 64) and the 2D sprite-based exploration games coming out two years at a time on portables (first Gameboy Advance, then DS).  While the portable titles continued to sell very well and get both critical and fan-based praise, Castlevania in a 3D realm was not getting such a warm response.  As someone who has played every game in the 3D space, I don’t quite understand why they are so heavily scrutinized, but I will admit they do look and play like many other games of that time so perhaps the fact that Castlevania was no longer unique is what hurt it.  Either way, the commonality of these games (especially on PS2) has provided a low price point for those wanting to see what all the fuss was about. 

New Horizons

As the current generation of consoles started to release, Castlevania has finally started to show some rough times.  The side-scrolling adventures weren’t so nicely regarded as of late, and given that there are probably seven or eight different ones all based on the same concept, I can’t say I blame gamers.  Konami recently updated the console version to more of an epic God of War style adventure game with Lords of Shadow, which did decent with reviewers and exceeded a million sold units on consoles, the shift seems to be a weaker resurgence on home consoles again.  In 2010 Konami released a download only 2D castle exploration with Castlevania: Harmony of Despair that integrated online co-operative play and a hodgepodge of parts from the portable iterations.  It was equally hated by fans of the portable games, newcomers from the Symphony of the Night days, and critics (and yes, I know there are a handful of you out there who love this game).  It looks like a sequel for Lords of Shadow should be showing up within the next few years and this design style is also being ported to the 3DS for an upcoming title as well, but for the first time in a long time it looks like the Castlevania series may be in for some chop.

Celebration

All this week (and possibly next) I am going to be digging back to the vaults and reviewing the many games in the Castlevania series starting with the original.  Feel free to check back here or on the main page to read up on a series that has thus far withstood the test of time.  Links to reviews of Castlevania games can be found below:

Written by Fred Rojas

July 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Head to Head: Double Dragon

leave a comment »

In many cases, games with the same name – and even the same game ported to various consoles – can be drastically different.  This was especially true in the 8-bit era where plenty of popular arcade games were deemed too limited for a boxed release on consoles like the NES. Head to Head takes two particular games and explains the drastic difference between the two that often keep fans of each camp drastically divided.  Aside from ports, you can also expect several other types of comparisons such as localization.

Double Dragon Arcade

  VS

In 1987 Technos released a spiritual successor to its popular brawler Renegade (Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun) known as Double Dragon.  It told the story of two brothers, Billy Lee and Jimmy Lee (Hammer and Spike in US arcades), who are fighting the mean streets of the Black Warriors turf to get back Billy’s girlfriend.  It released first to arcades and eventually saw a port over to the NES, which drastically changed the game.  Chances are if you are an American that played the game in your past, then you remember the NES version.  Now that arcade ports of many games we loved on the NES are releasing on services like Xbox Live and Playstation Network, it’s important to know the drastic differences between the two because they are different games.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, here’s the Head to Head on Double Dragon.

 Arcade Version 

 NES Version 

 

 Head to Head Conclusion Depending on what you’re looking for, you could be a fan of either version.  It was very cool to finally play an arcade game with someone and truly began the trend of playing with your friend instead of against them.  On the other hand, the NES version is purely for a single player, despite what the developers had in mind.  It takes time, memorization, and you will be tempted to throw your controller a couple of times, but once you get past all that it’s a super fun brawler from a time when this genre was young and rare.  Personally I’m going to side with the NES version, but I fully admit that nostalgia adds a heavy bias despite my playing both versions for a few hours just recently.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 12, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Know This Developer: Radical Entertainment

leave a comment »

It was announced on June 28, 2012, that after careful consideration Activision decided to disband most of Radical Entertainment (on a recent episode of Giant Bombcast it was discussed that the rumored remaining staff was 12) and basically close the studio.  Granted, although the logo may appear on future games and thus be an argument to the fact that the studio is still open, Activision states that Radical remains a support studio with no ability to develop its own games.  Cynics want to blame Activision for setting inappropriate goals for the Prototype developer and we all tend to believe that the remaining Radical staff will be assigned to a Call of Duty in the future, but that’s a different discussion for a different forum.  Instead, I want to touch on how Radical Entertainment came to be and the games it has contributed to the industry.

Humble Beginnings

In 1991 Dave Davis and Rory Armes decided to create Radical Entertainment after working together at Distinctive Software (known mostly for developing PC ports of popular arcade and console games, later becoming EA Canada) along with newcomer to the industry Ian Wilkinson.  Its formative years saw Radical tackling late NES cycle titles for Nintendo, all of which I sadly admit I hate.  During the 16-bit and 32-bit era of consoles Radical migrated to a split between console sports titles and a division known as 369 Interactive, which was responsible for Ubisoft-published PC titles in the CSI series. 

In the early 2000s Radical began developing titles for Vivendi Universal’s licensed products and can be “thanked” for the likes of Simpsons: Hit & Run, Dark Angel, and even the decent Hulk game based of the Ang Lee film.  Despite my negativity towards these titles, they celebrated commercial success (along with some critical success) and publishers began shopping the studio for acquisition.  In 2005 Vivendi Universal would acquire Radical Entertainment but allowed it to remain an independent studio, thus allowing the flow of the company to remain untouched.

To be honest, there wasn’t a reason in the world that I wanted to play any of Radical Entertainment’s early titles, but that all changed with the release of one game: Grand Theft Auto III.  Radical isn’t responsible for anything involving the development of this or any GTA title, however they did manage to take the non-gameplay aspect of that title – the ability to cause chaos in a living, breathing city – and make a game out of it.  Several, in fact.

Radical Finds A Niche

Two of my most fond titles from the last generation were Radical’s first projects under Vivendi Universal: Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Scarface: The World is YoursHulk: Ultimate Destruction was a sandbox-style game that allowed the player to roam freely across an open city, causing as much or as little chaos as they want in the process.  Scattered throughout the city, a la GTA, are various missions that Hulk can do to further the story, but what I always dug about the game was the fact that regardless of the mission, the city would continue to react to the actions made before and after.  Unlike GTA, the city didn’t reset its current standings in the interest of starting a new story mission, which meant that if you pissed off everyone before starting a mission you may have that much more chaos on your hands when it came time to actually do the mission.  Hulk also had some amazing abilities that hadn’t really been seen before, most of which would later be implemented in Prototype.  He could do large long leaps across the city, run vertically up walls, dig into walls and continue to climb, and drop down with strong “devastator” attacks that did major damage across a small radius. 

Scarface: The World is Yours was a spiritual sequel to the movie that assumed Tony Montana lives and takes out Sosa’s assassins, including Skull, who was responsible for his death in the film.  From that point Tony vows to quit cocaine and return to Miami to rebuild his empire.  It felt much like a reboot of GTA: Vice City, which ironically stole its concept from Scarface the film, but gave the iconic Tony Montana as the playable character and fleshed out some interesting “what-if” scenarios.  Although it could have been a watered down clone, Scarface was actually a decent game that held its own both in reviews and sales, further boasting the fact that Radical knew sandbox games.

Crashing the Party

After the success of Crash Team Racing on Playstation 1, Vivendi handed the development of Crash Tag Team Racing from Traveller’s Tales (previous Crash developer after being acquired from Sony) to Radical Entertainment.  A pretty obvious clone of the newest iteration of Mario Kart (Double Dash), Tag Team released to so-so reviews, many panning the almost laughable AI difficulty, but commercial success.  After that Radical became the official Crash Bandicoot developer and went on to make titles Crash of the Titans and Mind over Mutant, both games did pretty poorly with critics but still brought commercial success.  I think these games are decent 3D platformers, although truthfully there are better examples from this era, but the super short campaigns make them worthwhile to try out for like $5-$10 if you’re a fan. 

By this point Radical Entertainment was rocking and rolling with its new home at Vivendi and probably accounts for the highest point in the studio’s career.  After the release of Mind over Mutant, Radical had three distinct projects in the pipe: Scarface 2, an unnamed Crash title, and a whole new intellectual property Prototype.  Early discussions with the studio would reveal thatPrototype featured an anti-hero with superhuman abilities and free roaming city (a staple for most Radical games after the Vivendi acquisition, even in the Crash games).  There was also rumblings about the game having plenty of violent content.  Shortly after, in 2008, that would all change when Universal sold off Vivendi to none other than publishing giant Activision Blizzard.

Cold Front

When Activision Blizzard acquired Vivendi, any and all developers (as well as their projects) were subjected to review and many found their way to the chopping block.  Not only that, this indie studio was to immediately become a first-party studio for Activision Blizzard, which could result in the publisher getting involved in all aspects of the development process.  This is widely regarded as a negative and ugly side effect of such sales and acquisitions.  According to a former employee, both the early conceptual Crash title and Scarface 2, which he claims was ready to go gold – a term used for the completion of a game that is approved to be manufactured – were slashed immediately.  Critics at the time, myself included, were pretty sure that Prototype was going to be eliminated as well, especially when you consider its vague similarity to Sony’s inFamous and the fact that Double Fine’s highly anticipated Brutal Legend fell victim to cancellation at the hands of Activision Blizzard.  Surprisingly Prototype released and while it didn’t get the greatest reviews, managed to move more than 1 million copies and generate a decent fan base.  As a personal fan of the title, I’m always torn talking about it in public forum because as a critic I can knock it down for several flaws but as a gamer I love it.

Nothing was immediately announced by Radical following the release of Prototype and given the sales numbers – 1 million units is a great number, but not for a top echelon publisher like Activision Blizzard, who has Call of Duty in its roster – it was believed the title would not get a sequel.  There are rumors that the Prototype engine would be used to develop a new Spider-Man or Bourne title, both of which were Activision properties, but to many’s surprise Radical eventually announced Prototype 2 in 2010, releasing in 2012.  No one looked to that as positive news from an industry analytical standpoint, but I’m sure Radical was pleased to still have a job for at least two more years and I personally was intrigued.

It’s important to understand that Activision is a business and it wants to make the best possible decision for its company and investors, which almost never holds the interest of gamers or developers in mind.  A simple business analysis could conclude that Radical’s position at that point was to develop Prototype 2 with the same engine (ie: much cheaper development cost and cycle) and attempt to generate a larger revenue stream for the original investment.  They might have also balanced that with the fact that these other rumored titles were in better hands with other developers.  Furthermore, many still feel that Prototype remaining the sole project of Radical may have been a bad business decision and this was Activision’s attempt to correct the problem instead of losing even more capital on the development of a new IP.  Either way, the game was developed and released.  Having played a significant amount of the campaign already, I can agree that this game is quite similar to the first, basically adapting a new story that allows you to play a refined version of the original.  This makes it a clear target for critics, but as a fan of the series I can say that’s all I really wanted out of a sequel I never thought I would see (or needed).  It premiered at the end of April in the top spot and dropped to down to number four in May, although that’s probably much better than anyone thought it would do and clearly the bump was from fans of the original.  After the smoke had cleared and the initial sales tallied, it was time for Activision to decide what to do with Radical. 

Even in May it was clear that they were either going to close or sell the studio with thePrototypewell thoroughly tapped and Activision taking almost no chances in today’s economy with a new IP.  They did consider the possibility of re-distributing the teams at Radical or selling the studio completely, but the eventual decision was heavy layoffs and a partial closure of the studio.  This is a business that lives and breathes off popular trends, heavy sales, and timid fans.  Truthfully most of the Radical team are victims of the industry landscape and despite the my urge to attack the big guy (Activision) for its decision or the current state of gaming trends (ie: social, shooters, etc.) there’s no one to blame.  Instead of focusing on how tragic it is that Radical has, for the most part, fallen it’s much more positive to remember why they are even relevant in the first place.

Radical Entertainment, you are responsible for Mario is Missing on the NES, a horrendous crime, and for Hulk: Ultimate Destruction a testament to what’s good about sandbox gaming, and you will be missed.  Here’s hoping the talented members of that team that lost their jobs find work quickly and those that remain are put to proper use on future support projects.  In memory, I will be playing Prototype 2 to full completion as my sole gaming project of the week. 

The list of games developed by Radical can be found here.

Written by Fred Rojas

July 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 532 other followers