Thursday, March 31, 2011

Castlevania - A Response to Love and Criticism

Let's talk about Castlevania, shall we? There are two problems with discussing Castlevania: It's been done to death, and it's a broad topic with a lot to talk about. I'm no master of Castlevania, but I've played all of the classics and some of the newer style games. Since I want to bring this down to something everyone will want to read, I'm going to focus only on certain games and briefly mention others. I know that's not fair, but I'll be including some great videos from The Angry Video Game Nerd and an interesting one from Egoraptor, the creator of Metal Gear Awesome, among many other videos. After everything these guys say, there's only so much to be said, either in response or something overlooked.

AVGN is probably one of my favorite classic game reviewers. James Rolfe understands the concept of film making and editing, but I'm not here to discuss him. Rolfe pinpoints something here that it seems most others prefer to overlook on some level: the controls. This is something he'll harp on throughout the entire four-part series, and for good reason. The controls to almost all of the Castlevania side scrollers are extremely stiff and frustrating. In the NES games it was somewhat forgivable as it was still an early era, difficult to program, etc. Also, perhaps the developers felt certain elements needed to remain the same to keep that same "feel." And while it's true that gamers and nerds generally hate change, if it's done carefully and well, they don't have a leg to stand on. Case in point: Metal Gear Solid 2. Sure, we could talk about Otacon's step mom and cringe all day about some storyline elements, but overall it was really solid, and the game improved everything about the first one times a thousand, save maybe freedom and locations. But the controls were swift, you could look around smoothly in first person view, aim and shoot. Caution mode finally appeared to make things more sensible, you could stalk, hold people up, shoot out radios, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Kojima, god save him from his dialogue, is willing to take risks. And that's my point: change is good. To justify Castlevania's stiff controls as "it keeps that feel" is holding onto nostalgia that you don't even like.

I'm not going to discuss Simon's Quest much, because one: it's been done to death by everyone because it's the red-headed-step child of the series, much like people (wrongly) consider Zelda II to be. Zelda II is awesome and people hate change so much they get whiny about side scrolling and walk away stroking their nostalgic members for Zelda, where you can't find anything without Nintendo Power and continues are worthless because you start only with three hearts even when you have twenty containers. Sorry, anyway, what I'll mention instead is one more thing about the controls. In the next video, Egoraptor will discuss elements including the whip delay. Though I will note it is an interesting observation, he takes this (somewhat subtly) in a direction I can't follow. The game, like he says, truly is about taking your time. When I play Dracula X it's the same design. It's about timing and strategy, and you can't just speed through all crazy like Super Mario World. Enemies have strange movements, invulnerable elements, many hit points, and different attacks. It feels like a real battle, and it's great. Egoraptor takes it one step further in justifying the controls, whether or not he does this intentionally, I simply cannot agree. The Belmonts should be able to jump like a human being, possibly a really strong and agile human being since they're drawn as such. Instead, they can only jump far when having taken a step beforehand, and it's always a very similar distance, basically saying he can only jump two ways and very exact in both. When you jump up into the upper area of the screen in Mario, does it stop you dead in your tracks? No! The game has high platforms, it knows that'll happen from time to time! Not Dracula X, no no, you'll stop dead in your tracks if off screen, which can cause easy death. They can't even walk while crouching! They don't know how to aim a whip?! Didn't these guys train at all before storming Dracula? I mean, I'm no master of fighting floating medusas (actually I kind of am, now), but I'm pretty sure I can whip in more directions than directly in front of me. What's frustrating isn't the controls entirely, but that the game design exploits them. To me, this adds a frustration element rather than a hard element. A game can be hard because your enemies are smart, well placed, and/or numerable and diverse. These games are hard, but a good, challenging, fun hard. When a game gives you crap controls and then sets up awkward platforming with creatures that have worse hit detection than you and can move more freely than you, it becomes an unfair frustrating task. Yes, the Castlevania series is still amazing, but I'm not going to deny this element for the sake of nostalgia or love. I'm past the honeymoon stage. The controls suck, and they should be fixed. To finally beat Dracula in Dracula X, I'm forced to hop back and forth on two different platforms and crouch and just throw axes over and over, and then to rinse and repeat the same jump/throw ax/wait for fire balls action when fighting his second form. It's no longer about strategy, it's about safety and cheap elements. It's like when you get to the end of KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic) and Malak is just absurdly powerful and it becomes runaway/place mines/watch him run into them. Well...the first time, anyway, until you learn you have to be a Jedi Guardian. Anyways, my point is, gameplay shouldn't turn into this, and it's because the controls suck. Super Castlevania IV is living proof that the game does not need the stiff and cruddy controls to be hard.

Since I brought up Super Castlevania IV, I have to say a few things. The controls are what makes this game perfect: whipping in eight directions, R for the secondary weapon, tighter controls on the jumps, etc. I love graphics and there's a new design of progression where the areas feel really long and flow from one to the next without loading screens. That being said, for some reason when you pick up a new secondary weapon you no longer drop the old one, which is annoying because now if you accidentally get something you don't want (i.e. holy water for a floating enemy) you can't pick up your dropped ax. This game also suffers from scroll death, where you've gone up one or two platforms, so now you can't see the ones below, but when you fall you die, as if those platforms weren't just there. Especially since the others weren't really like this, that's pretty frustrating. Still, this game knew making changes can be good (and bad), but took the risks and found out what works and doesn't work. Unfortunately, Castlevania really took a change after this.

Now that all the classics have been discussed either by me or the videos, I feel the need to, once again, bring up an Egoraptor argument. He attempted a comparison of Simon's Quest to the newer Castlevania games like Symphony of the Night. He compared level grinding to grinding for hearts, and going from new areas of an enormous castle to going through the same areas over and over again. Obviously you can already tell I disagree. Though some of his points are well-taken: they're very different games, and the classics were designed around timing and strategy (as well as stiff and cruddy controls), his attempt at connecting the two is weak and flimsy. Simon's Quest involves more running through old areas than SotN. SotN also leaves certain areas inaccessible until later, but showing you them, providing a very powerful RPG and exploratory element. SQ is about getting hearts. SotN isn't just about level grinding to advance. You're looking for power ups, knew weapons, additional variables that can come in handy. He describes the fighting in SotN and the newer Castlevania games as being "bam bam done" style, where you just mash square and the enemy dies. This simply isn't true. I don't know how else to argue against this. If you play the game, it simply isn't true. After you've been through an area a few times and you've leveled up significantly, yes, this is true about old areas, but all of the newer areas you enter are full of harder, more leveled up and more advanced enemies. You still have to take your time on them. That being said, SotN was an early type and isn't perfect, and the game truly does become too easy after a certain point, but this is only after a significant amount of game play. As he described SQ, it seems as if it always is. The classic games were about timing, platforming, and strategy. The newer games are about exploration, power ups, and strategy in those elements. Yes, the final battle in Dracula X is much harder and involves more time developing strategy and good timing, but it's also frustrating because your controls are bad and his hit detection is absurd and if you get hit once you get knocked back and fall down a pit and die. The teams are stacked. In the later games, it gives you the opportunity to go in a bit early and fight him with your special weapons and really try to pull it through with timing, but it also gives you the option to go in prepared with items and upgrades and having leveled up like a bad ass. To compare this to potato chips is truly insulting and short-sighted. Level grinding is not easy and most of it happens naturally as you progress through the entire castle, finding new areas and getting into areas you couldn't get into before. And by leveling up, it makes old areas easy, so it's not a pain in the ass to go through old areas when you're just trying to get through to the newer sections. They're very different games, but I wouldn't say one is high class and the other low. I find that to be a short sighted, classic-gamer-obsessed-with-nostalgia argument, missing out on a newer style of gaming that is an elaborate and exciting RPG.

These games, old and new, are wonderful. If you like complex platforming, the old games will definitely get your mojo going. Be forewarned, their controls suck, and I will not waver on this observation. The games are fun and super hard, but they make things harder because of their sucky controls--and that's not real difficulty, that's fake difficulty. It's not like Resident Evil where you couldn't walk and shoot, because that was attempting realism. I can whip in more than one direction, I can jump right after I jump, and my jumps can get me to land where I need to land pretty easily. It's like if I made a game with a character who couldn't walk, you could only jump everywhere, and all the enemies were birds floating through the air. You'd be pissed. That's not fair. And at times, though not all the time, Castlevania does this. SotN kept the stiff attack controls, which is somewhat disappointing, but provided a new style of gaming that--though not the same--is gratifying in a different and exciting way. The ability to turn into a bat or fog, finding a double jump, etc., this is a slow but exciting progression over time. Regardless of the style you chose, know that both are pleasant experiences, and you will not be disappointed either way.

Castlevania on Wikipedia.
List of Characters on Wikipedia.
Castlevania Wiki.
Symphony of the Night on IGN.
Dracula X on IGN.
AVGN's Youtube channel.
Egoraptor's Youtube channel.
Connect with Egoraptor however you want.