The inspiration for this article came from my most recent nostalgia trip; I've been playing a lot of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
lately, and it made me think about what I like in my Castlevania games. Technically (even though I've got a PS1 copy of the game), SOTN is not a nostalgia trip for me, as I never played it until 2008, and that tells you something right off the bat.
This game took both my DS and Castlevania virginity
I started playing Castlevania with the (in my opinion) quite excellent first DS outing, Dawn of Sorrow. I had no background in Castlevania otherwise, minus I believe one run-in with the N64 game, and I didn't even recall that as being Castlevania until years later. I got my DS... well, right when Dawn of Sorrow came out. I was still in my hardcore Nintendo phase, believing everything the company pumped out was gold, and after seeing stellar reviews for Dawn of Sorrow all over the place, finally saved up the dough to purchase the handheld and game. As I spent many a night huddled under the blankets playing on a backlit screen (truly, the greatest thing ever to happen to gamers with a curfew), I fell in love with the game. The maze-like castle, with its twists and turns, in addition to the gorgeous sprites, and slick weapons and magic, this, this all made for a wonderful experience.
When Portrait of Ruin came out a few years later, I picked it up on Day 1, ready to reenter Dracula's Castle and be whisked away to grimy dungeons and obnoxious (but fun!) clock towers. However, what I got was not what I expected. There were different worlds I was transported to. The dual character thing was something I was okay with (hey, every game has to have a gimmick, right?), but the titular portraits threw me for a loop. I had read about how this was a harkening back to "old Castlevania," and the idea of stages. I still enjoyed Portrait of Ruin, but I longed for something like Dawn of Sorrow.
Such a quality bundle
I picked up all the GBA games shortly thereafter, and enjoyed them all thoroughly. The idea of one large castle... I liked that. The differences in gameplay between the three were all acceptable, though I preferred Aria of Sorrow the most, naturally. The years passed, and eventually I got a PS2 and subsequently bought Symphony of the Night. The level design in that game (not to mention the music, which is some of the best game music ever, in my opinion), was phenomenal, and that's probably now my favorite Castlevania.
Later that year (2008), Order of Ecclesia dropped for the DS, but I, being in college, took a while to get it. When I finally got down to it, I found that I didn't like Ecclesia. It wasn't the difficulty, because I'd had no problem grinding the hell out of Dawn of Sorrow, but I realized it was the world map system. I like having every part accessible to me from one large area. Stick a few warp points in there for maximum effect, but don't make a ton of little tiny areas. At least Portrait of Ruin's levels had substance and flare, these areas were all just the same bland "gloomy (insert locale here)." When I finally got to Dracula's Castle, it was a massive breath of fresh air, but not enough to save the game in my eyes.
Virtual Console, you are a god
The old Castlevanias, regrettably, don't click for me the same way the "Metroidvanias" do. They might as well be a completely separate series, which I understand is a popular viewpoint in general, but for me, it's also an inferior series. A good one, sure, but not as good as the Metroidvanias. And lord, don't even get me started on those 3D games. I've wondered about this for a while, and now I think I know why I have this viewpoint.
It's all about the first time. I think that really sets the tone for us as players. I'm this way about Castlevania. My brother thinks that Battle Network is the best Mega Man series (though he appreciates, plays, and enjoys the old-school games and 9 and 10 as well), because his first Mega Man game was Battle Network 3. I have friends who think Ocarina of Time and subsequent 3D Zeldas are the best because they played OoT first, and I have friends who think 3D Dot Game Heroes is the first "real" Zelda game we've gotten since The Minish Cap, because they played the original Legend of Zelda on the NES first. That first time makes such a dramatic impact on us. We evolve as gamers, sure, but that first time, I've found, leaves a lasting impression on how we view a long-running series.