I'm trying out old games that I either missed or, for whatever reason, never worked for me. Pull up a chair.
Here we are at last. A game - and entire series, really - that has never quite 'clicked' for me. Admittedly, I'm not sure I've ever given the series a fair shake, and where better to start than the beginning?
The novice will notice a few things. I am attacking with a whip. It's probably taken for granted what an unusual weapon this is, particularly in a 2D game. This observation isn't entirely irrelevant, either, because it doesn't take long to see what it means for the game's central conceit of slaying everything that moves in this massive castle.
There's a sense of real weight and movement in these few brilliant frames of animation, and part of that is the speed. Here is a measured game with a measured pace; I was thrown off by how slow Simon's attack was at first, but it doesn't take long to understand its intent. After a few upgrades, the whip becomes a formidable mid-range weapon, and skillful, precise timing becomes more important than, er, whip-smart reflexes.
In the shot above you can see Simon throwing the whip back to gain momentum for a full forward swing (word has it that this short frame can actually damage enemies who are close enough behind you). Which is odd, because the entire concept of momentum is ignored elsewhere.
Let's ignore the way staircases are treated, how they seem to be on a totally different plane than everything else. The novice learns: gravity is a vicious monster. Stepping off a platform (there is no running; Simon's movement is just as measured and slow as his whip-waving) results in a sharp, sharp, fast descent directly below the position you walked off. There is no forward momentum when walking off the platform.
To the devs credit - you know how vicious and cruel NES programmers could be - there aren't many areas where this is a particularly crippling concern, though it does crop up on occasion. It strikes me as very Castlevania, the kind of quirk that longtime fans tend to forget and take for granted. Like someone who's new to Mega Man and wondering, "hey, why can't I duck, or shoot up?" The answer being: well, that was how the game was designed.
That might be true of Mega Man, and that's also true of Simon's slow, mid-range whip - but I can't really come up with a justification for the sharp plummet he takes when walking off a ledge.
It does force you to jump a little more often, though, and that's when you're at your most vulnerable. The game's difficulty surprised me - I guess I expected something along the lines of Ninja Gaiden hard, but enemies are mostly manageable. Sure, Medusa heads annoy, axe-throwing armored knights are tough, and leaping frog men can be your death - but they're introduced in such at such a steady pace that it never feels unfair. You'll learn how to deal with flame-spewing pillars alone; later, you'll learn how to predict Medusa heads alone. So when the time comes when you face incoming Medusa heads and a fire pillar, you'll feel well-equipped enough to take them down. Which isn't to say it's easy - like any well-made NES title, discipline, dexterity, and learning are still essential - but it never feels unfair.
Because by that point you'll have discovered most, if not all, of the available sub-weapons. Each one serves a purpose: knife for distance, axe for vertical, holy water for ground, boomerang (or whatever) for tough defenses. And my personal favorite, the stopwatch.
The stopwatch is another example of thoughtful game design. It's massively useful in most situations - either when you're swarmed by tough enemies, or faced with difficult platforming sections, or both - and it even works in bosses. Oh wait.
It is effective when you fight the giant Medusa head, and it doesn't take much to abuse it for an easy win. "I'm keeping this; screw the knife and the axe," you say to yourself. Until you get to these two guys:
And you realize the stopwatch doesn't work on them, nor does it on any subsequent boss. And so strategic thinking comes into play: will I keep the stopwatch, which will surely help me get through the level in good health? Or do I grab that knife so I can keep my distance with the upcoming boss?
Because you'll need a sub-weapon for the bosses. Did I say this game wasn't as hard as I expected? Well, I hadn't gotten to the grim reaper yet.
I suppose it's appropriate - it is Death after all - but this boss was a downright unfair, cheating, no-good, lousy son of a bitch. Or maybe I just suck. Regardless, in order to preserve my hair, my controller, my sanity!, I'm not afraid to admit I (temporarily) turned on some Game Genie codes for this guy. No joke; he's much harder than Dracula, the final boss (uh, spoiler alert?).
I could go into how this game is a masterpiece of level design, but there isn't much I can say that Mr. Jeremy Parish hasn't already said.
Seriously, read his entire series on Castlevania (and many more!). It will enrich your experience beyond what you could imagine from a simple 8-bit action-platformer.
One last random thought: the game's tone, and the series in general, has always seemed a little off to me. On the one hand, it seems take itself pretty seriously - and manages to stick it, for the most part. But then you have things like this:
Well, it wants to take itself seriously, or at least it wants the player to take it seriously, but it also wants to give nods to cheesy Universal horror movies and make puns on the name of those actors. Having cake, eating it too, etc.
I look forward to trying out Simon's Quest sometime soon, though I hear that game is an entirely new level of unfriendly game design...
All screenshots are my own, except for that box art at the top. And remember readers...
edit: Finally got the pictures working, after resizing them myself, but I'm still having a little formatting difficulties, as is apparent. It's certainly something to learn, and it's something you just have to be careful about especially when you're inserting this. Fixing some of the mistakes in this particular piece would probably mean re-writing the whole thing, and, uh, no thanks.
If anyone can offer help, particularly with getting full line breaks in between paragraphs (I prefer it to indenting), it would be much appreciated!