Friday, January 15, 2010


Transylvania. Doesn't the name just send chills down your spine? Doesn't it make you fear for your very soul? Conjuring up images of all kinds of demonic activity and virgin sacrifices, with the devil lying in wait to claim you for his army of evil?

No? Transylvania doesn't frighten you? Well, how about Castlevania? Now that's scary. Let me introduce you to the nightmares that enter the deepest recesses of my memory when the word "Castlevania" is mentioned.

Mystery Mashing.Castlevania is the story of wealthy Spanish hero and whipaholic, Simon Belmondo. His entire family, or "clan" if you're Scottish, is self-employed as vampire and monster hunters. Well, legends speak of some blah blah blah, and then so-and-so does the whatsit. And to the horror of the world, the something something led by that one guy results ultimately in the earthly resurrection of Dracula. And hey, fun fact: Dracula is a pretty evil dude. Powerful, too. So it falls on Simon, by some blood oath I guess, to venture to Dracula's castle and kill him. Again.

To do this, he brings his trusty family whip, and wouldn't you know it? Dracula was kind enough to litter his entire castle with torches and candles that, when broken, can actually empower Simon's whip! Sadly, none of them enable Simon to whip in any direction but straight forward in front of his face, but what can you do? Some of them even contain sacks of gold that Simon can use to get a fine Spanish mistress. You know, to ensure the continued safety of the world by extending the line of vampire hunters. He's a team player.

That's not all, either. The torches, as well as many enemies, can also drop hearts of varying sizes. These hearts act as ammunition for Simon's array of stereotypical innovative monster-hunting weapons. He can collect daggers to throw directly forward, axes to hurl in an upward arc, vials of holy water to compel Dracula and his minions with the power of Christ, a jeweled cross that he throws like a boomerang (not sure that's what "take up your cross" means, SeƱor Belmondo), and even a stopwatch to freeze time around him. Whoa. Don't remember reading about that one in monster lore.

Stairway to Hell.The special weapons are pretty simple to use too, if you have the hearts to blow. Whereas normally your attack button cracks your whip, holding up and pressing attack uses whatever special weapon you currently own (you can only have one at a time). This sounds reasonable enough, but it won't take long before you see the problems with the system. They can be summed up in a single word: Stairs. Stairs are the worst thing about Castlevania. When at the top or bottom of a staircase, pressing up makes you go up the stairs, while pressing down makes you go down the stairs. Not seeing an issue yet? Look at the picture above. To get onto stairs, Simon takes a second or two to shift into the background or foreground so he can actually use them. So let's say you're at that top step and a fireball is coming at your beautifully groomed face and you need to duck. You press down and awwwww sorry, you just turned slightly and began going down the stairs instead. Slowly. So very slowly. You can't avoid getting hit.

Want to use your special weapon near some steps without going up them? Tough. Want to attack something above or below you when on the steps and sandwiched between enemies? Tough. If they're not coming directly at your face, you're out of luck. Maybe you'll have the axe special weapon and can sort of like, be near the bottom of the stairs, then try to use it so you're halfway up when it throws because you had to hit the up button, but that lets it hit stuff at the top of the know what? Nevermind. If you get trapped on stairs, just reset your game. Call it a day.

Colonel's Finest.And don't even think you can just tank a hit and move on with your life in that situation. I know you see a life bar there, and I know it looks snazzy, and I know there are sixteen segments that comprise it. All that is meaningless, because you die in four hits. Any four hits, from any monsters. The first thing you see in the entire game? Kills you in four hits. Dracula? Kills you in four hits. Life bar? Wants to pretend you won't die in four hits. Being that fragile is easily the worst thing about this game. The only way to survive four hits in a single life is to eat some roast chicken, which Dracula has cleverly lined within his stone castle walls. Huh?

"Okay," you're thinking, "but I'll just avoid getting hit four times. That can't be so hard." Pardon me a moment while I take have an extended laugh at your expense. Hahahahaha. Haaaaaaaaaahahahhahaa. Oh hohohohohohoho. Hooohoohoohooo. Weeeeeeeeeee ahhhhhhhhhhh, hehehehehehe. Ohhhhh dear. Much better now. Yeah, you're gonna die.

We'll be able to fly.I mean, maybe you'd have a shot if you could attack while moving, but that's right out. Wouldn't want to make this game too easy, would we? Noooo. Every time you attack Simon must stop in his tracks to do his little windup and whip forward, exclusively straight ahead of him, before he can continue his previously scheduled movement. You can't change either whipping or movement directions in midair. Now I know that if I were to run ten feet and leap forward, the odds of me actually moving backward in midair if I put my mind to it are slim to none, but this is an NES game for crying out loud. Throw the physics out. You can't get realism in 8 bits. Stop trying for it. You can't even lengthen or shorten your jump after leaving the ground. Which makes for a pretty frustrating situation when the bosses are too tall to hit without jumping. Come on now. I don't know how tall Simon is supposed to be, but even if he's 5'6'' that still makes Death like 9 feet tall. It really forces you to plan for each boss by making sure you have the right special weapon and all, which can be really tough to do, and at the very least makes you have to replay the whole stage to get what you need.

That said, the bosses are the least of your worries in terms of enemies. They're all basically stock monsters. You've got some mummies, a giant bat, Frankenstein's monster, Death, and of course Dracula himself - who, might I mention, looks totally lame. I mean, you get to him at the end expecting this dark lord of terror or something and all you get is a sickly old man with a comb-over coughing fireballs at you out of his cloak. That's the best you could do? At any rate, it's the standard enemies that make this game near intolerable. There's a sewer level with lizard serpent sewage men who just rocket up out of the water into your face. They don't even look menacing or prepared to attack. It's like someone loaded them into an underwater cannon and they were launched against their will into you while you were jumping across a pit. Which naturally knocks you into said pit and kills you.

Just like 'Nam.And then there are the Igors. Ugh. They're the worst thing about this game, I swear. Little red hunchback banes of your existence hopping around. They hop so madly that it's a painful endeavor just trying to hit them with your whip. And they'll just flop around humping your head until you take your requisite four hits of death. And what's this nonsense? Oh, you mean there are actually birds who fly on screen and drop them on my head? That's perfect. Just what I always wanted. At least they'll occasionally hop into pits. Hey, just like you! Sometimes, you'll even go through the floor you're jumping on and fall to your death. Oh that Dracula. So crafty.

Even beating a level has its drawbacks. The game gives you bonus points based on how much life you have left, which is fairly standard. Then it awards points for each unused heart you have as well, which wouldn't be a problem if not for THAT EXCRUCIATING SOUND. Every time a heart is converted into end-of-level bonus points, the game makes a piercing and migraine-inducing pinging noise. So really, if anything, you have incentive to score fewer points, if you don't want to burn through Excedrin like it's candy. I literally started muting my game every time I beat a level just to preserve my sense of hearing. That's not a good thing.

Snakes-for-brains.Also qualifying as "not a good thing," I present to you the medusa heads. Medusa heads are unquestionably the worst things about Castlevania. It's an endless stream of floating blue heads flying in wavy patterns through any bit of background they damn well please, coming as many as three at a time. Don't even bother killing one, because they'll keep coming. Have other enemies to deal with on the same screen? They don't care. They'll get you first. Jumping over that pit? The medusa barrage begs to differ. The hallway before the fight with Death is the most brutal, braving a gauntlet of the flying heads along with multiple axe-tossing knights....I'm not even sure how I ever got past it. Just know that you don't have to. Really. I hereby give you, my readers, permission to not only never cross through the medusa gauntlet, but also to never play Castlevania.

So looking back at this glimpse of the stupidly difficult Castlevania, I count four worst things about the game. And I stand by all of them. So what's the best thing? I suppose it's the (mostly) lack of programming glitches. Or maybe the infinite continues so the game isn't downright impossible. Or maybe that feeling of deep satisfaction upon finishing the game. That feeling of "Wow. I actually did it. I finished Castlevania. That was hard as balls. And now I really, truly, never have to touch this game again."

Well, at least not until the next resurrection.

Bottom Line: 9/20

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