Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Weekly Top 5: Castlevania Games

The Castlevania series is no longer looked upon with the same kind of reverence it was in the late 80s and 90s. It seems that after the success of a certain PSone title they've been doing everything in their power to capture that same "lighting-in-a-bottle", but it never works out quite the way they expect it to. It seems that these days the handhelds are where the best titles come from. But to the series' credit, there are very few entries in the franchise that I would consider bad, which is impressive when you consider that this is a franchise with over 30 games in it (that number increases even more if we include spin-offs and remakes).
Every year around Halloween I get in full-on Castlevania mode. It's like clockwork, and this year is no different. It's one of my favorite franchises of all time, so what better topic to discuss for this weeks top 5 than my favorite titles in the Castlevania series.

Honorable Mention: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence

Lament of Innocence was the first 3D Castlevania game after the lackluster Nintendo 64 titles. With the increased power of the PlayStation 2, the series definitely took a major leap forward, but it's still not looked at as a premier action title on the platform that also features the likes of Devil May Cry and God of War. The combat wasn't nearly as deep or engaging, but the music is great and it's a very pretty game for the time it was released. It's one of my personal favorite entries in the series, and worth playing if you've never given it a shot. This is also the game that takes place first in the timeline, so if you want to see the origins of Castlevania, look no further. (Note: If you're reading this blog the week that it is posted, this game is actually on sale on PSN for $3.99.)

5. Super Castlevania IV

Guys, I just finished this game for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I knew when October rolled around that I wanted to do this list, and being the fan of the series that I am, I knew it wouldn't be a complete list unless I had played and finished a title that many consider the best in the entire franchise. I was more of a Genesis kid, so I never played Super Castlevania IV when I was younger. I played it a little bit when I first got my Wii and picked it up on the Virtual Console, but I never finished it. So, for the purposes of this list, and a future list, I knew I had to finish this game. So I did, and I loved it.
I can't say I agree with it being the best in the series, nor do I consider it to be the best of the "traditional" linear Castlevanias, but it's still a fantastic game. This game is technically a remake of the original, and while it does look and control much better, it didn't do for me what Castlevania did. I'd wager that that has to do with the fact that I played it at 29 years old and not 9 years old, but there's no denying that Super Castlevania IV is a top-notch title.

4. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

There are a lot of people who think this title should be number one on the list. But I can only go based on my experience, and the only version of Rondo that I've played is the 2.5D remake on Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles on PSP. While it was certainly a good game in its own right, I mainly picked up Dracula X Chronicles so I could have a portable version of Symphony of the Night.
Sadly, the game wasn't available to us in the States when it was released, and instead we got a "port" in Castlevania Dracula X on SNES. I put that in quotation marks because it's less a port than it is a different game with the same plot and characters. The game was redone in many different areas, and the consensus is that it's far inferior to the true Japanese version.

The game was developed exclusively for the PC Engine CD, and being on a technically superior machine than the SNES means you get a much better looking game than the previous entries, as well as interstitial cutscenes. The game also has branching paths, and while that was nothing new for the series, it encouraged exploration more than any other game in the series had done up to that point, and rewarded you for doing so.

3. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Unfortunately, the Castlevania series has mostly been relegated to handheld consoles. While I do enjoy the Lords of Shadow series, it's a different story with some of the same characters. The original series, however, hasn't seen a home console title since Castlevania: Curse of Darkness on the PS2 and Xbox (unless we're counting The Adventure Rebirth on WiiWare, which I'm not). The good news is that those handheld titles turned out to be some of the best on their respective consoles. Between Aria of Sorrow on GBA and the three Nintendo DS titles, you have four of the best games in the entire franchise. But I think Order of Ecclesia is the one that stands above the rest.
The game is naturally in the 'metroidvania' format, but the title that it most resembles in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. While that may scare some of you off, it shouldn't. It's main similarity is that you have a town as a hub and visit other areas instead of having one giant castle to explore. It's kind of like having several mini-metroidvanias in one game. If you've never played the game, be warned that in order to reach the true ending you must rescue all the villagers scattered about. Once you do, you're able to explore Dracula's castle, and this comprises the second half of the game, because the castle is humongous and will take several hours to navigate.

Two other things that put this game above the others for me is 1) the weapon glyph system, which gives you the ability to customize weapons by combining glyphs (think Kirby 64) and 2) the difficulty. The metroidvania games have mostly been a cakewalk. By the end of the game, you're usually so high-leveled and powered-up that the final confrontation gives no challenge. Not so here. Between Dracula and a boss near the end of the game named Blackmore, I probably died close to 30 times. With that said, the battles aren't unfair, but they do require you to learn their tells and react quickly.
You can't go wrong with any of the Castlevania games on DS, but if I had to choose just one, I would go with Order of Ecclesia.

2. Castlevania

Easily one of my favorite NES games, this is the title that started it all. Because I was such a big fan of monster movies, Castlevania had me hooked from the beginning. It also helps that it has the best cover art of all time. The music is still some of the best on the NES, and those themes have become synonymous with the series. While the game itself wouldn't be considered scary, I remember getting really nervous with each successive boss battle. Strangely, I was better at the game as a kid. To this day, I've still never had the fortitude to beat the game, but when I was a 5-year-old I could at least get to Dracula. When I tried replaying the game in my early 20s, I couldn't even beat Death. Granted, as a kid I had a) more free time, and b) fewer games to play. Unlike today where we can download pretty much any game we want at any time, back then I was bound by what games I either owned, borrowed, or rented, which was very few. The NES era taught me nothing if not perseverance.

I'll freely admit that the reason this game places so highly on my list is mostly nostalgia. The games flaws are many, for instance, it's unfairly difficult in some regards. Getting knocked backwards when you take a hit and not being able to jump down stairs leads to many a cheap death. Luckily, Konami rectified this by giving you unlimited continues. The difficulty ramps up as the game progresses, with enemies doling out and taking more damage, as well as increasing the overall number of enemies on screen. Considering the game is only six levels long, I suppose they had to pad it out a little, and making it harder is a simple and cheap way to do so. The first two or three levels don't offer too much challenge, but the second half boss battles with Frankenstein's monster (accompanied by two fleamen), Death, and Dracula are difficult to best unless you know the exploits.
Difficulty doesn't make a game bad, so don't let that deter you from experiencing a legendary game if you've never given it a shot.

1. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

There's really not a whole lot I can say about Symphony of the Night that you haven't already heard. Even if you're not a fan of Castlevania, you've at least played or know a lot about SotN. There's a reason Konami ports and makes references to this game more than it does any other, and it's because it's far and away the best in the series. Symphony is one of those games that I play at least once a year, and for some reason I can't help but constantly buy it over and over. I've purchased it five times if I include the Dracula X Chronicles version. I just recently bought it again so I could have it on my Vita.
So where do I even begin? It's the game that caused the gaming community to coin the term 'metroidvania'. Outside of the campy voice acting, I literally have zero complaints about this game. Even though I play it every year, I always find something new on every playthrough, whether it's an area that I had missed before, a familiar that I had never played around with, or a weapon I had never used, there's always something new to discover.

Even for a series that has always had great music, the music in Symphony really stands out. Surely I'm not spoiling anything when I reveal that there's a second, upside-down castle to unlock, and when you do so, you realize just how huge the game really is. The castle is filled to the brim with beautiful design and gothic architecture that one would expect from a European castle in 1796. There's a lot of things in the game that are there just for you to enjoy and don't offer a whole lot outside of a cool moment. For instance, a lot of people probably didn't even notice the giant eyeball peering in from the outside in the long hallway, or that there's an item called "Tall Boots" that make Alucard one pixel taller and serve no other purpose. One of the more interesting moments like these is the confessional booth in the chapel. Sitting in the booth will bring forth an apparition of a priest who will either drain some life from you or leave you a grape juice.

Considering how big the game is, they had to create a lot more enemies. While they did use a lot of enemies that you'd be used to if you have previous Castlevania experience, it's interesting to see how they incorporated different religions and mythologies in their enemy design. They cover Greek mythology with things like Scylla and minotaurs, wargs from Norse mythology, Shaft the Dark Priest would be a representation of the occult, and various demons from Christian demonology. Did I mention that one of the bosses is a giant ball of corpses? In Symphony his name is Granfaloon, but is renamed "Legion" in later games, which is the name of a demon mentioned in the New Testament. When you defeat Dracula, he quotes Matthew 16:26 from the Bible.
I try to keep individual posts on my Top 5s fairly short, and I'll cut myself off there. I could seriously write a dissertation on why Symphony of the Night is so incredible. If you'd like to hear myself and a couple buddies talk more in depth on the Castlevania series, you can listen to the latest episode of my podcast here.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Remembering My Best Friend

(Due to some tragic events in my life (detailed below), I decided to skip a week with my "Weekly Top 5" series, but I'll be back with a new list next week.)

I've always dealt with grief by writing, whether as a way to take my mind off of the situation or to express my feelings about what's going on. This past week has been a complete roller coaster for me. Last Thursday, I welcomed my new baby niece to the world. This isn't my first rodeo in the uncle game, but this is the first child from my side of the family, so it's a little different. My parents were so excited to be grandparents, and it was truly a day for the Thomas family to celebrate. However, my dad informed me that my dog wasn't doing very well, he's been sick for a while now and things had gotten worse than I had thought. My dog has always been very high energy, and when I went to go see him, it was obvious that he just wasn't the same boy that I'd had for the last nine years.

Then, the next day, I took a mini road trip to Cleveland to be a groomsman in my buddy's wedding. It was an absolute blast, but come Monday, reality checked back in. My brother called me and told me I should probably make the hour long trip back to my parent's house because our dog was struggling to breathe and was fighting for his life. I arrived, and spent a few hours there with him. He could no longer stand under his own power, and he hadn't eaten and drank anything for several days. I knew his time was coming up. I prayed and just said "God, I know You're calling him home, just please make him comfortable until that happens." It was obvious he was in pain, but I didn't want to take him to a vet to put him to sleep. He was always scared of the vet's office, and I didn't want his last moments to be frightening. As a family, we agreed that we would wait until the next day, and if he didn't pass naturally, we would take him. People say it's the humane thing to do, but it was still hard for me. Luckily, I didn't have to deal with that. Early Tuesday afternoon, my boy Muldoon was called home.

I got him when he was a puppy with my own money, so I considered him to be my dog for several years until I moved out of my parents home and couldn't bring him with me, at which point he morphed into the family dog. I knew that I wanted to write something about him, but how do I tie this in with videogames? It didn't take long before I realized that he had been there through a lot of my favorite gaming moments.

I remember several nights playing Resident Evil 4 with him sleeping in my lap as a puppy. He always seemed really confused when something would startle me and I would jump, waking him up in the process, at which point I would have to calm him down to get him back to sleep. I hit a rough patch in my finances and wound up having to move back in with my parents back in 2010, where I stayed until I got married in 2012.

My brother and I had a mutual game room, where I would spend my time playing a plethora of titles while my brother played Call of Duty with his clan. Every night, we would be sitting there gaming, with Muldoon laying on the couch next to me. He was there with me during the thousands of waves of Locust that I killed in Gears of War 3. He was there as I mined for material in Mass Effect 2. He was there when I spent hours hundreds of hours exploring the vast world of Skyrim. Granted, he spent most of the time napping on the couch while I did all the hard work, but he was there with me through it all.

When I met the woman that would become my wife, we decided to replay Borderlands together. We had already played the game before we met, but when we realized that we both had the same affection for the series, we started new characters and played with each other every night. We really bonded a lot during those late night sessions on Pandora, and we both give some credit to the series for our marriage. And guess who was sitting next to me during every second. You guessed it, Muldoon.

My last picture with Muldoon. Five days before he passed.

Unfortunately, I've dealt with death a lot in my life. They say a dog is man's best friend, and I really understand it now. I truly lost my best friend. It's going to be a bummer when I walk into my parent's house and he's not there to greet me with excitement. It's going to be a long time before I feel capable of having another dog, and while I already miss him an incredible amount, I know he's at peace now, and I'll always be thankful for the happiness he brought to my family.

Goodbye, Dooner. I love you, buddy.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fangs for the Memories: Two Way Mirror of Terror

If you've played the game, the title alone is enough to clue you in on what I'm talking about here. It seems like no matter what I do, I can't stop writing about the Resident Evil series. Whether I'm listing its greatest characters or writing a breakup letter to the series or using it as a topic for one of my weekly Top 5 lists, it seems as though I can't get away from it. So I'm just going to embrace it from now on.

While Resident Evil wasn't the first survival horror game, it took what came before it from games like Alone in the Dark and the original Clock Tower and expanded upon them. It wasn't the first one, but it was the first that I played, so when the sequel was released, I was ecstatic. I have no shame is saying that the original RE scared me out of my wits, and I think the sequel increased the dread significantly. When Destructoid first put out the call for this blog theme, I knew I was going to pick Resident Evil 2, but I wasn't sure which moment. The first encounter with the Licker was up there, because I had already exhausted my shotgun ammo and the Licker immediately lunged forward and decapitated a young Leon S. Kennedy. What about the numerous surprise attacks from the Tyrant-103 (known to most fans as Mr. X)? Or how about the scene where reporter Ben Bertolucci meets an unfortunate end at the hands of what can only be described as an Alien chest burster?

But when push came to shove--which is a saying that I still don't fully understand--there was only one choice. The moment that literally made me scream in terror, the two way mirror. For anyone who hasn't played the game or isn't all that familiar with the series, Resident Evil 2 takes place in the Raccoon City Police Department. At one point you need to enter a room behind a two way mirror, where a Licker is waiting and drops from the ceiling. As long as you have some firepower, there's no cause for concern. At most you would need two shotgun blasts to put it down.

Later in the game, you gain access to the room on the other side of the mirror--the interrogation room. I remember getting an uneasy feeling as soon as I walked in and surveyed my surroundings. Nothing seemed out of place, but even in videogame form, the room seemed so sterile and cold. It just felt uncomfortable. You have to walk by the mirror in order to pick up a key (the Rook Key, if memory serves me correctly), and as soon as you go to exit the room, a Licker bursts through the window with a loud crash. Resident Evil is known for its jump scares, and this one is the best in the entire series.

In retrospect, it's kind of funny that it terrified me as much as it did. If I were playing it for the first time today, with nearly 17 more years worth of gaming experience, I would have seen it coming from a mile away. It's terribly telegraphed. They may as well have had writing on the mirror that said "DON'T WORRY, EVERYTHING'S COOL".

If you'd like to see the scene play out in its entirely, check out the video and start watching around the 2:55 mark. This is the scene that cemented my love for the series. To this day, jump scares still freak me out, and still occasionally cause me to pause the game to regain my nerves. Even though Resident Evil has strayed far from its survival horror roots, going back and playing the early titles still instills a sense of dread that few games before or since have done.

Thanks for reading. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @TheDustinThomas. You can also listen to my podcast on both iTunes and Stitcher.