Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Castlevania - Second Afterlife
Why it was a good evening to revisit the shadows of the deadliest dwelling on earth.

Unless you located this blog via one of Blogger's header links or some random search-engine query, you've probably guessed that I'm a big fan of the Castlevania series (there are even rumors that I might have created a site dedicated to it. Shhhhh). I admit that my favorite-games list is a rather long one, considering that I have a 30-year history with the medium, but the Castlevania franchise has legitimately produced multiple high-ranking titles that earned such status for how they personally affected me and how they touched me in a way that helped shape my existence. Yet my entire history with the series and adoration for it are steeped in events that were purely happenstance. 

You could say it was a rocky start.

Sometime during the early-middle portion of 1989, I received Castlevania as a gift during a family get-together. I don't remember the occasion (I think it was school-related, like a reward for making Confirmation, the Honor Roll, or something equally useless), but I recall being intrigued by its title and immediately recognizing the mug of Count Dracula, the star of many of my favorite monster movies. I always had a thing for the classic monster-movie villains, and a lot of my artistic projects revolved around the theme of exemplars like Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolfman battling it out in some exotic setting (like, say, a mysterious forest or any location suitably shadowed by a mountainous backdrop). If not centered around the horror-themed fare, it was instead King Kong versus Godzilla or Clash of the Titan's Kraken versus Mighty Joe Young. I had also recently seen the movie The Monster Squad, which held great appeal for how it collected all of my black-and-white favorites into one film, so by 1989 there was plenty of monster-battling fervor lingering within. This "Castlevania" seemed right up my alley and couldn't have fallen into my hands at a better time.

I was always thorough when it came to my preparation for video games, so I initiated what became my usual routine of first consulting the manual to check out the story, item descriptions, and the always-desirable enemy images, suppressing my excitement to get started while trying to convince myself that I was in the class of calm, rational researcher ("Hmmmm--this 'Treat Your Konami Game Carefully' page is indeed quite interesting"). Though, at a time when manuals were thoughtfully designed and treated like an essential, characterizing piece of the package, it did its job to make a good first impression with its brief-but-tantalizing story intro and intriguingly portrayed cast of characters. I particularly liked the setup for the three pages that detailed the weapons and items; the multiple-rowed, five-columned display hit a chord with my increasingly OCD pre-teen self and continued lingering in my mind strong enough to eventually become the basis for my website's many table-based layouts. 

Yeah--you can blame Konami for that.

My first sampling of the actual game, however, wasn't the most positive experience. The presentation was appropriate (I liked the title screen's animation in which a brown bat flew forward from the mountain-propped castle seen in the distance, and Simon's eerie-jingled approach toward the gate to Dracula's haunt set a desired mood), it looked nice, and the music was a surprisingly pleasing mix of energetic and haunting, but the controls were stiff and clunky, and the enemy onslaught seemed endless and merciless. I mean, I couldn't even get up a flight of stairs without a mad-dashing zombie clipping my legs or a black leopard pouncing on me as I climbed, Simon too frequently becoming basically immobilized and without offensive recourse. The existence of this obvious control conflict had me wondering if climbing up to the candelabra-rich upper platforms was even worth it. Still, the developers were kind enough to afford the player multiple hits in the earlygoing, so Level 1 really wasn't much of a problem for me and less so once I had procured a throwing axe, which I used to easily, cheaply neutralize the Phantom Bat boss.

Level 2 was more of the same. I couldn't seem to react in time to the perched bats that suddenly charged when I moved to within a certain proximity, and I was soon introduced to one of the greatest terrors I had ever encountered in a game: Those wavily-moving, infuriating Medusa Heads! I just couldn't grasp how to position Simon and time his jumps to counteract their perceptible-but-troublesome movement-pattern. Things really fell to pieces when I ascended to "Stage 5" of this level, which had multiple gaps and a stream of Medusa Heads whose flow cut off only toward the room's mid-point, the knowledge of which wasn't enough to prevent an untold number of plunging deaths as I was knocked into one pit after another in a scene that repeated even after I had reached the moving platforms above. Adventure's highly irritating bat had nothing on these sadistically conceived menaces.

I stopped playing for a bit when it was time to greet my aunt and uncle (on my mother's side) from New Jersey, who were among the family members in town that day. By their side were my two cousins, who would predictably be joining me for another of those NES-dominated days. As luck would have it, they, too, owned Castlevania and knew a fair bit about it. They taught me a few tricks, like how you could break certain walls--particularly the one at the hallway's midpoint--to find energy-replenishing pork chops and how you could jump over the castle's entrance to unearth a special moneybag. Also, they informed me of the mechanic whereby you could "pose" in certain locations for a specified period of time and uncover similar prizes. The most important bit of wisdom they provided me was that you could actually freeze bosses with the stopwatch, which they demonstrated by locking Medusa in place and destroying her before she could move even an inch. We didn't get too far that day (we were mostly done in by the Mummies, who I was disappointed to learn couldn't be similarly frozen), but I was determined to give it another shot on my own time.

After a few-days-worth of effort, I was able to progress to Level 4, the castle's catacombs, whose challenges cemented in mind the idea that I just didn't possess the skills necessary to complete this game. The opening area's considerable dual obstacle of moving platforms and low-hanging, stalactite-filled ceiling structures was one thing, but the introduction of hunchback-carrying eagles (the former's jerky pattern of movement incomprehensible to me) and skeledragons (mostly the two encountered indoors, as I quickly discovered that you could simply walk beneath the one guarding the door) represented the cold hammer of reality slamming down on me. I couldn't make it to that final skeledragon with anything resembling a satisfactory amount of health, nor could I find the angle necessary to strike the lower-positioned foe without taking reciprocal damage. It was only after repeated attempts and much tribulation that I could reliably trudge my way past the final stretch of boney pests (more so when I'd luck into a stopwatch), but any further progress would be out of the question.

I had arrived in the dreary domain of the unbreachable duo of Frankenstein and Igor. I thought it was interesting that they had repurposed a minor enemy, a hunchback, as a supporting boss character, but I was chagrined to learn that this one was capable of executing enormous leaps and spitting fireballs. Dealing with Frankenstein was no problem--he'd just brainlessly march back and forth across the room's right side, rarely trekking past the room's center--but doing so while trying to dodge the hyperactive Igor and his maddeningly precise fireballs was a nightmare. None of my formulated strategies were effective: Trying to freeze Igor with a whip-slash before quickly turning my attention to Franky and back failed. Tossing daggers from the far end of the room failed. Simply ignoring Igor and trying to brute force my way to victory failed. Any attempts to bob and weave around Igor and his fireballs' predicted trajectories resulted only in slow death. Now that the stopwatch had ceased functioning against bosses, I had no way no means for countering the pair's relentless air-ground assault. 

I gave up after several additional bids spread over the course of about a week and ejected the game from the NES for likely the last time. Level 4 was as far as I was going to get, and I hadn't seen any sign that future meaningful progress was attainable. I could envision myself somehow tanking past the dreaded duo after an exhaustive marathon effort, but how would I ever manage what was to come in the final two stages, which were sure see an even larger exponential leap in difficulty? This game simply required a level of reflexes and dexterity beyond which I was currently capable. I mean, I was a fan of its aesthetics and how its music and background detail combined to create an memorable gothic atmosphere, but that wouldn't be enough to bring me back after the hell it put me through. Castlevania was summarily buried beneath a flood of new games and soon forgotten.

Fate would defiantly intervene first in understated fashion and then not-so-subtely.

One Sunday, later that year, I went with my parents on our annual 2-hour car trip to New Jersey to visit that same uncle. It didn't always work out that my day in the Garden State was spent playing video games with my cousins, but they were always keen to show off prized games from their NES library--introducing me to the likes of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, WWF Wrestlemania, and Ice Hockey--and they this time broke out the fairly new Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, which I had only heard about. I watched them play it and liked what I saw; still, though I had become a copycat gamer, I didn't ever entertain the thought of owning this particular title due to my painful experience with its predecessor. However, while this preview of Simon's Quest didn't do much to alter my view on either the original game or the burgeoning series in general, it brought them back to my mind's forefront and planted some seeds that would sprout a little more than twelve months later.

Cut to the winter 1990, at a time when I was knee-deep in NES games that I had already played to death: I already had all of the games I desired, and there was nothing on the Nintendo Power release-schedule that was catching my attention (as listed in the September/October issue, which was my third since subscribing). Mainly, I had $40 set aside and nothing to spend it on. One day, my brother, who was off to the electronics store to undoubtedly gobble up more bargain-bin games, asked me if there were any in particular NES games that interested me. I passively handed him the $40 and told him to "get anything," trusting his instincts in light of numerous previous instances of his acquainting me with so many unknown games that joined the ranks of my favorites. He came home with the randomly chosen Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, which he knew nothing about. This was met with mild annoyance, since I didn't feel any need to return to that series. 

Though, I gave it a shot and continued playing even though I was experiencing clear deja vu in terms of its clunky controls and tricky enemies (bone pillars on the first stage?), but something was different--I was able to succeed in instances where in the original I faltered, and I was enjoying my time with an obviously highly polished product that looked and sounded better than just about any other NES game I had played. Had I gotten better at games, or was Dracula's Curse easier? It definitely wasn't the latter, as its later castle levels proved. I wound up being blown away by the experience, thoroughly impressed with every facet of the game, from its ally system to its outstanding soundtrack to its amazing stage settings (forests, swamps, caves and everything in between) that created an unforgettable atmosphere and a game world with which I'd become intimately familiar in a short time. As did Mega Man 2, it left me yearning for more in accessory. For that, there was only one place I could turn.

Almost two years after I had last laid a finger on the cartridge, I pulled Castlevania off the rack, out of its protective case, and inserted it into the NES, determined to finally see it through to the end. My journey proceeded more smoothly than it had before (since I'd played a ton of Dracula's Curse and as a result mastered the controls while my evolving intellect now allowed me to better read and predict enemy movements), the well-traveled path now paved with only a few small speed bumps. I made it back to Frankenstein and Igor hastily, but the battle played out just as it had months back, with me unable to survive Igor's erratic, screen-filling barrage. After a series of failures, I entered into that dispassionate mode where I knew my efforts were futile, but I continued playing anyway, as if I was too stubborn to let go. 

That's when fortune smiled upon me: During one particular battle, desperate to make any cosmetic change to the familiar outcome, I rushed to right side of the screen and decided to get the jump on the duo by using my skeledragon-earned triple-shot to toss onto them a few vials of holy water, which I had obtained near the stage's starting point, and hopefully score a few cheap hits. What I observed as I began tossing vial 3 was that the pair wasn't moving; the engulfing effect of the holy water had stun-locked them, freezing them in place as their health meter rapidly drained. So I kept tossing the vials one after another until I witnessed a previously unimaginable sight--that of Frankenstein and Igor dissipating into two rows of quickly dispersing flames and the stage-ending orb dropping from above. I was shocked.

I had made it to Level 5, a sanctum upon which I had never laid eyes. Seeing the light-blue hue of the blocks and hearing the spooky stage theme entered me into a state of catharsis. I had to pause the game to take it all in (and to stall the immediate assault of the hunchbacks); I was standing on forbidden ground, I felt, as if this was a scene I was never meant to see. There was the usual sense of accomplishment, yes, but moreover everything suddenly felt new; the appearance of freshly encountered foes like Blood Skeletons and Axe Knights, with whom I hadn't tangled outside of Dracula's Curse, reinforced those feelings of uncertainty and excitement for my now-expanded quest. I carefully advanced over the dungeon terrain, slowly learning how to deal with the new enemies' eccentricities, before coming to the level's main trouble spot: The last room as populated by two Axe Knights and an endless horde of Medusa Heads. It was a struggle similar to the one I had endured against Franky and Igor: The last line of defense would either wipe me out or wear me down to the point where the boss, the Grim Reaper, would easily tear me apart. 

Once I discovered that a single vial of holy water could potentially take out an Axe Knight in one shot, I could reach the Reaper with less hassle. Still, he was just too tough, his swooping movements and storm of sickles overwhelming me time after time. My most effective strategy of filling the area with boomerangs opened things up a bit, but only being able to absorb four hits wasn't much to work with. After one too many treks through this increasingly tedious stage, I almost again descended into a hopeless malaise before deciding to fall back on my previous last-ditch plan to ambush a boss with holy water as it appeared. So when the level's final screen scrolled into place, I jumped up and began tossing the vials one after another onto the edge of the room's rightmost platform; I watched on, immediately realizing the seeming non-limits of my stupidity, as the Reaper became helplessly frozen in place, its sickle attack thwarted before it could begin and its health draining swiftly enough to where the shrouded ghoul soon vanished into nothingness. "You can do that to him, too?" As the score tallied, all I could do was fear whatever unknown threats awaited me in the final level.

As the level came into focus, I felt that same sense of incredulity as if still walking upon sacred ground. Though, that wonder soon turned to disbelief as I began treading over the castle-keep bridge only to see the Phantom Bat, the Level 1 boss, hovering above it (seeing bosses recycled as minor enemies was still a fascinating concept to me). I tried fighting it, suffering either major damage or an unceremonious plummet into a gap, until I finally scored a kill. But then there was another. "What the hell?" I thought as I rushed past it only to see a third of its kind. There was no way I could take them all out, so I tried charging my way through the pack, the usual result a drop to my death via a long-traveling fireball or direct contact. Yet there were still two more Phantom Bats even after that. What maniac devised this enemy-placement? I still hadn't figured out how to manipulate their movements, so I kept ceaselessly dashing through the fray until things just happened to align perfectly and allowed me largely unfettered access through the weird demon-jaw entrance and into the clock tower. The game plan remained the same for the remainder of the level: Continually attempt to bull-rush my way past the parade of cruelly-placed skeletons and hunchback-dropping eagles until reaching the next area through pure attrition.

The final battle with Dracula was long and arduous, literally demanding hours of my time in the successive weeks-worth of play-throughs. It took forever, seemingly, to make sense of his attack-pattern and discover how to leap over the three-directional fireballs without taking one to the face. Even then, his penchant for reappearing right on top of me would eventually negate what started as a prolonged run of flawlessness. I thought I had him as I delivered the final strike, the blow punctuated by the shocking sight of his head flying off; I was quickly dispirited as the music shifted to a more-intense tune, which could only mean one thing: There was of course a second form. I had no idea what to do with this giant blue beast, which kept crowding me into corners with its high leaps (under which I couldn't pass) and diagonal fireballs. If I couldn't survive the first form with more than half of my energy, how in the world could I ever take this thing down? Had the game not allowed me to continue from the castle keep, itself, I might have flown into a rage and swore it off for good.

Naturally, it was my accidental procuring of holy water, placed in the throne room's leftmost candelabra, that started me on the road to victory. During another rather-fruitless attempt to conquer the blue behemoth, I failed to catch the boomerang upon its return and watched as it clipped through the otherwise undisturbed candelabra, which dropped the holy water. In desperation, I picked it up and began chucking vials toward its leg area, which I'd pegged as its highly resistant weak point. I observed that the following explosions froze it in place, as it did to previous bosses, even as it hung in the air ("I can even do it to this thing?"); it was only after I jumped up to strike it, missing its mid-section and instead hitting its head, that I came to realize its true weak point. After that, my ultimate success was academic, the only requirements a few additional cracks at the Dark Lord and the most mistake-free run possible.

After a well-timed deluge of holy water and whip-strikes, I had beaten Castlevania, a game I at one time filed away in my mind under the category of "impossible." It was for me a new type of satisfaction--a feeling of triumph and closure on what was a for-years-incomplete mission, once aborted but reconvened even though it still seemed hopeless. I immersed myself in the ending, whence the Count's castle collapsed and the solemn credits theme set the indelible, defining mood. It might have seemed strange that they didn't list any actual staff members, but I thought it was clever how they instead parodied the names of the real-life actors (like "Christopher Bee," "Boris Karloffice" and other targets I knew so well thanks to my monster-movie binges) and made it feel like as though an actual vintage horror film had just played out; I always felt it was a nice contrast to the series' overarching storyline, which was too serious--implicating overly mature and religious themes--and lost the spirit of the games' cinematic inspiration. Though, I was never certain as to why Simon's surname was listed as "Belmondo," so I simply attributed this "mistake" to an absent-minded programmer (right--like other countries would ever "do things differently").

My experience with Castlevania solidified the series as one of my favorites. I revisited it often not only because it was truly something special but more so with the aim of increasing my skill-level; I wanted to clear it without relying on unsavory tactics like using holy water to immobilize bosses and bulling my way past purposefully placed enemies. After I figured out how to successfully maneuver around those Phantom Bats and learned the true value of the boomerang-triple-shot combo, the likes of Frankenstein and Igor, the Grim Reaper, and "Dracula's Ghost" (which I began calling Dracula's second form thanks to Nintendo Power) didn't seem so unassailable using conventional means, and I could sometimes beat Castlevania without having to continue. Though it would take a few additional months of practice, I even became capable of pulling off no-death runs.

Castlevania is one of those handful of NES games to which I still return on a yearly basis. It to me serves the same role as the original Mega Man, providing a well-realized formula in its most simple, playable form and with supplement a classic vibe unmatched by any of its aesthetically superior sequels. Basically, it's the perfect game to play whenever I have an hour set aside and get a craving for an uncomplicated, fast-paced action-driven experience. While I'm likely to play it any day of the year, it always feels right to boot up Castlevania on a cloudy, rainy mid-autumn day when light rumblings of thunder permeate the gray sky, the tree branches are vacant, and it's still only cool enough to where I can crack open a window and let the appropriate sounds of nature and the matching landscape augment the experience.

Thanks to a mere ten years of additional practice, I can still routinely finish the game without losing a life (with only the final level's static castle keep occasionally tripping me up thanks to the eagles and hunchbacks that tend to chip away at my health), but I play it more these days for the sake of soaking in its enchanting atmosphere and drawing inspiration for my website and other creative projects. It never fails to conjure up memories of time spent with it, whether it was repeatedly demonstrating for my friends and cousins my newly found aptitude for finishing the game in under forty minutes with no deaths; or how I once wasted a half hour downing Axe Knights on Level 5 because I believed the false information told to me by my cousin, Doug, who swore that they "drop their weapon when defeated" (it was simply a case of an axe-containing candelabra being obscured by a certain Axe Knight placed nearby). If it's a challenge I seek, I stick mainly to the game's repeating Second Quest; I play through as many loops as possible, not stopping until I suffer a single death, which is usually met at the hands (faces?) of the now-overrepresented Medusa Heads and their endless floods.

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse might be my favorite entry in the series, but it was the increasingly alluring qualities of original Castlevania that made me fall in love with its world. There'd be no "Mr. P's Castlevania Realm" without it, and as a result I don't know that I'd currently have the same connections and online associates I have now. It's an essential game that spawned a top-tier video-game series and for me a world of opportunity. For that, it will always have a place in my heart.

You, Castlevania, played the greatest role in this story.

1 comment:

  1. Like many NES games of my childhood, Castlevania was a game that I played a lot but never completed until adulthood, and even to this day I haven't finished it without the aid of the holy water trick. I used to think that Simon's leaden jumping physics were a drawback, but I now see them as a feature - the game's challenges and levels are all perfectly designed around this limitation. I've heard one reviewer talk about how the mechanics for Simon's whip-crack attack probably came before the game's aesthetics were even designed. It's for these reasons, among others, that I think Castlevania is one of the best-designed games for the system.