Sunday, September 13, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Disappointment and Regret - Memory Log #45

Castlevania: Dracula X

As I tepidly surveyed those first two pages of Nintendo Power Volume 76's Castlevania: Dracula X coverage, I had to stop and wonder if I truly was a loyal fan. There I was reading the first solid information on a brand new Castlevania game--the first to appear on the SNES in almost four years--and I wasn't at all excited about it. "Why do the characters look so scaled down?" I wondered, taken aback by its inexplicable aesthetic changes. "And what's 'Dracula X' supposed to be, anyway? Why not just call it 'Castlevania V'?!"

I wasn't particularly pleased with the information I was seeing in article's captions (the developers were apparently nixing Super Castlevania IV's 8-directional whip control, and they were reverting back to up-plus-attack input for sub-weapons), no, but it wasn't the game's undesirable changes that were making me feel so detached from what I was reading. Rather, there was some other reason why I wasn't feeling enthusiastic about playing a new Castlevania game, though I couldn't pinpoint what, exactly, it was. 

Oh, but I had theories: It might have been that I was still upset about missing out on Castlevania: Bloodlines, whose Genesis-exclusivity prevented me from keeping up with the series' ongoing storyline (I am a continuity hound, after all). Maybe I was otherwise too wrapped up in games likes Mega Man X, Donkey Kong Country and Super Metroid, all of which were wondrously reinventing their universes whereas Dracula X was looking to be a clear regression. Or, it depressed me to think, there was a possibility that I had simply fallen out of love with the Castlevania series. I leaned more toward the latter. I mean, why else would I be standing there seriously contemplating whether or not I should skip Dracula X entirely? 

Whatever the case, I couldn't even bring myself to read the rest of the article. In fact, I didn't even bother reading any of the magazine's follow-up coverage.

In my heart, I knew I was probably going to go out and buy Castlevania: Dracula X no matter what, but I was so unenthused about what the game was proffering that I just couldn't justify picking it up right away. Besides--I was currently so wrapped up in amazing new games like Doom, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island that I simply didn't have time to entertain the notion of adding a new game to my collection. Instead, I waited until February or March of 1996, when I'd finished clearing my Christmas backlog and burning through other recent pickups like Final Fight 2 and Mega Man X3.

Now, the problem with buying a game purely out of a sense of obligation is that doing so can often lead to feelings of apathy and/or a tendency to be overly critical. When you don't really want to play a game, the experience becomes more about rushing through it as quickly as possible so that you can get back to the games that actually matter to you. Frankly, it's an awful, soul-draining approach to playing video games (not to mention a poor use of your funds) and a great way to become burned out on the medium. 

But that's the way it went with Castlevania: Dracula X, which I treated more like a burdening item on a checklist--a suspiciously dull-looking product that I was going to finish just to get it over with. I was predisposed to being extra nitpicky, and there was no chance that Dracula X would be given the benefit of the doubt. Even the slightest imperfection would be used as ammunition against it. 

Fair or not, the contemptuous attitude I displayed during my first few sessions with Dracula X was what wound up shaping my everlasting memories of the game. 

"So how, exactly, did you come to so despise it?" you ask. Well, dear reader, let me count the ways.

For one, I was completely turned off by the game's manual, which was uncharacteristically filled with "cartoonish-looking" ("anime-styled," I'd say today) depictions of the game's characters, including Dracula, who looked more like a mischievous purple-haired punker than an almighty ruler of evil. I was disappointed with the manual's overall content and particularly its lack of a richly populated enemy listing; there were only four enemies represented, and two of them had funny-sounding names ("'Lypuston?! What kind of name is that for a werewolf!").

Dracula X took entirely too long to boot up. I didn't like having to wait through a credits screen, the Konami splash logo, and the title animation (only the second of which was skippable) before I was granted permission to make my starting choice; and then there was silly laughter that triggered whenever I'd make a selection, its five-second elapsement further stalling my effort to get things moving. The other Castlevania games started up quickly and allowed me to jump right in (well, OK--Super Castlevania IV's opening also had a fair amount of stalling, but I wasn't about to criticize one of my most favorite games ever. Not today, at least)!

I didn't find Richter to be a terribly interesting Belmont hero, so I didn't care much about the content of the prologue, whose pastel-colored, washed-out visual style and optimistic-sounding instrumentation struck me as jarringly incompatible with what Castlevania had presented as standard ("Where's that haunting intro, man?"). Also, the game's scrolling map, though attractively rendered, had nothing on Super Castlevania IV's awesomely designed scaling, panoramic miniaturization that zoomed in on whichever area of the map you were due to visit next.

Upon starting the actual game, though, I was surprisingly impressed with what I was seeing. I'd advanced no more than two screens in, but I could already say that Dracula X was the most visually distinct game in the series. I immediately loved the fiery background animation, whose mesmerizing undulation worked to steal all of my focus; I was fascinated with how the flames' sweltering emission caused the burning town it masked to billow as if it were actually being mercilessly engulfed by hellfire. The music was rockin', too. That accompanying stage theme, in contrast to the rather indistinct composition I heard during the prologue, was dynamic, complex in structure, and quite empowering; its pronounced guitar strains seemed to sync up with the flow of my movement, the sharply struck chords adding a measurable dose of visceral augmentation to the snapping impact of my whip and daggers.

Dracula X continued to be aesthetically solid from beginning to end. It featured the type of background work that made me stop and wonder. I recall the tattered stone walls as seen near the town's limits. The eerie luminance of the main hall's refracting windows. The castle's sturdy-looking, menacing outer wall (which I liked so much, I made it the default background for my Castlevania site). The pillared corridors. The stalactite- and stalagmite-filled caves. The prison cells that could be seen lined the cavern walls, the hands of their captives seen helplessly grasping at the bars. The courtyard's spooky evergreens. The clock tower's rusted inner-workings. And the matte-like rendering of Castlevania and its surrounding mountain range as illuminated by an encroaching full moon.

And I never ceased being impressed by the soundtrack, which remained the strongest part of the package. If nothing else, Dracula X wasn't content to rest on the series' laurels (oh, for fun) and simply recycle the old favorites. The soundtrack did of course feature some familiar tunes (like Vampire Killer and Bloody Tears), but the game's inspired sound designers weren't content to merely polish them up; rather, they strove to acclimate them to Dracula X's inspirited stylings, the classic pieces remixed and rearranged to complete bold new compositions. Both these and Dracula X's collection of uniquely composed tunes--all of which I felt were unapologetically audacious yet still within the spirit of the series--worked diligently to provide the game a distinctive personality and the best reason to play it. Because, Lord knows, there weren't many others.

As for that pesky "gameplay" part: Well, let's just say I wasn't exactly a believer in what Konami was trying to sell me. Dracula X was purported to be a "back-to-basics Castlevania experience," but that description was clearly a front. No--I saw the game for what it was: A purposefully regressive product created by a company that lacked the will or ambition to top its previous work. Gone were 8-directional whip control, wild whip-brandishing, intuitive sub-weapon use, and pinpoint character movement--all replaced with the same aging values we happily abandoned four years prior. Richter felt more in line with the Belmonts of 8-bit lore--his movement stiff-legged, his leaps unyielding, and his weapon-tosses often thwarted by that stifling control conflict. The game's only true advancement was the ability to jump off of stairways, which for me wasn't enough compensation. 

Otherwise, I found the backflip maneuver to be useless and the item-crash ability to be an insufficient use of my precious hearts. If I was facing the wrong way when I activated a dagger crash, for instance, the attack would miss completely, damaging not a single onscreen enemy. Even screen-wide crash-attacks, like the holy water's deadly rain storm, weren't guaranteed to inflict large amounts of damage, especially to bosses--the strongest of which seemed immune to crashes. If I used an item-crash, it was only by accident when I'd get the buttons crossed up.

Dracula X was definitely one of the series' toughest games, but I thought its difficulty was derived more from questionable level design than challenging combat scenarios. I couldn't stand its obnoxiously designed stage layouts like the one negotiated at the start of Stage 2, wherein I had to cross over a collapsing bridge while under constant assault from the Fishmen whose spawn points seemed specifically placed to cause unavoidable collisions, the majority of which would knock me down into the water below for an instant death. I especially disliked playing through the opening area of Stage 3, where I was tasked with maneuvering the clunkily-controlling Richter up and around the castle's expanded entranceway, whose open spaces were littered with rotating panels, vertically moving spike-platforms, and an endless stream of Medusa Heads; what frustrated me most was not the beating I'd take on the way up but the number of times I'd be sent plunging back down the start after colliding with a shifting obtrusion I couldn't see coming. 

That vertical area in Stage 5 with the ravens and the crumbling platforms was the worst. It, alone, might have been my best reason for not wanting to play the game anymore.

Otherwise, the level design was happily married to mundanity; there were no elaborately constructed cave systems or twisting towers here--only a considerable heaping of zigzagging corridors and flatly linear passageways. And it bothered me greatly that so much of it was incoherent. As I stated in my review of the game: "You leave the base of a cavern, and now you're in ... a clock tower? Or you'll exit a catacomb from the left and enter a new one from ... the left?" I didn't think it was nitpicky to suggest that a game's visuals should convey a sense of rhythm and cohesion. As it was, Dracula X seemed more like a Franken-creation stitched together using a collection of incompatible pieces (oh, if only I'd known).

Also, I wasn't enamored with new cast members like the Spear Guards and Sword Lords, who soaked up way too much damage and kept surprising me with their difficult-to-evade secondary attacks (though, I warmed up to their kind in the future when I started associating them with superior games). Among my least-favorite were Wereskeletons and those axe-arcing, mad-dashing Axe Knight variants, who were always positioned in the most inconvenient places and therein certain to score at least one cheap hit. Dracula X's enemies in general (and particularly ravens and Fleamen) were annoyingly persistent and capable of hounding me into submission if I didn't immediately react to their appearances.

I wasn't a fan of the new bosses, either. That might have been because Richter didn't seem versatile enough to counter the congestive, swiftly executed attacks of new terrors like Minotaurusu, Lypuston and the Cloaked Warlock. I spent most of our battles trying to find room to maneuver, since the bosses' most common tactic was to back me into a corner and deliver a string of cheap hits.
And you know what? I kind of missed the classic Castlevania bosses. It might have been to the game's benefit, I thought, to bring back a Medusa or a Frankenstein's Monster--to familiarize the experience a bit (the Grim Reaper was in there somewhere, but I wouldn't realize as much until a few years later). Dracula X featured classic Castlevania gameplay, yeah, but it felt somehow disconnected from the other games; some recognizable bosses might have helped its cause.

In the end, it was Dracula X's sordid brand of difficulty that drove me to abandon the game. The stages dragged on too long. The level design was too rough. And the boss fights were the direct antithesis of fun. I was glad it measured in at only seven stages.

And yet Dracula X felt somehow truncated, its length noticeably shorter than the likes of Dracula's Curse and Super Castlevania IV; why, it was almost as if I was missing something. In reality, I was. See--it was normal that I'd be knocked into one of those gaps in Stage 3's pillar room, which had the effect of forcing me onto an alternate path. At the time, I didn't mind, since I hated trying to negotiate that pillar room and considered the alternate path to be a welcome shortcut. I had no idea, however, that taking this alternate path was preventing me from (a) rescuing the second woman, Annet Renard, (b) experiencing another one-fourth of the game, and (c) earning the best ending. Hell--I didn't even know that Annet made any kind of physical appearance in the game. 

Truly, I was shocked when I watched a play-through of Dracula X sometime in 1999 (back when AVI files were your only means for watching videos) and witnessed Annet being rescued in the Hidden Springs stage, whose existence also escaped me. As far as I knew, the only penalty for falling into those gaps was missing Stage 3's boss, whoever or whatever it was; there was no reason for me to suspect that the Skull Sorceress wasn't the Clock Tower's one true boss.

Capping off my unpleasant first experience with Dracula X was an absolute nightmare of a final-boss battle with Count Dracula. Once again, the level designers--silly schmucks that they were--decided to place an all-important enemy encounter atop a series of pillars with gaps in between them, this time creating the potential for instant death (because the solid-ground battles with Dracula weren't quite tough enough, I guess). And instantly did I did--many, many times. I didn't finish Dracula X that week and certainly not anytime that year. In fact, following a series of failed attempts spread out over the course of a few months, I shelved Dracula X and had no intention of returning to it.

It wasn't until a few years later (probably during an N64 game-drought) that I decided it was time to man up, endure that hellish final stage (also horribly designed), and defeat the pillar-hopping Count Dracula--specifically his winged second form, which was chiefly responsible for my dozens of plunging deaths. I'd like to tell you that I struck down the evil Count Dracula with my mighty whip and then commemorated the event with a joyous celebration, but, well, I have no real memory of my moment of triumph, which right away should tell you how impactful it must have been. All I know is that I did it, baby.

I probably wouldn't have ever again revisited Dracula X had I not started up a Castlevania fansite, which, to my great horror, required that I play through the game several times for the sake of research and image-capturing. In that regard, I had no choice but to learn about and master it. But no matter how intimately I got to know Dracula X, it wasn't a game I was ever destined to love or appreciate. I mean, I still think highly of its unique visual style and its excellent soundtrack (which is surprisingly comparable in quality to the CD-based Rondo's), but it's not a game I would ever choose to play willingly; the series simply has too many superior entries to enjoy, including the game that spawned Castlevania: Dracula X.

I'm not one of those impressionable types who once purported to like Dracula X but changed his mind when the Internet deemed it to be an inferior port of a PC-Engine masterpiece. No--I've never cared for it. Not way back when. Not now. And not ever. 

Do I say as much because it's some kind of abomination? Well, no; it's not a bad game at all. I'd call it more "aggressively average," which would be OK if it were an entry in, say, the Mario Party series--but not Castlevania, which we all hold to a much higher standard. The SNES, especially, deserved better than some quick-and-dirty hatchet job four years after it famously played host to Super Castlevania IV--one of the most inspired 16-bit creations in gaming's history. It deserved something of the caliber of Rondo of Blood, but instead it got Castlevania: Dracula X. Yippee.

Now, I don't point to Castlevania: Dracula X as the reason that Rondo of Blood never arrived in North America in physical form. Oh, no--the blame for that lay solely with Konami, which seemed to forget where its bread was buttered. In one sense, I'm glad the company branched out; Rondo wouldn't have been the wonderfully realized product that it was without the PC-Engine's CD technology. Though, I otherwise lament the fact that Konami no longer saw me, an SNES-owning customer, as being worth its full attention.

They decided, instead, that a long-time fan like me was worthy of nothing more than Castlevania: Dracula X, whose poor reception served to accelerate my waning interest in Castlevania. It was only by a stroke of luck that my passion for the series was reignited and I reclaimed my title of "Superfan" (I needed some test material for the new AOL site I was about to start up, and I happened to have some of The Castlevania Dungeon's enemy sprites stored in the related "download" folder); had it not been for that, who knows where I'd be today.

Fortunately, everything turned out like it did.

Because no matter how many obstacles the video-game industry decides to throw his way, Mr. P always gets the best ending.

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