Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Second Chances - Memory Log #48

Castlevania: Bloodlines

It was a matter of simple logic: If a game was released for a chosen console and found great success there, then it stood to reason that its planned sequel would be announced for that same console--that the audience who so lovingly embraced its predecessor would get first dibs on the follow-up. That's how I understood things to be. That's how video-game companies had always operated. It's how Konami, one of my favorite game-developers, reliably conducted its business for the better part of the early 90s until its traitorous higher-ups decided that Nintendo customers like me were no longer worth their time.

So one day I was working on my Masters of Evil art series--drawing up monsters and assigning them categorical rankings--and listening to the TV when suddenly a startling sequence of words caught my ear. I was certain that I heard a voice say "Castlevania for the Sega Genesis!" Immediately, I looked up at the TV, horrified by what I'd just heard, and watched on as the rapid-fire imagery confirmed my fear. I saw a Belmont-style hero battling a long-tailed phantom bat atop a spinning tower, a spear-carrying dude stabbing a transforming gear creature, and Frankenstein's Monster flailing some kind of chain weapon. I was watching a commercial for a new series entry titled "Castlevania: Bloodlines," and man was I pissed about it.

"What the hell is this?!" I questioned in disbelief. "What is a Castlevania game doing on that console?! Why is not coming to the SNES?!"

It didn't make any sense to me. The SNES, after all, was home to Super Castlevania IV--the wonderfully inventive, technologically-mind-blowing masterpiece that was considered a part of the console's foundation! Their legacies were intertwined, woven together just as the NES and Game Boy games' legacies were to their host systems. Castlevania was Nintendo, and Nintendo was Castlevania. Thus, it was unacceptable to me that an unmistakably Nintendo-related franchise was jumping over to Sega, whose defamatory marketing campaign was an affront to everything I stood for as an enthusiast. There was no way I was going to reward that kind of behavior; buying a Genesis was out of the question.

I was miffed. I felt betrayed.

I anxiously turned to that month's issue of Nintendo Power hoping that it was all a big mistake--that the magazine's Pak Watch section would reveal Castlevania: Bloodlines to be a multiplatform title. There was nothing. I asked my friend Dominick, who owned a Genesis and was generally more informed about industry dealings, if he'd heard anything about Bloodlines coming to the SNES, but he seemed rather puzzled by my inquiry, as if no such game existed (I don't recall him ever buying a copy of the game, either). Game magazines weren't talking about it. No one at school knew was aware of its existence. It was almost as if Bloodlines' release wasn't a big deal, which was insane. This was Castlevania--a pillar of the industry! A new entry in the series was supposed to be celebrated, not treated as a non-event.

"Why oh why isn't this game coming to the SNES?" I continued to wonder. "If the Sega audience doesn't give a damn about Castlevania, then why is Konami doing this?" (If online data is to be believed, Konami moved less than 50,000 units of Bloodlines, which if true further brings the company's decision-making into question.)

I let it go. I accepted that Konami had found itself a new best friend and was likely done with Nintendo's systems. And if that was the way it was going to be, I figured, then there was no reason for me to continue keeping up with the series. As the months fell off, I drifted farther and farther away from Castlevania until eventually I lost all interest (I couldn't even bring bring myself to play Super Castlevania IV or the NES games! Well, not much, at least).

Oh, I'd come to my senses over time--as I fully matured and realized that my love of gaming transcended silly ideas like console loyalty--and get back into the Castlevania series, but we're talking about a process that took more than half a decade. Yes--Konami's mishandling of Bloodlines (among other things; see Castlevania: Dracula X) was that deflating.

I wouldn't see Bloodlines' name again until I became an everyday Internet-surfer in 1998, though I'd long since past the point where I had any real desire to learn more about it. When I started up my website, Mr. P's Castlevania Realm (it took about ten seconds to come up with that gem of a title), a year later, however, I'd suddenly obligated myself to play through all of the Castlevania games, which meant that a date with Bloodlines was inevitable regardless of how I felt about it. It wasn't go be to be easy; I mean, I didn't know where I was going to find the motivation to play through a game I'd perceived to be an afterthought.

Since I no longer owned a Genesis, I had to turn to emulation. I felt a bit unsavory for resorting to such means (not to mention that I was still skeptical of emulators' ability to replicate the authenticate experience), sure, but it was the only practical solution; the other option was to dump $50-100 for both the game and the system, neither of which I saw as having long-term value. So I loaded up Bloodlines on Genecyst and finally got my first look at a game that was until then a series of bitterly remembered images. 

I wasn't feeling it. Nothing about it immediately captured me. Bloodlines was no doubt a step up from Castlevania: Dracula X in that you could whip diagonally upward (and directly downward, which I'd discover later) while jumping, latch onto ceilings and swing across gaps, and toss sub-weapons with a single button-press, but it still lacked Super Castlevania IV's sense of fluidity and free movement, the hero John Morris' leaps locked to a fixed distance. I liked some of its early visual effects--how the large momentum-fueled scythe would sway under the influence of the background's adjoined giant skeletons, how the hall's windows would shatter whenever the Hellhound angrily howled, and how the separate discs of the sloped dragon-spine bridge would collapse as I walked over them--but there was nothing here that impressed me as much as Super Castlevania IV's wild whip-brandishing animations, plane-dividing fences, and rushing waterways.

It felt aesthetically distant: The enemy characters were more cartoony-looking than menacing. The sound effects--particularly successfully landed whip-strikes--had no punch to them, the output instead garbled and squeaky-sounding. And the music had a tinny quality to it, its constant high pitch eliminating the possibility for the haunting baselines and eerie ambiance that had come to define my Castlevania games.

I was pleased that there was a second playable character--Eric Lecarde, whose true connection to the Belmont Clan was still a mystery to me--but I wasn't particularly enamored with his brand of gameplay. He movement was somehow more stiff, his super jump and twirling-spear maneuvers seemed useless, and he lacked any type of whip-swinging equivalent, which alone rendered him a poor substitute for Morris.

Regardless of my choice of character, I wasn't having much fun. I had a lot of trouble, for instance, navigating the rising- and lowering-water sections of the second stage, Greece's Atlantis Shrine, due to the game's stiff controls and painfully restraining fixed jumping range; mine was an inability to maneuver up stairways and across narrow platforms without bumping into the suddenly spawning minotaurs and Medusa Heads (to be fair, I was currently using that same worn-out Gravis-brand controller, which was likely hampering my ability to control the game as was intended). The frustration was mounting, and since I was already predisposed to dislike Bloodlines, anyway, my tribulation here was all the reason I needed to shut the emulator down and put this lame excuse for a Castlevania game on the back burner while I focused more on discovering lost titles like Akumajou Dracula (X68000) and Vampire Killer.

That's how our relationship went at first: I'd come back to Bloodlines after a month-long break, advance one stage further then before, then quickly abandon the game when it failed to grab me. I just didn't think it was anything special--not when compared to Super Castlevania IV or even Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, which was made four years earlier for inferior hardware. Its stage layouts were formulaic and lacked variance (its scant six stages were all of equal length, and each featured the same predictable structure of a mid-boss and an end boss). Its rotating and scaling effects were second-rate (though, the statue heads breaking off and shifting to the side was somewhat impressive). And shape-shifting bosses like the Golem and the Gear Steamer functioned oddly and did little to remind me of the technically impressive, coherently rendered Puwexil and Koranot. 

Also, some of the level design near the end was completely baffling to me. There was one room in particular where the screen suddenly split into three separately scrolling strips--the camera view in the upper and lower divisions swaying from left to right while the middle's moved opposite. My first thought was that this was an emulator glitch--that Genecyst wasn't capable of of replicating what was obviously some other intended effect. I mean, Konami's designers wouldn't come up with something so inexplicable as to demand that I navigate platforms and execute jumps by piecing together how I thought a set of distorted structures might connect. Likewise, there was no way that I was supposed to be walking on the ceiling in the next room, bound by a poorly implemented reverse-gravity gimmick.

"Genecyst is obviously misinterpreting the data," I figured. "Right?"

But when the evidence started to suggest that--yes--this was indeed the level design they'd chosen to run with, I had to take a step back and wonder about what type of hallucinogenics they were under when they convinced themselves that these were good ideas.

"Is this mess of broken mechanics supposed to be an answer to Super Castlevania IV's twisting and turning rooms?" I wondered. "If that's the case, then consider me confused and underwhelmed."

It came off to me like a weak attempt to capture some of Super Castlevania IV's magic when it was already established that Bloodlines' spirit was nowhere near as adventurous.

But deep down, I knew that I was being unjustly harsh to Bloodlines. Honestly, I thought it had a lot going for it, though I was hesitant to admit as much. It was fast-paced and fun. Eric Lecarde's involvement made a lot more sense to me when I discovered that I could use his ability to locate alternate routes, which was a fine breaking of the mold. It featured a lot of imaginative graphical effects. And it had some genuinely inventive sequences like the scrolling, swaying innards of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the rotating-platforms section of the Versailles Palace, and that room in the Munitions Factory where I had to navigate beneath large bladed gears by tactically maneuvering within their convenient semi-circular indentations. When I started opening my mind to the experience--when I let it be its own thing--Bloodlines shined.

I even came to be a fan of the Atlantis Shrine stage with its evocative sunset visual, its amazingly atmospheric sunken-temple backdrop, and the accompanying tones of its chill-inducing music track, Shrinking Old Sanctuary--one of the series' best tunes.

The soundtrack was strong in general. In my review of Bloodlines, I rated the Genesis' sound hardware as "awful," which it had the propensity to be when not properly utilized; its Yamaha YM2612 sound chip was essentially arcade hardware (which makes sense, since the console's creator, Sega, is an arcade developer at heart) and ill-suited for composing the deep, reverberant music that would typically permeate an emotionally driven game soundtrack. That wasn't the case with Bloodlines, whose music managed to rise above the limitations of the Genesis' sound ship thanks to the efforts of Michiru Yamane and company, who whipped up an engrossing soundtrack filled with complexly composed pieces whose emotive tones work hard to paint a picture of a Castlevania world that is as authentic as any. I appreciated the effort.

I also appreciated the clever way in which the story planners absorbed the whole of Bram Stoker's Dracula into the Castlevania canon and built upon it. Doing so allowed them to supply the Belmont clan its first intriguing character development ("How are the Belmonts and Morrises related? How did the family's bloodline evolve in such a way?") while successfully marrying the series' version of Dracula to the literary work that inspired his character and insofar completely fleshing it out. Of course, Koji Igarashi and friends would eventually come along and irrevocably alter the character, instantly rendering him 1,000-times less interesting, but that's another story for another day.

I'd come around on Bloodlines. I found myself loading it up whenever I had some time to kill. Hell--for a while there, I considered it to be the best solution to the problem of having to wait 20-30 minutes for my dinner to finish baking in the oven. It might have remained in that role a whole lot longer had I not gotten burned out on the series (covering the series became a full-time job, and I could feel my energy being sucked away by each new game announcement). Though, I'd like for it to return to that role in the future; I hope to see it again one day on a Virtual Console-like service, whence I can download it and bust it out whenever I've got some popcorn chicken in the oven.

Still, Bloodlines is a game I struggle to slot. In my review, I gave it three-and-a-half stars, which works out to "good." But I consider it better than good--somewhere between very good and great, in fact, which makes me wonder why I didn't give it at least a four! My reasoning for scoring it lower was that it failed to live up to the best Castlevania game on the aging NES, which was apparently an offense so egregious that I had to dock it a whole point. Now, I still don't believe it to be as good as Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse or Super Castlevania IV, but it's certainly not on par with the likes of Legacy of Darkness and Vampire Killer. I'll have to remedy that one day.

Bloodlines, alone, is the reason why I've since soured on the whole idea of assigning numerical rankings to games. Really, it's not something I'm likely to ever do again.

I actually came to own a copy of Bloodlines sometime in the mid-2000s, but I don't remember how, exactly, it got into my possession. I might've picked it out of a bargain bin at a game store, or maybe a site reader sent it to me. I regret that I have no memory of the event.

I regret, also, that I never got my hands on Bloodlines during that period when I owned a Genesis (you know--the one we got for free from my brother's friend Eric, to whom we sold it back for $100 when he forgot it was originally his). As was too often the case, I missed out a great game that I would have enjoyed most during the era in which it was most relevant. It's a game I most certainly would have loved to play with friends--Bloodlines likely settling into that group of core games to which we'd return again and again.

Castlevania: Bloodlines deserved a better fate. It deserved more from a gaming populace that was too willing to ignore its existence. It deserved more from Sega and Konami, neither of which was interested in properly promoting it. And, frankly, it deserved a whole lot more from me.

Well, here's to second chances.


  1. Mr. P, as a boy I loved visiting your CV realm. Even now as an adult. Thanks for putting so much work and effort into this fandom!

    1. Well, thanks for visiting. I appreciate that you've stuck around during even the slowest of times.

      That reminds me that the site is almost 18 years old. To put it in perspective: I'll be pushing 60 when that same amount of time drops off. We've gotta slow it down, maaaaaaan.

    2. Hello awesome castlevania page been a big fan for years and glad its still around despite castlevania lacking any new titles.