I got to play about 2 1/2ish hours worth of Lords of Shadow 2 back in December, and remember thinking this was a culmination of everything I loved about every game in the series and then some, something none of the games prior had really managed to pull together, either trying to reinvent the wheel or copy-paste Symphony of the Night with mild diminishing returns (except Order of Ecclesia, which is still the shit). And yet, for a series I hold in such high regard, it's at least a good decade between me and my last playthrough for most of these things, and I've never written at length about any of them.
Let's change that.
Even though I played Castlevania 3 first, I was aware of the existence of the first couple of games, mostly through Captain N's bizarrely effete, epic ass-chin Simon Belmont, but also recognizing that Castlevania 3 was meant to be a prequel. Lesson learned early: prequels don't need to suck. Also, video game cartoons are proof they had some quality drugs back in the 80s. Either way, I got exactly what I expected out of Castlevania 1: A stripped down version of 3's wild ideas, but I was still impressed at how much was in here from the very beginning. The music, stripped down but still wonderful. The castle looks uniquely run down compared to most NES backdrops, in no small part to the ragged attempts at fine detail that actually help more than hinder. The weapon variety, the enemies, all unique and varied, with the Universal stable of monsters all thrown in for good measure. You feel like you're playing a Dracula video game, alright.
And then came the Reaper.
Oh yeah. That's why.
No, they save the annoying here for Dracula himself who, unless you're an expert who can get multiple crosses traversing the screen at just the right times to speed things up, is one of the longest, most arduous things ever. It's the fight that sets the stage for all the Dracula fights in the series until Symphony of the Night breaks the monotony. Although you do get to whip that fucker's head off, which is just satisfying. The demon form after, you grab the holy water, go to town, day = saved. Castle burns down, and you get treated to a cute credits sequence where they show all the classic monsters as being played by such classic thespians as Christopher Bee, Boris Karloffice, and Love Chaney. It makes me wonder why there hasn't been a "fun" reboot of this series. Lords of Shadow 2 being a definitive ending for this, door's wide open. I feel like Suda 51 would have a field day tearing this whole thing down.
In between having Castlevanias 1 and 3 in my possession, I ended up with the bad boy you see to your right, which i was stunned to find folks are still selling on Amazon, and they're all in one piece. It's a detailed level map of a couple dozen major games, with items and boss strategies all clearly labeled. That thing was my Indiana Jones Holy Grail diary, and it looked like it by the time I was done with it. The tattered, fingerprinted remains are still in a crate in my mother's attic somewhere. The Mega Man 3 section, I'm certain, is just scattered to the four winds, as many times I had to refer back to it. Fucking Doc Robot.
I mention this because I only knew of Simon's Quest by reputation by then. That reputation being "it was different" and "it sucked". Mostly, this was coming from the same folks who said Zelda II was different and sucked and were they were stupid and wrong about that. I had the Atlas. I'd at least be able to say I played it.
I also mention this because this was the only game in that book where THE ATLAS MEANT NOTHING.
So, after 2-3 hours of trying to suck it up and brave my way through Simon's Quest, I said fuck it, and ran straight into the loving arms of Gamefaqs, and discovered the simple truth that underneath some fucking terrible puzzle-solving is a fucking terrible game.
Anyway, moral of the story is Simon's Quest is still shitty after all these years and I hope whoever made it feels guilty on a fundamental level about that.
Capsule review: Fuck yeah this still holds up.
I think I actually made out pretty good with this being my first exposure to the series. Although Symphony of the Night and its ilk set the stage for open exploration and whatnot, I actually feel like this may have been an equal achievement based on what its contemporaries were doing around the same time. First of all, the game is HUGE. It's 9 stages long (10 if you do the Clock Tower, AND YOU SHOULD), but with the levels on the three branching paths bringing it up to 15. On-the-fly character switching is optional, with 4 different endings as a result, a New Game + option, though most of Konami's big games were doing this, but this one actually made a serious difference, and the game is awesome enough where you want to do it again, and maybe on a different path. And in between, Castlevania's gameplay gets polished to a high shine. No two stages have the exact same feel.
It's also, still, to this day, legitimately ballbursting HARD.
And yet, it's just so damned FUN scraping through these challenges to get to the next area. That's an element missing from new games: Steadily raising the difficulty doesn't mean a damn thing if the reward for the game getting harder doesn't continue drive the player on, and here, the game gets more innovative and fun the further you go. One of the best bosses in the game is the Doppleganger on stage 9. It's not the first game to do the whole "fight yourself" thing, but it is the first to make you actually think about it instead of treating it like another boss with a set pattern, and the first time you think "Well, I'll just switch to Sypha and freeze that asshole", only to see them morph with you is both a shock and secretly awesome. The game is rewarding you with new and different every step of the way, teaching you how to deal with the obstacles they throw at you in the last stage, and thank fucking God, because you are literally dealing with ALL of them at once. Birds on the bridge, an downward auto-scroll Clock Tower, spiders in precarious places, breakaway floors with Piles of Bones littering your way, pendulums but with bats flying in when you least need them, and then you still have Dracula, and dying on Dracula means you take your ass back two floors, losing all the lives means back to the start of the stage. And yup, the four-hit rule is still in effect.
Fun aside about replaying this, though, was finding out through the Google machine about the Japanese version, and its upgraded sound chip, which I had no idea about before. The Japanese version had a few extra sound channels and.....the Japanese soundtrack kinda blows. It just sounds garbly in all the ways the NES one sounds smooth, bassy, and melodic. But still. It was an interesting find. And seemed like the perfect transition to something bigger, better, and, well, 16-bit.
But before that...