A Chronicle of Outrage and Shame. Konami - Part One: Castlevania
by Milan Reno
Hello Fanboys, this is my 2 cents on Castlevania. Part one of an extended series I will be writing with fellow contributor Jorge S about Konami's poor decisions. Keep an eye out for columns on Metal Gear from Jorge and Silent Hill from myself sometime in the future as well.
Without Further Ado; Part One: Castlevania.
It's a perilous gamble to place your trust in somebody, cause they may let you down. Smart investors do not put all their eggs in one basket and this even true in smaller affairs. Like when you lend someone a book you like in hopes they'll like it too; chances are they won't even get started on it. Likewise, it's hardly advisable to implicitly trust a publisher to release consistently good iterations of franchises you love. Franchises that may have quite simply snatched your fascination with as much tact as a defiant toddler disgracing mum's spaghetti. Stumbles abound here and there, and tenure often times allows us to forgive their mistakes. Alas, nobody has spat on it's fans expectations, hopes, dreams, and their represented franchises... quite like Konami.
If you have read anything on the internet regarding Konami these days, you'll know their PR department's top priority should absolutely be damage control. One can only imagine a collective ethereal shit-eating grin on their faces when presenting Metal Gear Survive, in both premise and features. Naturally, the backlash on 'game save' and 'microtransactions' being in the same sentence was justified, swift and (hopefully) deadly. Time will only tell if Metal Gear Survive's mere existence was worth it. But for now, let's take a brave leap into a specific section of the time-stream, a place I like to call the Death Biscuits, a swamp of questionable (chunky) mayonnaise in which time reverts and scorn grows ever more bitter. Our business in these murky depths: observe Konami's gradual defiling of one of my favourite franchises: Castlevania.
A disclaimer, though. I'm strictly talking about the direction the games took. The Netflix anime was nothing if not brilliant (if quite short), which shows Konami still can spawn something beautiful from a franchise relegated to the shitter. Okay done. Now, I cordially invite you to join me into the Biscuits, where the resentful do tread.
The year is 2000! My father had recently acquired a brand new PSOne from a shady yet wily acquaintance who consistently smelled like dog food. I was quite a stranger to the world of video games at the time. I didn't get to play any of the classics until far later, and all I really wanted was a Sega Genesis because that's what a friend had and Sonic looked pretty fun. Still, eleven-year old me approached this strange device with the curiosity and clumsiness of a kitten, big eyes and low competence. My dad's wily Argentinian friend had sweetened the gift with three games, R4: Ridge Race Type 4, Street Fighter Alpha 2, and Castlevania Symphony of the Night. My experience with the first was pretty marginal, and I wouldn't get to fully appreciate the second until much later. The real treat for me in this bundle was the final title, for although I hadn't played the classics on the NES and SNES, I was well aware of the value behind the name.
Despite being a newcomer to the series, my first experience with Castlevania was likely not very different to that of those arrogant, rude NES owners. Visual and auditive presentation is always what gets you as a new player here. No other franchise has so lovingly portrayed the aesthetics and style of Hammer Productions horror in all its splendour quite like Castlevania, through it's masterful use of vampires, werewolves, murk-dwelling creatures, etc. If the Gothic Horror parade wasn't enough, there was also an air of epicness made flesh through the protagonist, traditionally a prodigious scion of the Belmont clan, a family devoted to vanquishing evil. Furthermore, the overall ambience sets a downright palpable sensation of hidden otherworldliness, in my opinion, rarely paralleled even now. All in all, what's not to like about this mixture? The answer is nothing, and if you say otherwise, I'll name you a liar and drown you in these thick Biscuits.
Now, couple all that with great music (already a good arrangement in the 16 bit era, and taking a massive leap forward with the PlayStation era) and you'd have an experience that would pull you back in no matter how many times you died. And it was indeed a lot of times that'd occur, my friends. This leads me to the other piece that made Castlevania so memorable: gameplay and difficulty, which are united by one simple charming characteristic - spatial management. It's not a unique thing to Castlevania, but I love how a setting can seem so vast and yet so cloistered at the same time, and Dracula's Castle achieves just that every. single. time. As a consequence, navigating corridors, entering new rooms and even climbing stairs (baleful, but loving glare at Castlevania III) prove a potential for challenge when compounded with enemy placement, of which there is a large variety with different strengths and attack patterns.
And then you got the bosses... Death, Doppelgängers, behemoth-sized creatures ripe with decay - those tend to be my favourites - truly, Lords of their own private dominion in Dracula's abode. Hard as balls sometimes, but always imbuing the player with a special sense of accomplishment that we now see replicated in franchises such as the Soul series. The total sum of features incarnated by the franchise starting from that PSOne incursion has become dubbed 'Metroidvania' and we can look forward to seeing them reprised in games such as Bloodstained and Blasphemous coming out this year. That's where we'll be getting our fix... cause Konami has pretty much killed Castlevania.
It's kinda hard to pinpoint the moment when Castlevania went the way of Contra and, uh, Bomberman, but a good sign of foreboding times to come was the franchise's return to the Nintendo lands, particularly to the handheld region. Aria of Sorrow in 2003 was, functionally speaking, more of the delightful same. Yet the thematic migration from the old European narrative to current day Japan, and the characters' new anime-like style, were a clear mode of streamlining, which would last for a few games to come. Now, there's nothing essentially wrong with streamlining in and of itself, if the personality of a franchise remains constant. Of course, one can simply disregard all of these stylistic changes in favour of the solid gameplay, but unfortunately, this was an indication of a new direction for the series, one that - in my opinion - may have cornered Konami into rebooting the series to retain or recuperate interest for the franchise, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Before reaching that point of no return, there were two games that served as confirmation that things were bound for a stark change, the first of which was Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles 2007 release on the PSP, a remake of Rondo of Blood, and Symphony of the Night - the latter, as you may imagine, was my stronger concern. There were a couple of enhancements on the gameplay side, but the change on every buyer's mind was the alteration in scripts and dialogues - minor things, but are they? Those who'd played the PSOne Symphony will undoubtedly remember the hammy voice acting, brimming with personality and quotability (memes) and almost entirely lacking in credibility. Alas, we weren't actually playing for that suspension of disbelief, were we? The re-recorded dialogue essentially stripped those lines from all their charm and energy, leaving a bland, witless flavour, reminsicent of the modern voice acting standard. This is, at the very least, a very disappointing and unnecessary change for a series with a very distinct identity. If you won't let us have our ham and cheese, what is this but a lukewarm repackaging that attempts to overwrite a generation's experience in favour of a fangless reprisal for the new market?
The (not actually) minor change was followed with a major one through the franchise's foray into the Nintendo Wii with Castlevania Judgment - a fighting game. This would not be the first time Castlevania experimented with a different gameplay style; we did get two PS2 titles that experimented with 3D combat (and I love them), but this raised more than a few eyebrows upon first listen. The unease turned to a bitter flavour upon release, and while I never played it nor owned a Wii, the adage 'where there is smoke, there is fire' proved accurate as a clear consensus of poor reception formed all across the board. From what I read, character portrayal and story downright bulldozed all over the darkly beautiful landscape the franchise had paved for nearly 20 years. This entry alienated newcomers and the old fanbase, so we may well have declared Castlevania dead until Konami's next whim attempted to resuscitate it. Harmony of Despair on 2010 was a bold (and admittedly ambitious) attempt to introduce the beloved Metroidvania style into the multiplayer market, but it still failed to ignite much of the lost interest.
I never did play the Lords of Shadow reboot, though I did hear reception was favourable. Unfortunately, this would be followed by sheer mediocrity, rendering this beautiful series dormant. Given the departure of one good fellow Koji Igarashi (Basically Metroidvania's daddy) in 2014, it's unlikely we'll see a return of the old style, leaving a revival's possibilities bound to the God of War-esque mechanics or pachinko machines. Having a new, real good, Castlevania game is not outside the realm of possibility, but dwelling on all those 'maybes' leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially since Igarashi is spearheading development on Bloodstained, which is considered a spiritual successor to Castlevania. Alas, when it comes to Castlevania itself, it's safest to consider Dracula's magnificent castle, a deserted relic harbouring no life nor restless death.
Konami was once the treasure house for some of our favourite stories and gaming experiences. Back then, they were capable of doing no wrong, but times change, and so do humans, and so do priorities and goals. Konami's new business model has added Castlevania to a disturbing list of mismanaged franchises, but another, highly-evident problem, is the company's tendency to disregard their series' identities and relevance as cultural milestones. I thus emerge from the dreadful cream of the Death Biscuits back to the present, with eyes fixed on two more victims of Konami's treacherous practices. Names you may have heard of, Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill.
Stay tuned, friendos. There's a lot of shit to be talked.