If the name Koji Igarashi doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps his most well known project will bring back memories of rainy days spent beside the tv with a bowl of Cheetos: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While not the original creator of Castlevania, Igarashi was able to bring his own ideas to the series and has long been associated with the proper evolution of the franchise, unlike the polarizing Lords of Shadow incarnation. Following his escape from Konami prior to the infamous 2015 “corporate restructuring”, he sadly lost the rights to his adopted digital child and launched a Kickstarter campaign to make a new game with the same roots. I sadly didn’t donate to his Kickstarter that ended up raising over five million dollars because at the time, another equally popular campaign from a team of well known developers was also getting as much attention. And given these tough economic times we live in, I could only donate to one of these legends.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
Before we delve into the main course, let’s go over the appetizer, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. During the Kickstarter campaign, one of the stretch goals was met with massive fan support to create an 8-bit retro prequel. Video game prequels usually come in the form of comics or shorts, but this was a fully fledged NES styled game from developer Inti Creates, breaking the mold of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes by costing as little as ten dollars. Having never played Castlevania 3, this was quite the treat even when I mistook it for the final product at the time for curiosity sake.
The story focuses on Zangetsu, a cursed swordsman on a never ending quest to hunt demons for the sake of self fulfilling revenge. But he comes across three benevolent spirits and begrudgingly recruits them (more on that later) on his quest to slay a more powerful foe lurking in a castle. It’s a very simple story that benefits from the importance of writing in video games nowadays. Moments like the dialogue after boss fights really show how modern story telling in gaming can elevate retro throwbacks to bring out the best in both worlds. And with the multiple endings there’s always incentive to go back and replay the game on higher difficulties with different narrative choices along the way. Just when you think you’ve found the true conclusion in one playthrough, there can be an alternate outcome on a harder setting that eventually justifies its existence opposite Ritual of the Night.
The gameplay is where everything is at its best, echoing the original Castlevania tradition of linear progression through difficult platforming (you be the judge on whether or not that’s a good thing). But there’s so many branching paths to metaphorically and literally choose from. With many characters to recruit on the journey, there’s so many combinations from both a story and gameplay perspective. You can choose to either recruit the demons after setting them free, or kill them to gain a new ability. Miriam’s the whip wielding Belmont substitute who’s still able to stand on her own, Alfred is a powerful alchemist that can use magic to overcome any obstacle, although his lack of health leaves a lot to be desired. Finally Gebel is very useful with his bat transformation to access out of reach areas and for dealing great damage in close combat. Then there’s Zangetsu who’s got his uses against bosses with his spamable blade, but unless you sacrifice the demons to give him more powers, he’s pretty much just a step down from Miriam. But the bosses? They’re incredible in design, fighting techniques and fair difficulty. I can’t remember the last time boss fights ever got me this excited in what they could dish out and take with their intimidating size and fighting techniques. Then of course there’s the 8-bit graphics that telegraph so much in cutscenes and even create a sense of scale for the bosses and environments with the limitations of sprites and low quality sound mixing. Though it is very jarring to see hearts act as your health after so many years of relying on wall meat to keep your arteries in check.
For being a small stretch goal project, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon injects so much passion into classic gameplay that’s been missing from Konami over the past decade. The characters are fun to swap, the graphics pull off the gothic aesthetic in glorious 8-bit style, and the story is a great introduction to this world before the sequel expands upon it. It won’t fill your desire for the Metroidvania gameplay with the linear progression, but this is the start of a promising legacy that’ll hopefully keep its distance from the nearest pachinko machines.
And now, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Times are changing in the 18th century as the industrial revolution starts to shape mankind’s newest technologies. This doesn’t bode well for the once dominant alchemy guild. Wanting to keep their services profitable, the guild experiments with combining humans with magic crystals, thus creating the Shardbinders: A new race of magical humans that can summon demons to put an end to any technological progress. Unfortunately the demons turn on the guild in their hunger for human flesh, and even worse, the church banishes the guild for their crimes against humanity. In the wake of the aftermath are two survivors, Miriam and Gebel. The former of which fell into a deep sleep before her sacrifice, while the latter survives his experimentation. 10 years later Miriam awakens to find Gebel summoning demons to enact revenge on the guild. From there it’s a combined team effort to stop Gebel with alchemy student Johannes, the well known exorcist Dominique, and the relentless demon slayer Zengetsu (Solid Snake Himself David Hayter).
That’s a lot of backstory for a series that already had a prequel game to fall back on. In fact, one ponders why so much of this wasn’t fleshed out in Curse of the Moon. But knowing Symphony of the Night, there’s more to the story that what’s presented, which again, leads to some interesting outcomes when you think you’ve reached the end of the journey. And that’s why we all love it so much.
Something to keep in mind about game development is that even with a budget of five million dollars, that’s still very cheap in the eyes of animation which can have a budget range from 50 million dollars minimum to 150 million dollars maximum. Though it’s hilarious to see Igarashi challenge the community reception of the initial trailer, and by Belmont did he deliver on his promise. Comparing the presentation from the initial trailer to the graphics in the final product might as well be comparing fall to summer. For a gigantic castle, there are so many environments ranging from rainy boats, soft lit train stations, and off putting laboratories. Everything has a shiny glossy coating that goes a long way in outlining the benevolent and malevolent locations based on their layered pallet. The grim atmosphere is even more dreary with the ever changing lighting in every room. Some are dark and macabre and others are calmly inviting, but each could offer a contrasting surprise behind any corridor. It’s both relaxing and stress inducing at the same time. Never has the color pink ever been associated with many ghoulish settings.
Meanwhile all the creatures made the transition from 8 bit sprites to High definition polygons flawlessly. Especially the bosses who play the anteater verses ant game every time the have you in their grasp. They walk, they fly, they pounce and stab in the name of consuming human flesh. As for Michiru Yamane’s music, it’s nowhere near as catchy as the NES soundtrack which could drum up a storm of catchy beats on par with Shovel Knight, but after a while it grows on you when encountering the bigger foes. The only major gripe I have with the game is the console edition. For some reason or another, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions tend to randomly crash when on screen activity spikes through the roof. It wouldn’t be a problem if there was an autosave feature, but because this is slightly old school to a fault, it can erase a lot of progress when trekking uncharted territory. A half hour worth of exploring is suddenly thrown in the trash leading to rage quits at the thought of retreading the same location all over again. But that’s just a microscopic blemish on the impressive presentation that this Kickstarter team was able to pull off.
Have you been missing that old school exploration of a giant playground? Well there’s a larger than life castle waiting for such an occasion. You’ll start out with the standard weapons at the lowest level, but will gradually gain more through crafting, collecting shards, killing enemies, and learning fighting techniques by reading books. There’s even a little dash of Cooking Mama in a fun side quest where you need to prepare gourmet recipes for an ailing old woman. There’s always much anticipation for the next powerup to help unlock more of the castle to see what happens next in the story. And bosses can really test your skills and shard combinations. All the while being able to stand out from each other by not following a copy paste approach in design and fighting skills. What else can be said about the best of the Metroidvania genre? It completely runs the gambit in every gameplay opportunity and isn’t ashamed to call attention to the fact that it’s Castlevania in everything but name.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the Kickstarter game that spits in the face of its naysayers. Not only does it have a juicy appetizer to get familiar with, but the main course itself is a very proud example of a game that doesn’t need to worry about being a clone of an IP that a certain corporation will leave to collect dust for all eternity. The story always has something to hide, the presentation is a huge improvement from the creator himself, and the gameplay is everything that’s great about non-linear Castlevania and more. Just keep in mind that what you see is what you get if anyone’s expecting this to be on the level of Monster Hunter or Assassin’s Creed like they did with Yooka-Laylee. Although if you’re not going to get multiple copies, buy the PC edition as the console versions seem to have framerate issues to the point where they crashes every so often. Even as of this article, the Switch edition is still experiencing some unfortunate patch work that almost rivals Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. But aside from that, it’s a sorely missed return to form and a great way to indulge your Halloween spirit come every October. Fans of Castlevania should definitely play this game since a certain company isn’t going to give the people what they want anytime soon. And even casual gamers will love all the bells and whistles of this big present in a small package. It’s the best thing to happen since the inception of trick-or-treating.