Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Posted February 23, 2015

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night arrived in March, 1997, just as I was landing in San Francisco. Even if I had moved with all my game consoles (which I didn’t, most were sold off before then), I had never owned the first Playstation. And Castlevania was a long passed memory, having last played Super Castlevania IV in 1991. The series is much beloved for all the right reasons, even with the klunkers and inevitable leap to 3D. Castlevania I and II for the NES were defining moments in the early console gaming days, and set the tone for what I expected from side scrolling adventure games.

Returning to the series over the last couple years, first with the Game Boy (Castlevania: The Adventure was far too slow, but that music!), and then on to Bloodlines for the Genesis and Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine, I finally end up on the PS1. Viewed on a 55″ plasma screen, even at 4:3 one would think a mid-generation PS1 game would look blown-up, but it’s aged beautifully, with rich colors, deep blacks and crisp edges. Using Sony’s component cables siphoned through an XRGB-mini likely helped maintain SOTN‘s original glory. The sound effects are equally satisfying and of the period, with a haunting score that’s perhaps not quite as memorable as previous installments. The bad voice acting for the English dubs are often brought up, and they are bad, but not enough to really take it off course. I would’ve been happy to hear the original Japanese voices though.

Directed by Toru Hagihara and Koji Igarashi, SOTN was a conscious departure for the series, with noted non-linear gameplay and RPG elements, while retaining an appreciation for 2D sprites and effects. When asked if 2D translates well to 3D, Igarashi gives the direct response, “No, it’s basically impossible to communicate the same experience. 2D gameplay is precise – it can come down to one pixel of accuracy for attacking, defending, jumping, any sort of platforming element. In the 3D gaming environment, appreciation of distance is much more subtle, and control has to be looser.SOTN plays with those two dimensions very comfortably, a combination of reliable platforming mechanics with almost arcade style visual flourishes, from leveling up and character transitions to enemy and boss deaths, to water, fog and fire transparency. It’s classic Castlevania informed by a decade of development experience.

While SOTN employs role-playing essentials — experience points, weapon and item collecting and stats, tallies and maps — even for someone like me who doesn’t play RPGs, it adds a compelling and pleasurable layer of detail. Backtracking may be an unavoidable part of non-linear play, but the game offers enough warps and hidden surprises to reward your efforts. As the first half of the game closes with Richter’s fall, SOTN effectively double the terrain by famously inverting the castle, which I initially found gimmicky. Fortunately my much more patient (and actual gamer) husband pushed me to keep at it, putting my final completion to just under 200% (but not 200.6%). And while I found the second half of the game much more challenging, it’s rarely frustrating thanks to the ample save points (many directly outside of boss rooms) and character form shifting. Transitioning into mist and a bat was necessary at later points in the game, in one case being the only sane method in defeating a boss.

I fear this could be the last really good Castlevania I’ll play, save for rounding out the Game Boy editions, and there are many. Reading Hardcord Gaming’s book on the series has excited me to check out a few more odds and ends like Chronicles, The Adventure Rebirth, and Harmony of Despair (which I’ve tried to like a couple times now). And finding Kid Dracula for about half of what it goes for would be a bonus.

If SOTN is any indication of what the PS1 can do, I’m looking forward to playing more of it. Currently I only own about nine games, with a lengthy wishlist which perhaps includes too many shmups and not enough sprawling adventures.


Posted August 14, 2014

I didn’t own the first Playstation. This was 1995, my post-high school years when I was likely busy selling off my consoles like luggage I didn’t want to drag into adulthood. Two or three years later I briefly played my roommate’s after moving to California. My first experiences with the controller were confusing — what’s with all the buttons! I missed the simpler 16-bit precursors. The poligonal games were, I guess impressive, but confirmed that I still wasn’t interested in the next generation systems.

Then in the early 2000s I bought a PS2 slim for a handful of racing games and Mortal Kombat, which used every last ounce of those buttons. I printed out MK character move guides and tried to memorize the basics. It was clear that the fighting genre wasn’t my bag, though the gore and detailed environments helped me forget about the missing sprites in this 128-bit world. A few years later it slipped into the closet and I once again stopped playing console games, relying on a series of Game Boys to get my gaming fix.

My next Playstation was the joint purchase, with my future husband, of the pricey PS3. This quickly became immeasurably useful as a reliable DVD/Blu-ray player and streaming hub — I can’t believe I initially hesitated in buying the $20 Bluetooth remote control which has endured eight years of daily use. For Justin this was gaming mecca (at least until the Wii came out, and then the Wii U, and then the PS4). I played sporadically, and sung the repetitive, mournful tune of gaming-was-better-when. The slim slept in the closet next to a friend’s SNES, sleeper agents waiting for a nostalgic green light, which came in the form of a TurboGrafx-16.

So here we are several years later, and a year after that green light: an Ikea shelf holding nine aged consoles, and the modern remainders on the tv stand. Something was still missing. Some of the best PS1/PS2 shmups were never released in the US. While some consoles have region compatibility workarounds, the PS2 required either hardware modding, or a soft mod that sounded like a bunch of fiddly bullshit. It was time to go directly to the motherland, as with the PC Engine Duo-R, and find a Japanese PS2. Of course, except for the Xbox 360, every console on both shelves are Japanese creations. While Japan gets the beautiful, generally slimmer originals, North American releases are bloated monster trucks, arguably a financially centered decision for size-conscious Americans.

Once again Yahoo Japan Auction came through with a $30 first edition PS2, otherwise known as the PS2 fat, or as Sony elegantly named it, the SCPH-10000. The YJA seller even threw in a stack of games, which no doubt rounded out the painful EMS shipping charges (games which I don’t want, so contact me if there’s interest). The PS2 fat is hefty, a mountain of a thing compared to the slim, and surely has gobs more innards than a wafer-thin SNES or Genesis PCB. Some of this is due to its internal power supply, which is great because that 12-outlet power bar is maxed. Plugged into the XRGB-mini via SCART the results were surprisingly good.

The first test was Popolocrois II, a PS1 game that Justin picked up in Seattle. While the PS2 itself can show English menus, game play text obviously remains largely in Japanese. He’ll be able to do some translation, but as an RPG that’s a fair amount of work. Fortunately I mostly play shmups which have limited amounts of text, and when I do feel like I’m missing out I call him over for quick explanations, and it generally turns out I wasn’t missing anything. Currently I only have Espgaluda and Mushihimesama. Mushi isn’t even a capable port, but it’ll have to do since the Xbox 360 version is not region free. Espgaluda though is amazing and gives me a whole new perspective on the PS2. Considering how large the PS1/PS2 library is, my wishlist barely scratches the surface.

I wonder if this could be my last retro console. What’s left? First and second generation, eh — I already have a pong clone, and I’ve never really wanted an Atari. For third generation there’s the missing link, the NES. Perhaps blasphemous that I haven’t bought one yet, but the cost of an original model plus an RGB mod is damn expensive for those 8 measly bits. There’s always the Super Famicom for good measure, or the Sega CD for laughs. Better yet with more space there’s full-fledged gaming computers like the Commodore 64 (zzz), X68000, and FM Towns Marty. So let’s play it by ear.

Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits

Posted February 22, 2014

In an effort to obtain a legit copy of Robotron and Defender on some damn platform, I picked up Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits for five bucks on eBay for the PS1. Released in 1996, this anthology also emulates Defender II, Sinistar, Joust and Bubbles.

Let’s jump straight to discussing Robotron, which was really the main reason I wanted this. Like a fool I imagined playing like I do in MAME, with the PS3’s DualShock analog sticks mimicking the left and right joysticks of the original arcade version, which actually works rather well. But of course the PS1 controller had no analog controls. This means gamepad presses to move your character and button presses (!) to fire. At first I thought they just left out diagonal firing completely until I pressed two buttons at once. Whatever play-from-your-couch on a big tv win you initially saw for yourself is destroyed by these clunky controls. Nearly unplayable.

Moving on, I have to say that playing Defender is a lot of fun. Someone who’s used to the arcade controls would likely find it as castrated as I found Robotron, but since I’ve become comfortable and enjoy the MAME and DualShock combo, this was an easy transition. It seems to look and play fairly accurately from what I can tell. I’m less familiar with Defender II so I mostly kept returning to the original.

I’ve only played Sinistar and Bubbles a handful of times in the past so I haven’t spent much time with them here, but I could see returning to Sinistar. I’ve never really cared for Joust; I always turn it on for a few minutes for the nostalgic sounds but for some reason find it sort of depressing.

The menus are pretty bad, perhaps to be expected from first generation Playstation. The games don’t retain high scores once they’re reset, which really detracts from the replay value. One gem though are the mid-90s archival videos of Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, creators of Defender and Robotron, discussing the origins of what would become arcade classics earning over $1 billion. Eugene’s face beams everything that Robotron offers — mania, intelligence, a darkness born very much from our world, and the explicit joy of all of them combined.