The Gambler's Those So Un-Castlevania Moments that make the Series Special
here are series which crystallize into a traditional formula quite early. Gradius is a perfect example - it was such an instant classic, that for decades Konami went on making sequels all carved from Gradius II blueprints.
Thankfully, Castlevania wasn't nearly as accomplished in its primes. The series didn't establish a canon until late, and the many directions it took only reinforced its legacy. It's not just a thing that stopped in the NES days, of course - Castlevania experimentation continues to an extent even now.
If you see things in this perspective, even design errors and flawed ideas end adding something to the series. I'm sure I'm not writing anything new, but I've compiled a list of things that were/are so "eek! that's totally unlike Castlevania!" and that I'm so glad they were implemented - in the end making the difference between this series and, say, Megaman...
Every series has some defining moments - here we're talking of the much rarer "reverse defining moments" - everything so out-of-key that nonetheless helped establishing what makes Castlevania.
1- Sota Fujimori's Chronicles soundtrack
There you are. I'm sure you were expecting something about Simon's Quest, huh? What's amazing about this arrangement is that the classic Castlevania tunes are given a pop-dance-techno take. Which is something you usually hear a lot of complain about - "ooh, a game about vampires shouldn't sound like this" blah blah. If Konami listened their fans, the series' music would've rapidly grown into a stale matter of classical/epic/gothic stuff. Instead we got this modern, and undoubtedly excellent soundtrack. Sure, it too has predecessors: like the Perfect Selection album, or the very Rondo's soundtrack. Rondo of Blood eschewed the traditional Castlevania music for something more in the lines of "Mad Forest" - 2001's Chronicles adapts the same principles to nowadays sounds. It was one of the coolest post-Symphony of the Night moments.
2- Four Castles in Belmont's Revenge
Come on, this had to be mentioned... I mean, a stage select in Castlevania? Totally un-castlevaniaish! An idea so out-of-tune with the series that it was never reused, well... except maybe a glimpse of it in Lament of Innocence's hub. Four castles sound like a bad idea even today. In a series that has built so much on the overall atmosphere, to have four themes like "plant" "crystal" and the awesomely steampowered "cloud"... is disheartening. Then again... You look at it and that's exactly what makes Christopher's adventure stand out today. It's like he really traveled four castles, even going up in the skies... Which is something a lot cooler than ever Sonia did, with her boring, traditional and poorly executed locations. So thank you, four castles. I shiver at the idea to see you again, but thank you for being there!
Yeah, this game. The WHOLE game actually. It's funny. From the acid color palette to the Texan hero, to the dual player system, to the 1900 setting - this game was intended to be a shocking twist and a major departure from the series (it was so "gaiden" that they even called it VK). It's pretty obvious why. SNES Akumajo Dracula at the time might have been received as the ultimate Dracula game - basically, you could have never toppled it by playing under the same rule. Everything again involving Simon Belmont, Medusa, Frankie and the traditional Akumajo Dracula feel would have been a pale mimicry of the SNES title (not to mention the Megadrive couldn't sport the same raw power).
So they went the Symphony route... before Symphony. They changed everything, from setting to gameplay - included the first bishonen, and put Yamane in charge of the music. Since the actual development team has its roots in this game, it's easy to say that Bloodlines' influence has endured in several ways, Yamane's role being by far the most striking success.
So, what's funny? Well, one of the least castlevania-ish games ever had its revenge on SNES Akumajo Dracula. Vampire Killer's long shadow is still among us (whenever we get a 2035 setting or a vampiric hero - we know where these twists come from!) - whereas the "perfect" take on Simon's adventures now strikes as a wonderful "solo".
4- The "Second NES Episode Rule".
Simon's Quest is the oddity everyone immediately thinks of when talking Castlevania. As everyone loves to argue, it pretty much "influenced" SotN so it had a winner's DNA. I'm not sure how much truth rests here. Once you go the non-linear route, you clearly get something which resembles SQ, but SotN's non-linearity is evidently much more influenced by Super Metroid. For a start, it's a non-linearity that actually works, instead of being an incredible mess. Another thing to say about SQ is that its weirdness is a lot less striking when you inscribe it into the "Second NES Episode Rule". However, no matter how successful these first non-linear attempts on a gameplay ground were, SQ has a great legacy of atmosphere to pass on, which cannot be said for the MSX2 take. SQ oozed the right gothic atmosphere - it has been said before, it was Castlevania's only attempt to be scary. on a plot basis, it says a lot that all the most interesting titles just had to mess with Dracula's relics again. Another very cool idea was that of the curse spell on Simon.
This game however doesn't rank very high in this list of un-castlevaniaish moments, and for a very precise reason: virtually everything in this game immediately felt completely Castlevania. It almost changed genre, but it was Castlevania in every way. And of the Holy Trinity of Castlevania tunes ("Vampire Killer", "Bloody Tears", "Beginning") it's no secret that "Bloody Tears" encapsulates the very essence of Castlevania. To the point that there's no better way to sum the series than playing this tune. Simon's Quest was so clearly in-touch, so it shouldn't really belong to this list.
5- Fighting Death on the top of a Ghost Ship
Rondo of Blood is often mentioned as the embodiment of Traditional Castlevania gameplay, yet it was pretty wacky, with the gags, Maria, and so on. But much more than a little girl defeating the Count, the most un-Castlevania moment of this game is fighting Death on the top of a ghost ship. This is a very interesting case: the whole pirate theme comes from DaNasty, of course. But the fact is, it was merely hinted at in Dracula's Curse.
You had this acrobat which could have been anything other than a Pirate, and there was a sunken ship stage. That's the kind of setting you'd expect to see once. But it somehow must have fascinated the developers, since the Ghost ship was "weird", it became the "alternate route" in Rondo, then the "secret area" in Aria... It's clearly one of those Rondo weirdnesses: of course, when Dracula XX tried a more serious attempt at the same story arc, the ghost ship setting was discarded. More than the ship itself however, what's weird is to fight Death on top of it. Weird and definitely refreshing, after seeing him either on the clock's tower or inside a deep cave, alternately.
6- Platformers and Quarters
Castlevania is clearly a game to be played at home. It requires patience, it has a slow pace, it offered unlimited continues and/or passwords from day one. But, when Castlevania wasn't a series, but a couple of games, someone thought making a coin-op out of it would've been a neat idea. There's little to say here about the game - the visuals are pretty standard Castlevania stuff, and the music is very Castlevania-ish too, with memorable tunes that suddenly are rediscovered and arranged at every new game. Cool. So why I mention it here? Well, because the idea of playing Castlevania in the arcades is the most bizarre and un-castlevania moment ever. It's also a very bad idea, of course. No one never again thought to give it another try, and nowadays the whole notion of "arcades" is akin to "species at risk of extinction".
There was already a frantic, frustrating, gothic platformer in the arcades, and it had just the right pace for its purpose. Simon's slow trudging couldn't hope to defeat Arthur at his own game. This stands out as the classic un-castlevania moment that you cherish as a mere curiosity and look back thinking "whew, thankfully the effect of whatever they were smoking didn't last enough to do another one".
7- Fighting Evil as a Heathen
Circle of the Moon was a complete mess - the developers had a perfectly clear notion of how to make a challenging, fun, traditional Castlevania game. What ruined them is that they had to blend their own ideas with SotN's formula - of which they really didn't grasp the slightest atom of essence. They managed to avoid every single thing that made SotN memorable - ironically producing a fine game that now stands on its own merits.
However, it's as Kobe team somehow understood that they weren't in line with the shaping Belmont mythos. Either that, or they were really unaware of it. In any case, they created a setting that spells "gaiden story" from the first minute, even before Iga's retcon (and re-retcon).
I mean, Austria. Okay, so Austria - in 19th century, that sounds a plausible choice. Then, Baldwin and Graves. They consistently avoided the surname Belmont during all their run, it would be interesting to know why. Graves however isn't even Belmont related. The whip isn't the same... But whatever, you don't notice while playing, so it's still a pretty traditional Castlevania mood... Until you get to mix pagan gods with mythological beasts of course.
I mean, that's a dream come true for every non-orthodox, non-christian vampire hunter. Graves fights Dracula and his minions - with the help of the Greek Pantheon!! That was totally un-castlevania. And very cool.
8- New Heroes Attitude
I don't want to talk about Soma Cruz - despite the twist, I think his story fits a lot with Castlevania. In fact, the revelation of his true identity kind of spoiled the character for me; he was supposed to be a young student, but soon the whole thing got a serious tone and in short he wasn't any more revolutionary to play than Alucard was. It's like, the potential to have a change of mood was there, but wasn't really exploited.
Okay, so what I really want to talk about are the awesome duo of Jonathan and Charlotte. Igarashi had this cool new Nintendo gadget, and this new anime-style character design. It was time for another change of pace.
It's very easy to tell Castlevania fans from their reaction on Portrait of Ruin. Anyone who has taken a pause from the series, for example not buying the recent handheld releases, will probably not like it - he comes back to a vampire slashing series, and he wants the moody atmosphere of a SotN, or even a Super Castlevania IV. But PoR isn't for him - it's for the people who found Dawn of Sorrow stale and who couldn't stand yet another stroll into the very same castle.
So yeah... Do you remember all the talk about Simon's Quest atmosphere, Castlevania atmosphere and such we had above? Essentially, PoR throws all that in the garbage bin. There's little "castle", a series of unrelated, un-traditional scenarios (shades of Belmont's Revenge!), a duo of characters which not only are drew in an anime style - they act as anime heroes. It's childish and lighthearted and... it strangely works to refresh the series once again.
Harmony of Dissonance had perfected the gothic mood, establishing an unparalleled precedent, blending Shimamura's baroque visuals with Hokkai's compositions... But, despite the initial twist, Aria and Dawn only watered down that mood. Like in Bloodlines days, there was no other choice that going for something else.
Jonathan and Charlotte manage to be so likable because you feel how much the staff loved them in first stance. Just looking at the official webpage gallery is revealing.
Portrait goes the Bloodlines route - Its mood is too much un-castlevaniaish to set a canon. Yet it's exactly the breath of fresh air we need to build the next upon, unless we want things to get stale quickly.
9- And the rest...
I guess a top ten would've been nice but I've run out of un-castlevania moments at the moment. Well, at least moments I wish to explain in detail, but I could add a quicklist of others:
- Cornell (he should've been mentioned here, right?)
- -Christopher's habit of climbing ropes instead of stairs (and spewing fire from his whip)
- The Doll house in Chronicles (one of the most amazing weird settings - puts the ghost ship to shame!)
- Innocent Devils (something I really hope not to see again)