Tuesday, July 9, 2013

SIDE-QUEST - Vampire Killer

(Vampire Killer, October 1986, Konami)

Metroidvania is a well-known portmanteau celebrating the awesomeness of the non-linear side-scroller popularized throughout the years. Your friendly neighborhood NESquester was pondering exactly how this term came to be coined as Castlevania was a very point A to point B type of experience. More extensive research into the legendary series led me directly into the waiting arms of a title only touched by Japanese and European hands and gave me the exact answer I was seeking. Exclusive to the wildy beloved MSX2 computer platforms, today we are going to sink our teeth into (pun very intended) a footnote in gaming that should be shitloads more popular than it is, Vampire Killer.

Fans would fill Ozarks jugs with all the skeet they could muster if this ever got announced

In a first for me, there is no need to go into my normal spiel concerning the storyline and development team as it is 100% the same crew that worked on the version released one month prior for the NES. Thankfully, they are given full credit here and not the ridiculous shit that they were saddled with during the end of Castlevania in a failed attempt at humor or whatever that was about. Imagine busting your everloving hump for a year of your life only to be tossed the back-asswards moniker of Vram Stoker. I imagine that must be close to how the poor kids in WWE must feel when given their new ring names. See below review for all the goodies!

So far, so kind of the same ol', same ol'.

Not knowing what exactly to expect, the title screen resembles that of the Japanese version of Castlevania. Our hero, Simon Belmont takes the famous walk to the gates of Dracula's castle just as before and the familiar music widens my smile as always. The first screen is territory that has been traversed on countless occasions so it appears that the second game of the Castlevanianseries is just a port named after Simon's whip right?

What in the name of FUCK just happened?


Eenie, meenie, miney, moe it is!

Keys? Treasure chests? Whip upgrades rarely available? Multiple stair cases? What the fuck happened to my Castlevania? Turns out that Vampire Killer is kind of like if you were married to a twin and they tried to pull a switcheroo on you for shits and giggles. The outer shell looks like the person you've come to know and grow older with but the inner workings like personality could never match up no matter the amount of effort went into the hoax. Don't get it twisted however, this is akin to both twins resembling Kat Dennings. Jackpot, my lucky retro gaming friends.

You're welcome.

In order to progress through each level, the skeleton key must be found, identified by its white color as the others to open chests are yellow. Remember being younger before this fangled internet machine gained steam and Nintendo Power debuting having to do things like toss the candle at every single bush in Legend of Zelda for any and all ways to bring everything you had at Ganondorf? Get ready to break some walls until your fingers are numb because that is where the keys are located now in place of food. Once again, we are given six levels of atmospheric good times in gothic Transylvania with three sections per level to conquer. Even if you are the current and reigning champion of the original Konami offering, you will be forced to think outside the box with Vampire Killer. 

George Lucas is the devil! Fucking KNEW it!!!

Another major difference are the new form of puzzles that lie within. Simply procuring the skeleton key isn't a guarantee that Mr. Belmont will advance to the next insanity test he has. Mr. Nagata clearly had a blast with his level designing as sometimes just getting to a wall you think MIGHT have the required key will induce migraines. One stage in particular forces you to fall into a pit (some shit you'd never dream of trying in the original) and plummet a few screens to land safely in front of the wall containing said item. What can make it even more maddening is that the levels are on an infinite loop so more often than not, the player will be struck with that "Deja Vu? Huh? Oh, fuck me running!" feeling. You know exactly what frustratng emotions I speak of. 

Medusa Heads and moving platforms? Stage designer must've been extra bitter on this day methinks!

Strategy also comes into play as there are a few more weapons Simon has gained mastery of. The pisser however, is if you throw, say, the Axe and don't catch it upon it's return, it is removed from your inventory until you obtain it again. I was less than thrilled about that but then Vampire Killer REALLY sticks it in and breaks it off when there are no extra lives and no continues. Luckily, there are a few bones thrown at you as you can tote around more than one item at a time, which comes in handy. Many new ways to improve Simon's position exists here, such as wings to make him jump higher and boots that add speed. I reckon someone took the month inbetween games to remind Simon that he wears a belt for a reason. Sub-weapons can still only be held one at a time but it isn't that big of a bother as only the Stopwatch and Holy Water are present assisting in using some of the same tricks us old dogs know. Medusa Heads + Stopwatch = NESquester not wanting to immediately atomize the first cute thing he sees. Precursor's to Simon's Quest begin to show up as well such as hearts now used for currency and the scattered merchants closely resemble the old woman sprites from Castlevania II. Buying from them is one of the more bizarre aspects to the game as you stroll up to where they sit and simply beat the piss out of them until they turn red and deal. Well, alrighty then.

"Gonna gimme some goodies or does Simon Belmont have to whip a bitch?"

Castlevania always sported one of the greatest rogue galleries in gaming and nothing has been altered here until the end. Giants bats, Medusa, Mummies, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Grim Reaper all make their valiant returns here to insure that you are needing a new keyboard before long and move about in around the formations we are accustomed to. Dracula himself added an extra stage to his castle just to be a true heel and his first form hasn't changed other than the fight taking place in front of an ominous looking portrait or the Prince of Darkness. Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with him because the figure you're fighting looks more like a zombie with a cape while the painting is rather close to Count Chocula with Great Tiger's gem embdedded between his eyes. Take out the first form and the background comes alive and starts shooting bats at you at an insane rate of fire presumably as revenge for the death of the beloved Wampa Bat in the NES version.

"I vant to eat your cereal!"

The gameplay and presentation aren't that much different though there is definately one MAJOR bitch I have to get out. Vampire Killer requires the player to press up to jump, which can be absolute hell if you're trying to jump near a staircase and Nagata put stairs EVERYWHERE. Many was the time I red raged because when attemptng to jump over an obstacle only to begin my slow climb up or downstairs surely making Dracula cackle his undead ass off if he was watching. That graphics are better by just a bit as the trees look more like trees and the laboratory level simply steals the show. Kinuyo Yamashita's classic soundtrack is unchanged and as haunting as ever insuring great times to be had by all. The challenge is the most difficult aspect to compare as some trials and tribulations take less effort than before and some more. I will state for the record that Count Chocula is a hell of alot easier than Wampa Bat.

The graphics in the lab truly shine.

9/10 NOW I finally understand where the Metroidvania term came from. A sense of exploration not seen since the original Metroid but with the shiny coat of Castlevania over it makes this an instant classic in my books. The one point is due to the up button/staircase misfire but with time and patience, it can be overcome and overlooked as this was head and tails better than most of what was around in 1986. Vampire Killer definately laid the groundwork for countless future titles and should be regarded as right up there with Castlevania. If only THIS was labeled Castlevania II but, yeah, I still need to review that bastard child don't I...

Thursday, July 4, 2013

NESquest - Castlevania

(Castlevania, Konami, May 1987)

Leading up to May of 1987, the Nintendo Entertainment System had experienced a rash of games that were either grey squares of fecal matter (Trojan, Volleyball, Ikari Warriors) or average at best offerings (Gauntlet, Bomberman, Mighty Bomb Jack). Poor Mr. NES needed a title that could help establish its own identity as more than a piece of sturdy hardware that could port a decent arcade game. Konami understood this as well as wished to cement themselves eternally in the good graces of The Big N. The end product was an 8-bit platforming masterpiece that easily stands the test of time and spits in the face of dozens of other games that only wish they could pull off this level of gothic gaming beauty that Konami accomplished. Have a seat under the NESquester learning tree and stay awhile kids, this is Castlevania.

During the Second Quest, the bane of my existence throughout Gradius, the Moai Head, shows his face as an easter egg! Check out the Gradius review for the Konami backstory.

The story behind Castlevania is a much, much darker motherfucker than I had ever envisioned. Nintendo of America, in their neverending quest to censor anything they thought could cause children around the world to piss the bed en masse, removed pretty much the entire story and gave us Americans a vanilla "get to Dracula  using your magic whip and save the day" spiel in the manual. Even with their well-known penchant for censorship, crosses and skeletons are scattered all over the place as well as epic shit like The Count's head flying towards deep space when his first form is defeated. 

NoA's censors must've taken a weed nap during the laboratory stage.

So it goes that the year 1691 marked the one hundred year anniversary of the defeat of Dracula at the hands of one Christopher Belmont. The local township of Transylvania rests easy at night knowing that our fabled fanged badass is no more. However, every one hundred years there is a brief window in time where the power of Christ is weakened within the lands causing men's hearts to begin to turn towards the ways of the Sith. Wow, that would've gone over like a fart in church back in '87. Anyhoodles, the perfect storm came to a head during the annual Easter celebration when a group of the these blackened souls slipped off and broke into the local monastery with their sights set on resurrecting Vlad The Rad by way of black mass. A bolt of lightning shot down from the sky to signal the return of the Prince of Darkness and before the bewildered Transylvanians knew what was happening, Dracula's castle appeared out of thin air and the smell of thousands of people shitting themselves simultaneously in fear permeated the land.

"Who ordered the whoop-ass fajitas?"

In urgent need of a hero to eradicate this stench from the land, Christopher's ancestor, a strapping young lad named Simon Belmont was given the very whip that tanned Dracy's fanny a century past, the aptly named Vampire Killer. Vampire Killer also happens to be the title of another game in the series for the MSX2 that will be covered with Simon's Quest in the very near future. Realizing that his destiny awaited him, Simon threw on his best leather armor and boots and was apparently too manly for pants and off to fuck up some satanic blood suckers he went!

"And you PROMISE if I do this, I can play Simon Belmont in that up coming Captain N show? SWEAR TO ME!"

I would never forgive myself if I didn't mention the team who slaved to bring us this measuring stick of early NES platformers. Firstly, Akihito Nagata had the task of level designer and what a sadistic fuck this guy must've been! These are some of the most vicious levels gaming has ever seen. Mr. Nagata also went on to produce Metal Gear Solid for Konami as well as VR Missions. Currently, he has delved into television with a critically lauded anime overseas titled "Best Student Concil".

If Mr.Nagata accepts my Facebook friend request, my one question to him would be where the hell these stairs were supposed to lead to.

Secondly, Kinuyo Yamashita in her debut as a video game composer should be credited endlessly as a pioneering female in the industry. To this day, the music she created for Castlevania is remixed and there aren't many more 8-bit scores that are as beloved in the Nintendo's library. Sadly, she was credited as James Banana, a riff of James Bernard, the composer behind the classic 1958 Christopher Lee version of Dracula. Upon completion of her magnum opus, Ms.Yamashita left Konami to work independently creating the music for such games as Power Blade I and II, Parodius, and Megaman X3. If you are brand new to Castlevania (after having just left your underground bunker located in Amish country), then you owe it to yourself to listen to this OST. A timeless classic in every aspect. No bullshit, it's that good.

Crack that whip! Give the past a slip!

Now for the chili on the dog, the actual game itself. Six stages of gothic and horror themed mayhem are the showcase of this landmark pixelated dream. The designs put forth by Mr. Nagata are brilliant in that the stages are wildly different and contain some of the most atmospheric backdrops the NES had seen or ever would see again until the third installment. From the opening scene of Simon entering the castle to the decrepit look of the walls and curtains to the claustrophobic caverns underground, the variation of color schemes from vibrant yet creepy to dark and dismal are awe-inspiring to behold. For its time, the graphics present in Castlevania were nothing short of amazing. The controls are tighter than a gnat's asshole as Simon does exactly what you will him to do. A jumps, B whips, and pressing up with B shoots whatever sub-weapon you are holding. Crack the Vampire Killer at every candle in Simon's way to collect hearts which dictate how many times your secondary offensive weapon can be used. Beauty in simplicity folks. Strategy comes into play with the sub-weapon as unlike the mandatory dagger grab in Ghosts N' Goblins, the dagger here sucks more shit than a colonic after a drunken Taco Cabana escapade. 

Even Death takes a back seat to the Dark Prince. THAT is hardcore.

At the end of each stage are the most memorable set of bosses the planet Earth had ever seen. I recall the playground conversations of ten year old innocence crystal clear proclaiming that any game with Frankenstein and Dracula in it to be the best ever made. An homage to the Universal/Hammer movies of the 50's, the only famous monsters from that era I can see missing are The Wolfman and King Kong. Ironically, Kong was already starring in his own Konami title that was released exclusively in Japan. Even more ironically, they both ended up in the same crossover game Konami Wai Wai World along with Mikey from The Goonies and Moai! Wai Wai was a beyond bizarre fan service that I will definately dive into one day. 

No exaggeration down below. One thousand of THESE.

Onto the legendary status of the game, the challenge. Is Castlevania really as hard as people claim it is? Allow me to put it in as simple a way as possible. You could lock me in an large warehouse that is fully stocked with one thousand Jennifer Connelly clones, all stark naked and vigorously making out with each other and this game is STILL harder than I would EVER be. This cart may as well have been enclosed inside the cover of the fucking Necronomicon. One section of stage five in particular stands out with a combination of Axe Knights and Medusa Heads that would've even made Gandhi lose his shit. If the Grim Reaper doesn't make you become the second coming of Sam Kinison, Dracula himself is going to make you create strings of curse words that sound like a Twista rap. The Count waits passively at the top of his tower, presumably drinking coffee and calmly checking his Twitter while sending his minions after Simon. After his first form is defeated and his noggin shoots towards the stars like Babe Ruth knocked it off, he becomes a mix of the Wampa from Star Wars with an albino bat on PCP and if you're not chucking the boomerang with the triple shot, put the controller down and fix a drink, you're fucked.

"NOW he makes it to the top? Cockblocking pantsless sack of shit!!!"

10/10 An 8-bit orgasm of massive proportions. I honestly busted my ass to find a flaw in this game and all I have is the unforgiving difficulty, which was par for the course in ye olde days. "NES Hard" isn't a myth as Castlevania was one of those titles that turned boys into men and girls into women. Graphics that pushed the limits of the hardware, music that haunts to this very day, and a challenge that is among the greatest out there have earned it the rare full monty. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go hand the Captain N Simon Belmont a towel...

One minute he is Dracula and the next...