November 24th, 2013
When I was 9 years old, I had my own CD player, which I thought was a pretty big deal. The problem, however, was that when you’re 9 years old, you don’t get a lot of pocket money for CDs. Fortunately my CD player also had a tape deck, so I could record music off the radio. I used to wait for the Top 40 to come on at night and record whatever songs interested me. Sometimes it wouldn’t be until after I listened to a song that I’d realise that I liked it. This meant that I’d have to tune in another day and hope that the same song was still popular and played before bed time. My small collection of tapes, self-made compilations of recorded hits, reflected the music I liked at the time as by means of what was available. Even though the songs were often loosely related—and sometimes released months apart, given that I’d scrub over and replace songs—their grouping together on a single cassette had its own meaning and mythology.
Anthologies and compilations have this unique quality where the relationship between the individual items and the order in which they’re arranged creates its own internal narrative. As a collection of games, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles—which contains Symphony of the Night, Rondo of Blood, and a Rondo of Blood remake, the centrepiece of the collection—draws attention to the Richter Belmont/Alucard story arc, the series’s sweeping transition from branching levels to an open castle structure, and the addition of complex RPG sub-systems.
For me, this compilation puts into focus the way in which certain game elements have or haven’t crossed the gameplay divide. As with most Castlevania games, SOTN and ROB are stuffed full of enemies and level elements copied and pasted from previous games in the series. Seeing how Alucard’s short-range weapons, compared to Richter’s whip, change the dynamics of, say, duelling with a Spear Guard is pretty intriguing stuff—or how SOTN’s sub-systems and open structure allow the player to ride on past an enemy that was, in the prior game, a reasonable test of timing and observation. There really is just too much to talk about when it comes to the Castlevania‘s constantly recycled history of gameplay, so let’s stick to a few key comments then.
- As with all Castlevania games, hearts are the currency of special attacks, not health. This blatant disregard for form fits function drives me crazy.
- It’s nice how Maria, with her mobility and the generous range and duration of her dove attacks, can act as a form of scalable difficulty, but she’s a bit too well hidden for less experienced players to find her.
Rondo of Blood‘s two primary mechanics aren’t very dynamic. Richter’s jump lacks mid-air control and his whip attack can’t be cancelled or modified. (Maria is a bit more flexible with her double jump). Because time is a key game dynamic, as the game is about movement and attacks which occur real-time in space, and the two primary mechanics have long animations that can’t be altered once executed:
- They are high-committal mechanics
- Stress is placed on the player’s understanding of and reaction to the game world
- The gameplay is not smooth and continuous, but fragmented into chunks, thanks to the pockets of inactivity when the player is waiting for Richter to land or reclaim his whip.
The enemies are static challenges, once you’ve got their pattern down and can respond to their openings, the levels become a cakewalk. The problem is that, like the primary mechanics, you have to wait before you can interact (as you observe and pick up on the cues). Sure, memorising an enemy’s movement pattern is more engaging than waiting for Richter to finish off a jump or attack, but it’s still not as engaging as interacting with the game.
Despite these fundamental weaknesses at the heart of the gameplay, the level variation is quite good, perhaps even a high point. Each level introduces its own concept and then builds upon it. The nature of the enemies, where half of them have reasonably long attack cycles, makes it hard to layer more than two or three of them together, putting a cap on the potential for counterpoint.
- It’s possible to attack some enemies from afar by moving just outside their attack range, but keeping them within reach of Richter’s whip. This transforms the combat into a dance off over the all important middle ground.
- The use of particle effects makes it hard to read some hit boxes.
- Some of the game’s secrets require guesswork.
- The 3D graphics and texturing make some areas hard to make out, like stairs.
Speaking of stairs, their behaviour is needlessly perplexing. Stairs that mark the horizontal end of a room are solid. That is, the player can ascend them (forwards/backwards and diagonal direction of stairs) and can jump and land on them. Stairs with an area that continues on behind the staircase are semi-solid. That is, the player can ascend them, but only land on them when pressing the buttons to climb (otherwise the avatar will fall through). Semi-solid stairs are on a layer behind solid stairs, otherwise the avatar wouldn’t be able to walk through them. This begs the question: what does pressing the buttons to climb have to do with moving the avatar back a layer?. The logic is obviously broken, but you can understand the reasoning behind the design: if an enemy’s near a staircase and you want to jump to avoid it, it’s better that you have the option of jumping on and jumping through the staircase, as enforcing just one or the other could be problematic. Surely, though, there’s a more elegant solution. What about keeping enemies away from stairs, not putting stairs over pits, or only using solid stairs?
One of the Castlevania series’s signature elements, light fittings that drop hearts, are just a prompt for the player to repeat the same basic attack, filler that doesn’t advance the game in any significant way. There’s not much fun in strumming the same note over and over again. The lamps could be better positioned to elicit more variety in whip use. Why not remove the light fittings altogether and only offer hearts for defeating enemies? That way, there’s a steady build up of hearts through the course of a level, and thus restricted-to-freer practice is facilitated (the special attacks are a form of freedom as the player can choose which weapon to use and whether to use the whip or the special attack).