Image of Simon's asymmetrical shoulder armor not mine, obviously, as I was playing on my PSP.

I'm glad I finished it, and that's not something I would have said a couple stages back. It's still the least of the tellings of Simon's (first) quest outside of further obscurities like Haunted Castle and Vampire Killer, but the final stages do finally pack some of the Castlevania small touches and humor that tell of care - ridiculous full-body plate knights that come screeching onscreen like they're late for class on Saved by the Bell; a Frankenstein fight that you're actually supposed to skip entirely by fleeing to a nearby staircase and jumping over him when he dumbly passes beneath you; mandragora that burst from vials in background bookcases and waddle around all proud of themselves for escaping. Following on the mirror gallery and doll tower, I liked the macabre & surrealistic gallery of paintings lining the hallway leading to Death and the uniqueness of making the first part of the final stage an armory. Despite the hugely unbalanced difficulty, the title does feature a few smart gameplay decisions: some enemy setups designed around the deft usage of subweapons (this is probably the pocketwatch's star outing), and some smart combinations of enemies and environmental obstacles...but there are so many places where they just packed in one too many of those obstacles to be reasonable. There are also a couple inexcusable jumps in the final approach to Dracula's keep that are quite literally pixel-perfect, one foot hanging off and all, which represent the game's meanest, cheapest trick - and the issue that aesthetically, Chronicles is considerably less impressive than a launch game on a system from the previous generation. It's the most brutal stage-based Castlevania I've played, though that's greatly through cheapness and therefore not a compliment.

Ranking the "walk right until Dracula is dead" installments in order of descending difficulty, I'd have to go:

  • Chronicles (Original Mode)
  • IV
  • III (toughest of the well-designed games; hard as nails but fair and extremely smart)
  • the original
  • Bloodlines
  • Rondo

I should point out for fairness's sake that I haven't beaten the first Castlevania (just got to the last stage) and that I beat Rondo with Maria (the correct and actually fun way). Despite this, I'm pretty assured of those rankings. I know the placement of IV is unpopular, but the game has a lot of bullshit that's popularly overlooked because too many influential people played it in their childhoods and therefore have the bullshit muscle-memoried away. If I had to put Belmont's Revenge on the list (I got stuck at the Stage 2 boss in the first Castlevania Adventure and found nothing compelling me to go further), it'd probably go above Rondo - the game's a cakewalk until Drac's castle, but the ridiculous Dracula fight takes more time than the rest of the game combined, and that's with a walkthrough. The platform limitations make the Adventure games so different, though, that I don't think ranking them against the rest of the pack is relevant.

Curse of the Moon would be below everything. Curse 2 is a bad game that doesn't deserve to be in the company of the rest and needs to go sit in the corner and think about what it's done.

As I am now a middle-aged blogger, I am contractually obligated to produce occasional pieces bemoaning the fallen state of the world. This is one of those posts. It is behind a cut for your convenience.

I had wanted to post more for Halloween, but I got caught up in finishing the translation of a fictional character's undergrad Clock Tower musings to post before the holiday, which left other writing projects - and gaming! - on the back burner. (Also still simmering: translations of additional Hand in Killer7 interviews, which didn't quite get done before the deadline. My main site still lacks a proper full update.)
I was playing some seasonal games, but for one reason or another, none of them got to the finish line before October 31st, either. I've played enough to form an opinion of them, though, so here's a halftime report. I think these games deliver an appropriate dose of Halloween insanity, because they all consist of doing the same thing over and over again!

Twilight Syndrome: Tansaku-hen

What? One of the PS1 games I've been meaning to play from my list, this is a horror-ish adventure game from Human Entertainment that features three schoolgirl friends investigating local urban legends. It uses the same digitized style that the original Clock Tower did.

Why isn't it finished? This game was a victim of the fiscal year; it's actually the first half of a title originally meant to be released as a single unit that got pushed out in March to satisfy financials. Initially planned as ten cases, Vol. 1 of Twilight Syndrome got pared down to a meager four in the split (with the remaining six released in Vol. 2 later that year). To pad it out into standalone-title length, the game prevents saving of any sort during a case - which means one mistake, and your play session is shot. Outside of the first case, the right choices aren't particularly clear or simple, either; there's one long & obfuscatory phone conversation near the end of the second case that demands ten correct choices in a row. In a game that allowed saving, it would've been an interesting puzzle; here, where one mistake means another 40 minutes of gameplay just to get back to where you were, it's a massive "screw you" that sent me scrambling to a guide instead of figuring things out on my own - and that's no fun.
It's unfortunate, because told in full (and not in the abbreviated versions you get from subpar endings), the tales are really lovely little ghost stories. The gameplay problems and required repetition, though, quelch a lot of the fun, and I just kind of fell off during the third case.

I did get to send one of our little group on the Phantom Train, though!

This triggered the Worst Ending and left our field agent shell-shocked upon her discovery at the trainyard several days later, but a little lifelong trauma is a small price to pay for phantasmagoric truth! I regret nothing!

Castlevania Chronicles

What? Yeah, it's not even on my rather large list of Castlevanias to finish. I picked this up in grabbing PS1 stuff for my PSP before the Playstation Store revamp. I felt dirty giving Konami money, but the game wasn't emulating properly, and what if I wanted to play a new ("new") stage-based Castlevania someday? "Someday" turned out to be "during a lull in Twilight Syndrome," and though I was planning just to dabble, I ended up in it for the long haul. And I do mean long.

Why isn't it finished? It's ridiculously difficult. I don't know why remaking Haunted Castle became one of the great Holy Grails of Castlevania (and Bloodstained) development, but man, Chronicles sure loves that "memorize or die" style of frustration-fest. Castlevania III-esque thinking & reacting on your feet won't get you anywhere; you just gotta play stages over, and over, and over, and over until you can perform no less than flawlessly. I find this artificial approach to challenge brain-dead and benumbing. (I should note, though, that I'm playing Original Mode, which despite being the default option on the main menu, is not, I learned after the fact, the showcase game; that would be Arrange Mode, the second option, featuring Ayami Kojima's questionable Simon redesign and a rebalanced difficulty.)
Now, it's not utterly unfun or unrewarding - not Curse of the Moon 2-level, certainly - and there's enough Classicvania action that I wouldn't wave someone away from checking out that rebalanced mode...but I don't see the point of this game, coming well after Super Castlevania IV. IV also loved memorize or die, and it's much less beloved by me than it is in popular memory for it...but it is beloved, an effective tech showcase for a landmark system, and it at least had an artistic vision: it wanted to create a more mature, moodier version of the Castlevania haunted-house, monster-mash aesthetic with a darker, more subdued palette, a somewhat more realistic sprite style, and an at times almost ambient soundtrack that backseats the franchise's killer melodies & riffs and goes in a more expansive direction to create its atmosphere. (It also features "Dance of the Holy Man," a track that could single-handedly redeem a soundtrack from almost any other musical choices. It's my pick for the top track in one of the best-scored franchises in all of gaming.) Chronicles is a big step down from all that. It's content just cobbling together parts from other games: Rondo's clock tower-face fight combined with its super-aggroed martial-arts werewolf; Haunted Castle's cackling Medusa battle in the original NES title's arena; the 60th iteration of Castlevania's entry hallway and that bat boss. The soundtrack is nearly-wholly recycled. The only really aesthetically-original areas so far in what I've played (to the end of Level 6 of 8) are the Tower of Dolls and a hallway with tons of mirrors. I don't know in what ways Chronicles thought it was improving on IV, or what it thought it was bringing to the table. It comes across as the rewarmed PC version of a console hit that it is. It's an OK stopgap but has no identity of its own.

Vroom in the Night Sky

What? Yes, the big joke game from the Switch launch. I liked the aesthetic of magical-girl witches riding light cycles across the night sky in a vaguely '50s-esque milieu. I expected precisely zero in the gameplay department.

Why isn't it finished? The game has like eight stages that take from one to six minutes tops to complete, but three of them are locked behind speed & point achievements. I've put a couple hours into it and have half the cheevos and one stage to unlock.
What can I say here? I'm finding it inoffensive enough, actually. My gameplay expectations were wholly met - you're basically flying through rings like Superman 64, except you're in a better-looking environment, the stages take only a few minutes at most, and you can shoot targets and point bonuses and a rival magical girl along the way, if you feel like it. The game actually looks way worse in stills than it does in motion - photos emphasize the simplicity of the polygons in the environment and the low resolution of the skybox textures, but it's not uncharming during actual play, with your moon-bright tires kicking up stars & stardust as you screech against the neon sky. I wish the aesthetic had been married to a title with more than the planning and production values of an Xbox Live Indie Game.

The translation is, as copiously mentioned, complete nonsense.

Also, no one talks about the magical K-car you can unlock.

You can't change its color, sadly.

I was browsing Game Informer's holiday gift guide and was confused to find in their Music section the vinyl for Ape Out - one of the two lone game OSTs on the list, featured rather prominently, second only to an Annapurna deluxe soundtrack set. Why are they still pushing this damn thing? I thought, having spent Giant Bomb's last Game of the Year discussions puzzled as to why they were touting a brain-dead Hotline Miami clone with Saul Bass trappings as the real Goose Game for real gamers - because it had blood 'n' guts, you see.

Thinking of the reliable connection between the efforts of ex-GameSpot reviewers and suspiciously lavish critical accolades, I did a search for "ape out" and "gamespot" that pulled no relevant hits, but my next search, the one above, yielded the answer - Ape Out's creator was a big shot at Harmonix, Alex Navarro's old company. I'd be disappointed if I still had the capacity for surprise in these matters.