Wednesday, December 24, 2008

dracula x what does that even mean

I’ve got something to tell you guys – I sort of like Castlevania. It is one of those series that, when limited to two dimensions, so consistently delivers that I will actually buy new games when they are released, instead of eying them and waiting for the price to drop like some bargain-hunting carrion fowl. In my quest to find something to justify the purchase of a PSP, my curiosity was piqued by Dracula X Chronicles, a remake of one of the earlier entries in the series.

I told you I liked Castlevania, but now I’ve got something else to confess – my first game in the series was 2006’s Portrait of Ruin for the DS – I am a recent convert. So recent, in fact, that I never ever played Symphony of the Night, commonly cited as the series’ peak, on any of the platforms upon which it was originally released. When somewhere halfway through Dracula X I unlocked a port of Symphony, my curiosity was piqued – here was a full version of a critically acclaimed series-defining game which I had never played, buried in a game I had already paid for. I started it up, and was hooked – I played it clear through to the end. It speaks well of Symphony that it has held up so very well over the years, but it speaks poorly of Dracula X that I was able to drop it so quickly to play something else.

So what happened? What is it about the main course that makes it second to the hors d'oeuvres?

First, a little Castlevania history. The series had its genesis on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which did well enough for itself in its day but was hardly a technical powerhouse. With few exceptions, those earlier games employed a stage-based structure – progress through a level, defeating its monstrous inhabitants and negotiating its characteristically complicated platforms, fight a boss at the end, repeat until the end of the game. With Symphony of the Night, the emphasis changed from stages to one huge, continuous open environment. In theory, every room in the game was available to you right from the get-go, though there were sections you couldn’t reach before you had obtained certain abilities or cleared certain objectives. The gameplay is still linear in nature, but it feels more organic and open-ended, and it encourages and rewards exploration. Every Castlevania game since has followed this basic formula.

The game upon which Dracula X Chronicles is based, however, hails from the pre-Symphony era. Though the game has been redone with 3D models and environments, it is strictly an old-school experience, and shows little mercy.It’s not challenging for the right reasons, though. Some series from that period featured challenging and engaging enemies and environments, but gave you full control over your character. Mario and Mega Man can turn on a dime, jump several times their own height, and change direction in mid-air. They respond immediately to every button tap – the challenge of the game lies in the obstacles it throws in your way. Early Castlevania games and others subscribe to a different philosophy – they give you a lumbering muscleman, whose controls make even the simplest tasks (ie. climbing stairs, jumping a foot-wide chasm) exercises in tedium. The challenge doesn’t lie in the game itself – surmounting the game’s maddening control scheme is the primary difficulty. It is an antiquated approach, and it is easy to see why the smoother gameplay of Symphony of the Night became the series norm.

Dracula X fails not because it’s poorly made, but because it is outmoded, and it makes the mistake of reminding you of just how very out-of-date it is by means of a game contained on its very disc. It is unfortunate that the game with top billing is so overshadowed by one of its many unlockables, and it begs the question – how many other games will eventually be rendered less enjoyable because time has passed them by? There are die-hards who are fans of the classic Castlevania gameplay – this one was made for them. Otherwise, I recommend you pick it up only if you want a history lesson, or if you’re looking for a handheld flavor of Symphony of the Night.