31/10/2014

CASTLEVANIA: DRACULA X / VAMPIRE'S KISS (SNES)

Like a black cat whose tail drifted too close to the fire beneath a witch's cauldron, this October has flown past with uncanny speed, and Halloween is already upon us! Remember to eat sweets responsibly and if you are going to watch a horror movie make sure it's not a modern remake of something from the Seventies or Eighties. Before I return to the catacombs beneath VGJunk Towers with a stack of Hellraiser comics and fuzzy VHS copy of My Best Friend Is A Vampire, I've got one more entry in the 2014 Spooktacular for you: ripped from the annals of probably the most Halloween-y of all gaming franchises, it's Konami's 1995 SNES whip-em-up Castlevania: Dracula X!


I think I might have mentioned this before, but I've never been impressed with the name "Dracula X," especially when it's part of a logo like this with non-standard spacing. It's too easy to read it as "Draculax," the number one vampire laxative. Not to worry though, because this game has three titles so you can pick whichever one tickles your fancy. The original Japanese name is Akumajou Dracula XX, while my favourite is the European title of Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss.


I don't know why they changed the name, but I'd guess it was probably to avoid problems with an existing property of the same name. What I do know is that Vampire's Kiss got a kickin' rad new logo ripped straight from the merchandise of a nonexistent Poison-eque glam-metal band. I just really like that logo, and I can't explain why. I also noticed that they went to the trouble of entirely redrawing the Castlevania logo. The Dracula X version was fine, guys, you're just making extra work for yourselves there.


As the intro fills us in on the usual Castlevania story of Dracula rising from the grave and a member of the heroic Belmont family setting out to defeat the Lord of Darkness, it's time for a little background on the game itself. In 1993, Konami released Dracula X : Chi no Rondo (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) for the PC Engine CD, the game that bridged the gap between the "classic" Castlevania games and Symphony of the Night, its direct sequel. It featured excellent graphics, superb music, and with alternate routes and people to rescue it injected a tiny bit more plot into the usual Castlevania storylines of "kill Dracula" or, in Castlevania II's case "bring Dracula back to life so you can kill him properly". It's widely considered to be one of the best (if not the best) of the traditional Castlevania games, so naturally it was never released outside Japan. To remedy this, Konami tried to shoehorn the CD-based Rondo of Blood into a SNES cart, dropping features and rejigging stages, and the result was Castlevania: Dracula X. This game gets a lot of flak as a result, but while you could never say it's as good as Rondo of Blood it's still a good game in its own right.


The hero of Dracula X is Richter Belmont, latest holder of the fabled Vampire Killer whip and Chief Evil-Slayer (Vampiric Overlord Division). He's out to kill Dracula, of course... but this time it's personal, because Dracula's minions have abducted Richter's girlfriend Annette and Annette's younger sister (and future playable character) Maria. Why has Dracula kidnapped these young women? Because he's a dick, that's why. Okay, in Maria's case he might have some diabolical plans for her because she has the magical ability to command animals like a Disney princess, but in Annette's case I think he's just trying to piss Richter off. Well, mission accomplished on that front, Drac - Richter is here to take you down, but first he's got to get through this village you set on fire.


Well, it's definitely a Castlevania game: there's a man about to whip a skeleton in the face and everything. In term of controls, Richter is one step above his stiff-kneed progenitors from the NES Castlevania games but he's nowhere near as versatile as the "Metroidvania" heroes or even Simon from Super Castlevania IV. He can only whip straight forwards, for starters: no angled attacks or brandishing your whip and flopping it about in this one. Richter can perform a backflip of (let's be generous) limited usefulness by double-tapping jump, but aside from that it's mostly the same old Castlevania action. You jump, you whip, you collect hearts that power your sub-weapons, sub-weapons that cover the usual spread of daggers that travel straight forwards, holy water that spreads along the ground, axes that you throw upwards in an arc, stopwatches that freeze time for a while and the boomerang that definitely isn't a cross despite hurting vampires and being a cross.


Also featured prominently are staircases made of diagonally-arranged blocks, because it just wouldn't be a Castlevania game without them. The peasants of Transylvania are going to lose their minds the first time they see a spiral staircase.
So far, the first stage is exactly what you'd expect from a Castlevania game - kill some monsters, damage some wall-mounted candles, enjoy the music - although it does feel both slightly easier and a little more... bare than you might expect. Then there's a brief area populated by Medusa Heads, the floating gorgon heads that have caused so many pit-based Castlevania deaths, and it's hard not to take their appearance as the game saying "don't get too cocky, bucko. There'll be plenty more of these later".


Then suddenly you're being chased by an enormous bull-goat-thing, and on your first attempt this dramatic change of pace can be very disorientating. Unlike most Castlevania games, the stages in Dracula X aren't timed and in general the game lends itself to a more patient style of play, but now Richter has to get a move on and jump over these holes, holes that I found surprisingly difficult to get across due to the pressure of being chased by Satan's livestock and not yet quite having a handle on how far Richter can jump. On the plus side, I got a much clearer view of the lovely Mode 7 fire effect in the background. It's a fantastic visual, it really sets this stage apart from the more common Castlevania bricks-n-crypts location and it also serves as a nice motivation to go and kill Dracula. In these earlier Castlevanias it's rare that you actually see something evil Dracula has done - he mostly spends his time up in his tower, waiting for his latest whip enema - but this time he's razed a village full of innocent people, and you're going to be the one that makes him pay for it.


The fire's turned a spooky shade of blue, like a demonic British Gas advert, and that means it's time for the game's first boss fight. It's a duel to the death with Cerberus, which is appropriate given that he's the guardian to hell and all.
Cerberus fights in the manner of a playful puppy, albeit one that can vomit up fireballs, romping around the screen and trying to bump into Richter as you knock the devil dog back with your whip. It's a nice, simple introduction to the boss battles of the game, but that's no reason not to go hog-wild with the power that sets Richter aside from his Belmont ancestors - the Item Crash.


Pictured above: more flying crosses than an explosion at a seminary, all of them whirling around the screen and damaging the boss while Richter hovers, invincible, in the centre of the action. Pressing X activates the Item Crash, (assuming you have enough hearts,) a powerful technique summoned from whatever sub-weapon you're holding. If you've played Symphony of the Night, you'll probably be familiar with Hydro Storm, the Holy Water's Item Crash. Sadly, in this game Richter does not shout "Hydro Storm!" whenever he uses it. Disappointing, I know, but the raw power of the cross' Item Crash crash is enough to both keep my spirits up and annihilate poor Cerberus. On to stage two, then.


The first part of stage two highlights Dracula's slapdash approach to property maintenance, as Richter must hop his way across the crumbling masonry of Castlevania's front bridge while under constant attack from mermen. Just looking at this screenshot is aggravating, because I can see that I messed up - Richter's jump is going to carry him into that first merman, the knockback will send him plummeting to his doom and I must suffer the ignominy of a death at the flippers of a creature with all the intelligence of a ham sandwich. I know swimming around and bumping into the occasional vampire slayer doesn't require the most energetic of synapses, but just look at those gormless faces. They don't have a clue what's going on. It's a good job they have gills, they'd probably forget to breathe otherwise.


Now we're in the castle courtyard, where the reanimated skeleton of Donkey Kong tried to express his incoherent rage by throwing a barrel at Richter. I guess kidnapping Mario's girlfriend was a grave enough sin for him to be condemned to an eternity of servitude in a vampire's thrall.


This stage is also the first place that you meet the spear knights. They're knights with spears, and they know how to use those spears - with extreme aggression and wilful dickery, their misanthropy presumably brought about by being the only group of Dracula's minions that have to wear fuschia-and-blue armour recycled from 90's shell suits. They can block your sub-weapons by spinning their spears, they can attack with huge swings that send you flying across the level, and the second you lose concentration one of them will stab you from a higher platform. I hate the spear knights. If you play this game, you will hate the spear knights too. The good news? They appear in more stages than any other enemy in the game, unless you count bottomless pits at enemies.


Speaking of enemies, here's stage two's boss. It's... a bat. A very large bat, granted, and it has the unusual power to split into a flapping conga line of smaller bats when whipped, but on the whole it's difficult to get excited about a giant bat when I've already faced Cerberus and Behemoth the rampaging bull-goat. Okay, so I ran away from Behemoth, but I didn't have any choice. To beat the bat, whip its giant form as quickly as possible and then get ready to move to a safe spot when the small bats appear. Item Crashing will help, but I suspect you've figured that out already.


Stage three begins with a more vertical gameplay experience, as Richter platforms his way up a deep pit while being attacked from all sides by Medusa Heads, fire-breathing dragon skulls and gravity. This area provides a good example of what I meant when I said Dracula X requires a more patient style of play - in the earlier Castlevanias, the first and third games especially, there was a certain rhythm to the game that you naturally fell into as you played, with the stages being so perfectly crafted that the best way to clear them was to always be moving forwards. This isn't the case in a lot of Dracula X's stages, where the lack of a time limit and non-regenerating enemies means that you can take more time planning your route and clearing the monsters away as safely as possible.


I admit I could have probably beaten these spear knights in the usual whip-centric manner, but summoning a deluge of unavoidable and unblockable holy water provides a level of personal satisfaction that cannot be matched. You can't stab rain, you insufferable bastards.


Here's a top Castlevania tip for you: always take a moment to whip any dead ends you come across. Sometimes these walls crumble away to reveal items hidden inside, because Dracula apparently drank the blood of a squirrel at some point and it has forever altered his attitude to storage. I'd love to believe that smashing up the castle walls to find items is a piece of vampire-hunting knowledge that has been passed down from Belmont to Belmont over the ages, culminating in Richter's dad sitting his son on his knee and saying "now, make sure you bash open the plasterwork because Dracula is the kind of weirdo who hides cooked joints of meat in his crawlspaces."


I know he's the dark lord of all evil who holds dominion even over death itself, but Dracula X's incarnation of Dracula seems like even more of a prick than usual, ordering his monster hordes to position themselves in the most infuriating places imaginable and doing away with the floor in large swathes of his castle. Those two things have come together in diabolical harmony during this section, where Richter must jump across these narrow pillars, where a single hit from an enemy will almost certainly make him fall. It was difficult, until I reached the part where Dracula (metaphorically) said "eat me, Belmont" and had a floor-to-ceiling column of undead dragon skulls installed to block Richter's path. Now you're just being childish, Vlad.
This would be a good time to bring up a facet of Dracula X's gameplay that wasn't a huge part of the earlier games, and that's conserving hearts. Your Item Crash attack is so useful against bosses that you'll want to have as many hearts as possible saved up to use in the end-of-stage battles, which means you end up having internal debates about whether to use them in the stages themselves, which adds a fun little balancing act into the game.


On the other side of the columns, I found a key. A mysterious and very important key that Richter needs to hang on to, which is unfortunate because it replaces your sub-weapon. That's right, no more ranged attacks - you can see I've reluctantly chucked the cross I was previously using on the ground - and no more Item Crashes. All right, so that's not strictly true: you can still use the Item Crash when you have the key, and in a rather wonderful little touch Richter flies up into the air like usual... but nothing happens, and he falls back down as a question mark appears over his head. However, this isn't as useless as it first seems, because the key's Item Crash costs no hearts to use and you're still temporarily invincible when you activate it. It's not a sure-fire method of survival by any means, but there were a few occasions when I managed to avoid taking damage by jumping into the air with a key in my hand and bellowing like a maniac, and very satisfying it was too. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, that's the Belmont family motto, and also how they support themselves financially during the many years that Dracula isn't active.


Key powers, don't fail me now! This stage's boss is Dullahan, the headless knight familiar from a great many videogames, and he's attacking by making rocks fall from the ceiling and thus further reinforcing my feeling that I'd die fifty percent less in Castlevania games if Dracula would just get a builder in to take a look at his brickwork, maybe get a bit of repointing done or something.
This fight's mostly about getting your distances right - Richter's whip has just enough reach to hurt the boss if you stand at the tip of his lance, so you need to get your hit in and then retreat to a safe distance before Dullahan shoots icicles along the ground at you or goes down the old-fashioned route of stabbing you with his lance.


Stage four takes place deep underground, starting with the subterranean jail where Dracula has imprisoned... who, exactly? None of the possible answers I can come up with are particularly satisfying - they're either human captives, in which case Richter has completely ignored their suffering and left them to rot while knowing full well that Castlevania has a tendency to collapse or explode when Dracula is defeated, or they're monsters. Why would Dracula imprison monsters? He'd either have them out there on Belmont-fighting duty, or he would have them killed because I can't imagine there are any crimes against Dracula for which the punishment is not immediate execution. Eventually I settled on a different explanation: these cells are purely for decoration, for ambience. As the Prince of Darkness, Dracula has certain standards to uphold, and you have to have the tortured moans of the living reach a certain decibel level before you can get the vampire version of a Michelin star.


While riding around on this ore-hauling pulley system - Dracula's fabulous wealth comes from his large-scale mining operations, it seems - I noticed a door. I still have the key, which is something of a miracle in itself because if you lose a life, you lose the key, the mysteries of what's behind this door forever hidden from you unless you go back and fetch it because this is a game dripping with contempt for the player. Well, screw you, Dracula X; I managed to hang on to the key and now I'm going to open that door.


Oh look, Dracula does have some human captives after all - it's Maria, the younger sister of Richter's girlfriend Annette. Maria later grows up to appear in Symphony of the Night, where she enters Castlevania once again to search for Richter, who has been brainwashed by Dracula and has gained the power of super-awesome voice acting in the process. Richter learns from Maria that Annette is being held somewhere else in the castle, and that's all he needs to hear - once he's learned that titbit he's straight back out the door to resume his mission, taking the valiant and heroic decision to leave the little girl behind in the depths of the most evil place in all the world. Good work, Richter. I was having trouble fighting off the kamikaze ghosts that congregate around Maria's cell and I'm playing as a trained vanquisher of the undead, but I'm sure the pre-teen who has already been kidnapped by Dracula's minions once will have no trouble escaping from this trap-filled, monster-infested, labyrinthine castle.


After "rescuing" Maria, I made my way through a short section of cave before I reached another door, and that door led to the next stage. No boss to fight or anything! I mean, I'm terrible at Castlevania, but even I couldn't classify "unlocking a door" as a boss fight. So, the key finally proves its worth - it meant there was one less boss for me to get my backside kicked by, and in a very, very distant second place it allowed me to free Maria. Well, onward to stage 5, then. Sorry, stage 5'. Hmm...


It's a little-known fact that Dracula's castle was built directly on top of the ruins of Atlantis. I know the land-locked nature of Transylvania might make that fact seem like bullshit, but look at this unassailable archaeological evidence. What are you, some kind of science-denier? You disgust me.


One of Richter's most famous character traits is his boundless, child-like curiosity, and having him whip any part of the stage that looked even slightly out-of-place paid off when destroying this leak caused the water to drain away, giving me access to the area below. I am unjustifiably pleased with myself for figuring this out. I didn't even need to look at a guide. My parents are very proud.


Waiting below (and looking surprisingly dry, considering) is Annette. "Richter, my love!" she says "you're great and everything, but Dracula grows more powerful by the moment so forget about me and get a shift on!" I may have paraphrased that slightly, but the main point still stands: Richter has rescued the two hostages and now he can make a beeline straight for Dracula. I do hope he's in his throne room, because that's where Richer is heading, but I've already seen that Konami really have it out for the player in this particular Castlevania adventure so I wouldn't be too shocked if Dracula was actually sitting in a bar in the next village, using his evil powers to clairvoyantly spy on Richter as he bumbles aimlessly around the castle.


The boss of this watery stage is an appropriately aquatic sea monster with a body made of several pieces so loosely connected that I wonder whether they've had a falling out recently and they're only grudgingly hanging around together because Richter showed up. If that's the case, they show an admirable amount of professionalism in kicking my arse, and aside from the final battle this is by far the boss I had the most trouble with. It's fast, it covers a lot of the screen and worst of all I could never quite seem to whip it in the head - this is the point in the game when I really started missing Super Castlevania IV's multi-directional whip. It's still an enjoyable fight, though, with lots of delicate footwork required and a good feeling of tension. On my first time through, me and Nessie here were locked in a mortal struggle, the result balanced on a knife-edge until I finally managed to land the killing blow with a mere sliver of my own health bar remaining. Then the boss flew up into the air as a tornado and killed me after it had died. Oh, didn't I mention that all the bosses in this game have one final attack that they pull out once you've depleted their health in an effort to catch you off guard? Because they do, and with this twist Dracula X goes from "hard" to "mean" in my book. It's the difference between a strict but ultimately well-meaning sports coach and that big kid from the estate who gobs in your hair every time he sees you because his parents don't love him.


Stage six is the traditional Castlevania clock tower stage, the usual mix of Medusa Heads and jumping between platforms made from moving gears. There is a hell of a lot of clockwork in this tower, far more than a single clock needs. His pride would never allow him to admit it, but Dracula has clearly fallen prey to some cowboy builders here, a bunch of scammers who took advantage of his post-coffin-nap befuddlement as though he was the kind of elderly grandmother you hear about on Watchdog. "Oh, yeah, you've got to have six storeys packed with nothing but machinery. Sorry, pal, but that's just how these things work. I know it's not cheap, but can you really put a price on the peace of mind that comes from always knowing what time it is? You're a vampire, you can't afford to be caught out by the sunrise. Now, if you just sign here, we can get to work."


Lurking at the top of the clock tower is Death, both the anthropomorphic personification of man's inescapable mortality and the state of losing all your health and dying. I've never really thought about it before, but I suppose it makes sense that Death's generally found near the clock tower, what with him being the Ultimate Timekeeper and all.
As ever, Death's favourite party trick is to summon flying sickles to do most of his soul-reaping for him, the lazy git, but he also flies into Richter every now and then and his mere touch causes Richter to become cursed. More cursed that having to fight his way through Dracula's castle every few days, I mean - he moves around really slowly, not a helpful state when you're trying to avoid the previously-mentioned sickle blizzard. Still, I had a much easier time than I anticipated, but this being Death he has a nasty trick up his voluminous sleeve.


With one health bar whipped away, Death drops to the ground and switches to what I've come to think of as his kung-fu mode, moving faster, rolling around in the form of a difficult-to-avoid scythe ball and enjoying the advantage given to him by the long reach of his weapon. Honestly, if I was still holding the key it could have been a real problem, but I wasn't. I had the cross, I had the hearts, I had a victory through the power of the Item Crash that might have felt a little cheap if I hadn't been fighting, you know, Death himself. Alternate names for Death include Mr. Sickles or Dracula's Bitch, but not to his face.


The final stage isn't much of a stage at all, a shorter-than-usual set of rooms that starts with the glorious image of Richter climbing the stairs to Dracula's sanctum with the castle in the distance below him and ends with this annoying section where spear knights poke at you while you try to ride these floating platforms and collect plenty of hearts for the final encounter. You can see Richter is crouching in the screenshot above, and crouching can play a major part in a successful trip through Dracula X because if you're crouching when you get hit you aren't knocked back. Quick switches to a ducking stance saved me many times on my various playthroughs of this game - sure I took damage, but as we all know Dracula likes to stash food in his drywall and it beats the instant death of falling down a hole.
Now, Dracula is waiting just beyond this area, but before Richter faces him it's time for me to rewind a little and show you what could have been, because Dracula X has a few alternate paths through the game. Remember back in stage three, when Richter had to jump from pillar to pillar and break through the walls of dragon skulls that blocked his path? Well, if you're not the super-genius videogame expert that I am, you might have fallen off those pillars, only to find that the fall isn't fatal and instead it leads to an alternate stage four.


This slightly generic cave stage is probably the least interesting area in the game, but that's your punishment for not making it across those pillars. I'm not saying it's bad, though - it's still a fun area, as almost all of Dracula X is, with the addition of movement-slowing slime pits and pleasingly gloopy mud-men to contend with. The slime pits also get a gold star for being the only part of the game where I got any use out of the backflip move. It would have been a damn shame if I'd gone through the whole adventure without getting to use a manoeuvre that cool. Used it in a practical way, I mean. I used it a ton in the first couple of stages, but I had to stop because constantly backflipping into skeletons wasn't getting me very far.
No stage in this game can be disappointing anyway, not when you hear the music: the Castlevania series is renowned for its excellent soundtracks, and this one is no exception. It's up there with the very best action game soundtrack the SNES has to offer, with the only disappointment being that both versions of stage 4 share the same track, but that's a minor quibble when it's as good as "Cemetery":



I love that pounding bass drum paired with the slightly twitchy strings. That's what a stress-induced heart attack should sound like, which is appropriate because I think this game is literally trying to kill me.



Dracula X also contains one of my very favourite versions of the Castlevania classic "Bloody Tears." That's really saying something, because there are more versions of Bloody Tears that most bands have unique songs and while I can't honestly say I've listened to every single one that is certainly not for lack of trying.


The boss of this alternate stage four is the the evil priest who brought Dracula back to life, and his name is Shaft. Yes, Shaft. If your response to hearing this name is juvenile sniggering or immediately singing Isaac Hayes' classic movie theme then congratulations, you're a human being.
Shaft is a bit like Death, and not just because they buy their clothes at the same tailor - he can curse Richter by touching him, and he also has two different forms, although they're pretty similar. Shaft the First summons skeleton minions that you can completely ignore by sticking to the raised platforms, while Shaft the Second attacks by gathering up a ring of tombstones to flatten Richter with, perhaps in an attempt to kill him through sheer irony. Shaft was another boss that managed to kill me after he died, thanks to his ability to explode upon breathing his last like a suicide bomber fuelled by pure spite.


This is the other stage five, and it's got Flea Men. Lots and lots of Flea Men, deposited on your path (or on your head, if you're unlucky) by a squadron of highly-trained bats. Not as good as the evil geese that some Flea Men ride in Symphony of the Night, but still an impressive display of Dracula's innate abilities as an animal trainer.


There's also this area that looks like the inside of a cruise ship. Castlevania is decorated to what an estate agent would call an eclectic taste, but I'm more interested in these sword-wielding knights. I'm very familiar with them from, yes, Symphony of the Night, because a ton of sprites from Dracula X / Rondo of Blood were recycled for that game. The problem was that I couldn't get out of the Symphony mindset when I was fighting them, which led to me standing too close to them and them trying to use the backdash move when they attacked. Richter cannot backdash. He can't forward dash, for that matter, He's an unhurried sort of guy, as Belmonts tend to be, but that didn't help me when Sir Chopsalot and his ridiculously oversized shoulder pads were cleaving me in twain.


Here's a suitably Halloween-y boss - it's a werewolf, and he knows kung-fu. I have noticed that werewolves possessing martial arts skills is something of a theme in Japanese games - this werewolf, the wolf mode in Altered Beast and Talbain from Darkstalkers all spring to mind, and I have no idea why this would be besides the tenuous link between the graceful savagery of a wolf and the graceful savagery of a kung fu movie.
This boss is certainly graceful, bounding around the screen like, well, a dog, except a dog that's trying to kick your face off. My strategy for victory was to run away like a coward until the werewolf tried his extremely short-ranged punch combo and then whip him a few times. It worked out okay.


When defeated, the werewolf returns to his human form. Is it just me, or does he look really pleased about it? There's definitely some joy in his expression, probably because he has yet to realise that he's naked and his body looks like a wad of half-chewed beef jerky.


That's the alternate stages covered - but wait, there's more! If you go left at the end of stage four instead of heading through the second door, towards Annette, you'll come face-to-face with this minotaur. Face-to-groin, anyway, he's a big lad. His most dangerous attack is throwing a handful of rocks at Richter, but the way he does it makes it seem like the minotaur is going for the old "throw sand in their eyes" trick and he forgot that Richter isn't twelve feet tall and unnaturally muscular.


There's even a second boss for stage six - if you didn't rescue both Maria and Annette, which you won't have unless you managed to keep hold of the key and took that specific route, then Death is replaced by Carmilla, a vampire who flies around on a huge skull that shoots its eyeballs at you, making it objectively the coolest thing in the game and taking top spot on the list of things I would consider getting tattooed onto my tender, delicate skin. I'd get it inked on the palm of my hand so that whenever I was feeling down I could simply uncurl my fist and be instantly reinvigorated by gazing into those big googly eyes.
On an unrelated note, I've found that every time I see a clock in a videogame now I subconsciously check to see whether the designers drew it with "IV" or "IIII" for the number four. That's enough nonsense about clock face aesthetics, though - whichever route you take through Dracula X, you will eventually have to take on Dracula himself, and here he is!


Good ol' predictable Dracula. Like Medusa Heads being annoying and the music being fantastic, Dracula's first attack pattern is a Castlevania staple, and Dracula X is no different: Dracula teleports to a location, launches fireballs from inside his cape like pyromaniacal stage magician, and then disappears in a cloud of smoke, repeating the process until either the player is dead or he's been whipped enough times to drain his health bar. Only Dracula's head is vulnerable, and even then only during the short spell when he's fully materialised.
Dracula X brings its own unique twist to this formula, and Dracula's final "fuck you" to the player is to remove most of the floor, forcing you to fight him atop a series of small pillars. This is an alarmingly effective piece of strategy from Dracula, hinting at a frankly terrifying future for the Belmont clan in which their sworn enemy knows what the hell he's doing in term of castle defence, and it turns this battle into an extremely tense affair where the slightest mistake, one mis-timed jump or undodged fireball, will mean immediate death. On your side are the game's tight and consistent controls, so if you mess it up you have no-one to blame but yourself. This form of Dracula isn't as deadly as it seems at first - it's still very difficult, definitely fluttering around the line between challenging and frustrating, but with patience and practise you can make it through without tearing too much of your hair out.


Then Dracula transforms into a giant blue devil. It's a shame he had to ruin the lovely purple tuxedo he was wearing earlier to accommodate this change, isn't it? That suit can't have been cheap, you can't just buy formal trousers with an 80 inch leg at Primark.
Anyway, Satancula. He's big, and that's his primary weapon. He takes up so much space that it's hard to keep away from him, but even more effective is his psychological mass: once he transforms, you know he's going to be much more of a challenge than he was before, and you get scared of him. You panic, you fluff a jump and bang, that's it. Even once you've gotten over that, this is still a ridiculously difficult fight full of big projectiles and beefy devil collisions which, if I'm perfectly honest, ruins the end of the game a little for me. It doesn't feel fair, which means it doesn't feel interesting, especially because the only way I managed to defeat Dracula was to make sure I had plenty of hearts and just use Item Crashes over and over again, and that method is just a bit boring.


Oh well; whatever means he used, Richter has sent Dracula back into temporary hibernation - I mentioned this in the original Castlevania article, but the "Killer" part of the Vampire Killer's name is woefully inaccurate - and he even saved the kidnapped women. Now all he has to do to finish the game is collect the final orb that the boss dropped. It's on a different pillar, making this one of the most nerve-wracking jumps I've ever had to make in a videogame. Can you imagine if you beat Dracula and then fell down the hole? Can you imagine if you did that and it was your last life? It doesn't bear thinking about, although Dracula X generously provides a password system so at least you wouldn't have to start the whole game again.


Richter gave Dracula time to dress himself and fix his hair before the ending cutscene. How chivalrous of him. The ending also reveals that Dracula is still insisting on his throne being right next to the huge windows that let in the very first rays of the morning sun, which is like you or I decorating our bedroom with a large vat of sulphuric acid that dumps its contents into the room once a day.


Richter and Annette embrace as Maria peeks at them from between her fingers and what the hell is going on with Maria's hair? She looks like her head's being shoved through Ferrero Rocher wrapper, or she's dressed up a a mechanical sunflower. Very odd. This picture changes to reflect whether you saved Maria or Annette - if you rescue neither of them, you get a shot of Richter riding back to the village on his horse. I'd stick with the horse, Richter. At least Dracula's not going to kidnap it. As this picture's your only reward for saving both girls you might feel less inclined to bother, but don't forget that you won't get to fight Death if you don't, and really, what's the point of a Castlevania game if you don't get to kick Death right in his bonebag?


With that final thought, Castlevania: Dracula X is over and yes, it is an inferior, cut-down version of Rondo of Blood but that is almost irrelevant. It was certainly irrelevant at the time of the game's original release, when the idea of me owning a PC Engine CD and a £200 game was completely laughable, and it's still irrelevant now because it's a good game. It looks great, it sounds great and it plays great, and most of all it has a deep, dense feeling of Castlevania-ness attached to it. Before this, the Castlevania games I had been playing recently were the later, Metroidvania-style offerings and you can certainly make an argument that those games are somewhat divorced from their forebears, but Dracula X is classic Castlevania through-and-through. It can be ferociously difficult, it definitely makes no effort to give the player a gentle ride, but for precision action gameplay with a wonderful atmosphere it's definitely recommended. The final boss isn't much fun and there are a few too many spear knights, but those are minor quibbles: Halloween and Castlevania go together perfectly, so if you're looking for a seasonal game to play tonight then give Dracula X the love it deserves.


It's a ten out of ten on this year's final VGJunk Halloween-O-Meter rating, and of course it is - Castlevania games are essentially the benchmark by which I set the ten-out-of-ten rating in the first place, so much so that I can forgive them for containing zero pumpkins. I fought the grim reaper, a necromancer threw gravestones at me, there was organ music and the whole thing took place in Transylvania: if I can't give that ten out of ten, then what can I?
Sadly, that's the end of the 2014 VGJunk Halloween Spectacular, but it's been a good one! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it, and thank you for reading in the first place. Normal service will be resumed soon, and the Spooktacular will return for the 2015 Halloween season. It's only eleven months away. I can't wait.

25/10/2014

CASPER: FRIENDS AROUND THE WORLD (PLAYSTATION)

Ghastly ectoplasmic phantoms! Blood-curdling spirits of death! The unquiet souls of those who refuse to leave this realm! Those would all be great things to have in a Halloweeen videogame, but today I'm writing about Realtime Associates' 2000 Playstation game Casper: Friends Around the World so instead you get to enjoy the adventures of a winsome lump of marshmallow fluff. Sorry about that.


The Casper in question is Casper the Friendly Ghost, the cartoon character created when someone decided that what kids really wanted to read about were the adventures of a dead child. Okay, maybe that's not fair - some iterations of the Casper franchise state that he's just "a ghost," which are simply another magical creature like goblins or elves. I'm most familiar with Casper through the eponymous 1995 live action / CG movie, because my younger brother really liked it and so it was never out of our VCR. My main memories of it are Bill Pullman Bill Pullman-ing to the max and Casper having a slightly creepy fixation on Christina Ricci, to the point of whispering "can I keep you?" to her while she sleeps as though she were a stray dog. Actually, that's a lie: my main memory of the film is Dan Akroyd's cameo as Ray Stantz, in which he flees terrified from Casper's house despite claiming for all those years that he ain't afraid of no ghost. I felt betrayed, you know? Anyway, Casper. He's a ghost, he's friendly, that's about the extent of his character.


He's so friendly that he's invited a bunch of human, non-dead children for a party at his mansion. What do their parents think of this? We'll never know, because they're nowhere to be seen. I guess they decided that Casper's trio of dickish ghost uncles - Stretch, Stinky and Fatso - were good enough chaperones. How much trouble can a bunch of unsupervised preteens running around a haunted, dilapidated mansion really get into?


One ghost who is most definitely not friendly is Kibosh, the villain of the piece. Peering into his crystal ball - apparently he's the ghost of a fairground clairvoyant - Kibosh is so disgusted to see Casper associating with the "fleshies" that he uses his magical power to make the kids disappear. At first he seems like a straightforward undead bigot who is opposed to the mixing of the living and the dead, but a more simple explanation is that he just wanted children's party to end. I've been to a children's party. I can sympathise.


Then there's a map, for some reason. If your child abduction spell has the side effect of leaving a map showing where you've taken the kids at the crime scene, then you need to work on your act.
So, map in hand, Casper travels the world looking for his lost friends. That's why that game's called Casper: Friends Around the World and not Casper: Friends on My Front Lawn.


The first stop is Hollywood - the glitz, the glamour, the poorly-constructed street lights! Oh, what a dream to be here in Tinseltown, plodding slowly from left to right and jumping to collect the occasional crystal. Casper: FATW is a platformer, I suppose. There's jumping involved. There are enemies to either avoid or to dispatch by throwing your "ghostly spheres" at them. I want to make a testicle joke about Casper's ghostly spheres, but I can't improve on the phrase "ghostly spheres." As well as walking left and right, you can also move into the background at certain pre-determined points.


That's what Casper is doing here. He's walking away from the camera, his face hasn't fallen off. Although, if he's semi-transparent shouldn't I be able to see the backs of his eyes? Also, why is he paying attention to the velvet rope? You're a ghost, just float through it. Embrace the benefits of having popped your clogs before you sprouted your adult teeth. Being friendly doesn't necessarily mean being a complete walkover, Casper.
As you can probably tell, Casper: FATW is a kid-friendly platformy adventure with a minuscule amount of attempted educational merit dusted on top like sprinkles at the world's least generous ice-cream parlour. As ever, "kid-friendly" means "designed for idiots," at least in the early stages, but I suppose it's jolly enough. Okay, competent enough. Well, there's a lot of delay between pressing jump and having Casper do anything, but that will be fine as long as there isn't any platforming in this platform game. Taking all that into consideration, I can confidently state that this is a videogame.


Hey, this isn't platforming. This is Arkanoid, and Casper himself has become the paddle. The first goal of each stage is to find the next part of the map: touching it transports you to this Breakout clone, where you have to free the piece of paper from whatever vaguely stage-appropriate items are surrounding it and then catch it before it falls off the screen. There's no preamble to this, either - Casper just walks into the room, sees his uncles and thinks "well, time for me to transform into a paddle and knock a glowing orb back and forth for a while." Sometimes Casper's uncles throw other items into the mix, either damaging ones like bowling balls that you have to avoid or health-restoring sweets. Stretch, Stinky and Fatso have a lot of complex issues regarding their feelings towards their nephew, but if playing this overly-familiar block-breaking game helps them work things out then I'm all for it. I got the map page, too, so now we can get on with the other half of each stage - finding one of Casper's friends.


Here, Casper uses his ghostly powers to turn into the tattered remains of a carrier bag. This allows him to ride a steam vent up into the air, followed by some brisk springy platform action. Casper can also turn into this parachute form to float down to the ground more slowly after a jump, and he can "levitate" - a gravity-defying manoeuvre in which his legs disappear but he can float horizontally without falling into holes. Transforming like this drains Casper's ghost energy or whatever you want to call it, the yellow bar under his health, and if it runs out he reverts to his usual state of leg-having macrocephaly. There are also a few power-ups that give Casper temporary attributes like wheels and buffness, but we'll see those later.


I found that kid I was looking for. Hooray? I was hoping my journey would have been punctuated by tourists shouting "A G-G-G-GHOST!!" and doing spit-takes, but L.A. was home to nothing but a couple of other ghosts and some jack 'o lantern faces that explode when you walk past them. At least little Timmy (probably not this character's actual name) seemed pleased to see me. On to the next country, then - the country of, erm, South America!


Videogame South America is always jungles and lost temples, and Casper: FATW is no exception. You start in the jungle and then head through a lost temple. That's about it, really. Sometimes these Aztec ghosts try to stop you. Casper, being the friendly ghost that he is, has to destroy them with his ghostly spheres before he can move on. He makes no attempt to talk to these other ghosts, to use rational dialogue or persuasion to make his way past them - he sees them, literally says "these guys don't look friendly," and then throws projectiles at them until they go away. Good work living up to your only character trait there, Casper. Real neighbourly of you.


Because this is a videogame, there's a section in the temple where you have to jump from platform to platform without falling into the lava. I say jump, Casper's horizontal ghost float is much more useful because you can just hover straight across the gaps.
Then Casper gets near one of those spikes on the ceiling and he says "I'd better watch out for those spikes!" Why? What are they going to do, kill you? I think that ship has already sailed, pal.


The next stage is in London. I'm looking forward to the genuinely informative and restrained manner in which Casper will describe the country of my birth.


Ha ha, of course not, Casper starts the level by shouting "right-oh, guv'nor!" in a "Dick van Dyke from Mary Poppins" accent. It's disgraceful, really, and now the game's stages are set in Europe Casper can start doing "comedy" voices without worrying too much about political correctness. You can get away with doing an over-the-top French or Russian accent, but doing the same thing with a Chinese voice would be getting into some uncomfortably territory. And where are the ludicrous, wildly inaccurate depictions of American manners and customs, huh? Oh, right, they're in Japanese games mostly. Personally, I'd be happy if Casper didn't say anything at all, but unfortunately he never shuts up. He's a literal poltergeist, constantly prattling on about the sights in each stage or telling the player what they should be doing next.
Because British people are snooty, the enemies in London have turned their noses up at Casper. Turned those noses up so far that they can sniff the back of their own head, they've achieved a 90-degree shift in nasal angle. This ghost should be working as a sales assistant in a luxury jewellers, not walking back and forth outside some Hogwarts-ified version of St. Paul's. Forget about him, though, and check out that pumpkin face on the right of the screen. See that? They're all over every level, and they're basically proximity mines. Walk near one and after a second or two they explode, damaging Casper and momentarily filling your screen with pixellated pumpkin features. I'm okay with that - the second bit, at least - and once I figured out that you can activate them from a safe distance with your ghostly spheres they stopping being anything like a threat.


Here's one of those power-ups that I mentioned earlier: Casper has sprouted phantasmic wheels, allowing him to dash across this crumbling bridge. No, he can't just float across. Why not? Because the game said so, alright? Casper can only float for an arbitrary length of time, and in this universe ghosts are immediately disintegrated by any body of water more than an inch deep. Hey, there's nothing in the Bible that says a priest can't bless all the water in a city, which is obviously what's happened here. Casper now runs the risk of being exorcised every time he steps in a puddle, which is going to happen a lot now that he's in Britain and he can't hover for more than a few seconds at a time.


Paris is next, and Casper visits the Louvre. He says he's going to see the Moan-a Lisa. No, bad Casper. I'd swat you with a rolled-up newspaper if I could: only I should be making terrible ghost puns. Maybe you should go and look at The Ghoul with the Pearl Earring or Picasso's Boo-ernica instead. No, really, you should - the Mona Lisa is being protected by the corpulent stereotype of a French painter. What was your unfinished business on this mortal plane, monsieur? Half a baguette left in the fridge that you never got to eat? I'm amazed this ghost doesn't have a string of onions around his chest, and surely the only reason he's not guzzling bottle after bottle of red wine is because this is a kid's game.


In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Casper decides to try out this "possession" lark he's heard so much about by ramming his head into an unsuspecting child. It doesn't work, and that highlights one of my biggest issues with Casper: FATW - it's no fun being a ghost. There's nothing especially spectral about Casper's moveset, aside maybe from his handful of transformation moves, but there's nothing very ghostly about being a parachute. Casper can barely float, he can't phase through solid matter, his every movement isn't accompanied by the sound of clanking chains and he can die, the one thing you'd imagine a ghost wouldn't have to worry about. You also have to press a button to duck. I don't think that's related to Casper's ghostliness, but in what is essentially a side-scrolling platformer it still feels weird to not press down to crouch. My point is, if you're going to make a game about being a ghost, give the player something spooky to do instead of retreading the same old tired platforming mechanics with the added pleasure of stiff controls and bland level design. Maybe don't base your game around a character whose soul defining trait is that he's nice, either. Not much room for dramatic conflict in that one.


This ghost? Not nice. It's Casper's uncle Fatso - he's the fat one, you see - and he's under Kibosh's hypnotic spell. This makes his eyeballs bulge out in a genuinely disconcerting manner, so let's stop looking at them and beat him in the boss fight that I'm sure is coming up next.


Fatso has a tray of pies, which presents him with something of a dilemma: does he eat all the pies like the greedy sonofabitch that he is, or does he throw some at Casper? If he wasn't hypnotised I'm sure he would have eaten them all himself, but because this is a fight he throws the pies at Casper, who dutifully dodges the delicious projectiles until Fatso stops for a breather. Then you can jump up and throw your spheres at him until the hypnotic spell is broken and Fatso changes from actively trying to kill Casper, back to his usual self of just being an utter bastard to Casper. Fatso also give Casper part of a special machine and tells him that there are two more parts to collect, so I look forward to fighting his other two uncles at some point in the near future.


Onward to Venice, city of romance, of canals, of somewhat frustrating platforming sections spent bouncing between shop awnings! In the background, you can see the book I need to collect to play the block-breaking game, but I'm here in the foreground, precariously balanced on a pole sticking out of the water. I was so preoccupied with not falling in the canal that I forgot about the book entirely, and when I reached the end of the stage the child I'd come to find said "hey, you'd better go find that book"... and then the game just let me play the page-getting minigame without having to go back and fetch the book. I like that, it was a nice of the game to say "don't want to bother playing half of the level? That's cool, we understand. You can just have the book." Not having to look for the book is going to speed up the process of getting through these stages.


Here's the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When I saw it, I was just about to say "why is the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Venice?" but Casper beat me to it, which made me feel a little like I'd been outsmarted by a 14-year-old videogame for kids. Then I made Casper get muscular by using a power-up and he un-leaned the Leaning Tower, causing an extra life to fall from the top. I don't like Muscular Casper, a powerful ghost child who could probably bench-press me. It's just weird.


This is Moscow. Not much to say about Moscow. It's Christmas now and that, if you'll forgive my slip in Seinfeldism, makes me wonder what's the deal with these kids? The countries that you find them in are clearly their home countries - their, erm, enthusiastic accents make that clear - so why is Casper so set on taking them back to America, especially at Christmastime? And how did they get to a party at Casper's home in the first place? "Gee, Casper, I'd love to come to your party without my parents to be looked after by you and your horrible dead relatives, but you live five thousand miles away, you nutbar." Is Casper regularly fixating on certain children with little regard for their feelings his thing? Christina Ricci's character from the movie is nowhere to be seen, so instead he must have targeted ten children from around the world and brought them to his house. Is Casper's unfinished business that he's never made it through an entire children's party and he can't move on to the afterlife until he's won a game of pin the tail on the donkey? There are just so many questions raised by this game, and no attempt is made to answer any of them.
As for the Moscow stage itself, there's a section where you have to fire a cannonball and then race it to a set of doors. The cannonball opens the doors briefly so Casper can slip through. Any other ghost would be able to float through the doors, but not Casper. He's officially taken the number two slot on my mental list of shittiest ghosts, just behind John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars.


This stage is set in Japan, in case you couldn't tell. Casper's getting a good eyeful of that sumo wrestler's arse, and yet he retains his cheerful demeanour so I guess being a ghost also makes you blind. This sumo match isn't even for anything, either, it's just sort of... there. To add some Japaneseness, I suppose. Thankfully you can completely avoid it, and for what is undeniably a low-budget children's game with very few new ideas I can at least praise Casper: FATW for giving the player different routes to explore. As the game progresses the stages become more and more open, allowing you to take multiple paths to the goal and providing a tiny bit of exploration, usually with the goal of collecting crystals. While none of the paths are all that much fun, they've got much better gameplay than most games I've written about that were designed for the under-tens market thanks mostly to the simple fact that you have to pay attention to what you're doing in order to succeed, with obstacles that aren't quite as embarrassingly patronising as usual. If the controls were better, I could even imagine young children enjoying this game, which is something of a shock.


I did like Japan's minigame stage, because it features a tiny off-brand Godzilla. I'd like to call him "Goshzilla," just so I can link to one of my favourite Mystery Science Theatre 3000 bits.
I also tried to see what the Japanese at the sides of the screen says, if it even is Japanese. I think the top character might be "luck," as in "good luck trying to see what you're doing with all this crap floating around the screen!" If you knock the page loose but don't catch it before it falls to the bottom of the screen, you lose a whole life. I lost about five lives while I was playing this game, and four of them where thanks to not catching the page as it fell. The other one was me testing whether lava has the power to banish ghosts (it totally does).


China now, and Casper dodges dragons along the Great Wall, sometimes using bubbling cauldrons to propel himself into the air, sometimes getting hit by spear-carrying ghost warriors because the jump button is about as responsive as the handling on an ocean liner. Swings and roundabouts, innit? My biggest memory of the China stage is the music, which sounds like the soundtrack to a scene-setting montage from an erotic thriller set in Hong Kong. Honestly, the music in the game isn't bad at all - a little obvious in terms of how it's themed to the stage and unlikely to break into your top ten, top one hundred or even top thousand videogame soundtracks ever, but listenable. I might even try to rip the map screen music at some point, it's rather nice.


It's uncle Stinky, with his head appropriately shaped like a cartoon turd, ready to fight his nephew to the un-death!


In this fight, you have to neutralize Stinky's bad breath attacks with your projectiles before using your shots to nudge him off the side of the tower. I thought this was going to be much more simple than it was, because Casper can bounce on those dragon-platforms at the side of the screen and for some reason he gains the ability to throw his ghostly spheres with rapid-fire action if his feet aren't touching the ground. The problem was, I kept bouncing too high and then falling to my death trying to get back on to Stinky's level. Did I mention that the controls in this game are bad? Because they really are, and they ruin what was already an uninteresting experience. It's like sitting down to eat a reheated steak slice from a petrol station because you couldn't go to a picnic and then finding half a cockroach in the gravy.


This stage is set in India. Casper finds himself once more staring at a huge pair of buttocks. For this to happen once is misfortune; for it to happen twice makes you wonder why Casper came to India in the first place. He actually says "I hope I see an elephant!" at the start of the stage, so, ah ha, here you go, kid. It kinda sucks to be Casper - he's dead, for starters, someone kidnapped all his friends because they were having too much fun, he lives with an abusive family and when all he wanted was to see an elephant he gets the ironic genie punishment of staring up an elephant's backside. He must have been a real dick when he was alive.


Now we're in Egypt. You know how videogame Egypt works. Pyramids, pharaohs, sand. The game reaches it's lowest ebb here with some even-more-frustrating-that-usual platforming, but other than that there's nothing here that you haven't seen previously. There is a camel, but it acts just like every other springy platform in the game except that it's alive and presumably feels pain. Unless Casper doesn't weigh anything because he's a ghost, in which case the camel just feels a terrible soul-sapping chill when Casper touches it.


At the top of the pyramid is a boss fight again Stretch, Casper's final uncle who is even less interesting that Fatso and Stinky. At least they had girth and odour as defining features, Stretch is just A Ghost. As for the battle, it's another one where you have to push the boss back, this time towards a sarcophagus, but to hamper your efforts Stretch is constantly throwing pumpkin bombs and bouncing rocks at Casper. It's not fun, there's no precision or flow to it, and the whole thing is a monumental pain in the arse made even more insufferable by Stretch's tendency to teleport behind you, leaving Casper to stand still in a safe spot doing nothing while Stretch attacks a target that isn't there.


To de-hypnotise a ghost, shove them into a pharaoh's coffin. I will have to remember that. Or knock them off the Great Wall of China, but be serious, which are you most likely to have to hand: the Great Wall of China or a pharaoh's coffin? Exactly.


Now that Casper's collected all three parts of the machine - a machine created by the game's villain that no one knows the purpose of, I should remind you - he can gather all the children around it and turn it on. I'm sure this will all work out for the best.


See? It all worked out for the best. Except for all those children who have just been ripped from their homes at Christmastime and forced onto a ghost's playground. It all worked out for Casper, then. He's having a great time, and now that Casper: Friends Around the World is over he can play with these kids for ever and ever and ever. I'll see you all nex... oh, hang on, there's more.



It turns out that if you collect every crystal on every stage you're given access to a secret level - the lost city of Atlantis. I probably should have realised something was amiss when I finished the game without ever encountering the main villain. It starts at about 18 minutes in on the video above, and having watched it I don't feel I'm missing out on anything by being unable to summon up the patience to go through the game again and collect 100 percent of the items, although the ghost of Poseidon looks pretty cool. The hidden stage gives you a chance to fight Kibosh and a slightly different ending, which reveals the shocking twist at the heart of Casper: Friends Around the World - it was the power of friendship that saved the day! And here I thought it was the power of staring at large backsides. Then Casper turns to the camera and says "you too can be a friendly ghost," a phrase that's difficult to take as anything other than Casper threatening to kill me so that our undying spirits can spend an eternity together.


As far as these "made for youngsters" games go, Casper: Friends Around the World is one of the best I've played, a statement akin to saying "today's kick in the testicles was much better than the baseball bat in the groin I usually get!" It's basic, it's slow, it's got horrible gloopy controls and it does absolutely nothing with the whole "being a ghost" premise, but it's also not insultingly easy, the music's not bad and there are multiple paths and even some replay value if you want to get to that secret level. I'm definitely not saying you should play it, but if you get kidnapped by some insane Saw-style maniac killer who forces you to chose between this and, say, Diva Starz: Mall Mania, I would take Casper every single time. Unless it's Muscular Casper. Stay away from me, Muscular Casper.


For a game that so prominently features ghosts, Casper: FATW is rather lacking in Halloweenosity thanks to a desire to educate (and possibly bore) rather than to scare, but I couldn't possibly give a game in which you play as a ghost any less than a 6, and it gets an extra point for featuring pumpkins not only as obstacles but also mid-stage checkpoint markers. A generous total of seven out of ten, then, but I'll have probably changed my mind about it by next week and I'll be wracked by guilt until next Halloween.

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