This all made a lot more sense once I saw that it was the product of a crowdfunding stretch goal. In other words they made it as a little side project, and it shows.
The modern retro tribute ought to pay homage to the past while adding enough of a fresh twist that it can stand on its own, like Axiom Verge did with Metroid. In this case they’re obviously aiming for Castlevania 3, and for good reason. A lot of people remember it as one of the standout games of that era. At the time, with its multiple characters, different paths, etc. it really did feel like a huge leap in scale and depth over the earlier, more arcade-y style.
The source material of any tribute is always going to have the benefit of nostalgia–that’s what you get for being first–but I don’t think I appreciated quite how much until I finished this game and then went and actually re-watched the boss fights from Castlevania 3.
You know, it turns out they weren’t really so great.
Did you remember that they reused the same bosses like three or four times and just had them pop out of coffins over and over again? I forgot all about that. Pretty lame. As for the others, let’s just say they’re looking a little dated by today’s standards.
From that point of view, then, this game seems pretty good. The bosses–most of them, anyway; there are a few clunkers–are big and colorful, with lots of detail and creative mechanics. The music isn’t as catchy, but the level, enemy and background design are also a big step up, although not so much as the bosses. Granted, 8-bit graphics or not they probably have a few technical advantages now over the NES cartridge, so it might be an unfair comparison.
One of the more interesting changes is that they let you weave together the abilities of all four characters on the fly instead of making you pick one at a time. Yes, like Castlevania 3 you’ve assembled a crack squad, each with their own strengths and weaknesses:
The Main Guy
Strengths: sucking up damage so everyone else survives till the boss fight; throwing Molotov cocktails; can intimidate enemies by setting self on fire
Weaknesses: short range; boring compared to other characters; seems like kind of a jerk
The Purple Girl with the Whip
Strengths: faster and jumps better and has the best weapon with huge range and is just generally the best
Weaknesses: jumps too far sometimes and falls into pits, but that’s probably my fault
The Old Man
Strengths: Can freeze big enemies or run through hordes of small, fast enemies when I’m too clumsy to kill them with the other characters like I probably should be able to; also took out this one annoying boss for me with an auto-targeting lightning spell; basically he’s like a cheat button for when all else fails
Weaknesses: falls into pits a lot, too, and that’s mostly his fault because he’s slow and arthritic
Strengths: farming blue bottles; flying up that tower climb part near the end
As you can see, there are some awfully close parallels to say the least with the Castlevania 3 crew; but original or not they work together pretty well. If you really knew what you were doing I bet you could put on an impressive show with all of that at your disposal. I can picture someone learning how to gather up the right weapons for every situation and then flipping between characters at the optimal time in order to run the levels with robotic precision.
I never came anywhere near such lofty heights of skill myself and mostly just bumbled through everything like a complete doofus. Still, it was pretty fun; although despite the increased complexity of the bosses it helps that they kind of take it easy on you at the lower difficulties compared to those older games.
Where they really fall short is in the setting itself, which is a little strange since that’s about the only new thing here. It just never really managed to connect, mainly through lack of communication. I knew on some level that I was involved in a daring adventure, yet I never really felt like I had a goal or purpose that resonated. Compared to more fully-realized retro tributes like, say, Axiom Verge or Cosmic Star Heroine, it came across as a bit hollow and perfunctory.
That’s what I meant about this feeling more like the side project that it is, rather than a full-fledged game.
I played the whole thing and still wasn’t totally sure who these people were or why they were doing this. What exactly is the “curse of the moon?” Did I miss that? The Main Guy seems to have a grudge against everyone for reasons that I never entirely understood, considering that he goes through the trouble of saving them all and then works side by side with them. Plus, they use all these in-universe jargon terms constantly–“shardbinder” this and “alchemist” that–as if that explains everything, but I didn’t know what the hell they were saying half the time. It was like walking into a seminar halfway through the talk.
Same thing with the bosses. Ok, they’re demons, so killing them seemed like the right move; but what are they trying to achieve? Destroy the world? Can you give me a little something here?
Of course it’s not like Castlevania was some masterpiece of thoughtful world building either, but since they lifted most of their bosses straight from well-known sources at least they didn’t have as much explaining to do. I mean, when you go through a spooky castle and then fight Frankenstein, you more or less get the gist. For some reason Dracula always ended up in charge, and to be fair none of us ever really questioned it.
Even by those dubious standards everything here seems pretty arbitrary. If you want to build a completely new setting, there are certain costs that come with the benefits.
So while the good aspects of this game are strong enough to be satisfying, it also leaves you with the bad aftertaste of a missed opportunity to be something truly great.
They clearly had their eyes on the bigger prize here.