Whip It, Whip It Good
As a youngster, there were few things I knew for certain about gaming. I knew that ‘A’ on my NES pad was for jumping. I knew that I had to blow into the cartridge to make it work. And I knew that gaming was more about the journey than it was about the outcome. See, I’m a firm believer that, in the 80s, games were made to be played, not beaten (at least not by anybody without a professional’s level of skill). It’s a huge reason why many of my earliest games – like the original Super Mario Bros. – remain unfinished by me to this day. One of these is a mercilessly brutal perennial favorite: the original Castlevania.
Here’s a quick history lesson for those gamers who weren’t around before the PSX-era. Today, it’s pretty common to compete and compare with your friends over who is able to finish the game first. Maybe it’s just me, but this wasn’t the case during the early cartridge-based systems. Rather than the question, “How long did it take you to beat the game?” we would worry about “What’s the furthest you’ve ever gotten in this game?”.
Castlevania, the game that started over two decades worth of vampire-slaying fun, is still one of the games that is just as playable, and difficult, as it always was. Now, I’m not so foolish as to ignore the fact that a good part of the difficulty back then was forced onto the game due to certain design and control limitations, like imprecise jumping control. Another big part of it came from my own inexperience and lack of skill. But there’ll always be someone more worthy than myself of seeing these games through, and this is supposed to be about my personal experiences in tough-as-nails gaming, after all.
Belmont’s Big Ups
To this very day, there are several major challenges that I’ve been forced to contend with when playing Castlevania. One, as I’ve already mentioned, is the jumping, which often requires platforming-style finesse to be executed perfectly. Simon Belmont must frequently hop on and off moving platforms, across chasms, over the heads of various monsters, and to the far side of bottomless pits and water traps. Easier said than done; to cover any kind of distance, a run-up to the jump is usually required, depending on pinpoint accuracy and timing. Any kind of mistake frequently results in instant death, and when you push that jump button, you better be committed to the consequences – there is no cancelling or reversing a jump once executed, and no way to steer Simon in mid-air for a safer landing. So, oftentimes, I’d start cringing as soon as I jumped, already being able to see that my leap was off and that I’d missed it by that much – but powerless to stop it.
They’re Vampire Slayers, Not Triathletes!
The second force working against the player in this game is the limitations imposed by the game’s design. For whatever reason, Simon can single-handedly fight off the hounds of hell, but is instantly defeated when he meets a puddle of water. Yes, like many early video game heroes, swimming just doesn’t seem to be his forté. Sadistically, the very first level of the game comes pre-loaded with an entire flooded underground cave he has to traverse through – awesome. We wouldn’t expect to be able to fly (hell, that’d be against the laws of nature and sense!), but it was apparently too unreasonable to ask for a hero with a working knowledge of the concept of buoyancy. A small gripe? Maybe, but man was it maddening to an undisciplined six-year old! (I’d like to claim a slightly better grasp on self-control these days…)
One Step Forward, One Step Back
The enemies themselves don’t make things any easier in this department. Fish men jump out of the cool, dark waves below you and break through the floor to swipe at you, ravens will dive-bomb you if given the chance, and Medusa’s many heads will weave and fishtail towards you from either direction. To Konami’s credit, most monsters do no stick to the ground to approach you, keeping you on your toes with every step you take. And the bosses… don’t even get me started! My eternal downfall in the game is the fourth level’s boss team, Frankenstein and Igor. No matter how many times, no matter how many different weapons I brought with me or how many different strategies I employed, the outcome was always the same: total obliteration.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Surprisingly enough, the game is actually more forgiving than you’d imagine in some areas. Your number of lives is very finite, true, and additional lives are nowhere to be found, also true. But losing a life only sends you back to the beginning of the particular area you’re in, and losing all lives leads to an unlimited number of continue attempts in your current level. But what pre-adolescent can summon up hours of patience to retry the same area time and again, enduring countless humiliating wipeouts? At some point, the urge to jam that power button becomes too overwhelming, and any progress, as well as mental healing, you’ve made since the last attempt it right out the window.
That’s what I call kick-my-ass-and-make-me-like-it, thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another tough as nails.