One thing that I’ve been gradually learning over the course of the early Castlevania games that I’ve played so far is that it doesn’t always pay to be greedy.
Indeed, sometimes it’s in your best interests to forego potential rewards in favour of just proceeding onwards more safely. After all, you can’t make good use of those rewards if you’re dead, can you?
Castlevania III plays with this idea quite a lot, and it presents a few takes on it over the course of its early stages.
This is an interesting and timely topic to contemplate at the time of writing, since Super Mario Maker 2 has recently released. You may not immediately see the connection and indeed there isn’t a direct one — but bear with me a moment while I explain.
In Super Mario Maker, there are a series of helpful tutorials that encourage you to make use of various good practices while building your own courses for others to challenge. One standard that most level builders agree on these days is that, in a Super Mario game, most of the time you will make use of coins to indicate a suitable path for Mario to follow — in other words, rewarding him for taking a particular route.
Exact implementations of this idea vary between creators, but it’s probably most common to see the “critical path” through the level marked with coins — either showing an exact suggested route through the hazards ahead, or perhaps rewarding the player for passing a particularly challenging section. There are occasions when coins are used to bait the player into a more dangerous situation or taunt them with a hidden secret — though in Super Mario Maker 2 this is normally something reserved for the high-value 10, 30 and 50 coin medals — but in many cases, the player is actively encouraged to be greedy.
I find this quite interesting, because if you’re playing one-off levels in Super Mario Maker 2 (as opposed to the single-player Story Mode or the limited-lives Endless Challenge mode), coins are completely and utterly useless. And yet people still want to go for them; there’s something primally pleasing about picking them up and being rewarded with sparkling effects, satisfying noises and a little counter going up.
I bring this up because Castlevania and Castlevania III pretty much do the exact opposite.
Let’s take Castlevania III’s Block 2 as an example. This unfolds in a clock tower, and is a rather precarious ascent up a series of mechanically themed stages, in which protagonist Trevor must carefully climb stairs, leap between platforms, hop on swinging pendulums and balance atop enormous cogs.
This is difficult enough by itself at times, given Castlevania’s distinctively “heavy” controls, but this is also a level where you encounter one of the series’ most well-known and widely despised foes: the Medusa head. They’re all over the bloody place in this block, inevitably wending their wibbly-wobbly way across the screen just as you’re trying to make a particularly precarious jump between two tiny platforms.
Thing is, for much of this block, if you simply proceed onwards without stopping, the Medusa heads’ predictable sine-wave movement pattern will mean that you’ll naturally avoid them without having to make any particularly elaborate movements. There are a couple of moments where it’s in your best interest to pause and allow one to pass before proceeding, but for the most part if you concentrate on your final destination and do your best to ignore everything around you, you’ll be fine.
Except it’s not that easy. Every video game ever — particularly from this era — has trained us to seek out shiny things to pick up, particularly those that make pleasing noises when we acquire them. And the Castlevania series’ NES/Famicom installments make very pleasing noises when you pick something up. I’ve always described these sounds as having an oddly “juicy” quality about them, but this may be a mild case of synaesthesia talking; regardless of whether or not your mouth starts watering at the prospect of picking up a low-resolution, two-colour moneybag, you can hopefully at least appreciate the satisfaction value inherent in picking up these goodies in these games.
Here’s the trouble, then: in order to access these many bounteous delights, you have to leave the “critical path”. You have to stop your ascent and make a detour to a side platform; you have to put yourself in a situation where the Medusa heads’ movement patterns might not be quite so predictable. That, in turn, will make you anxious and more inclined to panic and make mistakes.
And mistakes in these early Castlevania games can be costly; given that you get knocked back if you take damage while standing on a flat surface (this thankfully doesn’t happen if you’re ascending a set of stairs at the time), you can easily find yourself plummeting to your doom in the perpetually unseen abyss of death that hovers, out of sight, just below the bottom of the room you’re presently in. You know, the one that means even if you’ve come up a set of stairs from an area below, you damn well aren’t going back down again.
So you have to make a choice. Going for the treasures doesn’t make your life impossible, but it does make it more challenging. If you just want to clear the stage, it may be in your interests to just ignore the possible rewards that lie tantalisingly just off the beaten track, but you might have any number of reasons to pursue them. You might need hearts for a subweapon you want to use against the block’s boss — assuming you can make it there. You might hope to score enough points to get an extra life. Or you might just want to hear those lovely sounds some more. Those delicious, juicy sounds.
Decide that your need for goodies outweighs your need to remain safe, and you’d better be ready for the consequences. There’s no sparkling trail of coins leading you to enlightenment here; greed will only lead you towards danger and, quite probably, death. So I hope you’re handy with both your whip and your jumping skills — you’re going to need them both, treasure hunter!
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