Part of my intention behind my Delving Into series focusing on Castlevania was to get a solid understanding of the classic franchise before jumping into Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter-funded Bloodstained project.
While I’m not all the way through the classic games at the time of writing, I do feel like I’m at an adequate point where I can start looking at the two Bloodstained games and be able to analyse their similarities and differences from classic-formula Castlevania.
So let’s begin today with a look at Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, a spinoff title developed by Inti Creates, designed more in the mould of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse than the more recent, post-Symphony of the Night open-structure 2D platformer incarnations.
If there’s one thing Inti Creates have proven themselves good at over the years, it’s a concept I’ve come to think of as “enhanced nostalgia” or “enhanced retro”. As defined in the official MoeGamer Glossary (accept no substitutes), this is “a term used to describe a modern game (or a modern port of a retro game) that makes use of an authentic-looking retro aesthetic while incorporating modern conveniences or programming techniques that would have been impossible on ’80s and ’90s hardware.”
To put it another way, “enhanced retro” represents how you would like to remember classic games from the 8- and 16-bit home console eras looking and feeling to play, only to inevitably find yourself at least a little disappointed when the rose-tinted spectacles come off and you discover the reality of the matter.
In the case of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, we have a game that looks like an NES title in terms of its colour palette and overall visual design; a game that sounds like an NES game with its wonderful chiptune reinterpretations of Michiru Yamane’s gorgeous soundtrack to Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night; but also a game which unfolds in widescreen, runs consistently smoothly and without glitches, and which incorporates impressive, screen-filling setpieces that would have melted an 8-bit console from back in the day.
In short, we have a game that is very much the best of two worlds: there’s the nostalgia for simpler times in gaming, coupled with everything developers like Inti Creates have learned about game design in the 31 years since Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A pretty solid recipe for success.
In Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, you take on the role of Zangetsu, a chap who really doesn’t like demons or oil lamps. He decides to stomp his way across definitely-not-Transylvania in an attempt to take down “the looming presence of a great demon” that he has been feeling the presence of, and intends to hack and slash his way through every demon and oil lamp that stands in his way during his journey.
Mechanically, this means that we have a series of side-scrolling levels in which you start at one end and have to make your way to the boss at the other. Beat the boss and you move on to the next stage. Get killed and you get knocked back to the last “checkpoint” you reached — usually a transition between rooms, or a door that you opened.
Zangetsu has a fairly simple arsenal of moves at his disposal. He can slash with his sword, which has a moderate range, or he can make use of one of three subweapons. Eschewing Castlevania’s baffling use of “hearts” to power subweapons, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon simply has a numerical weapon gauge, with different types of weapon consuming varying amounts of points from this. These points can be regained by collecting magic pots that are sometimes revealed when shattering one of the aforementioned oil lamps dotted around the stages.
After clearing each of the first few stages, Zangetsu is faced with a choice: recruit an ally released by defeating the boss, kill said potential ally, or ignore them altogether. In the former case, the allies (consisting of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night protagonist Miriam, its antagonist Gebel and secondary character Alfred) join Zangetsu on his quest; if he chooses to kill them, he absorbs an ability such as double-jumping or air slashing from their soul; and if he ignores them, he simply proceeds on as normal.
Each of the playable characters is unique in some way. Miriam, for example, jumps higher than Zangetsu, attacks with a whip for considerably more range, and is able to slide under low gaps, but she has slightly lower health. Alfred, meanwhile, has an extremely short range “stick bonk” melee attack, but access to powerful spells as his subweapons. Gebel, meanwhile, is a mid-range character who shoots out a spread of bats in a rising pattern in front of him; he can also turn into a bat and fly over otherwise impassable gaps.
There are several different endings to the game as a whole depending on which combinations of characters you recruit, kill or spare, and two extra game modes, dubbed “Nightmare” and “Ultimate” respectively, can be unlocked by recruiting or killing all of the potential allies. There’s also a Boss Rush mode, which can be unlocked by completing three separate unique runs through the Normal mode. Plenty of replay value there!
Each of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon’s stages are designed with branching paths in mind. This isn’t quite the same implementation as Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, whereby you could progress through different levels according to choices you made, but rather different ways to get through a single level.
The fastest route through each level is usually indicated by skeletal figures sitting on the floor pointing in a particular direction, but following their silent advice often requires the special abilities of a specific character. The same is true of a number of power-ups hidden throughout the game: in one instance, for example, an increase to your maximum weapon points can only be reached by using Miriam’s high jump followed by her slide under a low gap; in another, only Gebel is able to fly up and reach an out-of-the-way upgrade.
This might sound fairly straightforward, but as you may have already surmised, there are a few twists. Firstly, if you choose to murder the other characters along the way, you obviously won’t have access to them for the rest of the game, meaning some routes and upgrades will be out of reach for that run. Secondly, if a character dies, you don’t lose a life immediately; instead, you go back to a checkpoint and are only able to switch between your surviving characters, with a life only being lost when all characters are dead. Sometimes this can put you in a situation where a seemingly essential character is temporarily out of action, requiring you to think of some alternative strategies or simply suck it up and go the long way. Pleasingly, there are no situations in the game where this system can get you “stuck” in any way.
The other game modes put a different twist on all this, too. Nightmare mode, for example, sees you having Miriam, Alfred and Gebel right from the outset, but no Zangetsu because he’s busy being the final boss. Ultimate mode, conversely, sees Zangetsu all on his own because he’s already murdered everyone, requiring him to go through the whole game by himself. In both of these game modes, all the bosses are considerably tougher, with more challenging attack patterns and increased health to deal with.
Which brings us nicely to those bosses, and how they’re a clear distinction between Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and its spiritual predecessors in the Castlevania series.
Castlevania bosses were, let’s face it, a bit rubbish, especially in the earliest installments. Generally adopting some variation of either “bounce around the screen” or “sit in place hurling painful things at you”, most of them could be taken down without a huge amount of practice or learning attack patterns required. Some, like the original Castlevania’s Medusa head, could be taken down before they got a single attack off if you remembered to bring the right subweapon with you.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon’s bosses, meanwhile, demonstrate Inti Creates’ incredible talent at creating exciting, dynamic, pattern-based boss encounters. In each and every encounter, you’ll need to learn how all the bosses’ various attacks work, how to avoid getting hit by them, and when is the best time for you to go on the assault. And just to make things a bit more white-knuckle, most bosses have a spectacular “desperation” attack that they pull off at the moment you defeat them, providing the potential for a last-minute double KO if you’re not careful!
Thankfully, none of the bosses overcomplicate things with too many mechanics or too much randomness. They’re all predictable and easily understandable, even on Nightmare mode; it’s just a case of understanding how you should time your movements and attacks around theirs.
Let’s analyse one of the most challenging encounters as an example: a two-headed drake called Valac that awaits you at the end of the third stage.
In the first phase of the fight, Valac sits on the right side of the screen, with each head covering a distinct “level” of the arena in which you fight him. Sit on the bottom level, and the bottom head will breathe fire at you while the top head breathes exploding fleshy balls at you; sit on the top level, which consists of two platforms that are slightly too far apart to jump between, and both heads will breathe fire. Sit on the convenient “middle” level — a ledge on the left of the arena — and both lines of flame will miss you.
On Normal difficulty, you generally want to bait the bottom head into breathing fire, dodge it using the ledge on the left, whip the fleshy balls out of the way (taking care not to get caught in their explosion, which hurts) and then wail on said bottom head for a bit until you see the visual cue for the fire breath about to start again. In Nightmare and Ultimate mode, it’s actually largely the same, but the pace is much quicker — so much so that it might initially seem impossible to get a hit in! The difference is that rather than whipping the fleshy balls (I’m going to keep saying that, so get used to it), you’re best off leaping over them, landing in front of the bottom head, hitting it just once or twice and then running for safety.
It’s interesting how such a small change in timing affects the feel and tempo of the battle so significantly, but it’s testament to the game’s excellent design that with a proper understanding of each and every aspect of an encounter, you can quite feasibly get away with no damage taken whatsoever — even with the desperation attacks, there are no cheap deaths in this game.
With all this in mind, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon feels like a natural evolution and refinement of classic Castlevania’s rather deliberate combat and platforming, in which you need to be absolutely sure you want to do something before you actually do it. At times, it feels quite a bit easier than old-school Castlevania, but in practice it’s actually just that the game is exceedingly well designed, able to challenge the player without overly frustrating them, and never requiring any sort of “exploit” to progress. And for those still struggling or new to this kind of game, there’s a “Casual” mode available, in which the mechanics of the game are somewhat more forgiving — the most notable change being the lack of knockback when taking damage.
One interesting example of the game’s desire not to frustrate the player is how the various modes’ final bosses are handled. Both Normal and Nightmare/Ultimate mode have different final bosses, but in both cases the room before the final encounter features an extra life item that respawns with every new life. In other words, once you reach this point in the game, there is no way you can actually run out of lives and get a “Game Over” unless you specifically choose not to take that 1up. And while this may sound a bit silly, it’s actually an acknowledgement by Inti Creates that it’s incredibly irritating to get all the way to the end of a challenging game, only to be in a bad position, lose all your lives and lose all your progress. “You made it this far,” the game is saying, “you deserve as many chances as you need to see it through to the conclusion”. This isn’t an arcade machine hungry for another 50p.
It’s worth noting that this is not the same as making the final boss encounter a fight you can’t lose. You still have to fight the final bosses; you still have to understand their attack patterns; you still have to demonstrate the skills necessary to defeat them. You just won’t be told at any point “nope, that’s enough, back to the start for you!”
All this just ties in with the “enhanced retro” thing. It’s not just about looking and sounding like the best NES game that never existed. It’s also about making use of modern game design techniques and sensibilities to make the overall experience a lot more enjoyable and accessible to a broad audience — even those who perhaps didn’t grow up with classic Castlevania games, or those who came to them in earnest a little later, like me.
The result is a game that tickles the nostalgia buds while simultaneously being genuinely fun and enjoyable to play from a modern perspective. And, with a relatively short run time for a single playthrough — your first time will probably be about two hours or so — it’s a game you can return to easily any time you feel the need for some Gothic hack and slash action with garishly coloured protagonists.
Take note, Konami!
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