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Hugh Likes Anime: Castlevania

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Castlevania
Netflix

Netflix’s new animated adaptation of “Castlevania” is a strange beast. This might be expected, as it was penned and produced by Warren Ellis, the creator of such offbeat comics as “Transmetropolitan” and “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” But it is a heck of a fun little gem for all its flaws.
The miniseries is gorgeous. The character designs are iconic and immediately recognizable for fans of designer Ayami Kojima work on the Castlevania games. The animation is fluid with a deep, rich palate.
The four episode series is a certainly on the short side. It feels like a 90-minute pilot movie that was sliced up to create episodes, and it leaves the audience of a cliffhanger, but it’s a good first installment, and there are plenty of easter eggs for game fans to spot.
The plot loosely follows Castlevania III, with elements of series favorite “Symphony of the Night” incorporated as well. After The Church burns Dracula’s wife as a witch for practicing medicine, the Vampire King vows revenge and releases an army of demons on Walachia. The task of fighting off this horde falls to Trevor Belmont, the last son of an excommunicated family of vampire hunters.
Ellis is hardly subtle in his criticism of capital-R Religion in this series, with quite a few talking-head sequences about blind faith and superstition, and a supporting cast of thuggish priests dogging Belmont’s heels. But the action more than makes up for these talky bits, and the incorporation of some of the more fantastical elements of the series are cleverly done.
While short, ”Castlevania” is a tasty morsel of gory vampire-hunting goodness that goes down easy, even as it leaves the watcher thirsty for more. You can watch it exclusively on Netflix Streaming.

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Super Castlevania IV

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Super Castlevania IV
Konami
Played on New 3DS

Super_Castlevania_IV_North_American_SNES_box_art

We’re hunting Draculas out of season! A classic from the early days of the Super Nintendo, I picked up Super Castlevania IV from the New 3DS eshop! And it’s just as thumb-breakingly difficult as I remember.
This game is hard, which is not to say that it is UNFAIR. For the most part, the game’s traps and enemies can be out-thought. This is a true old-school pattern memorization platformer, and it doesn’t mess around. But although I found myself dying over and over at the hands of Dracula’s minions and spikes of the castle’s many traps, it never feels like the game is cheating. Obstacles can be overcome with patience and reflexes, rather than luck. And this game throws a ton at you. The castle feels more malevolent in ways than later iterations of the game. The sprawling 2-D puzzle maps of Symphony of the Night and its ilk, generally referred to as “Metroid-vaia” style games, are all puzzles to be solved. You can go anywhere, and frequently, backtracking is require to uncover all of Castlevania’s juiciest secrets. Super Castlevania’s tightly designed levels are just the opposite. There is no going back. Every step feels like an unreconcilable choice. Drawbridges slam behind you, spike traps dog your heels, and platforms constantly shatter under your boots. Each jump feels like a commitment, creating a tension that builds through the entire game until you are whip-to-fang with Count Dracula himself.
Super Castlevania IV looks and sounds great on the New 3DS screen. The big sprites and sampled music were outstanding for the time, and they are perfectly preserved emulated on the handheld screen. The analog stick works well for the most part, although attacking and moving at angles is somewhat unreliable. You lose your momentum if the stick isn’t at just the right angle, which can be a problem when trying to climb collapsing staircases and clearing flying enemies in later stages.
Super Castlevania IV is a great pick up if you’re looking for some retro platforming on your New 3DS, or just want to kill time until the new Castlevania series drops on Netflix next month. You can find it in the New 3DS, Wii, and Wii U Virtual Console.
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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow

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Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow
Published by Konami
Nintendo DS, 2005
castlevaniads
The sequel to 2003’s “Aria of Sorrow,” Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow” was the first installment of the series for the Nintendo DS.  A savvy reader might point out that ‘Dawn’ isn’t the best name for a sequel, but since it appeared in the first year of the system, it was one of many games that glommed on to the ‘DS’ suffix.
The game once again follows teen reincarnation of the Lord of Darkness Soma Cruz to a maze-like castle in which he will again come to terms with and try to overcome his destiny.  When he is confronted by a cult leader searching for the Lord of Darkness, Soma’s power of Dominance unexpectedly returns, forcing him to confront his past life once again.
On the whole, “Dawn of Sorrow” doesn’t bring much new from its GBA predecessors.  The main game puts you back in the shoes of Soma, with the ability to Dominate and use the powers of various monsters to fight and to solve puzzles.  You can also collect extra souls to power up your abilities and weapons, which is nice, but mostly this game is more Aria of Sorrow with prettier graphics.  The game does have a ‘seal’ system, in which bosses have to be sealed away to be beaten.  This involves drawing a symbol on the touch screen after the fight.  It is a bit annoying, forcing players to keep a stylus tucked in their hand during the fight, but hardly the most egregious tacked on touch-screen gimmick of its day.
The game also features a return of the standard Castlevania extras such as unlockable characters and Boss Rush modes.  The extra mode is a real treat in this version, as it allows the player to switch between characters in a fan-service nod to Castlevania III.
The game still holds up relatively well, with well-designed, highly detailed sprites.  The castle feels nice and big, and it isn’t too hard to navigate with plenty of warp and save areas.  The game had a little trouble running in my New 3DS, however.  It would occasionally freeze or glitch, and the system wouldn’t be able to read the game card.  This wasn’t enough of an issue to prevent normal play, however.
“Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow” is an incremental but worthy installment in the Castlevania franchise, and is well worth your time if you’re looking to explore Dracula’s castle this Halloween.  It doesn’t break a lot of ground, but it is a fun and challenging adventure.  You should be able to find a used copy at your local game store.

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

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Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Konami
Nintendo DS, 2006
portrait_of_ruin
Welcome to Dracula Season, my annual celebration of my favorite defunct game franchise, Castlevania!  This is the second installment of the franchise on the Nintendo DS, Portrait of Ruin.  Like the other handheld titles of the era, this is a 2D side-scrolling exploration game.  The twist in this one is that the player controls two characters that share the screen, Johnathan Morris and Charlotte Aulin.
A sequel to the somewhat obscure Sega Genesis title “Castlevania Bloodlines,” Johnathan is the son of one of that game’s protagonists, John Morris, and the grandson of ‘Dracula’ character Quincy Morris.  He’s a more physical character, while Charlotte is a magician.  Players can switch between the two, and choose to go solo, or have the other character onscreen as an AI partner.  Two players can also team up over a wireless connection.  Both collect equipment, sub-weapons, and spells as they explore Dracula’s Castle.
But the count is not at home.  Rather, the castle is being manipulated by Brauner, a vampiric artist whose daughters were killed in World War I.  He’s taken control of the castle with the aim to destroy the world.  Players have to enter Brauner’s paintings in order to disrupt his hold on it.
Portrait of Ruin is visually stunning, and puts the DS’s graphics processor through its paces.  The concept of entering the paintings is cool, and adds some visual flair and variety to the maps.  The unusual maps and layouts challenge players in ways that call back to “Symphony of the Night.”  The story is interesting but easy to follow, even for someone like myself who hasn’t played the Genesis prequel.
It would have been nice to have more paintings later in the game rather than reusing the first four, but this is a small nitpick.  Portrait of Ruin is a worthy successor to the Castlevania line, and while it is no longer in print, you can probably pick up a used copy at your local games shop for a steal.
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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania Aria of Sorrow

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Konami
Game Boy Advance, 2003
250px-AriaofSorrowCover hqdefault
Today we’re skipping ahead a few years to look at “Aria of Sorrow,” the last of the ‘Metrovania’-style Castlevania games for the Game Boy Advance.  This means that rather than consisting of numbered platforming stages that the player must complete in order, the game is instead one large 2-D map, with the player gaining access to new areas through the use of special abilities.  For example, once the player gets the ability jump in mid-air, they can reach higher platforms and thus reach corridors they couldn’t previously.  In the Castlevania series, this format started properly in Symphony of the Night for the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstaion.
Aria of Sorrow breaks with tradition in that rather than being set in the middle ages or 19th Century, this game takes place in the future.  The game is set in 2035, but the future date doesn’t play much into it, except that you can score a sweet laser rifle later in the game.  But at that point, your other options include powerful holy weapons, so it’s not really an upgrade.  No cybernetic werewolves or anything.
The main character is Soma Cruz, an American teenager living in Japan.  When he goes to watch a solar eclipse at a shrine operated by a childhood friend, he passes out.  When he wakes up, he finds himself in Dracula’s Castle, and in possession of inexplicable power.  As Soma makes his way through the castle in search of answers, he meets sinister missionaries, amnesiac exorcists, and other mysterious people.
Aria of Sorrow pushes the GBA to its limit with absolutely gorgeous graphics and a sprawling castle filled with monsters.  Soma’s powers are a neat twist of the Castlevania formula, and encourage exploration in search of new souls to win and try out.  It would be nice if they weren’t quite so rare, and packed a bit more of a punch, though.  Especially early in the game, they don’t have the same heft to them as the classic subweapons.  While this does give a sense of progress to the game as the player collects stronger and stronger abilities, it can be a grind to collect them.
Overall, “Aria of Sorrow” is a definite hit in the Castlevania score sheet, and not to be missed.  If you can’t find a used copy of the cartridge, it is also available as a download from the WiiU store.

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania

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Castlevania
Konami
Nintendo Entertainment System
250px-Castlevania_NES_box_art
October is Dracula Season here in the Hugh Likes… HQ, and for my money there is no better modern representation of the character than the Castlevania franchise.  The original, produced by Konami in 1987, is a classic example of the old-school challenge of the NES.  Tough but never entirely unfair, the player controls Simon Belmont as he fights his way through Dracula’s castle to his showdown with the King of Vampire himself.
The original game has a fun, almost campy sense of atmosphere as Belmont fights his way through a laundry list of B-movie monsters.  Famously difficult, the game really conveys the feeling of the environment itself as an adversary.  This is a difficult balance to achieve, because it can more often feel like the player is fighting the programmers rather than the game.  Like Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario Bros, Castlevania is a sprawling environment that relies on careful exploration, precise timing, and sharp reflexes.  Belmont is armed with an upgradable whip and a variety of subweapons that he finds in the castle.  While blindly rushing ahead and collecting every subweapon as it drops can result in a series of deaths, a careful strategy, admittedly formed through trial and error, guides the player through each level.  A very generous continue system for the time lets the player keep trying for as long as they like.
With the sad news that Konami is scaling back its production to focus on the mobile phone market, we may not see anything new from the series for a while.  What better time to dust of a control pad and take your journey through Dracula’s Castle?
Castlevania was originally released for the Nintendo Entertainment System as well as other 8-bit consoles and arcades.  It is also available digitally for the Nintendo Virtual Console on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS.

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania, Circle of the Moon

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Published by Konami for Game Boy Advance (2001) and Wii U Virtual Console (2014)

Happy Halloween!
In honor of this dark and terrible holiday, I’m writing a bit about one of my favorite games, recently re-released.  “Castlevania: Circle of the Moon” was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance.  Although well received, it quickly came and went into relative obscurity as later installments in the series came out for the GBA and later Nintendo DS.  But it’s still a classic in my book.
Considered a side-story at best, the game’s protagonist is Nathan Graves, an earnest young man in possession of Vampire Killer, the famous Dracula-slaying weapon of the Belmont clan, whose noticeable absence is never actually addressed.  He’s out to stop the Vampire Carmilla from resurrecting Dracula and killing his mentor.
Like most of the franchise, the actual story is mostly just an excuse to show you the castle, and this is a good one.  Like Symphony of the Night, this is a sprawling open castle which grants you access to new areas as you gain abilities.  While it is a bit smaller than the Playstation’s sprawling ruin, there is a nice variety and scope to the castle, which is perfect for a portable adventure.
The gameplay is fun and feels nicely balanced.  Nathan has a neat ability to twirl the whip like a shield and block some projectiles.  He also has the DSS Cards.  These cards, which you collect throughout the castle from certain enemies, act as the game’s magic system.  Each effect and element card grants a different ability,  giving you one hundred different ones, if you collect them all.  These range from shooting fire balls to summoning angels to directly increasing your stats.  These abilities are my favorite aspect of the game.
Not everything about the game has aged gracefully, however.  The sound in particular has a low-res, monophonic quality that doesn’t do justice to the classic Castlevania music.  As a launch title for the GBA, the color palate for the game is a bit dark and muddy.  While this is thematically appropriate for the ruin of a European castle, it made the game difficult to see, particularly on the original screen, which was not backlit.  More modern devices such as the DS and Wii U tablet handle the display better, but it was a clear step backwards from Symphony of the Night’s beautiful sprites and backgrounds.
If you’re looking for some classic vampire-slaying action without the punishing difficulty of the original Castlevania, I recommend picking up “Circle of the Moon.”
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is available as a GBA Cartridge (amazon,) or digitally from the Wii U store.