So, You Like to Play Castlevania?

On retro gaming and save scumming.

I had never played a Castlevania game before, so naturally I wanted to start at the beginning.

I’m not like this with most series. Unless there’s a continuing story, a la Metal Gear Solid that I need to play all of the games to fully understand (“understand”), I usually don’t have trouble jumping later into a franchise’s life to get to some of the more interesting entries. Certainly the entries with the most quality of life improvements.

Thus it was with great surprise even to myself that I had this strange urge to start playing Castlevania from the very beginning. I can’t really articulate why. The series has grown to almost thirty games and counting. Surely one of the later entries, or at a minimum Symphony of the Night, would have done me just fine.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d be missing something. Like falling under Dracula’s seductive spell, there was some strange allure to playing the original entries in the series. Even though the over-arching plot amounts to “Somehow, Dracula returned,” I felt like there was enough history there that warranted seeing where all this stuff came from. Bone hydras, bats, power-ups, hell even the music. My impression of the series was that with every entry, the “in-jokes” compounded themselves exponentially, and to truly appreciate coming across one particular enemy, or sequence, or bar of music, I’d need to know where it came from.

Alright fine, it doesn’t exactly take a seductive “spell” to get me to fall for him.

History Lessons

It’s a dumb feeling, for sure. To be clear, you absolutely do not need to play every game in a series to derive enjoyment, understand in-jokes, or just generally appreciate good game design. But I am nothing if not a patient man, and even thirty-five year old game design is not enough to deter me from playing through a game to get a sense of its history.

For me, understanding the roots of a game, seeing its evolution, and how it became (or did not become) the beloved series it did today is part of the fun. I’ll put up with a lot of shit so I can point excitedly from the couch and say “Oh! This is that famous Castlevania track Bloody Tears debuting in the second, most often derided game in the series!” I live for those moments. It marries my love of video games with my liberal arts fostered appreciation of art history. It’s a large part of the reason why I play games in the first place.

I understand that’s not the case for a lot of people. My roommate scoffed when he heard I was playing Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest for some reason. That “really awful game” that was “too obtuse for its own good” and had “a whole lot of bullshit” baked in. Yes, true. But did you know that is the game that introduced fucking Bloody Tears, the most heavy metal of all video game chiptunes this side of 1990 that’s still being covered by fledgling YouTubers on a weekly basis? Did you know it introduced a day/night cycle that fundamentally changed the game, light-years before Pokemon: Gold thought it was cool? Have you seen how the (admittedly obtuse) adventure game mechanics would lay the foundation for the genre that bears its namesake, Metroidvania? I ate it all up.

Spoilers

Rebel Save Scummer

I may be willing to put up with a lot of shit, but I’m not a stupid man. I know when my time is being wasted by way of obfuscated adventure elements and “tough as nails” difficulty that was meant to artificially extend playtime for the lonely teen in 1985. I have no qualms about being awful at video games. In fact, I’d readily agree that I’m downright bad at most of them (thank you for being patient while you watch me play Devil May Cry, baby). But NES and some early SNES games take things a bit too far. I don’t have a desire to finish the game on its own merits so much as take a walking tour of its features – its gameplay mechanics, art, design, music and lore.

I used to rely on my own emulation to enjoy most older titles, but there’s been a trend lately of including many “cheats” baked into many re-releases. The Castlevania Anniversary Collection includes a save state that lets you drop a save and reload at any time. Every Nintendo game in the NES and SNES online collection includes not only save states, but also a rewind feature that lets you backtrack to moments before to seamlessly continue playing. Hell, even the Crash Bandicoot remasters let you save the first damn game normally in the remasters and then let you turn off lives altogether for It’s About Time. Suddenly, losing lives and starting over wasn’t a barrier to entry for seeing a game through. I could save scum my way through the tour.

Castlevania wasn’t the first NES era game I realized this for. Late last year, in my effort to play every main line Final Fantasy game, I decided to start Final Fantasy I by emulating it on my phone. Although I played the original Playstation version that features a much more forgiving save system than its NES ancestor, I still save scummed and walkthrough-ed my way through the game.

And you know what? Using a guide has helped me appreciate the game even more. They usually contain information about how the game works on a mechanical level that I never would have figured out on my own. I can see ahead of time which paths have loot worth retrieving and which ones I can safely avoid, saving me time and needless random battles. I can properly prep for a boss fight instead of losing once or twice before discovering it has a very specific weakness. Using walkthroughs and save states makes for a much smoother experience, letting me focus on the things I love about a thirty year old game without succumbing to its dumb shit that I don’t have time for.

Since then, I’ve decided to play games however the hell I want. Save scumming, walkthroughs, handing the controller over to someone more capable to get me through a section – learning how to not worry about gitting good and letting myself relax and enjoy games in multiple ways has greatly increased the amount of fun I have.

And that’s a sliding scale! There will always be exceptions. For the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, overcoming the difficulty is part of the fun for me, but that’s the beauty of this hobby. I can choose to engage with the challenge for fun, or take a hands off approach and enjoy watching someone else. I watched my girlfriend play through Outer Wilds, a game I had only put two hours into previously, and the act of watching and figuring things out together was an absolute blast. Would I say I “played” Outer Wilds? Hell yeah I would. I can engage with and have an in depth conversation about it, talk about its mechanics, its themes, those stunning moments all without having touched the controller.

But Back to Castlevania

Using my save scumming/walkthrough approach let me fall in love with the series. Instead of feeling like I was hitting a wall with gameplay mechanics, I could ogle at the enemy designs, jam to the music, and (if I wanted to) spend some time learning enemy patterns and challenge myself by getting through a particular sequence unscathed. The save state present in the collection gave me the freedom to enjoy the game however I wanted, and I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Castlevania without it.

At the end of the day, it’s about accessibility. Can I enjoy the game how I want to enjoy it? I don’t need to git gud at Castlevania to enjoy sequences like this which had my girlfriend and I rolling on the couch for minutes on end:

That’s what matters. Whether I want a walking tour, or to challenge myself for the sake of fun, do I have the tools to make the game fun for me, and grant me some memorable experiences? Taking on this mentality has given me an excited attitude towards seeing through games, particularly early ones, I never thought I’d play, like Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario Bros, and Final Fantasy.

And now that I’ve done all my “homework” and finished Castlevania I – IV and Bloodlines? Well, I’m more excited than ever to play Symphony of the Night, an approximation of hype I can only hope comes close to what it might have been like waiting for it on original release. That’s an excitement I made for myself that I would be missing if I had jumped straight into it.

…as soon as I finish up Super Mario Bros. 3.

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