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Old 01-15-2013, 01:00 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

Lately I've been replaying Castlevania III for a small personal project, which marks the first time I've really and truly dug into the game in... good grief, probably 20 years. Pardon me while I feel incredibly old for a moment.

...man, I'm old.

OK. Now that we have that out of the way, let's accentuate the positive. My replay of Dracula's Curse has really impressed on me just what a sophisticated piece of software it was, especially for its day. Konami's team pushed the NES to its limits, pulling off crazy technical tricks with a machine that was seven years old by that point and already had been supplanted by the NEC TurboGrafx and Sega Genesis. For reference, this was the dazzling peak of NES design in the first year of the system's launch:


Ice Climber was crazy! Its playing field scrolled! Upward! And two people could play at once!

By comparison, here's a screen shot from the second stage of Dracula's Curse:


This stage also scrolled upward, but the similarities more or less end there.

What you can't see here are the constantly spinning gears and slamming pistons in the background. You also can't hear the mind-meltingly wonderful music, or see that where Ice Climbers featured a handful of two-screen arcade board-style stages, Dracula's Curse featured something like 15 stages divided into three or more sub-sections apiece, each with its own unique visual style and play mechanics. The player's path through the game split into separate routes, and each of the two unique branches of the map contained as much content as the entirety of the original Castlevania.


It contained crazy interactive environmental secrets, like the way throwing a dagger while lightning flashed in the background of the second boss battle would cause the thunderbolt to strike the boss for critical damage.


It featured spinning, rotating stage elements like these platforms that pitch forward under the player's weight -- the sort of technical marvel that we take for granted now, but which few programmers attempted before the advent of 16-bit hardware that supported rotation and scaling effects.


And then there was this bit where you could freeze a rushing torrent of water and the enemies within, dashing along the water's surface and smashing the bad guys with a single blow. This is still a rare, cool feature in games, and here someone did it on a console with the approximate power of a ColecoVision.

I can't imagine that anyone playing NES games at the system's U.S. launch in 1985 could possibly have imagined what the system would eventually be capable of. The technical (and artistic) leaps seen over the course of the NES's life are frankly stunning. Certainly you don't see those kinds of strides being made on modern platforms. The Xbox 360 is now as old as the NES was when Dracula's Curse arrived, but I challenge you to compare a top-tier launch title for 360 to the best it has to offer today. You'll definitely see a marked improvement -- Perfect Dark Zero versus Halo 4 is no contest at all! -- but the difference doesn't even begin to compare to the gulf in relative quality between Ice Climbers and Castlevania III.

Of course, that only makes sense. Video games were new and unfamiliar territory in the '80s. Genres were still being established. Rules were still being laid down. It's not just that no one had the technical mastery to make a game like Dracula's Curse when Ice Climbers was in the works -- no one could have imagined how a game like that would work. Dracula's Curse came into being through iteration, through trial-and-error, and by observing the work of peers and competitors. The video game medium of 1983, when the NES launched, was a radically different creature than in 1990 when Castlevania III debuted. We haven't seen that kind of evolution lately because we don't need to.

There's also the fact that later NES games kind of cheated, technically speaking. Nintendo began developing special chips for its games that expanded the capabilities of the hardware by offloading a lot of work onto the game cartridges themselves. By the time Castlevania III came around, no one made games purely according to the NES's basic limitations, because those games would have seemed unspeakably primitive. Each cartridge came with sophisticated chips that augmented the hardware -- something that's obviously impossible with today's disc- and download-based consoles.

So of course they don't make 'em like they used to, as the saying goes: They can't, and they don't need to. It can be startling to look back at the '80s and the '90s and see how rapidly video games changed in those days, as the industry sought to define itself and developers pushed the boundaries of game design. I think a lot of retro gaming romanticism comes from the sense of constant change and growth that we saw on those old 8-bit consoles. And just like the days of the American frontier, all that romantic adventurousness came with downsides we tend to gloss over. Dracula's Curse, for instance, has some serious control issues -- the game does a little too much with very few buttons -- and all that technical wizardry ended being stunted when Konami localized it, as they weren't allowed to use the fancy custom enhancement chip they invented for the game in the U.S.

For all the things we've lost in the course of gaming's evolution, we've gained a lot, too; games like Dracula's Curse didn't come along often back then, either. That's what makes the greats worth looking at so many years later. The technical trickery behind Castlevania III has long since been eclipsed, but brilliant ambition speaks regardless of time.



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Old 01-15-2013, 01:08 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

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Old 01-15-2013, 03:42 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

Quote:
Originally Posted by robot View Post
it contained crazy interactive environmental secrets, like the way throwing a dagger while lightning flashed in the background of the second boss battle would cause the thunderbolt to strike the boss for critical damage.
WHAT

Quote:
Originally Posted by robot View Post
it featured spinning, rotating stage elements like these platforms that pitch forward under the player's weight -- the sort of technical marvel that we take for granted now, but which few programmers attempted before the advent of 16-bit hardware that supported rotation and scaling effects.
This. This is an absolutely mindblowing effect on the NES.

Quote:
Originally Posted by robot View Post
There's also the fact that later NES games kind of cheated, technically speaking. Nintendo began developing special chips for its games that expanded the capabilities of the hardware by offloading a lot of work onto the game cartridges themselves. By the time Castlevania III came around, no one made games purely according to the NES's basic limitations, because those games would have seemed unspeakably primitive. Each cartridge came with sophisticated chips that augmented the hardware
Come on, they don't do THAT much.
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Old 01-15-2013, 04:25 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

If anyone is interested, on what exactly they did do:


---------- Post added at 09:25 PM ---------- Previous post was at 09:24 PM ----------

This series is one of the few from the time that did "realistic" graphics well, i.m.o.
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Old 01-15-2013, 06:13 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

Is this really a necessary topic? I was under the assumption that this was a classic, no-brainer common sense issue, like that the sky is blue or water is wet.
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Old 01-15-2013, 06:37 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

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Is this really a necessary topic? I was under the assumption that this was a classic, no-brainer common sense issue, like that the sky is blue or water is wet.
Well the kids need periodic reminders.
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Old 01-16-2013, 09:38 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

Well then, we can also talk about how the soundtrack with wicked sweet.

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Old 01-16-2013, 11:38 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

Simon's Quest was better.
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Old 01-16-2013, 05:55 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

Quote:
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WHAT
This.
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Old 01-16-2013, 07:04 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

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This.
Is that not true or something? Ive never done it personally. Although it's definitely something I would have convinced myself was true when I was 12.
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Old 01-16-2013, 07:16 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: Castlevania III was a Heck of a Game

It is most definitely true.
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