I reviewed Lords of Shadow 2 for Kill Screen. I had a fair bit of fun with it, but there’s no question that it’s a significant step down from its predecessor. You should go read my review, and then instead of playing the game, you should go and watch Ravenous. It has Robert Carlyle; it’s about eating people; it’s just generally an excellent time.
I continue to have a problem.
I’ve written about the Castlevania games in the context of compulsive completionism before, but in the intervening months I’ve found that my desire for achievements has all but vanished–a fact that can be explained mostly by the construction of a new PC (the first I’ve ever built myself, and the only one I’ve ever had remotely capable of playing new games!). When one’s “permanent record” is distributed over more than one system of merit badges (in my case now, XBox achievements AND Steam achievements), the weight that either one carries is dramatically reduced.
Whereas before, I could feasibly delude myself into thinking my XBox history to be a complete record of my interaction with modern games (I was somehow able to rationalize away all of the handheld games I’ve consumed), now this conceit is too far-fetched for even me to consider.
So! Cured, right? No more compulsive need to play everything!
I played this last week:
And yet I didn’t just sample them– I played them to completion. It took me approximately ninety tries to beat Dracula in Castlevania: The Adventure.
What excuse do I have for myself? I guess I don’t. Like I said, I think I have a problem.
My real mistake, from the outset, was creating a Google Doc titled “Castlevania games I have played” and compiling a list of the entire series (including the Game Boy spin-off Kid Dracula, because, let’s remember, I have a problem). I bolded the games I’d beaten and italicized the games I’d sampled but never played to completion.
And then I looked at all the titles left and said, “yeah, I could probably manage those.”
Why?! Why would I do such a thing? The truth of the matter is that all the list told me, at the outset, is that I’d beaten pretty much all of the good Castlevania games. I’ve beaten Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow and Dracula’s Curse. I’ve beaten Portrait of Ruin and Circle of the Moon and the original Castlevania. I’ve even beaten my fair share of the mediocre games, like Lament of Innocence and Harmony of Dissonance and Stampede of Elephants. (Okay, I made that last one up. But if it existed, I probably would have beaten it.)
When I looked at that list, the first thing that I should have seen was the good Castlevanias that I haven’t yet played. I should have said to myself, “Self, you haven’t yet sampled Order of Ecclesia, which is supposed to be pretty great. Nor have you played Curse of Darkness, which is supposed to be the best of the 3D lot before MercurySteam came along and really got it right with Lords of Shadow. Why don’t you track down one of those?”
But instead, what I did was look at the list and think: “Hey, those Game Boy Castlevanias are probably pretty short. I bet I could knock a couple of those out real quick and be that much closer to having played them all.” Then, I invested multiple hours in doing so. Those are hours I’m not going to get back.
Castlevania games are not Pokemon. There is no reward for catching them all.
Actually, is there a reward for catching all of the Pokemon, besides bragging rights? Maybe it’s better to say that Castlevania games aren’t Stars of Destiny.
And the worst part of all of this is that I know I have wasted my time, I know I should have done something else. And yet I still feel a twinge of pride at having bolded those two bullet points on my list. Congratulations, Nate. You’ve invested the time to beat two terrible games. Achievement unlocked!
Possibly the only thing I can say in my defense is that the remorse at having wasted my time compelled me to drop a couple bucks on Rondo of Blood for the Wii Virtual Console, which is an objectively awesome game and well worth my time (and yours).
I tell myself that my desire to play as many games as possible comes from a place of wanting to be “well played,” of wanting to foster an intimate understanding of the medium by attempting to expose myself to as much of it as possible, but I’m not entirely sure that I’ve furthered that ambition by playing these two mediocre platformers from the early 90’s. Maybe it’s possible that we can talk intelligently about games we haven’t played.
Maybe I shouldn’t have spent that dollar on Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night for iOS.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Castlevania music lately. Specifically, I’m catching up on back episodes of Brett Elston’s superb video game music podcase, VGMpire. He did a thing about six months ago where he took his listeners on a grand tour of the entire Castlevania musical oeuvre, and even as someone who is a die-hard fan of the franchise, I learned a thing or two (apparently Order of Ecclesia has some fabulous music! Who knew?).
Still, the thing that most struck me as I listened to track after track of awesome chiptune goodness was how much I really, really like the opening track from Circle of the Moon, titled “Awake.” I may or may not have stopped cleaning the house to do a little rocking out when one of the episodes opened with it.
The GBA doesn’t have great sound quality, and even the cleanest recordings sound like you’re hearing them broadcast from space through a battery-powered transmitter, but some of the compositions on the system were superb regardless (I point out here Advance Wars, in particular, along with the score to Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga), and Circle of the Moon, as a launch title, is particularly impressive.
Through the fog of memory, I can’t recall whether I purchased my GBA because I desperately needed to play Circle of the Moon or, as is more likely, that I had a good bit of pizza-delivery money burning a hole in my pocket and was anxious to be an early adopter of a system, but Circle of the Moon was unquestionably the only title available for the system at launch that was worth a damn. Even now, I have an inordinate fondness for the game, despite the fact that on the original GBA, the game was so dark that it was often impossible to see unless you were sitting directly underneath a bank of florescent lights. It was hard, sometimes brutally hard, and it was the first game after Symphony of the Night to ape the “Metroidvania” method of level design.
It’s tough to recommend Circle of the Moon to a new gamer (or new Castlevania fan) when there are much more accessible games available (like Symphony of the Night, and Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, and Portrait of Ruin)–but for those of us that played it back when it was originally released, Circle of the Moon was really something special.
I’m one of the masses of video game audiophiles who once decried the “cinematization” of game scores–having grown up with the prominent and catchy melodies of Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yuzo Koshiro, in the middle of the last decade I felt very strongly that the majority of game scores were trending toward ambient mood-setting when they were not busy being the background to lengthy cinematic sequences–and I was afraid that our special, peculiar kind of music was in danger as a result.
This opinion was, in retrospect, pretty short-sighted. What I (and many others) identified as a “trend” was really just the birth-pangs of a new type of game score, and while most AAA, $60 games often have soundtracks that mirror their Hollywood contemporaries, “gamey” chiptune music is still alive and well.
What’s more, in the last five years or so, cinematic game scores have come to be really, really good. Take the above example, from 2010’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a game which is 60% God of War, 20% Shadow of the Colossus, and only about 20% Castlevania. Its departure from its source material notwithstanding, the game is an absolute delight, thanks in no small part to Oscar Araujo’s fabulous and compelling score.
If you’re a gamer and you haven’t played Lords of Shadow, well– you should give it a shot. It’s not absolutely a must play, but it’s most certainly worth your time, especially if you like whippin’ trolls.
I have had this song stuck in my head all day.
Bloodlines has some of the best tunes in the Castlevania series, and in this gamer’s humble opinion, considerably outclasses its contemporary Super Castlevania IV despite the obvious superiority of the SNES’s sound chip when compared with that of the Genesis. (Of course, my affection for the Genesis’s unique sound is a matter of public record.)
Michiru Yamane, who would later go on to do the score for Symphony of the Night and at least four other entries to the series on several different systems, cranks out some really rocking tracks for this Genesis/Mega Drive outing. I’m a particular fan of the track “Calling from Heaven,” as I’ve mentioned before. “The Sinking Old Sanctuary,” however, from the game’s second stage, is a much more ponderous and mellow piece of music, one that tends to lodge itself in my head and play on loop for several hours before I’m finally able to replace it with something else.
An interesting note: Despite being a Genesis owner, I didn’t actually play Bloodlines until many years after its release. I first fell in love with this track when Castlevania: Circle of the Moon used it, in the time-honored tradition of Castlevania composers borrowing standout tracks from previous games. That version is accessible here–in some ways the GBA’s sound chip is just as limited as that of the Genesis, and the track has less punch than the original version, but it still has that inescapable melody that can take control of my brain for hours at a time.
A little while ago I cataloged the contents of the Sega Genesis mixtape I created at the tender age of twelve. I’ve been mulling over that artifact for the better part of a month, and as much as I (mostly) approve of the taste of my younger self, I have been considering how remarkably limited that little collection of Sega tunes was.
The Genesis’s audio chip is often maligned, and not without reason: Very often, what the designers meant to be “shredding guitars” or “wicked synths” came off as “ear-bleedingly torturous.” As examples, take this music from the options menu of Sonic Spinball or (again) the main title theme to Desert Strike. Really just God-awful.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Genesis was without some really superb soundtracks. Ninety percent of the music from the Sonic series is fabulous, and when the rough-around-the-edges Genesis FM synth chip was used with restraint, it could produce some awesome jams that legitimately sounded “tougher” than its competitor, the SNES.
The Genesis may never have had anything rivaling “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” but the SNES never had anything that quite sounded like these:
Ecco the Dolphin: The Tides of Time, “Tube of Medusa”
Both of the Ecco games had unique and interesting sounds to them, though many gamers have never heard them on account of the games’ brutal difficulty. The second game, Tides of Time, isn’t quite as harsh as the first, and has a much more intense flavor, as this faux-rock track indicates.
The first game sees Ecco traveling back to the prehistoric age using the time travel technology of the long-dead Atlanteans to reconstruct an ancient entity and save the planet from aliens trying to harvest all life. The second sees him traveling to a future where dolphins have evolved psychic powers and the ability to fly, and–you know what? I’m just gonna stop right there. I think it’s obvious to everyone by now that these games are way more absurdly awesome on paper than they are in execution.
Nevertheless, you can’t deny that soundtrack. If that music doesn’t get you pumped, well, I’m frankly a little surprised.
Phantasy Star IV, “The End of the Millennium”
Boom. The instant you turn your Genesis on, you know that you’re in for serious business. There’s no waiting for developer or publisher logos to flash up, no copyright screen to sit through–it’s all Sega, so when you hit the power button, there’s their logo and a desperate, pumping bass line.
Phantasy Star IV is one of the few stellar RPGs on the Genesis, but boy, is it a doozy–offering anime “cutscenes” well before they became a staple of the genre, a serious story that involves the death of at least one major character (spoilers!), and the best science fantasy this side of Star Ocean. The soundtrack in general is solid overall, but when they hit you with something like this right off the bat, you have to be invested.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3, “Lava Reef Zone, Act 1”
I don’t know what it is about Lava Reef Zone. Do I love it because it’s a burst of high-speed freedom after the long slog of Sandopolis? Is it the first tangible hint of the intensity of the endgame? Was there a time in my youth when I attempted to play the entirety of Sonic 3 & Knuckles in one sitting, and Lava Reef coincided with a transition from blind exhaustion to a second wind? I don’t know.
All I know is that of all the superb tracks in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, this one has a special place in my heart–there’s something urgent in its tone, but it’s far more upbeat and uptempo than the music in the zone that precedes it.
In its full, complete form, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is one of the best side-scrollers I’ve ever played. If you were on the other side of the console wars of the ’90s, do yourself a favor and go check it out. I think you’ll find it a particularly rewarding experience.
Streets of Rage 2, “Under Logic”
Let’s be frank: the soundtrack to Streets of Rage 2 is pure, unadulterated sonic gold. Yuzo Koshiro is the man.
And the funny thing is, Koshiro worked on the SNES as well: He’s responsible for the soundtracks for ActRaiser and Super Adventure Island, both of which are relatively good… but they’re good. They’re not this. This is the kind of music that you don’t want to come on while you’re driving for fear you’ll get pulled over for speeding. You don’t want this to come on while you’re at a party–you might get so pumped that you roundhouse kick someone in the jaw.
This music is dangerous, is what I’m saying. And while there are plenty of superb tracks on the SNES, I can’t think of a single game on the system that sounds like Streets of Rage.
Jurassic Park, “Visitor’s Center”
This might be pushing the boundaries of what’s tasteful with the Genesis’s synth “guitars”, but I don’t know anyone who actually managed to slog through the Genesis version of Jurassic Park, get to the final level, and not be excited by this music.
The vast majority of the game’s soundtrack was ambient, low-key, and generally inobtrusive–it was there to build tension, as the game was relatively terrifying: if a velociraptor appeared out of a nowhere, it was even odds you were about to be disemboweled. The Tyrannosaurus popped through the wall in at least four different levels to say “hi” and devour you whole.
It didn’t help, of course, that the game’s controls were only vaguely connected to what was going onscreen. God help you if the developers wanted you to jump and grab a ledge. Hope you had your Game Genie ready.
But if you made it to the final level somehow, you were treated to this music, along with a plethora of weapons and a level that had blissfully few jumping sections. “All right,” the game seemed to say. “You got through the platforming gauntlet. Have a rocket launcher and some shredding guitars. Let’s go to town.”
Vectorman 2, “Turn Up the Heat (Lava Boss)”
The Vectorman games were both relatively tight platformers with some pretty graphics and good tunes. They came toward the end of the Genesis’s life cycle, when many gamers’ attention was already on the consoles to come, and so they’re sometimes overlooked.
This track is a good example of the attitude the games put forward: They were all about the faux-techno beats and in-your-face rhythms, and they did it pretty well. I think that Sega maybe wanted Vectorman to take off as a character? It didn’t happen. The games are pretty good, though. You should give them a look-see.
Castlevania: Bloodlines, “Calling from Heaven”
Bloodlines is the only Castlevania on Genesis, and it’s of a much different flavor than its SNES cousins Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X. I’m pretty sure it’s an accepted truth that Dracula X had the best Castlevania music of the 16-bit generation (I mean, come on, listen to this stuff), but I don’t think any single track in the series fires me up quite the same way as the music from the final stage of Bloodlines. I could listen to those first ten seconds over and over.
It’s superb final stage music–conveying clearly that you’re on the pathway to the final conflict. It’s dripping with tension, hope, and importance. Considering how many of Castlevania’s classic melodies are reiterated throughout the series, I’m immensely surprised to find that “Calling from Heaven” hasn’t made its way into another game (despite the fact that other tracks from Bloodlines have– “Iron Blue Intention” shows up in Portrait of Ruin, for instance, and “The Sinking Old Sanctuary” made its way into Circle of the Moon, for whatever reason).
So, there you have it–would that I could send myself back in time to share these superb Genesis tracks with my twelve-year-old self, or at least convince him that they would be worthy additions to his mix-tape. Alas, all I can do now is to put them up here and exhort you to listen, listen, listen, my friends.
Speak not ill of the Genesis, for even the bearer of grotesquely shredding synths hath treasures to lay at thy feet.
In this modern day and age, when almost everyone has a communication device with access to a global, mostly-unregulated data network, we are confronted with an existential quandary which our forebears could not have even imagined: How to ensure your phone’s ringtone matches your winning personality.
This is a humdinger, make no mistake: Leave your phone on one of the default sounds, and people might think you lack imagination. Select the incorrect pop single, and people will think you shallow. You don’t want your friends and relations to cringe every time you receive a call and Justin Beiber’s “Girl Hair Blues” plays, do you? (Full disclosure: I do not know any Justin Beiber songs.)
With that said, there is a source of simple tunage to which all gamers may turn in this time of need: the Nintendo Entertainment System. NES music is chippy and simple enough to function well as a ringtone, and by necessity the songs’ melodies usually assert themselves quite clearly in the first thirty seconds of play–perfect for using as an alert sound on your futuristic communication devices!
Here, for your consideration, are a sample of some excellent ringtone choices from the 8-bit era, with an explanation of how they might be right for you.
1. Mega Man 2 — Stage Select
Why this is a good choice: Simple, effective, and with a loop no more than a few seconds long, this tune is immediately recognizable to an old-school gamer and won’t make you inclined to let the ringtone play for thirty seconds so you can get to the good part.
What this says about you: “I’m going to check the Caller ID before I pick up to make sure I’m properly equipped for this conversation.”
2. Castlevania — Vampire Killer
Why this is a good choice: The first incarnation of a theme that appears throughout the entire Castlevania series, “Vampire Killer” is the most recognizable of the bunch and will help you to keep your cool in stressful situations.
What this says about you: “I am an unrelenting badass.”
3. The Legend of Zelda — Overworld Theme
Why this is a good choice: Hearing this music coming from your phone will remind you that there is adventure and freedom to be found in all aspects of life, even in the midst of a boring work day.
What this says about you: “I do my best work when I’m at full health.”
4. Ducktales — The Moon
Why this is a good choice: The Ducktales Moon Theme is the pinnacle of all human musical creation.
What this says about you: “You would be impressed by my extensive collection of precious gems.”
5. Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins — Stage One
Why this is a good choice: Another track whose melody is prominent right from the get-go, the main theme from Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins is packed with tension and is up-tempo while still feeling ominous. When your phone rings, you will at once be alert for spooks, spirits, and haints in your immediate vicinity.
What this says about you: “I can get the job done in my underpants.”
6. Final Fantasy — Prelude
Why this is a good choice: The Final Fantasy prelude is possibly the piece of 8-bit music best able to transport the listener to another world, and it can do so in just a few seconds with a handful of simple arpeggios. By putting this on your phone, you will make each call you receive feel magical, mysterious, and possibly even epic. Even if it’s from your Mum.
What this says about you: “I have a close-knit group of friends with whom I have gained a lot of experience.”
7. Ninja Gaiden — Basilisk Mine Field
Why this is a good choice: It’s highly likely that hearing this song coming from your phone will get you so pumped up that you will kick bystanders in the face.
What this says about you: “If I don’t take this call, it’s only because I’m too busy slicing someone in half.”
8. Dr. Mario — Fever Theme
Why this is a good choice: Despite the fact that this piece of music goes through a couple evolutions in a minute or two and you won’t get to hear all of it as a ringtone, the first thirty seconds are still enormously chippy, peppy, and happy. This is the kind of music that gets you going in the morning, like a good cup of coffee or the news that school has been canceled due to snow or chemical leak.
What this says about you: “I’m high on life, or perhaps psychoactive medications.”
9. Super Mario Bros. — Starman Theme
Why this is a good choice: Never has a tune so simple conveyed something so clearly.
What this says about you: “I am invincible.”
10. River City Ransom — Running Around the City
Why this is a good choice: This is a piece of music that clearly suggests that you are on a mission, but that you’re going to take your time getting around to it while you pummel the crap out of anyone who deigns to get in your way. A perfect ringtone for someone who spends a lot of time in malls, someone who likes to twirl a metal chain menacingly, or someone not afraid to throw their best friend’s prone body into a crowd of thugs.
What this says about you: “I am going to spend all my pocket money on a book that will teach me to spin-kick people in the face.”
Here is something that happened to me recently: Having completed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow not too long ago (an excellent title with a lot going for it, I recommend you give it a look), I went back to complete some of the game’s “trials.” This process involved playing through levels I had already beaten in an attempt to accomplish some arbitrary goals: kill a certain number of enemies with counter-attacks, complete a level without healing, beat a boss within a short time limit.
I was sort of having fun. It felt a little bit like a chore. I felt a little obliged to continue. The game’s combat system was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged, for the most part.
My wife plunked herself down next to me on the couch. “Didn’t you beat this?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “but I’m not really finished with it.” I explained the trials.
“Why are you going back and doing these?” she asked.
It was at that point, once the question had been voiced, that I had to admit the truth to myself: I was doing it for the achievements because I felt like I wasn’t “done” with the game.
As a young gamer, I was not much of a completionist. There were only a handful of games in which I felt the urge to do absolutely everything–these were the games in which I found the mechanics so compelling, so alluring, that I absolutely had to seek out everything there was to do (and in many cases, manufacture some additional challenges for myself). As an example, take Final Fantasy Tactics: not only did I beat the game multiple times, recruit every additional character, acquire all of the rare equipment, and explore every corner of the optional dungeon, but I began to play the game using regulations that were entirely of my own making. I played it only allowing myself to use story characters. I played it without committing violence against any human beings (I invited them all into my party instead). I played it with a team of five male characters, all of whom were bards (my “boy band” playthrough).
So entranced was I with this game that I came up with patently absurd “themes” for additional trips through it, independent of any outside influence.
I don’t tend to pour that much time into a single game anymore. Mostly this has to do with my shift in self-perception as a gamer; I have aspirations of being “well-played” (a fact to which this budding blog is testament) and I play games in many more genres than I did when I was a teen. Partly this has to do with the fact that no game has come out which can compete with Final Fantasy Tactics. But I have been conscious of a palpable shift in my perception of what it means to be “done” with a game since the advent of achievements and trophies, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to pinpoint exactly what that shift entails.
First let me say that I am no true “achievement hound.” My gamerscore is modest, and the string of numbers next to my gamertag is entirely divorced from any sort of meaning in my mind. The “points” that are connected to achievements carry no weight. My problem is that I cannot help but think of the achievements for a given game as being a list of accomplishments suggested by the game’s developers–a kind of “to-do list”–and this is where I get stuck.
Extra Credits did an episode on achievements a little while back, and they do an excellent job of dividing them into a couple of categories: story achievements, sidequest achievements, and achievements that require you to think of the game’s mechanics in new and interesting ways. Anybody who takes a look at the list of achievements for a game nowadays can see the distribution of these achievement types pretty easily.
I run into a fairly major difficulty here, however, because in the achievement system as it stands, there’s no formal distinction between these types of accomplishments. In my mind, that means that all of these achievement types have parity. This is extremely problematic for my concept of what it means to be “finished” with a game. If you were to ask me ten years ago when I’d “finished” Final Fantasy Tactics, I would have told you without hesitation that it was when I’d beaten the final boss and the end credits had rolled. I might have conceded that you couldn’t really claim to have done it all until you’d picked up Cloud, Beowulf, Worker 8, and the rest. But nowhere in my wildest dreams would I have suggested that you hadn’t done everything the game could offer unless you’d played through with a team of cadets using only the classes from the original Final Fantasy—
(ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED — OLD SCHOOL (5G))
Boom! Suddenly the whimsy and the devotion isn’t earnest and intrinsic, it’s manufactured. It’s not that I mind developers having a venue for suggesting different ways of approaching their work. On the contrary, I appreciate it. The problem is that I finish a game like Lords of Shadow and I’ve earned 16 out of 40 achievements. Congratulations! You won’t be “done” with this game for a year. Because the story achievements are on the same “to-do” list as all of the extras, there’s an implied equality created here–where before I could have dismissed the sidequests, trials, and extras as material for the fervently devoted (and perhaps I might have counted myself among that number), I now feel an obligation… after all, only half of the to-do list is done!
I get achievement guilt. There are so many worthy games out there that I feel as though I’m doing a disservice to their developers if I don’t take all of the various paths that they lay at my feet. In a world where there are more good games to play than there are hours in which to play them, I have enough guilt about the games I don’t get around to (I’m sorry, Alan Wake! Forgive me, Human Revolution!) without having to worry about playing the games I do finish in the ways in which they could be played.
There are certain achievements which it’s easy to resign myself not to collecting. Playing the Endless Setlist in Rock Band? No, I’m never going to do that. Beating all of The Gunstringer on hard mode in one sitting without dying? Yeah, right. Getting to the highest level in multiplayer in Gears of War? No thank you.
And still I am nagged by my newly-grown sense of completionism. The handful of achievements left uncollected in each game taunts me. I’ve played Dead Space (and loved it!), but I never went back and played it on hard, or played through it using only the plasma cutter. I’ve played Bioshock 2, but I definitely missed the opportunity to smack the Andrew Ryan mannequin in the head with a telekinetically-wielded golf club (IRONY! — 5G). After briefly considering hooking up with Garrus in Mass Effect 2, I eventually decided that my Shepard wouldn’t betray the trust of her former partner Liara… and I missed an achievement for it! (The darn game didn’t even give it to me when I reconnected with her in the DLC!)
All of these achievements goad me because they’re out of my reach not because of my capabilities as a gamer, but because of my available time. I’m almost certain that I could beat all of those trials in Lords of Shadow if I invested a little bit of time. It wouldn’t be time wasted, exactly… the game is fun! But at some point one has to tear oneself away from a game one has beaten, even if one doesn’t feel that one is “done” with it.
Are there others out there like me, who are constantly called to by all of the tasks left undone in a game? Are there others who could have dismissed a sidequest or an optional boss in bygone times, but now feel as though they’re not being thorough? Are there players who pick up a game on the DS or PSP and think “Phew! No pressure here!”?
Maybe we can form some kind of support group.