Thursday, February 6, 2014

What is a Castlevania?

February sees the sequel to Castlevania Lords of Shadow, which is named as you might expect, Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 .  That being said I wanted to take a minute to talk about this game and Castlevania in 3D.  Ever since Castlevania 64 and its much more complete director's cut edition, Legacy of Darkness were released, fans have been divided about CV in 3D. I personally think that Castlevania 64 and Legacy of Darkness are two of the best games in the series, and was an honest projection of the games' atmosphere into 3D.  The two CV games on the PS2 Lament of Innocence, and Curse of Darkness were great games in their own right, and important additions to the CV Canon, but sadly they are more dungeon crawlers than they are Castlevania.

If you think about the old games you had a hero (usually a Belmont) fighting his way through the Castle and countryside to reach Dracula and defeat him, and that's exactly what CV64 and LOD did. Both games featured stages with very distinct themes, and the 64 games had very distinct stages, with memorable set pieces. I'd also like to point out that the amount of things you can use the "check" feature on and get descriptions of is mind boggling. The developers definitely wanted to put some detail and personality in to the characters. It seems like every so often when I play the game I find some other random object you can click on and get a description, everything from chairs to "the mechanism that opens the portcullis" gets some little snippet of text giving your character's musing on it.  Some of the common complaints you hear about the N64 games is that the camera was bad, or the controls wonky, but having played them both all the way through numerous times I can honestly say the camera was never more than a minor annoyance, and in a time when 3D gaming, and 3D platformers were just getting off the ground I think that any annoyances with CV64 and LOD's camera was no greater than any annoyance you would find any of the other early 3D platformers on the N64 or PS1 at the time.

And don't try to tell me the controls were an issue. Have you played Castlevania 1, 3 or Belmont's Revenge? These are all considered high lights of the series, but the controls are far far from smooth. Not to say that they are bad, but in each one the control of the character was something that had to be mastered. Belmonts and their friends have always moved in less than agile ways, and mastering that was a part of the reward to the game. Once you got to know the controls and how they worked it was no longer hard to dodge enemy attacks, no you had everything you need it was just about thinking carefully how to use it.

Finally I get to talking about Lords of Shadow 2 and what it has to do with all of this. I was very excited for the first game and made the mistake of being very hyped for it, resulting in an excruciating wait for the game's release years ago. This time I have kind of distanced myself from the game and the hype so that I go in fresh not knowing what to expect.  I wasn't one of the types that felt that LOS wasn't a real CV game, because I felt it was, just in a different light.  A lot of people were saying around the release of LOS that they hoped it wasn't a "mistake" like the N64 games supposedly were. Ironically I think that Lords of Shadow 2 may end up being more like the N64 games after all.   The developers have told us that LOS2 takes place in an open world, which interestingly enough is how Castlevania 64 was first envisioned. You had to travel the countryside and the castle to make it to the final confrontation. It had multiple characters, and a freer roam feel to it than any Castlevania had ever had before Symphony of the Night changed the series game play style.  Also I view the plot of the N64 games to be some of the deepest the series has to offer as far as plot twist and back-story.  The whole atmosphere with the plot to ensnare Cornell's wolf spirit and the involvement of Gille de Rais and Actrise was all perhaps a bit campy but as far as CV games were concerned with it was daggum William Faulkner.  Lords of Shadow has done a great job of setting up a new CV lore and setting with a mere 3 games to work with as opposed to mainline CV's some 20 canon games released from the span of the 80s to now.  The reveal that the final scene in LOD 1 was taking place in the present day was quite a jolt to me. A storyline kind of jolt I had never got from another CV game, and I hope that Lords of Shadow 2 will continue to build on that kind of revelation.

My face when at the end of Lords of Shadow 2 you find out that the whole thing took place in modern day all along and that they were using water to fight the monsters because Gabriel was a ghost all along.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fighting Layer

Fighting Layer is a bizarre Japan-only, Arcade-Only fighting game released by Arika in 1998.  Fighting Layer is supposedly similar to the Street Fighter EX series, which Arika also developed, however having only briefly played that at a friend's house back in high school I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that statement.  What I CAN confirm is that Fighting Layer is a great gem of an arcade fighter that sadly seems to have been buried at a time when fighting games were a dime a dozen, and 3D fighting games were starting to become more than novelties in the genre.

Ironically Fighting Layer still has a website on publisher Arika's page after all these years, though it is all in Japanese. Using my limited knowledge of Japanese I was able to glean that the story line is nothing we haven't heard before. A group of fighters headed to a tournament on an island, each with their own reasons and quirks for going, as well as a sinister villain waiting to defeat the last man standing.  The game draws  its odd name through the mechanic in which you progress through the game. Instead of moving up a ladder your character is presented as fighting through a mansion with various "rooms" and "floors"  that the game's matches take place in. There are also several bonus levels which can alter your path throughout the game. At one point you will fight a suit of armor, defeat it and you go up and later get to choose your animal fight stage, lose and you're headed to the basement and set on a course to fight the shark. Yes that's right there's a shark. Before you face the game's sub-boss and the final boss Vold you'll have to fight a dangerous animal. There are three of them, Tiger, Eagle, and the aforementioned Shark.  These animal fights can be challenging until you get the pattern down, and what's worse as a cheap way to get quarters you only get one round on these fights, which is fine if you win, but upon losing you have to pay for another one round match just to try to beat these stupid things. Considering this game will mostly see play on emulators nowadays this isn't a problem, but I can see this being a major turn off for Fighting Layer's case back when it was in Japanese arcades.

If we take a look at these goofballs trying to fight their way through the island tournament, we'll find fighting game staples such as Tetsuo Kato, your typical Japanese martial arts type character complete with always training attitude and torn white gi so he's not too straight edge,  WrestleMania heyday lookalike characters like Exodus, and Clemence Kelieber, Lan and Shang, your Chinese kung-fu type characters, a ninja etc, but also complete oddballs like Cappriccio  who looks like something out of Alien Resurrection, and the game's final boss Vold who is something of a mix between a wild animal and a Japanese train pervert.  That's not to say these characters are bad, to the contrary, most of them are fairly fun to play as and are interesting enough that you'd want to know a backstory. Unfortunately, most of the official ones are pretty vague, and the game's endings tell you even less about them. There are two characters from Street Fighter EX, whom I suppose have a little more meat and potatoes to them, but some of Fighting Layers more interesting characters like George Jinsent, Preston Ajax, and Janis Luciani have almost no information available about them.

Gameplay wise Fighting Layer works like something of a hybrid between those weird Fighting Vipers era caged 3D fighing games and other 3D fighting games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter. It is possible to find yourself moving into the fore or backgrounds, however much of the action will take place on a 2D plane, and you are limited by a cage. The juggling and combo aspect feels very Tekken though with it being possible to chain normal attacks and supers on to falling opponents to knock in a few extra hits.  Unlike Tekken and Fighting Vipers however it does feature a super move bar, which maxes out at three units allowing you to execute super moves.  These super moves also can have powered up variations which change the name of the move. The names of them super moves are spelled out dramatically on screen when you finish an opponent with them which is a nice touch that theatrically falls somewhere between the seizure inducing Street Fighter round ended with a super animation and the not so spectacular fall down animation from being finished off by MK9's X Ray moves. The game's introductory cut scene boast a number of advanced features such as Barrage Blows(the supers), Hard Reversals,  Super canceling etc, but its nothing we really haven't seen before, and if Fighting Layer of all games did pioneer any of these things, its notability has been lost by the sheer obscurity of this title.

Despite its obscure nature, and a somewhat limited , though interesting single player experience Fighting Layer is a lovely gem of a fighting game, and its a shame it never got a proper PS1 port with awful looking but endearing Tekken 1 era CGI endings, Vs. modes and move list etc.   If you  have the means its worth checking out. I'm not saying that MAME can emulate it, but MAME can emulate it and if you have a good enough computer it should run easily well enough to enjoy.


As an aside what’s the deal with all those old 3D fighters having the matches take place in cages? I remember Virtua Fighter having ringouts, but it just seemed like everyone else said we’re doing this in a cage. I guess at that time they didn’t really know a way to handle the fact that the arena had to be realistic, which would have been hard if the players just moved on infinitely. It took the Tekken team to finally say SCREW IT we’re doing infinite stages the ground will just have to look silly when it moves, and if you don’t like it tough Ganryu.