Sometimes a long-running series needs a kick in the pants. Nick D. looks at the Castlevania series and its ability to keep fresh by continuously reinventing itself.
Many long-running series get accused of playing it safe and sticking to what works. Castlevania is not one of those. With a history spanning from 1986, and dozens of games, Castlevania is a series that has never shied away from reinvention. The most recent interpretation of the campy, Dracula-killing adventure, The Lords of Shadow saga, has transformed the series into a grand God of War-style epic. This reinvention is both admired by gamers, clamoring for change, and distrusted by long-time fans, who often desire a return to a more classic structure. It is to Castlevania’s credit that the series has been willing to keep changing despite the allure of playing it safe and releasing practically the same game over and over again.
There are three major styles that I intend to highlight. First there is the classic Castlevania gameplay as exemplified by the original game. Second, the widely popular Metroidvania style, which garnered perhaps the widest fanbase. Third is the relatively new modern action style, which is largely derived from the game God of War.
The original Castlevania was a 2D platforming action game in the same vein as Mega Man. The game was stage-based and still clung onto the arcade holdover of a running score. This original style was predominant until 1997. However, that didn’t stop Konami from innovating with the formula. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest could have been a carbon copy of Castlevania, yet, like Nintendo with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Konami attempted something drastically different by stitching action RPG elements to the game. Like Link’s second departure, Simon’s Quest is widely seen as a missed opportunity.
Like Link’s second departure, Simon’s Quest is widely seen as a missed opportunity.
The 3D Castlevania games on the Nintendo 64, the PlayStation and the PlayStation 2 are also fairly representative of the classic style. While some of them were more influenced by the Metroidvania style than others, they still maintained the straight up action platforming that made the original game and its successors so popular.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ushered in a completely different way of approaching the series. Instead of basic action platforming, an emphasis was placed on exploration, item acquisition and the increasing involvement of RPG elements such as levels and stats. The games of this style such as Symphony of the Night are typically referred to as Metroidvania. This refers to the melding of Castlevania combat and setting traditions with the exploration-driven Metroid gameplay.
Konami struck it big with the Metroidvania style and Symphony of the Night is widely considered one of the best games in the entire series. More importantly, the introduction of RPG elements allowed Konami greater opportunity to experiment with the series. What used to be a game about various Belmonts whipping Dracula into submission expanded to become so much more.
What used to be a game about various Belmonts whipping Dracula into submission expanded to become so much more.
A multitude of protagonists, combat systems, and locales opened up for use. Konami had managed to maintain the Castlevania feel, while completely revamping what it meant to be a Castlevania game.
In 2010, Castlevania: Lords of Shadows was released and ushered in another new way of looking at Castlevania games. It is no secret that older 3D Castlevania games were not the successes that they could have been. This is in part to do with poor controls and occasionally uninspired design.
MercurySteam and Kojima Productions used the modern action game formula developed by God of War in order to make a game that worked on a fundamental level. Where this style differed from the older classic style is the emphasis on combat and the cinematic experience. Story was placed at the forefront for the first time, and large-scale epic battles replaced precision platforming.
The benefits of a constantly shifting series are great. A series that is constantly changing will rarely be accused of stagnation. And it’s stagnation that is becoming a major concern in the video game industry as costs increase and fewer companies are willing to take a risk by messing with what works. It is this line of thinking that has led to installments of series such as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty being full of incremental changes rather than sweeping innovation.
A series that is willing to reinvent itself also opens up the door for new fanbases to grow. It is unlikely that the Castlevania series would be as big as it is now if it weren’t for Symphony of the Night.
It is unlikely that the Castlevania series would be as big as it is now if it weren’t for Symphony of the Night.
Sometimes innovation leads to underwhelming results such as with DmC: Devil May Cry. Other times, companies can hit the goldmine and completely change the industry like in the case of Resident Evil 4. A series that remains the same for too long will start to accrue complaints both internally from fans and externally from professional critics.
Of course, there are several severe downsides to reinventing your series too much, or doing so poorly. Principle among these issues is leaving a fragmented fanbase in your wake. Fans attach themselves very strongly to games that they love. By moving on, companies risk alienating their core fanbase. This has been seen strongly in ever-changing game series such as Final Fantasy where each game brings a swarm of disheveled fans, angry that the newest game is not the same as their favorite in the series.
Castlevania has experienced this blowback as well. First by fans desperate for a return to the classic style, and then with fans wanting the series to go back to the Metroidvania adventure they loved.
And this brings the greatest risk for innovative companies. A fractured fanbase is, by its very definition, an unhappy one. Excellent games can get lost in the shuffle if a new fanbase doesn’t latch onto it. For example, the fifth game in the Breath of Fire series, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, completely changed genre and bucked at the traditions of the series that spawned it. Despite being an outstanding game, it went almost entirely unnoticed as much of the preexisting fanbase refused to touch it, and it didn’t pick up a new fanbase to compensate.
The Castlevania: Lords of Shadow saga has experienced blowback from the fanbase. This is, in part, because the game is a reboot or reinterpretation of the continuity. But the real culprit is the seemingly derivative nature of the gameplay. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but, in the gaming world, it can get you into trouble.
The accusation of being a clone is a serious one in gaming, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has been referred to as a God of War clone on various occasions. Without arguing the merits of this accusation, it is clear that much of the vitriol being slung at this game comes from fans of the series who are unhappy with the direction the series has taken. And that’s the dangerous line that Konami has decided to walk. Every reinvention will be met with naysaying and defections from one’s own camp, and companies like Konami, have to be prepared to deal with that.
The future for the Castlevania series is uncertain. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is supposedly the end of that saga, which could mean a complete abandonment of the modern action style. This leaves Castlevania fans in a bit of quandary. Many are pushing for the series to return to its roots with the majority advocating Metroidvania over classic Castlevania.
The question is whether Konami should go back to one of the older styles, or should they reinvent the series once again? The safer money is a return to pumping out Metroidvania games. But Konami has shown a willingness to invent and innovate with Castlevania and it would be a shame for them to take the easy road.