“Vampire Killer” cover by Kaede

I know you’re all probably sick of my Castlevania fanlove, but I can’t get enough. I genuinely feel that the vampire-centric games have some of the best, most evocative, genre-perfect soundtracks in the business. Don’t get me wrong: I’m crazy about Uematsu Nobuo and the epic, symphonic scores often associated with RPGs. But Castlevania always manages to combine a hint of creepiness with a good dose of ’80s-inspired action.

Add to that the Goth, vaguely Visual Kei sensibilities of this trio, and you can’t go wrong.

“Castlevania” Season 1

Dear readers, you may have heard, long, long ago, the tale of the fearless basement monster hunters. You may have heard the whispers of bullwhips and laser guns blasting in the Stygian gloom, or of hours spent clutching a tiny glowing box for the good of all humanity. Most importantly, you may have heard of a new generation of hunters, and how they helped your Furious Academic make the bad life decisions that led to his meteoric rise in the mythical land of Angry People Writing About Dumb Things.

Put another way, you have surely deduced by now that I am an irredeemable dork who has been obsessed with Castlevania for more than a quarter of a century.

Over the years there have been many iterations of Castlevania, beginning with the NES and moving all the way up through the previous generation of game consoles. To my knowledge there’s only been one film adaptation, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are anime one-offs floating around. MercurySteam’s short-lived gritty Western reboot of the franchise tried to take it in a new direction, and all things considered did admirably well; but since the last of those games was released in 2014, the franchise has been essentially silent.

Three years and more without a peep. Which is why it was so crazy when Netflix announced its new animated Castlevania series. What’s even crazier is that they have returned to the series’ 8- and 16-bit roots, and they seem to have gotten the lore right. They even refer (constantly) to the setting as Wallachia, not Transylvania.

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They got Dracula right, too, down to the weird anime elf ears.

Castlevania’s first season tells the story of the original NES’ Castlevania III. (Which isn’t hard to do, given how the stories of the earliest games were all but nonexistent.) The hero is Trevor Belmont, who in this imagining is the last scion of the disgraced Belmont clan. This is Central Europe of the 15th century, dominated by religious zealotry and a crippling fear of supernatural powers and heresy. None of this ever made it into the earlier Castlevania games, but it makes a lot of sense to use this as the backdrop for a story in which the content of supposed “superstitions” turns out to be real. The season is only four episodes, and we don’t learn much of the Belmonts’ history or the nature of their powers as vampire hunters. There’s also a mad rush, in the first episode, to explain the reason for the season–i.e., Dracula–and his hatred for humans. This bit is, in my opinion, the least impressive of the first season. Happily, it’s also the least important. While Lisa, wife of Dracula, mother of Alucard, and tragic victim of churchish stupidity, is an interesting figure in Castlevania lore, she’s also far from central. We want whips and swords and demons, and the producers clearly know this, so they don’t keep us waiting too long.

Lisa is a precocious human who marches into Dracula’s castle–she doesn’t believe the stories about him–and demands that he teach her the secrets of science. Amused by her confidence, Dracula agrees, and they eventually marry. Obviously this golden era can’t last, though, and the Church intervenes, branding Lisa a witch and burning her at the stake. This is what prompts Dracula’s rage, and he unleashes an army of demons to plague Wallachia and eradicate the humans he views as ignorant vermin.

This is a handy way of explaining Dracula’s reappearance and the suddenness of his attacks, and it smoothly integrates the sparse stories of the original games into something broadly believable. The themes of ignorance and superstition are interesting here, again, in that the supernatural is real and dangerous. The Church emerges as the true villain, not for the content of its beliefs but its insistence on controlling the people. This conceit was never really explored in the original games, but I think it fits perfectly.

The character design is excellent, clearly modeled on Japanese animation, and the writing by Warren Ellis (!) is, with few exceptions, compelling–and often very funny. While there’s some goofy slapstick that I could have done without, Castlevania is extremely fun. Trevor is a drunken misanthrope who’s given up on the people his family have tried for centuries to help. (In this universe, the Church has branded the vampire-hunting Belmonts as black magic users and heretics, which makes a perverse kind of Dark Ages sense.) The first arc is largely about him coming back into his role as hero. Try not to cheer when he gives his “I am Trevor Belmont, of the House of Belmont, and dying has never frightened me” speech.

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*weep*

This first part of the story introduces fan favorites Alucard, the dhampir, and Sypha Belnades, the sorcerer (and Trevor’s eventual love interest). The only key character not included so far is Grant Danasty, the wall-crawling thief from Castlevania III, but there’s time yet for him to show up. The eventual meeting between Trevor and Alucard is suitably epic and my favorite scene so far. Also–and let’s be serious here– freaking ALUCARD.

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ALUCAAAAAAARD

Some minor issues with pacing and crude humor notwithstanding, I obviously really enjoyed this, and I’m very happy to learn that Netflix has already renewed the series. It’s especially enjoyable to longtime series fans, but even Castlevania newcomers will find something to like here. (Do be warned, though, if violence isn’t your thing: it’s quite gory.)

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I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long again. Life, etc. I’m hopeful that I’ll be more active on here in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, if you’re still here, drop me some love in the comments and let me know how’s things.

Monster Hunting

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I’ve mentioned before that as a kid I played a game with my younger sisters wherein we pretended to hunt monsters in our basement. I was clicking around over at the awesome Dinosaur Dracula, and the retro kitsch inspired me to show you a couple of items from our  monster hunting arsenal–because if there’s one thing the Internet needs more of, it’s ’80s/’90s nostalgia.

Being the Castlevania fan that I was, I had to play the hero: my weapons of choice were a toy whip and a “crystal” decanter of “holy water.” I had a succession of cheap toy bullwhips which played the role of the Belmont’s improbable vampire-killer. The holy water vial, a recurring weapon throughout the Castlevania series, was a repurposed plastic decanter from a toy series called “Treasure Rocks.” This was one of many add-water-to-reveal-the-cheap-plastic-doodad-style toys of the ’80s and ’90s. One of my sisters had gotten it as a Christmas or birthday gift, and once the plastic jewels were revealed there wasn’t much use for the bottle anymore–except as a weapon of righteous fury against the basement undead. It was purple and dripped late-20th-century corporate sexism, but I’d fill it with water and lob it around the basement with righteous abandon. Here’s an original ad for the toy, which disturbs me because, among other things, it gives the date as 1993, which means I was significantly older at the time I was running around hunting monsters than I realized. Ah youth.

I bet the creators of that insipid ad never imagined their pretty princess sexist garbage would be used for melting the faces off of unsuspecting vampires. Just goes to show: I was an awesome kid.

Another weapon of monster destruction was this ridiculous beast, the “Eliminator TS-7.” The Eliminator was a hideous hunk of plastic that lit up and made generic machine gun and “pew pew” laser noises. Its gimmick was that various portions of the thing could be removed and reconfigured into slightly different versions of themselves. Basically it was a big gun with a removable sword thing which included a couple of different-length blades. Silly as it was, its lights and sounds made it a lot of fun in the darkened basement.

If that doesn’t scream early-’90s America, it’s only because there are no neon bike shorts, Pogs, Married… with Children cameos or Guns n’ Roses guitar solos. Regardless, machine guns and lazer swords were pretty good for anti-demon warfare.

I can’t be the only person who discovered the supernatural (and tried to shoot it with lasers) as a kid. Did anybody else play any games like this? On a related note, did you ever play any of the various “occult” children’s games that are still popular, like trying to summon Bloody Mary or using a Ouija board?

Dracula Untold (2014)

Okay, I’ve linked to this before, but check this out. This is the trailer for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Note the over-the-top action, etc. etc. etc.

Now behold Dracula: Untold:

I’ve also pointed out the similarities here before, but having just seen the film I’m struck again by how easily it could slip into the current Castlevania mythos. Much of the elements are there already, and the plot could actually be seen as a halfway point between the original Castlevania storyline and the Lords of Shadow reboot.

None of this is necessarily bad. I love Castlevania. I just think the resemblance is uncanny, to the extent that I wonder if the filmmakers behind Dracula: Untold are fans of Konami’s venerable series.

In the film, Luke Evans is Vlad the Impaler, the prince of Transylvania–which of course doesn’t quite make sense. The historical Vlad was the prince of Wallachia, but it doesn’t matter because vampires. Vlad, who in the film was raised as a soldier by the Ottoman Turks and later returned to rule his homeland and totally not at all plot his revenge, finds himself placed in the awkward position of having to tell the Sultan that the Sultan cannot have what the Sultan wants. And what the Sultan wants is 1,000 boys to bolster the ranks of his army, including Vlad’s own son. So, you know, that’s not something Vlad supports. So there’s some grunting and some posing and Vlad kills some Turks, which is bad because of course this means WAR.

But wait, before that, Vlad and some of his soldiers discovered that there’s a vampire who lives up in the mountains. It happened at the beginning, we already knew about it, so it is not a deus ex machina, guys, okay. Jeeze.

So Vlad decides to make a deal with the devil. Or actually, he decides to make a deal with the guy who made a deal with the devil, and he gets some cool batsy powers out of it, but has thereafter to sip the most dangerous wine. Which is blood. Or, well, he will, if he can’t go three days without feeding on somebody–at which point the “Master Vampire” will be free to roam the earth again, and he, Vlad, will become a full-fledged vampire. GUESS WHAT HAPPENS.

There’s not a great deal more to it than that, I’m afraid. The plot is quite thin, mostly an excuse to string together cool action sequences and angsty posturing. But actually–and I’m as surprised as you by this–it all kind of works. At least, it does if you’re already invested in the Castlevania brand of Dracula shenanigans. Which I am.

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*Stare* *Frown*

Evans is actually a good choice for Dracula in the Casltevania vein–if they ever did a serious film version of the games, he would be a natural choice. He manages the stoic, tragic hero bit fairly well (not that there’s much substance to the role), and he pulls off the action scenes as convincingly as could be hoped in such a CGI-heavy film. The only thing he’s lacking is the facial hair.

*STARE* *FROWN*

*STARE* *FROWN* *BEARD*

Let’s be clear here: this is a ridiculous movie. It is, like most mainstream studio films, cinematic junk food. But it does vampires in a way that few recent films (or any media) have, namely, in the Castlevania way, which I like. In case you hadn’t heard. The script is fairly weak throughout, with lots of anachronistic English-accented dialogue and heaving bosoms courtesy of female lead Sarah Gadon, but everybody does their best with it, and it comes together as a fun, if shallow, action film with a few hints of darker stuff beneath the glitzy surface. The darkness, by the way, is mostly courtesy of Charles Dance as the “Master Vampire,” the conveniently local elder monster who gives Dracula his powers in the first place.

I feel like I want to give it a solid three scoops out of five, but for the sake of consistency with my other reviews, I’m knocking it down to 2.5. Because, again, Dracula Untold is not really a good movie by any stretch. But it’s entertaining, and that should be worth something. If you’re in the mood for a slick, insubstantial romp with some cool vampire imagery, this is the way to go.

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Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (2008)

Did you know that the Scholar loves Castlevania?

You probably knew that.

Right. Good.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia came out a whopping six years ago–right about the time I started my PhD program, as it happens. I’ll let you decide for yourself which aspect of that is the most depressing.

I didn’t play OoE at the time because I’d sold my DS months earlier, and had been somewhat disillusioned by the previous entry in the series. But I recently picked up a 2DS, because it appeals to the contrarian in me (three dimensions?! Fah! What pointless frippery!). And while my actual work has taken a considerable hit as a result, I’ve been happy to get back to some serious time wasting. The 3DS/2DS play old DS games, so I got OoE because, you know… Castlevania. (I also got the Lords of Shadow portable entry, which I’ll probably review soon).

Order of Ecclesia is a surprise (to me, anyway). I’d become inured to the endless spinoffs of SotN that never managed to recapture the magic of that pinnacle of 2D platforming, that prince among, uh, vampire… games…

Writing hurts. Like, my whole face.

So. You play as Shanoa, who simultaneously scores a minor victory for women in action games and proves once again that J-pop heroes have to have weird names and improbable battle attire (she wears essentially a leather breastplate over an open-back navy blue evening gown over combat boots… so maybe that victory is less of a victory and more beating the spread. But we’ll take what we can get.).

Shanoa works for the eponymous Order of Ecclesia, a group of people (apparently her and exactly two other guys) who serve as sort of interim protectors of the land against Dracula when the Belmont family is otherwise indisposed. They’ve developed a magical set of glyphs, powerful written thingies that Shanoa, for some reason, can absorb into her body and manifest at will. So if she destroys a monster carrying a sword, for instance, it may leave behind a sword glyph, which Shanoa can then absorb, and with which she can summon a sword out of thin air. The idea is that Shanoa can use the most powerful glyph of all, called Dominus, to challenge the toothy count himself, no Belmonts needed. (It’s admittedly a poorly explained magic system, but it makes for some cool gameplay.)

As sullen amnesiacs go, she’s fairly okay, and has a cool move set to complement her slightly-less-ridiculous-than-it-sounds character design. She can jump super-high, do cool midair flips, summon massive weapons from the aether, and generally make a ruckus with the best of the (so far almost exclusively male) Belmont clan. She plays, in fact, much like Alucard from the illustrious SotN, except more acrobatic and with a greater range of projectile attacks.

This trailer (via YouTuber gamingbits) gives you a good look at the gameplay, and a good listen to the cheesy voice acting.

I haven’t finished it as of this writing, but so far Order of Ecclesia is actually really good. It’s got a fair bit of cheese, sure, but the visuals are great, and the gameplay is fun and just difficult enough to be a challenge without seeming unfair. There’s some great use of sound, too, with a killer soundtrack and creepy ghost/monster voices throughout. Most importantly, it feels like Castlevania again, something I haven’t been able to say about any game since, well…. 1997.

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I have been a bad blogger lately, for which I can only apologize. Real life has intruded most uncomfortably on my nerdy horror scarytime. Rather than trying to catch up on everything I missed, I’m opting to forge blindly ahead. I hope to have more of a presence in the weeks ahead, but if I’m slow to respond or comment on posts, bear with me.

Castlevania: Hymn of Blood

I know very little about Castelvania: Hymn of Blood–I’ve only watched the first few episodes of it myself–but I’m a dork for anything Castlevania related. On top of that, it’s got Marina Sirtis and Michael Dorn. If Patrick Stewart shows up somewhere–which actually wouldn’t be unthinkable, given that he’s in the LoS games–my geeky head will geeksplode.

It’s got a fair bit of cheese, but if you can get past that, it seems like it could be fun.

Halloween Meltdown ’13: A Castlevania Confession, Part 2

Previously, on the Angry Scholar, I talked about my vampire-ridden childhood and my thing for whips. In this installment I’ll discuss growing up Belmont, the transition to 16- and then 32-bit, and the worst possible motivations behind important career decisions. Stay tuned!

The cool thing about being a child of the 80s, who is also a huge nerd, is that I got to grow up along with the video game industry. The NES was great, but then, in the early 90s, something truly magical happened: the Super Nintendo. This was the stuff of dreams. Sounds sounded like sounds. Images had a degree of depth that they’d never had before. This system was amazing. All the major game franchises were quick to release 16-bit versions on the SNES, and Konami didn’t neglect its vampire-hunting family. Simon Belmont returned in Super Castlevania IV, and the SNES’ ability to breathe life into the established Castlevania world was impressive.

16 bits meant you could actually see the ridiculous muscle definition on Simon's thighs.

16 bits meant you could actually see the ridiculous muscle definition on Simon’s thighs. You know–under his kilt. Or whatever.

Don’t ask me about the story. The Wiki article I linked to above doesn’t include one, and for all I know it was the same as ever: Dracula was doing bad things and Simon was out to whip his ass into shamefaced oblivion. (Also, I feel I should point out that the whip doesn’t stay a whip–you can get upgrades to make it into a flail with a spiked ball at the end, like in the image above.) But that was enough. This game took the creepy pixels of the previous three and made them pop out in a brilliant way, adding details like gates that you could pass through to create the illusion of three dimensions, vines that grew up iron fences as you watched, and rotating trap rooms lined with spikes that required you to whip from one hanging support to another (and made you homicidally enraged in the process). I don’t think I beat this one either, but even now I enjoy just firing it up and admiring the visuals and sound.

The next installment that I played at any length came in 1995. Inexplicably titled Castlevania: Dracula X (or Rondo of Blood in Japan), this one marks the series’ first major departure from the original aesthetic (there was a 1994 game on Genesis called Bloodlinesbut I didn’t own that system and only played the game very briefly). Dracula X introduced a new Belmont character, this one named Richter. It also introduced a more anime-ish art style and some crazy electric jazz music. The graphical leap from Super Castlevania IV to Dracula X is considerable, but I never identified with Richter like I did with Simon or Trevor. Maybe because of the headband.

And it used to be such a good neighborhood, too. Also, that giant ram-demon thing chases you. IT CHASES YOU.

And it used to be such a good neighborhood, too. Also, that giant ram-demon thing chases you. IT CHASES YOU.

For some reason, I think I actually DID beat Dracula X. I seem to remember its difficulty being somewhat lower than previous games. But none of that matters, because SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT.

Dracula X is the prequel to 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the best entry in the original Castlevania franchise and perhaps the greatest 2D action game ever made. SotN, which was released on the Sony PlayStation–thereby bringing the franchise into the 32-bit era–picks up not long after Richter’s original adventure. The young Belmont has been brainwashed by an evil priest (hilariously named Shaft), who plans to resurrect Dracula and figures having a Belmont on his side will pretty much make the damned thing stick this time around.

In SotN, instead of playing as a Belmont, you play as Alucard (his real name, the instruction manual informed us, is Adrian Fahrenheit Tepes), the estranged son of Dracula who was introduced way back in Castlevania 3 and now looks way more anime and way less Bela Lugosi. Unlike the Belmonts, Alucard uses a range of weapons–mostly swords–and looks super-cool in his Lestat-style 17th-century fake gothy French court regalia.

I think I shall have a– BLT. No– *sigh*– just a salad. (Wikipedia)

Alucard is also notable for being a half-vampire, or dhampir, which means that he has a lot of the snazzy powers of his vampire dad without having to, you know, puncture people’s throats. Over the course of the game you get the ability to transform into a bat, a wolf, or mist–all classic Stokerian vampire abilities–as well as cast various magic spells to smite thine enemies.

SotN upped the ante on atmosphere a hundredfold. It has an incredible soundtrack, and environments that all imply a crazy backstory, which you never get fully in-game but can imagine for yourself if you’re so inclined. For instance, there’s a chapel where you can sit in a confessional booth. If you sit on one side, the ghost of a weeping woman appears in the other, and sits there sobbing for a while before fading away. If you choose the opposite side, another ghost appears, pulls the curtains shut, and stabs you with a bunch of knives that appear out of nowhere.

I feel there is some religious commentary here, but I am too dumb to decipher it.

Since I don’t have a way to easily snag a screenshot of SotN, here’s a video showcasing some of its awesomeness. This is the moment when Alucard first arrives at Dracula’s pad.

Over the course of the game you explore the entirety of Dracula’s castle, as well as a weird shadow-world inversion of it (because why not?). Alucard faces and defeats his father, of course, but on the way he fights a freaking who’s-who of classic (and not-so-classic) monsters: Frakenstein’s monster, called only “The Creature”; a succubus; gaggles of skeletons, zombies and witches; werewolves; undead clones of the heroes from Castlevania 3; several flying demon-creatures, including one that looks like Cthulhu but is named something else, and one that looks like something else and is called Cthulhu (haha, noobs); a giant, rotting corpse suspended from meat hooks; an obvious nod to Max Schreck’s Count Orlock in Nosferatu, who here is called “Olrox”; a headless skeleton who chases his skull around comically and is named, of course, Yorick; and a giant ball of human corpses, held together by a tentacly abomination that shoots lasers out of its eyes. There’s nothing not to like.

And this is where my recap of Castlevania stops, dear readers, because these are the ones that were released during my formative years. All that empowerment against evil supernatural entities that the first games represented came to a head in SotN, where you’re not only able to fight the monsters, but you’re actually one of them. A subplot involves Alucard resisting his demonic nature despite the best efforts of Dracula’s minions to recruit him to their cause. None of this is to say, I should add, that SotN’s story was super complex. It was an action/platformer, and the story, while present and sufficient, was really secondary to the gameplay. Also, it has a few instances of shoddy voice acting that at times seriously detract from the rather barebones narrative. But none of this matters, because it is awesome.

If I have one real complaint about SotN, it’s that it’s no longer scary at all. You’re still fighting the same monsters, in similar environments that are more beautifully realized than ever before; but it’s brighter, more polished, less bleak and ghoulish, somehow (even though it was more graphic and violent than any of the previous entries).

These first six entries in the franchise made a lasting impression on me. I trace my interest in the supernatural to a lot of sources, but now, in retrospect, I think it really began with Castlevania (and maybe a few other pop culture sources at around the same time). Another video game franchise, Fatal Framegave me a name for what I wanted to be (a folklorist), but Castlevania sparked my abiding interest in the supernatural. It may seem ridiculous that a fictionalized, cartoony portrayal of generic horror monsters could translate into something like a career choice, but we are all of the world, like it or not; pop culture (broadly understood) can influence as much as anything else. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it encourages us to question things, to learn more, and to recognize the motivations underlying its portrayal in these kinds of materials.

Following SotN, there were a lot of games in the series released on portable devices. I played a few of them, but they all seemed too derivative and gimmicky. There was also an N64 version, which I didn’t play but was supposedly awful. (There were several entries on the Gameboy prior to this, as well, but I didn’t play those either, or not enough to remember.) But the series as a whole has shaped my sensibilities as a gamer and, again in a real sense, influenced my whole career trajectory. So, I guess, thanks, Konami. When all this is said and done, can I get a job as, like, a PR guy? Please?

So what does any of this have to do with Halloween? Well, the games themselves are obviously full to bursting of Halloweeny imagery and music. Vampires and werewolves and demons and zombies lurch out of every inch of Castlevania’s considerable floor space. But also, regardless of the holiday’s origins, I’m inclined to say that, at least for some of us, Halloween today is at least partly about the same feeling of empowerment that these games provide. The supernatural is closer on this day than on any other, and by embracing it, celebrating it, we enter into a more equal, and less fearful, relationship to it. Plus candy.

One last thing: Castlevania in general has brilliant music, as I’ve tried to demonstrate at least once before. But in case you’re not convinced, head on over to YouTube and search for the OSTs to any of the original trilogy, or SotN (I recommend the song entitled “Woodcarving Partita”–super awesome harpsichord, yo). Meanwhile, here’s a metal version of Castlevania 2‘s three main themes by the awesome video game cover band, the Minibosses. (On their website, they have their first album available for free download, and you can purchase their other stuff. They are awesome–if you’re an old-school gamer, you won’t be disappointed.)

What a horrible night to have a curse!