Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Castlevania: Dracula X (SNES) Review

Written: October 15th-18th, 2016
Alternate Titles: Akumajō Dracula XX [|O|] / Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss [|O|]
Year: 1995 | Developed and Published by: Konami

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.
Image from Wikipedia
On October 1993 Konami released the then PC Engine Super CD-ROM² System exclusive Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo in Japan to commemorate their tenth installment in their Akumajō Dracula series (Castlevania in the West) which was only seven years old at the time (2016 marks its 30th).  It was highly regarded by many as one of the best (if not the best) games in the growing vampire-slaying series, and for very good reason, but unfortunately it only stayed in Japan and was not officially made available in the West both until the arrival of its 2.5D PlayStation Portable remake Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (with the original version and its sequel Castlevania: Symphony of the Night also included as unlockables) in 2007 and 2008 for America and Europe respectively and in 2010 for both respective Nintendo Wii Virtual Console downloadable services (where you could play it on your TV).  =)

"Get out of the way!"
But long before any of that happened the Nintendo 16-bit console received the second and final entry in the series (nearly four years after the Akumajō Dracula "remake" Super Castlevania IV) which was based on Akumajō Dracula X in terms of gameplay and numerous character/enemy designs and animations but was an entirely different game altogether despite practically sharing the same plot; there is a reason for this, but I'll get to that later on.  First it came out in Japan for the Super Famicom on July 1995 as Akumajō Dracula XX to clearly differentiate itself and avoid confusion with the 1993 game, which was not the case for the American SNES release which was woefully given the moniker Castlevania: Dracula X that September giving people the impression that it and Akumajō Dracula X were one and the same when they're not (which wasn't helped by the fact that the NTSC cover shared the exact same one from the PC Engine game).

"If you kill me you will never play the chameleon/bat
throwback to the 3D Nintendo 64 platforming era
that is Yooka-Laylee!!"
It would get followed by a European and Australian PAL conversion on February and June 1996 respectively as Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss; I'm not sure why the subtitle was changed... it's got nothing to do with the Nicolas Cage movie of the same name, obviously, though I'm curious if it was either a change made for platonic reasons or if "Dracula X" struck a negative cord with the PAL audience (I'm sure it might be the former).  Regardless, today's game was met with lots of scrutiny both by comparison to Akumajō Dracula X (and what came prior) and as its own game, for it has been deemed by many as a huge disappointment by Konami given their talents and preceeding hits; but is it really that bad?

In the year 1792 the residents of Transylvania have long been accustomed to the peace that followed after Simon Belmont defeated Count Dracula a century prior (whoever translated the intro didn't seem to know what the word "several" meant 'cause it implies that Simon existed either in the 14th or 15th century when that's far off).  History begins to repeat itself, however, as a devil-worshiping cult has revived the Prince of Darkness, who wishes to unleash chaos once more to the people of Transylvania as he unleashes his legion of monsters against them; Dracula also exacts his vengeance on the Belmont bloodline by kidnapping nineteen-year old Richter Belmont's seventeen-year old girlfriend Annet (Annette in Akumajō Dracula X) as well as her twelve-year old sister Maria Renard.  Burdened by his destiny with the resolve to send Count Dracula to eternal damnation once and for all, Richter will stop at nothing to save his betrothed as well as end Dracula's reign of terror.

Tossing cross boomerangs towards piranha men
atop a deteriorating bridge
The controls for this Castlevania installment are exactly like those from Akumajō Dracula X before it, going back to its traditional roots (which means no whipping in all eight directions or swinging on hooked rings like you could in Super Castlevania IV) and more.  The default controls for Richter are B to jump, Y to use his ancestral whip either to the left or to the right, either while standing still, ducking, on the stairs, or while in midair (only this time you don't have to upgrade the whip as it's both powerful and long enough to begin with), and by pressing up and Y you'll use a subweapon (cross boomerang, dagger, time clock, holy water, axe, all found after whipping certain candles) provided you have a sufficient amount of hearts (also inside candles) at your disposal.  Richter cannot control his midjumps (like you could with Simon in the aforementioned 1991 entry), which means that once you decide where to jump ahead of or behind you that's the direction you'll go (the closest you can manage to move in midair is after jumping straight up, but only a few inches); but he can moonwalk provided you hold down the Y button as you walk in the opposite direction you're facing and do a backflip by pressing B twice (because athleticism was a thing during these times).

Time is not on the wolfman's side
Akumajō Dracula X was the first game in the series to incorporate the Item Crash ability which would become a staple to the upcoming iterations (which like the other controls have been brought over to today's game), but was first introduced to the West via the American and European versions of the Sega 16-bit entry Vampire Killer, Castlevania: Bloodlines and Castlevania: The New Generation respectively in 1994.  To put the Item Crash to effect all you have to do is press the X button provided the heart counter is very translucent, and what this is essentially is the most potent way of utilizing your current weapon, to great effect even, but given that they use up a lot of hearts I sincerely recommend using them either as a last resort or when you feel outnumbered.  Another welcome and convenient innovation that Akumajō Dracula X utilized which thankfully also got carried over to today's game is the fact that when you get a new subweapon the old one will be set aside and you have a choice whether to keep the new one you got or revert back to the old one you had previously.  In the previous games once you got a new subweapon you were stuck with it until you got another one later on, which is gladly not the case here (but you do have a few seconds to decide before the swapped subweapon is no longer closely accessible).  =)

Deep in the heart of Atlantis (or rather its equivalent)
The original soundtrack in Akumajō Dracula X was done by Akira Sōji (Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2), Keizō Nakamura (Castlevania Chronicles), Tomoko Sano (Little King's Story), and Mikio Saito (TwinBee Taisen Puzzle Dama) which utilized the Red Book Audio with an onboard sound chip that enabled really good sound quality (all were involved in the dating sim Tokimeki Memorial)... and honestly it paid off because the soundtrack was really good.  When it came to today's game the majority of the songs were sufficiently converted to Nintendo 16-bit format by Tomoya Tomita (who also worked on Pop'n TwinBee, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, and most recently provided music for Good-Feel's feel-good platformers Kirby's Epic Yarn and Yoshi's Woolly World--excellent résumé), Masanari Iwata (Nintendo 16-bit The Adventures of Batman & Robin, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius), Harumi Uekō (The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Nintendo 16-bit Batman Returns), and Masahiko Kimura (Nintendo 16-bit The Adventures of Batman & Robin, Ganbare Goemon Kirakira Dōchū: Boku ga Dancer ni Natta Wake) albeit to varying results.

Oh, Medusa Head, you are not the worst enemy
in this game, for there is another that is worse
The melodies are still there (for the most part), don't get me wrong, but because the Nintendo 16-bit did not support Red Book Audio the songs tend to sound a bit different in terms of the sound samples Konami used and ran on infinite loops; but regardless of that, the soundtrack in today's game is not a bad listen (some have argued online that some of the songs actually sound better here than they did in Akumajō Dracula X).  =)  Richter's theme at the start of the game gets you pumped for what's to come with its guitar riff, energetic beats, and well-composed stringwork; the theme that plays in the caverns is menacingly catchy; the theme for the area full of streams and water is invitingly atmospheric, and the area theme used for one of the alternate stages is unlike what the rest of the soundtrack offers for it vies for a funky tune befit for disco (there has been a lot of controversy over whether the actual title of the song was "Slash" or "Opus 13").  The theme that plays when storming Dracula's domain in the end is a good amalgam of classic Castlevania songs "Vampire Killer" and "Bloody Tears" with a big sense of urgency to the proceedings.

I like the Baroque nature of this setting
Speaking of classic songs, these versions of "Vampire Killer", "Bloody Tears", and "Beginning" all sound good (even if I can't help but feel that the very former seems like it's missing something).  =)  The normal boss theme is good for what it is, but what really steals it is the final battle theme when confronting the Prince of Darkness himself for it is masterfully instrumented and it works greatly as a do-or-die number.  Today's game does have a couple of songs specifically made for the Nintendo 16-bit that were not around for Akumajō Dracula X, those being the overture theme where it sets the tone for the story and atmosphere, and the credits theme is a beautifully melancholic melody which reprises Richter's theme at points and is well-earned after all is said and over with.  The sound effects are decently selected, particularly with the sounds of the subweapons being used, Richter's soundbyte when he takes damage or loses a life, and even the sounds of Richter's whip when being used (if you listen carefully, the sound of the whip hitting nothing but thin air sounds exactly like one of Sparkster's sword swinging sound effects from the Nintendo 16-bit spinoff to Rocket Knight Adventures that is Sparkster, not to be confused with the Sega 16-bit sequel of the same name).

Mud monsters, oh no!
Visually, today's game is alright to look at, though I'd be quite remiss if I didn't have mixed feelings on them as a whole.  I like the colors that Konami used in all of them, and there is good amount of background design; such as for the caverns that dwell underneath (with both stalagmites and stalactites) which sometimes have hands clinging onto prison-like cells, the Atlantis-like setting with all the water is serene to look at with its usage of the blue color hues, and the clock tower has got some neat-looking animated gears that are well-shaded.  The real standout moment transpires during the start of the game, actually, when Richter begins his quest with the towering, sizzling, and glowing color-layering flame effect throughout the first stage with the buildings looming in the backdrop behind it with a wavy and sizzling effect.  It's quite effective, really, as it lends that area so much atmospheric depth; unfortunately this leads me to the problem I have with the other stages on a visual sense: they simply pale by comparison.  =(

"Eye see you!"
There is an ample amount of detail to be sure (the Baroque architecture is a nice touch), but the majority of stages use simple line scrolling (even in moments where Konami could've taken real advantage of parallax scrolling, such as the caves and the roomful of columns), if not at all; there is an elegantly done parallax scrolling moment at the start of the second stage with the mountains and the watery reflection below them that gets brighter as you move along but that's shortlived before you get inside; it's also got piercing light effects coming from the clouds but those were painted onto the background (the piercing light effects in Rareware's Super Donkey Kong 2: Dixie & Diddy/Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest were more realistic and convincing), and there aren't even many color-layering moments (during the force-scrolling moment of the fifth stage Richter's palette remains unchanged if there's water on or beneath him, lame) or eye-popping moments.  My guess is that the design team were aiming for something basic, but that just winds up being its weakness as the overall visuals feel pallid next not just to Akumajō Dracula X (which heavily incorporated in-depth parallax scrolling and had such an engrossing look and feel to it all) but also pretty much all the other Konami games on the Nintendo 16-bit console (like Super Castlevania IV and Contra III: The Alien Wars which looked more stunning, and as highly overrated as I find The Legend of the Mystical Ninja to be that game at least had an everlasting visual appeal).

♫ Where there's a whip, there's a way! ♪
Many of the in-game designs and animations for Richter Belmont, enemies, bosses, subweapons, and props were carried over from the PC Engine game; many of them were faithfully transitioned rather decently (except the red skeletons who stick out like a sore thumb with their thick, black outlines compared to all else beside them) but with differing animation speed.  In Akumajō Dracula X Richter had a fluid walking animation that played at a moderate speed with a swift whipping speed, but in today's game his walking animation was sped up exponentially and had a slightly slower whipping motion to him.  Among the enemy roster are the skeletons, Medusa heads, bats, axe-wielding knights, piranha men, flaming red skulls, mud monsters, floating blue eyeballs with tails(?), and the highly loathed spearmen; and among the bosses you fight converted from Akumajō Dracula X are a giant werebat that turns into smaller bats upon being hit, a giant leviathan that rises up and slithers on the playing field (including its grisly death), an imposing minotaur, and a knight that attacks you with its head and huge lance.  Some of the bosses when they're defeated either go out in a burst of flames or get disintegrated.
Maria Renard sprite on the right from the Castlevania Crypt website
In both games Maria Renard was the first kidnapped person you saved as Richter, and what was great in Akumajō Dracula X was how she would become a playable character who surprised everyone that played it on account of both her ability to be adorably endearing and kick ass despite her tender age and otherwise serious environment.  =)  In today's game, however, she was reduced to being just a damsel in distress which is disappointing; if you've played both games you'll notice that Maria's sprites and animation were used to a small degree but under a slightly modified design.
Camilla image from the Video Game Museum website, flipped by me
The same is also the case for when Richter saves his beloved Annet, only in this case she was a heavily modified redesign of the lesbian vampire Camilla from Akumajō Dracula X; the sprites aren't many but it is her, from the moment she gets up from kneeling down to beckoning her betrothed--the last of which was actually the heavily modified version of Camilla siphoning hearts and health away from Richter when next to him... awwwwwkwaaaaaardO_O

Huh, Magolor is a lot more humanoid than I
remember him to be
That's a joke, by the way
I'm not sure why Konami made these alterations; perhaps it was to accommodate the new designs given to them during the overture but if they were fine spritelifting many of the monsters, bosses, and Richter from the PC Engine title without so much as changing their in-game design... it just seems like an unnecessary thing given they're only seen in-game once.  In the 1993 game when Richter lost all his health he fell back in the air and disappeared into a disintegration of blood, but when it happens in here his body becomes white (the American version as opposed to bloody red in Akumajō Dracula XX).  There are three bosses made exclusively for this game, two of those being the Cerberus creature and the Necromancer with his two phases, and they both look and animate really well; Dracula and his two forms had different designs (with the second one looking fearsome) but that's because of how the final battle was set up (I'll get to that).  Akumajō Dracula X had FMV-like anime cutscenes every once in awhile, but the designs used for this game's overture, defeat of Dracula, and one of the three possible ending scenarios are different but well-drawn with the manga-like format and heavy shadows which augment a sense of contrast.

Imposing bat altar around you
Akumajō Dracula X set itself apart from the remainder of the traditional console Castlevania games of the time by having an automatic save function in one of three save files (where it was possible to get up to 100% completion) as opposed to using passwords, which are still used in today's game (behind the score, heart, and life points that awkwardly count from zero to how many you had with the defeat of each boss; though the suspend point in the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console release renders the password moot); though if you stuck with it to the end it is possible to beat in one sitting (where it takes roughly forty-sixty minutes depending on how you do).  On the bright side for both games there is no timer (hooray) which means like Ocean Software's The Addams Family and Mr. Nutz you can take as long as you want because this game can be quite challenging and difficult at times.

Hey, this game stole the skull and eye boss from
Life Force, Konami should sue!  >=|  ......waaait......
Due the relatively late arrival on the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo combined with the unpleasant reaction it got from gamers in 1995 Castlevania's Nintendo 16-bit swansong tends to have a high price tag on eBay (less for Akumajō Dracula XX but still a lot; though recently I saw a copy of the American cart go for as low as $39 which is unusual, not that I'm complaining).  It skipped the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console downloadable service but it was given a Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console release in its first ever rerelease in 2014; so if you didn't own an SNES console or have reservations about spending huge amounts of money on a single video game it only costs $8 if you were curious which is a bargain.

Enter the annoying spearmen, made worse here
Akumajō Dracula XX/Castlevania: Dracula X/Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss has been regarded by many as one of Konami's biggest disappointments for the Nintendo 16-bit or any console; at a time when Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo remained in Japan and was only read about in gaming magazines, when it was announced that there would be another Castlevania on the SNES with the title "Dracula X" many had hoped it would either be like the PC Engine title they read and dreamed about or be another Super Castlevania IV--when it finally came out and wound up being neither of those things people openly expressed their frustration and disappointment with it; Japan knew what they were getting into, America and Europe did not, for this game was the closest the West got to play Akumajō Dracula X (but not quite) as they played the 1995 game first.  Even after officially playing the 1993 title on Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (both original and remake) almost a decade ago this game is still largely frowned upon but it has developed a small following over the years.

"You're fired!"
While this game was praised for retaining the traditional vampire hunting gameplay of the earlier entries, expansion on gameplay up to and including the Item Crash, as well as its great soundtrack it was criticized for its stage layouts, enemy placement (in some cases both), and high difficulty; and in the past several years was lambasted for not being a direct port of Akumajō Dracula X.  Today's game is a victim of bad timing for the period from the late '80s to mid '90s was a time when Nintendo, Sega, and NEC (the PC Engine company) were going up against each other in the video game industry; while Konami made games for all three businesses they were rarely equal to each other (that would explain why their games for Sega's and Nintendo's 16-bit consoles often wound up being different).  Given the 1993 game was originally an NEC console exclusive Konami could not make a direct port of it over to the Nintendo 16-bit console so in lieu of that they made another one with a similar plot, soundtrack, and gameplay with many of the sprites and animations of the enemies, monsters, and Richter being lifted from the PC Engine title but with newly formed up stages created from scratch; the same thing happened with Telenet Japan's Valis IV (also native to the PC Engine) as when it came to the Nintendo 16-bit they could not port it directly but create a differently-structured game with much of the gameplay and character/enemy sprites left intact in the form of Super Valis: Akaki Tsuki no Otome (Super Valis IV in America).  Times and video game politics were different then.  =(

Gearing up for some clock tower action
You're probably annoyed at the fact that I keep referring to the Nintendo 16-bit Castlevania swansong as "this game" or "today's game", and to be honest I'm a bit annoyed at that myself, but I would've been more annoyed if I had to call it by its actual American name because if I frequently called it "Castlevania: Dracula X" then I feel that would've put a stain on Akumajō Dracula X's name because they are not the same game despite both games including the words "Dracula X" in the title; I'd refer to it as Akumajō Dracula XX or Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss, but then that would give the impression that I played the Super Famicom or PAL SNES version of this game when I have not.  I first heard of the 1993 and 1995 games back in 2006 or 2007 when I looked up some gameplay videos of them on YouTube and they did pique my interest (the Nintendo 16-bit gameplay video was done by Shiryu of the first stage); when I found out that the PC Engine title would both be made available (as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) and remade for the PlayStation Portable in the form of Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles I was ecstatic--I just had to play it, and when I got it that October season (I was sixteen in 2007) I was not disappointed for it quickly became one of my favorites; I could see why a lot of people clamored it as one of the best in the series, it was that great.  =)  The remake was good, but the original was far superior (after having unlocked it), plus the inclusion of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (and the option to choose between the English and Japanese language settings) was also a welcome plus.

If you think this column jumping bit is precarious
wait 'til you fight Count Dracula in the end
And while I enjoyed Akumajō Dracula X a lot I was still curious about Konami's second Nintendo 16-bit Castlevania despite its lackluster reception by the masses, even long after one of my cousins loaned me his SNES console but the hefty price always kept me at bay; knowing that some censorship was involved (namely Death's demise) I wanted to import Akumajō Dracula XX for purity's sake but the price tag was also a bit much (that, and November 2014 to December 2015 was when my SFC importing got put on hold until I got a Super Famiconsole on Christmas 2015 after my initial access to SFC games, the Retro Duo, was no longer operable in the SFC slot in the end of October 2014).  During the month of my twenty-fourth birthday last April I played catch-up with some games on the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console after having gotten some Nintendo eShop points cards, this game being among of them (the American version, obviously).  And by its own merits I did find it to be fairly solid (keeping my expectations in check knowing it would not be the PC Engine game), though it did grow on me gradually in spite of its flaws.

Look, I found a safe spot!  =D
Not guaranteed to be 100% foolproof
It is fairly challenging as there are difficult moments here and there so you'll have to press on slowly and gradually in order to get a chance to make it through (and the lack of a timer gives you a slight sense of ease in mind as you don't have to reach the end of each segment in the allotted time); don't rush through it unless you're either confident you'll make it or if you want to lose health and lives quickly.  Here and there are the ground enemies like the skeletons and axe-wielding knights you have to dismantle (for the mahogany knights there is a trick to avoid taking damage from them as they charge against you and it requires proper timing), but what you have to watch out for are the airborne enemies like bats and Medusa heads (particularly the Medusa heads who pop up left and right).  The Medusa heads are annoying sometimes but I don't find them to be highly annoying, what trumps them in the annoyance meter for me are the spearmen with their lunging and spinning spears (the last of which deflects some subweapons like axes) you have to steer clear from; that means that when you lash out the ancestral whip against them you must keep your distance unless you want to lose a chunk of health... in Akumajō Dracula X it only took four hits to take them down, but alarmingly in the Nintendo 16-bit title it takes five whippings to dispose of them.  Why?

"To hell with you, spearman, the spear enemies from
the Kirby series were less frustrating than you!"
I don't think people had a problem with how the first stage was laid out, but once they got past that they felt that's when it started going downhill but it is possible with a little perseverance (and if you feel you're having too much trouble there's always the restore points you could use on the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console release).  The second stage starts with a pathway leading to a gradually collapsing bridge with a string of piranha men popping up along the way, to name one example, so you must use the cross boomerang subweapon for some alleviation; in one of the alternate stages you could possibly take there is an upward scaling segment where you must get on slowly collapsing platforms and get on a moving platform soon before the collapsible platformer is gone (until you exit and reenter this portion) while putting up with some crows, especially on the way to the werewolf boss; and in order to stay on the best path you must jump through a series of columns while contending with Medusa heads, skeletons, and fire-breathing bonehead stacks, so the challenge here is not to fall unless you want to take the worst path.  Richter's high jumping altitude is constant throughout, and you'll need to time those well in order to cross some of the wider gaps.

Heading up
Each boss has got their own set pattern you can follow, and sometimes a specific Item Crash will be enough to dish out a good chunk of damage should you have a sufficient amount of hearts (i.e. the leviathan with the cross boomerang Item Crash); during the Cerberus fight you can alternate between using the main ancestral whip and throwing the axe subweapon should you so please (and it's also got a safe spot, for the most part).  Some bosses will have two forms like the Necromancer and Death; and unless you're careful with the latter you might not have a chance to make it as there are pits on the left and right of the clock tower's focal point.  The only thing that was disappointing in Akumajō Dracula X was the final battle against the Prince of Darkness himself as it was incredibly easy both as Richter and Maria; it was a step up from the lame final battle against Dracula in Super Castlevania IV, which doesn't really say much but at least the 1993 title had an actual secondary form unlike the 1991 game where the two "forms" were exactly the same.  Because the PC Engine title could not be ported to the Nintendo 16-bit console the final battle was recreated as this time it's set atop a group of evenly spaced/differently heightened columns (as opposed to a straight, gapless area) where falling down means having to start the battle all over again, made all the more taxing by the first form's propensity to teleport himself to random parts of the room which means you have to be alert and vigilant without falling.  O__O  I don't think this decision was wise on Konami's part; adding some extra obstacles should've improved upon the 1993 Dracula battle but instead wound up making the battle more frustrating and time-consuming.

Key power
One could make the argument that Konami would've been better off creating a whole different Castlevania title entirely, with zero ties to Akumajō Dracula X, but they probably wanted to compensate to American and European crowds for not receiving the 1993 title by creating something in a similar vein albeit different on the Nintendo 16-bit format; they didn't have cruel intentions when developing it, but it ended up falling flat on their faces.  There are things I liked about the PC Engine game that were carried over here: touching spikes does not automatically kill you like in past games (but you'll still sustain damage from them) which was always cheap, I enjoyed the fact that you could jump on and from stairs, and the knockback effect has thankfully been reduced--yeah, you still get knocked back once in a while but at least it's not to the extent of previous entries like Super Castlevania IV (where it happened all the time unless you were on the stairs) as sometimes Richter will remain in place despite taking damage.  =)  Akumajō Dracula X had alternate stages depending on the path that you took while this game has got a few; and if you took the right path you could get a chance to save Maria Renard and her sister Annet, but in order to do that you must take the key from the end of the third stage, forget the subweapons, and make it to the second door in need to be unlocked without dying (which is a big task but it can be done).  This adds a bit of replay value to the proceedings as there are one of three endings depending on whether you save Maria with Annet (where you'll face off against Death), Maria by herself, or neither of them (both of which result in you fighting a doomed Annet turned monster you have to fight).  And by itself today's game is fairly solid as I have grown to like it a little, as there is plenty of good to like in it; it's not for everyone but that's highly understandable as it is flawed, for the people are either going to be receptive and forgiving of its blemishes or be turned off by them altogether.
Incidentally, this game also has a clock tower stage equivalent
For my money, however, I prefer Quintet's maligned action/platformer ActRaiser 2 a lot more and personally consider it an enjoyably superior game, and honestly its slow-paced structure and gameplay suits it perfectly.  It too had been met with a disappointing reaction from fans and nonfans alike regardless of hype, it too was difficult, and it too has developed a following over time.  For me it gets better and better the more I play it, and I persevere through it any time I revisit it no matter how difficult it got (regardless of the difficulty setting); and I consider its stage layouts and final boss to be reasonable and the ending much more satisfying.  =)

Axe and receive
Okay, that one was forced
If you're a Castlevania fan you may like this game enough, or if you're critical about things like stage layouts, enemy placement, and difficulty then I don't think you'll get a positive experience from it.  If you're not a fan of Konami's three-decade old vampire hunting series and just want to play a solid platformer then today's game might fit the bill sublimely; if you like some challenge there's a good chunk of it here and there, but if challenging games are not your forte there are other, more easier platformers you can play; if you wish to play something that's got replay value in it I think it's worth looking into--just don't come into it thinking you're playing Akumajō Dracula X because it's not, for what the Nintendo 16-bit offering is is its own thing (which is how best to approach it, as its own thing).  This Summer Konami released three TurboGrafx-16 games in the American and European Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console downloadable services but haven't done anything past that; it would be nice for Akumajō Dracula X to be given the Wii U VC treatment but until that day comes your best option to play the 1993 classic is on the PlayStation Portable's Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (or if you can't afford the physical edition it's also available on the PlayStation Network).  The Nintendo 16-bit Castlevania swansong may not hold a candle to the PC Engine classic (or, for argument's sake, Super Castlevania IV; I never once considered the 1991 title to be perfect like most people have, but let's face it: comparatively speaking the Nintendo 16-bit foray to the series was perfect to today's game), nor does it represent Konami at its finest (I'm not coy to admit that they have made better games for the system, The Legend of the Mystical Ninja not among them in my book), but at the end of the day it is not terrible for when playing it with an open mind it's fairly solid fare.  <=)

My Personal Score: 7.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. I absolutely love how when Richter liberates Maria and Annet he just stays for a few seconds and then leaves, as if he expects them to escape on their own.  "Well, I just rescued you; now if you excuse I'll go back to taking care of vampire slaying business so I'll just let you try to get out of your holding cell to safety by yourself... somehow"  XD  Also, how did Annet breathe underwater for so long?  o~O
P.S. 2 On the subject Richter's betrothed, incidentally in Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles if you fail to save her you have to fight her as a monster like today's game (albeit a different one) which did not occur in the original PC Engine game; and in both today's game and the 2.5D remake of Akumajō Dracula X she's blond and wears a green dress, unlike the 1993 game where she had purple hair and wore a yellow top with a green gown.
P.S. 3 Six down, three more to go; I'm two-thirds of the way through with my 2016 Video Game Reviews Bucket List.
P.S. 4 Man, I hope this review did not cause people to play the drinking game anytime I said "this game" or "today's game" because Akumajō Dracula X and Castlevania: Dracula X are not one and the same despite sharing the words "Dracula X" in the title and I wanted to avoid causing misconstrusions.  <=(
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  Hope you have a great Halloween, take care!  =)
Oh, GOD, Konami!  XoX  How the hell did this get past Nintendo of America's censors???

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Firemen (SNES Repro) Review

Received: September 30th, 2015 / Written: October 8th-9th, 2016
Year: 1994 | Developed and Published by: Human Entertainment | [|O|]

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.
Last Summer (2015) I tried something new--import without importing--that is I ordered some NTSC SNES repro carts of games which originally were Japan-only until the fan-translated ROMs were translated to NTSC (or PAL) repro carts.  The first two I tried were Lenar's Ganpuru: Gunman's Proof and Polestar's Magical Pop'n, both of which I found to be really fun and enjoyable hidden gems.  =)
The dark orange title on the top of the cart is a nice touch
Eager for more NTSC SNES repro cart action the third one I decided to tackle after years of curiosity was Human Entertainment's The Firemen, their second disaster game on the Nintendo 16-bit after the Poseidon Adventure-based Septentrion (retitled SOS in America by Vic Tokai, not to be confused with either Namco's 1980 arcade game of the same name or Zeppelin Games' action/puzzler Sink or Swim), which was released on the Super Famicom on September 9th, 1994 in Japan; it was also released in Europe and Australia but there are conflicting reports as to when it actually came out in those regions (some sites say it came out in 1994 like in Japan but The Cutting Room Floor states that the PAL treatment came out in March 1995).  For NTSC gamers sometimes repro carts derive from games released in Europe, which is the case here.  Like Gunman's Proof it cost me $50 to purchase the repro cart of The Firemen... but was it worth it?

During a party at the Microtech chemical company building (designed by architect Frank Weller) on Christmas Day 2010 (oh God, it's happened already!) a great big fire has broken out and is starting to become increasingly volatile.  Enter Pete Grey and Danny McClean, two experienced firemen who've been commemorated for their past heroic firefighting deeds, accompanied by the secondary team comprising of Walter and Max (sometimes sharing and being shared intel with communications expert Winona) who must extinguish and douse out as many fires as they can throughout the building, save the people who are still inside, and remove the highly dangerous and explosive chemical called MDL from the basement so as to avoid a bigger disaster than they are already in.  You'll have to pull through and be highly alert if you wish to save Christmas.

Watch out for exploding pipes
The Firemen has you take control of Pete Grey, accompanied throughout by his CPU-controlled partner Danny McClean, whose controls are quite involved as they require all the buttons be used on the controller: seeing as it's viewed from a bird's eye view you can walk (and crawl by holding down the A button) in all eight directions, spray the hose with an unlimited supply of water in an upward position by holding down the Y button, douse water downward by holding down the B button, and you can maintain your spraying position by strafing with either the left or right shoulder buttons.  In the game you can have up to three water bombs which you can use with the X button (but only reserve those for when you really need them most) should you have at least one of them; luckily every once in awhile you'll stumble across one to take with you.  Should you have all three water bombs when you stumble upon another one Pete's hose will become more powerful until you sustain damage, in which case the hose will be reverted back to its original power.

Ducking down from fire, fighting fire, and dodging
little fireballs
Throughout the whole game you are going to be encountering lots and lots of fire which you'll have to take out with your fire hose; whether it be flying fireballs, ground level fires, towering fires, and even miniscule fires (as well as ducking any time a firewall approaches).  But it's not just fire that you have to be mindful of as every now and then will be obstacles you'll need to avoid, such as falling spotlights which cause explosions upon falling down, explosions coming from spraying particular windows or Danny opening a particular door in which case you have to duck, exploding pipes that fall down, crawling through small gaps (and fire), security robots gone haywire, and trees falling from their foundations to name some examples.  At the end of each stage you'll be fighting a huge fiery boss (each one varies) which can only be taken down with lots and lots of water.

With so much smog you'd think Smaug was here
Today's game has a polished look and style to it, with well-chosen colors and a good sense of detail, especially when it comes to the fire and what it leaves in its wake.  Pretty much everywhere you go there will always be marks left behind by fire either in the walls or on the floor (after you extinguished or doused them out); it brings this consistently deteriorating building a sense of atmospheric detail and scale to the proceedings.  I appreciate a game that will go to great length to augment its sense of detail (no matter how miniscule) visually, sorta like Natsume did with Wild Guns (but you know, apples and oranges).  =)  I do commend Human for going the extra mile in this aspect, even though it doesn't entirely absolve it of its lesser qualities (but I'm getting ahead of myself).

Strafing is the way to go here
There is a great flame effect during the title screen as the title itself gradually appears through a neat way, and the color-layering wavy flame effects shown during the introductory (and game over) sequence(s) are spectacular.  Each room and floor in The Firemen is differently designed; some will be clear (like the room with the elegantly-designed fountain and water), others may have smog effects (effectively portrayed by subtle dithering effects, which also are used for the firewalls), and sometimes you might be outside surveying what is below you (once in awhile accompanied by little rain effects).  The distinctive colors of the rooms, such as for the red boiler rooms or for the white chemical rooms, really keeps things fresh; I also like the subtle effect for after you defeat a boss where it goes from flaming orange or red to normal colored.  The fires themselves come in all shapes and sizes, particularly the bosses, a couple of them comprising of a giant security robot engulfed by flames and a fire salamander-style boss (way to add that commonly used enemy from shoot'em ups), and once they're down for the count they go out in fantastic fashion.  =)  Pete and Danny's designs and animations are charmingly solid, especially for the former's walking and crawling animations, plus the central characters' profiles any time there's dialogue (I'll get to that) are drawn nicely with moving lips for each upcoming set of words.

Awww, takes me back to the moment when Alen
was fending off against enemies coming from all
angles on a central platform launched by Garstein
in Alcahest; good times!  <=)
The soundtrack was composed by Hideto Maeda (Human Entertainment's Taekwon-Do, new music for the PC Engine CD version of Popful Mail), Konomi Itō (Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm), Hironori Tanaka (Super Formation Soccer, Septentrion), and Hiroyuki Naka (SeptentrionTaekwon-Do, new music for the PC Engine CD version of Popful Mail), and it's one of this game's highlights as it succinctly does a good job at lending this game's atmosphere as well as get you pumped up from its action-packed melodies (the choice of instrumentation is also sound).  =)  The title theme is riveting, and the theme for the introduction does a good job at setting the tone for the plot and what's to come.

Beware of caving ceilings
The theme for the introductory stage gets you right into the action, the fourth stage's theme is riveting, the final stage's theme gives the vibe that things are going to come to a close, the boss theme is energetic and action-packed, plus the ending and credits themes are a really big sigh of relief as the worst is over.  I also have to acknowledge the sound effects and sound cues by Masamichi Yamazaki (who also provided them for Super Formation Soccer, Septentrion, Taekwon-Do, and WakuWaku Ski Wonder Spur) for they are very invaluable to your firefighting journey; you can tell there's fire around (visible or offscreen) because of a sound filter where it sounds like a constant and heavily whirring sound (at least that's how I think that sound translates into words) and you can tell all major fires have been doused when that sound filter is gone and all you hear is the music.  The rain, various fire, and loud crashing sounds (especially as glass breaks) are really well-done and add so much; Mr. Yamazaki's contributions to the sound department here are highly appreciated.  =)

Crawling in the ventilation system
The Firemen has got three difficulty settings, the first two being immediately available in the options screen (just press B on "Normal" and you'll switch to the easier "Practice" mode).  On Practice you start the game with three water bombs at your disposal, and on Normal you begin with two at your stead; regardless of the difficulty setting you can still gather up to three of them.  On these two difficulty settings you have a limited amount of continues any time Pete loses all his health, and any time you find a civilian in peril your health will mostly be replenished (lucky).  Time is not on your side for it will go backwards (unless the dialogue pops up in which case it will stop), and should you use a continue you'll be given more time (especially after the defeat of each boss); not that it will makes things any easier for you, mind, given all the fire you have to deal with.
I wish you the best of luck on this one should you attempt it
On Practice mode when you beat the game you'll be challenged to try Normal mode, and once you've done with that you'll not only see both ending and credits but also be rated on your performance as firefighter and be tasked to challenge Expert mode; during the title screen press up, down, X, X, R, L, A and when input correctly Pete's death moan will be heard accompanied by the "Expert" disclaimer that pops up.  On this mode you begin with one water bomb, and for the most part it's largely the same but the catch is that rescuing people will not refill your health in this mode, you'll take more damage, and there are no continues.  So if you wish to survive The Firemen on the hardest mode all the way you're going to have to be really good here.

That's a lovely fountain room right there
Throughout the game the dialogue will pop up which doesn't necessarily stop the action but it does stop the timer, whether it be from Danny, Pete, or from Walter and/or Max, or Winona, or even Frank Weller the architect; and many of them provide useful information (even though you can rely on the firefighting on your own as you go at it thoroughly in each room and floor).  Now, I realize that resources were so little during the '90s compared to what we have today and you had to work with what you were given, and that fixed-width font tended to take up more space than kanji would (which had more to say than the translation itself), but... The Firemen's translation is so distractingly bad, so much so that it winds up making the translations from Produce's Brain Lord and Quintet and Ancient's Robotrek look good by comparison (this game makes me realize I was too hard on the latter's translation; it's still crap though but not quite to the extent of this game).  =(  With words that are sometimes spelled incorrectly, improper grammar and sentence structure at points, lack of question marks during what are supposed to be characters asking something during a handful of moments, lack of periods when certain sentences are done, among others.
With fan-translations there are so many resources by your side that you can rely on, but here's the thing: The Firemen wasn't a product of fan-translation, it was translated in its heyday for Europe... English-speaking PAL gamers were exposed to this poor translation... I feel so embarrassed for them.  =(  What happened?  You'd think the translation was rushed.  I can't imagine an SNES game translated even worse than thi---
Image from Wikipedia; tediously longwinded and highly overrated turn-based RPG
oh wait, yes I can=<

Somehow, someway, Human managed to
incorporate a fire salamander in a firefighting
video game; kudos!  =)
But poorly translated or not, it doesn't change its gameplay and set of difficulty modes (though it does reduce its quality a little for me).  The Firemen was the first of two games in the firefighting genre on the Nintendo 16-bit console, with the competition appearing in the form of Jaleco's Fire Fighting on November 1994 in Japan, which saw an American release on January 1995 as The Ignition Factor (interesting role reversal there; America didn't officially get today's game and Europe did not get Jaleco's take the first time around, hmmm); consensus says Human Entertainment's take was the winner of the dueling firefighting games and I kinda agree (I only played a little of the latter on the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console, curious to play it after having tried The Firemen for comparison and being a Jaleco apologist, but I haven't played enough of it to form a full opinion of that yet).  Human Entertainment's take did good enough that it garnered a sequel on the PlayStation One called The Firemen 2: Pete and Danny in 1995, but only in Japan though.

I guess you could say this is a real Nightmare Before
Christmas, ehhh?  .........  =|
I'll see myself out now
Over the years The Firemen has developed a following, with several gamers clamoring it as a cult classic.  I can see why people would feel that way about it, but I don't quite feel that highly about it personally.  Oh, I like it enough, don't get me wrong, but it is a very flawed title; take out the bad translation and it would still feel flawed.  So the controls are rather involved, which means you have to memorize which button does what as they're all used to get through certain situations.  Okay, that's not a problem; the problem is the relentless nature of it all.

And when I say it's relentless, it does not let up.  Sure, once you're done dousing and extinguishing all the fires in a room, you're done with that room in particular, but there is more to come.  Fires will come in all shapes and sizes sometimes from all sides, which means you have to be ever vigilant all the time: you see a line of fires head your way, hose them out; you see a firewall, duck from it; you see a sloshing ground level fire, use the downward spray to soak them out; you see little fireballs, either spray them out or duck down; you see an explosion about to occur, duck; you see something about to fall down (like a pipe or a plant), steer clear; you see small gaps, crawl through them; you see a part of a ceiling about to crack, steer clear of that; sometimes more than one of these you'll have to deal with at once (Danny at least alleviates a little of the difficulty but not by much).  And it's pretty time consuming stuff, especially if you wish to clear a stage 100% by taking out all the fires (and saving all the people you find), because there'll be a percentage at the end of each stage.  If it sounds like arduous work, that's because it is.

Because security robots are a thing here, sure,
why not?
I'm sure that is also the case with firefighters in real life, and when it comes to that job there's going to be repetition involved which is a necessity in that case.  Repetition is also a necessity in The Firemen, unfortunately at points that can be real detrimental to the game's enjoyment value.  Oh, it is fun for the majority of the proceedings (particularly when it comes to exploring the Metrotech chemical building, saving people, and battling fiery bosses), but here and there as far as constantly dealing with fire and constantly staying alert throughout I couldn't help but find it to be rather redundant.

This game may have a lot of fans, but I'm not
one of them
If you want to play a decent firefighting game, there aren't many to choose from on the Nintendo 16-bit console, but between this game and The Ignition Factor Human Entertainment's foray to the genre is the better option (though that doesn't necessarily equate it to greatness in my opinion).  If you like the idea of constant communication (if you can ignore that awful translation) and exploring a consistently burning environment as you fight fire with water you may like this game just fine; if you don't like the prospect of being kept busy throughout as you're playing it you might not come out very enthusiastic from it; if you like a good challenge there's plenty of it in there as well, and it also does have charm and some moments of heroics here and there.  I appreciate Human Entertainment's attempt at the genre, with a lingering sense of atmosphere and a great soundtrack, for The Firemen is solid fun on its own terms, I just wish it was more fun than it actually turned out to be.  Although all things considered, it's not a bad way to spend an hour.  <=)

My Personal Score: 7.0/10
<( ^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^ )>
P.S. If I wanted to play a game where I can both strafe and crawl (either alternatively or simultaneously) I'll stick with Ganpuru: Gunman's Proof, thank you very much!  It's a better title all around and a ton of feel-good fun.  =D
P.S. 2 I know I gave a lot of games 7 out of 10 this year, but that doesn't bother me.
P.S. 3 Irrelevant, but some of the best movies I saw in theatres this year were Kung Fu Panda 3, Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War, The Conjuring 2, The Shallows, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two StringsPete's Dragon 2016, and Deepwater Horizon in my book.  =)  I wonder what other theatrical movies will make my list this year?
P.S. 4 I know it's early for this game that takes place during Christmas to be reviewed during October; at one point I was going to wait until December but I decided to take care of it right away, I figured I may as well.
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  Hope you have a great Halloween, take care!  =)