Castlevania: The Holy Relics (NES)

Whew! I’m back from another Portland Retro Gaming Expo! The biggest classic video gaming event on the planet makes for an intense weekend, to say the least. It’s always well worth it, though. I actually took the plunge this year and tried dressing up in costume for the first time as my favorite NES hero, Simon Belmont. I went with the grotesque, buffoonish interpretation of Simon from the Captain N: The Game Master cartoon because that’s just the way my sense of humor works. I’m only interested in embodying the most despised versions of beloved characters. Good times.

While the Expo is over, the show must go on. In my case, that means a weekly game review. What better choice under these circumstances than an underexposed gem starring my boy Simon? And one I played for the first time at a past PRGE, no less? I’m talking about Castlevania: The Holy Relics, a notably ambitious 2017 ROM hack of Castlevania by Optomon , with additional graphics work by Setz, Bit-Blade, Dr. Mario, and Boneless Ivar. You may recognize the Optomon name from other first class fan projects I’ve covered, such as Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries and Metroid: Rogue Dawn. If so, you already know this is going to be something special.

In order to to understand why Holy Relics is a such a fascinating take on the standard hack, it helps to think of it as some parallel universe’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. What if, rather than infusing open level design and RPG elements into Castlevania’s divisive 1987 sequel, Konami had kept it a traditional action-platformer and incorporated elements of their arch-rival Capcom’s Mega Man instead? The result is a style of Castlevania play which simply doesn’t exist in any official form. If that doesn’t do a better job piquing your curiosity than yet another set of super challenging remixed stages, I don’t know what would.

The events of Holy Relics are set in 1693, two years after Dracula’s defeat in the first Castlevania. A set of powerful relics looted from the Holy Land by avaricious crusaders four hundred years prior has fallen into the hands of a necromancer named Lord Ghulash, who’s used them to plunge the land into darkness once more. It falls on Simon Belmont, champion of Transylvania, to recover the relics from their demonic guardians and vanquish Ghulash.

There are a six stages on offer, as per normal. Before the action even begins, however, the game hits you with its first major alteration in the form of a level select screen! Yes, you’re free to play through the first five areas in any order you choose before moving on to the final confrontation. You’re also allowed to choose a single relic to take with you whenever you begin a stage. You start with the cross already in your possession and gain another option with every boss you defeat.

These relics are no mere plot MacGuffins or symbolic tokens of success like the glowing orbs bosses drop in the base game. On the contrary, they’re mighty tools that each break the fundamental rules of 8-bit Castlevania in their own way. The mug, for example, allows you to replenish Simon’s health on demand. The crown temporarily powers-up his whip to an absurd degree, enough to take out bosses with just three hits. The bag awards massive bonus points for killing enemies, making it easy to rack up loads of extra lives. Relic activation is mapped to the Select button and is limited by the number of special blue hearts you can manage to acquire in a given stage. Usage restrictions aside, the overwhelming power of the relics makes them as vital to Simon’s success as his familiar whip and sub-weapons. So many ROM hacks are about cranking the difficulty up so high that experienced players feel like newbies again. It’s rare to find one that’s more about upgrading the protagonist into a complete beast.

Speaking of the sub-weapons, a couple of them have received potent tweaks, too. The axe now travels at a shallower angle which covers more space horizontally at the expense of some arc height. This boosts its versatility greatly. The throwing dagger has also been given a huge shot in the arm. It’s now an oak stake that deals a hefty triple the damage with only the minor drawback of slower flight speed to compensate. The enhanced axe and stake so clearly outclass the other options for me that I found myself cursing whenever I accidentally picked up the boomerang or holy water. How’s that for a shakeup?

The levels themselves are completely divorced from anything seen in the source game. The vast majority of hacks still take place in recognizable remodels of Dracula’s castle. You have the familiar entryway, underground waterway, clock tower, etc. Holy Relics tosses this all out the window in favor of diverse outdoor and indoor locations populated with a blend of reskinned and functionally new enemies. It throws its players yet another curve ball by transplanting the idea of locked doors from Vampire Killer, the obscure Castlevania entry for Japanese MSX computers. Every stage has a pair of doors obstructing Simon’s progress which require keys to open. These keys are never too far away or tricky to find, though the search often forces you to take a slightly more circuitous route than you might otherwise have.

Collectively, such sweeping changes to the structure and mechanics of vanilla Castlevania are a lot to take in. The redrawn graphics and a soundtrack featuring a mix of original tunes and covers of songs from later games also adds to the surreality. Fortunately, for all its radical reinvention, Holy Relics still comes across as Castlevania through and through. Simon’s short, stiff jumps are unchanged, as is his whip’s characteristic delay. Skillful play remains a matter of patience, timing, and grace under pressure, so veteran players won’t be left floundering.

Of course, any experiment this daring is likely to have its rough edges. In terms of negatives, I’ve already touched on the obvious one: The insane strength of most of the relic powers. Although it’s fun to play Superman on occasion, you shouldn’t need me to tell you why the ability to hoard dozens of lives, turn invincible at a moment’s notice, or slay the most fearsome opponents with three whip cracks can be a tad much. Simply put, smart relic use breaks the game. It’s technically optional, sure, but that’s cold comfort when these items serve as the game’s namesake and primary draw. In addition, the locked doors add little to the experience. The levels here aren’t long or complex enough for key hunting to blossom into a proper puzzle solving exercise, so it’s really a trifle at best. Finally, the visual design of the final boss is quite goofy. He doesn’t look like he could successfully intimidate the average Animal Crossing resident, let alone a Belmont. Bit of an anticlimax there.

If you’re of a mind to forgive its glaring balance issues and the occasional strange aesthetic choice, I think there’s a very good chance you’ll agree with me that Castlevania: The Holy Relics is the single best fan-made twist on Konami’s legendary classic to date. Nothing else comes close to matching its scope, inventiveness, and replay value, not even Optomon’s own excellent Chorus of Mysteries. It’s pure comfort food for the old school Castlevania lover’s soul; a digital holy relic that’s earned itself a permanent spot on my NES altar.

Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!
Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!

 

Metroid: Rogue Dawn (NES)

As I made abundantly clear last week, I quite enjoyed my most recent playthroughs of Nintendo’s immortal Metroid. So much so that I was left craving more NES Metroid goodness. The only problem? There isn’t any! Unlike fellow iconic heroes Link, Mega Man, and Simon Belmont, sci-fi badass Samus Aran never saw another outing on the system of her “birth.” The second and third Metroid adventures were reserved for the Game Boy and Super Nintendo, respectively, leaving NES fans to wonder for decades what might have been.

Until 2017, that is, when a large team of talented collaborators (Grimlock, Optomon, snarfblam, Parasyte, Kenta Kurodani, DemickXII, M-Tee, MrRichard999, RealRed) released Metroid: Rogue Dawn, by far the most ambitious ROM hack of the original game to date. The bullet points here should pique the interest of any veteran space hunter: Entirely new art, sound, and story elements, added power-ups, a save feature, a Super Metroid style auto-map, and more. I’m pleased to say that while it’s not without its minor hiccups, the end result is tremendous fun and does indeed feel like a genuine lost sequel.

I say sequel, but Rogue Dawn actually goes the prequel route and bases its events on the backstory detailed in the first Metroid’s instruction manual. The player controls the mysterious Dawn Aran, a figure the developers hint has some close connection to Samus. Whether she’s supposed to be a long-lost relative, a clone, or something else entirely is left deliberately obscure. A good call, if I do say so myself. Ambiguity is highly underrated. What we do know for sure about Dawn is that she’s no angel. She’s a space pirate operative acting on orders from none other than recurring series antagonist Ridley. Her mission: To acquire a Metroid specimen from the Galactic Federation research team on planet SR388 by any means necessary. This “play as the villain” angle holds much appeal for me. It goes places no official release from Nintendo ever would while still remaining true to the established narrative.

Experienced players should be able to dive right in and start plumbing the depths of SR388 with ease, as Dawn runs, jumps, and shoots just like Samus. Mostly. One notable difference is that she starts out equipped with the Maru Mari (Morph Ball) and Long Beam. No more having to make due with a pathetic stream of gunfire that hardly extends more than an arm’s length in front of you. The total number of additional power-ups you can eventually attain through exploration remains the same, however, as the Morph Ball and Long Beam pickups have been replaced by Metroid II’s Spring Ball and Super Metroid’s Wall Jump! These two new movement abilities alone have massive implications for the overall flow of the action. Being able to rebound off any wall in particular makes negotiating vertical passages a cinch. A final inventory tweak I really love: You’re no longer forced to choose between the Ice Beam and Wave Beam. You can now equip both simultaneously and their effects stack.

Rogue Dawn’s level design has also been infused with fresh ideas. There’s a much larger number of unique screens here than in Metroid proper and they tend to connect in more intricate ways. It’s common for a given screen to be divided up by walls, creating two or more distinct routes through the same section of map, a technique almost never seen in the original. SR388’s environments aren’t all cramped underground tunnels linked by doors, either. You’ll traverse portions of the planet’s surface (some of which sport gorgeous weather effects), underwater areas with modified movement physics, the interiors of your own pirate spaceship and the Federation research vessel, a Metroid hive, and possibly even some downright strange hidden zones if you’re fortunate enough to stumble onto them.

In profiling Metroid, I repeatedly stressed that, for better or worse, the game has a rather stern 1986 vintage mindset and eschews any sort of overt player guidance. Rogue Dawn opts for a more modern approach. Your general goal is still the same: Defeat two sub-bosses in order to open the way to the final area and boss. The difference is that the presence of an in-game map with major equipment upgrades and boss encounters already pre-marked makes it borderline impossible to get yourself lost for any significant period of time. I’m already on record as being no fan of developer hand-holding like this. I prefer to figure things out on my own. That said, even I can’t claim to have found all of Rogue Dawn’s “quality of life” updates so unwelcome. Being able to save your game at any time through a menu is much less cumbersome than relying on a password system, for example. Better still, you start each new play session here with full energy and the recharging stations seen in most official sequels that top off your health and missile supply are scattered liberally about the map. Endless enemy farming to refill your reserves is now a thing of the past.

I found the new graphics and music to  be superb across the board. The high degree of visual detail reminds me more of Super Metroid than its 8-bit ancestor and the neon-like effect produced when splashes of bright color pop out out from the stark black backdrops recalls Sunsoft’s first NES Batman game. High praise indeed. The score by Optomon really took me by surprise in the best possible way. I came down against his compositions in Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, judging them too dainty for the furious on-screen action, but there’s no denying that he gets what makes a Metroid game tick. These tracks are tense, eerie, and, above all, atmospheric. Eat your heart out, “Hip” Tanaka!

What about those “hiccups” I mentioned above? Well, I have two primary issues with Rogue Dawn. One relates to an especially quirky aspect of its level design and the other to its boss battles. While I adore the layout of the game world in general and even consider it an improvement on the source material in some respects (like the larger, more exciting final area), there are several locations where passages inexplicably wrap around themselves in an endless loop if you don’t pass through them in just the right way. The effect is similar to The Legend of Zelda’s Lost Woods or the escape tunnels on either side of a Pac-Man maze. While this sort of surreal navigation gimmick can work just fine in the context of a fantasy world with magic or an abstract single-screen arcade game, it’s fundamentally at odds with the more grounded feel and sense of place vital to a Metroid title. It’s so jarringly video gamey, in fact, that it instantly shatters any sense of immersion I’ve managed to cultivate each and every time it crops up.

My disappointment with the boss fights stems simply from the realization that they’re same as they ever were, for the most part. Sprites have been re-drawn, of course, but the distinctive attacks and behaviors of Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain are unmistakable. There is a fourth boss unique to Rogue Dawn and I certainly commend the team for that. It’s just a shame that the enemies you face are the one aspect of the base game that’s seen the fewest changes.

Leaving aside those few out-of-place warp corridors and recyled bosses, it should be clear by now that Rogue Dawn is a most extraordinary fan game. It’s easily the current high water mark for NES Metroid hacks in general and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. If you’re the type that considers the game it’s based on to be too difficult or confusing, you may well find it superior to Nintendo’s own work. While I wouldn’t go that far, I can’t deny that this is one case where going rogue paid off big. Make like Dawn Aran and pirate yourself a copy today.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries (NES)

Where’s Christopher Bee when you need him?

What if your favorite games never had to end? This is the promise of ROM hacking. Taking a proven classic as a template, dedicated hobbyists of a technical bent are able to serve up an endless series of new challenges for the likes of Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man. At their very best, these hacks are barely recognizable as variants of the games they’re based on, showcasing not just new level layouts, but new storylines, settings, items, enemies, and even soundtracks. At their worst, they’re some bored 12 year-old’s take on Super KKK Boner Bros. Don’t worry, though. I’ll be focusing on a competent effort this time.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, let’s examine Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, a 2007 hack of the original NES Castlevania by Optomon (Chris Lincoln) and Dr. Mario. Ever since I had the opportunity to try out an early version of an even more advanced Optomon Castlevania hack (The Holy Relics) at last year’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo, I knew that I wanted to discuss his work at some point. Chorus of Mysteries is one of the best known and most ambitious of the many fan-made takes on the series’ inaugural release. For better or worse, almost everything about the base game has been tweaked in some significant way and the end result feels more like a true lost sequel than a level pack.

The hero of Chorus of Mysteries is not Simon Belmont, but Armund Danasty, a long-lost descendant of Grant Danasty, the acrobatic rogue who aided Trevor Belmont in his 1476 battle against Dracula. Chorus is set in 1800, three years after the events of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Armund, an orphan and a sailor by trade, has journeyed to the castle of Count Olrox, a vampire and associate of Dracula who Armund believes may hold clues to his own past. It should be noted that despite being a Danasty, there’s no Spiderman style wall climbing action to be found here. Armund still moves and controls exactly like Simon Belmont and his weapon (a barbed rope) handles exactly like Simon’s whip.

By the time the quick introductory cut scene of Armund arriving at the castle gate concludes, it’s clear that the art and music have received a complete overhaul. Before then, actually, as there’s also a new tune that plays over the normally silent title screen. The revamped (I had to drag that one out at least once) presentation is probably the hack’s most divisive element. The original Castlevania is not the darkest game out there, and I’m not referring to its creepy subject matter, but rather its color palette, which relies heavily on bright oranges, blues, and reds. Chorus uses a lot more stark black in its backgrounds and also elevates greens, purples, and grays to much more prominent roles. On one hand, seeing vivid purple and green elements highlighted against a pure black background occasionally lends the game a sort of “neon Castlevania” look that’s interesting in its own way and reminds me of Sunsoft’s NES Batman. Just as often, however, the environments are simply a touch empty. For what it is, I enjoy the new art, particularly the detailed sprites.

The music is a tougher sell. Including an original soundtrack in a ROM hack at all represents a major effort of a kind I would never want to discourage as a general thing. This one, though? Apart from the fifth stage theme, which is a well-made 8-bit cover of “Dance of Pales” from Symphony of the Night, it just isn’t ear pleasing in the least. The unifying idea seems to have been to go all-in on a dainty, refined chamber music style, not unlike the one Michiru Yamane chose for “Dance of Pales” itself. Although not a terrible idea on paper, the original songs are shrill, far loop too frequently, and lack the driving percussion that underlies most great Castlevania music. If proper drum sounds are utilized anywhere in this soundtrack, I missed it. Even if I liked these tracks, they still wouldn’t be very appropriate for whipping monster ass to.

The good news is that the addictive gameplay is obviously the primary reason anyone seeks out Castlevania ROM hacks and it’s here that Chorus of Mysteries excels without qualification. The first of its six stages is patterned closely on the original game’s, but after you dispatch that familiar giant bat boss and move on to stage two, all bets are off. Be on the lookout for new level themes and layouts, new enemies to contend with, and even a new sub-weapon in the form of the laurel herb from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The laurel replaces the stopwatch and is considerably more useful. It retains its original function, conferring roughly ten seconds of complete invincibility to Armund on demand in exchange for a hefty eight hearts per activation. If you can manage to hold onto the laurel and a decent supply of hearts long enough to reach a stage boss, the ensuing “battle” is a joke.

Armed with anything except the laurel, though, you’ll have a real struggle on your hands. The stages in Chorus of Mysteries are only moderately difficult by ROM hack standards. That is to say, just slightly more intense than the ones from the back half of the original Castlevania. The new bosses are where the true horror lies. These guys all tend to be more mobile, more aggressive, and more eager to lob annoying projectiles at you than the game’s original stage guardians. If that wasn’t scary enough, the famous trick of using the holy water to freeze a boss in place while dealing constant damage no longer works in Chorus of Mysteries! At least you get the honor of being annihilated by some really cool baddies. Most of them are actually fan favorites from later Castlevania games faithfully re-created in the original’s engine. Being able to square off against a familiar foe from Super Castlevania IV or Symphony of the Night on the NES really is a trip and the battles you have with them are as well-realized as they are brutal. My one real complaint is that the lengthiest and most challenging boss encounter is placed at the end of stage five. The final boss is no pushover, but you’ll have vanquished worse by the time you reach him.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries does have a handful of noteworthy flaws that prevent it from being any sort of true improvement on its source material. There are those questionable tunes, a slightly anticlimactic boss order, and an odd hit detection glitch that can sometimes make it tough to attack things with the weakest version of Armund’s whip-rope. Despite these hiccups, the fascinating new elements judiciously woven into a proven action-platforming formula make it a treat that any fan of the first Castlevania should have the opportunity to savor. Like all great hacks, this one rarely receives the attention and respect it deserves. This is tragically inevitable for the most part. These are unofficial modern games for ancient consoles with nothing resembling proper promotion behind them, after all. They’re not part of anyone’s nostalgic memories and playing them at all requires futzing around with emulators, flash cartridges, or reproductions. Realistically, most gamers aren’t going to bother. For the few of you out there that are so inclined, my hope is that this review can draw some much-needed attention to a truly worthy title. Chorus is not just a superb ROM hack, it’s a quality NES action game by any measure.