That developer Inti Creates can nail the feel and style of a beloved, vintage, 8-bit game should come as no surprise at this point. The company made its big splash with Mega Man 9, a last-gen console game built in the very specific shape of Mega Man 2. Given that Inti Creates got its start as a group of Capcom emigres who had worked on several 2D Mega Man titles, though, Mega Man 9 felt less a stunning work of counterfeit genius than a return to the studio's roots.
Its work on last year's Blaster Master Zero impressed more, since it took another studio's original work (NES shooter-platformer Blaster Master) and rebuilt its contents and layouts into a modern form. Still, that was someone else's original work, but its road map was well-established. With Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, however, Inti Creates finally tackles the challenge of creating an all-new retro-style game based on an outside property.
Based on the game's BitSummit demo, they've completely nailed it. It's a reassuring sign, since Inti Creates dropped out of the primary Bloodstained project (Ritual of the Night) a while back. That change in production duties has been surrounded by unhappy rumors that Ritual hadn't properly come together under Inti Creates' oversight (though I loved the E3 2016 demo), which has left many observers questioning the studio's future. Curse of the Moon, however, finds Inti Creates in fine form. It perfectly recaptures the essence of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, which are generally viewed as the high points of the linear installments of Konami's classic Castlevania franchise. And unlike the plan for Ritual, Curse is almost completely an in-house project for the studio, with very little oversight by Bloodstained producer Koji Igarashi.
"The development of the game is being done entirely by Inti Creates," Igarashi says. "They're very, very good at the 8-bit retro style. I'm handling some of the scenarios and world feel, but the overall design is being handled by Inti Creates. The hard part of the design for me is to make sure that the two games—Curse of the Moon and Ritual of the Night—are connected. I did my best to play up that connection."
According to Inti Creates president Takuya Aizu, planning work on Curse began as soon as the company stepped away from Ritual. "The first link in the chain started at E3 2016, after we had completed the original alpha ROM for Ritual of the Night," he explains. "After that, we shifted from that project to put all of our efforts into Curse of the Moon. From that time, we started thinking, 'What kind of game do we want to make? How are we going to do that?' All that sort of baseline-level stuff. After a lot of back-and-forth with IGA and hammering out the design, the coding really began in earnest last fall."
The fact that full development on Curse only began fall 2017 is impressive in light of how solid the game feels now—which it should, since it will be launching at the end of the month. Six months (give or take) isn't much time to put together a game, even a retro-styled one. Yet despite the short creation timeline, Curse does a marvelous job of distilling the essence of peak 8-bit Castlevania into a new (and technically unrelated) game, smoothing over a few of the clumsier elements of those old Konami creations while feeling undeniably of a place in time.
Aizu says the target has been to recapture 8-bit Castlevania from the beginning, though he does seem somewhat uncomfortable with explicit comparisons to Castlevania. (Given Konami's prickly personality, that isn't entirely surprising.) But its parallel existence to IGA's Bloodstained game had just as much impact on Curse's design as Kickstarter promises.
"With the [Bloodstained] Kickstarter, the stretch goal that brought this game to life promised an 8-bit game," he says. "That being the case decided the base of the game. So then it came down to, how are we going to put all of this together? IGA's main game was going to be a Metroidvania, and we decided we didn't want to create a second Metroidvania game. Better to do something in the classic style, where you clear the stage and beat a boss, go to the next stage and beat a boss, that sort of classic-style formula. And the workings of the game sort of speak for themselves, I guess!"
"In terms of the gameplay mechanics and visuals, IGA wasn't very hands-on. Where he did come in—especially considering the game is arriving before Ritual of the Night—he was very involved in making sure the characters and their placement in the game and the story of the game meshes well with Ritual of the Night. In terms of character and setting, he was very involved. In terms of gameplay, he was very hands-off."
As with Castlevania 3, Curse allows players to take control of four different characters who can be freely swapped between at any time. Unlike in that older game, Curse doesn't limit the main protagonist to one companion at a time. Instead, you have access to all four at once, swapping between the current lead character with the shoulder buttons. Each character has their own traits and skills, and each can acquire their own individual special weapons by striking objects in the environment.
Although the on-screen designations use different iconography than Castlevania's, the functions and mechanics work more or less the same way. The heart icons that power special weapons in Castlevania take the form of mana potions here, yet using a character's secondary skill depletes mana all the same.
These subpowers create the connection to the other Castlevania game that appears to have inspired Curse: namely, Rondo of Blood. As in that game, players can travel along alternate routes through stages if they can uncover the secret of opening those paths. In one case, I found a door that could be accessed by the vampiric character (who I take to be Ritual's antagonist Gebel). Like Castlevania 3's Alucard, this particular Curse character fires a trio of fireballs and can transform into a bat; the latter power allows him to fly over a pit found at one point in the demo stage and reach an otherwise inaccessible door. Elsewhere, a hulking armored enemy blocks a door and burst invincibly into flames when the player draws near. By switching to Dominique, the game's magic user (read: proxy for Castlevania's Sypha Belnades), players can acquire an ice spell that allows them to freeze and shatter the blazing enemy, clearing the way to another alternate door.
The fact that Ritual's villain appears to be a playable character here probably explains Aizu's rather coy explanation of the two games' narrative relationship. "Curse was originally promised as a story prequel, but I think of it more as a spin-off," he says. "If I were to explain to you why that is, I'd be giving away a lot of the story, which I don't want to do! But yeah, it's more of a spinoff than a set-in-stone prequel."
None of this would matter if the game didn't feel good and play well, but it absolutely does on both counts. While it's not a 1:1 recreation of 8-bit Castlevania, that's not a bad thing. It smoothes over the stiff controls of the older games in favor of greater responsiveness and slightly more fluid movements—it's just different enough to feel comfortable. A certain expectation that players commit to actions carries through here, especially when playing as samurai character Zangetsu. His proper combat form (he draws, strikes, and sheathes his sword every time he attacks) recalls the long wind-up time of the whip-wielding Belmont clan. However, there's been some subtle fine-tuning to the control mechanics over the Castlevania series, and this keeps the game feeling friendly.
Which isn't to say it's a weak-kneed stroll through the park. Curse of the Night offers ample challenge for players. The BitSummit demo featured four different difficulty modes, and I found myself unable to complete the 10-minute demo at the highest level of challenge. At max difficult, each character constitutes a "life," and when one protagonist falls, another character resumes the adventure from the most recent checkpoint. The twist: The lost character is, in fact, lost, and they can't be selected again until you complete a stage or lose all your heroes. While I didn't quite reach the demo's boss, it appears to be about what you'd expect from an Inti Creates boss: that is to say, huge, ruthless, and considerably harder than anything else in the stage preceding it.
"We want to add a lot of features and gameplay elements that wouldn't have been possible with true 8-bit hardware," says Aizu. "We have such powerful hardware compared to back then, that obviously the game is built in the 8-bit visual style. But if you just made an 8-bit game today with the feature set of an actual 8-bit game, you'd feel like something is missing."
"With the visuals, yeah, it looks 8-bit. But I think that when we look back to the games of our childhoods, we remember them as looking a lot more fantastic than they really did. If you look back without rose-colored glasses, they don't always hold up. So we want to give people 8-bit design elements and visual effects that look true but wouldn't really have been possible back in the day. It's almost like getting the rose-tinted glasses effect without actually having rose-tinted glasses."
Castlevania fans will have the opportunity to test the intensity of their own nostalgia's rose-tinting next week when Curse of the Moon launches for an enormous array of platforms, including 3DS, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Vita, Steam, and Switch on May 24.