Of all the changes I've seen happen to the games industry since the '80s, Konami's growing apathy towards its own game properties hits me the hardest. Playing Castlevania II: Simon's Quest as a kid added a fistful of hearts to my budding love affair with video games. From there, I feasted on Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I played whatever Konami dished out until it shrugged, said "No more," and went back to counting the wads of cash it receives from its health clubs.
The Castlevania titles shaped my taste in games. Konami's Dracula-flaying adventures even had some influence on my writing style. It turns out crafting a fanfic wherein Alucard flings Austin Powers quotes at Dracula during their climactic Symphony showdown was a great purgative for some of the Bad Ideas slithering around in my young writer's soul.
(Plenty remain, though.)
Konami's utter disinterest in Castlevania beyond its potential to dress up pachinko machines with sultry succubae hurts me, but there are still occasional glimmers of mercy in the world. One such glimmer is knowing former Castlevania developer / producer Koji Igarashi is hard at work on a spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night called Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. That title is still some ways from being done, but Igarashi recently delivered a nice appetizer called Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon.
Curse of the Moon is dolled up in 8-bits to turn the heads of long-time Castlevania fans like myself, but fans of 2D platformers in general can't go wrong here. IntiCreates' masterful work with the game's color palette instantly and purposefully evokes memories of Castlevania III (emulating Konami's style from the era is no small feat, as the studio was a champion at squeezing everything out of that palette), but there's one big difference between Konami's '89 classic and this adventure: The characters in Curse of the Moon are light on their feet. There's no sign of the infamous Belmont family leadfoot.
That said, there might be an option to make your characters more ponderous in the game's higher difficulty levels, which I haven't tackled yet. Whenever you choose your save file, you also choose between "Casual" and "Veteran" mode. Playing in Casual Mode gives you infinite lives and turns off knockback. On the "Veteran" setting, however, a flick from a zombie's finger will send you flying in a manner that's painfully familiar.
But while Curse of the Moon works hard to remind you of classic Castlevania games, it also performs tricks to differentiate itself. For example, you begin the game as a grim sword-wielder, not a whip-user—though you do recruit a whip-user, Miriam (the heroine of Ritual of the Night) at the end of the first level. You can also recruit a staff-using sorcerer who's Totally Not Sypha, and a bat-flinging demon who's Totally Not Alucard. But despite Curse of Darkness' familiar company, segmented dragon enemies, and dive-bombing bats drawn with thick outlines to help differentiate them from the dim blue backgrounds, I never forgot I was playing something new.
There are two things that keep Curse of Darkness away from Castlevania III clone territory. First, its levels aren't straightforward. Alternate paths spread through each level like roots under an old tree. It's a design cue taken straight from Rondo of Blood (one of Igarashi's favorite Castlevania games). Your friends' unique powers and sub-weapons can help you reach these areas. Gebel can turn into a bat and fly up to high platforms. Miriam can slide through tight passages. And Alfred, who has tissue-paper skin in that grand Castlevania sorcerer tradition, wields devastating elemental magic capable of felling otherwise invincible enemies guarding doors and secret passages.
The earlier-mentioned light movements of all four characters is the other trait that identifies Curse of the Moon is own beast next to the likes of Castlevania III and Rondo of Blood. While there are differences in how the ghoul-hunters move (Alfred can't jump as high as Miriam, for example), none of them feel half as slow and heavy as Simon or Trevor Belmont. You still can't jump off stairs or change direction mid-jump, but neither does every leap feel like a commitment. The hunters' movements feel purposeful, yet unencumbered. They're powerful but swift, like mighty werewolves running under the moonlight.
Thankfully, Curse of the Moon finds ways to challenge you beyond shackling irons to the characters' feet. Each amigo has their own health bar, but they'll deplete very quickly if you don't use skills and subweapons carefully. Going down a hallway filled with relentless flying Medusa Heads—er, eyeball monsters? Alfred's fire shield is what you need. Is an enemy raining arrows or axes from above? Use Gebel's three-shot bat attack to whack foes at a 45-degree angle. Need a weapon with lots of reach? That's what Miriam and her whip are for. Zangetsu the sword-wielder is a strong all-rounder whose extended health bar makes him ideal for close-quarters combat. It's possible to get through Curse of Darkness with a "favorite" hunter (in fact, when a hunter dies, they're gone for good until all four die or the level ends), but the teamwork element here is addictive.
Having more than one hunter comes in handy when it's time to go up against the game's bosses, too. They're a cleverly-designed bunch that put up a good fight. I've gone up against unique monsters (a joker phantom who tried to crush me with stacks of gold coins), classic monsters (Elizabeth Báthory, the blood-thirsty Hungarian countess who's also the main villain in Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis), and at least one surprise (a living portrait of Koji Igarashi that drains your soul if you touch it).
This painting of Koji Igarashi will steal your soul (and make you his slave?) in Curse of the Moon. Hey me from 1992, games are odd in 2018 pic.twitter.com/qV9n3OGkG6— Nadia Oxford (@nadiaoxford) May 24, 2018
At the beginning of the month, I had no idea Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon existed. A few weeks later and suddenly my Castlevania-starved soul is chowing down on an unexpected treat. It's the little surprises that make life worth living. And it's games like Curse of the Moon that make me glad Castlevania's legacy is rising again under Koji Igarashi, even if we can't call that legacy by its true name.