I just polished off Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, while at the same time the Angry Video Game Nerd completed his four part series on the Castlevania franchise (told in parts I, II, III, and IV, and of course supplemented by his classic coverage of Castlevania II). Given the type of game the Nerd generally covers I usually only go to him for entertainment value, not critical analysis. But watching these videos on the Castlevania franchise I found he and I seem to be in exact agreement.
There's an inflection point on the Castlevania franchise, which is Symphony of the Night. Truth be told, I haven't actually played it - the hilariously bad voice acting turned me away immediately. But I have a good idea what Symphony is like because every Castlevania game after it carries its influence. This is when games stopped being called Metroid-clones and started being placed in the "metroidvania" genre.
I've played most of the handheld games (Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and most recent Order of Ecclesia), and they all follow the same formula. You're fighting Dracula (although generally with some other secondary villain). You explore his castle, progressing through tough boss fights and unlocking abilities that open up new areas of the castle. Gone is the classic whip, replaced with a set of swords, axes, pole arms, and sometimes magic. There's some attempt at a story, and it's always terrible. There is series gothic atmosphere, but the annoying characters completely destroy the mood (Portrait of Ruin's childlike heroes were particularly guilty of this, but to be fair Order of Ecclesia wasn't so bad). Then there's a layer of RPG elements where you have stats, level up, and manage all sorts of equipment. And throughout this is a ton of recycled art assets (going from Dawn of Sorrow to Portrait of Ruin I felt like I was playing the same game). Overall the formula takes in classic Castlevania and adds in elements from Metroid and Final Fantasy.
These sources are good games, so the combination should be awesome, right? Well, not really. The end result is… diluted. Instead of overcoming enemies with skill you can now just out-level them. But the developers have taken that into account so unless you know all the tricks you should expect to do some level grinding. And by tricks I don't just mean patterns, I also mean particular equipment combinations that exploit their vulnerabilities. A lot of that equipment comes from random drops, so you won't just be grinding for XP. Some of this grinding comes naturally, because the branching exploration means that you're going to retreat the same areas more than you'd like instead of experiencing a clear climactic progression. Despite all the flaws I obviously find something of value in these games because I keep playing them. But I'm always left a little disappointed because they fall short of that classic action game I remember so fondly.
What is that classic game? Super Castlevania IV for the SNES. On this the Nerd and I agree; Super Castlevania is the pinnacle of the series. The music... the tight control… this game is awesome. It's definitely on my short list for best 2D action games. Each level has it's own feel, with perfectly paired music and some challenging boss. The game is hard, but not cruel. You can infinitely continue from the beginning of the stage, and the password system let's you save your progress easily enough (for the standard of the day). So although there will be parts that test your patience and precision, it's manageable.
Your primary weapon in Super Castlevania is the whip, and here it is at its most deadly. You can attack in all eight directions, as well as control the whip's motion after the initial strike. This creates a weapon with a lot of subtlety, with plenty of tricks to master. The "evolution" from this to the wide array of single-button single-direction weapons in later games is a complete disappointment. Instead of being compelled to get better with the whip you're only strategy is to find weapons with better stats or larger hit boxes. Maybe this broadens the audience for the game by requiring less skill, but it's not like the whip is impenetrable.
I've always had this ambient dissatisfaction with the post-Symphony Castlevania games. I'm excited to start them, but by the end I'm left feeling that something was missing. Like they could have been better if they were less RPG and more like the classic Castlevania games. I figured it's possible that nostalgia had clouded my judgment, so I decided to dust off the Wii and download Super Castlevania IV for the Virtual Console. It did not disappoint. I played the game to its completion and enjoyed every minute of it. It's really amazing how little the series has evolved over the past 15 years, and how so many of the changes don't really add anything to the experience. The new titles have more gameplay breadth, but not really depth. In my opinion the franchise has lost its way and become something far lesser than what it once was.
The more I ponder this topic the more I realize I'm missing a piece of the puzzle. I'm going to go grab Symphony of the Night off XBLA and report back with my findings.