Saturday, September 19, 2015

Insane Theory: Castlevania - Simon Has a Broken Leg

Gameplay Footage Here.

Have you ever noticed how Simon Belmont walks funny in the original Castlevania(1986)? The back leg bends at the knee, but the front leg of the sprite always seems stiff and straight. It looks as if he is hobbling or limping. In fact, of all the original platformer stars of the NES era, Simon Belmont might be the least graceful. He doesn't leap and soar through the air like Mario. He doesn't have the jump height of Mega Man. He doesn't have the athletics and versatility of Samus Aran. Ryu Hayabusa could flip and crawl on walls. In contrast, Simon Belmont is a clumsy, brute force type of platformer hero.

The controls for Castlevania are stiff and clunky. Moving Simon Belmont is like moving a tank with one of the tracks falling off. Any jump is a seriously risky proposition and timing and placement is absolutely key in surviving Castlevania's many platform jumps. Even by the standards of the day, Castlevania's controls were slow, methodical and not very responsive.

Yet, somehow, it all worked. To this day, Castlevania still holds up as a gaming classic. While other titles of the NES era withered in age, Castlevania still remains vital. A lot of NES titles had clunky controls and frustrating jumps and as a result have found themselves dated as controls became more responsive and fluid. But Castlevania hasn't dated much. The clunky controls seem to be a key feature in why the gameplay in Castlevania holds up.

A lot of that has to do with great level design, that was designed more for blunt force action than acrobatics. Every jump was meant to be nerve racking. The lack of grace and control once Simon left his feet while Medusa heads flew around the screen was supposed to be heart stopping. The clunky controls didn't date because everything was working exactly as it was supposed to. Simon Belmont couldn't flip. He couldn't soar or roll or slide. He wasn't athletic. He was a man caught in a nightmare that he had to fight his way through with pure grit and determination.

This theme of grit, horror and struggle is present in every pixel of Castlevania. The game doesn't tell you a story, you experience that story with every lash of the whip, destroyed enemy and heart-stopping jump. The game has a plot, but the plot is merely a framework to allow the player to experience the story of Simon Belmont and his quest to destroy Dracula.

If we are to seriously analyzed video games, then we must analyze animation, control and game mechanics not only individually, but also as a cohesive whole. You put them together and see what kind of story that the developers wanted the player to experience in their game.

You put the strange, almost hobbled walking animation together with the clunky, clumsy controls and six relentless, brutal levels designed to be struggled through. What you get is a conclusion. That conclusion is that Simon Belmont goes through his entire ordeal with a broken leg.

Simon is the avatar of the player, we are tasked with controlling Simon to get him through this nightmare. The controls are difficult and unresponsive because we are controlling an already broken avatar. It's why all of Simon\'s jumps are stiff and clumsy. As the game goes on, he gets weaker while his enemies get stronger, causing him to take more damage. Simon Belmont is caught in a war that he can't possibly survive, but with the player\'s intervention, he very well could.

Video games are unique cultural phenomenon. They don't hold up to old analysis methods. Granted, they can be useful tools, but video games require something more as well. Their interactive nature requires a different type of critique and thought. Themes cannot be extracted just from characters and tone, but also must be extracted through mechanics, level design and controls. The genius of the NES classics, are the incredible focus on a particular idea and theme, one that was reflected in every aspect of the game. Games were more limited then, and required more focus. There wasn't room for wild deviation and tonal shifts. You picked something and stuck with it.

The theme of Castlevania is struggle and horror. Nervous frustration would naturally be apart of that. It\'s why we can be more forgiving for Castlevania's clumsy controls than other, more dated titles. It feels right, natural to the game we are playing. We watching the strange animation of a hobbling Simon Belmont, when we hit the jump button, and he sort of flings through the air with all of the grace and majesty of a catapulted tank, it clicks in our mind. This isn't how all of the other platformer stars jump, but this is how Simon Belmont jumps. We know he's not agile, we know he's not athletic. We accept this because it fits with the rest of the game.

If Castlevania was designed for acrobatic leaping and Simon Belmont jumped as he did, the game wouldn't be a classic but a dated failure. Luckily for us, Castlevania was designed for brutal struggle to grit your teeth and battle your way through. The player expected to feel frustration and exhaustion because it was always clear that is what Simon Belmont felt. The great stars of video games became icons because those games allowed the player and the character to be one. When the player feels what they expect the character to feel, they are in tune with the game. The player is in tune with Castlevania at all times, which is why it endures. Simon Belmont fights through hell, so we'll fight through hell with him. After all, he needs our help. The poor bastard has a broken leg.

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