Turn Based #10 – Party Like It’s 1999

Professor Icepick: Ever since the first Turn Based, some 16 months ago, there was one hotly contested topic that I’ve always wanted to cover. One argument that has been bubbling for years between SNES Master KI and myself. And as the clock strikes midnight this Halloween, it only seems fitting to finally tackle this subject: one interwoven with one of the most famous horror-themed video games of all time — Konami’s Castlevania.

Within the Castlevania franchise, there is a set order to things. Dracula rises only to have his plans thwarted and sent back to slumber for another century (give or take several years) before he can rise again to terrorize a new generation. However, on May 6th, 2003, things changed forever. That day, a new Castlevania game was released — Aria of Sorrow on the Game Boy Advance — where not only had Dracula’s reign of terror been stopped permanently, but players were thrust into the role of his reincarnation, Soma Cruz.

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Scary for all the wrong reasons.

But how was Dracula stopped once and for all? The game alluded to the work of Julius Belmont, the youngest member of the famous clan of vampire hunters, who had finally put an end to the Prince of Darkness’s evil activities once and for all in the far-flung year of 1999. For some, this explanation was enough. But for a vocal contingent, this was unacceptable. They needed closure, they needed to see the finale of the dark lord of Castlevania unfold before their own eyes.

For years, cries reverberated across the internet for a “Castlevania ’99” to tell the story properly. However, as time went on, Konami’s own stewardship for the series fell into disarray. Koji Igarashi — better known simply as “IGA” — a man who had become synonymous with Castlevania left the company to pursue his own ventures and Konami tried their hands at a Western-developed reboot of the franchise that was met with a mixed reception at best.

The point of this article is not to determine whether or not Konami should make “Castlevania ’99” in their current state: after all, they’ve yet to prove that they know how to approach the series in general. Rather, SNES Master KI and I will be debating on whether or not it should have happened in the first place, back when IGA was still flying high at Konami and the series continued to thrive on handhelds. With that being said, I’ll turn things over to KI himself to begin this discussion in full.

SNES Master KI: My core argument on this topic can be summed up with a modified Simpsons quote: you know what would be less disappointing than nothing? ANYTHING! Skipping over the climax of a battle spanning generations in both the story and real life (video game generations) is absolutely ridiculous, and I can’t understand why it was ever considered acceptable, at least without Castlevania ’99 already far into development. While I could keep arguing based on things Icepick has said in the past (and one of those arguments was so climactic and epic, it was incredible, too bad we’ll never let you see it), to make things less confusing I’ll let him start with why he thinks we shouldn’t get to see/play the climax of Castlevania as we knew it.

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Whatever Castlevania ’99 would have been, it would have been more than this.

Icepick: One major issue I have with “Castlevania ’99” is something I find inherent to prequels in general. A well-written prequel — that is, one written with the intent of actually acting as proper backstory to an existing work — is bound to have less interesting characters, as they clearly haven’t gone through all of the events that have led them to being more fully-rounded characters within the previous work.

While it may be somewhat interesting to see Julius Belmont in his younger days, the fact of the matter is that it’s been fairly clear that Dracula’s been checked out from his evil plans since Symphony of the Night, when his son Alucard gives him closure over the death of his beloved wife, apparently his primary motivation for tormenting humanity in the first place. From there, Dracula’s motivations seemed to effectively shift into becoming a reluctant pawn for other figures who wished to either use his powers to their own end or to just revive him out of some misguided loyalty. Just based on Dracula’s own non-presence in many of these games — Bloodlines and its own direct successor Portrait of Ruin come to mind — there really didn’t seem to be any reason to bring back Dracula one last time, just to kill him off for good.

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Do these sound like the words of a vampire who’s still hellbent on obliterating humanity?

KI: The issue is that Castlevania ’99 wouldn’t be a prequel, there are tons of games set before it. It would be at worst an interquel, but an interquel where the games taking place after it left a gigantic gap in the continuity. Dracula’s lack of motivation in Bloodlines really can’t be used as evidence, since it was a 16-bit platformer with no dialogue. Portrait of Ruin was made after the post-1999 games, and in the hypothetical scenario we’re debating over Castlevania ’99 would have been released before it in my vision.

However, it does segue nicely into another point I want to make. You talked about there being problems inherent to prequels… at least half of all Castlevania games are prequels. We’ve had two prequels released since the post-1999 games, and that’s not counting the reboot universe games. Seeing Julius Belmont as a young man facing probably the biggest battle in recorded history in-universe would offer a lot of things that were very different from his retired mentor role in the post-1999 games. The details of the 1999 battle are vague enough that there are countless new things that could be revealed without contradicting anything in the Sorrow (post-1999) games.

But there’s one more thing I have to say about this that outranks the earlier arguments. We didn’t just miss out on a story, we missed out on a game that would be obligated to go all out, to do everything it could to feel like the grandest Castlevania ever made. I don’t just want to know how Dracula died for good, I want to kill him myself, and I want the epic boss fight with him that the setup promises. I want a game where every familiar boss and area is polished to reflect this being their last stand. I want to see Castlevania (the castle itself) destroyed once and for all, escaping or even fighting it as it makes one last desperate gasp at ending the Belmont line. I want the game, not just the story.

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Seriously, there’s an eldritch abomination behind Dracula, let it make the castle itself fight you!

Icepick: Yeah, I can count two major issues with this speculation. For starters, Castlevania reemerges as the setting of Aria of Sorrow — so the lasting visual of Castlevania being destroyed once and for all is already null and void before Castlevania ’99 was even greenlit.

But more importantly, the concept of Dracula’s permanent final death just doesn’t make sense, strictly based on the rules previous Castlevania games established. As I said earlier, every revival since Symphony of the Night was essentially against Dracula’s will, so it’s clear that his returns weren’t strictly fueled by his misanthropy. So what could possibly be different in 1999 that finally ends Dracula’s reign of terror once and for all, that no other Belmont was capable of accomplishing? It just doesn’t make any sense from a narrative standpoint: just attempting to scrutinize Aria of Sorrow’s massive shift to the status quo will result in either a gaping plothole or (at best) an unsatisfying retcon.

KI: While I misremembered about the castle being literally destroyed, it was permanently sealed in an eclipse (Aria of Sorrow can only take place there because there is another eclipse), so it being essentially defeated once and for all is still pretty accurate. As for Dracula’s revivals, I’m not sure where you’re getting him not caring after Symphony of the Night (which was also an example of him being revived without his prior consent, remember the famous dialogue exchange: “I was called here by humans wishing to pay me tribute!”) from. In Portrait of Ruin he alludes to his full power returning in 1999. In Order of Ecclesia, he’s ready to “dance” again, there’s nothing indicating that he stopped wanting whatever it was he gained from all this after SotN.

So the reason the 1999 battle is such a big deal is because both Dracula and the Belmonts had been holding back for centuries not because of apathy, but because they were charging up for the big climax. We don’t know exactly why that battle killed him off for good, but the Bigger Bad (Chaos) looking for a new body in the Sorrow games makes it clear that the cycle was indeed ended. Explaining why this fight really truly for good killed Dracula would be on the game to explain, and whatever reason it came up with would most likely lead to the grand, climactic battles I wanted from it.

Icepick: The thing I’m noticing about your argument for Castlevania ’99 has less to do with the game’s story and more to do with the potential for it being “the ultimate Castlevania” in terms of gameplay. However, you yourself have professed on numerous occasions that Super Castlevania IV — itself one of many remakes of the original Castlevania — is your favorite game in the series. As such, it doesn’t really seem that you’re married to the concept of Dracula’s demise in 1999, rather you just assume that Konami would have gone all out in portraying it in a game, something that wouldn’t necessarily happen, given their tendency toward peaks and valleys in quality at this point in the series’ lifespan especially.

Me personally? I’ve got bad experiences with prequels — “interquels” if we must resort to the term, but it’s clear that the “1999” game would strictly be a prequel to Aria of Sorrow — in terms of storyline: the major proper aspect that would separate Castlevania ’99 from any other game in the series. We saw the Star Wars prequels (which started in 1999? What a creepy coincidence!) transform Darth Vader, one of cinema’s most famous villains into a doe-eyed little boy and a moody teenager. But I feel like everything’s already been said about those films, so let’s not beat that dead horse.

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Accurate recreation of The Phantom Menace.

Another bad prequel that comes to mind is 2005’s Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power, a direct-to-video prequel to the 1993 crime film, showcasing the title character’s rise as a criminal — an exercise in futility, given the original film’s focus on his redemption after finally being released from prison. Rise to Power added nothing to the original film and most people just outright ignore it.

In the end, leaving the events of Castlevania 1999 up to the audience’s imagination just seems like the safest way to deal with the events of the story to me. Dracula’s final death makes absolutely no sense under even an iota of scrutiny and it’s clear that the plot itself was merely devised as an excuse to allow for Dracula to be reincarnated as the game’s protagonist.

KI: I have two things to say about the Star Wars comparison. One, the 1999 battle being skipped isn’t comparable to a full prequel, it would be the equivalent of Star Wars going from The Empire Strikes Back to The Force Awakens, with no plan to ever actually show the events of Return of the Jedi. Second, Star Wars and your other example have something in common: they aren’t video games. Movies don’t have a good track record for prequels or sequels. Video games do, and there are plenty great video game prequels/interquels. Devil May Cry 3, Metroid Prime, Street Fighter Alpha, IV, and V, Mortal Kombat 9, almost every Zelda. Also Castlevania III, Symphony of the Night, Order of Ecclesia…

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Would you think skipping this and going to Episode VII was a reasonable decision?

And as for leaving the events up to our imagination, I refer to my first argument: anything is less disappointing than nothing. If Castlevania 1999 is made and it’s terrible, at least I have closure. I can create my own version just as easily as I can now, or just go back to my current one. There is story and gameplay potential that was teased but never given, that’s far more frustrating than the game just not being good. The worst case scenario would be Castlevania 1999 becoming disowned and treated as if it didn’t exist… which it currently doesn’t. If you hype up a climax you need to at least try to deliver it, even if it isn’t good it will be easier to move on from.

Icepick: As expected, KI and I have reached an impasse. But what do you think? Were we cheated out of the best Castlevania game ever for reasons unknown or would “Castlevania 1999” have failed to live up to the hype? Do you agree with KI that the fabled Castlevania ’99 would have predated Portrait of Ruin’s development had it come to fruition or would it have come out later? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.

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