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Today we have a clash between two of the major companies of the NES era, Capcom and Konami, each with the 16-bit iterations of their classic platformer-horror franchises. We have talked fleetingly about the status of the platformer in the 16-bit era, but this seems an important point to expand on. The platformer is not a dead genre by any measure, but it is a genre that at this point exists primarily as a retro one. Its period of greatest cultural dominance was probably the 8-bit era, which, we ought recall, overlaps the 16-bit era by a solid few years.
Although 3-D versions exist, the iconic version of the platformer is a side-scrolling action game that involves some measure of jumping among, well, platforms. Super Mario Bros. is fairly obviously the platformer with the most influence, and is probably single-handedly responsible for the genre’s reign. And as I suggested in a previous post, the 16-bit era is interesting in terms of platformers because it both contains several absolute zeniths of the form and is the era in which the genre’s terminal decline began and it lost its place as the predominant genre of video game.
Mechanics are of course central to the platformer, a statement that can be made with more or less equal validity to most genres, but which comes to the fore in the platformer, since there’s relatively little variation in the basic “run, jump, and shoot” mechanics, such that the change tends to come in the particular control mechanisms for each of those tasks, with innovation coming in the form of small refinements to each of them. For instance, both Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts feature single-speed running, in contrast with the acceleration mechanic that defines the Mario series and that Sonic the Hedgehog stretched to its logical conclusion.
It is in jumping and shooting that Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts distinguish themselves, however. The former is not a particularly jumping-focused game. All platformers are at least somewhat jump-centric, but there has never been particular artistry to the Castlevania series when it comes to jumping. Simon’s jump has a defined arc with limited in-air course correction. It’s fairly meat and potatoes, as such things go.
Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, on the other hand, features a jump mechanic based on carefully defined restriction. Once Arthur jumps, there is nothing he can do to alter the course of that jump – he’s on a completely pre-determined trajectory that will end only when he collides with another object. This is the most limited form of jump – the one that Miyamoto abandoned from Donkey Kong when revamping his Italian plumber protagonist “Jumpman” into his more famous iteration. But complicating it is the fact that Arthur has a double jump so that, at any point during his first jump he can jump again. On the one hand, this makes the jump dramatically reworkable – your second jump can be an exact reversal of the first, in fact. On the other, however, it’s still extremely restrictive and tricky – you get exactly one chance to make any changes to a jump, and there are plenty of jumps that are already set up to require you to use both of your jumps to even make them in the first place.
The games are more similar in terms of shooting, in that both of them have a similar system whereby you have access to one of a set of weapons at any given time. In Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, these weapons are your main weapons – you start with a lance, which is a forward-firing projectile of moderate power, and will find yourself with numerous opportunities to swap it out for various other weapons, each of which can be upgraded via power-ups. The weapons have various trade-offs – there’s the fast but less powerful dagger, the bow and arrow, which fires two projectiles at upwards angles, the torch, which is lobbed forward in an arc and does splash damage, et cetera – and part of the strategy of the game is figuring out and obtaining the best weapon for a given section. (Or, realistically, in just getting the dagger and never changing it, because it’s self-evidently the best one.)
Super Castlevania IV is basically the same way (although the dagger is merely a quite good weapon and not self-evidently the best one), with one major change – the swappable weapons are Simon’s secondary weapon, with his primary weapon being, of course, his whip, which works according to the standard Castlevania/Castlevania III logic of upgrading fairly quickly after death in both length and power. Unlike those earlier games, however, and as one of Super Castlevania IV’s big new ideas, Simon’s whip is eight-directional and can be held and jiggled afterwards, with all parts of the whip dealing light damage.
This is, in one sense, overpowered – it’s notable that no Castlevania game ever gave Simon quite such expansive whip powers. There are no shortage of things in the game that can be made much easier with some mildly clever whip use, and the overall difficulty of Super Castlevania IV is at the low end for the series, to say the least. That said, the game is not without challenge, especially in the final few levels. And while the whip is probably a bit overpowered, it remains fun – flailing the whip around is oddly satisfying.
The question of difficulty is closely related to the other way in which the games differentiate each other, which is their handling of damage to the player, and, more broadly, with the notion of difficulty. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts uses a number-of-hits system of damage. Arthur begins in armor. If he is hit, his armor shatters and he is naked. If he is hit again, he’s dead. All hits shatter his armor or kill him. There is no way to ever have more than two health – even if you get armor upgrades, one hit shatters it. There’s eventually a shield that can block a limited number of certain types of damage, but it’s basically useless and just over-complicates things. As a result, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts becomes about the careful orchestration of near-perfect runs through chaotic levels.
Super Castlevania IV, on the other hand, has a nice, dignified health bar, with things dealing variable amounts of damage (generally more in later levels). The resulting mechanic is thus less about avoiding all damage and more about successfully limiting your damage to acceptable tolerances given the placement of health items and continue points through the levels.
This also played out on a larger level. Super Castlevania IV has a password mechanism, which, especially combined with its comparatively accessible difficulty level, meant that the game was firmly beatable. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was not unbeatable, but was at least less beatable. You could give yourself a large number of starting lives, and continues are fairly easy to come by (and easier the more lives you have to rack up points with). This was enough to make it so you could chip away at the game and eventually beat it. But it’s still quite the timesink, especially given that beating it requires two playthroughs. With no continue mechanism, unless you have the luxury of being able to leave your console on between play sessions (which is to say, unless you’re the only sibling who plays it – not even plays it regularly, frankly, given that, let’s face it, any self-respecting sibling would take you wanting to leave the console on as an obvious reason to want to play a game, even if they do not regularly) beating the game is not necessarily feasible for reasons beyond raw difficulty.
But the bulk of these differences are not really ones of quality. I’m inclined to treat the technical unfeasablity of beating Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts as a comparative flaw, along with the second quest padding, but both are titans of their genre, showing the way in which careful design of control schemes and rules can make for amazing games.
Both are also games about the undead. This is an interesting issue on early Nintendo consoles. As part of its basic strategy for breaking into the US market in the mid-80s, Nintendo of America created an aggressive licensing system where games would have to be approved by Nintendo before they could be sold, thus creating the Nintendo “Seal of Quality,” which did nothing to actually ensure quality, but at least provided a useful marketing contrast to the Atari era, which, in popular wisdom, was brought down by an excess of sub-par games. (The fact that the most infamous of these was made by Atari perhaps indicates the degree to which Nintendo’s plan was not entirely based on a reading of the facts on the ground so much as it was on the dominant interpretation of them.)
A pragmatic side-effect of this was a bevy of censorship. This fact will become a significant detail in the Sega/Nintendo rivalry in terms of the portrayal of violence, but for our purposes the more interesting one is the censorship of depictions of religion. This has already dramatically impacted two games we’ve talked about: both ActRaiser and Final Fantasy II were much more explicitly religious games in the original Japanese, but had this largely pared down and reworded into mealy-mouthed alternate phrasings. (God becomes “The Master” in ActRaiser, the Tower of Prayer becomes the Tower of Wishes in Final Fantasy II, etc.)
In terms of these games, it resulted in the scrubbing of a lot of crosses. For Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, this mostly was restricted to the coffins out of which the first level zombies emerge, which went from having crosses on them to, somewhat puzzlingly, having ankhs. Super Castlevania IV had considerably more to scrub, with crosses scattered throughout the game (along with bare-breasted statues and blood, both of which were also removed).
But the result of this censorship was half-hearted at best. Yes, the stained glass window overlooking the password input no longer has a cross in it, but it’s still clearly the stained glass window of a church. And in nearly a quarter-century of playing Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, I never once noticed that all the crosses in the cemetery were actually ankhs, simply because the two are similar enough that I never actually noticed that there was anything odd about them. All of this, in other words, is still firmly within the Christian aesthetic of the undead as affronts to God. Just with the actual, “Christian” bit clumsily filed off.
The horror of the undead, as a concept, comes from the way in which they provide a perversion of life – from the inherent difference between life and the negation of death. They are qlippothic, to borrow a term from the wider reaches of magickal theory – empty and twisted shells of a thing. But in Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, so is their ostensible opposite. The thing that the undead lack has itself been hollowed out.
Which is an oddly good metaphor for a genre that was unknowingly in decline. Throughout the 16-bit era the history of technology was an unceasing push for 3D. While there certainly are good 3D platformers, this was not a boon to the genre. And so these games are oddly perfect images of the time – opulent, “super” versions of classic games that are, at their core, also oddly rotted and decaying things.
Something between hindsight and foresight tells us that this is an important metaphor. Certainly there is a sense of rot that plays out over the course of the 16-bit era. But at the end of 1991, in the rush of initial games, it all seemed like such a wonderful idea – a sudden and thrilling improvement to the long-beloved world of Nintendo Games. None of us with the slightest idea that we were just zombies lurching towards the business end of a whip. Or possibly just a dangling one.
A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.01: The North Remembers will post on May 26th.