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‘Secret of Mana’: Understanding one of the “Best Games of All Time”

While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did.

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Wikipedia features a rather interesting page titled “List of video games considered the best.” Compiled by cross-referencing different publications’ editorials of the greatest games ever made— typically top 100 articles— said list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the most influential and genre-defining video games spanning nearly half a century. Simply skimming the list with some video game knowledge or context, it’s not hard to understand why games like Pong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda are listed. Not only are they important games that helped legitimize the video game medium, they’re also all mechanically refined to the point of still holding their overall quality today. Then there are games like Secret of Mana

While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past perfected an action-adventure formula that would be used for years; Super Mario World fine-tuned its platforming to near-perfect precision, essentially forcing Nintendo to have to go 3D with their next mainline entry; and Final Fantasy VI more or less set the foundation for Final Fantasy VII to take the stage all while being a tremendously high-quality RPG in its own right. Secret of Mana, on the other hand, has no real legacy outside of being a good SNES RPG. 

Which is arguably an issue with how the Mana franchise was handled in the west. A sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana is the second game in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. More importantly, it’s the game that sets up Seiken Densetsu 3 (now titled Trials of Mana) mechanically. Unfortunately, Trials of Mana was not released outside of Japan until June 2019. As a result, it only makes sense Secret of Mana would lack a legacy of its own. What directly followed Secret of Mana internationally was Legend of Mana, not Trials, a game that didn’t build itself on Secret’s foundation. 

secret of mana

More importantly, Secret of Mana is an interesting case on the “List of video games considered the best” page as general consensus very much deems Trials of Mana not only the better of the two games, but the best entry in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. Where a compelling case could be made for Super Mario World and Final Fantasy VI being better than their 3D successors, Secret of Mana doesn’t afford the same luxury. Not only because its direct, mechanical sequel was never released outside of Japan, but because Trials of Mana is just such a clear improvement all around featuring better gameplay, a better story, and better music

That said, this train of thought ignores a very important aspect of game analysis: video games are more than the sum of their parts. Due to the advancement of technology and the relative infancy of the medium, video games are at a stage where they seemingly benefit most from sequels. After all, a sequel can iron out any mechanical kinks that slipped through the first go around. This is exactly what Trials of Mana does, laterally and logically improving Secret of Mana, but it isn’t Secret of Mana. When it comes down to it, there’s only one Secret of Mana and, for all its flaws, it will forever be considered one of the best games of all time. Why and how, though? 

After all, Secret of Mana isn’t just overshadowed by its direct sequel, but by its sister game as well: Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately for director Koichi Ishii, Secret of Mana was being developed for the Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter, an add-on for the console that would have made use of the “Super Disc.” As the peripheral was being developed by both Nintendo and Sony shortly before they parted ways, Secret of Mana had to be trimmed down considerably with roughly 40% of the game being scrapped. Of note, in “Retro Gamer”’s February 2011, Ashley Day revealed that producer Hiromichi Tanaka not only planned for the story to be much darker, but for there to be multiple routes and endings ala Chrono Trigger

secret of mana on the snes

With 40% of the planned game gutted to fit on a Super Famicom cartridge, Secret of Mana was at a disadvantage at release and it shows. As soon as players gain access to Flammie, any sense of direction or pacing is thrown out the window. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the late-game focus on exploration as a crutch to overcome nearly half a game’s worth of missing content and story. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Secret of Mana was developed in an era where game development was limited in general. The Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter would have certainly helped bolster the game, but true creativity shines when artists need to be mindful of what they can and can’t do. 

In a September 2006 interview Swedish magazine “Level,” Koichi Ishii specified that Secret of Mana was “his game” in the context of his career. Even without 40% of the game’s planned content, Secret of Mana still represents the director’s vision in earnest. Although Ishii would go on to direct Legend of Mana and Dawn of Mana, he interestingly left Seiken Densetsu 3’s director role for Hiromichi Tanaka, opting to instead serve as the game’s character and game designer. As a result, even on the Super Nintendo, Secret of Mana feels distinctly unique when compared to its immediate successor. 

When it comes down to it, understanding Secret of Mana’s status as one of the best games of all time necessitates an understanding of Koichi Ishii’s direction. Worth noting, Ishii did direct the original Seiken Densetsu for Game Boy, a title that featured a classically tragic story where death was a natural occurrence alongside Final Fantasy iconography and an almost western cartoon aesthetic. Starting up Secret of Mana, the aesthetic is very much alive, if not more so, thanks to its vibrant color palette and festive score, but there’s a distinct difference in how Secret of Mana presents its narrative. At first, at least. 

Final Fantasy Adventure wastes no time cutting to the chase, opening with a boss battle outright and killing the character who’s meant to be the protagonist’s best friend. The English translation does muddy the impact quite a bit, but the game’s visual style of storytelling does preserve the intent. Secret of Mana, however, kicks off with a fairly middling opener. After a title crawl that explains the game’s backstory and lore, much of the early game is spent dealing with lower stake encounters. No one dies, antagonists aren’t fully identified for quite a while, and the saddest thing that happens is the protagonist Randi being kicked out of his village, something he seems to accept rather quickly. 

It certainly doesn’t help that Final Fantasy Adventure puts its best foot forward while Secret of Mana front-loads its worst content right at the start of the game. Things don’t really start to pick up until the full party is formed, and it isn’t until players can access to magic that the gameplay opens up meaningfully. Until then, players are left running back and forth between Pandora, Gaia’s Navel, the Water Palace, and the Haunted Forest far longer than they perhaps should. Which is actually an incredibly important detail to consider. 

What Secret of Mana unquestionably has over its predecessor, and arguably even its successor, is the promise of scope. Cannon Travel may just seem like a clever way of tossing the party around the map, but every time players use a cannon, they get a glimpse at the world around them. There’s more to Secret of Mana’s overworld than meets the eye, and spending so much time in the starting area only makes finally leaving it via Cannon Travel all the more impactful. More importantly, this style of pacing allows the game’s scope to grow naturally. 

Although many might argue that an ebb and flow would have ultimately benefited the game’s pacing, much of Secret of Mana’s identity is tied to a sense of escalation. As the story progresses, stakes do raise. Randi’s role in the plot becomes much clearer, Primm’s romance with Dyluck is explored in more detail, and Popoi gradually becomes a more realized character. They’re a rather bland party in the grand scheme of things, no doubt due to a mix of the script’s rushed localization and the missing content, but there are surprising nuances and layers to each character. 

While Tanaka did serve as a writer for Secret of Mana, Ishii’s character direction nonetheless shines through. In many respects, Randi’s arc follows many of the same beats Sumo’s did in the first game while also relegating his growth to the background. Someone simply rushing from point to point likely won’t even recognize that either character grows during the course of their journey, but slower, attentive players will gradually see Randi mature up until the very end. It isn’t a particularly compelling arc, but it’s an interesting one if only because it isn’t on the nose. 

As was the case with Final Fantasy Adventure, though, Ishii’s creative vision is at its most clear in the moment to moment gameplay. Tanaka may have intended a richer narrative when first drafting Seiken Densetsu 2, but the fact of the matter is that story never would have been the priority with Ishii serving as director. IGN named Koichi Ishii the 97th best game creator of all time in 2009 and rightfully so. Ishii’s gameography places an emphasis on titles that understand the heart of the medium: interactivity. 

No, running in and out of Gaia’s Navel isn’t particularly engaging on a surface level, but learning the area while uncovering a new culture is. There might not be much in the way of party interactivity, but the fact that every character has weapons they can level does mean there’s a constant sense of progression. Doubly so when taking into consideration both Primm and Popoi’s unique magic leveling. The antagonists lack a compelling motivation, but that hardly matters when the game makes an active effort to depict them as a legitimate threat, going so far as destroying the Mana Tree near the end of the game. 

The Mana Tree specifically is an interesting beat to linger on as it’s perhaps the best example of Ishii’s direction in action. Over the course of the entire game, players are told that their only hope is restoring the Mana Sword in order to stop the Mana Fortress’ revival. Closer to the end, the heroes latch onto the idea of using the Mana Tree to power up the sword, a concept that would bare a considerable amount of meaning for anyone who played Final Fantasy Adventure. The journey to the Mana Tree is a grueling one, done entirely through gameplay, and it all ends with a quick scene of the Mana Tree being eviscerated before the heroes can properly arrive. 

In a game where improving one’s weapons is a core mechanic, there’s something very powerful about watching the one thing that could have powered up the strongest weapon in the game being taken away at the last possible moment. Pure Land is the longest dungeon in the game, featuring six bosses and an onslaught of enemies in-between. With barely any dialogue happening in the dungeon, the story plays out through gameplay exclusively up to the point the Mana Tree is burned down. This is a trend that Secret of Mana uses for most of its dungeons, allowing gameplay to take center stage, but it pays off most when the stakes are high and telegraphed clearly through gameplay. 

mana tree

All that said, while Ishii’s gameplay leads to incredible moments, the gameplay itself would need to be quite good to pull off such a feat. Unfortunately, Secret of Mana’s core combat isn’t all that intuitive, but it is something better: interesting. What Secret of Mana will always have over its far more fluid successor is the stamina meter. An impatient player will find themselves immediately frustrated with the fact that Randi can’t just wail on enemies that should be dead in a few seconds flat, but that creates an intimacy not just with the combat, but with the enemies inhabiting the overworld. 

Secret of Mana’s combat lives and dies by its natural rhythm. Randi, Primm, and Popoi can attack at any time so long as their stamina meter is full, but they have to wait through a cool-down before they can strike again. Enemies also stagger when hit, meaning that players also have to wait for monsters to regain their composure before they can be attacked again. It can be called padding as it forces the player to spend more time with the game than they’d otherwise need to, but a little bit of patience is hardly a bad thing. Secret of Mana is an adventure, and adventures take time. More importantly, this back and forth adds to the idea that Secret of Mana takes place in a living, breathing world.

Alongside the stamina meter, attacks can be charged up in order to inflict more damage. The higher the weapon level, the longer the weapon can be charged. By the end of the game, charging up one’s weapon is incredibly important when it comes to dealing damage. As the game progresses, how someone plays the game is bound to naturally change, either out of necessity of curiosity. For as interesting as the stamina meter and charge-up system are, it’s the vast variety of weapons that keeps Secret of Mana so fresh. With eight different weapons to choose from, players have full range over how their party controls. 

Randi will need to use the Mana Sword during the final boss fight, but it’s anyone’s game up to that point.This goes double for Primm and Popoi as they have their own sets of magic to level and use. Not every weapon or spell is necessary for completing the game, but they’re not useless either. No two playthroughs need to be the same, and it’s entirely possible to get through Secret of Mana focusing on just about any weapon or spell. Secret of Mana, by its very nature, is a game that gets better the more it’s played. Koishi Ishii’s touch is one that lingers all the way to the very end of his games, and Secret of Mana is the clearest depiction of his vision. 

It’s entirely possible that if Trials of Mana released in the west in the mid-90s, it would have usurped Secret of Mana’s place on Wikipedia’s “List of video games considered the best,” but ideally both RPGs would be featured. Secret of Mana might be as hyper-competent on a mechanical or narrative level, but not every game has to break the mold to be considered a classic. Likewise, Secret of Mana does not need a legacy that extends past itself. It’s an incredibly important entry in the Mana franchise, one that would directly influence what’s considered to be the best game in the series, but it’s also its own game with its own vision. A gripping, charming, and at times even frustrating adventure that understands its medium better than most, Secret of Mana might not be one of the best games ever made, but it is undeniably one of the best games of all time.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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15 Years Later: ‘Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’ Is Kojima’s Espionage Love Letter

On November 17th, 2004, Metal Gear Solid 3 was released, marking the first entry in what would become a major part of the Metal Gear Saga.

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Metal Gear Solid 3

“After the end of World War II, the world was split into two — East and West. This marked the beginning of the era called the Cold War.”

On November 17th, 2004, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater released in North America and Japan marking the first entry in what would later become a line of prequel games within the Metal Gear Saga. Big Boss’s story would finally be expanded upon in the Hollywood action game that forever changed the course of video game storytelling.

The legendary mercenary’s journey began in Kojima’s espionage love letter to the ’60s that broke the primordial gaming standards of both interactive design and visual storytelling through immeasurable gameplay depth piled onto a mind-boggling top-notch origin story. Snake Eater was only the beginning of a tale of how one of gaming’s greatest heroes descended into a villain through what is not only arguably the most compact and well-executed Metal Gear story, but Kojima Productions story ever conjured up to date.

Taking the Narrative Back

Metal Gear Solid 3
“Snake, try and remember some of the basics of CQC.”

Snake Eater ditched Solid Snake and Raiden’s current predicaments in a postmodern world to provide audiences with background knowledge and explanations for the previous chapters that came before it in what was intended to be Hideo Kojima’s final Metal Gear game at the time. Cold War political fiction and espionage thrillers from the game’s time period such as the Sean Connery and Roger Moore James Bond 007 films became the foundation for this entry’s story and tone; a balance of both goofiness and seriousness that is simply unmatched when compared to the rest of the series.

Metal Gear Solid 3 marked the beginning of a prequel series of games that would later proceed to continue after Solid Snake’s story had concluded in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Snake Eater threw players back in time to tackle the story of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake villain Big Boss, who was formerly referred to as three different names being John, Jack, and of course the iconic codename Naked Snake — the first character to take on the reptilian infiltration name.

Revolver Ocelot’s gun-slinging pre-boss cutscene was completely animated through motion capture footage.

Whereas Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty questioned the fantasy aspects of the story, Snake Eater fully embraced the campiness that it provided. A gun-slinging, cat-growling GRU Major or a man who is able to manipulate bees are never questioned by the game’s characters. Nothing feels out of place due to how accepting everyone is of what is going on in their interpretation of history. The first fantasy aspect that players encounter is during the opening 5 minutes of the game when Naked Snake makes the HALO jump. The location the game takes place, Tselinoyarsk, is not the actual name of the location and isn’t an area of the world that has jungles.

Political fiction often comes into play during the story by incorporating real figures and the game’s characters into events that actually happened during the height of the Cold War. For example, Eva and Ocelot are depicted as the two NSA codebreakers, Martin and Mitchell, who defected to the Soviet Union. Weapons and designs featured in the game such as the hybrid screw-propelled metal gear, the Shagohod, are based on real blueprints for military weapons of the time period. While the story incorporates science fiction and fantasy aspects, the story still remains grounded and has its own limits even in gameplay.

A Whole New Meaning to Survival

When Hideo Kojima and Yoji Shinkawa saw the 1987 movie Predator, one concept from the film that stuck with them was how the technologically advanced alien Predator used camouflage within the jungle setting to stealthily take out a military rescue team lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Camouflage became part of the foundation for Snake Eater‘s gameplay that delved into the realism and campy side of the series. Players could swap outfits and face paints at any given moment to adapt to their current surroundings. The top right-hand corner has a camouflage index that constantly keeps track of how well-hidden you are in the environment.

Just as gadgets are a critical part of James Bond’s arsenal of weapons, Snake Eater saw the Metal Gear Solid series expand on the variety and utilization of items. The number of different ways to tackle standard environmental obstacles and boss battles was exponentially increased due to how many ways one could actually use their equipment. Grenades, lethal firearms, night-vision goggles, cigarettes, and even cardboard boxes all inherited a multi-functional philosophy that most players would never even discover unless they had experimented during their playthrough or were told to do a specific action. Even food became a weapon of war that could be used to poison and distract guards if it had gone spoiled.

On the topic of food, alongside the standard health bar, Snake has a stamina meter that must be ministered to constantly by eating foods found on-site and administering proper medical treatment. Animals, fruit, medicinal items, and various packaged resources must be collected and watched over throughout the game. All food items ran on a real-time clock leaving food to go unsanitary and rotten after a matter of real-time days.

The Beginning of Product Placement

Fun Fact: Kojima has gone on record saying that Naked Snake’s favorite CalorieMate Block is the chocolate-flavored line (rightfully for promotional reasons!).

The Metal Gear Solid series kickstarted Hideo Kojima’s constant usage of product placements within his games that are still ongoing today. These products include but are certainly not limited to clothing, accessories, toys, household items, and of course, food. Snake Eater began a trend of future Kojima Production games featuring real-life items that are purchasable in many small scale and large retail stores throughout Japan through the brand of nutritional energy bars and gels, CalorieMate.

The chocolate-flavored CalorieMate Block appeared in the original version of Snake Eater, while the maple-flavored kind replaced it in the HD Collection due to it being the latest flavor release at the time. Advertisements for CalorieMate during the game’s release showed Naked Snake holding a chocolate-flavored Block saying “If you wanna survive in the jungle, your going to need one of these.”

When initiating a Codec call with Paramedic after eating a CalorieMate Block, the character will question the legitimacy of the food. In reality, CalorieMate first released in 1983, contradicting the 1960’s setting of the story, therefore, making its placement in the game an anachronism; an object or person that is displaced in time.

A Legacy Worthy of The Big Boss Rank

At the time of Snake Eater’s release, although the game garnered a completely positive reception from critics with a 91 Metacritic score, it was highly debated whether the sequel-prequel was superior to the entries that came before it. Critics commonly praised the graphics and cinematics the game had to offer but questioned whether the gameplay was too complex for its own good. Snake Eater also had to ride the coattails of unsatisfied audiences originating from the previous entry’s lack of Solid Snake being the protagonist which ultimately lead to sales of the game being significantly lower than the previous Solid entries.

Over time, Snake Eater became the fan-favorite entry of the series and would go on to receive the most re-releases out of all the Metal Gear games to date. Most notably, in 2006 Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence expanded upon the online mode in the game and added a completely new third-person controlled camera system that enhanced the overall experience and became the right analog stick standard for future entries. Buyers of this version were also treated with the original two MSX Metal Gear games found on the main menu- the first time the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake had ever been localized outside of Japan.

Snake Eater 3D Limited Edition Bundle included a ‘Snake Skin’ themed standard 3DS (only released in Japan).

2011 saw the release of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, a compilation title that included an updated version of Subsistence — arguably the best way to play Snake Eater today. In 2012 the game also saw a release on the Nintendo 3DS dubbed Metal Gear Solid 3D: Snake Eater which included a new real-life camera camouflage system and multiple gameplay changes inherited from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker to accommodate the 3DS’s lack of dual analog sticks.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a true patriot that definitively holds its ground against the rest of the series today due to its creative liberties that the series never quite revisited in complete depth. Hideo Kojima and his team of masterminds behind Kojima Productions are well deserved of a salute for the tremendous efforts they put into creating a groundbreaking title that forever changed what it meant to be a cinematic video game. From its action-packed plot to its cinematic orchestra inspired-score, even after 15 years the pure indigenous nature of creativity from the studio never ceases to amaze audiences.

Metal Gear Solid 3

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‘Castlevania Bloodlines’: The Official Sega Genesis Sequel to Bram Stoker’s Hit Novel, Dracula

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Castlevania Bloodlines

Castlevania isn’t a dialogue-heavy series by any means, but it’s still home to one of gaming’s most compelling narratives. Equipped with only their ancestral weapon, the legendary Vampire Killer, descendants of the Belmont clan face off against Count Dracula every 100 years like clockwork (give or take). His resurrection is inevitable. Just as good will always triumph over evil, evil will rise again. Castlevania was about the cyclical nature of good and evil long before Dracula mused about the nature of humanity in Symphony of the Night. Castlevania chronicled the Belmont family’s centuries-long struggle to keep Count Dracula at bay, game after game. Of course, he wasn’t the Count Dracula– more a representation of evil– but that was as much a given as a Belmont rising up to wield Vampire Killer. Then Castlevania Bloodlines happened. 

Released in 1995 exclusively for the Sega Genesis, Bloodlines may have looked like any other Castlevania game, but it marked a series of eclectic firsts for the franchise. Gone are the Belmonts and the game neither takes place inside of or involves getting to Dracula’s Castle. Bloodlines is even titled Vampire Killer in Japan, creating a bigger divide between it and previous entries, but that hardly compares to Bloodlines’ strangest contribution to the series: making Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon. 

The nature of how Dracula fits into the Castlevania mythos isn’t as plain and simple as just taking the book as writ as canon, but it fits much cleaner than one would expect. Although Bloodlines may lift elements from the novel with its own embellishments, its changes are ultimately inconsequential. Quincey Morris doesn’t have a son in the novel, but he’s the only major character alongside Dracula not to keep a journal, keeping his background relatively obscured. Quincey also doesn’t sport his signature bowie knife in Bloodlines’ backstory, finishing Dracula off with a stake (instead of the Vampire Killer for whatever reason.) 

There’s no mention of Jonathan Harker, Mina, or Abraham Van Helsing– and Dracula’s motives aren’t at all in-line with his novel counterpart’s– but Konami’s references to the novel make it clear that audiences are intended to consider the novel canon even if the details don’t quite match up. It seems a strange choice, especially for a franchise that was pushing its tenth anniversary by the time Bloodlines released in 1995, but it’s not a totally random decision on Konami’s part. Much like how Super Castlevania IV’s tonal maturity gave it a greater layer of depth, Bloodlines thrives off its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If there’s one immediate benefit to tying Dracula to Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s grounding the latter in some semblance of reality. Set in 1917, Vampire Killer was the most modern Castlevania to date– not just at its release, but until Aria of Sorrow was released in 2003. The games were never period pieces, but they were set far enough in the past where literal Universal Monsters wouldn’t keep the series from staying narratively grounded. More importantly, the series’ settings were always consistently gothic, creating a unique sense of style around Dracula himself rather than the time period. 

Bloodlines opts for a wildly different approach altogether when it comes to setting, doubling down on the series’ historical elements while keeping Super Castlevania IV’s darker tone intact. Dracula feels a part of the world, rather than the world of Castlevania feeling a part of Dracula. At the same time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula helps ground the very minimal plot by giving John and Eric’s trek across Europe greater scope. John and Eric even have a personal stake in the plot, having witnessed Quincey’s death. It’s all window dressing, but Bloodlines’ assimilation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives the series some narrative legitimacy to rub shoulders with its high quality gameplay. 

The connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula are admittedly loose, but they’re loose enough to work in the game’s benefit. Dracula is structured as an epistolary novel with chapters divided in letters, journal entries, articles, and logs. The story is told coherently, but this approach often results in the point of view & setting changing. While uncertainly a direct reference to the novel, Bloodlines similarly allows players to switch between John & Eric whenever they use a continue on Easy mode, and each stage takes place in a different country rather than just Transylvania. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula may give Bloodlines its foundation, but it’s that globetrotting that gives the game its identity. Stage 1 opens in Romania, the ruins of Dracula’s Castle left to time after his previous defeat. Where other games would immediately transition into the depths of Castle Dracula, Bloodlines’ Stage 2 instead takes players to the lost city of Atlantis in Greece, while Stage 3 involves scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to slay a demon at the top. There’s a grandiosity to the stage design simply not present in previous entries. Not just in terms of scope, but in actual structure. 

Only six stages long, Bloodlines is the shortest of the mainline Castlevania games, but it makes up for its lack of length with longer stages overall. The main story falls on the shorter side, but the stage to stage pacing ensures that Bloodlines neither outstays its welcome or goes too soon. While a Stage 7 may have done the game some good, Bloodlines’ six stages offer some of the tightest action-platforming in the franchise. Enemies are by no means infrequent, and Bloodlines requires players to understand both John & Eric’s unique platforming skills by Stage 3, outright preventing progress should players fail to adapt.

John’s unique platforming ability will be familiar to all those who played Super Castlevania IV as, predictably, he can use the Vampire Killer to hang. This time around, however, John can whip onto just about any ceiling. Eric, on the other hand, has a charged jump that thrusts him into the air when released. Eric’s jump ignores platforms entirely, allowing him a degree of verticality Castlevania typically doesn’t give to players. Stage 3 even features a room that’s a bottomless pit for Eric, but easy platforming for John thanks to its whip. Subsequently, there’s a room where John can’t make progress due to the ceiling, but Eric can jump right through.

John and Eric’s abilities are natural extensions & evolutions of Simon’s from Super CV IV, just split between the both of them, but it’s also worth noting how Bloodlines’ more involved platforming helps to further flesh out Castlevania’s world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula coupled with the European setting did more for the series’ world-building at the time than any of its predecessors, save for Rondo of Blood. It’s not often that a video game series absorbs a literary classic into its main plot, but Castlevania handles it surprisingly well. 

It’s fitting that Castlevania Bloodlines is titled Vampire Killer in Japan. At its core, Vampire Killer is a recontextualization of Castlevania. The story is still framed through the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula, but the scope is wider, extending mediums in the process. Vampire Killer is about the legacy of the Vampire Killer and the vampire killers whose fates are sealed by the whip. Symphony of the Night may be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines set the stage for Symphony to tell a traditional and intimate story.

More important than anything, though, Castlevania taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula and making it a part of its canon is just so outlandish that it makes perfect sense. The series that regularly featured Universal Monsters as bosses was never going to ignore the novel forever. That Bloodlines uses the novel tactfully and in a game where its presence is appropriate– intentional or otherwise– weirdly elevates Castlevania as a franchise. Castlevania isn’t just a Dracula story, it’s the Dracula story. And of all the games to make that declaration with, Bloodlines is a damn good choice. 

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.

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xo19

Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.


9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).


8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta

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Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.


7. Halo Reach Release Date

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The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.


6. Grounded Reveal

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Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.


5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal

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Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.


4. Final Fantasy Blowout

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Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.


3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.


2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.


1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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