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‘Castlevania: Rondo of Blood’ Ensured there Would be New Ground to Break

25 years later.

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As far as classic Castlevania goes, Rondo of Blood is the apex of what can be done with the franchise. Every facet of its design contributes to crafting one of the tightest action-platformers in the genre. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood serves as a natural evolution of the series’ core concepts. In emphasizing Castlevania’s overarching narrative, adding branching paths to stages, and opting for a more dynamic color palette when compared to its contemporaries, Rondo of Blood not only fine-tuned the Castlevania experience, it laid the groundwork for the direction the series would take following Symphony of the Night’s release.

Almost every detail that makes Symphony of the Night such a great game can be linked back to Rondo of Blood in some regard. Its story is a direct continuation of the events of RoB, even opening with the final boss fight; the sheer amount of exploration possible in Dracula’s Castle is clearly influenced by the nonlinear approach Konami took with Rondo’s level design – and Symphony’s aesthetics borrow heavily from Rondo’s in-game designs. That is not to say Symphony of the Night does not have an identity of its own, but it is a game that would not have existed as is had Konami not experimented with Rondo of Blood.

Aside from its RPG elements, Symphony of the Night’s design philosophy is just as much rooted in Rondo of Blood as it is in Metroid. The level of exploration found within Symphony’s depiction of Dracula’s Castle is a natural extension of Rondo’s nonlinearity. While the Castlevania series has never been a stranger to the concept of secrets off the beaten path, RoB replaces the expected wall chickens with legitimate unlockables. Rather than just bestowing Richter with food or hearts, exploration in Rondo rewards players with alternate stages, new boss fights, and even another playable character.

Rondo of Blood Jump

Although progress can be made by simply following the linear path, and comfortably given the strength of RoB’s overall level design, the alternate stages and bosses offer some of the best content found in Castlevania’s pre-Symphony era. It doesn’t take long for players to realize that Rondo is home to secret areas either. In Stage 2’s minotaur chase section, there is a zombie positioned right after the first jump. On first playthroughs, the majority of players will bump into said zombie, dropping them down a seemingly bottomless pit only to not die.

Falling down said hole triggers Stage 2’s alternate path, culminating in an entirely different boss fight had Richter pulled off all the jumps in the minotaur segment. Even though there are genuine bottomless pits throughout the game, especially in later stages, any pits that do lead to secret areas or new stages are contextually and visually telegraphed well enough where savvy players won’t be jumping to their deaths every time they think a pit will lead them to a new location.

While Symphony of the Night’s lack of bottomless pits is often attributed to its Metroid influences, and not wrongly at that, Konami was quite clearly experimenting with the concept of interconnected stages through pits from as early as Rondo’s second stage. This interconnectivity found in Rondo of Blood’s level design isn’t important because it influenced the direction Symphony of the Night’s Castle would go in, however. Rather, it is important due to the fact that it gave Konami a chance to experiment with downward progression in Castlevania.

Rondo of Blood Item Crash

For as contextualized as Rondo of Blood’s non-lethal bottomless pits are, it is important to recognize that RoB is a short game clocking in at roughly two to three hours of playtime. There are only a total of twelve stages excluding the prologue and only stages two through five have completely alternate layouts. Symphony of the Night, on the other hand, is a far longer game just in concept and any attempt at including bottomless pits would ultimately hurt exploration.

It can be argued that, in following Metroid’s lead, Symphony of the Night would never have kept bottomless pits, but it is important to consider that SotN is still a Castlevania game at its core, including Castlevania series staples. Its Metroid influences are more in how it approaches exploration than in how it approaches level design. Konami took steps in ensuring that the jump between classic Castlevania and the post-Symphony era would not be jarring and said steps including experimenting with concepts in Rondo of Blood.

This is not to say that Rondo of Blood was made as a base for Symphony of the Night, but that Konami was already looking to evolve the series past just the basics, seemingly for good this time around. While Castlevania heavily features the same defined formula for years, it could never solidify where it wanted to go as a franchise. Simon’s Quest played up exploration; Dracula’s Curse introduced multiple playable characters and a simplified version of Rondo’s inevitable branching path system – and Super Castlevania IV brought in multidirectional whipping.

In some sense, Rondo of Blood is really no different from its predecessors. It was yet another entry in the series trying to see what would stick before ultimately transitioning into Symphony of the Night which would define the franchise’s run until Lords of Shadow’s release in 2010. Such a reading on Rondo of Blood would be reductive, however. Although Symphony of the Night shook up the foundation considerably in regards to what came before, it is not, fundamentally, so different where it is incompatible with the Castlevania franchise as a whole.

Where Rondo of Blood serves as a stepping stone towards Symphony, Dracula X was just another Castlevania game

Rondo of Blood is the link that allows a game like Symphony of the Night to exist specifically in Castlevania’s context. So long as Rondo of Blood is acknowledged, there is a clear buildup to the ideas presented in Symphony of the Night with the only novelty being its overt RPG elements. Everything else Symphony claims as its one, from its story to its level design, has influence in Rondo of Blood’s inherent game design.

Of course, the jump to Symphony of the Night would have been jarring to any western fan in 1997 due to the simple fact that Rondo of Blood was not released outside of Japan until 2010. Instead, fans of the series were given Dracula X, a reimagining of Rondo of Blood with significantly weaker level design, a muddier aesthetic, and a far more linear approach overall. Where Rondo of Blood serves as a stepping stone towards Symphony, Dracula X was just another Castlevania game.

Rondo of Blood Dracula

In many ways, Dracula X is Rondo of Blood’s antithesis, highlighting exactly why the latter is so important in the grand scheme of Castlevania’s history. Dracula X is as standard as the series can get, and standard is not what the series needed in the mid-90s. Castlevania, as a franchise, was in desperate need of an evolution beyond Super Castlevania IV’s multidirectional whipping. Castlevania needed to adapt alongside its contemporaries.

If Symphony of the Night is the father of modern Metroidvanias, Rondo of Blood is the grandfather

Rondo of Blood is familiar, but not similar. It is a natural evolution of Castlevania’s design philosophies without straying too far from the franchise’s roots while also experimenting enough to ensure a longevity for the series. That is ultimately the difference between Dracula X and Rondo of Blood. Dracula X is content in its complacency whereas Rondo of Blood has reinvention on the mind even if it won’t ultimately be the game to reinvent what it means to be Castlevania.

It is for this precise reason why Rondo of Blood is such an important game, and not just for Castlevania. It is one thing to recognize when a series needs to evolve, it is another to experiment alongside said evolution to ensure the survival of a series. If Symphony of the Night is the father of modern Metroidvanias, Rondo of Blood is the grandfather. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood may not have broken new ground in the way its successor did, but it ensured there would be new ground to break, which is equally as important.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 4, 2018. 

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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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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An In-Depth Analysis of FIFA’s Career Mode

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Fifa’s Career Mode

It’s a well-known fact that career mode on FIFA has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, FIFA is currently the main option.

The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about FIFA career mode works properly. 

Two of the most game-breaking bugs in FIFA career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion. 

The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need. 

For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback. 

This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number. 

There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it. 

Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net. 

Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk. 

After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of FIFA 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet. 

For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted FIFA for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.

Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.

As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”

The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team. 

But neither of these claims is accurate. 

Fifa’s Career Mode

You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team. 

This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game. 

I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in FIFA, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that it’s more immersive to just turn it off entirely. 

What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.

The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (FIFA 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team. 

Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of FIFA.

FIFA

But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in FIFA 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from FIFA 17 to FIFA 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.

FIFA have made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect. 

The major changes over this period have included: 

A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all. 

None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.

It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media. 

Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode. 

The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details. 

In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after FIFA19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.

  • Evan Lindeman
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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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