Castlevania: Judgment (2008)
Oh, to remember the early days of video gaming forums! Not too long ago, we would be discussing all kinds of topics about the future of our beloved Castlevania. Someone would sa, Wow, wouldn't it be awesome if Castlevania were an RPG? And then everyone would gasp in reverence. And then some jackass would come in and suggest a kart racing game, and some crazy people would even agree.
Then, a silence. Guys. What if Castlevania were a fighting game.
Anyway, this went on for many years, as 2D Castlevanias ended up on portable platforms, to much applause, and the 3D Castlevanias ended up on the consoles, to much apathy. Then, the unthinkable happened - Konami announced a Castlevania fighting game for the Wii. IGA and his crew had long been asked if Nintendo's system would ever see a Castlevania game, and his response was basically "Wouldn't your arm get tired of all that waggling?" This was back when Nintendo thought it was a good idea to waggle for every damn sword swing in Zelda: Twilight Princess, and before Grasshopper refined it to a usable state in No More Heroes. Anyway, Judgment isn't a traditional adventure game, so maybe someone figured that waggling would work in small doses.
The revelation of the game was beyond shocking. While a Castlevania character (Simon Belmont) had previously appeared in a Japan-only Smash Bros. ripoff, this one would assemble a dozen characters from across the timeline, and have them duel it out, in 3D renditions of many famous Castlevania locales. The first megaton announcement was that it wasn't a traditional 3D fighter like Soul Calibur - instead, IGA called it an action game that just happened to feature one on one combat. In reality, this meant that the game would be closer to arena fighters like Power Stone or those innumerable Naruto titles for the Gamecube and Wii. The second (and perhaps largest) issue was that all of the characters would be redesigned by famed manga artist Takeshi Obata, responsible for Death Note, one of the most popular series at the time. The character roster includes Simon Belmont, Trevor Belmont, Maria Renard, Grant DaNasty, Sypha Belnades, Alucard, Eric Lecarde, Shanoa (fresh off her stint in the DS game order of Ecclesia), Golem (the boss character), Carmilla, Death, Dracula, Cornell (officially acknowledging that the N64 games are once again canon) and a new character named Aeon, a time traveler whose obsessed with clocks and ties together the "plot". This is actually a pretty decent selection of characters - the abscence of Soma is odd, and it's lacking in Belmonts (especially Richter), but there's only so many whip-wielders you can have before they become redundant.
This all was a bit of a quandary. Most people don't actually play the Naruto games for the gameplay, they play them for license. The fact that they're actually relatively decent games is more a matter of coincidence than anything else. So, basically, we would be getting an anime fighting game, without the anime characters, instead aimed for Castlevania fans. This in itself is a dangerous proposition, since Castlevania fans tend to be a part of the core gaming audience, who tend to turn their nose up at casual fighters.
And then there are those character designs. They aren't so much "redesigned" as "reimagined", since some of them barely resemble the character they're supposed to be based on. Simon is probably the most normal one, and he actually looks a bit more respectable than Ayami Kojima's rendition of him in the PSOne Chronicles remake, even though he looks a bit too much like Light Yagami, the protagonist of Death Note. Maria, too, looks a bit too much like Misa from the same manga, and her new outfit is more out of modern fashion magazines than her outfits from Dracula X or Symphony of the Night. Alucard is missing his cape (except during win poses), perhaps because the programmers didn't (or couldn't) program the cloth physics that would require.
Surprisingly, these are the most conservative ones. Grant, who was previously a pirate, is now a cyborg mummy vaguely reminiscent of Voldo from Soul Calibur. Sypha, too, has ditched her cloak and now dresses like a noblewoman, though she still wields her magical powers of flame, ice and lightning. Eric still wields his gigantic Alucard spear, but for reasons too stupid to explain, he's now a young boy. (Recanting on that - all of the characters are taken from different points in their lives. Maria is taken from the time between Dracula X and Symphony, while Eric is taken before his adventures in Bloodlines. All in all, it's just a way to fulfill the game's shotacon quotient. It's actually pretty terrifying that things like that exist nowadays!) Carmilla previously dressed in a conservative pink dress in Circle of the Moon, but here she's sporting DDs and red leather. One has to wonder why they picked her and not one of the more recognizable Succubi, but oh well. Shanoa now wears a nun habit and Cornell looks like some kind of robot werewolf. Trevor's eyepatch is cool, but it's apparent that Obata doesn't pay attention to English speaking message boards, which have routinely mocked Testuya Nomura's belt fetish for the last several years. Dracula is Dracula but Death has also ditched his cloak, and his body is quite creepy.
The knee jerk reactions when Judgment was revealed painted this all as a travesty, and in some ways, it is. Some of the redesigns aren't really all that bad - in fact, there's some fresh interpretations of some of them that are actually pretty welcome. But some of them stray so far from the source material that it might as well just be a completely different character that happens to share the same name. Even though most of us know Grant only as a tiny sprite, with two instances of cover artwork and one crudely done illustration in the manual, there's no way you'll ever make the connection between him and Judgment's rendition. Since Judgment is made primarily for fan service, and it's not really catering to the fans, then what's the point?
The characters themselves look fine in game, but one can't help to notice that the character models aren't quite as detailed as they should be. They're not terrible, but they are lacking compared even to Soul Calibur II or other 3D fighters on lesser hardware. The environments are dark, and again, not ugly, but not terribly impressive. It's pretty annoying that, despite the lack of visual polish, the action only runs at 30 FPS, whereas no true fighting game runs at less than 60.
But Judgment isn't concerned with being a "true" fighting game, which has already been made evident. The main reason it's on the Wii isn't necessarily because of the Wiimote controls, nor because it's cheaper to developer for (although those are definitely contributing factors), but because of the casual audience that the console has attracted. As a result, Judgment is more aimed at them than hardcore fighting game fans, the kind that still argue over Capcom and SNK.
By waggling the remote (or tapping the attack button - the game supports the Classic Controller and Gamecube controller, thank God) you'll execute a standard canned combo. You can also execute a slightly different one by holding in a direction and attacking. At least you can do small things to change up the combos. there are special attacks, executed by holding down one of the other buttons and attacking, or you can use one of your subweapons in close quarters as a quick follow-up. (This is about the only thing they're useful for, because they're impossible to aim otherwise.) There's also an unblockable attack, which are unleashed by holding the block button and attacking, which can also be tied in as a combo finisher. Pulling off one of these will usually knock off about one-third of your opponent's health. There's also a single super move, activated with a simple button press, that will deal tons of damage, along with an impressive fifteen second cutscene. They're a lot like Final Fantasy summon spells, in that they're fun to watch once per character, but get real old, real quick.
Some of the stages vary in size, but most of them have environmental hazards, which can be turned off in versus play. Some of these include lava in the alchemy room, which slowly burns up health, a poison pit, a swinging blade, and several beds of spikes in the torture room, and a gigantic fish that hops out of the castle moat and knocks off part of the bridge at the castle entrance. The clock tower one is definitely the coolest out of all of these, since the fights take place on a series of rotating gears. Naturally, if you're knocked off, you lose the match.
The focus is on fast, quick action, and there's nothing really wrong with that, even if it is heavily unbalanced. The biggest problem is the camera, because it's never quite sure what it's supposed to be focusing on. The action feels a bit like Devil May Cry, put into the context of a versus fighting game, but that game is only designed for a single player. Here, the camera struggles to keep both characters in view. The worst situations occur when one player completely blocks the view of the other, allowing them to be severely beaten without even seeing what's going on. Some stages, like the tilting ghost ship stage, seems to be intentionally disorienting. Half the time, it's nearly impossible to judge spatial distance between characters, although that generally doesn't matter, since most of the character's combos (especially Simon and Maria) have such huge range, where they just kind dash forward and swing all around, that you'll probably hit your opponent if you're facing the right direction. But even that's surprisingly difficult, considering there's no lock-on. The game really needs a static camera a la Power Stone, or at least something to focus on a sideview of the characters so it doesn't spin around so often. It's particularly frustrating, because Judgment actually is a bit deeper than its initial mechanics let on, but the camera quickly obscures any potential depth it may have had.
And then there's the single player nonsense. The crux of the game is the Story Mode, which begins with only two characters unlocked, and requires that you play through with each of them to unlock more. Additionally, you need to beat the game twice with all characters to actually beat the Story Mode. If that weren't enough, you need to play through the aggravating Castle Mode (see: Soul Calibur's Edge Master mode, where you're given specific requirements in each match) with each character if you want to unlock their sound test and gallery options. Even anyone that casually plays fighting games knows that their heart always lies in the multiplayer, with the single player existing really only for practice. This kind of repeated play just to unlock everything is unwelcome and unnecessarily tedious. At least most of the characters (other than the bosses) are playable in versus mode from the get-go, and Shanoa and Aeon are unlocked if you interface your DS and a copy of Order of Ecclesia. (Be careful though - there have been some issues of the DS freezing up and potentially ruining your Ecclesia save.) At least there's some online play, even if it's obscured with Nintendo's usual Friend Code nonsense.
The story itself is beyond embarrassment. Some characters exchange words before each match, which is another area where the "fan service" supposedly comes in. It doesn't, and when it tries, it's really bad. The worst example is Maria, who, for some reason, is fixated on the bountiful bosoms of the other female characters. Things like this are cliches from harem/moe manga, like where all of the girls are together in a bathhouse, while one or more of them makes comments on the hugeness of some of the other girls, with a 50 percent change of boob grabbage going on, just in case the lesbian undertones were a little too subtle. Many gamers complained that the cartoony artwork in Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin was lame, but scenes like this are way more dangerous to the audience at large. It should also be noted that the voice acting is pretty bad, but not hilariously bad a la Symphony, so it's just kinda there. Enable the Japanese voices, if you wish, just so you don't have the understand the trash coming out of their mouths.
The music at least tries to please fans, and from a certain perspective, it does, Each character has a theme song from their respective game. Simon has "Vampire Killer", Trevor has "Beginning", Sypha has "Mad Forest", Grant has "Clockwork", Alucard has "Dracula's Castle", and so forth. Cornell's theme is a remix of some of the themes from the Nintendo 64 games, marking the first time any of them have been rearranged. But in spite of the excellent selection, the actual quality of the arrangements are pretty mixed. None of them are out and out terrible, and some, like Bloody Tears (Carmilla's theme) and Slash (Maria's theme) are outstanding, but some of them are just anemic, like Iron Blue Intention, Eric's theme, or suffer from cheap sounding synth. Dracula's Castle, for example, is a decent arrangement, but it somehow manages to sound chintizer than its original version from Symphony of the Night. None of the sound quality stands up to any of the console games, or even the rearrangements found on Dracula X Chronicles.
It's a bit hard to judge Judgment overall. Solely from a Castlevania fan service standpoint, it's pretty middling. As a fighting game, on a technical level, it's more or less a total mess, the kind where you just kinda press buttons and watch cool stuff happen. It's actually amusing that, during the time of its release, that people disparaging the game were judged as being "elitist". Oh? An elitist is someone who slams SNK's awesome The Last Blade 2 because it is slightly unbalanced. Personally, I speak as someone who actually enjoys Tecmo's Dead or Alive series, and even paid full price for two of its releases, because despite being rather broken, it's actually pretty fun. But Dead or Alive also has (A) more than half a dozen combos per character, (B) a camera that doesn't muddle the action, and (C) the good conscience to run at a smooth frame rate. Castlevania Judgment has none of these. It's satisfying to watch, and to a lesser extent, control, but it really is a wreck. That being said, it's also no worse than Naruto or Mortal Kombat or other casual type fighting games. Castlevania fans might mind it worth it to satisfy their curiousity - there is a bit of a likable kitsch factor involved with it, for as embarrassing as it is - but serious fighting game fans will find their sensibilities offended.
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Castlevania Games - Castlevania: Judgment