As much as I love retro inspired games, there’s something to be said for the classics. So many of the games that pay homage to the days done by are often created by fans who grew up with these games, and, as such emulate what they remember or liked best through a nostalgic filter. A lot of the folk who make these modern-day pixel classics didn’t have to work with mere kilobytes of space to create their title: they have the luxury of working with a massive system that can bend gameplay and imagery to their whims, making something “retro” without needing to roll back the clock. So for an 8-bit inspired game to be created today with someone who was in the trenches then really raises some eyebrows and interest.
Koji Igarashi may not be the original father of Castlevania, but he’s certainly helped make the series stand out in his own way, particularly with Symphony of the Night and, more recently, his spiritual sequel, Bloodstained. Though the full game hasn’t yet been released, Inti Creates has partnered up with the main creators to bring us an amazing “minigame” prequel called Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. Under the watchful eye of Igarashi himself, this prequel game is working to create double duty for the player. On the one hand, it helps to properly set the stage for when Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night drops later this year (not that it needs much assist thanks to an incredibly tight Kickstarter campaign. On the other, it helps to excite and inspire players for what’s to come: after all, if this is just the bonus game that they developed on the side, who knows what will be coming down the pipeline so very soon?
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon puts you in the shoes of Zangetsu, a dude who’s been cursed by demons and now roams the world, killing demons as revenge. He gets wind of some massive demon, and he’s determined, by the end of the night, to either slaughter the great beast or destroy the moon itself. It’s so hard to not spoil the hell out of this game because, not only is it surprisingly complex for such a simple title, but spoilers here would essentially ruin Ritual of the Night. Just know that everyone you encounter in this game is integral to the upcoming game, and the way Zangetsu plays things forward makes a lot of sense. People who’ve backed the Kickstarter campaign need only to refresh some of their backer updates to remember everyone and everything (though I doubt they’ll need to). And, if you are coming into this blind, it really doesn’t matter because this game is good.
Right out the gate, you’ll notice this game looks, feels and plays exactly like the NES versions of Castlevania, and you would be mostly right on that front. From the unceremonious spawning in a foreboding courtyard to the trek through various labyrinthian castles and manors, you are instantly transported back to how things used to be in the 8-bit days of gaming. However, if you are familiar with the portmanteau, you should know that this is not a metrovania game. This is distinctly a Castlevania platformer through and through: there are some explorative pathways, but you aren’t going to be doubling back on your footsteps multiple times. You move forward, as you must always do. This certainly doesn’t make it a bad game, but it’s important to know where your expectations lie.
Curse of the Moon starts you off with Zangetsu and his cursed sword, which seems like the most powerful standard weapon in the game. You’ll find various extra weapons hidden in candle holders, which require weapon points to use. Pretty textbook stuff if you’ve been down this road before. After you finish the first boss, however (more on that in a moment), you unlock your first switchable character. This is where the game gets interesting, as you now develop a system of understanding and rotation to create some great gameplay possibilities. One character has the ability to power slide, another can turn into a bat, and yet another can use various alchemic spells to turn the tide of battle in his favor, occasionally having attacks that dwarf the other characters. The character rotation system is a joy to figure out, as you can literally swap on the fly with no interference other than a brief smoke cloud. You’ll probably find one character you like best and stick with them for most of the game, and more power to you: it’s what I did. However, you’ll find spots and moments where swapping characters is either the best way to move forward or, in some cases, the only way.
The character rotation system also makes for an interesting life reserve. Basically, you have only three lives on Veteran difficulty, but those lives expire when ALL characters are dead. So if you accidentally drop Zangetsu off a cliff (as this game is prone to do), you can simply continue on with one of his companions and, with one glaring exception, the rest are perfectly capable of finishing the stages, which will then resurrect fallen party members. As a matter of fact, if you’ve played a single NES game before, don’t bother using the easy difficulty: it’s too damn easy with the level of gameplay that you get here. Veteran just asks you to be aware of how to jump and move, and easy is far too forgiving. If you didn’t have the knockback damage, how else would you get pissed at an incredibly cheap kill by an errant flying bat or what kind of looked like a pixie?
The boss fights, which are the highlight of this game, help tie in what I mentioned way up top about retro inspiration. Until you reach a boss fight, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were simply playing a fan hack of Castlevania 3, albeit a good one. This is the area where Inti Creates needs to be credited with bridging the gap between simply “modern retro” and “retro inspired.” The bosses are enormous, terrifying and gorgeous pixel creations, each one memorable and with a certain level of learning and commitment in order to be beaten. Starting with a possessed train entity and ending with the screen-filling demon that Zangetsu has been hunting this whole time, most bosses will require swapping characters to best meet what needs to happen. One boss in particular, who I absolutely hated with a passion, has an attack that seems to insta-kill unless you still have Miriam alive and could slide under it. Still, each one looked and felt amazing to deal with.
But what really helped Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon stand apart from the crowd is its mythology. Sure, it’s a fantastic Castlevania-esque game, and it plays like a game that I would have had a yard sale of all my possessions to buy when I was a child. But when the credits roll at the end of the game, your journey is far from over. Multiple modes can be unlocked throughout replay, and these modes continue to expand the story of what is happening prior to Miriam’s solo departure in Ritual of the Night. Players have been exploring the game and peeling back layers to find out more secrets, including secret areas and untold abilities that characters may or may not have. This mini game is already expanding beyond its own scope, gaining fan fervor, and rightfully so. People didn’t know how much they wanted more of this kind of game until it arrived and it was done right.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon does exactly what an appetizer is supposed to do: it’s a delicious taste that whets the appetite and leaves you hungry for more. This isn’t a basket of bread sticks to fill up on: this is just enough to get your motor running in preparation for more. From pixel-perfect design to amazing scoring and some solid HD rumble, Inti Creates has started a fire that will ignite the passions of the faithful and the skeptical alike. Backers from the Kickstarter campaign may already have this title in their possession, but, if you’re at all curious what the moon brings, be prepared. Use the Joycon straps so you don’t throw your controllers when you die, because you will. And then you will get back up and try again, because this kind of gaming lives forever.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.