“Oh, You Know Who I Am… Musta Got Pretty Famous, Eh?”
As a diehard fan of the franchise, I take no pleasure in having to cover bad Castlevania games on this website. But the way I see it, when life gives me lemons like Castlevania: The Adventure and Haunted Castle? I’ve gotta make long-winded essays about them — the proverbial “lemonade” of internet content, if you will. So, here I am to squeeze another lemon dry… presumably.
You see, I’ve never actually played Castlevania Judgment for myself. I’ve had the means and the want to, but I just never wound up getting around to it. It’s not even that I was dissuaded from doing so by the negative reputation surrounding it — that much should be obvious from the fact that I run a website dedicated to the very subject of maligned video games. But hey, now that I’m running said website, I reckon that’s just about as good an excuse as any to scratch this one off the list!
So, a Castlevania fighting game, huh? You know, it’s really not all that terrible an idea on paper, if you ask me. There’s certainly a large enough roster of established characters to pull from; spanning dozens of entries in the series across multiple centuries of convoluted canon. All you need is to whip up (pun intended) any weak excuse for them to inhabit the same space at the same time, and you’re off to the races! But of course, fighting games cannot subsist on premise alone: You’ve gotta back it up with some hard-hitting gameplay.
But Castlevania Judgment was never given so much as the benefit of the doubt that it would turn out to be anything other than awful. From the very moment it was announced to be a fighting game, an uproar began the echoes of which can still be heard to this day. Hell, I don’t even think folk got nearly as mad about those “erotic” pachinko machines! Which begs the question: Could the sheer volume of this fan backlash have drowned out what is possibly an underrated game? It’s up to us to pass judgement.
“Your Curse Has Been with Us Since Ancient Times.”
Koji “Iga” Igarashi rose to the role of Lead Producer for Konami’s Castlevania franchise in 1999. Having been with the company since 1990 and dabbled in roles as a programmer, writer, and assistant director, he was certainly well-qualified for the position, and his vision for the historic series would see it rebuilt almost from the ground up: Between retconning past installments, reinterpreting the timeline, and fully realizing the change in creative direction that Symphony of the Night had started, he left his indelible mark on the legacy of Konami’s premier line of vampire-killing adventures. In particular, handheld titles he helped produce across the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS (plus The Dracula X Chronicles on PlayStation Portable) comprise some of the best entries in the series. I would attribute this to his willingness to take creative risks, and a desire to move the series in new directions.
In 2007, Konami filed for a pair of patents for two upcoming Castlevania titles, bearing the subtitles “Order of Ecclesia” and “Judgment.” But of course, there’s only so much that you can ascertain about a Castlevania game from its subtitle alone.** And so, the public waited with bated breath for any sort of announcement — passing the time on message boards and the like by theorizing what sorts of games they would end up being. It didn’t take long for Iga to give away that at least one of the two titles would be a Nintendo DS title; mentioning in an interview with Famitsu [as reported on / transcribed by IGN] that “We’re working on a title for the DS. For this title, we’re keeping the production team that made Portrait of Ruin, so it will definitely be a game of high quality.”
The coming months would bring leaked screenshots of this game in action, including one of the main menu featuring a mysterious “Wii” function. This immediately lead to speculation that Judgment would be a title for Nintendo’s home console offering of the period — speculation which ended up being right on the money. This really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone, though: The Wii had quickly grown to be the best-selling home console of the seventh generation, and it only made sense that Konami would be looking to deliver titles on the platform. There was a slight worry that came with it though, in that Iga didn’t seem to express a particular interest in producing a “traditional” Castlevania title for the console, as he himself had indicated in an interview two years prior:
“Can you workout for an hour, and keep on whipping? […] I realize that the Wii market is casual gamers, that are looking forward to a short game experience and I hardly doubt that with the Castlevania style, they’ll all sit down and want to play for multiple hours or even a day. Also, I just really can’t think of any good ideas. My thought is that a Castlevania game doesn’t fit very well with it unfortunately. But maybe when I go back to Japan I might come up with some brilliant idea, and I’ll try to think of the possibilities.” ~ Koji Igarashi, Konami
As details surrounding Order of Ecclesia would continue to trickle out, news of Judgment remained more or less under wraps. That is, until June of 2008, when a preview shot from an upcoming issue of Nintendo Power was made publicly available on GoNintendo as provided by a user named “Blissteria.” While GoNintendo chose to run only one image from the scans, other sites such as JeuxFrance (now Gamekyo) went ahead and ran the entire collection of screenshots. In addition to confirming that it would be a title designed for the Wii, it also confirmed another major detail: It would be the series’ first [and so far only] 3D fighting game.
This news was met with… let’s call it “trepidation,” from both fans and journalists. Yes, there was the natural curiosity / concern that comes with a long-running franchise branching off in a new direction, but there was more to it than that. I’d categorize the bulk of the reactions as falling under three general concerns; the first of which being that the Wii was not known for having particularly “precise” control in the Wii Remote. As Destructoid’s Jonathan Holmes pondered: “So, the game will be an imprecise waggle-fest? Did that work for Soulcalibur Legends? Have imprecise controls ever worked to improve any game? When has any action game on the Wii benefited from tacked-on motion controls?”
The second concern was the character designs on display in these early screenshots. Demonstrating Simon Belmont, Alucard Ţepeş, and Maria Renard in action, it was almost impossible to recognize any member of the trio without the added assistance of their names appearing under their health bars. We’ll discuss the reasons for this in just a minute, but let’s address the third concern for now: Was anyone asking for a game like this? Had Castlevania fans given any indication that they had interest in a fighting game installment in the franchise? Granted, we’re talking about the same franchise here that had unexpectedly ditched its traditional platforming roots in favor of what we now call the “Metroidvania” formula some decade earlier, with 1997’s Symphony of the Night. And if you ask me, I don’t have any problem with an established series of games dipping its toes into different genres every now and again. It certainly worked for Resident Evil 4, and again with Resident Evil 7.
But the fact of the matter was, in the time leading up to the eventual details of Judgment making their way out, fans had already created their own expectations as to what a new console Castlevania would bring: Visions of elaborate 3D adventures iterating on the formula established by PlayStation 2 titles Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness, or perhaps even a return to the platforming form that first made the series great. It’s doubtful that anyone had been hoping for a fighting game, of all things. And so, even as the DS installments in the franchise continued to receive continued adoration with each consecutive installment – showing no sign of that style of gameplay being abandoned – Judgment was immediately and perhaps unfairly judged to be a “misstep” before it had even been formally announced.
July 1st brought us Konami’s official announcement of Castlevania Judgment being a fighting game fitted for the Nintendo Wii, and slated for a Fall ‘08 release date. This came just a few weeks prior to that year’s E3, where Iga would take to the stage during Konami’s press conference to discuss the details of both Order of Ecclesia and Judgment. While I don’t believe any surviving footage of this conference exists, what we do have is a loose transcript*** as provided by TalkingAboutGames.com’s Jay Van Beveren:
“After you see the trailer, I hope you see the game as something where you can run around in 360 degrees as an action game. […] Due to magic forces, a variety of characters from different eras are brought together. Simply, we wanted to get all the characters from past Castlevania titles into one game. For this version of the game, for the artwork, we got a famous Japanese artist to help with the artwork.” ~ Koji Igarashi, Konami
As would be confirmed before the game’s release, the “famous Japanese artist” in question would be none other than Takeshi Obata — perhaps best known for his work on the internationally successful Death Note. On the back of this success, he was designated as a character designer for Judgment, and tasked with turning in his takes on the fourteen characters that would serve as central to the plot and roster. Which begs the question: Was his involvement motivated by his own fondness for the Castlevania series, or was he completely unfamiliar with the franchise prior to being offered the job? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to this question, but my gut tells me that his familiarity with the source material was “fleeting” at best.
Months continued to pass, with the occasional character reveal in an attempt to build some sort of anticipation for the release. Even if this strategy had provided any measure of success, it would be quickly offset by scathing “hands-on” experiences with the game as documented by trade show attendees. A critic for Kotaku would note that “as a fighter, it’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s as though Konami looked at 3D fighters, saw what worked, what didn’t work, and just for shits and giggles, threw in everything that didn’t work.” Hyperbole though that may be, the preview went on to list a number of complaints that would leave even those few who were excited for the title with concerns. In a closing statement, the reviewer notes “I’d say Konami have a job on their hands trying to get this one fixed in time for release, but with the game due out in the US next month, things aren’t looking good.”
Whether or not the game was ready for prime time, that release date seemed to have been set in stone for the North American market. In what may seem like a strange decision, the States would receive the game two months in advance of Japan (who would see the game come out in January of next year), indicating North America as the target market for the title. If you think about it, the number of Wii owners in North America vastly outnumbered Japan by well over 2:1 at that point in time, with the console proving to be a sensation on US soil. And with the hardware severely lacking in competitive fighting games (save for Super Smash Bros. Brawl and a small handful of others), the market was Konami’s for the taking.
** Like, you could probably safely guess that Super Castlevania IV would be a Super Nintendo title, right? Or that Dawn of Sorrow was gonna be a Nintendo DS game, Harmony of Despair would be presented in HD, and Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night was just going to be weird, probably ill-advised idea in general.
*** In addition to recording Iga’s speech regarding Judgment, this live transcript also featured a viewer poll asking “Is the Castlevania fighting game on the Wii exciting you at all?” For historical reference, 76% of viewers voted “No,” while the remaining 24% all opted for a joke answer instead of “Yes.”
“Who Are You, Mister? What’s a Time Rift?”
Welcome to a world removed from time; where warriors from across the millennium are gathered to do battle with one another. Heroes and villains are called upon with a common objective: Defeat a being come from ten thousand years hence, and prevent them from ruling over all creation. But only one may step through the door of fate to face their common foe, and so they must be decided through trials of combat. The “Warriors of the Light” and “Warriors of the Night” must battle not only each other, but also amongst themselves, to determine who will proceed to the final conflict.
Responsible for summoning these warriors is the mysterious Aeon, who seems to hold a power over the flow of time itself. It is by his hand that these contenders are once again given cause for combat, and his apparent duty to see that the flow of time is not disrupted by the forces of evil. In the “Story” mode, he is the one to greet all characters to the time rift, and who convinces both heroes and villains to take part in this so-called farce. For each character who completes the story mode, Aeon collects a “Soul Key,” with thirteen in total being necessary to open the gate to the final boss in the “True Story Mode.”
As far as an excuse for bringing these characters from different games / time periods together, I reckon the premise here is as solid as any. It also provides a novel set-up for a story mode where Dracula isn’t the final boss waiting for you at the end, as you would expect from your typical Castlevania title. Who exactly the big bad at the end is, I will reveal in time. Instead, ol’ Drac is relegated to the role of just one of the several combatants selected to take part in the trials. That being said, the game’s “Castle” mode does see Dracula take his rightful seat as your final challenge.
It should be noted the game does provide a decent variety of play modes up front, and certainly doesn’t feel lacking in things to do: “Story” takes you through a series of fights as your selected character with some cutscenes in-between, “Arcade” serves as a more basic ladder mode, “Survival” gives you your endless gauntlet, and “Versus” is your two-player (or versus AI) match-up configurator. In addition to all that, the “Castle” mode provides a mode similar to something like Soulcalibur II’s “Weapon Master Mode,” where you proceed through a series of battle rooms with unique conditions for most every fight, as well as having opportunities to manage multiple lesser enemies in battles that make the game feel like a sort of beat ‘em up for brief moments in time. I’m a big fan of gameplay modes like this, and I believe I’ve talked about before how I wish more fighting games would implement them…
Less plentiful are the number of characters available for play at the very beginning of the game, as the majority of them must be unlocked through playing the story mode multiple times. Not only that, but several of these unlockable characters further require finishing a True Story playthrough in order to actually make them available in any other game modes! Needless to say, the process for unlocking every playable character across every play mode is time-consuming at best and tedious at worst. If you happen to own a Nintendo DS and a copy of Order of Ecclesia, you’re given only a slight reprieve in instantly unlocking that game’s protagonist (Shanoa) for immediate play.
So, I reckon I’ve kept you waiting long enough: It’s time for me to finally reveal how I feel about the character designs, and the choice of playable characters. Now, bear in mind that I’ve been a fan of the franchise for the majority of my life, and that I do have a sort of attachment to the world and the characters that Castlevania has spawned. That being said, my overall feeling on the new designs is… “Yeah, those are mostly fine.” As a member of a fan community that largely seems to loathe the character models as featured in Judgment, I find it a bit difficult to muster up too much rage myself.
Let’s start off with a few of the standouts. Trevor Belmont, who is written to be one of the “three legendary warriors” (along with Sypha and Grant, all originating from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), has an appropriate warrior aura and fits well enough with how you might interpret a 15th century anime warrior to look like. Obviously, it’s hard for me to picture Trevor looking like anything other than his appearance in the Netflix series at this point, but this is fine as well. I also think Sypha and Shanoa’s interpretations as sort of “Warriors of the Church” are a fine fit, even if I do sort of suffer the same syndrome of associating Sypha with her Netflix appearance. On the other hand, the sort of “dark nun” look Shanoa has going for her? Yeah, that definitely works well enough for me.
Speaking of characters I might kind of sort of have the hots for, how about those Alucard and Carmilla designs? I mean, Symphony of the Night Alucard is obviously peak “vampire twink” status, and I’d let that incarnation of him any day of the week, but his Judgment design gets a passing grade from me too. As for Carmilla… look y’all, I’m gonna be real honest with you here: I am incredibly gay for demonic-lookin’ gals. To be totally truthful, the fact that I was able to commission art of her – and I must say, it is some awesome art – was a major motivating factor in me even writing this article. All that being said, her Circle of the Moon appearance** with the pink and red dress (and even her “monster” form in that game) still stand out to me as being total perfection. I’m so sorry that you read all this.
That’s enough gushing: Let’s talk some of the more questionable designs. Many folk immediately point to Simon with his weird open vest and shorts situation, lookin’ like he’s about to go cruising. While I fully support him in this pursuit, it’s also sort of just a completely ridiculous look for a character I think of as being sort of dignified and deathly serious — the very model of a vampire hunter, and an example that the rest of the Belmont Clan would aspire to. And if not that, I would also settle for “goth hunk barbarian” Simon from Castlevania Chronicles, who sports the same sort of red hair and dark clothes look — albeit in what at least feels like a more “lore-appropriate” fashion.
And then there’s the matter of what I’ll call “The Death Note Lookalikes,” where I am lead to believe that Mr. Obata only has so many character types he is able to realize and draw from. In example: That series’ Misa obviously served as something of a template for his redesign of Rondo of Blood’s Maria, sporting the same hair and similar fashion sensibilities. Death’s redesign makes him out to look like a forgettable sort of shinigami that you’d have seen in the background of one shot in the anime or something, and the lack of iconic cloak is honestly confounding. You could make arguments for Bloodlines’ Eric Lecarde being based on Mello’s design, Aeon taking cues from Near and L, and even Simon being a bit samefacey with Light “Kira” Yagami.
But if I had to single out one character as being, just, particularly egregious? Grant Danasty has been transformed into the shinigami Rem — maybe mixed with a dash of Soulcalibur’s Voldo, but really just a blatant rehashing of a design that Obata had used previously. And like, of all the characters to apply that to, Grant’s the one who got saddled with that gimmick? There are just about a hundred different directions you could’ve gone with his pirate / thief aesthetic, and this is what they landed on? I’m not gonna sit here and pretend like I was particularly attached to Grant or his sort of generic Dracula’s Curse design, but seeing him transform into some retrofitted design from a completely unrelated manga character just leaves me thinking that Obata wasn’t putting much real passion into this whole project.
We should also discuss the roster of characters in terms of variety and the source material they were pulled from. One thing that’s clear to me – which seems to be lost on most folk – is that they wisely didn’t want to overload on whip-wielding characters. At some point, if you start adding the likes of Richter, Juste, John Morris, Nathan Graves… well, it gets harder to make them all appropriately distinct, when they would all largely rely on the same types of basic attacks. So, I’m in full support of going the route of “unorthodox characters,” like Legacy of Darkness’ Cornell. This provides you with a range of combat styles, from spell-casting to spear thrusts and even some involving small animals.
Perhaps the most curious pick for the roster is a character known only as “Golem” — who seems to combine elements from Castlevania’s various golem-type enemies as well as Frankenstein’s Monster. He serves as the obligatory “lumbering brute” character who pounds away at opponents with his fists. That being said, you certainly need someone to fill that sort of role in order to vary up the roster, and he’s given an interesting enough backstory and personality as to actually be a compelling character. Now, of course, I wouldn’t have minded having maybe one more whipholder; perhaps Legends’ Sonia, representing as a female associate for the Belmont Clan? But Iga’s weird distaste for that game and for the very concept of a female protagonist would’ve likely put the kibosh on that one.
Eyup, I reckon this is a subject we’re gonna have to cover now. So, quick primer for those of you who don’t already know: Iga was incredibly reluctant to feature women in Castlevania as anything other than “weak, feminine characters,” under the incredibly flimsy justification that “[in] vampire storyline motifs, females tend to be sacrificed.” While he would go on to say that “as you move into the modern day, females can then more easily become a hero” (only after being called out for this statement over the course of that same interview), you’re still sort of left with the impression that Iga might not be particularly adept at writing for female characters. Hell, even when Order of Ecclesia finally came around to prominently featuring a female protagonist, guess who didn’t receive his usual credit as a “Scenario writer” for the game?
Which brings us back to Judgment, and the handling of some female characters in the Story mode. You see, as Aeon introduces characters to the time rift, he goes on to trick several of them into participating by telling them “This is where you’ll find what you desire.” If you are playing as young Maria, it becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the cutscenes that what she desires above all else is… bigger boobs. This is indicated by her staring directly at the chests of Shanoa, Sypha, and Carmilla, and making comments along the lines of “Those are a sacred gift!” and “Even the vampire’s are bigger than mine!” as the camera zooms in for gratuitous close-ups. To this I say, no thanks: I don’t need to hear a fifteen-year old (who looks more like a pre-teen) talking at length about breasts.
Furthermore, with the inclusion of the cast of Dracula’s Curse comes a “love triangle” subplot, where Grant’s story has him coming to terms with the fact that he wishes he was in a relationship with Sypha. This leads to him and Trevor fighting for who has “the right” to have her, as well as him taking advantage of the timeline Sypha is pulled from in order to try and convince her that she’s his wife. Sure, this definitely isn’t the grossest storyline that could’ve been written here, but it sure is a trite one even with the added time-travelling element. And in a different context, I wouldn’t even harp on how Carmilla flirts with everyone she meets and dresses like a dominatrix, since you can at least justify that as being a sort of “vampire servant” thing to do. But the fact that this all comes courtesy of a creative director who literally laughed off the idea of the series’ first female protagonist having any actual place in the series chronology? I’m sorry, but hopefully you can understand why I can’t help but be a bit frustrated here.
But enough talk: Let’s have at the gameplay itself. Across all the different gameplay modes, the core of the combat is the same, placing players and competitors in a variety of ten 3D arenas. Most (if not all?) stages have edges that can be fallen off of resulting in ring outs, and some go as far as to feature stage hazards that threaten to harm combatants as well as do damage to the arenas themselves. Additionally, each stage has objects that can be destroyed which drop a small variety of items: Subweapons, hearts to power them, double and triple shot upgrades, and life-restoring meat products. On the surface, this seems like a cool way of integrating classic Castlevania mechanics into the context of a fighting game, but it’s not without its issues.
You know how in your traditional one-on-one fighter, you’re locked into facing your opponent at pretty much all times — even in 3D fighters that allow for side-stepping to take advantage of the larger spaces afforded? Judgment goes the “Power Stone” route instead, where you’re given a full range of movement in all directions. In a way, this is definitely appropriate, as the introduction of the item pickups pairs well with having the freedom to go out and grab them. It also allows for a style of play where a player may prefer to spend the bulk of the battle running away from any and all attacks, breaking open containers, and refilling their health to negate any damage they make take over the course of a fight, until such time as the time limit expires. It’s shit like this that makes me understand why Super Smash Bros. players often insist on “no items” matches, and it’s actually sort of incredible that there’s no option to toggle such a feature in Judgment.
Providing subweapons can also introduce some nigh-unavoidable attacks to a player’s repertoire — the sort of combos that are fit to make you say “oh, this is kind of broken, isn’t it?” Each character has their own selection of possible subweapons they can acquire from a pick-up (modeled as a generic box that doesn’t reveal which weapon you’ll be getting), with some proving far more powerful than others. For example: The “Jagged Earth” subweapon can be spammed in close-quarters and used to break an opponent’s guard in short order, eventually sending them flying into the air and landing back on the ground. If you can time and position yourself correctly, you can hit them again with the attack as soon as they recover, locking them into a cycle for as long as you have the hearts to do so. And if you’re one of those aforementioned sorts who spends the bulk of the match just running around and stockpiling items, why I reckon I just gave you a consistently winning strategy, haven’t I?
I mention these systems and mechanics up-front because they indicate that Judgment isn’t a particularly deep fighting game. I would guess that such highly complicated design concepts like “balancing” weren’t much of a priority here, and the whole game sort of feels like an all-times free-for-all. It’s a weird change of pace for a franchise which is usually so deliberate and considered in its controls and mechanics. If there was ever a non-fighting game series that called for a traditional style, super technical, perfection-demanding fighting game spin-off, it’d have to be Castlevania. Perhaps at some point this was the intent, but maybe Iga had his worries about the “loose” nature of the Wii Remote making that dream impossible from the very start. And sure enough, playing with the Wii’s stock controller is an exercise in imprecise inputs.
Your basic controls are as follows: Your normal attack, a modifier button to be used in conjunction with your attack input in order to do some special attacks, separate buttons for subweapons, guarding, and your all-powerful “Hyper Attacks” — as well as inputs for moving, evading, and jumping. If you should choose to play with something like a Classic Controller or GameCube controller, these inputs all work well enough, with dedicated buttons for each of these individual functions. You know; sort of like how a video game is supposed to be played. But if, on the other hand, you’re using a Wiimote and accompanying Nunchuck? You better get ready to waggle.
In this scenario, your attacks are performed by swinging the Wii Remote, where you’re probably meant to feel like you’re swinging a whip or something. In actual execution, you’re more left feeling like you’re wildly shaking the controller and forcing yourself to a sudden halt if you want to try and do much of anything else. Additionally, dodges are performed by shaking the Nunchuck, which is sensitive enough that I would trigger it without intending to a couple of times as my hand naturally sort of moved with my motions in-game. Needless to say, it was not long before I ditched the cumbersome combo of loosely-connected controllers in favor of a proper gamepad.
But even with what feels like more direct control over your character, there are still some issues you’re gonna run into. For one, nothing about targeting and attacking your opponent feels intuitive or accurate. The game lacks anything like a lock-on function where your character will track and consistently face toward your opponent, requiring you to try and line yourself up manually before launching into any attack. And with 360° of directions to face, and the width / range of your attacks only being so large, this may well lead to a lot of whiffing. The only trick I found which sort of works is using the guard button, which will turn you to block in the direction of where your opponent was last stood. This is practically the only way to get any projectile-based attacks to hit their mark, and even still it gives your opponent plenty of time to move or guard.
It’s times like this where you have to rely on a game’s camera to keep your eyes on target and yourself orientated. Now, I reckon you can probably already tell where I’m going with this, but I’ve also gotta put something of a disclaimer here: I personally didn’t have all that hard a time dealing with Judgment’s camera system! I know it’s become something like the major sticking point that most critics single out, with some going as far as to say it makes the game “unplayable” or what have you. But it never got too much in the way for me in playing the game the way I think it was meant to be played — keeping in close with your opponent, and letting the momentum of your attacks be what moves you across the arenas.
If you want to deliberately test the camera, or if your playstyle centers around running around the perimeter of the map and letting your opponent chase you, of course you’ll end up with some frustrating angles on the action. That said, it’s still hard for me to describe exactly how the camera is supposedly supposed to fail you as the player? For that, I’ll rely on a quote from GameSpot’s review of the game: “It zooms out as you approach the front of the screen and tunnels inward as you retreat.” I could also see the camera being an issue in the versus mode against a friend; with player one probably getting something like camera priority, as player two is left having to squint at their character in the distance. But again, it’s not an issue I encountered in my time spent with the game (roughly six hours?), and I don’t want to criticize it too harshly if it’s not a problem I personally ran into.
What I can criticize in terms of disrupting game flow and making you lose your sense of place are the Hyper Attack animations. Every playable character has a meter they can fill, and doing so allows you to perform your character’s most powerful attack. Assuming your set-up for this attack lands on your opponent, you’ll promptly be transported to a surreal plane of existence where your attack animation proceeds to play out. These super moves include Simon just doing’ a shit-ton of whippin’ on an opponent, Grant tossing a thousand knives in a matter of a second, and Carmilla just… teasing these poor, sweet girls with the promise a kiss and “the greatest of pleasures,” before slapping them in the face and crushing them inside an iron maiden. Why you gotta be so mean, ma’am?
Needless to say, these attacks are meant to be pretty devastating when they land. In fact, they end parting an opponent from a whole half of their health bar, which I find to be a bit much? On top of that, these animations tend to last around twenty seconds apiece: Twenty uninterruptible seconds that you’ll likely have to watch multiple times over and over again. Seeing Carmilla lean in to give another girl a smooch is fun the first / second / maybe even the third time, but by the twelfth time I was made to sit through it, even my patience began to run thin. Oh, and more thing about these Hyper Attacks worth noting: They don’t work on characters who aren’t playable fighters, so they are wasted on monsters in the Castle mode and on the final boss of the True Story.
But for all I’ve said so far about the gameplay shortcomings, it’s honestly not all terrible! Granted, I’m also not generally big into fighting games to begin with, and tend towards titles that offer more a more “party style” approach to gameplay rather than competitive. And so, I reckon your mileage with Castlevania is going to vary based on what you go into it expecting. Like, if you fancy yourself a “fighting game aficionado,” you’re more likely than not gonna get nothing out of playing Judgment: The controls are basic as can be with only a few combos to go around per character, there are some clear character imbalances across the roster, and the presence of unpredictable stage hazards and item drops is probably enough on its own for some folk to write the game off.
On the other hand, all those “faults” I just listed can also be interpreted by some as positives! Simple (if not imprecise) controls make for a game where it is far easier to commit moves to memory, which benefits those of us who have trouble mastering particularly complex inputs. For as clearly superior as some playable characters seem to be over others (Maria’s aerial maneuvering can make her the most difficult target), it’s at least on account of how differently they all feel and play from one another, and it can make your multiple runs through the Story mode feel at least a tad bit less repetitive. And with the added elements of mid-match healing items, the variety of alternate weapons, and arenas laden with traps, there’s always gonna be more to a match than just mashing.
I would also make the argument that the game presents itself pretty well visually — in spite of many criticisms I’ve heard to the contrary. You see, there was this period in the mid-to-late aughts where it feels like every review for a Wii title had to get a line in about how the console had “last-gen” visuals — as if Wii owners weren’t already privy to the knowledge that their console was the graphical underperformer of the generation. In pulling out a random review for Judgment, I landed on Destructoid’s non-specific criticisms: “Sadly, we’re still at a point in Wii history where most third-party Wii titles look like first-year PS2 games […] If you have higher expectations of what a Wii game should look like (i.e., two GameCube games duct-taped together), don’t look to Judgment and expect to be impressed.”
If you’re looking for actual pointed criticisms of Judgment’s graphics, I’ll be happy to oblige: Some of the textures are a bit on the muddy side, the animations for the in-game cutscenes are a bit on the “lifeless” side, and it sometimes dips below it’s 30 FPS cap. Now, if you can get past all that, there’s plenty to appreciate: Stages and backgrounds all have interesting visual themes to them, incorporating elements of the gothic architecture and gloomy atmospheres you’d come to expect of the franchise. Even if you’re not a fan of the character designs, they still largely gel together well with one another, and they manage to make every fighter feel unique / easy to differentiate from one another. The game also does a good job of indicating whether your attacks actually hit or get blocked, has a simple-yet-stylized UI, and boasts a pretty nifty opening FMV. It’s no visual tour de force by any stretch, but it’s certainly far from “ugly.”
Also working to support the game’s overall presentation is the soundtrack; which, do I even need to tell you that it’s excellent? If there’s one thing Castlevania has always been consistent about – from the best games to the dirt worst – it’s been in providing incredibly memorable soundtracks. In a bold move given this reputation for musical excellence, recording duties were entrusted to an external games music production studio, Noisycroak (rather than being handled by in-house composers). In doing so, Judgment’s soundtrack largely serves as a sort of “arrange album,” dealing in classic Castlevania melodies and giving them what composer Yasushi Asada defines as a “neo-classical styled heavy metal” treatment. The result is a soundtrack fit for the high-energy gameplay style of a fighting game.
Each character is considered as having their own theme music in the game, with their selected tracks usually coming from the games they are most commonly associated with. Naturally, Simon gets a rousing rendition of “Vampire Killer,” befitting of his down-to-business demeanor and attitude. Grant is given a jaunty take on “Clockwork” which suits the noble thief well. And as Camilla is credited as having first appeared in Simon’s Quest (remember that giant mask you have to fight?), she is gifted the legendary “Bloody Tears,” now with ripping guitar solo. Maybe that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but hey, I really dig what they do with it here. I think my favorite rendition of it may still be it’s arrangement as heard in Castlevania: The Arcade – which also takes it in the direction of metal – but Judgment’s cover still rates a respectable second place.
As for the two characters who can’t really call any one particular previous game or theme their own, suitable songs are settled on: Golem gets a tragedy-tinted take on “The Tower of Dolls,” which fits his character well and is as good an excuse as any to include the staple track in the soundtrack. Meanwhile, Aeon gets his own original song in “Darkness of Fear,” also serving as the game’s own main theme. As a new contribution to the legacy of Castlevania music, I believe it earns its place in the pantheon of iconic compositions. The whole soundtrack is honestly just superb all around, paying appropriate fanfare to the franchise and fitting the tone of this action-oriented installment in the series.
Hey, speaking of paying homage to the history of Castlevania: I promised earlier I’d reveal who the final boss is, didn’t I? He’s this sort of supersized Grim Reaper-type called the “Time Reaper” — and if you discount the theory that he’s a future version of the Death that’s present as a playable character, he’s not really based off of any particular pre-existing Castlevania boss encounter… unless you account for the Kid Dracula spin-off series. Yes, Time Reaper mentioning that he comes from “ten thousand years hence” is an explicit reference to Kid Dracula antagonist Galamoth; who appears as a boss in Symphony of the Night, where his bestiary description [in the Japanese version of the game] hints at his “ten thousand year plan” to take over the Netherworld. With that description in Symphony clearly meant to pay homage to Galamoth’s antagonist status in Kid Dracula, and with Galamoth having a Death-esque assistant (“Shinigami-San”) in those games, you can interpret this all as meaning that Time Reaper is Galamoth’s right-hand man, sent back in time to execute on this convoluted plan!
Are those some pretty deep cuts? You betcha. Is it all incredibly ridiculous? Of course it is. But so is the very concept of a time-traveller bringing together all these Castlevania characters from completely different eras to fight each other! We’re talking about the same game that drudged up Cornell as a playable character — the protagonist of the second Nintendo 64 installment in the series, which Iga had previously gone out of his way to say wasn’t even canon. This whole game is ridiculous, and at some point, you just need to appreciate it for what it is: Fan service of the most gratuitous degree. It’s a cruel irony that the whole concept would go on to be so poorly-received by franchise loyalists.
As a Castlevania fan, I do feel as if there’s plenty to love about Judgment’s “personality” and even in some of its pandering. Even if I don’t agree with all the new characterizations of the cast (by which I mostly mean Maria), I got a kick out of some of their interactions and unique dialogue with one another: Alucard and Trevor having to check and see what time periods each other are pulled from, Sypha’s immediate distrust of Cornell due to the darkness within them, Grant trying to impress the likes of Shanoa by talking up how he defeated Dracula. Character interactions being such a seemingly minor point in fighting games, these obviously aren’t enough on their own to make up for a lack of some other features in the game (a lack of character-unique ending cutscenes, for example), but they don’t go unappreciated by me at the least.
I hinted earlier that the Castle game mode is probably my favorite of the lot, for the fact that it has a nice little variety of gimmick battles and fights with specific win conditions. In my opinion, every fighting game should have a single player mode along these lines, as it provides a much-appreciated bit of variation in a genre that can tend to get a bit repetitive mighty quick. And while Judgment’s take on this style of challenge-driven content is a bit uneven in spots (if I never have to fight another “Iron Gladiator” again in my lifetime, it’ll be too soon), it definitely wound up being the mode I derived the most entertainment from playing.
As a bit of a bonus, playing through the Castle mode or enduring in Survival (plus a few other scattered scenarios) will reward you with some minor character customization options in the “Accessories” mode. These little bits of flair and fashion might give you a bit of additional incentive to play through the different game modes as the different characters, or to task yourself with accomplishing some of the more difficult missions the game has to offer. That said – and despite my usually being a sucker for this sort of thing – I didn’t dedicate much time to tracking down the additional cosmetics myself. Hell, I’ll be completely honest with you and tell you that I didn’t even bother with the process of unlocking all the individual characters on my own: After clearing the Story mode twice trying to do so “the hard way,” I gave up and just downloaded a pre-cooked save file.
That’s really my biggest gripe with Judgment: All the busywork getting in the way of me playing the game as the characters I wanted to play as, and all the expected repetition of the same content over and over again in order to experience the full breadth of the experience. Sad to say, but the core of the gameplay just isn’t compelling enough to warrant the investment. In designing a fighting game almost explicitly for folk not accustomed to the genre, they neglected to include many of the sort of nuances and complexities that give a fighting game any real sense of depth. And so, while it may be accessible to even the likes of me,*** it’s also too shallow to make me feel like I can really engage with it in any meaningful way.
At a point, the game did include an option for Wi-Fi matchmaking, which included both friend code connections and randomly-assigned online opponents. From what I can gather [not being able to test the online for myself], it seemed to be a bit more stable than the likes of a Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but almost assuredly lacking the sort of dedicated playerbase that such a game would have. In any event, with online services across all Wii titles being long-since discontinued at this point, there’s no double-checking any of this for myself… as if there’d still be anyone playing this game online post-launch, anyhow.
You know, there’s probably one thing the game could’ve done that might have justified the overly-simple combat mechanics and the often oversized arenas: It could’ve gone full-on Power Stone and included some four-player battle modes. Honestly, I feel like that probably would’ve lent the game far more value in general, as the Wii really does tend to lend itself more to party-friendly games than highly-technical competitive titles. Sure, at some point, that’s probably straying even further away from what Castlevania fans might expect to see, but it’s not as if any of them gave a shit up to this point anyhow. I’m sure this was an option that was at least considered during development, but probably proved too unwieldly or graphically-demanding to implement.
I like to consider Castlevania Judgment as something of a love letter to the franchise. And as is the case with love letters, they can often wind up being awkwardly written, horribly misguided, or even downright embarrassing in spots. But at their core, they’re still born out of a genuine affection, and there’s at least some merit to their earnestness. That’s my opinion on Castlevania Judgment: It’s a clumsy execution on a misguided premise, but you can still tell that it at least meant well. And if you can look past its flaws – myriad as they may be – there’s still something endearing about it that saves it from being a complete disaster.
** Yes, I know she’s called “Camilla” in that game / isn’t considered by everyone to be of the same lineage of character. But to hell with that: She’s totally an incarnation of Carmilla as far as I’m concerned.
*** For reference, I struggle to get into any fighting games more elaborate / complex than the original The World Warrior edition of Street Fighter II.
“Not All Children of the Night Are Evil.”
Castlevania Judgment being anything less than the greatest, most unexpected, completely revolutionary fighting game of all time would be enough to spell certain doom for the release. Not only did Judgment need to defy expectations to have a fighting chance; it needed to shatter them, drive a stake through their heart, and burn the whole castle down alongside it. Needless to say, its strength was not enough to carry the day.
The game launched to overwhelmingly middling reviews, with a lean towards the negative. GameSpy’s Cameron Lewis cited “rotten character balance, “irritating camera” and “lame story” in their list of cons against the game’s sparse few pros, in what ultimately averages out to a three out of ten final review score. GameSpot’s Mitch Dyer wrote thusly: “The abhorrent camera, dreadful art, and cumbersome controls are for masochistic applicants only; fans of the franchise, fighting, or fun will find nothing of value in this sloppy cash-in.” Kotaku’s Michael McWhertor even went so far as to subtitle his review with the infamous Symphony quote “You Don’t Belong In This World” — as if trying to convey as quickly as possible that he was “on the fan’s side.”
Just about the only outlet to give the game an outright positive review was IGN, who awarded the game what I feel to be a fair 7.5. In a review which acknowledges poor showings of the game at trade shows and low expectations going in, reviewer Mark Bozon admits his pleasant surprise at the game being passable: “After going the distance with Castlevania Judgment on Wii, I want more, and I’m surprised to say it.” It also ends on an adorably optimistic note, with the reviewer hoping that “the formula can be refined in the future” in service of some future installment that – as was pretty obvious almost immediately – was never gonna happen.
But I know none of you are here to see what the corporate shills at IGN (probably short for “Idiots Giving No-good video game reviews”) have to say. You’re here for one reviewer, and one reviewer only: Metacritic.com’s own EastonReviews, here to tell it like it is in the user reviews section. After three years of careful consideration culminating in a November 14th, 2011 review, Easton would deliver the indisputable final verdict on Castlevania Judgment:
“This isn’t Castlevania, it’s not a ‘pleasent surprise’ IGN, and it’s not cool. It’s a obsurd little game with a revealing cover forcing teenage girls to buy it. Now that’s just sick, the graphics suck, the gameplay is dissapointing, and the game itself is the equivilant to horse dung. Still want to buy it?” ~ EastonReviews
And with the stroke of a key, the damage was done: Easton’s review reverberated through time much like the meddling of one Aeon, and retroactively caused the game to become a financial flop. VGChartz guesstimates somewhere in the neighborhood of 160K copies sold worldwide, with sources confirming particularly dismal regional launch week sales in Japan — a measly 3,700 units, to approximate. For comparison: Order of Ecclesia is listed as managing roughly 370K worldwide sales, with a Japanese launch week moving roughly 20,000 purchases. Not an entirely fair comparison, admittedly, but still a telling one to be sure.
So, what’s the lesson to be learned here for games makers? “Never take risks?” Obviously that’s pretty lousy advice for a multitude of reasons: Even the most lazy and stubborn of publishers has to know that relying on the same formula over and over again will eventually lead to consumer fatigue. At some point, I wonder if that was the worry Konami had with Castlevania — that even with it’s myriad innovations on the platforming premise, players would eventually grow tired of it. So, better to take chances while folk were still loyal to the brand, rather than waiting for that fatigue to set in. But of course, I doubt any Castlevania fans were on the verge of dropping the franchise as it stood at the time.
At some point, the over-the-top negative response from the press and consumers at large feels like a backlash against the very concept of the game, rather than the game itself. To me, it reads like a fear of what they thought might become of their beloved franchise — a dread that its success might result in more games of its ilk, and less of what they had grown to love. An irrational fear to be sure, but one which could easily set itself in one’s mind if you don’t really have a full understanding of how the industry works. In actuality, all these lacklustre sales probably managed to accomplish was seeding a fear in Konami themselves, where they may have well misinterpreted those numbers to mean “the Wii might not be a good fit for a Castlevania of any sort.”
As it would transpire, the Wii would see only one other original Castlevania title released for it: 2009’s The Adventure ReBirth. Now, I know I already briefly talked about this WiiWare release in our previous article covering the original Adventure on Game Boy, and how it practically has nothing to do with its namesake. But it bears being mentioned again here as it shows how quick Konami was to backpedal on this whole endeavor; by releasing the safest, most traditional Castlevania game in years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid little game and all. But it doesn’t take an industry analyst to figure out that it was churned out on the sort of quick and cheap, and that Konami were desperate to get back on their fans’ good graces with it. Evidently, it wasn’t successful enough to warrant a follow-up of its own, and the few remaining titles in the franchise would skip Nintendo’s hardware offerings entirely (save for the originally 3DS-exclusive Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate).
I suppose the publisher / developer takeaway here should be something like “calculate your risks.” Introduce players to drastic departures by re-assuring them that you still understand your IP’s core appeal, and promise that you’re not abandoning outright the qualities that made it successful. And if you’re developing a title for a modern console that doesn’t yet have a traditional installment in your series, maybe start with something like that first before you start getting all experimental. If The Adventure ReBirth had made its way onto the console’s marketplace in advance of Judgment, I have to wonder how that would have affected the sales of the latter? Would the backlash still have been as swift and brutal? Or perhaps there’s the chance that those irrational fears would be better-quelled, and that vampire killers the world over would have been more apt to give an odd spin-off a shot.