The Trash Culture Literary Corner: Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Chapter 3-4

Honestly I do feel vaguely guilty riffing on this.  Once upon a time, I was commissioned to write a promotional comic book for children (don’t bother looking for it, dammit!) and the end result probably did bring shame to my ancestors.  But it is hard to do, especially when you’re chained down by a dozen editorial mandates and no one, especially not you, has any illusions that artistic merit has got anything to do with it.  It especially couldn’t have been easy given that the subject matter is Castlevania;  even the shallow, 8-bit video game isn’t all that far removed from its many horror inspirations.

On the other hand…

“Look – anyway, this is a joke, right?  Everyone has ganged up on me ’cause they know I’m an ace Castlevania player and I’m being persecuted for my hobby.”

There is the matter of Tim.  By the way, for all his bragging, I bet he couldn’t get through Stage 17 in the original on one life.

Anyway, when last we left our “ace Castlevania player,” he was confronted by a bondage-geared man in the boys’ bathroom of his school, claiming to be a character from his video game.  Rather than seeking help or saying his prayers, Tim stops to listen to him.

Here was Simon Belmont, the Hero of Castlevania, standing before him, square jaw jutting earnestly, broad chest heaving with purpose.  Yes, this was Simon all right.  Tim even noticed now that gripped feverishly in Simon’s fist was a whip.

To his credit, Tim is a bit skeptical, until Simon shows that he can answer one of Tim’s questions:  the name of Simon’s girlfriend, Linda Entwhistle.  Only she doesn’t exist anywhere in the actual game series, and even so it’s the sort of trivia a child murderer would be able to learn, even in the Dark Age of P.G. (PreGoogle).

Oh well, I guess Tim is just grateful it’s obviously not this Simon Belmont.

simonbelmont

Anyway, once the matter of credentials is settled, Simon has Tim touch his whip, which magically teleports them both back to his bedroom…okay, seriously, how is this not a really disturbing allegory?

Stepping away from that disturbing line of thought, there is something else about this set-up that I find troubling.  Simon Belmont is apparently aware that he’s a video game character.  There’s none of that “Your video game/novel/comic creators were  inspired by what they thought was their imagination, but really they were tapping into my world” kind of thing that you see in these kinds of affairs.  Simon even hails Tim as “the best Castlevania player in this dimension.”  Like Princess Toadstool and her lack of concern that her entire universe is not the “real world,” Simon seems unperturbed that his entire artificial existence is endlessly manipulated for the entertainment through countless unseen hands.  (And in case you think I’m not the only person who thought of this, it’s the kind of question that’s part of the premise of this fan sequel to Captain N where a cosmic horror is slowly wiping out Videoland by simply showing its denizens the truth of their existence.  It’s…rather brilliant, actually. )

Anyway, the book is (loosely…very, very, very loosely) based on the plot of Castlevania II.  Simon tells Tim that Dracula was killed and his body divided into five parts (wait, the author can’t talk about bloodsucking but he can make slicing up a corpse a plot point?), but a curse Dracula placed on Simon remains in effect.  The greatest departure from the game’s premise is that the curse doesn’t mean Simon is in danger of dying young and that he’s constantly harassed by zombies at night (while the player themselves are damned to read “What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse” over and over again);  instead Simon is slowly being possessed by Dracula.  Plus, Dracula’s got his girl.  

I knew something was wrong when my beautiful Linda, whom Dracula had captured, did not come back to me!

I know this is a book for children, but I think even kids, unless they’ve been raised on nothing but Sesame Street, would assume that Simon’s “beautiful Linda” is deader than a necrophiliac’s dream date.

Anyway, over the course of the explanation, Simon takes Tim to Casltevania, which “looked like a cluster of medieval towns, but drawn by a madman in a depression…”, which is about as much of a description as we get.  We don’t even have an idea of where Tim and Simon are standing once they enter the fantasy world that was supposed to be the entire point of this book.  Luckily, here Dracula does what many a video game villain should do and tries to take care of the problem before said problem can gain levels or find special weapons or whathaveyou:

…Simon Belmont was no longer totally Simon Belmont.  “Greetings, mortal!”  said the voice of Count Dracula.  “Come to Castlevania for an early and unpleasant death, I take it?”

Admittedly, I did get a kick out of imagining Christopher Lee forcing out that line.

The She-Wolf Returns: Ilsa vs. Captain America: Prologue

(Just an idea I had, which may or may not lead to anything…)  

When Michael had to leave his tiny Alabama town to join the Army in Europe, he dreaded many things. Looking up into the eyes of a coldly enraged Captain America was not one of them.

“Sir, I…”

“Where is she, soldier?”

“She’s dead, Captain!” Michael exclaimed with absolute certainty. “Captain Cheetham saw it himself. Somebody tied her to a bed and shot her.”

Captain America turned away from the young soldier before him and around the ruins of what had been Medical Camp 9, the subject of so many morbid legends whispered among the Allied leaders and the rank-and-file alike. Once Winston Churchill told him with solemn authority that the Führer refused to receive any reports about its experiments, and even a grade-A Doctor Frankenstein like Arnim Zola would not set one foot near the place. The stories about the camp’s mistress, Ilsa, were the stuff of whispers that would make even a Nazi squirm…

When he learned that he had been chosen to receive the super-soldier serum and before anyone had even thought of the alias ‘Captain America,’ Steve had told himself that he would not let the casual cruelty of war erode his principles. He would not laugh over the corpses of his enemies, as he had seen even good men do, or punish the defenseless for the sins of their leaders, no matter how staggering they might be. Since his time on the battlefields of Europe, he had encountered a handful of people – still far too many – who had tested his resolve. At the top of that list was that woman only known, even in Germany’s highest and most secret military communications, as ‘Ilsa.’

Once upon a time, he thought she could have been redeemed. It might as well have been ten thousand years ago, and since then he wondered if his compassion came from his heart or from his genitals. He still remembered how they first met at Strasbourg, the cold metal pressed against the back of her skull, her flat voice declaring that she would find the secrets of the super-soldier serum even if she had to cut him open. Yes, she looked like a Valkyrie incarnate, with breasts Mae West would envy, but buried not far under that cold and imperious look that never completely retreated from her face was a need to yield to a good man – or so it seemed. Then he saw her “experiments,” which had nothing to do with science or Nazi ideology but with craving the worst kind of power, and most disgusting of all by far was what she had done to Bucky, just to mock him…

“I have to see,” Captain America said, more to himself than to Michael. “Where is Cheetham?”

“This way,” Michael said. The young soldier escorted him through a maze of scorched buildings and twisted corpses. The ones that did not belong to German soldiers were nearly all the remains of very attractive young women and men, a sure sign of Ilsa’s “tastes.” Despite all his morals, for a nanosecond Captain America damned himself for not killing Ilsa when he had a chance.

Captain Peter Cheetham was in one of the doctors’ offices, examining the few remaining scraps of official documents that the Nazis had neglected to destroy. As soon as Captain America stepped through the threshold, Cheetham, without hesitation, turned and saluted him. “Captain America, again let me thank you for accompanying…”

With a polite but quick gesture, Captain America ended the formalities. “No need, Captain. Tell me what you’ve found so far.”

“All the doctors and staff here are fled or dead, killed by the prisoners or by the Nazis themselves,” Cheetham replied.

“How many prisoners…?”

“Only two. One of them claims Ilsa was incapacitated before we got here.”

In spite of himself, Captain America clenched his fists. He felt cheated, even angry, that he was denied one more confrontation with the so-called ‘She-Wolf of the SS.’

“Where’s her body?” Captain America asked, his voice almost a whisper.

“Captain?”

Please…

Cheetham nodded with sincere understanding.

Escorted by a soldier, he led him into Ilsa’s private quarters, which as expected was nearly as well-furnished as any Berlin luxury apartment. On one table were pictures of more than a dozen young male prisoners, their handsomeness hardly spoiled by the horrors of camp life, each one placed in a silver frame like the images of cherished loved ones. Knowing Ilsa, the Captain did not want to spend a second contemplating what this collection of faces meant. All he knew was that they were lucky if they were dead.

Tyree!” Cheetham yelled, shattering the Captain’s thoughts. In one corner, hidden in shadow, was a soldier, his uniform stained with blood at the chest. Cheetham felt his pulse. Captain America could see his eyes flutter and ordered the soldier accompanying them to get help.

“Thank God, he’s alive,” Cheetham said to no one in particular. “Who did this? Are there still Krauts around?”

“She wasn’t dead,” Tyree mumbled, sounding incredulous. “I was prepping the body for transport. They shot her…she wasn’t breathing…she wasn’t dead…”

Cheetham looked Captain America, as if Tyree was speaking Greek and he needed an interpreter.

“Tyree, don’t, save your strength,” Cheetham pleaded, but Captain America could not restrain himself. “It was Ilsa, wasn’t it?”

Tyree looked right at Captain America for the first time. “Captain America. She…she only said she was going west. She wanted you to know.”

The Forsaken: The MOTHER Trilogy

Okay, admittedly, the MOTHER games (best known to North American gamers by the name of the second game in the seriesEarthbound) are probably relatively well-known.  They definitely do have a diehard following, even by the standards of gamer fandoms.  Still, at least among casual gamers, I don’t think they’re nearly as well known as other famous JRPG series, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.  

ImagePart of this is because, even after JRPGs have delved more into the realms of sci-fi and urban fantasy, MOTHER stands out.  Instead of gunblade-wielding soldiers and magic-users exploring mystic forests or high-tech floating cities, all three games feature kids with psychic powers adventuring through contemporary cities and suburbs, battling such exotic enemies as hippies, “unassuming local guys”, big piles of puke, and half-chicken half-snake monsters.

As you might expect from that choice of enemies, the trilogy has a sense of humor.  Joke items abound, townspeople spout dialogue like “I also helped in the battle.  I threw my slippers at the beast.  Maybe you didn’t notice,” and in MOTHER 2 a.k.a. Earthbound the towns have a cute sequence of names like Onett, Twoson, Threed, and Fourside.  Even the names of the protagonists of the first two games, ‘Ninten’ and ‘Ness,’ are a fourth wall-shattering referential gag.  However, it’s a mistake to think MOTHER is just one big satire/homage to JRPGs.  The games were devised by Shigesato Itoi, a beloved essayist and songwriter in Japan, as a serious storytelling experiment after he first played Dragon Quest and was disappointed by the game’s lack of a story but impressed by the potential of the genre.  Under the surface of the cartoonish graphics and the frequent gags, the games explore the issues of the alienation and loss of community inherent to modern life, how evil arises out of a self-repeating cycle of loneliness and resentment, mankind’s destructive manipulation of the natural world, and the folly of nostalgia.  To give you an idea of how intense the trilogy can get, there’s the fact that the final boss fight of Earthbound was inspired by a film scene Itoi was traumatized by as a child, which he thought was a rape.

If you’re into console RPGs at all, or hell don’t absolutely loathe the medium, the games are worth a try.  Admittedly the first MOTHER is the weakest in the series, and even Itoi admits that the game was made more difficult than it should have been because part of it was rushed.   Mother 2 and 3, though, cannot be fully appreciated in isolation from each other, and would be considered classics by the standards of any medium.  Itoi sought to show that video games could tell an emotionally engaging story.  He more than succeeded.

Now unfortunately just getting your hands on the MOTHER games is harder than it should be.  Earthbound has yet to be released on the Wii Virtual Console, allegedly because of music rights issues (the bane of so many fans who just want to legally complete their collections), and naturally I wouldn’t be one to say that ROMs of the game are just a quick Google search away (cough).  MOTHER 1 and were never officially released in the US either, but there is a ROM copy of a completed but unreleased American localization circulating around the Internet with the title Earthbound Zero.  Also, of course, you can find a (very good!) fan translation of Mother 3 here.  

Spiritual Warfare Part 6: Bodybuilding Gives You Satanic Powers

Well, I did it.  It took me a long time, perhaps too long.  But I love all the people who read this blog – all eleven of you – so I did it;  I played through Spiritual Warfare a second time.

I tried to actually hack the game’s password system, but since just about anything involving numbers is not my forte I couldn’t get it exactly right.  The best I could do was use a walkthrough to easily fill the gaps in my memory and speed through the game.  It turns out that I didn’t miss out on all that much;  just one or two extra Heart Containers and it turns out that you actually can talk to the kid with the basketball.  He’s just…not that useful.

BasketballGuy

He’s pretty nice considering that I once spent five minutes of the game trying to murder him.

Anyway, to pick up where we left off months ago, the next place you go after “hotels” is the shipyard.  It’s around here that I think the programmers really lost interest in what they were doing, if they had that much to begin with.  Why not a mall, or a university campus?  Lots of godless souls there!  In the shipyards, you just have fairly slow-moving sailors and hellhounds and lots of overlapping docks in the most convoluted, dysfunctional shipyard in history.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually a nice breather next to the Hell that was the Warehouse section, but still let’s  just add “inconsistent challenge” to our list of issues with the game.  Honestly so far the game’s two modes of challenge have been either “as easy and engaging as stripping wallpaper” or “trying to draw a line through a kids’ maze puzzle while driving a car at 60 miles per hour.”   Well, okay, maybe not that bad, especially by old school Nintendo standards, but…well, we’ll see.

Shipyard

Dawkinsville’s shipyard happened to have been designed by the same man who was the city planner for Raccoon City.

As for the hellhounds, like the other animals in this game they’re apparently soulless so you can’t “kill/save” them, which is a missed opportunity to bring up some daring theological questions.  There is one area in the shipyards patrolled by a few hellhounds, and the only way to pass them is situate yourself in a nook as they go by.   After that there’s a tunnel and more enemies.  Every instinct you have as a gamer tells you that there is something worthwhile past all this, something like a new weapon or some other Power-Up, but…no.  It’s just a train station, before you can even use the ticket to teleport around Dawkinsville.  That’s a pretty big “Screw you” from the programmers.

Hellhounds

And, yes, naturally the third dog is virtually impossible to get by without taking damage.

In fact, only thing that matters in the shipyards is you have a chance to “buy” Samson’s Jawbone, which is the game’s rather weird substitute for Legend of Zelda’s boomerang.  Unfortunately, unlike in Zelda, you can’t even use it to stun enemies, just pick up items that are out of reach.  This is probably the only video game I’ve ever played, if not the only video game in history, where they give you a weapon associated with a one-man genocide in real-life legend and it turns out to be less deadly than a squirt gun with tepid water.

While the Jawbone does not help you undergo an old-fashioned biblical killing spree, it does let you pick up what’s probably the most blatant “borrowing” from The Legend of Zelda yet, which is really saying something.

Spiritual Warfare_008

Look familiar?

Oh, and it was around this point the creepy Bible quiz guy said this…

JesusAdultery

Trust me, it’s from a really trippy section of the New Testament.

Anyway, past the shipyards is the beach, where this time the deranged atheists out to kill a small boy include skateboarders who throw beer bottles and bodybuilders who move really fast and run around in a random pattern.  Hilariously, they’re completely immune, and they’re the only enemies in the game your fruit weapons will actually bounce off from.  So, yes, according to this game’s take on Christian theology forklift drivers and bodybuilders are irredeemable.

Beach

What is behind this game’s anti-powerlifting agenda?

Like all of the game’s invulnerable enemies, the bodybuilders like to attack in narrow areas, but luckily you can just dodge all enemies by sailing your raft into the sea.  Unfortunately, there are sharks swimming around, as per just about any video game that involves braving the ocean, and there is a risk of getting lost at sea.

LostatSea

A good enough ending for the game as any.

Naturally I tried to see if there was a way to get a “bad ending” where NotLink dies of dehydration, but no such luck.  Instead NotLink stumbled across an island that contained this…

TreasureRoom

…Hooray…I guess.

Dammit, it figures I’d find the helpful bonuses in a game I have no investment in whatsoever.  And, if the game’s whole currency system is just a metaphor for faith, what is the reasoning here?  NotLink does something suicidally idiotic like get lost in the sea on a raft and thus he’s proven that he has maximum faith?  And God just put a random angel out in the middle of shark-infested hellwaters just on the off chance someone would do just that?

Regardless, NotLink and I did need all the help we could get, because I was about to embark on one of the worst boss fights in Nintendo history.

BossBattle

Behold, the exact opposite of fun.

Honestly, the boss fight is so surreal and complicated I’m not even sure how to begin to describe it.  Like pretty much all the boss fights in the game so far, it’s a puzzle fight, because a traditional “dodge projectiles and fire back at the boss” fight wouldn’t be aggravating enough for this game’s standards.  There are five rows.  The bottom one remains vacant, the top one has the real boss who looks like a janitor armed with a broom or a mop, and the other three rows has mooks who run back and forth.  There are ladders between the rows, but you have to blow up certain sections of the walls to reveal them.   The mooks occasionally and at complete random push out – from where I don’t want to know – three barrels, but they quickly disappear.  The only way to kill the mooks is to push them against the wall with one of their own barrels, but I simply could not figure out how to do this without getting hit.

See, the barrels only appear briefly.  There seems to be a way you can push them while the mook is…shooting them? Whatever…but a least in my case most of the time I ended up just running right into the mook and taking damage.  The only safe way was to open up the ladder to the next row and wait until a mook pushed a barrel down the ladder (keep in mind that not only when but if and where a mook creates the barrels is completely random).  Only by falling down a ladder into the next row does a barrel actually stick around, rather than disappear.  And even then, if you try to push the barrel on a mook and he decides to create a barrel, all the barrels cancel each other out, so you have to start all over.  On top of all that, the pissed off janitor is rapid firing some balloons at you, which deal almost as much damage as some of the bullets you faced.  Got all that?

You could appreciate the whole surrealness of the scenario.  For one thing, how does any of this make sense from NotLink’s perspective in the game world?!  Are the mooks really just pulling ghostly barrels out of their asses?  But it’s so damn frustrating.  After going through 30 save states and reading the walkthrough as closely as the Constitution, just trying to figure out how to kill the mooks, I just gave up and went after their boss.  Of course, the only way to damage him is with the bombs, and when he’s hurt he just teleports to another row, but it’s still much simpler than the deranged chaos that’s the rest of the boss fight.

However, just this once the game decides to make the reward proportional to the challenge.  You’re no longer playing with fruit, kid…

Spiritual Warfare_016

The game is pretty explicit about the fact that you have to use it only in “the stronghold,” but of course I had to test it out to see if it would work on the demonic bodybuilders of Dawkinsville Beach.

Spiritual Warfare_020

You better start praying.

Of course, in another *cough* homage to Legend of Zelda, you can throw the sword.  Thankfully, though, you don’t have to be at full health to do that and, even better, it explodes on impact.

Join us next time, when NotLink is ready to go all biblical on Dawkinsville!