Op Ed – Failure Can Be A Good Thing
The gaming industry is a fickle, fickle world to be in. Not only are games now released en masse on a monthly basis, both for free online and through endless marketplaces, but the critical aspect of games has lost some of the joie de vivre once vital to its being. That is to say, a negative review will matter less today because the concept of selling fewer copies of more games can be just as lucrative as massive sales of a single game. Ars mercedis non es. But companies need stalwarts to shill as proven sellers, even if it only attracts negative attention. Does the benefit of risking negative reception actually show forethought? And can the addition of a game to a series be better than a one-off? The latter question is the one at hand for this article, and thus we will be taking a gander at two successful series noted for (arguably) diminishing quality: Castlevania and Sonic the Hedgehog. Well known and even more widely loved, these two archetypes of successful failure prove that inundation can be a good thing.
Sonic has been at it for a while. With a total of twenty-one individual games released, each one selling over a million copies, and the debut installment selling some 15 million copies – decimating all recent games – Sonic has become a go to for Sega developers. To compare that to the most recent addition to the mythos, Sonic Colors has sold a grand total of about 2.2 million copies. Venerable, yes, but a letdown compared to 2009’s Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Winter Games, a game with a title more cumbersome than the flailing actions needed to play the damn thing. True, Colors does boast an aggregate score of 78% on Metacritic, but the game also seemed to tout controls that hated the player and power-ups about as useful as a third nipple. Compared to the controls of the original Genesis, as well as its simple but hugely useful power-up system, it would seem that Sega has failed a bit. Today the contention over recent installments has centered on the gameplay as much as the voice acting, showing that technological advancements can take a person out of the game more than immerse them.
Even if the rash of utterly crap Sonic games has harmed the series, they can’t deny the increasing anticipation for future installments. Anyone care to remember Sonic Unleashed? I thought as much. Graphically orgiastic, the night levels were an atrocity and the town system (and its unbearably shiteous quests) almost seppuku’d the hedgehog. Compounding the issue was, as previously mentioned, the voice acting – an ear-bleedingly painful affair that was described by the Nintendo Magazine review as, “embarrassingly cheesy.” But that hasn’t stopped Sega from making new Sonics, and certainly hasn’t halted sales. The reason is simple: buyers simply refuse to think that things can get worse after a truly awful installment of a longtime stalwart. That longtime appreciation and fandom, as well as clever catering to younger audiences with new gimmicks and release strategies/marketing plans, keeps myriad series afloat with Sonic standing out due to recent gameplay changes and heavier criticisms from longtime fans and professional critics alike.
Now, Castlevania, on the other hand, chooses to flood the market and risk massive failures to sell more games. While Sonic relies on a dedicated fanbase to pick up a game every couple of years, Konami has released a game or three every year since 1986. Yes, after 25 years of Belmonts, Cruzes, curses, and crosses, Dracula still refuses to die and players refuse to give up on the series. As a personal aside, I fondly remember growing up playing Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse for hours, and have remained interested in the series since then – although I have all but given up on buying and completing the games since about 2008. But I digress…
At this time, at least seven of the first 15 games in the series are hailed as classics, with the original triumvirate, Symphony of the Night, and Super Castlevania IV ranking highest. Deservedly so, and considering the sheer number of reviews, speedruns, references, and ports out there they won’t be forgotten any time soon – hell, to this day the replay value of Dracula’s Curse alone makes it an indispensable game for any NES library. But it was around the time of fifth generation consoles that things fell apart. Yes, the GameBoy installments utterly blew, with Castlevania: The Adventure sporting controls so sticky that moving forward felt like it took ten seconds to gear up and whip delay that led to more than a few untimely deaths. But these games created a feel, look, and mythology that has endured and actually improved for the most part, with the trials of Dracula’s cast off son, Alucard, resonating through the series since 1989. But then 64-bit happened. Oh god why did it have to happen like this?
The Nintendo 64 is a classic console now, spawning many a great title and being worthy enough to see fond remembrances today. But Castlevania 64 and its partner game Legacy of Darkness dropped the ball as never before. Sure, Dracula X was a watered down version of Rondo of Blood and Chronicles was too difficult, but at least they worked. Back when CV64 came out in ’99, it looked fine enough, but the camera was a bigger enemy than the armada of skeletons approaching Reinhardt, twisting and turning every which way save for the right one. And then there was the nitroglycerin puzzle. Jumping killed you, a single hit killed you, falling or lowering yourself from an edge killed you, bumping into a moving object killed you, breathing in the vicinity of your character killed you. Every fucking thing killed you – an issue made worse by controls looser than a $2 whore. Where Symphony of the Night’s efficient “Metroidvania” free roam once was, labyrinthine quests to find a single door took over. Goodbye, feeling of useful freedom and tight controls. LoD looked better but controlled the same, and had a proto-furry protagonist in an out of place setting. It was, simply put, a cruel joke for the longtime fan base. But that almost seemed to be the plan. After this duo of failed 3D experiments, Konami went back to handhelds (a risky move) and came out on top. Circle of the Moon was a dark (both plot and color-wise), terse, enthralling little crawler that was the right mix of difficult and free, a spiritual successor to the SOTN formula with lessened frustrations of armor (which I personally loved). And things were fine until the PS2.
Notice a trend here? Konami (and Sega) fail with older franchises for newer systems by attempting to heighten the graphical experience at the cost of failed gameplay innovation. Undeniably, the first PlayStation 2 installments of Castlevania were disappointing. Not as bad as the N64 games, but still buggy in relation to the camera and controls, now with the added bonus of banal combat systems that tread the line between Devil May Cry and Street Fighter. And then Judgment happened – the Castlevania fighter. Rather than dignify it with a synopsis, it suffices to say that it was poorly received and looked worse than it sounded. For fun, view matches on YouTube and see the failure at work. But that didn’t stop Konami, and the series continues to sell at least a million units per release, relying on the same mechanic of acolytes and n00bs alike not knowing any better. At least they went back to the PS2 blueprint, forever abandoning the idea of a second fighter for a series that will forever be a platformer.
By risking failure to keep products out, Sega and Konami continue to make enough money to continue parlaying relative missteps into wins for themselves. Despite consistent backlash, things do look up for both Sonic and Castlevania (crossover, anyone?) as newer games and WiiWares have fared better critically and actually improve upon prior mistakes. As loathe as I am to admit it, the last several installments of both series have actually appeared to be decent to good, showing that it does actually get better. For companies, adding another game to an existing franchise will always spell more money at the end than a one-off thanks to the existing market. True, gamers aren’t clamoring for a new Spyro any time soon, but standbys remain firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of gamers across the board. That’s why we all continue to wait for new Zelda games, even if they’re too easy and fail at using their sub-weapon systems (cough cough Twilight Princess cough). There’s no need for over-intellectualizing the mechanics at work here, for the planning that goes into these turned misses must be thought of well in advance. Honestly, did anyone think that Sonic at night would work or watching Death beat the shit out of Dracula would win over generations of hardcore platformers and explorers?