The first Mario Maker was one of the main reasons that I wanted a Wii U. When I finally got around to playing it, I thought it was a neat toolkit, but it didn't really hold my attention as a game. It was fun to mess around with my wife. But to actually sit down and play it myself, I just couldn't seem to enjoy it much beyond the fun little Nintendo made "event" courses. In my mind, it was a cool piece of software, but not exactly a great game.
Super Mario Maker 2 is apparently a whole different beast. As it turns out, there's a legit Story Mode. This is 100 new Nintendo made levels, and in my mind this is the best 2D Mario game that Nintendo has published since... jeez. I don't even know. This is better than the entirety of the New Super Mario Bros series for me.
Part of what makes these levels so compelling is that each one feels like a unique and compact experience. In some ways it gives me NES Remix vibes - which is a game that I adore. Rather than do the usual New Super Mario Bros thing where it's like "okay, this is the ice world so we'll do all the ice levels now..." it's a free for all where each new level is something surprising. It's as if Nintendo is freed from its own limitations and the creativity is flowing.
Bouncing from something like a Super Mario World style ghost house to a throwback Mario Bros (no "Super") single screen puzzle platformer is kind of great. And I love that there's a hub world that lets me choose which level to play next, leaving some more difficult ones if I want to come back and retry them later (I'm looking at you "no jump" level).
I can easily say that this game surpasses the New Super Mario Bros series in every way. And I haven't even touched the build mode. Nor am I sure I even will. I think my wife would enjoy the build mode more than I do. But me? I'm just in awe of the quality of these story mode levels.
I also appreciate that I was able to skip a level and come back to it later with fresh eyes and more patience. I was on level 30 before I went back and completed level 15. It was great. My progress wasn't impeded, by level 15 stayed in my list of unfinished levels as a reminder to go back to it when I was ready.
I think if I had known about the story mode earlier, I'd have had more reason to get Mario Maker 2 instead of sticking with the original for so long. But then again, I was never that impressed with the New Super Mario Bros games, so I couldn't have known just how good this story mode was going to be. I'm super impressed, and this is probably the first time since Super Mario World that I've felt compelled to continue playing a Mario game with such glee.
Each new stage is like a pleasant surprise. Some I breeze through, others are quite challenging. Some even require some serious thought, which is welcome. One minute I'm in Bowser's flying clown car playing a make-shift Mario shmup that feels like a throwback to Super Mario Land; the next minute I'm in a single screen puzzler trying to bounce off clouds to collect coins without getting hit by Bullet Bills. It's... pretty great. Nintendo has really cracked the code with this game and seemingly remembered that variety is the spice of life when it comes to a Mario game.
It's interesting to me how the game is laid out in a way that you could kind of tackle it however you see fit. Meaning, you could play easier levels leisurely and get less coins so it takes longer, or you could play harder levels and rush through. I guess I've done some combination of both.
I did manage to beat the story mode. It turns out you don't need to beat every level to do so, just enough to get the castle completed 100%. Which means I've not really completed the game, but I did beat the story and I had a lot of fun doing so. I can't even remember the last time I was so wrapped up in a Mario platform game that I was compelled to play it all week. So that speaks volumes. I'll definitely want to come back to this one and finish all the other levels in story mode, but for now I'll probably pass the game on to my wife to play for a while as I move on to something else.
When Bloodstained was originally announced, it was a super big deal to me. Castlevania has long been one of my favorite video game franchises. And I'm talking about this going way back to when I was under ten years old. I've always loved the series. The original NES trilogy was just a huge part of my childhood. Castlevania: The Adventure was one of my first Game Boy games. These were super formative years for me as a gamer. And so, Castlevania is very much in my DNA.
It should come as no real surprise that Symphony Of The Night is a favorite of mine. I mean, even gamers who aren't big Castlevania fans tend to love that one. It – along with Super Metroid – pretty much defined the Metroidvania genre. It's a hallmark if ever there was one.
Of course other games followed. But the Castlevania series became very splintered as the generations went on. If you were a console gamer, then the series probably came off as sort of dour. I mean, Castlevania 64? Or those PS2/Xbox games like Legacy Of Darkness? They were cool, I guess. But Castlevania didn't really belong in the 3D realm. So instead the true follow-ups to Symphony Of The Night were found on portable hardware. Maybe it was sort of a secret hidden in plain sight, but the GBA and DS had a super solid run of new Castlevania games that carried the 2D torch. These were great games, and they were all pumped out in quick succession.
And things kept going in this manner, but Konami started getting... weird and/or lazy. Castlevania was once again reborn, this time under the Lords Of Banner subtitle. On console, these were two games that borrowed heavily from God Of War. In fairness, they were pretty damn good 3D games. They just weren't your typical Castlevania games. And on the portable front there was one new 2.5D game called – wait for it – Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow – Mirror Of Fate, which was released on the 3DS (later ported to Xbox 360). This one was developed by Mercury Steam who would go on to work on Metroid: Samus Returns and Metroid Dread – totally bringing the Metroidvania thing full circle. But here's the thing; Mirror Of Fate was pretty underwhelming.
In the almost decade that’s followed, we've still yet to see Konami continue what was at a time one of their most lucrative series. But Igarashi who had helmed Symphony Of The Night decided, "hey! Why don't I just make some new Castlevania games and call them something else?" Which brings us (finally) to Bloodstained.
Ritual Of The Night was a Kickstarter success. Enough so that it even received an 8-bit prequel ahead of release, in the form of Curse Of The Moon. That game is awesome by the way, but I've already written about it.
I pre-ordered Ritual Of The Night as soon as it was possible to do so. And by the time Best Buy sent me my game and fancy steel case for it, my daughter had been born. She was about two weeks old when it finally released. Yup. I was a brand new dad, with a newborn who cried all day, and barely slept at night. How on earth could I be expected to digest a new game like this? Simple. I couldn't.
So I played a few hours of Ritual Of The Night when I could, and then I declared it an awesome game that I'd fine more time to dig deeper into once my daughter slept through the night. Then I slept myself for like six months straight and moved on to other games when I woke up.
Here we are, almost three years later and I'm now giving Ritual Of The Night another spin. Possibly, finally giving it the attention it originally deserved from me. Which is funny, because at this point there's even been a second Curse Of The Moon, making Bloodstained an honest-to-goodness franchise In the meantime.
These spiritual successors by original creators can go either way. Not too long ago I tried to play Mighty No 9, which was another big Kickstarter success – and it was a terrible Mega Man game. Likewise, I delved into Phoenix Point last year only to find that it's got way more technical issues than any XCOM game I've ever played. But luckily, Ritual Of The Night feels like a real successor to Symphony Of The Night. And while Merriam isn't a Belmont, it's hard not to see her as a relative of Shanoa from Order Of Ecclesia, which is a good thing.
Order Of Ecclesia (originally released on DS in 2008) is hard not to mention here. Although the easy point of reference for this game is Symphony Of The Night because it's the one that everyone knows and loves, really Ritual Of The Night feels like an Order Of Ecclesia sequel. I mean, make no mistake – the Shard system in this game, in which you learn to augmented skills by picking up "shards" and attaching them to you is totally just the Glyph system from Ecclesia with a new name.
And I'm fine with this. Look, Symphony Of The Night is a stone cold classic. But ignoring all the GBA/DS games would be a disservice to the series. All of those games were part of the journey that got us to Bloodstained. So in a lot of ways, it feels good to see this carried over. At least from a Castlevania fan's perspective.
Ritual Of The Night opens up on a ship. And it's a great little tutorial level that introduces you to most of the major aspects of the game that you'll have to understand. Be it the Shard system or equipping gear, or utilizing the map, or whatever. Basically, most stuff works as it does in Symphony Of The Night and beyond, right down to save rooms. Early on I found weapons that immensely changed the feel of the game. I was tempted to switch to a whip when I found it just to have that genuine Belmont feel, but truth be told, I was so into the Alucard style short sword by that point that it was tough to let it go.
By the way, that whole ship section that works as the game's tutorial is awesome. It's a great setting; it throws everything at you that you need to learn to get a grip on the game; and it ends with an excellent boss battle.
Once you make your way to the castle, a lot more opens up to you. There's a shop where you can buy or sell things. There's a guy that lets you craft items or prepare foods or upgrade weapons. You can even cash in or upgrade shards. In this light, the game is actually somewhat deeper than even Ecclesia. In the sort of peaceful hub area, you'll also find NPC's to give you side-quests. While this is certainly a modern take on a rather old school formula, these bits do make it feel a bit more current.
But some things never change. The fact that save rooms are still a thing in this game means that death does have some actual penalties. If you can't keep track of save rooms, then you'll most definitely be losing some progress should you fall. And you will fall. You'll lose whatever bits of the castle you've opened up since last save, as well as your experience and loot. Sometimes this is no big deal, but if it's been a while since you were able to save and you accidentally walk into a boss battle you weren't quite leveled up enough for, well, be prepared to swear at the realization that you just lost a bunch of your time and hard work. What a horrible night to have a curse, indeed!
Having now been able to spend a much larger chunk of time with Ritual Of The Night, I can say one thing for certain: this game captures the essence of what made Symphony Of The Night so compelling to begin with. Which is high praise! That original PS1 game is not just a masterpiece in my own Belmont-loving eyes, but in the collective consciousness of gamers as a whole. If you were a fan of Symphony then you need to play this game. If you were a fan of the follow-up portable games, then you need to play this game even more.
Ritual Of The Night modernizes things to a certain degree, but it stays in its lane when it's important to do so. And by doing so, we have an honest to goodness 2D Castlevania game that draws hard from the Metroidvania pool of things. It does so with both experience and reverence. If you love exploring the castle in little bits, or experimenting with weapons or skills or accessories, or fighting intimidating bosses... This was made for you.
I've still yet to beat the game myself. But I'm okay with that. That's not really what I care about. What I care about is that there's a new game that stands proudly next to Symphony Of The Night that I can come back to and pick up my save and keep plowing through in years to come, much the same way that I've revisited Symphony Of The Night at various points in my life over the years passed.