Ever since their beginnings the steady mantra of game sequels has been more, more, more. And as we know there are many ways to do more – some good, some bad. More can sometimes mean worse, and the drive to add new stuff can end up obscuring the kernel of the series/experience – the fundamentals which are characteristic of a series. Other times, the new and old elements of a game co-exist awkwardly: “why is X so good, and Y so bad?”. So, confession time. I enjoy the original Super Mario Bros over every other 2D sequel. Why? Read on…
I never understood the fuss about the 2D entries in the Super Mario series until relatively late in the day. Sure I’d played a crappy Windows NT version back in the day, but never the NES version. The only early Mario games I played when I was young were Super Mario Land 2 on Gameboy and Super Mario Bros 3 on the NES, neither of which I was especially fond of.
But when I went back to the original Super Mario Bros on the Wii’s Virtual Console, the game’s genius became almost immediately apparent. The way the game drives you forwards; the inability to backtrack at any point; the lack of a world map; the smooth scrolling that lets you run at max speed without ever hiccuping or dropping pace; the secrets, the warp pipes and the minus world. Trying to race through the levels at breakneck speed without dying was a delightfully simple challenge with no reward other than the satisfaction of having pulled it off. In short, everything clicked, it made so much sense…
By comparison, the later Super Mario games added elements of exploration, of backtracking. You could eventually scroll the levels in all 8 directions to assist with this. The physics also changed to reflect the emphasis on exploration – Mario himself has less inertia, less weight. The cast of characters, enemies and power-ups expanded, the world gained more in the way of a whimsical personality, as did Mario himself. In theory I have nothing against any of these changes. But it did alter what appealed to me about the original Super Mario Bros, namely, the sense of speed and the levels that propelled you forwards.
Castlevania is a similar, albeit slightly different story. Other than an unpleasant time with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest as a young lad I hadn’t touched the series until the Wii came around. Super Castlevania IV via the Virtual Console left me severely underwhelmed and I ignored the series for another several years until I had the opportunity to play Symphony of the Night for PS1. That turned out to be a rather excellent game, albeit different to the classic Castlevanias like IV. More recently, I decided to give the series another punt with the Japan-only PC-Engine entry, Rondo of Blood. That turned out OK with the exception of the whipping main character Richter Belmont: “Why is he so clunky and slow? I hate these controls.” I resolved to be grateful that this particular entry in the Castlevania series allows you to use Maria, a far more agile character, and to never play another traditional Belmont-only Castlevania game.
Thankfully, on a whim I downloaded the original NES Castlevania, and boy am I glad for it. It’s an excellent game for reasons I can hardly comprehend let alone explain. The simplicity of NES Castlevania is something to behold, and it’s truly a wonderful game. That’s not to stay it doesn’t have flaws. But, like Cindy Crawford and that famous mole, these are not flaws but quirky attributes that the entire game is designed around. Pressing up and attack to use the sub-weapon, using hearts as currency for the sub weapons, stiff jumping, the inability to whip in directions other than left or right, the awkward stair movement… in the original game I can accept these quirks, and appreciate the masterful level design, tight controls and kickass soundtrack. In fact, like Cindy Crawford’s mole the quirks make it more beautiful.
Perhaps the main difference between the Super Mario Bros series and the Castlevania series is that almost every quirk of the original Castlevania was carried over into subsequent entries in the series. The conservatism of Konami’s series meant that even on a consoles like SNES and the original Playstation where there was no need for it, the Castlevania sequels mapped the sub-weapon to up and attack, rather than its own button. Playing the NES original and encountering those quirks in their original context – a context where those quirks actually make sense! – helped me to forgive them. It was an “aha!” moment that put everything about the series into perspective.
Ultimately, neither the conservative approach of the Castlevania sequels nor the liberal approach of the Super Mario sequels does it for me. Sometimes going back to the origins of a game series reveals the strength at the franchise’s core, strengths that later games may have diluted or obscured in the pursuit of more, bigger content. All I know is, newer games seem to be even more guilty of diluting the core experience – so I’m glad I love retro games! Bigger ≠ Better.