Less is more? Back to basics with Mario and Castlevania

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…

Bigger. Better?

Bigger. Better?

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…

super-mario-bros-1-1

Pure perfection.

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.

Rondo of Blood looks and sounds great, but Richter

Rondo of Blood looks and sounds great, but Richter ruins the 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.

The famous Castlevania mole.

Is Cindy a Harvest Moon kind of woman, or a Castlevania chick, I wonder…

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.

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12 comments

  1. Nick the Gent

    Loved this article! It’s so true about going back to basics. You can see the DNA being formed in the original Mario Bros., and how the gameplay and design elements make their way through subsequent games. But something is lost once you get away from the 2D, sidescrolling focus.

    That’s not to say the later Mario games aren’t brilliant as well – I love Super Mario 64 and Galaxy. But they aren’t as immediately accessible, they don’t quite have the purity of design of the original games.

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks Nick, very glad you liked it! I definitely prefer the 3D Mario series over the 2D one (at this point they’re completely separate entities) but, absolutely, the 2D games contain the core of Mario, and Super Mario Bros is the core of that core. The centre of the Mario universe, so to speak.

  2. themancalledscott

    Have to disagree here. While I can understand one liking SMB over SMB3, no way in Hell is it on the same level as Super Mario World. And while I can understand not being a fan of Super Castlevania IV (I myself am not much of a fan, despite it being a good game), Symphony of the Night makes all the previous titles in the series look like a joke.

    I can understand the purity of the originals, and the original Super Mario and Castlevania certainly hold up better than the original Legend of Zelda and Metroid (both of which really aren’t anything special today), but to deny what particular sequels did to their formula is doing them an injustice.

    • veryverygaming

      I was expecting my views on the Mario series to ruffle a few feathers. I don’t know why, but Super Mario World just doesn’t do it for me. I’ve played it a lot, and I recognise it is incredibly polished and iconic. I don’t dislike it, but it’s never clicked with me. Funnily enough it’s the same story with Zelda: Link to the Past.

      Symphony of the Night is excellent but it’s hard to compare it with the action focused Castlevania games. I wouldn’t like to choose between SoTN and the original Castlevania. And yeah, I definitely agree about the original Metroid not playing well today – I don’t think that game got at the core of the Metroid experience very well! It needed iteration. I’ve barely tried the original Zelda before so can’t comment on that sadly.

  3. benez256

    I would have written something but then I stumbled in the pic of Cindy Crawford so I stopped and stared for like 10 minutes…
    by the way great post, I agree with you…

    • veryverygaming

      Ha ha! That’s awesome. Maya was making fun of me about this post because as I was re-reading it I was talking about how classic the look of the original Super Mario Bros is and and how great Castlevania: Rondo of Blood looks to this day… and not a word about Cindy Crawford. NERD!!!

  4. moresleepneeded

    I have not played any Castlevania games, but I have played a version of the original Super Mario Bros released on the Game Boy (which had an extra mode which allowed the player to race a Boo through selected levels). There is something quite bold about the original game, the simple designs, the bare backgrounds, the drive forward and the lack of need to explain the strange visuals and story. There is also something interesting about the way the developers are not concerned with how difficult these early games are. I am not sure I would agree that it is the best of the 2D games, I enjoy the later games with better playability, changes to gameplay (like power-ups), developed story and extra features.
    How do you feel about neo-retro games? New games designed to resemble old games (like the Mario game shown in the article).

    • veryverygaming

      Difficulty in those old games is really something else – have you ever tried the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros 2 (aka the Lost Levels)? That is insanely tough, really a mean game to the player. I love it, but I understand why many would feel it went several steps too far!

      Ooh, neo-retro. I have no issue with the concept whatsoever, but I’ve yet to play a game that has bested the games it cribs off of. Shovel Knight for instance, while perfectly enjoyable, did not connect with me in the same way as the early Megaman games it is inspired by. There are a few positive examples though: DKC: Tropical Freeze and Rayman Legends I thought were both up there with the best in their respective series.

      • moresleepneeded

        I have not played Super Mario Bros 2, but I do agree about the difficulty of old games. It seems some games are difficult because of design flaws while
        others are hard because there is no way for the game to direct the player. The hardest game I have played is probably Ecco the Dolphin on the Mega Drive.
        How is Super Mario Bros 2: The Lost Levels difficult? I enjoyed Donkey Kong Country Returns, is Tropical Freeze similar?

  5. ambigaming

    Great post! I think power creep is a definite issue in games (and in movies, but that’s another rant haha). The “next” installment always needs to impress more, start with a bigger explosion, more weapons, fancier power-ups, which can build up a good game to a somewhat hokey experience.

    It’s definitely good to go back and see where some of these great games came from. I think developers don’t always realize what made the game good, and they try to keep the wrong elements or fix things that weren’t exactly broken to begin with. Dragon Age II did this, too. Forgiving the fact it was a rushed game, the devs tried to “fix” what they assumed was broken, and we would up with a game that just… wasn’t as strong as the original.

    • veryverygaming

      Yes, it can often be disappointing in a sequel when a developer appears not to have understood what made their game good in the first place. Then again, games are interesting to compare with another medium like film, where sequels rarely surpass their original. In games, sequels regularly surpass their predecessors!

  6. Jon

    Great article! Mario is one of my favorite Nintendo franchises and the series DOES bring back the basics of gaming for the players. It’s a simple platform game with the goal of saving the Princess from Bowser’s castle. Good work!

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