Video Game Review: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PlayStation)

There are lots of great video games over all consoles and platforms, spanning five decades. Few, however, are actual masterpieces. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of those rare masterpieces.

I can’t say a bad thing about this game. I love it wholeheartedly and playing it in 2018 made me weep for myself, as I haven’t replayed through it enough over the years. This experience though, has assured me that it is something I’ll have to play through over a weekend every couple of years. Man, I really enjoyed stepping back into this for the first time in over ten years. It also made me feel the sense of excitement and awe that I had for it when I first bought it and took it home in 1997.

I have always been a fan of the original three Castlevania games and this takes the best elements of the original trilogy of titles, mixes them together and pushes away all the negative parts.

While most people don’t like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, I always adored that game and how ambitious it was for the time. That ambition and it’s RPG like style mostly just upset people that wanted it to be more like its predecessor. But Symphony of the Night borrows the RPG elements, throws them in here and presents it all as something closer to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which was a much better version of the style of the original game.

Like Simon’s Quest, you have to round up pieces of Dracula’s body in order to fight him. And also like Simon’s Quest, you have the freedom to go where you please and obtaining certain items unlocks access to new areas.

The thing is, and most Americans in 1997 didn’t know this, but Symphony of the Night is actually a direct sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, which didn’t come out in the States until later and was then renamed Dracula X. I’ve never played Rondo of Blood but now I want to after revisiting this. Rumor has it, that a version of it is being released for PlayStation 4 soon.

Anyway, apart from this tapping hard into Simon’s Quest, I also love how many firggin’ boss fights you get in this game. There are bosses everywhere in the castle. It’s like you can’t go ten minutes without encountering another boss to fight. What’s also great though, is that the classic bosses return, as well. You get to fight the Grim Reaper, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Medusa. You even get the annoying hunchbacks, the pain in the ass gillmen and the mindless zombies, as well as so many other regular enemies that every section of this game is new and fresh.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is absolute perfection in an artistic and interactive medium where such feats are incredibly hard to achieve. Kudos to Konami, as this is one of the best games the studio ever produced and my favorite in the great Castlevania series.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: The original Castlevania trilogy for NES, Super Castlevania IV for SNES, the Gameboy Castlevania games and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (also known as Dracula X).

Video Game Review: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was really f’n cool when it first came out because of one reason, you could play as Alucard, the son of Dracula.

Well, you could play as a few characters but Alucard was just badass and you could turn into a bat and fly through certain areas. But each character had their own special purpose.

Most importantly though, this returned to the game style of the original Castlevania, which most people wanted after the more complex, tougher and RPG-like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. I am of the minority that loves that second game though, even if it’s a favorite classic NES title that people love to shit on. Those people are just simple minded and can’t solve more complex problems and puzzles though.

Anyway, Castlevania III is back to basics with some added flourish in the form of the characters Alucard, Sypha Belnades and Grant Danasty. Your main character is Trevor C. Belmont, as opposed to Simon Belmont, as this game is actually a prequel set a few hundred years earlier.

And while it does return to the formula of the first game, it branches out and is more creative, as it allows you to make choices that effect the game. You can choose different paths and the game has different endings based off of what you do along the way.

This allowed the game to have long lasting replayability. As different people beat it in different ways, kids talking on the playground came to realize that they needed to try different things in order to see the various finales. And this is back in the era when beating a game was a massive undertaking, especially since it typically had to be done in a single sitting. Castlevania III monopolized many summer vacation afternoons.

This is just a solid chapter in a solid series what was fun to play and exciting because of the options within the game. It really was a step forward in gameplay and storytelling evolution.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: The other NES Castlevania games: the original Castlevania and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, also PlayStation’s epic sequel Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Video Game Review: Castlevania (NES)

Every kid in the ‘8os played Castlevania. Well, if they didn’t, they missed out on one of the greatest experiences of their generation. Sure, it wasn’t as massive as Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda but it is just as much a classic and has had a similar level of staying power, as sequels are still made and it even has an anime show on Netflix that is currently running.

The game sort of takes the Universal Monsters and throws them into a 2D side scrolling adventure of badass proportions. The big boss is Dracula but you also face Frankenstein’s monster, a hunchback, a mummy, several gillmen, as well as other classic monsters that weren’t in the Universal Monsters canon like the Grim Reaper and Medusa. There are also zombies, giant wolves, giant bats and dismembered Medusa heads that fly at you. There are deadly traps, pits and water that is instant death. The game throws a lot at you and pulls no punches.

Seriously, this really pulls no punches. The game is hard as hell. And maybe the difficulty level is it’s only real negative. It isn’t an unbeatable game, as I have conquered it. But man, it is an incredible challenge that takes hours upon hours of mastery before one can actually beat it. But that was what the best old school NES games were about: mastery.

Another slight negative is the mechanics. Sometimes the jumping is wonky and it’s easy to get overzealous and screw up. Also, the stairs can be a total pain in the ass but eventually you’ll get it.

Castlevania is one of the best games of its era. It had to be to create a franchise as strong as it did. It is a true product of the ’80s and a real blast for old school horror fans.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The other NES Castlevania games: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, also PlayStation’s epic sequel Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Film Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

Release Date: August 31st, 2017 (Venice International Film Festival)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Double Dare You Productions, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 123 Minutes

Review:

*Warning: there will be spoilers!

“You may think, “That thing looks human.” Stands on two legs, right? But – we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?” – Strickland

I was fairly excited for The Shape of Water, as it isn’t very often that we get movies with Gillmen or some variant of one. The Creature From the Black Lagoon is one of my favorite movies of all-time, so I have always had a soft spot for aquatic humanoid monsters. Plus, Guillermo del Toro is pretty much the godfather of the modern dark fairy-tale.

It should probably go without saying that this film was a visual delight and that it boasted incredible cinematography and great lighting. All of this was enhanced by the great care and attention to detail in the set design and the overall early 1960s setting. It was like the flip side of a Mad Men world, where instead of light and cheeriness, there is a looming darkness and a cloud of depression over these characters and their world.

This isn’t a straight up reinterpretation of The Creature From the Black Lagoon though. It is actually closer to that film’s sequels, which saw the Gillman in captivity and being experimented on by human scientists. But even then, this is more of a Beauty and the Beast story than anything else. It just so happens that the beast is an aquatic creature from the Amazon and that he is a prisoner of evil men.

Beauty in this case is Sally Hawkins’ Elisa. She is a cleaning lady that works at a big government institution where they are doing experiments on the monster. She has an immediate attraction to the creature, as both are outsiders who have been treated badly by others. You see, Elisa is a mute and she is constantly treated differently because of her handicap.

As the story rolls on, Elisa falls in love with the creature, as he doesn’t see her as someone with a handicap. While the story generally works well it is a bit forced and overly sappy. Del Toro lays it on real thick.

Eventually, Elisa frees the creature from the institution and keeps him at her home where the two do get it on. Maybe I’m old fashioned but the sex element to the story was a bit bizarre and brings up questions of bestiality whether or not the creature is intelligent or not. In the film, this just seemed to be an afterthought because love is the focus. Well, I’ve loved all my dogs over the years but I never fucked them and one of them was intelligent enough to open doors.

The sex with the creature angle would be okay in some twisted grindhouse picture that’s made to shock people but here it happens in a film that carries a message of love and is well made, well produced and will probably be up for a lot of big awards in a few months. And the issue just felt like an afterthought. It’s not just some plot point to accept within the context, it’s a pretty big moral curveball. But I guess most of the other critics are okay with Beauty banging the Beast before he returns to human form. But this film isn’t cheap fantasy erotica… or is it? Is this just Fifty Shades of Beast Cock?

The film also keeps beating its audience with how much these people are outsiders. It doesn’t take much to figure out and it could have been done much more subtlety. I feel like del Toro is falling into the same trap as a lot of contemporary filmmakers, where he feels the need to spell everything out and then keep reinforcing those points throughout the movie.

The film is also two hours but it felt like it was three. The first half moves fairly quickly but once the monster escapes the clutches of the evil humans, everything just drags to a crawl. We get a big showdown in the end but ultimately, the film was pretty predictable. Well, except for the bestiality curveball. Glad I didn’t take my mum or one of my aunts to this. I never would’ve heard the end of it, “Oh, Robbie… the fish man is nice but why would you have sex with him? He’s a fish man!”

I liked this movie from a technical and visual standpoint but I was letdown by the story and its execution. I thought the acting as exceptional but that can’t save a poor script and clunky narrative.

Rating: 7/10

Video Game Review: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

Sometimes great things get a really bad rap. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest gets a horrendously bad rap and frankly, it’s a damn fine game!

Years ago, the Angry Nintendo Nerd, now better known as the Angry Video Game Nerd, trashed this epic classic in his first video. People took his video to heart and adopted his sentiment as their own. Then again, maybe video games are really hard for that guy and his viewers.

You see, the biggest criticism of this game is how hard it is. Honestly, it is difficult but it isn’t unbeatable. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun and a serious challenge, more so than any other Castlevania game I have played. That challenge is why I love it so much.

Another season I love the game is the freedom of it compared to Castlevania I and III. Those games made you follow a map, from level to level with a big baddie to fight at the end. I love those games too but Simon’s Quest allowed you to explore the world you were in. You could bounce around however you wanted, similar to how Zelda II was. Sure, you had to complete certain tasks and unlock new areas to explore but for the time, this was pure freedom.

People also criticize the controls. I never had a problem with them. The game is pretty straightforward and the controls of the highly acclaimed first game, were pretty clunky… let’s be honest.

Full disclosure, I didn’t beat Simon’s Quest way back in the day, as it was a massive game and took a lot of time. You didn’t have infinite opportunities to save your games on the NES like you have nowadays. However, as soon as this was playable on an emulator, I crushed it. It was more time consuming than difficult. But beating it gave me a real sense of accomplishment that I don’t get from most games. The thing is, games today are too easy. Simon’s Quest didn’t have a difficulty setting.

The hate for this game is unwarranted, in my opinion. It has always been one of my favorite classic NES titles to fire up and play. I enjoy the game to this day and recently played through it again, in an effort to talk about it before this review.

Simon’s Quest is pure satisfaction, as far as I’m concerned.

Film Review: The Monster Squad (1987)

Release Date: August 14th, 1987
Directed by: Fred Dekker
Written by: Shane Black, Fred Dekker
Music by: Bruce Broughton
Cast: Andre Gower, Duncan Regehr, Stephen Macht, Stan Shaw, Tom Noonan, Jonathan Gries, Jason Hervey

Home Box Office, Keith Barish Productions, TAFT Entertainment Pictures, TriStar Pictures, 82 Minutes

monster_squadReview:

The Monster Squad is one of the best kids movies from the 1980s. Coming out in the decade when I was a kid, I was more susceptible to the pop culture of this era than any other. Also, when this film came out, these kids were essentially the same age as me. I also loved classic monsters like these kids, so it wasn’t a hard film for me to connect to.

This film is constantly compared to The Goonies, which was a bigger budget, more popular film that had Steven Spielberg’s and Richard Donner’s names on it. The Monster Squad had Shane Black’s and Fred Dekker’s names on it. At the time, neither were really well known but Dekker had written and directed the pretty stellar Night of the Creeps a year prior. Both men have gone on to make some great films and still work together on some projects. They’re currently working together on a reboot of Predator (Shane Black acted in the original).

Getting back to The Goonies comparison, I find this film to be much better. In fact, I felt that way even in 1987 when this movie came out. To start, you’ve got a group of kids fighting five of the classic Universal Monsters: Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Gillman (or as many call him, “the Creature From the Black Lagoon” or just, “the Creature”.).

While Dracula and the Mummy both look very much like their Universal Monsters incarnations, the other creatures are updated. The Gillman is now scary and frightening, while the Wolf Man is more bad ass. And while still on the monsters, Duncan Regehr (best known as Zorro in the late 80s) was a perfect Dracula, Jon Gries (Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite) did a fantastic job as the human form of the Wolf Man and Tom Noonan (known for being the Ripper in Last Action Hero) truly owned the role of Frankenstein’s monster and should be considered one of the best to play that character.

The other thing that makes this film better than The Goonies, in my opinion, is that the kids are more real. They cursed, they were often times perverts, they watched slasher films and their parents didn’t give a shit and they felt like boys I’d hang out with at school where the Goonies crew was cool but they seemed like a bunch of kids doing their own thing and came off as less authentic and less organic.

I also love the names in this movie. The token fat kid is called “Fat Kid” even though he reminds people that his name is Horace. The creepy old recluse dude that ends up being totally awesome is only ever called “Scary German Guy”. The character of Patrick has a slutty sister that is only ever referred to as “Patrick’s Sister”. By the way, “Fat Kid” is way better than Chunk from The Goonies, as he doesn’t just eat ice cream and do the truffle shuffle. No, the token fat kid in this movie, picks up a shotgun and saves the kids who bullied him – winning their respect.

This film is campy as hell, fun as hell and just a great fucking motion picture. If you love The Goonies but haven’t seen this, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. If you love classic monsters, you definitely need to get off of your ass and watch this now.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part VI – The Creature From the Black Lagoon Series (1954-1956)

I have reached my sixth and final series of Universal Monsters franchises to review.

Now let me state that this is my favorite series. I’m not sure why but the Gillman (a.k.a. the Creature From the Black Lagoon or just the Creature) is my favorite movie monster of all-time. Something about the prehistoric aquatic swamp beast just tickles my fancy.

While I don’t consider these films to be as good as the James Whale films for Universal, I do watch them more and find them to be more entertaining overall. But let me get into each film and elaborate.

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954):

Release Date: February 12th, 1954 (premiere)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Maurice Zimm, Harry Essex, Arthur A. Ross
Music by: Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein
Cast: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva

Universal Pictures, 79 Minutes

creature_from_the_black_lagoonReview: 

This may just be my favorite classic horror film of all-time and it is rated “G”.

Creature From the Black Lagoon is a masterpiece. Is that a bold statement? No.

This film, for its time, was incredibly unique. Being a part of the Universal Monsters franchise, even though it came out more than a decade after that franchise peaked, this movie stands on its own and didn’t need other monsters sprinkled in to capture the public’s attention. In fact, this film was so successful that it spawned two sequels within two years.

Getting away from the standard Universal gothic horror style that was a staple in the Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man series, this film brought us to the Amazon and gave us a creature from the depths of the swamp. And with that, we got a new formula. No mad scientists, no undead creatures, no supernatural horror. Instead, we get a prehistoric monster that is smitten with a girl and just wants to swim with her. Granted, he eventually wants to go one step further and kidnap her and take her to his cave so she can lay on rocks and look sexy all day.

I just love the tone of this film and I can’t necessarily say that it brings a level of terror and dread as some of its predecessors at Universal, but it is a fun film and the most adventurous one in the Universal Monsters catalog. Plus, Julie Adams is really nice to look at.

Revenge of the Creature (1955):

Release Date: March 23rd, 1955 (Denver premiere)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: William Alland, Martin Berkeley
Music by: Herman Stein
Cast: John Agar, Lori Nelson, Nestor Paiva, Clint Eastwood (uncredited – first role)

Universal Pictures, 82 Minutes

revenge_creatureReview: 

The first sequel in this series is the weakest installment overall but it is still a great film and really enjoyable.

In this one, the Gillman is captured and brought to an oceanic park in Florida to be treated crappier than the orca in Blackfish. The Gillman doesn’t like it, the Gillman gets pissed, the Gillman escapes and tears up the oceanic park, flips a few cars and goes off into the ocean to leave humans behind.

Except there is that new girl he is smitten with who isn’t as cute as Julie Adams but is still cute. The Gillman stalks the leading lady like an aquatic swamp pervert should. He eventually gets her and then carries her around for the rest of the film until the heroes show up to save her.

The plot moves a bit slow, as a big portion of the film deals with the scientists interacting with the Gillman while he is in captivity. It is worth mentioning though that this is Clint Eastwood’s film debut and his role is somewhat bizarre.

I should also mention that this film in the series is featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956):

Release Date: April 26th, 1956
Directed by: John Sherwood
Written by: Arthur A. Ross
Music by: Henry Mancini
Cast: Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Leigh Snowden, Don Megowan

Universal Pictures, 78 Minutes

the_creature_walks_among_usReview: 

So what do the logical and ethical human scientists decide to do to the Gillman in this film? Well, they think it is a good idea to give him surgery in an effort to make him better fit in with humans. By surgery, I mean they cut off parts of his face and body and pretty much butcher him alive. Yeah, the plot is bizarre and insane and makes little sense but we don’t watch these films for logic and sometimes crazy equals awesome.

This film and the others in this series all have a consistent vibe and even though there is some experimentation with the plots in each sequel, they all feel like they belong to the larger series’ narrative. And the experimentation is kind of refreshing in this series, as each movie has its own identity. We’re not subjected to a string of rehashes of the same film like the Mummy and Frankenstein series.

This film also explores the humanity of the monster – does it exist, who is the Gillman, what motivates him, can he be human? It also explores what it means to be human and are we really just monsters ourselves. There is a lot of psychology at play in this film which makes it a pretty special experience for a horror film of its era.

And at least in this movie, the last shot of the film isn’t a beaten and bloodied Gillman sinking to the bottom of the river assumedly dead. This time the disfigured and biological tampered with monster just wants to get away from humans and go home and after all the horrible things that have been done to him, he at least gets back to his familiar environment.

Compared to the other two films in this series, this one really connects the audience to the creature on an emotional level and that is what makes this movie special.