Castlevania Week: In Defense of the 3D Games

“The 2D games are better.”

It sounds like a lazy hipster proclamation for easy indie cred along the lines of “I only like their early stuff.” But to be fair, the statement above can be applied to almost any video game franchise that was established in the 80s and was eventually forced to add a third dimension. There are exceptions, of course–I’ve yet to meet a single person who swears by the 2D days of Metal Gear or Duke Nukem. By and large, though, there is always an affinity towards a franchise’s 2D roots.

Whether or not a 2D series’ jump to 3D should be outright scorned or simply tolerated at best is often left up to the individual, at least as far as those that haven’t subjectively botched all attempts to have a Z-axis. It’s a bit depressing to think about for those of us who grew up at a time when games were 2D out of a necessity that was technological rather than budgetary (or artistic), but 3D games have now been around for so long that there are years of 3D gaming that are considered “retro.” As such, we’ve gained enough distance from them that even those of us who were initially dismissive of all things 3D on principle have gained a warm, fuzzy nostalgia for some of the previously-mistrusted 3D installments of our beloved 2D franchises

Castlevania 64

Castlevania‘s first foray into 3D has its defenders, but for the most part, 1999’s Castlevania 64–not its actual title but how it’s commonly referred to–is widely accepted as a disaster, then and now. It is ugly, clunky, and felt extremely unpolished despite an already-protracted development cycle. Follow-up Legacy of Darkness serves as both sequel and finished version of the original, but did little to reassure fans that 3D was a good fit for a Castlevania game. Two years later, Circle of the Moon was released for GBA, bringing the franchise back to 2D and in the style of fan favorite Symphony of the Night. With the series’ triumphant return to 2D and having a system that excelled in 2D games–Game Boy Advance–available despite it being the new millennium, it seemed as though there was no reason to explore another 3D Castlevania game and to leave its two N64 outings as a forgotten detour.

After a trio of well-received GBA titles, Konami decided that Castlevania needed another shot at a 3D game, and released Lament of Innocence for the PS2 in 2003. Taking a cue from Devil May Cry–which was fair since many people saw that game as what a 3D Castlevania could be–Lament was more action-focused than most of its predecessors, and didn’t follow the “Metroidvania” style of most of the series post-Symphony. The combat was praised, as were the visuals, but the game drew criticism for its lack of exploration and its repetitive environments. Much of these complaints were carried over to Lament‘s direct successor, Curse of Darkness (interestingly borrowing the “…of Darkness” subtitle from the second N64 Castlevania game).

Lament of Innocence

After that, the series again returned to handheld systems for another trilogy of fantastic 2D games before a third attempt at a 3D Castlevania was made. Ignoring the horrid Wii fighting game Castlevania Judgement since it was a fighting game spin-off and that’s a good excuse not to address it further, the franchise’s next true attempt at a 3D installment came in 2010 with Lords of Shadow, a reboot of sorts with a little help from Hideo Kojima and his (former) team at Konami. As a 3D action game, Lords of Shadow is among the best of its generation, and its visuals were top of the line for its time. A lot of Castlevania fans had trouble viewing it as a “true Castlevania game,” largely because it was a linear action game rather than an exploratory adventure game, but those that gave it a chance found an extremely well-made game that could’ve served as a great introduction to a “modern” reinterpretation of the series. Unfortunately, its sequel completely ruined that, but I digress.

So where is the part where I defend the honor of the 3D Castlevania games, after I just spent multiple paragraphs trashing some of them, halfheartedly defending others, and strongly praising only one–but with multiple caveats? I consider Castlevania to be one of my absolute favorite franchises, and nobody is as disappointed as I am that the series is likely on indefinite hold save for having its female characters stripped down and paraded around for smutty CG sequences that play as a backdrop on slot machines. When we literally run of out games to play in a series that we love, all we have left to do is to go back and replay the ones that have already been released. The 2D Castlevanias are timeless and can be played forever and ever, but I feel that the 3D games should be revisited as well. Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness aren’t amazing, but they also are far from bad. Just because they aren’t the Metroid Prime of Castlevania games doesn’t mean they should be overlooked. Both are a great way to explore the world of Castlevania from a new perspective, as well as experience key events that are still considered part of the official series canon (like how the Vampire Killer whip was originally created). The “Lords of Shadow series” is said to have been completed with Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate so the first game isn’t the introduction to a great new ongoing era for the series, but it’s still a great action game that offers a fresh take on the Castlevania world. We shouldn’t always be so dismissive when a series takes a left turn or attempts a fresh start. At one point, Mario Galaxy was a radical reinvention of the Mario formula, and now all we want is another Mario Galaxy game.

Lords of Shadow

Perhaps the most unfair complaint leveled at the 3D Castlevania‘s is how they are too linear, and don’t offer freedom and exploration like 2D Castlevania games do. The people who hang their whips on that reasoning seem to have forgotten that there are just as many linear, level-by-level Castlevania games as there are “Metroidvania” ones. Sure, most of the more traditional action game entries let you wander off the beaten path a little, but they are largely forward-progression affairs. In fact, one of the most beloved classic entries, Super Castlevania IV, is about as straightforward linear as a game comes, and I don’t see anyone calling it out for that. Sure, a 3D Castlevania that follows the Metroid Prime path of bringing the exploration of the comparable 2D games would be great. But knocking the 3D games for choosing to follow the formula of half of the Castlevania legacy seemed like a nitpicky complaint. Besides, not every successful 2D to 3D transition happened by simply cloning the 2D games and giving them 3D visuals. The very well-loved Mega Man Legends games play quite differently from classic Mega Man games, and that is precisely why they worked–by forging their own path rather than just rehashing the 2D games.

As we all sit around and pine for new Castlevania games–and hope desperately that Igarashi doesn’t screw up Bloodstained–again, all we can really do is revisit the old games. I would implore everyone to add some of the 3D games into that rotation, especially if you had previously dismissed them outright or maybe only tried them for a short time before writing them off (perhaps you only ever played a demo…remember those?). Hopefully you will appreciate them more in the absence of Castlevania than you did while you were taking for granted how prolific the series once was. If Catlevania ever does come back, it’ll most likely be 3D, and most likely not be “Metroidvania,” so we might as well get used to the idea of a 3D, linear-ish Castlevania game. If we preemptively get used to the idea that the next Castlevania won’t be exactly how we want it, and it might not be a flawless masterpiece like so many of the 2D games, but still find a way to appreciate it anyway, we’ll have a much better shot at liking it than if we go in assuming we’ll hate it. And finding the good in that imagined future game’s 3D ancestors would be a good start.