All entries written in May, 2007
Well, apparently I just couldn't get enough of Castlevania on the DS. Despite the fact that I'm only getting around to talking about it now, I started Portrait of Ruin
immediately after I finished Dawn of Sorrow
. This was a good thing because it gave me a chance to really compare the two (and I don't think they can escape comparison). Even though Portrait of Ruin
re-uses a few of the same enemy sprites from its direct predecessor, and employs the same basic screen layout and money system, it really is a very different game...but something about it still feels familiar. That's because its roots go back farther than Dawn of Sorrow
, and even farther back than Symphony of the Night
, the game that pioneered the action/RPG rebirth of Castlevania
. I came away from Portrait of Ruin
feeling like I'd just played the spiritual successor to the original Castlevania
titles from the NES.
Part of it is the music--Portrait of Ruin
has a fantastic soundtrack, and it doesn't try to manhandle the DS speakers into sounding like they contain an orchestra. These are unashamed, catchy-yet-complex synthesizer tunes that recall those of the old NES without being outright remixes. There's some continuity of sound between related levels...your progression through Dracula's castle goes through five or six stage and boss themes that communicate feelings of varied action, fearful wonder, and eventually growing adrenaline and dread. The music is even reactive in some places...late in the game, you can unlock a gauntlet level called the Nest of Evil, which leads you farther and farther downward through new boss fights and rooms full of enemies, and the deeper you go, the faster the music gets. It's so subtle you almost couldn't notice it unless you warped from the bottom of the stage back to the top, skipping straight from fastest to slowest. But even when you don't notice it, you feel
it, and that's the most important thing.
Something else about Portrait of Ruin
that hearkens back to, say, Dracula's Curse
, is the graphic design of the castle. The halls are full of those same old grooved columns and smooth pillars, though they now look less like pixel drawings and more like real marble. There are even crumbling square blocks in the clock tower that threaten to drop you onto spikes! While we're on the subject, the clock tower itself is more reminiscent of the original Castlevania clock towers than the one in Dawn of Sorrow
, but it also extends the concept much farther into reality...you can wander to the left and find the windmill that powers the clock, riding its underworks and watching as it expels used water from a trough on the side.
Dracula's castle feels very real and well thought out, and like Dawn of Sorrow
, Portrait of Ruin
feels like someone was treating its design as a work of art. Break the ceiling before the final boss and jump up into the last hidden room to see what I mean...the scars in the wall from Death practicing with his scythe are just as well-executed as the sculpture and relief they destroy.
Up until now, I've been going on about how Portrait of Ruin
is similar to early Castlevania
games, but much has been made of the ways in which it's different and new. I have to say, I was a little wary of the portrait system at first...I was worried it would make the game lose the feeling of Castlevania
, or that the designers would focus on the levels outside the castle, leaving the hub stage neglected and abbreviated. But I was wrong. There's just a lot
to this game, and the outlying worlds show a great deal of new imagination and new applications for old ideas and enemies. Bringing Castlevania
to Victorian England, for example, was more effective than I would have expected, and the 3-D building in the background of the City of Haze stage (right at the beginning) was an impressive way to start things off. A high level of detail pervades throughout. You can even knock stuff off the shelves in the stores when you jump on them...drop kick them to knock around even more!
I was a little disappointed at first when I found the "final" room of the game, which contained portals to four more levels, all of them apparently rehashes of the previous portrait stages. But none of them felt repetitive...I guess the designers just had more ideas for each concept than would fit into a single iteration of the theme. The carnival levels manage a whole new kind of creepiness (which is only enhanced by the frozen nuclear blast in the background, considering that this game takes place during World War II), and the school levels build on one another, reaching a crescendo by using their weather patterns, enemies, challenges, and architecture in a way that I found really engaging. One of the secret rooms you can reveal in the Dark Academy might actually be found by accident if you're in the middle of a fight when you trigger it, but you'll know when you've broken the ceiling...because then the rain comes pouring in. Finally, the desert stages have a great tomb-raiding feel to them, and in order to reveal the actual second desert level, you have to perform a bit of creative archeology in the "entryway," as it were. The music even changes after you leave this short pre-level and its apparent dead end behind you, signaling the start of a descent into the long-forgotten and frighteningly deep burial grounds.
Despite the fact that the manual doesn't put it across too well, Portrait of Ruin
has just as good a story as Dawn of Sorrow
did, and it uses the two-player mechanics from earlier Castlevania
titles quite well for both the plot and
the gameplay (though you'll never use the shoulder-jump move again after you get the true double-jump). Some of the bosses even take the fact that there are two of you into account...I had to learn to use the various kinds of partner switches and team attacks much more completely than I expected to. There were a few times I missed the A-B equipment system from Dawn of Sorrow
, which would have made switching between, say, Jonathan's whip and giant sword much quicker. But your partner basically is
your B configuration in this game--it's just that Jonathan and Charlotte each only have half the skill set, as opposed to being completely interchangeable, so if you want to have two different forms of attack at the ready, you have to think about it a little more abstractly. It's an adjustment, but it makes sense.
I like that there's a lot of extra stuff to do, such as Wind's quests (a lot of which are pretty clever) and attacking the same enemies over and over again to get some of the more special items, filling up your enemy book in the process. But I really
like that no matter how much time you spend leveling up, either for its own sake or while pursuing some side quest, most of the bosses can still pose an actual challenge! Castlevania
games used to be infamous for their difficulty, but some of the more recent ones (and Symphony of the Night
itself, from what I've heard) have drifted away from that legacy. Not this time--you can get an extra 10 levels and the final boss can still kill you very suddenly. Many of the bosses have a single 600-damage attack for just this purpose--it forces even well-prepared players to stay on their toes, and I appreciated that because it keeps off-the-cuff strategy on the table.
I could go on about some of the specific bosses (they couldn't come up with a better name than "Mummy Man?") or some of the well-done animations (watch closely after you defeat the Werewolf of 13th Street) or even the extra game, which I haven't played all that much (what a cool use for the stylus, though!) But this review is long enough already. I think Portrait of Ruin
is a very worthwhile investment of time and money, and it extends the ideas of Dawn of Sorrow
and the feeling of the NES Castlevania
s into a familiar yet new experience. About my only complaint is that, due either to the richness of the graphics or the sheer volume of content, this game does
experience a handful of crashes (it usually happened to me when I was trying to use a subweapon). So save often. As long as you don't let yourself lose a significant amount of data if the game does
crash, you'll be too busy enjoying yourself to care that you might need to sit through the opening titles again.
Regular updates resume on Wednesday.
May 25th, 2007 promises to be a very big day on School Kids SG
. Something truly huge is about to happen in tomorrow's update, and I promise it'll start the holiday weekend off with a bang....
(There's also a less exciting reason tomorrow is important, but that can keep until sometime next week.)
I found some more production art while combing through my archives this week. Today's attractions: the original pencils for the SG Crew's group profile
, and a picture of Mark as seen from the back. I guess the overall theme of these pictures is "leg problems." I never colored or used the drawing of Mark because I made his legs too long, and if you compare the pencils of the SG Crew portrait to the finished version, you'll see that I forgot to draw Jenn's legs at all
! I added them while I was coloring the image in Photoshop. Sssh...don't tell anyone.
I still stretch my voice a little every time I make reference to the eighteenth
season of The Simpsons
, which just finished its first run last night with a two-in-one season finale. I mean, it's pretty absurd how long this show has been on. And it's been painful to watch for the last couple of years...speaking from my own experience, I never quite got over that episode where the family was on the lam after accidentally running over an alligator in Florida. Last season's opener, in which Marge decides she still loves Homer because he vomits like a manatee, wasn't exactly the show's finest hour, either. Up until this most recent season, I was only really watching out of loyalty, and for the one or two good laughs sometimes present in a given episode (which I guess would be enough to satisfy the executives at the Fox network). But during season 18, I actually felt myself coming around. There's life in The Simpsons
Take the 24
parody/crossover that began last night's double-header. For one thing, ever since Homer became the undisputed center of The Simpsons
, it's been hard to find a good Bart episode, and this was a good
Bart episode (even if it's almost impossible to consider it canon). He had an admittedly weird role that still fit his character--prank calling Jack Bauer was an excellent way to work the guest stars into the show without having them take over, and having Jack adapt Bart's famous, "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?" line for his own use was priceless. It was nice to see Bart working with Lisa like he did in some of the old Sideshow Bob episodes, and
I was glad that Superintendent Chalmers could enter and exit a scene without screaming "Skiiiin-nnnerrr!" as some kind of self-cynical meta reference. Best of all, the gimmick of turning an episode of The Simpons
into an episode of 24
allowed the writers to stay on track...and after a Father's Day episode ending with Homer running in a mayoral recall election while wearing a Salamander suit, I think it's pretty inarguable that the track needed a new fence.
And you know what else? The episode worked as the parody/crossover it was supposed to be, calling to mind the controversial X-Files
episode from season 8. Maybe that one didn't feature the most inspired Simpsons
script ever written, but it had a plot that held together and served the source material in the way it intended to. The same is true of last night's finale: Springfield Elementary's C
nit managed to hit on many of the 24
cliches that are funny when taken out of context, such as the mole in the organization and the downloading, via cell phones, of maps that will just have to be good enough
("Where's the roller coaster room? And the shark tank?!") And let's not forget the necessary torture
sequence that's become one of 24
's trademarks, though Bart being able to torture Nelson under any
circumstances is really kind of a stretch.
The second episode of the double-decker finale, in which Kent Brockman gets fired for swearing on the air, also
has a single plot that holds together until the end (the creepy dentist sequence at the beginning notwithstanding), and
it accomplishes this without any crossovers or other gimmicks. I'm sure there are people who will be bothered by references to current events, generalized as they were, but it was an excuse for some good jokes, and it let us see Homer's ignorant side in a non-gratuitous light for once.
Honestly, I think that's been the show's biggest problem these last few years--gratuitousness. Perceiving a lack of material, the creators of The Simpsons
became way too self-referential and...let's say slapstickish, allowing in-jokes and graphic violence (like Homer digging a bullet out of his arm with a knife) to take the place of actual storytelling. Hopefully, the successes of season 18 will remind the writers that they do
still have some unspoiled country to explore, and hopefully this will motivate them to put some thought back into the show and find
those avenues. Good stories, after all, lead to humor that rises from plot and situation rather than randomness, as the creators of South Park
might say. As a friend of mine once said, The Simpsons
used to have a relatively solid reality behind it, and contained moments of "real tenderness" that made us care about the characters, so we could laugh at them more satisfyingly and with greater understanding. Almost since its seasons hit double-digits, The Simpsons
has slowly traded that reality away in favor of a few cheap laughs, and as a result, it truly became a "cartoon" for the first time.
But here we have two episodes that didn't focus at all
on Homer being a jerk for no good reason, and which didn't feel the need to drag the Simpson family into every blessed event as if the five of them were a single, licensed character. Last night, season 18 ended a comparatively strong year on a hearteningly high note. There were many times I laughed out loud, and almost all of those jokes were situational (Krusty's voiceover work on Itchy and Scratchy was great, for instance). There was some guided, tastefully-restrained randomness present as well, just to throw us a curve every once in a while--this is the technique The Simpsons
perfected back in its original glory days. I don't think anyone expected a CTU helicopter to burst through the wall of the school at the end of the first episode, but it made a twisted kind of sense
, and those two things together are what made it such a great moment!
I know I probably sound like Comic Book Guy (what did we find out his real name was again?), but I really think The Simpsons
is back on the right track now. It's nice to laugh over Sunday dinner instead of picturing a script in my head and a red pen in my hand. All of a sudden, I'm looking forward to this summer's Simpsons
movie premiere with a newly-whetted appetite.
In addition to writing School Kids SG
, I also draw all the art on the site. I have a lot of fun with it, even though I don't draw half as often as I write, nor do I need to. In fact, I only had to draw one new picture when I opened this site to start serializing SKSG
--the rest of what you see all came from pictures I had drawn over the last year or two. In case you're curious, the one new picture is the one you see when you go here
Anyway, I've been promising myself for a while now that I'd start posting sketch art and stuff on here, instead of letting it just lie around on my hard drive where no one can see it. I thought I'd start by posting some pencil art of the picture for Mark's character profile
, plus the full versions of the pictures seen in Preston
profiles. I also dug up something that's sort of like a model sheet for Lyle
. You'll find most of these after the cut---click on them to view them full-size.
Left to right, top to bottom:
#1 - Pencil roughs for Mark Daley's profile portrait
#2- Full versions of Preston Manara and Jennifer Parsons' profile portraits
#3 - Model sheet/experiments with Lyle Banister
#4 - Full version of Egan Wellington's profile portrait
You've already heard both Mark and Lyle speak darkly
of him, and as of last Friday, Donovan DeLussa has officially made the scene. Because of the way the next few updates fall, I've decided to declare May 7-11 "Donovan Week" on the site. We'll have chapter 13 of The Gauntlet
on Monday, which will reveal a lot more about what Donovan's up to, and then on Wednesday, we'll have his profile (which won't say much at all, honestly, but it does
have a picture of him). Then, things will conclude on Friday with The Gauntlet
, chapter 14, as Donovan's plan for Mark and the SG Crew comes to fruition. An editor at iUniverse.com
who reviewed The Gauntlet
a few years back said that this was one of the most interesting parts of the story, and that Donovan was one of the most interesting characters, so I'm eager to see if all this will stimulate any discussion.
If you do
get interested in Donovan, don't worry--he's still going to be in the story even after his week is over. I've got a lot to say about him in the second half of The Gauntlet
, and he and Mark obviously have some issues they need to work out. Plus, as it may already be apparent, Donovan is going to figure prominently into Lyle's latest and greatest plan....
Last Friday, we found out that Mark Daley used to be a vigilante, specifically a member of the Go-Cart Gang. This not only makes it apparent why the prologue of The Gauntlet was and will continue to be relevant, it’s also the point of connection between the unusual history I’ve concocted for Woodvale and the events actually taking place in the stories. Although the weirdness of Woodvale can (and will) find the SG Crew regardless of whether or not they actually have a vigilante in their midst, Mark’s past is going to be the source of all kinds of drama and adventure as the series progresses.
Starting with chapter 12 of The Gauntlet, which will go up at the end of the week, the secret’s out and story is about to enter its second act. But today, I want to use one of my Thoughts posts to give you an idea of what School Kids SG feels like on my end, and what working on this series means to me. This was something I couldn't really discuss until I no longer had to worry about spoiling The Gauntlet's first big surprise.
Basically, School Kids SG is a direct sequel to something no one will ever see.
Between fourth and eighth grade, I wrote a whole bunch of short stories I collectively referred to as the School Kids series. And when I say they were short stories, I mean short—most of them averaged about two pages, with a few closer to five and only one or two breaking the double-digit mark. They all had an odd mix of drama and comedy (one was almost always getting in the way of the other, as I recall), and even though this was nowhere near the scope of what I do today, there was some continuity between the various episodes. Together, they told a story about a team of young friends (they were always the same age as I was, so they grew from 10 to 14 over the course of the series) who stood together against groups of bullies and, eventually, gangs. I named this team the Go-Cart Gang.
So, yeah. I didn’t really have the words to express the idea of a “vigilante group” back then, but these shorts laid the groundwork for School Kids SG, and I keep them around to this day for whenever I need to reference Mark’s immediate history. It’s like having source texts from a world I created. It’s very convenient.
But how did School Kids turn into School Kids SG? Well, somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16, I went through a real creative slump…it was horrible. None of my ideas would gel, and as a result, I had very little follow-through. I felt like a lot of what I was coming up with was the same. But then, when I was a sophomore in high school (not coincidentally the same age Mark is when we meet him), a bit of news I read in a local paper gave me an idea, and all sorts of things spun out around that, bringing all the little ideas I’d been having together. I ended up doing a sort of “where are they now?” story about the last three members of the Go-Cart Gang still at Woodvale High: Lyle, Flint, and Mark. This turned into The Gauntlet, and that turned into the beginning of a new series. Since it was a progression of School Kids despite moving in a new direction, I named this series School Kids SG, after the group of teenagers who were going to be at the center of events from then on.
What I like most is that School Kids SG has grown over the years, and now it’s much more than just an epilogue to the original School Kids timeline. It’s also about what happens to normal kids like Egan, Preston, and the rest of the SG Crew when they’re forced to coexist with the comic book-like atmosphere that the Go-Cart Gang and others like have created. More than anything, though, SKSG is about Mark, and his attempts to begin a new life after defining himself relative to the Go-Cart Gang for so long. It’s important to understand that in School Kids, Mark was no more important than any of the other vigilantes (whose personalities all tended to run together anyway, in the service of bizarre plots and even stranger humor). In fact, the way I envision it now, in hindsight, School Kids was largely Lyle’s show…but I’ll talk about that in a few weeks, once we find out a little more about where Lyle’s been and where he’s on the verge of going. So, School Kids SG is also my chance to discover Mark as he’s rediscovering himself. It’s really been a lot of fun, and it’s positively wacky to look back on these early chapters now, which seem so simple by comparison to the later episodes I'm working on drafting now.
So, that’s the origin of School Kids SG. I don’t know how many people will find it interesting per se...I just wanted to make it known that whenever Mark sits down to recount a story from his vigilante days, I’m right there with him, sifting through my files. It’s been a lot of fun seeing my old School Kids stories from the perspective of someone who lived them, and who wasn't always as important a player as he is now. It’s really helped me to give new life and complexity to the old shorts, even though they now only exist in Mark’s memories. But hey, the more memories and background I give to Mark, the more complex and dynamic he (and the series) can be as a result, right? Boy, am I glad I never throw anything away....