Castlevania: The Arcade
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I think it's fair to say that very few Castlevania fans expected Konami to make a light-gun based, Arcade-exclusive shooter for the series. Konami was certainly willing to experiment with their brands (Castlevania: Judgment, which came out a year earlier, showed that), but the kind of game play shown off in Castlevania: The Arcade was so different from the main series that it would have legitimately felt like an unrelated game where it not for the "Castlevania" (okay, the "Akumajo Dracula") emblazoned on the sides of the machine.
But maybe that wasn't a bad thing. Certainly as the series had gone on it has started to repeat itself and its core concepts enough that the series no longer felt fresh, just that it was making copies of itself over and over again (something I like to think of as Mega Man Syndrome). A change of pace could certainly have been warranted, even if it were into a genre the games hadn't tackled before. Of course, that special Castlevania magic could have been lost in the process (just look at the Lords of Shadow games, which I detest) but experimentation on its own wasn't bad.
Finding a way to play this game, of course, is the big issue. It was originally a Japan-exclusive title (although a small chain of arcades did import four or so machines into the U.S., reportedly) produced in small numbers (only five of these machines still seem to even be in existence at this point) such that tracking down a machine when the game first came out could have been difficult, even if you lived in Japan. Trying to play it now is even harder and most fans would have to resort to some kind of emulation which just wouldn't have the same feel (if they're even lucky enough to stumble on the game and can get it to work).
I was lucky enough to experience the game properly, once, which is why I can write this review, but I doubt most will be able to get that same level of luck. This is a rarity, to be sure, a curiosity that lost all support from Konami almost as soon as it was put out (it's planned European release was quickly canceled). Maybe 2009 just wasn't the right time to Konami to release an experimental light-whip "shooter" into the dying arcade scene.
If you can track down a machine you'll be greeted by some of the weirdest video game mechanics you'll find outside of a the Nintendo Wii bargain bin. The game's mechanic, at least as the Belmont-like "Vampire Killer", is essentially "waggle" -- you grab your "light gun" and aim it at the screen, flicking the beam of light back and forth to "swing your whip". It's so goofy but, oddly, rather engaging in its own weird way. Along with the the main weapon -- a whip for the Belmont, or a more traditional (in this context) gun used by the "Lady Gunner" (I was sadly not able to test out the hidden character, the "Little Witch") -- you also have sub-weapons you can collect and switch between. For the Vampire Hunter the sub-weapons are absolutely essential as that's their only means of ranged attack.
In the game you'll progress along rails -- this is an auto-movie, on-rails shooter after all -- exploring the castle while wave after wave of enemies come at you. You'll whip and shoot at the enemies to eliminate them, and most enemies can be taken out with just a swipe/shot or two. Eventually you'll progress to a point where a boss (or, sometimes, sub-boss) will show up for a more energetic encounter. This is where one other special mechanic really comes into play: your charge meter. As time progresses the charge meter will build. Once it's full, the player can unleash a powerful attack that easy does ten times the damage (or more) then any of the basic attacks. This is the best way to handle the bosses and eliminated them quickly as you'll only have so much health to handle the bosses (and the enemies) and their constant attacks.
I'm not ashamed to admit I suck at this game. Given time (and a home release) I could see getting good enough at the game to be able to manage all the packs and clear through the game in an hour or so. A skilled player, one who lived near one of these machines and devoted themselves to it, could probably clear the game in an hour or less (I know there are "speedruns" of the game that do just that), but for most of us we'll end up popping in plenty of quarters (or tokens or whatever your arcade uses) to get through the game. It's hard, for sure, just like most arcade games are -- it's meant to suck money out of you at a steady (and unforgiving) clip, and Castlevania: The Arcade does just that, efficiently and effectively.
And yet, during my play session with the game, I wasn't really mad about it. Yes it's hard but that's generally what you expect from an arcade game. At the same time, it was also goofy fun, with the huge screen sucking you into the action and the whipping actually making you feel like you were actively engaged in the action, a part of the scene playing out in front of you. That's why light-gun games are so much fun to play, too, of course as you see your reticule on screen, you load your guns, you fire the bullets. It's all quite engaging and Konami found a good way to blend all that with a fun Belmont-type character on top. Or you can play as the traditional gunner for these kinds of games if that's your speed. Whatever the case it was actually pretty engaging and, dare I say it, fun.
That said, the game isn't perfect. For starters it's weirdly short, clocking it at only five real stages. Those stages are long enough, with a controlled amount of time spent in each one because you're on-rails and don't really have a choice on the matter. But they aren't really that deep, with the same kinds of enemies showing up wave after wave, and once you've experienced what the game has to offer you've more or less seen it all. It's a one-trick pony, really, and you know all you need to about it once you've played through the first stage.
And yet, again, I found myself enjoying it. Clearly it's not for everyone but if you can get into the basic game play and invest in what you're doing, there's something magical and tactile about the experience. I think the biggest knock against the game is simply that it was released in arcades and nowhere else. At the time it came out I could have easily seen this as a Wiimote- or PlayStation Move-based waggle-shooter, something put out on home consoles and enjoyed as a lark between bouts of Smash Bros. or Ratchet and Clank. It's not a deep game by any stretch but home audiences, I think, would have been far more receptive to this weird game than arcade players.
Who knows, maybe Konami had plans to port it to home consoles after a couple of years but the lackluster reception the game received in Japanese arcades squashed that plan. Or maybe the move away from waggle-style controls at home killed the option -- the Microsoft Kinect would have been bad for this game, the Nintendo WiiU was dead practically on arrival, and other consoles like the 3DS and the Switch would have seen the compromises made for the game mechanics. This was very much a game that came out a specific time and place and just couldn't really make the move anywhere else.
It's sad because this game really is something I think every Castlevania fan should experience once. If you're lucky enough to have one of the few arcades with this game near you, take the time to go over and play it. It's unlike anything else in the series but that's part of why I like it. It's goofy, its weird, but it's a fun way to spend fifteen minutes or so flailing your way through a Gothic adventure. Get to it before the machines break and no one wants to support the title anymore.