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Castlevania: Timeless Classic Or Retro-Goggled Nostalgia (Editorial)

October 14, 2010 | | 25 Comments Share thison Facebook Castlevania: Timeless Classic Or Retro-Goggled Nostalgia (Editorial)on Twitter

As a career classical singer, I am quite acquainted with the concept of the purist. One dictionary defines the word as “one who desires that an item remain true to its essence and free from adulterating or diluting influences.” Nothing could better describe the overriding attitude of so many toward Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and its soundtrack. But is this purity deserved? Nobody can be told what to like or dislike – and I am a huge proponent of this – however, there is a difference between loving something because of a personal attachment and recognition of its quality among its contemporaries (or past entries), and loving something mainly for a personal and nostalgic value. One love is not any more or less ignoble than the next, but only one of these allows for a level-headed conversation. Like my first-year film textbook read, “If we break everything down to a ‘that’s just your opinion’, then there is no point in discussing anything.” How true! So, read on as I attempt to make a case for the latest game and music entry in the Castlevania series.

[Editor’s Note: For the purposes of this discussion, only the North American dates, titles, and releases will be discussed.]

The feelings as evidenced by responses to Jayson’s review of the Lords of Shadow soundtrack seem to be those of resentment toward the new direction of Castlevania, and I can’t – for the life of me – figure out why. Is it because it’s different? I don’t recall the outcry over Hans Zimmer not using Danny Elfman’s themes in his reboot of Batman. At the same time, ironically enough, I attended an entire panel last weekend at New York Comic Con with an editor from Film Score Monthly who talked endlessly about the lambasting John Ottman received for his take on the Superman Returns score, almost all based on John Williams’ spectacular Superman score. Why the inconsistency in purity?

Many have asked why Konami even bothered sharing the series name with Lords of Shadow. The answer is obvious within the first few minutes of the game/soundtrack. Apart from the business decision of name recognition (which, I’m sure is a big part of the decision) this game and score demonstrates its understanding of Castlevania‘s intended universe better than any of us could have imagined. Indeed, this game and score is what Castlevania should have been all along and has resurrected this dead franchise in every way.

After making a grand entrance in 1986, the Castlevania series worked hard to stay in the spotlight with the other great, classic series such as Zelda and Mario. For the first few years, despite being a third-party franchise, Castlevania churned out several strong titles that helped push the Nintendo brand (for which it had been made exclusively). 1994’s Castlevania Bloodlines – the first and last Castlevania game to be made for the Sega Genesis – ended the Nintendo-only streak and was met with a reasonably warm response.

Castlevania Bloodlines gave way to what is undoubtedly the series’ most cherished, respected, and critically acclaimed outing, Symphony of the Night for the Sony Playstation. Borrowing from the also-revered Super Metroid in concept and, to a certain extent, mechanics, this game redefined a genre and is often considered among the best games ever made. This was 1999.

As with many of the original Nintendo Entertainment System titles, the music was essential to a game’s experience. A great deal of this was obviously due to certain technical restraints as there was not much room on the cartridges for complex sounds. Thus, music became such an integral part and was looped. Additionally, it was the first mainstream Nintendo score to deal with the horror genre. Most audiences had not yet tried to fight Dracula or ghosts in a serious way until Simon Belmont came around. However, unlike its counterparts in the Metroid, Zelda, and Mario series, music in Castlevania did not succeed mightily in creating the desired genre atmosphere.

Ask yourself, do any of the big themes from the classic Castlevania series really invoke images of Dracula? If you are of the mind that the score need not match these images or feelings, then perhaps our views of a score’s function are fundamentally different. Released around the same time, Capcom’s Ghost N’ Goblins tackled similar subject matter but in a clearly ironic and humorous way. Check out the original box art. Compare this with Castlevania‘s original box art. It’s abundantly clear that the Castlevania series has always been meant to be taken seriously. If we agree that the series is not meant ironically, then we must view the music through a similar paradigm. Essentially, everything about the series presents itself in a serious, macabre manner. Everything except the music, that is.

“Vampire Killer,” one of the iconic pieces of the series (composed by female composer Kinuyo Yamashita – rather uncommon, especially for game music, though much more common in Japanese music than Western music) is a nice piece of music, but there is nothing in it especially indicative of the dark or nefarious tendencies of Belmont’s surroundings. More importantly (and with all due respect), it is a track that could have just as easily scored Bionic Commando or Battle City. I don’t think the same can be said for the music in Mario, Metroid, or Zelda.

Judging by fan response as well as the number of remixes, the prized musical gem of the series is “Bloody Tears.” It is a fine piece of music; exciting, full of spirit, and musical. But, again, this is a piece that could have easily been music for a boss in Contra. There is nothing in its rock-like beat to indicate anything having to do with Belmont, his quest, or the setting/era. I would even go so far as to say that the music simply does not fit. And, with all due respect to those making the remixes, despite the musical ingenuity and workings, none of these solve the music’s inherent problems.

The score for Symphony of the Night is slightly closer to realizing the fantastical and frightening world of Castlevania, but also is filled with several dated rock/dance tunes such as “Dracula’s Castle.” Is this a great tune? Undoubtedly. But, again, what feelings or moods does this track evoke? Several things, I’m sure, but none all that close to the world of Belmont.

Moving on from Symphony of the Night, there is not too much to report. GameBoy Advance games, DS games, PS2 outings etc. such as Portrait of Ruin. Though many of these games were met with good reviews and decent sales, not one of these since Symphony of the Night was a true “game-changer” on the minds of gamers in the discussion of the industry’s best. Likewise, the lack of real power or drama in the scores to games dealing with long, difficult quests against legendary monsters left a whole lot to be desired from a score perspective. Of course, there a few numbers here and there in the following games that may have worked better than others, but none of these did enough to break the mold. Suffice it to say (and much to my own chagrin), it is safe to say that the series was no longer relevant; a sentiment shared by Konami, as well. One need not look further than the underwhelming Harmony of Despair for proof of this need.

Herein lies my beef with the music of Castlevania: Is it good? Sure. It certainly scratches my nostalgic itch but sounds incredibly dated. Worse yet, its lack of congruity with its subject matter has always been jarring and is, quite frankly, deserving of criticism from which it is has been heretofore exempt. “But, Gideon, you pretentious prick, this was the 80s and 90s!” you might say. True, but then explain why none of these issues is present in its aforementioned contemporaries that were also limited technologically and made around the same time. Zelda‘s theme is as relevant today as it was when it first released, as is Metroid (Metroid, in particular, beautifully realizes the sense of loneliness and empty space). But, when one listens to Castlevania he would never guess which game (or even which genre!) it might score.

It is important to state that none of these points devalue whatever musical integrity or appreciation you may feel toward these pieces. Again, anyone can love whatever music he/she loves. But, if you are reading this blog you are obviously interested in a higher musical discussion – one that involves its purpose thematically, and its value as a score as well as a listening experience. It is the opinions of the Castlevania scores in this discussion that I am dissecting.

Now, enter Lords of Shadow. Apart from the departure in gameplay, Oscar Araujo’s thunderous score storms in with distinguished grace and nobility. The full-voiced choir and bombastic percussion and horns immediately evoke images of medieval fantasy. Gone are the dated rock beats of the previous entries. Gone are the incongruous diddies that, though entertaining and charming in their own right, did little to enhance the intended mood of the series. There is no mistaking the intent and ferocity of Araujo’s score. Just as the previous article’s pairing of the old music to the new game, I’m sure the new music paired with another genre will be found equally incongruous and jarring. Some might say this comes down to a matter of preference. If that’s the case, to me, it is a musical choice between a vampire movie like Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, or Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing. Both have their value, but there is a clear distinction as to their respective intentions.

Even better than purism, I know nostalgia. My favorite cartoon is He-Man. You remember He-Man: the effeminate Prince Adam takes out his sword, “By the power of Grayskull!”, and out comes a darker-skinned, manly version with a booming voice. It might be the stupidest thing ever. Does it murder my soul just a little bit to say that? It sure does. Does it make me love the show any less? Not a chance. But, in an intellectual conversation of the great cartoon series (if such a conversation could be called intellectual), I have to acknowledge these shortcomings. I have to acknowledge that one of the episodes featured Skeletor waging a full-on invasion of the King Rowland’s castle because he was not invited to their carnival. Likewise, I think it’s time that we all come together about the Castlevania series and realize that despite its early efforts, this is a series that was in serious need of a reboot. Also, and perhaps more importantly, It’s time we acknowledge that though the series’ earlier musics may be wonderfully catchy and entertaining, they are not at the level of the great iconic soundtracks.

Try Lords of Shadow