Author: Bill R. Boggess

Netflix’s Castlevania Series is Blood-Soaked Excellence.

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While calling Netflix’s animated Castlevania series a full season is a bit misleading – it’s essentially four 25-minute episodes that feel more like a prologue to a much larger endeavor – what has been delivered, however brief, is an utterly fantastic adaptation of one the most beloved and enduring videogame franchises in the medium.

It also stands firmly on its own merits, regardless of your history with the series.

Castlevania: Season One is based loosely on the third game of the franchise, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which was released for the NES nearly thirty years ago and, chronologically speaking, is essentially the beginning of the Castlevania narrative. (Though there are some earlier games on the timeline)

In an interesting twist, the first episode is dedicated to the backstory of Dracula (Graham McTavish) – a reclusive exile living in his grandiose but lonely castle – as he is sought out by a young, ambitious woman (Emily Swallow), unafraid of his reputation and moved to seek his guidance and wisdom as a student of science. Bemused and intrigued by her courage and passion, he invites her to stay as his guest and study the knowledge he has accumulated over the centuries. Sometime later, having fallen in love, they are married and Dracula, on a sabbatical at the urging of his wife for the purpose of reconnecting with humankind, arrives home to discover she has been burned at the stake as a heretic and a witch, specifically because of her pursuit of science. Enraged, Dracula grants humanity one year before he unleashes a supernatural, genocidal campaign to obliterate what he sees as the human scourge entirely from the planet.

This backstory is an intriguing slant on a character that has been traditionally unsympathetic and portrayed as largely malevolent, imbuing his actions with a bit of sympathetic justification, regardless of his admittedly evil machinations. The notion of Dracula being a solitary hermit whose rage is awakened by a craven and brutal act against the love of his life is a unique way to set up the character as something more than a two-dimensional megalomaniac and despot.

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The show then shifts to an introduction of Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), member of House Belmont, a family that for generations swore an oath to defend humanity against supernatural malignancies. However, the proliferation of Christianity has seen the Belmont clan excommunicated and disgraced by the Catholic Church, with Trevor now a wandering vagabond and drunkard who stumbles upon a conflict between a corrupt bishop and a group of seers called The Speakers, who are being scapegoated for the dark violence now spreading throughout the countryside. Among their ranks Trevor makes a rapid alliance with a powerful female sorcerer, Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and the two unite to pursue an end to Dracula’s menace.

There’s a significant amount of world-building in Castlevania, astutely woven into a pre-existing, mosaic-like mythos which has been essentially pieced together by numerous games over the years. Though only a handful of prominent characters are introduced in the course of four short episodes, all of them are fleshed out relatively well, especially Trevor, who, though a bit of a sullen grump, is given several opportunities to let his heroics shine as tensions escalate.

As animated shows go, Castlevania enjoys a solid script. Penned by veteran comic book scribe Warren Ellis, the story he weaves in these first episodes is tight, focused, and enjoyable. While there is an occasional bit of clunky dialogue or odd bit of humor that falls flat, most of the writing is quite good and the voicework is, overall, superb. Likewise, the visuals are respectable and though not spectacular, they effectively emulate the disparate aesthetics of the numerous games within the franchise and arrive at a type of visual compromise that manages to represent the overall look and feel of the series cohesively.

Where the show truly shines however is the action, which is excellent and reflective of a game franchise that has always been, primarily, a combat-driven endeavor. Trevor’s talents as a warrior are given plenty of screen time and the battles are fast, frantic and filled with the types of excessive, over-the-top flourishes that might look downright silly in a live action film but come off as nothing less than stellar in an animated movie. Of note are battles Trevor has with a basement-dwelling cyclops and an epic confrontation with another series mainstay, Alucard (James Callis), resulting in a protracted fight that sees both combatants pulling out all the stops as they try to best each other. It’s also important to note that the whip – the primary weapon of the franchise – is utilized to its fullest potential here, with Trevor wielding his consecrated weapon to strike down both human and non-human enemies alike with nimble ferocity.

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Castlevania is also an unapologetically violent affair, with copious gore, dismemberment, and even some genuinely disturbing scenes of hapless villagers being slaughtered by Dracula’s encroaching horde of satanic beasts. While this violence is never gratuitous, it does brand the series as something meant for mature viewers instead of some trite, Saturday morning TV show aimed at selling cereal and cheap, plastic toys. Animation here in the U.S. has always struggled for legitimacy among older viewers and Castelvania is further evidence that an animated series can offer mature, compelling content.

The only problem with the series is that this first season simply feels half-baked. The whole thing can be watched in well under two hours and ends abruptly, just when things really begin to get interesting. While I’m encouraged that Netflix has already ordered a second season, I sincerely wish they had invested a bit more money into making this first season something more substantive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that season one of Castlevania feels more like a tease of something larger and more ambitious and hopefully, that promise will come to fruition when season two arrives at a later date.

Regardless, Castlevania is a fantastic, fun romp through a familiar franchise that should make the majority of fanboys (and girls) grin widely. It’s the kind of thing I’m a bit shocked was even made but more surprising is that it is clearly a labor of love and dedication, fashioned by a creative team who respect the source material enough to make it a worthy extension of an already prolific and intriguing fictional continuum.

Let’s hope season 2 can keep up the pace.

 

Friday the 13th: The Game. Why Developers and Publishers Should Be Taking Notes.

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Released less than two months ago, Gun Media’s Friday the 13th: The Game, developed by IllFonic, has already achieved considerable buzz among gamers and horror enthusiasts. I bought it on the PS4 as soon as it was released and have enjoyed my time with it immensely. While the game is admittedly rough around the edges, I’m actually quite impressed with what such a small studio has accomplished within a modest timeframe and more importantly, they seem committed to patching the game post-release to ensure the experience only gets better.

Regardless of those inevitable, indie-related growing pains, Friday the 13th represents precisely the type of interactive experience developers and publishers should be examining closely, if not outright cribbing. I recently had a conversation with a friend after he had an opportunity to play the game and we both agreed it was astounding that it had taken this long for something like Friday the 13th to get made and perhaps even more mystifying is that larger developers and publishers aren’t currently scrambling to follow suit.

The central conceit of the game is succinctly brilliant: a group of online gamers are assigned the roles of camp counselors and one person is randomly designated to play as Jason Voorhees. The gameplay takes place in a semi-open world map replicating key locations from the franchise and the counselors must essentially survive or flee as they are hunted, individually, by Jason, who is in possession of a myriad of abilities that make him persistently lethal. The counselors, while given some offensive options like weapons and distractions, are by design grossly underpowered. The best they can do is slow Jason down and try to escape or avoid Jason long enough to make it to the end of the gaming session.

When distilled, Friday the 13th is basically an interactive version of hide-and-seek, which emulates the thematic arc of the franchise exceptionally well and also creates a genuinely tense and evocative horror atmosphere. As previously mentioned, the game has some technical issues and its presentation reflects a relatively modest budget, yet none of this dilutes the enjoyment of the simple, direct premise, which is to play through a truncated version of a Friday the 13th episode as either the victim or Jason.

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However, there’s a broader takeaway from this game, specifically that the premise is so effectively simple yet undeniably engaging that other games based on existing horror franchises could very easily be made, with larger studios dedicating more extensive resources into creating these types of titles. Judging by the word-of-mouth and overall response to this game, there appears to be a largely untapped market emerging and I would estimate the demand for this type of software will only increase as trailblazer developers help to further define what it is that consumers want.

To be fair, Friday the 13th isn’t entirely without contemporaries. Dead By Daylight, created by Behaviour Interactive, operates on a similar premise and even has an additional level that mimics John Carpenter’s seminal classic Halloween, allowing a group of online players to be stalked by Michael Myers in a level that astutely replicates Haddonfield. Also, while markedly different in terms of gameplay, developer Creative Assembly released the much-lauded Alien: Isolation back in 2014, a single-player game largely defined by having to run and hide from the infamous xenomorph. There are also examples like Evolve, where a single player assumes the role of a large monster while the remaining participants band together to take it down.

But even with these handful of games occupying space and mindshare in the marketplace, the reality is that Friday the 13th still manages to differentiate itself for several key reasons and these reasons are precisely what other studios and their publishers should be examining more closely.

First and foremost, it’s clear that developer IllFonic loves this movie franchise and understands it, a fact that is readily apparent in every facet of the game’s execution. Developed in tandem with Kane Hodder – the quintessential cinematic Jason – and horror icon Tom Savini, this game oozes with fandom credibility and reflects the genuine passion of those involved. This is crucially important because when examining the history of videogames based on pre-existing intellectual property, it is astounding how many of those games were clearly made by people who had little emotional investment in what they were creating. And while this game is most certainly a product, it’s a product made by people who obviously adore the source material and their desire to accurately emulate the look and tone of the films is why – regardless of a smattering of technical foibles – the game is largely successful at doing just that.

Perhaps even more compelling however is how perfectly suited gaming is to further the horror genre. Videogames are predicated on interactivity – they require proactive, concerted involvement rather than passivity. Horror is perfectly situated to become a dominant genre within gaming because the nature of horror – usually founded on the exploration of the unknown or the survival of a character against insurmountable odds – lends itself perfectly to a playable construct.

As soon as you find a match and begin playing Friday the 13th, you are struck immediately by the atmosphere. Yes, there is silliness abound, be it other players doing puerile things or occasional glitches, yet there are also moments that can only be described as sublime horror at its finest:

Walking through the forest with tendrils of fog swirling about.

The sound of your footsteps as you move through an empty cabin engaged in solitary exploration.

The iconic Jason music echoing abruptly in your ears, causing you to glance wildly around and forcing you to consistently look over your shoulder.

Lastly, I think it’s important to note the impact of Friday the 13th being an online-centric endeavor. I’m personally not a huge fan of online multiplayer and tend to gravitate towards solitary experiences but the multiplayer aspects of Friday the 13th are crucial, as it lends to the proceedings two very interesting and important components, namely that the game often requires collaboration with others to survive and that communal aspect of the game is both intriguing and unique within a horror setting. Also, while I’m sure having a CPU-controlled Jason would be plenty fun, having him controlled by a person who is hunting you down is quite thrilling. Most game AI still hasn’t reached a level yet where it simulates a flexible intelligence and rapid adaptation to situations but a person in possession of these attributes makes every encounter very unpredictable, which subsequently amps up the tension and scare factor.

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When tallying these intriguing components, my mind swims with the possibilities for other horror-related games:

Imagine a Nightmare on Elm Street game where players are thrust into a dream world where they are not only stalked by Freddy but must endure and survive an environment that can be directly manipulated by their nemesis.

Envision a Hellraiser game where players must navigate the seemingly endless labyrinth of Hell, piecing together clues to escape or attempting to find and solve the Lament Configuration.

What about a Predator game where a group of humans are pitted against the eponymous extraterrestrial hunter and must unite to take down a vastly superior foe?

Or a JAWS game where a collective of players hunt the beast as it stalks them from beneath the waves of Amity?

Ultimately, Friday the 13th is a legitimate game-changer and the lessons that other studios can and should glean from IllFonic are numerous and potentially very profitable.

Let’s hope the right people are paying attention.

 

Nintendo Quest: An Enjoyable Romp Through the Retro-Verse

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I’ve tried to watch just about every gaming-related documentary out there. Truthfully, there’s not that many but each time something like Man Vs. Snake hits the market, I’m usually quick to nab a copy and delve into the subculture of gaming, which I continue to find fascinating. My own experience with this medium started at approximately three years of age and hasn’t slowed and I am forever fascinated by anything that allows me to view this world through a different lens. Gaming – despite still being a relatively new medium when compared to its closest cousin, film – has been around long enough to have developed an interesting and expansive history and that history is now effectively being archived by a legion of collectors, artists, and enthusiasts, something I mentioned in my previous blog.

Nintendo Quest is easily one of my favorite gaming documentaries, as I adore slice-of-life endeavors and I can also relate to the heady nostalgia of this particular era of gaming. For those of us who grew up in the NES era – an era largely defined by an entire medium that was essentially rebounding on the shoulders of one innovative company and their console – there are few things that resonate more than the look and feel of classic NES cartridges and Nintendo Quest is a fun, well-made distillation of that period while simultaneously offering an interesting peek into the lives of retro-game collectors.

The premise of the film is simple: director Rob McCallum challenges his close friend Jay Bartlett to collect every single game released on the NES in North America – 678 in total – in 30 days. The biggest stipulation to this challenge is that Jay cannot purchase these games from online retailers but instead must acquire them physically, in-person. This sets up an unapologetically geeky road trip spanning several states and encompassing visits to numerous small, retro-shops along with interviews and discussions with several like-minded individuals about the almost intangible magic of the NES and its many, many games.

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Jay is also working within a fixed (though undisclosed) budget, meaning that he must manage his money carefully given that some of the harder to find NES games often suffer from astronomical grey market values. These negotiations are of particular interest, as Jay is continuously trying to balance his need to get a game versus his ever-dwindling resources.

Essentially a road trip documentary, the viewer is given a sense of Jay as an amiable and decent fellow who enjoys an extensive knowledge of the NES library. As he acquires cartridges, each game collected is tallied on screen so that the viewer has a running log of his progress. Jay is a savvy collector and seems to possess a firm grasp on fair market values of the games he is purchasing, always careful never to pay too much and sometimes walking out of stores that have inflated prices, poor selections, or staffed with people unwilling to haggle. He’s also privy to generous transactions with friends over the course of his journey, many of whom drop a handful cheap cartridges into his lap, some of which are relatively rare and valuable.

Along the way Jay also meets up with an eclectic and varied stream of interesting, like-minded collectors and enthusiasts, among them several gaming luminaries including Marc Ericksen, Walter Day and Todd Rogers. The film also gives the viewer a concise history of the NES, punctuated by testimonials from NES devotees who explain what this system and its library means to them. McCallum also injects some gravitas into the proceedings as the film proceeds, specifically delving into Jay’s turbulent past with his now-deceased father along with his attempt to acquire a rare and expensive title, which clearly carries some hefty emotional significance. These intermittent doses of pathos however never feel overwrought or artificial but rather do a solid job of mining the deeper compulsions and motivations that compel people to collect and subsequently examines the weight we give these cherished objects, which is something I can personally relate to as a collector myself.

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The film is also interesting in that it gives viewers an education about the most valuable and rarest NES games being coveted by collectors, many of which are relatively obscure titles valued primarily for their scarcity rather than their excellence. Many of the most expensive games aren’t necessarily the oft-cited classics usually associated with the NES but instead are, ironically, the stuff that didn’t sell particularly well back in the day or suffered short production runs. There’s a certain alchemy to what makes something collectible; most products advertised as such never become even remotely valuable and what is interesting about this film is that many of the rare games being pursued have their own interesting backstories, some of which make it into the movie. Interestingly, the most valuable game in the documentary is one I have only a vague recollection of and certainly isn’t a title I immediately associate with the storied legacy of the NES.

I won’t reveal here if Jay is successful in his attempt to garner the entire NES library in 30 days but what I can state is that Nintendo Quest is a fun and good-natured examination of the gaming subculture presented through the eyes of collectors, all of them clearly moved by their respective passions. More than anything however, this documentary is a celebration of the NES, it’s library, and the many people who glean enjoyment from its numerous software. It also acts as a proponent regarding the importance of preservation, emphasizing the need to archive the artifacts of this medium before they gradually erode away entirely.

I first stumbled onto this film some months back on Amazon Prime and enjoyed it enough to purchase a copy for the very reasonable sum. Only available on DVD (I doubt the Blu-ray format would add much to the proceedings given the nature of the camera work and cinemaphotography), the disc is a bit sparse in terms of additional content but given the price and the quality of the film, it is easily recommended nonetheless. Nintendo Quest is also available on iTunes and I hope it garners a widespread notoriety among gaming fans and collectors at it most certainly deserves it.

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Why Retro?

Some see it as a regression. I see it as something else entirely.

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Recently a very close friend of mine began collecting film on VHS.

It’s a cheap hobby, with most of his acquisitions coming from yard sales and the occasional, dusty stock of a local thrift store. There’s practically no market for used VHS – it’s essentially a dead, discarded format with very little appeal to entice and motivate collectors to preserve them. Outside of some incredibly rare specimens, VHS tapes sell very cheaply and my friend has picked up his entire VHS library for pennies on the dollar.

Now bear in mind that my friend is also a videophile and has a profoundly learned understanding of HDTV technology. At the slightest provocation, he can rattle off detailed technical information about the latest advances in the market. In short, he takes visual fidelity very seriously. He and I have spent endless hours discussing the advent and proliferation of streaming versus the visual superiority of Blu-ray. We constantly compare notes when sitting down to watch the latest horror film remasters from Arrow Video and Shout Factory!, marveling at how exceptional these prints look.

Yet, not only does my friend keep an archive of VHS cassettes in his viewing room but he also intends to eventually have a little corner station set up so that he can play these tapes on a VHS player.  He plans on pumping the signal through a thirty year-old CRT television. As we all know, this is going to look atrocious when compared to the pristine, high res images we’ve all become accustomed to.

So, the question is why?

Why expend time, energy and resources to watch films in an inferior way?

Why do collectors spend so much time tracking down old vinyl, films, and video games that could be just as easily downloaded?

While I won’t answer for my close friend, I will state that from my own experiences, the answer is simple: HISTORY.

When my buddy began his collection a few months ago, he asked me if there was anything I might like to own on VHS. I gave him an accounting of my favorite films and told him if he came across anything on the list, to nab them and I’d reinburse him.

Since then, he’s actually delivered a generous smattering of awesomeness, including an original copy of The Empire Strikes Back in worn but good condition and a copy of Ghostbusters, factory sealed.

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The latter is of some significance to me because Ghostbusters was one of my favorite films growing up and when it was released on video, it retailed for close to 100 dollars. Owning a copy was something that wasn’t possible back then so when my friend tracked me down a new-in-the-box copy of one of my very favorite childhood movies, there was something almost cathartic about finally owning it. While I obviously have the Blu-ray sitting on my shelf that offers a picture and sound quality infinitely superior, that VHS cassette is not only a part of the storied history of the medium – it is a part of MY history; a once unattainable item from my youth now in my possession. The irony is that this VHS copy – even factory sealed – is worth practically nothing and yet it’ll adorn my collection forever as something to be cherished.

My friend also tracked down a copy of JAWS – one of my Personal Top Ten Films – and the kicker here was that this was a video store copy from a local shop that had closed down nearly a decade ago. This particular store served the surrounding community for more than thirty years before it shuttered and not only had I and my family rented from there innumerable times, I’m almost positive this particular copy of JAWS – a movie I forced my parents to rent continuously as a child – is the exact copy we checked-out repeatedly .

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When I think about the trajectory that tape has followed to eventually wind up in my possession, this time permanently, it makes me smile. This is an old copy – three decades or more – and the fact that it exists outside of a landfill is practically miraculous, as is the fact that my friend managed to acquire it and returned it to me. When I consider that tape, I can remember my much younger self in that now defunct video store, looking at the back cover, and in doing so, recollecting a very different time.

What is truly special about these artifacts – these relics of the past – is that the history they carry is both of the medium itself and also of the thousands of hands that grasped that case and watched that film, including my own.

I recently reviewed an exceptional retrospective art collection by Bitmap Books called the NES Visual Compendium, which highlights numerous games from the Nintendo Entertainment System, specifically their pixel art. One thing I took away from that book was how powerful nostalgia is and how often people seem to regard it in a dismissive way instead of embracing what a compelling, heady bit of time travel it truly is. Human beings are largely a collection of experiences, and those experiences, and how we respond to them, make up a significant part of who we are. These images and objects can, like a talisman, ignite something deep in the psyche. They can fire synapses and flood our mind with rich, warm memories.

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And that really is a remarkable thing.

After the recent announcement of the SNES Classic, it has been astounding to watch people get excited about the impending release of a micro-console that plays software from two decades ago. And while just about every game on that list is admittedly exceptional, I think there is also a strong pull to the aesthetics of the hardware. Like the NES Classic, people want to play these games on something that looks like the SNES, using controllers that are essentially replicas of what they used twenty-five years ago.

And that brings me back around to retro-collecting and a defense of those who seek out vintage film and games (and all their many peripheral trappings) to the confusion of some.

Scouring all corners of the globe for software that can often be attained easily (legal or otherwise) probably strikes many people as an inconceivable and unnecessary time sink. Yet there really is nothing quite like holding an artifact of the past – your past – in your hand. Downloading a ROM of Mega Man 2 and playing it on your current console or PC is fine. But it is a decidedly different experience than having the actual cartridge, replete with the artwork and tactility of that grey little treasure, in your hand before putting it into a NES and powering it up.

Cultural history takes many forms and what is shocking is how much of that history is lost to landfills, carelessly discarded as new conduits for our media emerge. We have transitioned to a digital age. A time when media is so much encrypted data on hard drives and disposable devices. Retro-collecting isn’t about hoarding or being stuck in the past; it’s about acknowledging that past and giving what came before some semblance of recognition and posterity. In many ways, the retro-enthusiast has become something of a curator. And when I consider the vast and interesting output of the many sites, authors, Twitter feeds and everyday collectors who compile and share these important vestiges, I am moved by their appreciation for a history that their hobby will help to preserve.

Be Proud of What You Do, Fellow Collectors. It’s More Important Than You Might Think.