Playing through the collection in release order; Vampire's Kiss and Circle done. Five reasons why the former is the series low point that it is.
- really monotonous level design and direction, both layoutwise and aesthetically. The game has no conception of landmarks or anything of visual interest to characterize its stages with, so everything comes off as the next wallpaper set in a sequence, draped over empty stretches of nothing. You are relieved when stages come to an end not because of a challenge well undertaken, but in being spared the repetition that universally pervades.
- the surrounding marketing and many fan assessments try to spin the game's level of difficulty as a point of interest and appeal, but let that not confuse matters; it's a game that comes by its difficulty in the worst of ways, through attrition and lack of care in utilizing its toolset. It's in love with a shallow bag of tricks it constantly depends on, whether it be floating platforms contextualized environmentally by nothing at all, or unbreaking parades of the same enemy, over and over; thirteen to fourteen number the spear guards in total, an obscene number for a game of such short length. The worst of it is embodied in the traditional variables in enemy placement for the series, the medusa heads and bats. When used deliberately and with restraint, they can exert pressure in high tension situations better than anything, but here they're artificially invulnerable at rest, made to launch at the player with mechanical precision, in three-second intervals at most, even in places where nothing much is happening but this is what has to be done to maintain the illusion of level design occurring. It's all the misconceptions and frustrations directed at games like this actually realized in one, in truth and fact.
- it has the worst visual storytelling and environmental coherence in the series, which is especially damning as this is what has set apart the best of the series, either from each other or other video games. You'll climb a stairway or enter a door and find yourself in a totally disparate tileset, with no connection points to be seen; the game plainly forgets or ignores these transitions entirely and more than once places Richter with his back firmly against a wall, having arrived to his current gauntlet from nowhere to be seen. A sense of place and belief in the world existing as something other than just a video game obstacle course is of such paramount importance in making Castlevania what it is, and there's just nothing to latch onto here: it is a charade through and through, possessing none of the detail and verisimilitude-minded focus the series extols at its best.
- a bizarre choice is made in mechanical balance that to my recollection is unique to this game: you keep all your hearts upon completing a stage, leading to a game-long status quo of hiking through the land with a maxed out counter of 99 at your fingertips in most cases. It's so opposed to the ways the series usually maintains its resource management aspects that I can only read it as a last-ditch attempt at granting the player an edge toward the often callous and careless situations the design puts one through, leaving one with the opportunity to depend on the Item Crashes as a panic button. If so, it's akin to applying a band-aid to a bone fracture.
- there is a rhetoric that sometimes turns up in that Vampire's Kiss is supposedly decent or good enough if observed by its own individual merits outside of its relation to Rondo of Blood and the unflattering comparisons that dynamic invites. I reject the notion for the above reasons, as the game is fully capable of tripping itself up with no additional assistance, but I think one should absolutely view it with that relationship in mind because the game certainly doesn't let you forget, as it recycles and repurposes not only sprites but setpieces and details from the game in baffling ways that crumble outside of their original context. One of them is the Behemoth chase, where originally its rotting carcass would have its head decapitated from the impact of slamming against a wall; here, chase is given again, but it ends in open space above a pit, where the same animation plays and the beast's head detaches out of existential despair, I suppose. Another is the confrontation with Death, where the standout introduction of the reaper appearing far in the distant sky is repeated... only this time the setting is not the high masts of a ship, but the exterior of a clock tower face right next to the battle platform; the change in perspective is utterly ignored and leaves an impression of a tiny Death posturing at his adversary. This is fundamentally what Vampire's Kiss is, in having access to all of this premier source material and even doing not an altogether bad job in adding to it with personal flourishes, but in arranging it to anything resembling a coherent vision every aspect of it is continually failed.
- this is the only Castlevania that remixes and refreshes already charted environments with new enemy configurations as the game progresses--twice it happens over the course of it as far as I can discern. Some enemies are only met this way, and they alternate between repopulating the connecting tissue of the castle, the hub areas where one is likeliest to backtrack, and some really out of the way secret hiding spots. It's good flavour for a game that really needs it, and an ingenious handle on the conventions of the burgeoning genre it was part of, sadly underutilized elsewhere in the series since.
- on the subject of the bestiary, the Kobe branch of Konami who developed this game as well as the Nintendo 64 pair really loved their anthromorphs. It's not exactly an unfamiliar field for the series at large with its pack of werewolves and the like, but it's something of a signature touch for games that, again, really need those splashes of personality. Archers and rifle personnel aren't just another skull in the skeletal hordes but cunning foxes and hyenas taking aim at Nathan, and werebears? You'll get familiar with their claws really intimately. Generally there's just enough of a twist on the staples that differentiate the work from the more established peers, like the ever-present witch, portrayed here in the archaically spooky and wizened crone form instead of the sexually playful incarnations seen in most of the rest of the games.
- Circle has the most breakable walls out of any game in the series, and their contents aren't really remarkable as they tend to all default to a one-screen hollow where a power-up rests on its pedestal, guarded by a lone creature. What is worth noting is that nearly, if not literally every single one of these cracks in the wall are visually communicated by just such breaks and inconsistencies in the tiling patterns discernible with one's eyes. They are invariably the most minute of differences, of such subtlety that they're difficult to spot even blowing the game out to the exponential scale and brightness it's now played through as compared to its original context. Nevertheless, they're there, and a great record of someone on staff really caring to mark all of them in ways so many other games never care to, leaving secrets of such nature purely for player intuition to uncover.
- the soundtrack in Circle is one of the most remix-heavy the series would ever see--featuring five or so tracks of original material next to thrice as many arrangements--but it does not feel particularly constrained by that nature. Part of it is the scope and restraint in the sourced material: many different games from series history are drawn from, and the track choices are often diverse and not the greatest hits one can grow weary of; of the Four Heavenly Kings of the series, only "Vampire Killer" makes an appearance and it's saved for an appropriately climactic context. The treatment itself is also frequently captivating on its own, with great use of basslines throughout, and some truly inventive interpretations like the Machine Tower's bouncy rendition of "Clockwork" that's almost unrecognizable when used to more straightforward takes. Sotaro Tojima was confused and conflated with Super Castlevania IV co-composer Taro Kudo/Souji Taro for many years not only because of a lack of awareness and documentation of video game developers of their eras, but because the material here did evoke a similar sense of experimentation with the form at times.
- there is one specific room in the game's final area, the Observation Tower, which is stunningly memorable if for the contrast it provides to the rest of the game, especially as the penultimate location is spent in dreadfully conceived and portrayed sewer spaces. In this one snippet, one is suddenly placed outdoors, on the castle's parapets, fending off a squadron of Wind Armors--the usual draining repetition in enemy placement, but elevated for their situational context. Both the player and foes are partly obscured by the castle walls at their feet, and there's parallax of the fore and background scrolling independently--neither occurs elsewhere in the game. The castle's giant silhouette looms in the distance, showing different sides of itself for the room's long length. All of it is considerably more dramatic and effective than anything else the game ever visually attempts, and suggests that something more compelling could've resulted in some other circumstances, as the capability of all involved for this brief window is well showcased.