Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How to Read and Write the Nintendo Project (Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse)

Whether you are reading or writing the Nintendo Project, it is important to understand that every entry progresses along a certain logic. Just as logical proofs advance via deductive logic, just as Marxist histories advance via dialectical logic, the Nintendo Project advances via what I would describe as mystical or even magical logic.

This logic progresses primarily on a system of themes and variations. At the onset of the entry, some theme is laid out. In terms of writing the entry, this theme should be a common link between or among the games being played. Sometimes the alphabet does that for you, as with today, in which all three of the games are in the same series. Other times you get lucky - three games that all feature rabbits as the main characters. Other times you get unlucky, and have to manage something where you connect the idea of a cabal to the idea of gambling and luck, and then figure you'll make the third game work somewhere down the line. It's a subtle art. Regardless, it is this that is the biggest inadvertent innovation of the Nintendo Project - by forcing entries to be about what are functionally random collections of games, I am forced into themes that are non-obvious.

From there come the variations. The more you can frame these variations in the gameplay the better, but if we're being honest, you can riff on whatever you need to here. For instance, if our common theme is the Castlevania series, we might note that an interesting characteristic of Castlevania games is that the layout of Castlevania itself remains relatively static. The same rooms, staircases, bosses, and at times secrets persist with minor variations that constitute a new game. Thus the games are always a strange fusion of sequel and remake.

Here is where the key trick of mystical logic comes. The key trick is this: Any part of a variation may be substituted for the theme as needed. Or, put another way, all subsequent variations are now not variations of the original theme, but variations of the variation.

To wit, now that we have the idea of variation on a theme and Castlevania, any subsequent variation of the theme of Castlevania can also incorporate variation of the theme. From this we can build some other edifice - the narrative logic of variations of a theme, and continue from there.

Often, though not always, it is prudent to treat the games and their common link as a variation, and to backform themes that could lead up to this variation. For instance, although this entry is about Castlevania, I have actually built to Castlevania from the theme of how the Nintendo Project itself works. I could have started with Castlevania and then noted that the idea of theme and variation is central to the Nintendo Project, it is true. But often it is easier to start with some declaration of theme - mystical logic - in the first paragraph, and to build up from it to where you have the core elements of the entry, even if that means that the games take a bit of time to show their heads.

This delaying tactic is useful because it provides the reader with islands of sanity in what rapidly becomes a very complex cascade of images and concepts. This is the nature of mystical logic - as variations upon variations occur, paragraphs become increasingly pregnant with litanies of images, subtle variations on previous images, juxtapositions, and other rhetorical tropes. Furthermore, because the mechanism of the Nintendo Project is manifestly not the mere elucidation of a concept but the development of it, links among concepts may be called upon without explicit reference to their antecedents or explanation of the connection. These severed concepts serve to expand the revisitation of the past so that it is not mere simulacrum of past statement, but a new statement entirely masked in the previous - concepts that, in other contexts, have given rise to words like "reboot" and "re-imagining" to describe the relationship of variation to theme.

Because the games are among the most concrete aspects of the Nintendo Project, their deployment serves to provide moments of still in the cacaphony that allow the reader to get some sense of bearing. By returning to a moment of relative simplicity, the reader is able to breathe, get a foothold, and make sense of things.

The easiest way to use the games in this manner is to take a break and spend a few sentences describing the game. This allows some of your initial themes to play out in relative peace, helping build scaffolding that will let the reader get higher up with you. Castlevania, the original game in the series, provides a function along these lines. It has a mere six levels. But these levels contain key elements that every subsequent Castlevania game will use - musical cues, enemies, bosses, items, etc. On its own merits, Castlevania is merely a very good side-scroller. Taken in the context of a still-developed franchise, though, it is the essential building blocks of the entire franchise. It is impossible, in 2010, to play it as the stand-alone game it was released as. Instead, little things - the classic set of weapons (dagger, axe, holy water, cross, stopwatch), the infamous opening hallway, the screaming notes of the theme later named as Vampire Killer - stand not as elements of this game but of future games.

Mystical logic disrupts causality, enabling productive non-sequitur. These non-sequiturs eventually have to wander back to the spine of themes and variations, but can initially serve as off-putting jumps that disorient the reader. In this regard they are inversions of the trope of moving to the games. Where the games comfort, the non-sequitur confuses. But it is an absolutely crucial move for the Nintendo Project. The Nintendo Project is, at its heart, a project about understanding the present through the past. But because the past is appropriated by this project, it is altered.

When I play Castlevania II, the first Castlevania game I played, and something of an instant classic, I am not playing the same thing my 5 or 6-year-old self played. I am instead playing a memory. What I find in 1988 is not the content of 1988 as experienced, but the content of 1988 as a memory of 2010. This is where the idea of secret histories came from - the 1988 that could not occur in 1988. The non-sequitur animates this notion. By using non-sequitur logic, I can treat this secret 1988 as an existent history that affects the present. Which, unmistakably, it is, because the 1988 I remember from 2010 informs 2010 just as much as 2010 informs my capacity to remember.

The Castlevania II I experienced in 1988 occurred out of a combination of boredom and my mother's kindness. Unable to find a Nintendo game I wanted to play, I asked her for a new one. I believe I specified something Zelda like. She was also bored, and produced Castlevania II from the so-called Rainy Day Closet of surprises. The game was maddening, but good - a vast explorable world that required trial and error to make sense of. Its context was shady - a product of playing Part II with no awareness of Part I, but the plot made sense - Dracula cursed the good guy, and the good guy has to reassemble Dracula's body parts to remove the curse.

Today, a mixture of oddities (the bizarre lamentation "What a terrible night for a curse" never fails to elicit a grin from me) and poor gaming decisions (at one point, with minimal cluing, you have to kneel in front of a dead end holding a random object to uncover the way through something) makes Castlevania II less than satisfying. But there is still something alluring to its gameplay. This is odd in some ways - usually trial-and-error gameplay is just irritating. But that is because the errors amount to traps - ledges that unexpectedly fall out from under you, enemies that attack from nowhere, etc. Here the trials and errors are a matter of learning a much broader system - an entire map and world. There is an appeal to this - to clumsily staking out parts of a vast world in pursuit of understanding.

On the one hand, Castlevania II is the odd duck of the family, making its status as introduction for me a bit odd. It does not feature many - indeed most of the iconic features of Castlevania games. On the other, it serves as foreshadowing. Long after the window of this project, exploration would become the norm for Castlevania, ushered in by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Thus like the first Castlevania, buried in the past is the form of the future. The theme, once varied, itself encodes all the variations.

Psychogeography, as epitomized by Iain Sinclair, is a process of combining lived experience and objective history to produce a narrative of a place. Walking tours flecked with history, collapsing time into a single point. I borrow the ideas of this, but remap them to psychochronography. Instead of working through a place, I work through a time - a discrete chunk of childhood, a discrete chunk of history, and build out an edifice that captures the whole of it. Once the chain of variations linked me and the NES, this became a quest for fundamental understanding. If the full chronography of this temporal space can be unwound and mapped out, the result will be mystical knowledge and experience.

Here we run into an idea from games such as Castlevania II - one not included in it, but included in its heirs (including Symphony of the Night). Completion percentage. In a large, mappable game, the question becomes "how much of the game have you seen?" How many secrets have you found? In most games of this sort, the amount of play needed to beat the game falls well short of the amount of play needed to see everything. Raising completion percentage to 100% is then a quest for the hardcore player.

Themes and variations rapidly become vast edifices of concepts and words. In the later paragraphs of the Nintendo Project, entries begin to smash large piles of concepts together with chaotic glee. The resulting paragraphs are daunting, full of allusions to variations that are not even sketched out. These shards of meaning, bound up in the logic of cut-ups and sigils, contain within them entire paragraphs, at times spinning out from a single word. Lengthy lists pile these words up together, bringing in the work of Crowley, Burroughs, P-Orridge, Spare, Ulmer, and more. Tarot symbolism, cut-up methods, gender performance, sigils, chorography, stacking up, referencing each other, marking each other, writing each other in a massive collision of ideas, variations crashing into dissonance, performing the endless serpent dance of signal and noise, thing and void. This is the gambler's existential dilemma, the archeologist's dig, the secret history, the voice of the cabal, the fibonacci spiral, the heart of the matter - a nexus of meaning that if only it could be unfolded and understood would capture the thing itself.

These paragraphs are not intended to be understood as such. These are the dizzying heights of mysticism, intended only for the 100% completist player. Most players don't do this. In fact, a word of warning: Sentences in the Nintendo Project are not intended to be read and understood fully. Attempting to do so may be hazardous to your health.

The resulting crescendo is not where the Nintendo Project ends. This is why, truth be told, I suggest that magical logic is a more accurate description of what I do than mystical logic. Mysticism is the plunge into the formless chaos. Magic is the return to earth. I am not a mystic, but a magician. The Nintendo Project ends back in the world.

One final image. Another intrusion of a landmass. Imagine the themes and variations stacking up together as sound - at first harmonious, but then increasingly discordant as the din accrues. Eventually it is no longer music but a shrieking, maddening noise.

This final image is silence. Peel all of the variations away, and return to something like the original theme. But the original theme is inaccessible. Just like Castlevania is not accessible after Castlevania II and III, the song has changed in our absence.

End, then, not with a statement of theme, but with a modernist twist. Embed the idea in things. Just as the theme originally sprung out of the material object of the games, the entry ends with a material scene - an image.

Sitting down to play Castlevania III after the progression of history is known, the game is dizzying. Its myriad of debts to what came before are unmistakable, as are its long legacy, wrapping through a mass of future games. Beyond that, there is the realization that this is the technological peak of the NES. More advanced games would eventually get released, but Castlevania III notably came out just before the arrival of the Super Nintendo. The differences between it and its Super Nintendo sequel, Castlevania IV, are relatively slim, and mostly come down to the ways Castlevania IV shows off its tech. Indeed, Castlevania III is notable in part for being a game with so many clever graphical tricks that most NES emulators have to be specifically coded to handle the odd exceptions and limit cases it produces.

Accompanied by this mass of context and trivia is a clear fact about Castlevania III: it's a great game. At times viciously hard, at times thrilling, and always engaging. It's one of the core of NES games that picks up and plays well, as a game, 20 years or more after it came out. Playing it, it's clear that even if you walked into it without knowing the context, you'd have a good time. But knowing the context, that experience is augmented by other experiences, variations on its theme, stretching out vastly and wonderfully. The game is dizzying. Looking at it, one gets a sense - that if one could write about Nintendo Games in just the right way, capturing this mass of intertwined technological, social, and personal developments that extend naturally from even a single game, one could produce something with strange and wonderful insight about a cultural phenomenon, and about one's self. Say, if this logic were applied universally, to all Nintendo games... if one were to just start playing through them and writing about these links and connections... what would happen?


  1. Castlevania III is my favorite.

    Yes, even more than Symphony of the Night.

    Just something about it that connected with me and made it timelessly awesome.

  2. I think the emulator troubles were that CV3 (in the US) used the MMC5 memory chip, which was Nintendo's most expensive mapper, and thus only used in a few games, and thus, one of the last things to be coded in emulators. The Japanese version of the game is easier to emulate (though the sound chip isn't always perfectly done), and is also easier to play, having a different damage scale (harder than US earlier in the game, easier than US later), and having a checkpoint right before the fight with Dracula, unlike the US, that makes you replay a chunk of level, too.

    Matt, I think Symphony was a far better game at release than CV3 was at release, but there are a lot of quirky bits that haven't aged well (god, equipping potions?! [though the peanut is funny]), whereas the CV3 gameplay has remained fairly timeless.

  3. I should probably own III. I own I and II, but I've only ever rented III, and thus never got to play through it entirely. I guess I should get myself to a used game store that still sells NES games. Or eBay. Or, you know, anywhere. Foom.

  4. I agree with the psychomania stuff. This article made my mellon hurt! (laugh out loud!) All's I know is them Castlemania games were sure darn good! I had my first sex after playing a game of Castlemania 3. Holla Balla! Stay strong and healthy and live like the tree!

  5. I also agree, most definetely never give up!