Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Konami ReBirth, followed swiftly by Konami ReDeath

at 4:59 PM
Around 2009, classic-style 2D gaming was at a height it hadn't reached for over a decade. Retro series were showing a second life with Street Fighter IV, Mega Man 9Pac-Man Championship Edition, and... um... Sonic 4. The time was ripe for Konami, action kings of the early '90s, to rise like a phoenix and show the world what hardcore gaming really meant. Few classics are as beloved as Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania, but the former two hadn't seen a commercially successful sequel in fifteen years, and the Castlevania property had completely abandoned its origins. Konami smartly chose this opportunity to capitalize on a "ReBirth" for all three series, combining retro stylings with brand new content. That was the only smart decision they made in the entire process, because...

What the hell are these games? If anything the three seem to form a contained "ReBirth" subseries rather than a systemic overhaul or continuation of their respective properties. I honestly can't tell if Konami intended to continue Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania so much as they wanted to launch a new "ReBirth" branding that would visit random classics with its trappings. The decision to use the same developer, same assets, and same art-style for all three games is beyond lame. Why are Contra and Castlevania suddenly only distinguished by palette? Think of how different Contra III and Super Castlevania IV look. It all reeks of trying to budget three games for the price of one. Could Konami possibly have conceived anything more throwaway and forgettable? Raise your hand if today, a mere four years later, you even remember the ReBirths.
The games look passable, but the unfaithful pixel art calls to mind "cell-phone game" more than "NES"
I cannot stress enough how mind-boggling short-sighted this approach was. All we have to look at is the ReBirth visual presentation to know that Konami fundamentally misunderstood what was making Capcom, Nintendo, and Sega so successful at rebooting old properties. My best shot at what was going through their minds is: "well it looks like people are willing to buy cheap old games with any graphics at all, so let's make some cheap games with old mechanics and crappy graphics". It's like it completely went over their heads that Mega Man 9 was cool for identically replicating NES graphics, or that A Boy and His Blob had intricate modern hand-drawn sprites, or that Sonic 4 brought Sonic into a lush HD revision of his classic 16-bit hangouts. There's a common denominator here - the games either go FULL retro, or they go FULL contemporary. Konami tried to forge some fanciful middle ground by opting for the sorta-retro look of recent indie games like Cave Story and Super Meat Boy: pixelated sprite art that doesn't match with any particular generation of hardware. This works for indie games attempting to evoke the general spirit of classic gaming rather than any particular era, but it has no place in fucking Castlevania. Clearly Konami didn't want to spend the cash to get a real development studio to produce Donkey Kong Country Returns-level graphics, but were also scared the public wouldn't accept throwback art. This in spite of plentiful examples that both approaches pay off.

If they were so fucking scared of retro graphics, why settle for such tired gameplay? These three games show no attempt at all at advancing or even slightly varying the mechanics of their predecessors. Gradius ReBirth kinda gets away with it, because Gradius never had any variety, but all of the classic Contra and Castlevania games played slightly differently. Instead of offering a new variation, ReBirth falls back on the most stripped-down set of mechanics. So these aren't really sequels at all. I'd accept this if we were doing a "pretend it's 1988" time-shift, but the visuals have already destroyed that illusion. If Konami was so sure they could improve on classic sprite-art, why be so conservative in the gameplay department? Pick a sandbox to play in! Again, there's a very simple explanation for this: they did the cheapest thing possible. It's like they were immensely reluctant to make these games, like they had already assumed they weren't going to make any money. I wonder if Koko does make any money these days?
Gradius ReBirth is the only one that even close to fits into its series - only because Gradius always took a step back for every step it took forward. Yes, I am referring to Edit Mode. Bring it fucking back you assholes.
I'm directing my ire at Konami higher-ups because it doesn't seem fair to come down hard on development studio M2. M2 should never have been chosen for all three of these games. They can obviously construct decent (if a bit unbalanced) action, and were these games not burdened with the responsibility of carrying on some of the greatest legacies in gaming history, they'd be fairly recommendable (and still are). But these guys had nowhere near the panache and versatility to turn out what needed to be three completely distinct entries of three completely distinct series under limited time and budget. Yes, I realize that the original Contra, Gradius, and Castlevania shared quite a bit of staff, but it must be noted that before ReBirth, M2 had only been responsible for collating and porting Sega and Konami classics to other platforms. These were the first three games they had ever developed (at least the first three they're ever credited for developing), and the early-90s Konami Dream Team they are not. Besides, I doubt they were getting much financial support. These weren't exactly headline releases - though of course they should've been.

What bothers me about the ReBirth games is less their immediate quality; rather it's what a terrible stepping stone they provide for their brands. Why rebirth your series if you can't/won't build off of that rebirth at all? There is simply nowhere to follow from ReBirth. They didn't invent any new series standards; they weakly perpetuated old conventions. What was Konami's plan for ReBirth Phase 2? More watered-down semi-remakes? Did they think that's what people wanted of the series going forward? Or were they planning a return to true classic-style Contra/Gradius/Castlevania games? In that case, why bother with the ReBirth detour at all? It was a cheap way to quickly grab and then immediately lose gamers' attention. If anything, it tarnished the name of all three properties and showed the gaming public that Konami just doesn't give a shit about its classic stable. Is it even remotely surprising that in the wake of ReBirth, Contra and Gradius once again dropped off the map and Castlevania moved directly into another reboot?
God I hate that they made Contra look like a Saturday-morning cartoon. Contra should be M-rated as fuck. At least they threw in an Escape from New York reference.
ReBirth is a cautionary example that tagging something as "retro" isn't enough to make it successful, even if it's paired with fan-favorite brands. Developers need to have actual vision that they can communicate to the player. Allow me a brief fantasy of what ReBirth could have been, had Konami assigned an actual brain to the project. Start with a wave of 8-bit Mega Man 9-style direct sequels, move up to 16-bit for a second wave, and so forth until landing on the most repeatable formula or making a jump to present-day visuals/gameplay. That is to say, it could have been an actual rebirth, leading into regrowth, leading into profit and good games all around. Thanx God this is what we got instead.


  1. I remembered these games fondly (well, Castlevania and Contra Rebirths) until this post. I'm satisfied with the "just make a passable sequel" approach if they're just one-offs--I'd put New Super Mario Bros. in that category, a series where I couldn't bring myself to 100% the second entry. I never thought about how short-sighted Konami was with this series.

    But hey, at least they tried harder on Rocket Knight!

    1. They're fine enough games, I enjoyed playing them, it's just... this is all we got from Contra and Gradius in the last ~10 years? And you're right, they did the exact same thing with Rocket Knight - that was a better game than the ReBirths, but shows that they had absolutely zero intention of continuing the series.

      NSMB fits in the with other retro-revisions like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Sonic 4 - it's competitive with contemporary games. It hasn't taken off in any big way, and considering that Mario was more famous as a pioneer than a stolid standby, it could be considered a disappointment, but it's at least kept up with the times and stayed basically true to its promise.