Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 and An Ode to Knockback

Platforming challenges have existed since near the beginning of the popularization of the video game. Whether it’s Pitfall, Pac-Land, or Super Mario Bros., the act of controlling an avatar across different reflex-based challenges is ingrained in the DNA of video games. But most platformers will fudge how real-world physics work to create a much more controlled environment for the player – one where you can change direction mid-jump or bump into enemies with little opposing force pushing you back. But some platformers are more forgiving than others in this regard, with those made in the Castlevania mold being among the most punishing. In games like this, you can’t change direction in midair, but more prominent is the heavy amount of knockback you suffer whenever you’re hit by an enemy. This design decision is infamous in retro gaming circles and made for some frustrating segments of many classic games. But as Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 shows, pronounced knockback doesn’t have to make for inherently bad game design.

First, let’s be very clear about what we mean when we say the word “knockback”. It refers to a change in momentum due to coming in physical contact with an enemy, projectile, or hazard. Instead of going the direction you were moving in, you now have an opposing force pushing you in the opposite direction. Sometimes this results in you being pushed back a little bit to give feedback to the player that they’ve been hit. They’ll also give the player character moments of invincibility to give players the time to recover, as since the player is now close to danger, you want to give them a fair shot at getting out of it instead of just draining their health to death in one go. Castlevania and its ilk don’t work like this. Instead of getting knocked back a little bit when you get hit, you fly backwards in the air in an arc with no control over your character until you hit the ground. Knockback proved brutal because of all the bottomless pits you could fall into that would instantly kill you. This coupled with the fact that you can’t change direction when jumping made for a different kind of platforming challenge, one where you had to be more methodical about how you proceeded. Everything needed to be done with intention, because the games made sure to punish you for mistakes immediately and ruthlessly.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, like its predecessor, wears its influences on its sleeve, i.e. the Castlevania series, especially Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. With multiple characters to switch between and branching paths, Curse of the Moon 2 can be seen as a successor to the series at large. But it also fully embraces the knockback that made these games brutal. The difference here is the fact that many of the platforming challenges are built with knockback in mind, so instead of simple, innocuous levels with strategically placed pits designed to be knocked into, you’ll get complex platforming challenges that absolutely look daunting until you actually complete it. A good example of this is Stage 7, which features large wheels with platforms spinning on them and scant few moments of solid ground in sight. At each wheel you come across, an enemy will be shooting projectiles at you. Any hit by them is likely a death, so you have to figure out how to deal with both the moving platforms and the enemy, either by defeating it or avoiding its projectiles somehow. Other rooms make use of other elements seen in old games in intelligent ways, like the medusa head equivalents that once lead to cheap deaths but now add to the reflex puzzle in interesting ways.

One of the other big reasons this works so well in Curse of the Moon 2 is the fact that it gives you more tools to deal with these challenges. A couple of the characters you can play as give you more mobility options – Hachi the mech-piloting corgi has a hover function which lets you change direction midair, something you can’t do normally. Hachi’s mech also is very resistant to knockback, making it good to rely on when you’re at a tricky section where you need pinpoint platforming and enemy projectiles handled. Later on in the game, you also get access to Gebel, a Dracula-like character that can turn into a bat and fly anywhere at will, though your weapon energy will drain as you do. So if you have access to these two characters, you can give yourself an easier time with certain sections, which is a welcome design conceit for a game so devoted to knockback. Finally, the game’s options does let you turn off knockback if you’re feeling too frustrated with it, an important option for to make sure all players are welcome to complete the game and engage with it at a level that they’re comfortable with.

Some ideas from the past are worth revisiting, but it’s also worth questioning why they exist in the first place and designing better solutions around them. Castlevania proved frustrating with its brutal knockback mechanic, and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 embraces that brutality while mitigating it to whatever level players feel comfortable with. Because the game proves that there’s interesting level designs that knockback as player penalty thrive off. Developers just need to keep evolving their thinking with an eye for the future while keeping their games as accessible as possible.

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