Guest blog post by Ben Rai @BenRai
Gamers let's dive head first in to the tale of the ReBirth trilogy, created by Konami for the now extinct Wiiware service on the Nintendo Wii's WiiShop channel. The series of games launched in 2008, starting with Gradius Rebirth, followed by Castlevania Rebirth and Contra Rebirth in 2009.
I downloaded all three of these titles, each averaging about £10. I was a big supporter of Wiiware and really encouraged the idea of developers contributing to the market with smaller ,shorter and relatively cheap games that were at least on par with the 16-bit Sega Megadrive or SNES era.
As consoles evolved, games had, and still continue, to become longer, much more complex, and time-consuming. Side-scrollers had basically become a thing of the past on mainstream consoles. This is changing somewhat now there are more indie game developers in the market, thankfully. However in the early 2000s, most of these smaller game developers were yet to exist.
I do believe that actually, despite some really enjoyable and well crafted Wiiware titles, that overall, the medium did not live up to its full potential. Far too many remote-waggling and silly party games existed in the library. I feel that Nintendo could have contributed to Wiiware a lot more too.
Why not produce a true Super Mario World sequel on the Wiiware shop to tide fans over until Super Mario Galaxy 2? It would have been simple to make, heck even fans make constant ROM hack versions online. Nintendo have said as much that they are afraid to produce a fully fledged F-Zero mainline game - so why did they not produce a Wiiware F-Zero game that basically looked like the popular SNES version, but with new tracks and cars? It would have been a very cheap endeavor and it would not only have given us a fresh take on a beloved SNES era game, but given Ninendo a gauge of interest in a potential bigger production. Nintendo dabbled in Wiiware with "NES Remix" 1 and 2, altering NES games - so why not do more with the SNES games?
That however is a whole other topic, but I am thankful that Konami made an effort in this case. While Contra as a series had been fairly quiet for a while, Castlevania had been mostly focused on its RPG style Metroidvania games. Konami also released Castlevania Lords of Shadow around this time period too. which personally, I am not a huge fan of. I like my Castlevania a bit more linear. I wanted to feel like I was playing a new version of Super Castlevania IV, or a new Contra 3. I got my wish with the ReBirth games. Now, let us take a look at the 3 Rebirth games.
First up, Gradius Rebirth. Now I will admit, I am not a huge Gradius fan. It is a series I have given very little attention to, and I am mostly aware of it due to the fact that you can play the first stage of one of the Gradius games as a mini game in "The Legend of the Mystical Ninja" for the SNES. However what I can say about Gradius Rebirth is that it is a solid and challenging game. By challenging I mean it is actually brutally hard in places.
Gradius Rebirth offers you a score mode on the main menu which hands you one life to get as far as you can. Highscores would go on to a leader board. Then you get the standard game mode with unlimited credits. You are able to select your ideal craft from a selection of 5 with their basic weaponry. Then you are launched into space to begin the adventure. Flying from left to right you will shoot enemies flying towards you while avoiding bullets and collecting power ups.
The first quarter of each stage begins with you flying through the vastness of space before smoothly transitioning into a new area, such as the insides of a spaceship or sand themed desert planet. The game consists of about 5 stages, with my favourite being the second, which is set in a classic shoot 'em up trope environment. The good old experiment ship full of pulsating pink brains, tubes with experiments floating inside them, barriers of flesh trying to trap you and floating alien bubbles. Topped off with a giant pinser clawed alien insect constructed of bones, pink slime and a big eye in the middle that is practically screaming "I am the weak spot!"
The game is constructed from varying remixed music and stages of past Gradius games, though it has some original bosses.Some stage salso have secret warp points that can allow you to skip an entire area and boss - but they are very difficult to locate. There is a very brief story, that is kind of placed into the game via text and images but it is nothing of real value, unless you are perhaps a hardcore Gradius fan who loves the series. And even then, I doubt you will care much, because this game and series is obviously about the fast paced, arcade shoot em up action - and the vibrant arcade styled music sure let's you know it.
Gradius Rebirth garnered mixed scores, averaging middle of the road to positive, due to a lack of multiplayer option, which would have been nice, and due to the issue of the game being very tough.
We then have Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth. This game is essentially a remake of the 1989 Gameboy game 'Castlevania The Adventure'. At the time of Castlevania Rebirth's release I had not played the original Gameboy edition of this game, since having since done so, I can say that the ReBirth upgrade is vastly superior. I can also say that when I say this is a remake, I mean that it is a totally reimagined game, with enemies and stages appearing that didn't in the Gameboy game. It is very much its own game.
In Castlevania Rebirth you are given the choice of choosing between easy, normal and hard. In addition you can select to have classic jumping, or a modernised version. Simply put, with classic jumping you can not move direction mid-jump - much like the NES Castlevanias. Modern gives you the freedom to do so, emulating something like Super Castlevania IV.
As Christopher Belmont, 100 years before the original Caslevania game takes place, you set out on your quest to defeat Dracula. Your adventure will take you through 5 stages, the first being just outside of the castle walls, battling mud monsters and traversing traps while the full moon lit night sky casts rains down upon you. The first stage ending in a battle with a giant laser shooting eyeball. The first stage provides challenge without being overly complex, and introduces you to the idea that keys can be used to lock alternate routes, giving access to areas of the stage that eventually loop back up with the main path. This adds some replay value, as you can traverse a stage in at least 2 different ways. Some paths being easier than others, and in some cases allow you to skip mid-level bosses
Stage 2 will let you explore some water wheel filled caverns while the 3rd stage kicks it up a notch with spike and razor saw traps in a macabre bone decorated weapons armory. On the subject of weapons - all the usual sub weapons are available. Personally I found that the axe with its high throwing angle was extremely useful in this game. It also packs a punch. The whip also can be powered up with orbs that can be found, which provide the whip with a fiery projectile for a short time.
After battling a levitating haunted set of swords and shield for the 3rd stage's boss you swiftly move on to stage 4. That is one thing I do enjoy about this game. The game does not mess around between stages. Upon completing a stage you get a brief map screen (which can be skipped with the press of a button) and then you are right back into the action.
Stage 4 sees you in another section of the castle with colourful stained glass windows and big knights in armor attempting to impale you with their spears. This level introduces an annoying maze like scenario, requiring you to walk in doors in the correct order to progress to the eventual boss. The maze aspect honestly feels a bit of of place in this otherwise straight forward game - almost like artificial game lengthening. The 4th stage's boss is a giant stone golem and it is easily the biggest sprite in the game. The last stage sees Chris climbing to the top of the trap filled clock tower, which ends in a duel with Death himself. The battle is set to the stage of a blood red moon and deep purple night sky. Finally, the showdown battle with Dracula unfolds. This fight has 3 stages aka 3 Dracula transformations, if played on or above the normal difficulty.
The game received positive reviews, and the game can be completed within a hour with perseverance. This is not to say there will not be deaths along the way. The game gets much more difficult by the time you reach stage 5. The game's OST is a remix of various Castlevania games and follows the Sega Megadrive's style of fast arcade styled music rather than the more sombre and orchestrated nature of Super Castlevania IV's soundtrack.The sprites are clean, crisp and vibrant, and the game has completely original sprites. The game does not reuse any other assets from previous Castlevania games.
Finally we have Contra Rebirth. Unlike Castlevania Rebirth, this is a completely new game and not a remake of a previous Contra. There are 5 stages, however this game is shorter than Castlevania Rebirth, clocking in at about 25-30 minutes for an experienced player. Speedruns of times around 13 minutes exist. When you consider that Contra 3 The Alien Wars/ Super Probotector can also be completed within 15 minutes, this makes the game's lengths quite similar, except this was not £45 brand new. Obviously a new player will get much more longevity from their first playthrough.
At the options menu you are given the choice of easy, normal and hard - and you only get the real final boss if you compete in at least normal difficulty or higher. Upon completing the game on hard you will unlock "Nightmare Mode", enemies move a bit faster and when they die they will expel a burst of blue energy rings that act as projectiles. I have only ever completed Nightmare mode once, on co-op with a friend, and with cheats on. Ah yes! This game does have cooperative play, just like Contra 3. The game is fast paced, chaotic and the first stage is set on board of an exploding space ship full of falling wreckage, fire and aliens firing bullets at you. The enemy assortment is very vast ranging from humanoid type aliens to the down right bizarre brain like aliens that pulsate and look pretty disgusting. We also have enemies that are easily based on the power loader from Aliens.
The climax to the first stage sees you jumping from one piece of wreckage to another while entering the earth's atmosphere. The platforms will burn up and kill you if you stay on one for too long - but that is not all! The boss is also trying to kill you - a giant armored millipede like insect that can come at you from literally any angle on the screen. The first stage ends with a satisfying punch - this game is cartoony, over the top and it has absolutely no shame about it.Firing off bullets in to the big bad bug is really satisfying.
The second stage replicates the first stage of Contra 3 in a destroyed city. To me this is one of the weak points aesthetically. Compared to Contra 3's apocalyptic alien infested city full of detail and atmosphere. The graphics here seem very bland and lacking detail. The dark colour palette does not lend itself well to this particular installment in the series, especially after the bright popping colours of the first stage. It almost looks like a mobile game here - a total pale pastiche of Contra 3's first stage.Even the music which is from the first stage of Contra 3 here seems pretty basic in comparison to its Contra 3 counterpart that has a much more epic quality to it. The action is just as bonkers as stage one though.
Stage 3 ramps up the action to proportions unexplainable. Traversing from right to left, you jump and climb across varying trucks and - erm..purple camel like robots while fending off flying alien enemies. There is a mid-boss battle on this stage with bullet-hell like projectiles, and possibly the first part of the game that will really cause you to meet the game over screen. The stage is vibrant and crazy and Contra Rebirth feels like it is in better form when being its own crazy thing as opposed to emulating stages from a much more superior game in the series. The 4th stage changes things up for the first half by having you hang on to a flying mechanism that lowers you vertically down into the alien's base. Eventually it transitions back to traditional left to right action as you battle over lava filled pits and evade laser triggered traps. The final stage is once again imitating Contra 3's final stage in the alien base.
Unlike Contra 3 however were it felt climatic and like there was a sense of a huge surge of foreboding doom and gloom in no man's land while the world rests on you shoulders, this rendition feels care-free, vibrant and over the top. Cartoony. The cutscene before this stage even has one of the macho Contra characters - Lance Bean, dressed in drag (for real!) to infiltrate the alien base. It makes no sense at all, and the brief story that does exist in this game in the guise of text and image storyboards between stages is not to be taken seriously at all. Most likely intentionally. The focus is on he culling of space monsters and firing off them bad-boy weapons. Speaking of which, all the usual weapons are present. The laser, the spreader, the crusher, the homing missiles and all of them pack a serious wallop.
As I hinted at earlier - cheat codes do exist for this game. Simply input the famous Konami code on the title screen and you will have access to a debug mode, 99 lives and an array of other extras. You can also unlock 2 extra characters (this can be done by beating the game, as well). These characters are Plissken, a big blue anthropomorphic salamander and a small "female" robot called BR-W9 aka "Brownie".
In conclusion Castlevania Rebirth and Contra Rebirth are my favourite of the Rebirth trilogy. While Contra Rebirth is constant action and chaos, Castlevania Rebirth has an element of tact and care required at times - creating a nice balance between these two games. As an avid lover of Contra 3 and Castlevania IV I have played them to death and sometimes I want that nostalgic rush but with a slightly more fresh experience. That is where these 2 Rebirth titles come in. Although the quality and care behind them isn't to the degree of Castlevania IV and Contra 3 they still provide a great 30-40 minute retro session without me feeling like I am living completely in the past! Their short length also means that they are great for quick replays - providing you take the time to master them, of course!
As time has passed I am learning to appreciate these titles even more. Especially with Konami going down he drain in recent years. The Rebirth games, with their spirited colours and arcade styled high octane soundtracks are small hidden gems that are the definition of juicy games. Sit down,and tuck in for a brief yet satisfying experience. Also while neither of them are "essentials", they are nice expansions to their respective franchises.
Konami released the Castlevania Collection as well as the Contra collection in 2019 - but sadly both of these Wiiware titles were left off both compilations. They actually included the 1989 Castlevania Rebirth but not the vastly superior Rebirth remake. I am not sure if it is because there games were for Wiiware and so hard to emulate elsewhere (it is not simple to emulate Wiiware on PC, like most other game ROMS) or if there is some copyright issue with Nintendo. However, them not being included on the collections seems absolutely criminal, and only proceeds to hide these gems in the passage of time. With no Wiiware store active these games can no longer be acquired legitimately, and due to emulating them being a bit of a pain compared to regular ROMS, a lot of people will likely never have access to these titles again. This is something that makes me fear a digital only gaming world in he future. Games, art, history and music, for all the backing up on memory cards and USB devices we can do - there is still going to be media that gets lost without something tangible attached to it. Simply browsing Youtube comments for the games reveals a bunch of people who exclaim they never knew such games existed, or that they wish they could get access to them. So if you are one of those Contra,Gradius or Castlevania fans who missed out on these titles, I hope this article bought them to your attention.Let us hope that Nintendo brings some of these lost games to the Switch in the near future.
Guest blog post by Ben Rai @BenRai
Retro Game Reviews. Mega Drive, Super Nintendo, Sega Dreamcast and more
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