Retronauts Blog 17: Damn You, Medusaaaaa!
I think I've about had enough of this silly one-game-per-Retronauts-post thing. Any jackass can write a few disjointed paragraphs about an entire videogame. But a few disjointed paragraphs about trivial minutiae within and around those games? That, my friends, takes a very special kind of jackass.
America, I am that jackass. And so I give to you:
At this point, it's safe to say that there isn't a single page of Edith Hamilton's Mythology that hasn't been analyzed, dissected, regurgitated and otherwise molested by videogame developers over the past 30 years. Greek mythology serves the same role as modern religion for game makers: a quick symbolic shorthand about plot and characters that eases the arduous burden of actually coming up with unique stories and characterization. Who needs to prove the bad guys are genuinely evil when you can just call their organization "Hades" or "Styx" and be done with it?
Plus Greek legends have the advantage of not pissing off modern-day religious zealots, since no one actually practices Zeus-worship. (Alright, so there's probably a USENET group frequented by a dozen creepy shut-ins who do, but tiny fringe Internet collectives don't count.)
Obviously, some elements of mythology are going to be more popular than others. You're probably not going to find a lot of references to the Hecantonchires outside of Appleseed, for instance. Athena, on the other hand, is everywhere. For one thing, the name is a perfect excuse to create hot chicks in armored miniskirts, unlike the Hecantonchires, which were hundred-armed giants with three heads. That's nowhere near as sexy as Athena, except perhaps for members of another alarming USENET fringe groups (alt.sex.hecantonchires). Also significant: her name is a lot easier to pronounce.
But Medusa, the man-stoning Gorgon with luxuriant tresses of undulating serpents, tops them all. Her continuing popularity could probably be ascribed to a few things: her major role as a hissing stop-motion puppet in Clash of the Titans, for one. But I suspect there are some psychological factors at work, too. Deep inside, most men are secretly a little freaked out about the notion of a possibly hot, usually naked woman whose appearance is instantly fatal. "Man, I ogle chicks all the time," says the horny portion of your subconscious hindbrain. "To think it could be the death of me! Is there no justice in this world?"
There is, gentle hindbrain, there truly is. But justice in Greek mythology was a funny thing. Usually a very bloodthirsty thing, meaning that's what you get for looking at someone's else jiggly bits without permission.
But I would not feel so all alone -- everybody must get stoned.
Medusa's most frequently been found in role-playing games, which makes sense. Given their roots in D&D, nerd culture's most legendary pilferer of legend, RPGs are thick with mythological beasties of all stripes, from Norse to Celtic to Egyptian to, yeah, Greek. Add to that the fact that petrifaction is one of the RPG designer's favorite status ailments. And don't forget the fact that any excuse for a busty woman in skimpy attire is always welcome in the RPG realm. In short, Medusa and RPGs are a match made in... uh, Elysium.
Sometimes she's just a minor enemy, a nuisance along the way to deadlier foes....
But she's been the big baddie on at least one occasion.
And a case-in-point: in Kid Icarus, she was actually a curvy babe in a clingy, diaphanous gown (or as close as they could get in 8 bits). In the best ending, conquering her turns boyish Pit into a man. This is called subtext and it means that everything is secretly about sex.
Sometimes it's not even secretive at all.
But giant naked snake-ladies notwithstanding, Medusa's videogame alter-ego has only one true, ultimate incarnation. This version isn't sexy in the least -- in fact, it's nothing more than a grinning, hook-nosed, disembodied head that swoops through the air in a predictable pattern.
Yet it's precisely these traits that make Medusa one of the deadliest recurring hazards of the (of course) Castlevania series. She's been there since the very beginning, flying doggedly in her perpetual sine wave. It's a testament to her effectiveness as a foe that she's appeared in nearly every Castlevania game (if not all of them) doing exactly the same thing. Play Portrait of Ruin and you'll be hard-pressed to find a difference between Medusa from 1986 and Medusa from 2006, besides some small cosmetic differences. And even those were pretty much set in stone (so to speak) way back in 1993, since modern Medusae are just recycled sprites from Rondo of Blood.
Medusa first entered this crazy mixed-up little world we like to call "videogaming" back in 1986, in the second level of Castlevania for Famicom. Or maybe it was Vampire Killer for MSX. Who cares! In either case, she appeared as an endlessly spawning series of heads flying steadily along a zig-zagging wave pattern. And the future was cast. (Cast like a statue, as it were.)
What made Medusa such a menace wasn't her power or cunning AI. It was the fact that she moved relentlessly along a set path, but her small size and up-and-down motion were tailor made to cause grief for the slow-moving, whip-wielding Simon Belmont. Plus she had a tendency to appear around areas full of moving platforms and tiny footholds, meaning that failure to whip 'er good would result in a hero plummeting to his doom. At the end of level 2, the "real" Medusa stood in as boss -- a giant disembodied head that shed hair-snakes. (No doubt Medusa's shower drain is a sight to behold.)
Medusa actually appeared as a full-bodied serpent-woman in Vampire Killer, and in practically every sequel since then, but the head-only thing does make a kind of sense. The Medusa of legend was beheaded by Perseus, then used as a weapon. Come to think of it, the ability to capture and wield Medusa heads would be pretty handy. I'll be sure to add it when I wrest control of the series from Igarashi in ritual combat.
After a tragic flirtation with lame, Belmont-seeking Medusae in Simon's Quest, Konami decided to take a don't-fix-it approach to the first lady of serpentine horror. The detached heads returned in Dracula's Curse, once again merrily knocking players into pits and through weak floors. And off of gigantic clockwork gears.
And this became the ''definitive' Medusa. The Dracula X games featured clock towers that were especially tense and narrow (even for clock tower stages) and loaded them up with Medusae. Oh, and some harpies, but who cares, right? For extra fun, bits of the walls and floor were covered in spikes, meaning that Medusa wouldn't just fling you from already precarious footing upon contact -- she'd also dump you onto fatal spears.
But wait, there's more! To make things just that much more awesome, yellow Medusae were introduced in Symphony, adding the ability to stun and stone heroes to an already annoyingly deadly mix of hazards. Sometimes Medusae also show up in waterfall areas, too, but it's in the clock towers where they really excel at their task of being utterly maddening.
Still, for all that, you have to appreciate them. Without Medusa, modern Castlevanias would be embarrassing cakewalks.
Occasionally, the monster-movie Medusa makes a Castlevania appearance as well, which does lead one to wonder exactly what the severed heads are supposed to be. If the boss character is actually Medusa, are the little Medusae her babies? Extra heads she shed during her growth cycle? Horrible creations of alchemy? Just some fancy bowling balls?
Man, who even knows. But since Medusa was the boss of the second stage in Castlevania, they trot her out whenever it's time for a remake or just some fond nostalgia. In fact, her greatest appearance to date was as a guardian in the second half of Symphony of the Night, blasting stone-rays as Alucard worked through his quest to put a stop to dear ol' Dad by beating all the bosses of Castlevania and collecting all the Dracula-giblets of Castlevania II. Sure, she was a total wuss in Symphony, but she had a cool design, and it was right about the time you faced off against her that you realized, hey, this game was made by people who are as sentimental about this series as I am. Well played, Medusa.