The List: Castlevania Symphony of the Night – Why Is Symphony of the Night So Good?(Part 3)

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I can say, with total and utter conviction, that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night fits into the mold of its predecessors for one simple reason: it is stupid in nearly every way. Their attempt to make Castlevania into a lore-based and focused storyline also failed miserably. Who knows what they were thinking, but given that SOTN contains all of five cutscenes or so just to establish context, I’m not sure how they thought that would work. Maybe 1997 remains a time of relative simplicity in our narratives, or maybe we just didn’t care, but it’s awful even now. Just watch the introduction, which attempts to make Castlevania work as an epic story (LOOK A PROLOGUE INVOLVING RONDO OF BLOOD CHARACTERS):

This introduction, and its voice acting, found their own form of parody and derision across the video game community. It’s bad, but in the best possible way. Sorry IGA, but if you were expecting us to take this seriously, you failed rather brilliantly.

So now Richter’s the villain, supposedly, but anyone guesses Dracula sparks the real conflict here. Instead, this elaborate set up lets the player become a half-human, half-vampire son of Dracula named Alucard. He first appears in Castlevania III, but I honestly cannot remember him being quite as cool. Obviously, a redesigned art style created an entirely new game, and in the process made Alucard (spell it backwards and it’s an elaborate joke) into a great protagonist. In his own bishonen way, he goes off to set things right and kill a million monsters along the way.

Would it surprise you at this point that the game liberally copies from every other Castlevania? Yes, the same B-movie monster tropes, the same Gothic-inspired music, and the same lack of consistency. In fact, the Metroid style allows the creators to literally go wild with monster design and the aesthetics of the levels. Some re-used sprites pop up here and there (mostly from Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, and that’s justifiable given the paper-thin plot), but many designs appear for the first time here and now. Stealing from sources as diverse as Greek mythology and death metal bands (Azaghal, anyone), they really pull out all the stops in making a diverse range of enemies to encounter. I especially like Olrox who, hey, has his own tastefully decorated area of the castle because he’s so classy. In fact, he represents a token gesture towards the Nosferatu vampire, if the character sprite tells you anything:

olrox

 

Compare, if you will:

Nosferatu 6

One can imagine Olrox is purple for copyright reasons. If, in fact, they exist.

Once again, Symphony of the Night plays like a love letter to monster movies, mythology, and whatever crazy ideas come into their heads. Hence the inconsistency, which spans wildly from area to area. Like Metroid, the game divides its “stages” by both aesthetic and musical cues (a loading screen room demarcates them even more clearly, for those a little more oblivious). However, unlike Metroid’s relatively similar areas, the designers took free reign to implement whatever ideas came into their heads. You’ve got the standard places you’d expect in a castle, like a Castle Entrance and a Keep, but expect to traverse a Colosseum, a Marble Gallery, the Catacombs, a Library, the Clock Tower, a Chapel, and an Alchemy Laboratory. The art design’s top notch, evoking the feel of a castle while still maintaining a sense of difference from each; you can tell each area had an extraordinary amount of time and effort poured into the backgrounds and their structure.

Michiru Yamane crafts exquisite themes to accompany your travel through these environments, and it has to be one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. You’d expect some appropriately dark, and themes like that of the Keep fulfill that role, but Yamane keeps the mood surprisingly jazzy in many places – this first appears in the Marble Gallery, whose theme I can never seem to get out of my head:

It crops up again in the Colosseum theme, which basically turns the game into Castlevania: Jazz Fusion Edition. Then Yamane gives you whiplash with the rock’n’roll stylings and wonderful guitar solos of the Clock Tower theme. It’s all rather brilliant and hilariously inconsistent, which makes the whole experience all the more endearing. Who else would think to throw this music into a seemingly dark game? Well, that’s part of the point: Castlevania made the transition into the 32-bit era with Symphony of the Night, but not fully. It retained elements of the past while charging forward into the future of video games; in other words, it’s a game bursting with ideas from all over the place

Just take a look at Alucard’s vast arsenal and you’ll begin to develop an appreciation for the myriad systems at play. Alucard, unlike every other Castlevania protagonist, functions much like a JRPG character. He levels up by killing enemies (and you can see how much damage your attacks do too!), he finds/buys new equipment to upgrade, and he even learns magic attacks (performed like 2D fighting game moves). In addition, Alucard develops new skills in the Metroid way by finding a special item that gives the power to double jump, or maybe even shapeshift into a bat, a wolf, or mist (yes, mist). In addition, subweapons remain a part of the Castlevania experience, as well as tiny companions called familiars who aid you in particular ways All of these contribute to giving Alucard a diverse move set which gives the player tons of powerful tools by which to express themselves. At times, it’s almost overwhelming; however, you never need all of this stuff. Like any proper gaming kleptomania, you merely gather these things in your giant chest of imaginary things, and move on.

Still, what’s unique is that lots of equipment holds special properties that aren’t obvious at first glance. The game constantly encourages experimentation, if not to kill enemies in unique ways then to find secret areas or break the level sequence in half. Like any good Metroid game, you find ways to subtly manipulate the game to your own advantage – except the developers give you the tools here. You don’t necessarily need to glitch something out to progress, or even defeat the most powerful boss in the game without even so much as doing anything but holding two buttons down. I am referring to the infamous “Shield Rod”< which, combined with any shield in the game, causes a unique effect with that shield. If you want to beat Galamoth (a Kid Dracula reference, no less) like a boss, the Shield Rod combined with the Alucard Shield allows you to destroy this mega-boss, harder than Dracula even, with a button press. Watch:

And you might say to me “Zach, that takes the fun out of playing the game if you can defeat the bosses in five seconds”. To which I say…yes, I agree! I do not do this trick, simply because I want Galamoth to pose a challenge; I’ve done it by hand many a time, and it’s quite satisfying. Still, imagine how much time and mental energy you would need to figure this out. How do you beat the boss if your reflexes aren’t up to snuff? As a follow-up: what’s the one source of energy that will never run out? Brain power, Alex! If you can dream it, you can do it! Or, if you think long and hard enough, a solution and some unorthodox testing might present a solution. Remember, this game existed before the time of the Internet, and people (even me) still figured it out.

The game’s filled with constant secrets and multiple ways to play “your way”, but in this case they didn’t need to advertise it; the game spoke for itself. There’s no long tutorial, or extensive walkthrough, or anything to that effect. Would a game even start with you playing a completely different game style before the true game even began? I can hardly even imagine one today! Plus, the developers added the Inverted Castle to add even more playtime to the whole experience – you need to find out how to get there, but boy does it make the game even better! When we say “exploration” nowadays, it mostly means wandering around a wonderfully rendered, yet bland recreation of a city or a desert. Here, everything’s interesting and crazy at the exact same time.

Honestly, Konami hasn’t topped Symphony of the Night since, and it’s a real shame. There’s nothing quite like Symphony of the Night, and even its successors did little to improve on the formula in any meaningful way. Rather, they became more and more serious in tone and fiddled with the game to make it more linear for some reason. They failed to see the fun in it, and IGA ran the series into the ground without seeing why it became so successful: not consistency, but inconsistency. Not focus, but lack of it. Castlevania thrives when allowed to march to the beat of its own drum, and dies miserably when co-opted into something else, say a God of War clone (Lords of Shadows is a giant SIGH-fest for me).

Why do I say this so vehemently? I suppose I owe it to the discoveries of my eleven year-old self who loved Symphony of the Night to death. Yet the game itself contributed to its strange pseudo-narrative as well. It’s utterly strange, and yet bizarrely prevalent, with religious themes and allusions.

Part 4

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Zachery Oliver

    I don’t have the XBLA port, so I couldn’t say. However, people tell me the PSP port included in the PSP Dracula X Chronicles has new voice acting and stuff from the Saturn version (not released here). I need to go mess around with that.

    Oh yeah, whoops! Totally forgot to write about the GBA games like I planned. I guess the best way to put it is that they’re “OK”. It’s kinda like Tony Hawk – the third game felt mechanically complete and summarized, and then they just added so much unnecessary stuff on top. Circle of the Moon and onward felt like they didn’t know where to take the series, exactly. The problem of success, sigh…

    Honestly, I haven’t played Aria extensively enough to say, but I did play the rest. Ecclesia was the first meaningful change, I think, though the map system makes no sense in that one (it’s basically linear anyway, illusion of meaningful choice).

    Not sure why Japanese culture embraces such things, but I imagine it loses something in translation in the West. Still, plenty of people (emo and non-emo alike) embrace it for what it is, and find enjoyment out of it, myself included.

    • Zachery Oliver

      TL;DR, Evangelion did it.

      • Yeah, when I played Aria, I suddenly had a huge curiosity in 2d platformers again and saw them as a viable scene for more innovation. With the advent of the indie scene, I’m a little surprised at how true that became.