Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Article by Jeremy Parish | November 11, 2009
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night might well be the most misunderstood game of all time. Certainly other games can make a claim to being misconstrued or poorly received, of course. But it seems Symphony is uniquely misunderstood by just about everyone, including the fans who love it dearly. I suppose it's only fitting for a game whose protagonist is a surly goth boy who hates his dad; when Alucard runs to his (baroque, ornate) bedroom and slams the (beautifully carved) door and shouts "No one understands me!," he's really not exaggerating.
For starters, the gaming press of its day had a tendency to turn a senselessly jaundiced eye toward the game. In particular, Next Generation magazine dinged it for not being, you know, sufficiently technological. Not enough polygons, they sighed, grudgingly admitting that it was pretty fun -- but oh, how much more delightful it would have been had it only pushed the boundaries of the PlayStation!
Never mind that it actually does run the PlayStation to its ragged edge; Sony was parsimonious when doling out RAM for their 32-bit wonder machine, and 2D visuals were notoriously difficult to effect on the system. Symphony employs a deft combination of traditional sprite work, old-fashioned bitmap backgrounds, and discreet polygon-based effects that maintain a classic 2D style with more fluidity and panache than had ever been seen before in any game. Yoshi's Island had pioneered some of these techniques, and the likes of Astal employed them clumsily; Symphony raises them to an art. Whether it takes the form of a crumbling castle keep whose platforms disintegrate under Alucard's feet, a 3D clock tower looming in the background and maintaining correct perspective regardless of how the screen shifts, or the massive, jointed Armor Brothers inside said tower, Symphony applies high-end techniques with such subtlety that they apparently eluded the notice of dull-eyed critics who had come to assume that true visual sophistication could only come in the form of simplistic, empty, 3D caverns riddled with constantly warping textures and populated by boxy abstractions that almost (but not quite) resembled a vague interpretation of their concept artist's designs. Symphony is fluid, elegant, regal; contemporary PlayStation 3D was anything but.
No, 3D games of the day generally offered a dozen different kinds of enemies at most, endless hordes of identical cubes on feet. Symphony's bestiary approaches the hundreds column, and it never falls back on cheap tricks to expand the monster roster. Only on rare occasions does an enemy reappear in a stronger incarnation, and always in an interesting or clever way. The hopping Flea Men from the Long Library put in an appearance much later, but there they've been upgraded -- not with a palette swap, but rather with bulky armor and dangerous axes, both of which eventually break away to reveal the original foe within, still just as inherently weak as in its first appearance once stripped of its gear. Admittedly, a fair number of enemy sprites were simply brought over from Symphony's predecessor, Dracula X, but the consistency made sense for a sequel. Plus, most recycled creatures were given new animations or behaviors, and in the grand scheme they account for only a minor fraction of the total bestiary. Meanwhile, the countless new additions burst with creativity and detail, animated with both traditional illustrative techniques and PlayStation-enabled tricks that bring life to Castlevania's lifeless legions.
The game doesn't simply look beautiful, though; despite the burgeoning variety, those gorgeous environments and enemies are crammed with detail -- sometimes too minute to even be noticed at first blush. Take, for example, the fact that the Secret Boots, whose description reads "Discreetly increases height," actually do cause Alucard's sprite to become a single pixel taller. (They serve no other purpose.) Equip the Faerie familiar card, stand still for a moment, and eventually the flittering pixie will take a rest by mounting on Alucard's shoulder -- only to make a startled cry of indignant surprise when jostled loose from her perch once he finally moves again. A fountain of water in Orlox's lair slowly transmutes into blood, while imprisoned souls in the cells above his chambers mournfully fade in from the inky background and rattle their cage doors. Still, while you're destined to fight the nefarious Orlox eventually, you can be civilized about it: take a seat at the opposite end of the banquet table where the Nosferatu-inspired vampire feasts before battle and the fight won't begin until you make your move. Slay an Owl Knight's raptor before taking down the knight and the warrior will drop to his knees in anguish over the loss of his beloved companion before bursting into a frenzy of rage. Elsewhere is a single unique foe named Yorick, a headless skeleton forever kicking its skull as it tries to reclaim it; smash the skull and the now-sightless body will panic and run blindly about its lair. Alucard can consume food for HP restoration, and while he simply drops most items to the floor in order to reap their benefits, the "difficult to eat" peanuts will vanish forever, wasted, if they hit the ground. Instead, as Alucard pops each one into the air, the player has to maneuver him in order to catch them as they fall. Your reward: five HP, far too little to merit the effort.
Why would such things be programmed into the game? For the same reason everything about Symphony is as it is: Because it's fun, or cool, or amusing. Because the creators wanted to. Because they were crafting a game for love, not churning out an assembly-line product.
This makes sense, of course; Symphony was the definitive statement of the classic Castlevania crew, the culmination of ten years of their work on the series. And this is where fans tend to misunderstand the game. Castlevania enthusiasts tend to regard Symphony as the first work of the series' new guard, headed up by modern-day Castlevania overlord Koji Igarashi (now former Castlevania overlord, it seems), yet that's not entirely true. While Symphony is where IGA cut his teeth and first took an active hand in the franchise, crediting him for the game's triumphs is a misattribution akin to calling Final Fantasy XII an Akitoshi Kawazu game or assuming everything Nintendo publishes springs wholly-formed from the mind of Shigeru Miyamoto. Symphony was helmed and conceived by Toru Hagihara, who had been with the series for years. His was also the mind behind the original Dracula X, and it was presumably his attachment to and love for the series that transformed Symphony into the culmination of everything Castlevania had stood for over the prior decade.
That's where historians get it wrong. These days, Symphony is seen as the first modern Castlevania, the moment where the franchise broke loose of its legacy tethers. Gone were the linear levels, absent the stiff and unforgiving control mechanics, forgotten the need to count score or collect 1UPs. And it's true that Symphony eschewed those things in favor of an open-ended, RPG-flavored experience, but it did so not as an abandonment of the franchise's fundamentals but rather as a natural, precedented evolution. The Belmont clan plays a secondary role, and Alucard can equip every weapon except a whip? No big deal; Alucard had already earned his cred with Dracula's Curse, accompanied by a dagger-tossing pirate and a mage whose stave was no match for her spells, and both Bloodlines and Dracula X had offered alternate characters with alternate weapons as well. The removal of a discrete level structure was hardly a radical change, either; Symphony simply expounds on the direction Dracula X was taking the series with its branching levels and hidden pathways. Besides, Castlevania had its roots in exploration. Not only was Simon's Quest a fully open quest through the Transylvanian countryside, the MSX version of the very first game was entirely built around searching through a series of non-linear stages in pursuit of the keys needed to advance.
No, Symphony simply embraces some of Castlevania's less familiar traditions, highlighting the series' underlying concepts -- and it does so strictly for the sake of creating the ultimate Castlevania game, the culmination of everything the games to that point had embodied. All the elements are here: the undead legions, the clock tower, the weapon upgrades, the collection of hearts to power alternate powers, the intense music, Death, Dracula. About the only thing missing is the merciless difficulty, but even that isn't entirely gone. Symphony incorporates full RPG-style mechanics, including level advancement for the hero and a complete inventory system. Thus it's left to the player to determine how easy (or not) the game is to complete. Make full use of the inventory and it can be a breeze, as the game offers equipment for every eventuality, up to and including a piece of gear that absorbs damage from cat-type enemies -- making it useful in exactly two small areas of the game. (Another testament to the obsessive detail poured into the game by its loving creators.) Play the game without making use of Alucard's ability to improve his gear, however -- effectively treating him like a Belmont -- and you're in for a tough fight. And those who demand a more traditional experience can actually play, optionally, as Richter Belmont once they've cleared the main quest, a far more difficult proposition than tackling the castle with the aid of Alucard's expansive repertoire.
Whether you play it for the challenge or simply the experience, Symphony's enormous castle offers a beautifully rendered stroll through a series' decade-long history. Everything is here, including a prologue that consists entirely of Dracula X's final battle. Yet far more joyful references lurk beneath the surface, many of which are housed in the game's hidden second quest of sorts: battle the five bosses of the original Castlevania to acquire five pieces of Dracula's body necessary to fully resurrect him, a la Simon's Quest. Take on zombies impersonating Alucard's companions from Dracula's Curse. Watch for the rampaging behemoth from Dracula X as a corpse in the coliseum's background. Castlevania IV bosses Slogra and Gaibon make a return appearance or two. Poke around in the right places and you might even find Eric Lecard's spear from Bloodlines. The game's ultimate optional super-boss, Galamoth, was originally the main villain of Kid Dracula -- perhaps not coincidentally, as that cutesy spin-off was also a Hagihara project.
In short, Symphony of the Night is a tour-de-force: the summation of a classic franchise, crammed with self-referential fan service yet bursting with new ideas. It strikes a perfect balance between old and new, faithful to the series' essence while unafraid to forge ahead.
That goes for the technology as well. Though 2D games were deeply unfashionable in 1997, Hagihara and his team delivered a classic platformer enhanced by the most impressive effects 32-bit technology could offer. Nothing about Symphony is stagnant or dull or hackneyed or predictable; in each new room, you're as likely to stumble across a room-filling boss as you are a strange little detail that serves strictly to build the game's atmosphere. It is in every way the finest possible send-off for the series: the perfect finale for a classic franchise.
Of course, this wasn't the end of the Castlevania series. Maybe it should have been; the series has limped along for more than a decade since Symphony's arrival. Although some sequels have managed to reproduce the game's specific mechanics, the spark of invention and ambition have been conspicuous by their absence. That spirit abandoned the series along with Hagihara and his team. Igarashi managed to wrangle Symphony into a template, a formula, but the original game's greatest success was that it so boldy defied expectation, that it so elegantly exceeded preconception.
You see, as misunderstood as Symphony is, no one has failed to grasp the secrets of its greatness as much as Konami themselves. The game was birthed amidst apathy and disinterest; its excellence is a direct result of the fact that Konami just didn't care. Like so many other publishers, they'd picked up on the sea change heralded by Super Mario 64 and vowed to harness the winds of 3D. An understandable choice, but in doing so they left a handful of legacy works high and dry. Symphony (along with a handful of other classic franchise updates like Gradius Gaiden) were rendered suddenly obsolete by the industry's new direction. No, the true Castlevania sequel would be a fully 3D adventure. With... with skeletons! On motorcyles! And not just one vampire, but lots! And Frankenstein with a chainsaw! Ooh, and fussy 3D platforming with slippery controls and frustrating camera angles! Yeah, that was the future, not some hand-drawn continuation of a side-story. And since Symphony was ultimately just that -- the obsolete sequel to an obscure spin-off -- Konami left the game's dozen or so team members to go about their business. The game was worth finishing, as it would keep the Castlevania name in the public eye. But it wasn't really Castlevania so far as Konami was concerned. So, Hagihara's team soldiered on, even after he left the project, creating a work of passion and pride for a company that couldn't have cared less. And it was great.
Konami didn't see it that way, though. The company mucked around with the franchise for years, trying desperately to bring it into the post-SNES world. The N64 effort was fairly well received, but you could see it straining against its own flaws: Castlevania 64 was released in an incomplete state, and all the content that didn't make the initial release was soon fobbed off on the public as a full-priced sequel that was largely ignored. The follow-up to that, the ironically titled Castlevania Resurrection, died with the Dreamcast... but rumors of a troubled development cycle probably factored in there as well, since Konami was content to let Resurrection vanish rather than retooling it for PlayStation 2. Meanwhile, the series' classic style lived on through the portable entries, but both Legends and Circle of the Moon were deeply flawed efforts that suggested Castlevania's future was no more in the old-school approach than in 3D. And all this time, there was Symphony. Even as the brand foundered, this single entry slowly built a following through sheer quality and positive word of mouth. Eventually, it sold well enough for Sony to reprint it as a Greatest Hits entry, quite the achievement for a game that had been born only to die. Yet rather than look to the series' masterpiece for inspiration, Konami tried with increasing desperation to succeed through any other means.
But then, maybe that's how it had to be. Symphony's success was a consequence of time and circumstance and technology and change all colliding serendipitously, a rare sort of creative alchemy that could never be replicated deliberately. Crafted by veterans of a dying era, Symphony was a swan song for much of the talent behind a franchise that built the company's reputation in its heyday.
Besides, Castlevania aside, Konami managed to make the transition from sprites to polygons with far more grace than most of its peers. You know, maybe I'm the one who doesn't properly understand Symphony of the Night. Maybe it wasn't a taste of what could have been, but rather an indication that one of my favorite games wouldn't be able to weather the vicissitudes of the modern industry. Rather than lamenting Konami's failure to seize upon the ingredients behind Symphony's greatness and deliver us a work of equal brilliance, perhaps I should instead marvel at the good fortune that became the crucible in which an impossible masterpiece was forged. Maybe none of this matters at all. Symphony of the Night exists, and it perfectly embodies all that's wonderful about the series that created it. Few series enjoy such a perfect crystallization of everything they stand for. As a Castlevania fan from the very beginning, I don't have to worry about what its future may hold. I already have the perfect Castlevania game in Symphony of the Night.