Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Essentials #52: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night


After the travesty that was Stunt Race FX for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, I could not see myself hopping aboard that train to the polygonal future that would be the next generation of gaming. Within that depression, however, one game above all others took me gently by the hand and assured me that it would not be so bad. Released for the Sony PlayStation in 1997, Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (AKA Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight in Japan) was a new 2-D installment in a classic series, and that intrigued me. But as I played, I realized that it was presenting me with, not a futile effort to cling to the past, but a future that had more than just fighting games to offer me. A sublime blend of side-scrolling action-platforming, open-ended adventure, and RPG elements, it was by far the richest Castlevania game yet.

At first glance, Symphony of the Night was a very familiar experience. Like past Castlevanias, it was a 2-D action-platformer with fairly simplistic combat mechanics, and some graphics were even ripped directly from previous 16-bit installments. In some ways, it was even kind of a step back from Super Castlevania IV, where Simon Belmont had omnidirectional whipping skills and a dedicated button just for his sub-weapons. As Alucard in Symphony of the Night, the player could basically only slash directly in front of him, and it was back to pressing up+attack to use sub-weapons. Super Castlevania IV was a truer next-generation evolution of the controls, while Symphony of the Night stuck to the sound fundamentals but took those basics a longer way. The idea was to preserve the essential Castlevania feel while still greatly expanding the experience as needed for a new generation of gaming.

Borrowing as much from the SNES classic Super Metroid as from previous Castlevania titles, Symphony of the Night ditched the linear sequence of self-contained levels in favor of more open-ended progression within a unified environment. A player's early progress would be limited to wherever Alucard could walk or jump to, and as acquired tools and abilities expanded his reach, the player could open up previously inaccessible areas. By about the midpoint of the adventure, Alucard would have nearly all of his abilities, at which point the player was free to explore wherever and in whatever order they pleased.

The earlier titles had boasted sharp 2-D mechanics and compelling level and boss designs, but their linear nature had made for finite, predictable affairs, and what replay value existed had been due to a high degree of difficulty that forced players to endure repeated failures along the road to victory. The shift to more adventure-oriented gameplay gave players a longer-form game that they could play in increments over the course of many sessions, though the freedom to chart your own course and at your own pace made for an addicting experience that could be hard to step away from. The format would not have worked for every 2-D game, but, considering that the series always took place in Dracula's castle anyway, it made perfect sense for Castlevania. The marvelously integrated design of the castle included both new and familiar settings, including a chapel with gorgeous stained glass, fishmen-infested waters, a massive library with shelves of enchanted books, and the classic Medusa Head-filled clock tower. Castlevania was made fresh again for at least one more generation, even as so many of its former 8-bit contemporaries failed to transition gracefully.

The Metroid-inspired blend of action and adventure breathed new life into the Castlevania series, but the RPG elements were no minor addition either. Indeed, what made Symphony of the Night so addictive and replayable was the abundance of items and equipment to collect. Alucard had slots for weapons, shields, multiple pieces of armor, and even equippable food items. And unlike far too many loot-heavy games, where you are expected to collect for the sake of collecting, the hidden stuff in Symphony of the Night was actually cool.

In Final Fantasy XII, the "almighty" Zodiac Spear was the holy grail of secret items, and it was a complete and utter waste. Not only was it impossible to discover without reading ahead in a strategy guide or with some other external aid, but even once you got it, it was just a regular spear. It was statistically more powerful than other weapons, but not enough so to significantly impact the player's strategy. Ultimately, the player's pursuit of it would have to be driven only by a compulsive need to collect everything.

In Symphony of the Night, there was no shortage of obscure crazy powerful or crazy weird items that were actually worth the time and effort to find and employ. Take the Sword of Dawn, for example, which could be swung like a normal sword, but which also included a hidden ability that allowed the player to summon up to ten undead warriors to aid Alucard in battle. There was also the almighty Crissaegrim, a sword that slashed dozens of times per second, and which could be swung while moving, transforming Alucard into a walking wood chipper. Or the silly Axe Lord armor, which transformed the player character into one of the classic Axe Armor enemies. Or the Secret Boots that very discreetly increased Alucard's height and had no other effect. The coolest item may have been the Shield Rod. A mediocre weapon on its own, its hidden ability brought out the secret power of any paired shield. Most of these were negligible stat boosts, but the Shield Rod+Alucard Shield combo turned Alucard into essentially the most awesome God mode ever. He could run through rooms while sticking out his shield and, not only would enemies most likely die instantly on contact as though struck by the most powerful weapon in the game, but touching anything with it would restore Alucard's health and hearts AND grant him a period of invincibility. It wasn't a very fair tactic, no, but it was a hidden technique that the average player might never happen upon, and I say, if the programmers are going to go to the trouble of hiding something in their game, it should be exciting when a player discovers it.

The RPG aspect was not limited to the items and equipment. Alucard would level-up and grow as the player gained experience by defeating enemies, and in a marked but not immediately obvious departure from tradition, your character's level and statistics probably played a greater role than your manual skill as a player. Even without resorting to Alucard Shield tricks, most players would have found the game's difficulty horribly unbalanced. At the beginning of the game, a common Axe Armor could take about eight hits to fell, and you would need to work in those attacks in between carefully dodging the cycle of varied and deadly axe tosses. By about the halfway point of the adventure, however, defensive play would become obsolete, as, even without the player trying, Alucard's stats by that point and access to healing items would render most enemy attacks merely irritating. The complete absence of challenge in the latter half was probably Symphony of the Night's weakest aspect, resulting in a string of disappointing bosses who looked imposing but went out like scrubs, including the most pathetic Dracula the series had ever seen.

Personally, I did not lament the lack of challenge too greatly. This was actually the first Castlevania that I ever completed, and there was enough to the action to make it fun, if not always the most intense. In addition to his assortment of weapons and the traditional heart-consuming Castlevania sub-weapons (dagger, axe, holy water, etc.), Alucard's gameplay encompassed multiple other sub-systems. He could transform into bat, wolf, and mist forms as needed to access certain areas, or just for certain offensive or defensive purposes. He could summon servant familiars, including fairy, demon, and bat, to fight alongside him for most of the game. He even had some semi-secret magical spells that were performed by inputting fighting game-esque button combinations. Maybe he couldn't whip in eight directions, but this versatility, along with his hidden Alucard Shield powers, really gave you the sense that, as the son of Dracula, you were controlling a nigh omnipotent character, and maybe that was why the game was such a cakewalk.

I even liked the story of Symphony of the Night, which gripped players right off with one of gaming's most awesome opening sequences. A direct sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (AKA the original Dracula X), Symphony of the Night began with a recreation of the final battle from that game. Players would take control of Richter Belmont in his legendary duel with Dracula. The fight was of course much easier than it had been in the original game--it was in fact impossible to lose this prologue battle--but it nevertheless very effectively and immediately engrossed players in this never-ending struggle between Dracula and the Belmont clan.

The story lost a little something for audiences unfamiliar with Dracula X and Richter Belmont, which probably included the vast majority of players, given that Rondo of Blood was at the time a Japan-only release for an obscure platform, while Castlevania: Dracula X was a very rare and uncelebrated SNES game. But players hopefully would have known the incorruptible Belmont name, as well as the story of the immortal Count Dracula, who was supposed to return only every one hundred years, hence why almost every original Castlevania story had to star a different Belmont. A delicious twist lay in wait, therefore, when, four years after that prologue, the main game would begin with the slumbering son of Dracula awakened by a disturbance in the balance between good and evil. Soon enough, both Alucard and the player would discover but not understand why it was that Richter himself was the one this time attempting to resurrect Dracula, resulting in the reversal that had the player controlling a vampire in order to take down a Belmont.

Two years later, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver would also play the "hero gone bad" twist, but how many people honestly cared about Kain before that game? Or after? Having a Belmont as the antagonist was equivalent to turning Link or Mega Man evil. It was blasphemy, yet compelling in its perversity. Of course it would eventually be revealed that Richter was under the mystical influence of another's power, but his false motives nevertheless made a scary kind of sense. What need for the shepherd, after all, when the wolves have all gone?

So maybe Richter's turn was a deception, but a player could still have slain him and gotten the bad ending without ever realizing it. Saving Richter meanwhile yielded another fantastic twist. At 100%, the game was only half-complete! Upon freeing Richter, Alucard would discover a portal to an inverted version of Dracula's castle. Not only did this double the amount of map to explore, but the uneven ceilings that now formed the ground made for some sick walking. That it was navigable at all was a testament to the developers' foresight in blueprinting, which had been there all along hidden from the unsuspecting player, but the upside down journey made for a furthermore appropriately corrupted progression toward the true evil.

Finally beating the game then unlocked the ability to play as Richter through the main game. Richter's mode provided a more classic take on the gameplay. He did not level up and could not collect items. He didn't even have a sub-screen. Even his HUD was classic--he had a health bar instead of hit points. Because Richter could not grow stronger like Alucard, his was a more cruelly balanced adventure. For the first half at least, he just destroyed everything with his whip, or he could use his "Item Crash" super attacks to wipe out almost every boss. Also, because he could not unlock special items or abilities to open up locked areas, they just allowed him free rein to make a straight shot to the end. As the late-game enemies grew stronger in anticipation of a high-level Alucard, however, Richter's fixed strength would feel increasingly inadequate, and it became especially hard to get around in the inverted castle, where his lack of a double jump made it a real chore to navigate the uneven terrain. Richter mode was a novelty, but it was cool to toy around with his unique moves for maybe an hour, and the unlockable extra character was something I subsequently looked forward to in every Castlevania thereafter.

As much as it was a culmination of so much of that I loved in the previous generation of 2-D games, it was also for me an introduction to what was newly possible with the CD-ROM format. The story was bookended by pre-rendered movie sequences, and all dialogue was fully voice-acted. Looking back, the movies were very cheaply produced, while the voice acting would become notorious as an example of bad video game acting. It was all very exciting for me at the time, however, and while I do not wish to sound like an apologist, I would insist that the voice acting was actually a rather far cry from something like Resident Evil. No, the performances were not good, but the voices at least matched the characters pretty well for the most part. Alucard was the exception, his voice way deeper than I would have expected coming from a man so youthful and effeminate in appearance, but I adjusted quickly and now have a hard time imagining him speaking with any other voice. Despite his looks, he was after all a centuries-old and very weary being, as well as the inhumanly powerful son of Dracula himself. On reflection, it was right that he had the maturity and authority of a deeper voice.

If there were just one game that I could go back and experience again for the first time, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would be it. Yet, as I played it roughly a decade ago, I was not vainly hoping to relive an experience from the past. I did not go saying to myself, "Boy, I didn't know they still made games like this." No, what I thought to myself then was that I had never played a game this good before. That is the feeling that I have continually sought ever since, and that is what I will continue to search for as I look forward to all that gaming produces.

Additional Information

1998 brought a Sega Saturn port of Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight to Japan only. This version apparently suffered from performance issues because it was not optimized for the Saturn hardware, but it attempted to make up for those shortcomings by adding a few new areas, a few new items, a few new bosses, and the option to play as Richter's sister-in-law, Maria Renard, in a mode similar to Richter's. Koji Igarashi, director of Symphony of the Night, was not involved in the port's production, and, once he was put in charge of the series, the Saturn version was deemed apocryphal.

The next notable release of Symphony of the Night came as an unlockable included within Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, the 2007 PlayStation Portable remake of Rondo of Blood. This version is basically the same as the PS1 release, but it includes Maria as a playable character in a form completely distinct from her Saturn incarnation. The PSP release also replaces Rika Muranaka's "I Am the Wind" credits theme with a new Michiru Yamane composition that is rather lightweight but less cheesy overall.

Perhaps most significant among the PSP version's changes is its inclusion of a brand new English voice track. As with the Resident Evil remake and the re-translated Final Fantasy Tactics, the promise of better voice acting for Symphony of the Night was bittersweet for players who had grown attached to the memorably awful original. It's especially unfortunate because the new English track isn't even much better than the old one.

Acting on stage is different from acting on screen, while voice acting is something else again. But supplying voice-over for tiny video game sprites and static portraits is yet different from voicing cartoons. I don't think a more subtle approach was what was called for, especially given the grandiose nature of the material. The new Dracula is less laughably over-the-top, but he is also missing the larger-than-life character of the original performance. There is additionally a distracting tinniness to the PSP recordings. The worst part, however, is the voice-over that reads aloud the opening narration. The PS1 version just let players read it themselves in silence while one of the game's most beautiful pieces of music set the mood. In the PSP version, this narrator talks over that music, and that is unforgivable. The PSP game does also include the original Japanese-language track, so that might be a better option overall, but the Japanese has the same problem of unnecessary voice-over narration in the opening.


Czardoz said...

"In Final Fantasy XII, the 'almighty' Zodiac Spear was the holy grail of secret items, and it was a complete and utter waste."

Wow, an unprovoked and non-germane swipe at a game you've never played before. I haven't seen such a blindsided blow since Shaq asked Kobe to tell him how his a** tastes.

Henry said...

I wouldn't say it was non-germane. I wanted a specific example of an item that was rare and/or hard to get seemingly just for the sake of being rare and/or hard to get. The Zodiac Spear was a recent case that I thought most of my readers might recognize.

Henry said...

By the way, did you know that, in the event that you screwed yourself out of getting the Zodiac Spear the normal way, there is a chest later in the game that has a 1/1000 chance of containing the spear? So there is an exceedingly slim chance that a player might find one accidentally.

One FAQ on IGN even claims to have figured out a system to make it appear consistently in that chest. (No, it's still not worth even trying to make sense of that FAQ.)

Czardoz said...

The Zodiac Spear is junk; that much is not in dispute. By the same token, there's a compelling argument that Kobe should tell Shaq how his a** tastes. In both instances though, the smear just seemed to come out of nowhere.

The slightest chance that I could still get the Zodiac Spear, and the absurd requirements it would entail . . . make me that much angrier at this game!

Henry said...

No, I'm pretty sure that, if you take it in context, my Zodiac Spear comment is reasonably placed. I think it sticks out to you only because it happens to be the one part of the post that would resonate for you personally.

As for me, I really did just want an example illustrating the issue that I brought up in the preceding statement, so that my readers (of perhaps more limited experience than me) wouldn't just have to take my word on a generalization. Whereas Shaq is clearly fixated on Kobe, I was much more concerned with Symphony of the Night than with FFXII, which got only a minor mention to set up a contrast.

Would it have stuck out less if I had used Vagrant Story's Excalibur as my example instead? Or maybe I just needed a "for example" and an "on the other hand"?

shadowreaper34 said...

to me this is the best game of the entire saga, there's no other like symphony of the night, all in this game is so cool the history is awesome and the characters are so amazing specially Alucard, there's are a secret in the castle in a room you can find a little bit of Viagra Online, I finish this game some years ago, I hear about a bug in the game to exceed the 100% of the game.
Generic Viagra Buy Viagra.

Czardoz said...

Funny, I had completely forgotten about this little conversation about the Zodiac Spear, several years before my FFXII post, which itself slams the inclusion/exclusion of that aforementioned uber-weapon.

So, acknowledging that both you and shadowreaper consider this the best and/or most pivotal game in the series, is it safe to say that the PS1 version is the one I should play? I'll experience it for the first time and tell you how it feels, maybe you can live vicariously through my play-through.

Henry said...

The PS1 version is the only one I've played extensively.

There's an Xbox Live Arcade port that adds Achievements and a "smoothing" filter that makes the graphics less pixelated (but also blurrier). The XBLA version also lost the (admittedly ugly) FMVs to save space, and replaced the (admittedly lame) original credits song with a Lament of Innocence track. Other things I've heard are that it eliminates the slowdown, and it has lower-quality (compressed) audio, but I don't really know.

I've heard the PSP version has some bugs and/or performance issues, but I don't know any specifics. I would say that whether one prefers the new "artistic" decisions--new voice acting, new credits theme, some minor gameplay changes and additions--is a matter of taste and maybe nostalgia. It's also handheld versus console, which makes a difference to me, since I prefer playing on the TV.

That's it for the versions that anybody is likely to play now (PS1/PSN, XBLA, and PSP). But the Saturn version had some cool extras that are worth looking up on YouTube.