How Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Changed the Franchise - VRGyani News and Media

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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

How Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Changed the Franchise

I invite you to take a moment, and bring to mind your time playing FromSoftware’s Dark Souls. Imagine all the horrible, horrible ways the kingdom of Lordran humbled you. Think back to all of the profanity you screamed at your television. Think about the louder profanity you shouted in vengeful exuberance when each of those bosses fell to you. Think about the moment you conquered Dark Souls. Then you went on. First, it was Dark Souls II, then Dark Souls III, scratching and clawing for every rage-inducing inch of gaming respect.

Now imagine if FromSoftware (hypothetically) announced Dark Souls IV, and in that announcement said that they wanted to change the impression that Dark Souls was a difficult action game. Furthermore, they would be implementing new elements in order to give players who weren’t good at action games the ability to succeed. What would the result be? Opinions would be had, my friends. Visceral, there’s-no-emoticon-for-what-I’m-feeling, opinions.

For a successful franchise to take such an approach, “risky” probably doesn’t appropriately quantify just how commercially dangerous a move like this could be. Yet, in the mid 1990s, this is exactly what Konami’s Toru Hagihara (Director) and Koji Igarashi (Assistant Director, Writer) set out to do with the Castlevania franchise ahead of 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And when they did it, they created perhaps the easiest game in the series, and one of the best games of all time.

A Bit of Transylvanian History

It’s probably a stretch to equate the difficulty of Castlevania with that of Dark Souls, as the latter is often (unjustly?) defined by its difficulty level, but it is important to remember that Castlevania had a fiercer reputation in its earlier years, illustrated by the franchise’s appearance in Hardest NES Games lists, and by the fact that the original Castlevania, along with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse are literally two of the games that define the industry term, “Nintendo Hard.”

If Symphony of the Night was going to succeed as an easier counterpart to all of its predecessors, the new elements that Hagihara and Igarashi were planning to incorporate were going to have to bridge the gap this intended drop in difficulty was going to create. Here’s how they pulled it off.

RPG Elements

Igarashi explained in an interview that they wanted to add RPG elements to Symphony. While that is a broad distinction, the result is essentially twofold: customizable character depth and an experience point system.

From a story perspective, there is little to be done in terms of any plot choices the player can make, but the amount of varying equipment at the player’s disposal (through purchase, exploration, or enemy drops) is immense, leading to endless combinations of playstyles. At a given time, Alucard can equip two weapons, a helmet, armor, a cloak, and two accessories, all of which manipulate his four core stats —strength, constitution, intelligence, and luck— along with his base attack and defense ratings. This is in addition to the eight spells that the player can learn, the familiars that can be summoned, and the dozens of usable items that can be equipped —like the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired “Magic Missile.” This level of available customization would have been impressive for a full-fledged RPG, much less from a series that rarely offered much customization at all.

Adding an experience point system was perhaps the principal way the change of difficulty was executed. Not only did the presence of a system like this allow lesser-skilled players the opportunity to “level up” to make difficult encounters easier, but also gave skilled players the ability to gain an advantage that they never really needed in the first place.

With these two RPG elements firmly in place, the difficulty crumbled. But by offering players such an endless trove of equipment/skill choices, Symphony became addicting for the sheer volume of ways the player could steamroll over everything Dracula’s castle threw at them. In other words, it's good to be the king.

Nonlinear Castle Exploration

In typical Metroidvania fashion, Symphony is not a fully open-world game. While the player is able to move freely in and out of the castle’s levels, many areas are inaccessible because the player is lacking a required ability. Here in Symphony, that means things like a double-jump, or mist/bat/wolf transformation.

Even with these limitations, Dracula’s castle is remarkably open from the outset, which feeds into the RPG leveling system. Exploration inherently creates backtracking, which creates more enemy encounters, which creates more item drops and experience, which creates ease of exploration, and around and around it goes. Additionally, every enemy has multiple items that they can drop upon defeat. And once the player unlocks the Bestiary in the Long Library, you have a tangible artifact that shows which enemies still have unknown drops, and where to find those enemies.

So, while the RPG elements feed into the game’s lack of difficulty, the nonlinear exploration gave players a natural process to gain strength. Where many RPGs expect players to engage in at least a little bit of grinding, Symphony made exploration and item collecting so enjoyable that the grinding just naturally happened along the way.

An Early Tease of Power

After playing through the prologue as Richter Belmont, you are placed into the role of Alucard. And you have powerful equipment. As the son of Dracula, this characterization feels appropriate. After you massacre a bunch of wargs, you work your way through the Castle Entrance until Death intervenes, absconds with your fancy equipment, and leaves you to fend for yourself with nothing but your fists.

There is equipment in Symphony that is stronger than what Alucard has at the game’s start, but it is a long while before you find such things. For a game that boasts such length (more on that shortly), the modest tease of what you could be helps feed that desire to explore.

A Plot Twist That Turns Everything Upside-Down (No, Really)

The whole premise of Symphony is that Alucard is trying to bring down Richter Belmont, who has been corrupted and is currently working to resurrect Dracula. As such, Richter serves as the primary antagonist for much of the game, or at least what you think is much of the game.

When you finally fight Richter in the Castle Keep, you can defeat him, and end the game. But hidden amongst the game’s massive array of items are two rings: the Gold Ring and the Silver Ring, each with a partial inscription. Together, the inscription reads “Wear in clock tower.” So, naturally, I put on these rings and went to the level that is literally called "Clock Tower," and found nothing. Then, by a stroke of luck, I happened to have the rings on when passing through the room with the huge clock in Marble Gallery. When the clock struck midnight, the floor opened, and I found the Sunglasses.

When worn, this item allows you to see that Richter is being controlled by Shaft —Dark priest, and Dracula resurrector extraordinaire— and allows you the chance to destroy the controlling orbs surrounding Richter, as opposed to Richter, himself. Once done, you are taken to a teleporter, and presented with the entire castle upside-down, full of all-new enemies, bosses, and items.

The designers gave the player access to endless customization, made grinding a naturally-occurring part of exploration, made that exploration addictive and enjoyable, and then promptly doubled the size of the game. It’s no wonder that Symphony of the Night was such an easy game. While many games see overpowered players by the end, Alucard is nigh invincible by the halfway point.

While Dark Souls teaches us that every lesson we learn should be followed by another, even more brutal, lesson, Symphony of the Night offers a nice, warm hug when you accomplish anything. As the difficulty evaporates level by level, Symphony just keeps getting more and more fun. Without such excellent use of RPG mechanics, castle exploration, and unexpected plot devices, the lack of difficulty would have made Symphony a slog. Instead, it’s one of the all-timers. Get FromSoftware on the line; I have an idea for them.



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