XCHOOM vs. The Choosen Assassin
Castlevania is a series that bears a legacy storied like few others. The tale of a task passed down through generations of vampire hunters has already been inherited twice over from one generation to the next in the real world, but seniority is not the only honour that Castlevania can claim to its name. It belongs to the selective group of games influential enough to have entire genres bear their names, among such hallowed titles as Rogue. This is, of course, the Metroidvania style. Named after both Metroid and Castlevania, it is exemplified by modern games like Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, and Blaster Master Zero. The impact that the birth of this genre left on both Castlevania and the face of the medium as a whole has effectively split its history in twain. A line drawn before and after with a single lightning strike. So I want to take a look at the developments that lead to this hallmark occasion. Starting of course with:
1997 — Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Symphony of the Night is a singular release in many ways. It broke with a longstanding tradition of following the Belmont Clan in their quest to stop Dracula from resurrecting every 100 years. Instead following Alucard, Dracula’s creatively named son, who investigates the untimely re-emergence of his father not but 5 years after he was defeated by Richter Belmont. It was the first Castlevania game for the fifth generation of consoles and whilst the series would follow plenty of its contemporaries into disastrous dalliances with the third dimension, Symphony decided instead to remain sprite-based and use the new hardware’s capabilities to improve quality and expand scale. This is, in part, because the studio behind Symphony didn’t believe themselves to be the “main” Castlevania team at the time, and decided to leave the task of a “modern” game the studio they believed held that title.
Armed with relative creative freedom, the Symphony team led by Koji Igarashi set two goals for themselves: to improve the controls and to extend the game’s durability. To this end they looked to The Legend of Zelda for inspiration. That’s right, not Metroid. Despite their core, critical similarity of a large side-scroller map full of secrets and items to both enable progression and power up the player character, Igarashi asserts these came about simply because an exploration game with ample backtracking that happens to be a side-scroller would organically come to resemble Metroid even when not influenced by it.
The many differences between Symphony of the Night and Metroid begin to make ample sense when observed through this lens. Apart from side-scrolling exploration, Symphony of the Night features a rich inventory system with abundant healing items, diverse weapons and armour sets, and status-inducing items which can all be obtained as enemy drops or hidden in the world. It also features an economy system with an accompanying vendor that will buy from you too, specifically gems you can find them around the castle. In a cute little mechanic that can be entirely ignored, Symphony includes a magic system based on MP that fuels diverse spells which you have to input specific commands to execute. Some of these spells have to be purchased whilst others are found throughout the castle. Another use for the MP were the transformations; diverse forms Alucard could adopt for a limited time such as a bat, a wolf or a mist cloud. It even contains a light JRPG-style experience and level up system, with all your characters stats going up slightly at each level.
Most (but not all) of these elements have become staples of the Metroidvania style and constitute Castlevania’s main contributions to it. Metroid, after all, had already extensively expounded on the sidescroller open map by 1997. And they can all be found in various Zelda iterations to different extents. However, dear reader, I posit to you, that it is not necessary to remit all the way to Hyrule and outside of Transylvania to see how most of these elements worked their way into this new, radically different take on the series.
As a charismatic young man once explained, the birth of Castlevania was actually that of twins. Both titled Akumajou Dracula in their native Japan, but better known outside of it as Castlevania and Vampire Killer. The clever philosopher also details the difference in their nature and development team: “Vampire Killer was headed by Akihito Nagata, […] and is more of an open ended platformer with some puzzle elements. Whereas Hitoshi Akamatsu was responsible for the more aggressive and action-focused NES title.”
I would propose that Symphony of the Night, whatever else I might think of it, was the fruit of the seeds planted all the way back in 1986’s Vampire Killer and that nearly every release in the series since the original represented a spurt of growth in that direction. Making it less an unrelated piece, and more the minuets that would eventually evolve into a full symphony.
This is a relatively comprehensive list, but it is by no means exhaustive. One man can only whip another so many times, after all. Introductions out of the way, let us jump right into ten years of the Belmont clan’s struggle and how they paved the way for Alucard settling his grudges.
1986 — Vampire Killer
Though the harrowingly funny bloke cited above makes a good enough attempt at summing up Castlevania in his video, he scarcely goes into detail about the younger twin. Barely describing it as containing “puzzle elements” and “key hunting” due to time constraints. Despite being just as short and almost as simple as its console counterpart, Vampire Killer features elements that fundamentally change the experience.
The MSX game features not only missable rooms, but missable items, and it requires the player to collect certain objects and keys to progress. This makes backtracking and exploration beyond possible and instead required. The constant and relentless advancing of Castlevania is replaced with a much slower meditative walk through the castle, as you learn the layout of the rooms and hunt for the necessary items. Moreover it allows the player to outright skip certain rooms and battles if they plan their route accordingly; an inconceivable thing in the NES, all about thinking through encounters and deconstructing each engagement. There’s also a complete array of secondary items completely missing from Castlevania. Whilst the sub-weapon selection remains the same in both titles, Vampire Killer also features magical items including crystals, shields, boots, wings, bibles and rings. All these confer the player different abilities and effects, and only a few made the jump to the console such as the rosary and the invisibility potion.
This description already begins to sound familiar to Igarashi’s own design goals for Symphony. Given that backtracking in a side-scroller was his initial conception for it. Other ideas from Symphony such as additional help items apart from the sub-weapon system, and hunting down specific items to progress past a certain point also begin to take shape here. The biggest differences being that Vampire Killer, whilst open, remains heavily linear. And once you’ve solved your way past a certain screen there is no way to go back and nothing of use to you in the earlier levels of the game. As well as the fact that the progression-critical items in this are simply variations on the theme of keys. Meanwhile in Symphony these will often take wildly imaginative shapes such as an item that allows Alucard to fly, enabling the player to traverse through complex tunnel systems full of spikes.
1988 — Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
The second entry in the series paradoxically represented the closest it ever got to Symphony of the Night’s design before that game proper. Whilst the numerous failures in its execution are infamous by now through a highly exaggerated—but not inaccurate—comedy skit, the concepts behind many of its features are the same as Igarashi’s lauded title.
Simon’s Quest is, unlike any of its siblings, structured more like an RPG than a traditional sidescroller. The player begins in a town and can travel to others by fighting their way through forests and roads full of monsters. On these journeys they will eventually gather the information and equipment necessary to tackle a series of dungeons housing the game’s bosses. Though Symphony doesn’t take the same from them as Simon’s Quest, it is noteworthy that the RPG influences had already begun to seep into the series. Although amusingly this could also be seen as the beginning of the Zelda influences, since it bears similarity to the equally mold-breaking Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
Among its many firsts for the franchise, Simon’s Quest can claim a money system, an upgrade system, equipment switching at will, and particular points in the map that will restore you back to full health at any time. Funnily and fittingly enough this last one is almost carbon copied into Symphony, albeit with a different veneer; whilst Simon is rejuvenated at churches, Alucard only finds respite in coffins. Even grinding is here, though I doubt that is an intended feature in any title its featured in.
Whilst a clumsy implementation of these systems weighed down the game in the eye of many Japanese players, the abysmal English translation proved the anchor around its neck in the international market. Unintuitive in the best of cases, Simon’s Quest became almost impossible to complete without a strategy guide after it was put through the meat grinder that was 80s game translations. This has made its ambitions go unnoticed by the western audience, but its brave attempts at non-linearity and exploration are vastly more effective when the text is made intelligible with various fan-patches. And it comes to show that the Castlevania team was aiming to create sprawling, exploration-based games from the earliest instances of the series.
It is obvious that one of the most important changes that had to be made to the Castlevania formula for Symphony of the Night to work was the level design. In the original Castlevania, and in most titles to follow, the levels were essentially tightly choreographed obstacle courses. They were intended to be understood and traversed one way exclusively to maximise the depth in that experience. This is just not feasible in a Metroidvania.
Simon’s Quest and the game that would follow it, then, represent earlier versions of the two answers that Igarashi’s team arrived at to tackle this issue. Firstly, Simon’s Quest sees a simplification in enemy layouts. They are not as tightly packed or as well synchronised as they were before. Instead they are spaced out more evenly in a way that maintains a threat when travelling the world but doesn’t make every small errand to and fro an ordeal. This is the philosophy that Symphony of the Night adopts for most of its rooms as well: evenly distributed enemies at prudent distances from each other. Rarely will there be a room like the eagle run or the different pairings the knight sees along stages 14 and 15 in Castlevania. Whilst I have my own opinions about what this does to the quality of each encounter, there is no arguing that it is a smart solution to the problem of easy traversal required of such colossal maps.
Simon Belmont’s final adventure on the NES finishes with another signature feature of Symphony of the Night: different endings corresponding to your play. Albeit Simon’s Quest’s (how’s that for S’s?) aren’t based on completion percentage, but on speed. And then there’s the fourth ending where you just live squatting with the old lady in that one village which is, of course, analogous to never finding the inverted castle.
1989 — Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
After the previous game’s lukewarm reception Castlevania III was scaled back considerably, returning to the linear action-platformer comforts of the original Castlevania. However, even then the sounds of the orchestra’s methodical tuning can be heard.
Its major deviation from the original’s formula comes from nearly every stage in the game having a counterpart, with the player having to pick between two paths forwards. This adds replayability, since it’s impossible to see everything in a single playthrough, but more importantly it leads to hidden scenes and characters. By having enough stages for 2 playthroughs and numerous possible combinations of player characters and stages to go through, it encourages the player to keep revisiting the game to experience its many permutations. Mirroring even Igarashi’s desires to greatly expand the lifespan of a Castlevania title.
Stylistically Castlevania III is the classic game that most resembles SotN, barring its immediate predecessor Rondo of Blood. This much is obvious when one learns that this is the first game to feature Alucard as an ally to Trevor, the Belmont in turn. However, alongside him also come two other playable characters: Sypha Belnades and Grant Danasty. Together these three mark the series’ first experiments with several ideas such as transformations, alternative weapons to the whip, magic spells, and the very concept of multiple playable characters.
Enter then your hot take for today: Castlevania III already displayed the kind of thinking that lead to the inverted castle in Symphony. You see, some of the levels in Dracula’s Curse don’t actually advance the journey itself. Instead proving dead ends and deviations that only serve to introduce other elements, such as the playable characters. The game simply solves this issue by having the player travel through the stages in the opposite direction, and exit the way they entered. With minor alterations to the enemies and the stages, the same assets and locations can become entirely new experiences simply by tackling them backwards. Though, of course, the radical way in which Symphony reused its own locations is both more technically impressive and experientially different.
1991 — Super Castlevania IV
Intellectual honesty dictates that I must acknowledge the antithesis to my thesis. So with a heavy heart I recognize that Super Castlevania IV goes against every other word in this article. Including these ones. And these ones. Not these ones, though.
Super Castlevania IV is a linear action platformer that revisits the events of the original title. It contains virtually no exploration, no divergent paths, no weapons that substitute the whip, no money or experience systems, no extra playable characters, and apart from a few that only concede points, no missable rooms.
Venturing a guess as to why it breaks the pattern I would infer that the design goal of Super Castlevania IV was not to be the next step forwards for the series, but rather a do-over of the original game with all the bells and whistles modern technology would allow. But this is just speculation, and I simply have no way of reconciling this title with the model traced until now. Consider it an anomaly, I suppose.
1993 — Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
This was a Japanese exclusive title for the PC Engine console, which was sold in the west as the TurboGrafx-16. Until being included with its 2.5D PSP remake in 2007 it was only known outside of Japan through a heavily reworked port named Castlevania: Vampire’s Kiss in European territories, and Castlevania: Dracula X in the Americas. X what, exactly? DraculaXSimon? Should we be so lucky as to have DraculaXReader?
Rondo is in multiple ways the culmination of everything that Castlevania had been building up to. It’s an explosive and dynamic action game, with several set-pieces that easily eclipse anything Super Castlevania IV had to show. From fighting the grim reaper aboard a stagecoach to being pursued by a bull demon demolishing everything in its path. Of perhaps greater importance to us is that the manners in which this game paved the way for Symphony are almost too many to count.
Of course you have the main cast, who would go on to become the deuteragonists to Alucard in Symphony. The adorable Maria Renard who grows up to become a dapper young lady and Richter Belmont, who basically joins a Glam Metal band. Each of their movesets would also carry onto the vampire heir. Richter’s “Item Crash” moves as well as the special commands that he and Maria can execute would be transplanted to Alucard both in concept and input method. The former would do so to a T, whilst the latter would be lightly reworked into Alucard’s spell system.
Rondo marked the series’ movement towards the aesthetic it would be most associated with for the coming decade. Ditching the western fantasy aspirations of previous titles and taking a full swig of Japanese animation-inspired designs instead. This paved the way for the preternaturally skilled Ayami Kojima to leave her mark on Castlevania’s visual identity in coming titles. Additionally it featured a slightly stronger focus on narrative, with animated and fully voiced cutscenes appearing throughout. It also began the nomenclature that would become synonymous with the series; the “musical form of X” style that then quickly devolved into the “something of stuff” format.
Perhaps the only way in which Rondo of Blood did not foretell the beginning of the Symphony was in its decidedly more linear approach when compared to titles like Simon’s Quest or Dracula’s Curse.
1994 — Castlevania: The New Generation
Also known as Castlevania: Bloodlines. Look. Castlevania: The New Generation is weird. It’s a spin-off, for starters, plus it seems to take a large inspiration from various action games across the Mega Drive’s catalogue. So Ironically the blood isn’t all of the same stock here.
New Generation doesn’t deviate too greatly from what one would conceive as the “classic Castlevania gameplay”, for the most part. Its biggest attempt at progression is once again the inclusion of different playable characters. The first wielding the traditional whip, and a spear for the second.
Perhaps where New Generation can find the most common ground with Symphony is in its story and world building. It begins to show a desire to move past the Belmont Clan as the stewards of the series. The wielder of the whip in this entry is not a descendant of Trevor, but rather John Morris, the character from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The spear user for his part is Eric Lecarde —who is the second character in a Castlevania game to have a Spanish surname turned more Frankish sounding by translation. From Ricardo to Lecarde. The first one being Sypha, who was originally named Fernandez (hence her Spanish accent in the recent Netflix adaptation).
Eric wouldn’t have much weight in the larger Castlevania lore that would develop following Symphony of the Night’s release, save for being a very annoying child in the fighting game Judgment. But his spear turns out to be fairly significant. Originally translated as the “Alcarde Spear” it was in fact meant to be the “Alucard Spear”. A symbol of Alucard’s turn towards mankind and his allegiance to the Belmonts. Keep in mind, too, that by this game’s release Alucard had only appeared in one game. However, these events would soon take on much greater importance.
As Castlevania progressed in the direction of Symphony, the Belmonts would increasingly take a backseat to an ever-expanding roster of allies and acquaintances and Alucard would approach a more central status in the pantheon than even Simon. It is fitting, then, that the final game preceding Symphony of the Night saw no Belmonts take down the Count and instead had one of its heroes wield a weapon that had its power conferred by Alucard.
1997 — Symphony of the Night: Reprise and Coda
I must confess a dark secret, dear reader: I don’t really care for Symphony of the Night. It’s a game I tried to play roughly 6 times and could only bring myself to finish on the final attempt. However, not even I could deny its incredible influence in the medium or its numerous artistic achievements in its time. The beautiful detail in its multitude of sprites is an achievement to contend with to this day. It comes as no surprise that later entries in the series would reuse much of that sprite work and have it barely stand out amongst newer assets. It has also served as an inspiration for plenty of games close to my heart such as the frenetic Strider (2014) and the Ikaruga-influenced cross-genre experiment Outland.
It is my hope, however, that throughout this article I shed some light on how this uniquely momentous game came to be. How the elements in it that I personally don’t like have its roots in the arcadey Castlevanias that I adore. And how the aspects of it that many see as trailblazing and inspired can often trace their origins to those very same games.
Symphony has often been cited as an example of prudence. The story goes that it was a safe choice to remain two-dimensional and sprite-based rather than attempting the jump to both 3D and polygonal models, but I think it showed a very cunning type of ambition. At some point a difference in scale becomes a difference in kind, and it is here where Symphony of the Night found the impulse to separate itself so much from its forebears. By the overwhelming processing power of the platform it was developed for, it was capable of taking a higher flight on an old design. To transform Vampire Killer’s 6-screen maps into gigantic halls that showed you the entirety of Dracula’s castle. And how it was able to populate it with a bestiary nearing 150 enemies, such that they remain fresh until the final hours.
Creativity rarely exists in a vacuum. Ideas strike less as lightning from the sky and more like a slowly eroding rock rolling down a chasm. I may think that Castlevania kind ill needs a saviour such as Symphony of the Night but it was not by an iconoclast’s hand that it was given flesh. It was called here by humans who wished to pay the original c tribute. A concert 10 years in the making. And whatever else can be said about it, 22 years later we’re all still humming its tune.