Flashback: Gothic Masterpiece 'Castlevania: Symphony of the Night'

Flashback: Gothic Masterpiece 'Castlevania: Symphony of the Night'

'Castlevania' had seen numerous installments by the time 'Symphony of Night' came out in 1997, but this sprawling classic would set the series on a new path Glixel

Before helming the most beloved 'Castlevania' game ever, creator Koji Igarashi cut his teeth working on dating sims

Before helming the most beloved 'Castlevania' game ever, creator Koji Igarashi cut his teeth working on dating sims

Ask a retro purist to name the best Castlevania game and they’ll tell you it’s the mechanically flawless Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine. Ask a contrarian hipster and they’ll claim it’s the exuberantly experimental Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis. But ask anyone else (please) and the near-unanimous response will be 1997’s crowd-pleasing, lavishly indulgent PlayStation game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. As the moon circumnavigates the earth for the 260th time since the game's release (or in mortal terms, its 20th anniversary) on March 20, what better time to wind back the clock's hands and revisit one of gaming’s perennial horror classics.

The creation of Symphony of the Night followed a winding, unlikely development path at Konami. In some sense, you can credit its existence to a crackdown by Japanese prefectures in the early nineties against pornographic dating simulation games. In early Japanese PC culture, dating sims were a thriving subgenre, specifically bishōjo games – “pretty girl games" – where choices made in a largely text-based experience encouraged players to interact with, date, and ultimately seduce a variety of digital anime women. If you worked out at the gym, liked the right movies, and had the right blood type (Japan’s cultural equivalent to astrological personality types), the games' women would compete for your attention. Stay with me here... I promise this relates to your favorite Castlevania game.

After a decade of envelope-pushing with increasingly explicit and controversial content in the Eighties, including objections by the Japanese parliament similar to the US Senate’s own brush with Mortal Kombat moral panic, the bishōjo game industry voluntarily formed the Ethics Organization for Computer Software in 1992. This trade group set a collection of standards to temper the industry’s more contentious excesses, ultimately paving the way for Konami to revitalize the bishōjo genre in 1994 with their charmingly chaste, PG-grade dating sim Tokimeki Memorial for the PC Engine. Set in a traditional Japanese high school, the game featured RPG-like stats players could manipulate to help their chances of romancing a dream girl. Most importantly though, the game employed the writing and design talents of Koji Igarashi, the developer who would eventually become the whip-brandishing rockstar designer of Symphony of the Night, and Castlevania's guiding light for the following decade.

Igarashi began working as a programmer for Konami in 1990, and he had his eyes set on designing a Castlevania game from day one. While toiling away on the development of his cheerful yet cheesy dating sim, Igarashi worked directly next to the teams creating the more tantalizing Castlevania series, a popular franchise that had already seen a dozen successful installments. After Tokimeki Memorial became an unexpected smash hit for Konami, Igarashi summoned the courage to turn his boss down when he was tasked with creating more storyboards for a dating sim sequel. Luckily for Igarashi, Tokimeki’s success gave him some clout, and his request to join a group working on a side story in the Castlevania series was approved.

Symphony of the Night was already halfway into development when Igarashi joined the team, so it’s fun to tease out who deserves credit for the game’s many innovations to the popular vampire slaying series. Unlike some franchises with a stable roster of designers and programmers, Castlevania was fractured within Konami, with different teams working on different installments simultaneously. Toru Hagihara, who had previously directed the immaculate Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, led the development team on Symphony of the Night until Igarashi moved in. While Rondo of Blood was initially overlooked by the public as an offshoot game (it wouldn’t reach the US for another 15 years), the game distinguished itself in the Castlevania series with a focus on branching paths and replayability. Castlevania occasionally experimented with these sorts of elements in games like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Vampire Killer, but the uneven results frustrated players with their obtuse dead ends and cheap deaths. It took Hagihara’s deliberate implementation, along his subtle refinement of Richter Belmont’s jump mechanics, to make the formula finally sing in Rondo of Blood.

With Hagihara’s underlying design sensibilities already in play on Symphony of the Night, Igarashi sought to further broaden Castlevania's appeal when he began his work as an assistant director. Although the game had been slated to launch on Sony’s successful PlayStation console, Konami still considered Symphony of the Night a gaiden or “side story” to the main franchise. Igarashi wisely took advantage of the freedoms offered by this outsider status, and began radically questioning the fundamental ingredients that constitute a Castlevania title.

How could the design team provide greater value for players by lengthening the playtime without ballooning development costs? Could re-envisioning the game as a Zelda-like action adventure that opened up new pathways as you discovered items enhance the exploration elements carried over from Rondo of Blood? What if the controllable figure at the center of the screen could transform into different animals to surpass obstacles? Did the main character even need to be human?

Igarashi didn’t want to run completely roughshod over tradition; Symphony of the Night still needed to remain recognizable as a Castlevania game. So he looked back at previous entries for a way to blend his new ideas into the franchise's existing lore. He found exactly what he needed in Castlevania III: a playable side character named Alucard, who also happened to be Dracula’s son. Under Igarashi’s guidance, the half-human, half-vampire creature who could transform into a bat (and crucially for the plot, also had massive daddy issues) would become Castlevania’s new star.

By replacing the long-running lineage of Dracula slayers in the Belmont family with Alucard, Igarashi set into motion a series of changes that would reshape the series going forward. The Belmonts were a burly bunch, a hypermasculine crew of whip wielders that signaled to the audience Castlevania was meant for hardcore players prepared to take on an immense challenge. Igarashi used his new protagonist Alucard as an opportunity to revamp the entire art style. He scoured bookstores and art magazines for inspiration, looking to conscript an artist from outside the game industry who could bring a fresh perspective. The baroque, gothic-tinged work of Ayami Kojima caught his eye, whose illustrations were featured on the cover of popular novels, including the sci-fi series Cluster Saga.

Ayami Kojima brought a stylish sensibility to Symphony of the Night’s cast with her work, leaning almost toward the bishōnen “pretty boy” style we commonly associate with recent Final Fantasy games. You can also detect the decadent gothic horror influences of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptation in her art, with the dark priest Shaft’s red robes mirroring Gary Oldman’s luxuriously embroidered frock, and the vampire huntress Maria’s green jumper evoking Winona Ryder’s silk dresses. Symphony of the Night’s sumptuous new visual style became an open invitation to new players who had kept their distance from the series in the past.

By featuring Kojima’s elegant designs for Alucard more prominently in Symphony of the Night, Igarashi also increased the size of the main character. But he ran into a slight hiccup. In order to keep Alucard’s weapon in proper proportion to the larger screen real estate he occupied, he found it necessary to extend the range of the archetypal Castlevania whip across an entire room. The results would be disastrous from a gameplay perspective, not to mention comical. It raised a critical question, though. Were whips absolutely essential to a Castlevania game? What would it look like if Alucard instead relied on a large arsenal of primary weapons, ranging from dark blades, holy swords, pentagrams, and nunchucks? What if these items could be scattered throughout the castle, hidden in hard-to-reach passageways, as random drops, or even as rewards for vanquishing particularly challenging enemies?

The change to equipable weapons with varying stats accompanied another wholesale renovation Igarashi introduced to the series: a robust RPG stat management system, complete with increasing damage output as players gained experience levels by defeating enemies. Symphony of the Night would transform the series from a moated castle only the bravest players could siege into a game with its drawbridge lowered, one that essentially anyone could enter and vanquish with enough persistence. Luckily, Igarashi had already earned his RPG stripes working on Tokimeki Memorial. Toiling away in dating sim hell had its upsides.

Integrating RPG elements into action games had certainly been attempted before. One of Igarashi’s favorite games was Konami’s early Zelda-like Esper Dream 2 for the Famicom, which mixed a top-down, Zelda-like adventure with equipable weapons, health points, and magic spells. Symphony of the Night even pays subtle homage to Esper Dream 2’s occult themes, such as a library with pentagrams in front of its bookshelves that transport you to bizarre worlds. But until Symphony of the Night, the marriage of RPG stats and action-driven exploration had yet to yield such a harmonious relationship.

This design combo has almost become de rigueur for modern games, so it’s tempting to gloss over its significance here. But the consistent sense of accomplishment and progression provided by leveling up Alucard and decking him out with esoteric new gear compelled players forward in exploring the crevices of Dracula’s twisted labyrinth. Igarashi wasn’t done yet, though. In order to further reward exploration, he introduced his most radical revision to the Castlevania formula. He eliminated the instant deaths that had always resulted from misjudging a jump over a pit. Instead of a brutal punishment for a split-second mistake, falling through a hole in the floor would reward players with new avenues of discovery, new layers of the castle to explore.

With both vertical and horizontal pathways to investigate, traversal-aiding power ups like gravity-defying jump boots and screen-clearing speed dashes, as well as a conspicuously iconic blue and red map, Symphony of the Night would eventually draw well-deserved comparisons to Nintendo’s classic Super Metroid. In keeping with its new source of inspiration, Castlevania would suck players in before revealing its fangs.

For all the changes Igarashi demanded of the Castlevania structure, though, Symphony of the Night ultimately cemented its reputation as a classic through its largesse. In what would become one of video game’s most legendary surprises, Igarashi planted a false ending at the game’s completion, with Alucard facing off against Richter Belmont, the hero from Rondo of Blood. Enterprising players that returned after the credits rolled to continue filling in the unvisited sections of their map would discover a sequence of items that unlocked a huge new adventure equal in size, and much more challenging, than the game they ‘d just completed. If you’ve somehow managed to dodge this plot twist over the past 20 years, you deserve to experience the moment unsullied.

This radical design choice, hiding yet another Castlevania adventure under the surface, feels emblematic of an unlikely new spirit that courses through the game’s veins: generosity. Symphony of the Night is resplendent with exquisite details for dedicated fans to unearth. A tucked-away telescope allows you an early peak at a creepy oarsman who will later ferry you over troubled waters. An elderly librarian can be tossed into the ceiling until he shakes loose ultra rare items. A bat familiar will fall in love with Alucard when he transforms into a bat, and become confused when he reverts to human form. A haunted confessional lets you take a seat to watch apparitions float by and plead for penance. Or, if you're particularly unlucky, a black-robed priest may even appear, concealing himself behind a curtain before stabbing you with a variety of grotesque torture implements.

The painstakingly constructed 2D environments also stand out, particularly considering the rest of the game industry had plunged headfirst into gauche displays of 3D tech in the mid Nineties. Strolling the dilapidated halls of Dracula’s castle, you’ll witness clouds rushing toward the foreground occluding a quarter moon, while a fountain overflows with neon blood below. Granfaloon, a giant pulsating brain which sloughs off dozens of zombies when you attack it, inhabits a gorgeous brick-lined hallway filled thirty feet high with skulls and bones, the Paris catacombs rendered into a grand guignol digital delight. For all of Igarashi’s drive toward widening the Castlevania fanbase, these aren’t the calculated inclusions wrought by cynical focus groups. They’re touches by skilled artists who cared about providing pleasure.

In spite of its age, Symphony of the Night remains immortal: a game you can live with and revisit as the years proceed, stopping by to check in on an old friend, one that continues to surprise and reveal new aspects of their personality on each visit. When Alucard walks into a room to save his progress, he steps into a polygonal crypt that rotates with a wireframe outline before finally filling in the texture of a classic casket, freezing his pixelated sprite in place. He’s still in there now, beckoning you with a pale, extended palm. No matter your blood type, he’s designed to be your perfect match.