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Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night

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Konami’s Symphony Of The Night is widely regarded as one of the greatest Castlevania games of all time. It helped coined the term “Metroidvania” and has been ported to numerous systems, including Xbox 360, PS3 and PSP. In a rare interview, we were able to speak to creator IGA to find out how the incredible PlayStation game came to be.

Regular readers of Retro Gamer may have noticed that we harbour something of a soft spot for Konami’s splendid gothic adventure Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. We gleefully leap on any excuse to mention it and will happily print screenshots at the slightest provocation, only Capcom’s Strider features more prominently. In our defence, the blood-sucking platform romp remains one of the most truly essential pieces of 32-bit software and has justifiably attained near-legendary status within the already classic-filled Castlevania canon. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the game, Konami is poised to unleash it for download via Xbox 360’s Live Arcade service. Realising that, for once, we had a perfectly legitimate reason to waffle on about the game, we tracked down the man behind the magic – series producer Koji ‘IGA’ Igarashi – and mercilessly grilled him on the development of what many deem to be the crowning glory of a highly esteemed franchise.

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The opening scene recalls one of the battles from a previous
Castlevania game, Rondo Of Blood.

IGA is now responsible for the welfare of Castlevania lineage and has recently overseen the production of two excellent Nintendo DS episodes in the shape of Dawn Of Sorrow and Portrait Of Ruin. He joined Konami in the early-Nineties and worked on a variety of titles before becoming part of the Castlevania team prior to the development of Symphony Of The Night. The game represented a significant turning point for the series. With the exception of the free-roaming Simon’s Quest on the NES, over a decade’s worth of instalments had displayed an unwavering commitment to the fairly straightforward ‘platform action’ template, which saw the player utilising the legendary ‘Vampire Killer’ whip to send all manner of nocturnal beasties packing. Contrary to popular belief, IGA was not employed as primary director on the project – that honour fell to Toru Hagihara, who was also responsible for the excellent Dracula X: Rondo Of Blood on NEC’s PC Engine Super CD-ROM system (which incidentally is the direct prequel to Symphony Of The Night). However, IGA served as assistant director as well as participating in the writing of the scenario and general programming, so it could be argued that he had the most telling influence over proceedings.

It was apparent from the outset that Konami wished to steer the franchise in a fresh, new direction. “Action games could be cleared in a short time, but I wished to create a game that could be enjoyed for a much longer period,” explains IGA. Taking inspiration from Nintendo’s SNES classic Super Metroid, the team decided to shy away from the stage-by-stage concept of previous titles and cultivate a totally open, free-roaming castle for the player to explore. Hardy adventurers were initially denied access to every portion of Vlad’s sprawling, demonic fortress from the outset, but thanks to a finely tuned drip feed of abilities – ranging from the humble double-jump to unique shape-shifting enchantments – they would gradually gain entry to more sections of the ageing citadel as progression was made. For example, at various points in the castle the way forward would be barred by iron grilles. To continue, the player had to collect a relic that would permit them to alter their appearance to that of a fine mist, therefore allowing them to pass effortlessly through the obstacle. Another area – a tunnel covered in deadly spikes – could only be traversed when in ‘bat’ form. These puzzles were not particularly demanding but they resulted in a game that rewarded exploration and proved to be a supremely involving and enjoyable experience, while thankfully retaining the classic hack-and-slash action that aficionados of the series held so dear.

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Alucard gains acess to some very powerful items as the game continues.

Another major innovation was the introduction of role-playing mechanics. This particular evolution was borne out of the common perception that the series was something of a tough nut in terms of challenge, as IGA explains: “I wanted to change the impression that Castlevania was this difficult-to-access action game. When we decided to adopt RPG elements, we agreed that users should receive something good when beating enemies. So I thought of adding Experience Points to the game.” For the first time in the series, players could enhance their chances of victory by levelling up and augmenting their character with a vast array of powerful weapons, armour and spells. The concept of earning experience for every enemy successfully slain also prevented the inevitable back-tracking from becoming too arduous, and in many ways made the game more accessible for less skilled gamers. “I thought that even the users who were not good at playing this type of action game would be able to clear Symphony Of The Night if I adopted this particular system,” continues IGA.

Some fans would later complain that the developer was slightly too successful in this regard and actually made the game too easy, and when compared to the stubborn, almost sadistic challenge represented by previous titles (NES Castlevania, we’re looking at you), they had a point. Regardless of this, Symphony still possessed many hours of playtime within the dank, crumbling walls of Dracula’s stronghold. The map screen was massive to begin with, but if certain parameters were met the player could teleport to a second castle – an inverted, upside down version of the first – and continue the valiant quest. This effectively doubled the size of the game and the ‘proper’ ending – one of several – could only be accessed when this second castle was beaten. The introduction of a multitude of useful items, including healing potions, food and one-shot weaponry imbued Symphony with a depth unlike anything else experienced in such a title. The urge to collect every trinket, explore the attack possibilities of every weapon, and cover every inch of the evil stronghold proved irresistible for many.

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The 2D graphics are superb, bringing the gothic castle to life. What a shame many weren’t keen at the time as it wasn’t 3D.

Not content with shaking things up gameplay wise, IGA also turned a few heads when it came to selecting the lead character for the game. Traditionally, the vampire-hunting Belmont clan took centre stage in Castlevania titles but Symphony saw the player controlling the half-vampire, half-human offspring of Dracula himself, Alucard. “I decided to choose a character that had a special link to the previous Castlevania titles,” comments IGA. Alucard (Dracula spelt backwards) had appeared as a secondary character in the brilliant NES game Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse – which IGA cites as his favourite entry in the entire series – where he fought alongside the heroic Trevor Belmont to prevent his patriarch’s murderous revival. After sealing this important victory he made the decision to place himself in indefinite hibernation to prevent his cursed bloodline from causing humanity any further mischief. Resurrecting the ‘Tragic Prince’ for Symphony proved an inspired move, but IGA reveals that, at the time, he was concerned that such a sweeping change would anger the fans. “Personally, I liked Alucard very much and it was totally fine with me, but I presumed that those who had been fans for a long time would be angry with our decision since it was the first time the series ever had a non-whip-using character as a hero.” In hindsight, he needn’t have worried – the fans took to the new lead like a duck to water. “The Japanese title was Akumajo Dracula X. I used ‘X’ to show that it would be apart from the main stream of the series, but surprisingly, it has now become the mainstream,” he comments with a degree of satisfaction. Alucard is now regarded as one of the most popular characters in the Castlevania universe and IGA is well aware of the contribution he made to the ultimate triumph of Symphony. “Alucard was just a really cool hero, and that is why I think Symphony Of The Night has been received so favourably by the fans.” Nevertheless, in order to appease those few stubborn traditionalists that might have been offended by a vampire taking centre stage, IGA thoughtfully included the option to play as Richter Belmont, albeit as an unlockable extra.

Regardless of the changes being made elsewhere, one aspect of the game retained the brilliance of former titles: the epic boss encounters. In keeping with the grand vision IGA and his team strived to attain, Symphony was packed to bursting point with some of the most creative and visually stunning 2D bosses ever witnessed. Many of these fiendish creations were able to trace their roots right back to the NES instalments of the series – the towering Galamoth previously appeared in the disarmingly cute Castlevania spin-off Kid Dracula, and hardcore fans should have no trouble remembering which other games Medusa, Werewolf and Frankenstein’s Monster have cropped up in before. “My favourite is definitely Beelzebub,” replies IGA when pressed about which boss he rates highest. Indeed, this particular enemy proved to be one of the most memorable in the entire game, taking the form of a gigantic, rotting corpse suspended on rusty meat hooks. Victory could only be gained by hacking away at his putrid, decomposing limbs while avoiding the unwelcome attention of several massive mutated flies. When you consider the limited RAM of Sony’s 32-bit console and the poor reputation it had for hosting 2D titles, it makes IGA’s achievements all the more impressive.

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You need to use Alucard’s different forms to navigate certain
sections of the game.

The Castlevania franchise has always had a reputation for high-quality musical accompaniment and Symphony is no exception. Indeed, Many consider Michiru Yamane’s work to be the finest ever heard in the series. With this in mind, did IGA ever feel that the expectation of aural excellence imposed limitations on his development? “The music direction has never led the creation of the game,” he states. “I have always asked Michiru to compose music in accordance with the actual game and never the other way around. She always co-ordinated with the development team and composed music from the image of the stages.” When asked which tune was his favourite, IGA playfully admits that he’s slightly biased: “My favourite is Castle Dracula which starts to play when Alucard enters the castle for the very first time. I was impressed with the way the music starts to play once Alucard enters the dark castle, and then suddenly the castle gets bright and zombies start to appear. It might be because that particular part of the game was programmed by myself.”

Yamane’s soundtrack was a fusion of rock, jazz and classical styles that appeared hopelessly mismatched on paper but worked surprisingly well in practice. Standout tracks included Strange Bloodlines, which played over Richter’s battle with Dracula in the prelude; Wood Carving Partita, a string-based composition that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Hollywood period piece; and Requiem For The Gods, a largely vocal track which accompanied the Church section of the castle. The musical package was rounded off rather neatly by Rika Muranaka’s heart-wrenching I am the Wind, which plays over the end credits. It was sung by American Cynthia Harrell, who also performed vocal duties on the infamously camp title theme of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack CD remains popular with fans a decade after it was published.

SOTN13The map to Symphony Of The Night is huge, but it’s actually a lot bigger
than you might think…

The introduction of Ayami Kojima’s sumptuous artwork was the icing on an already tantalisingly gorgeous cake. Again, a desire to establish a new vision for the series was the main reason behind her involvement as IGA explains: “The world of the vampire that I have in my mind is beautiful and fleeting with blood and darkness. The series had a visual image featuring hostility, but I tried to change the image since the game concept itself was going to change,” he continues. Kojima’s mature and astonishingly detailed art elevated the game to a whole new level of brilliance, and for once the series was granted a cohesive image that has endured ever since. Her combination of Japanese sensibility with classical painting methods resulted in some of the most breathtakingly stunning artwork ever attributed to a videogame release and it’s testament to her truly wonderful talent that when a new Castlevania title is announced you can bet that one of the first questions to flash across internet forums worldwide is ‘Has Kojima done the artwork?’ Just check out our front cover if you need further proof of her incredible skill.

With this amalgamation of fantastic gameplay, stupefying depth, gorgeous design and a downright brilliant musical score, it’s unsurprising that Symphony went on to sell thousands in Japan where it was released as Akumajo Dracula X: Gekka no Yasoukyoku (Demon Castle Dracula X: Nocturne In The Moonlight). Huge sales and heaps of critical acclaim were also prevalent when the game debuted in the US but it perplexingly failed to replicate this success in Europe. Reports vary but it is believed that the initial print run for the PAL version was around the 15,000 mark and many of these copies had to be heavily discounted by disappointed stores before they eventually sold. It’s been argued that lukewarm reviews in the UK press – several magazines dismissed it as a 16-bit game on 32-bit hardware – contributed to the dour performance at retail, but whatever the cause, Konami knew it had a turkey on its hands and consequently didn’t produce any more PAL copies. Meanwhile, in Japan and the US the game was reprinted several times in order to satisfy demand and was eventually granted best-seller status in both territories. The low number of PAL units, coupled with the fact that most came with highly desirable limited-edition items (see Bonus Stage) has recently caused prices to soar – it’s not unusual for mint and complete Euro editions to fetch three figures on eBay, while the NTSC versions struggle to scrape £10. Regardless of which version you eventually plump for, you’ll still end up with one of the greatest Castlevania games of all time.

You can read the rest of our Making Of Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night in issue 36. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from Imagineshop

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