Design in Action is a weekly column in which I look at a great game — sometimes new, sometimes classic — and pick it apart over the course of a month, looking at different aspects of its design and how all the pieces work together. For January, I'm celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite games, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for PlayStation.
Great games often reveal themselves through the breadth of details they offer beyond the minimum essential critical path.
You can certainly find exceptions to this maxim — great games that maintain a no-nonsense laser focus, or poor games dripping with needless details — but for the most part, quirky inessential content in a game speaks to a development team with a deep emotional investment in their work. Or better yet, to a rare sort of corporate leadership that allows creators the freedom to express themselves. Symphony of the Night involves a little from both columns.
You can already find the fascinating little details of Symphony of the Night documented in great detail elsewhere around the web, but this isn't meant to be yet another trainspotting litany. Rather, my goal here is to pull together everything I've written about Symphony of the Night over the past few weeks and explore how the game's subtle details and mechanics help define things like its narrative, its structure, and its role-playing sensibility.
Symphony of the Night begins laying on the nuance right from the beginning. Again, the game opens with a flashback to the finale of the previous game, Rondo of Blood, to help set the stage for the new story. This entire sequence takes just a few minutes and spans the space of about five screens... yet even so, Konami crammed a ridiculous amount of hidden content in here.
For starters, the playable protagonist in the prologue (Richter Belmont) possess a full range of skills and maneuvers. You can slide, backflip, use subweapons, and even perform an "item crash" that expends a huge number of collectible heart tokens in exchange for a screen-filling super attack. Many of these skills come directly from Rondo, but Richter has entirely new spritework, and some of his abilities work a little differently than before. In other words, the Symphony team rebuilt Richter rather than just recycling his graphics and code, all for a few minutes of play time and a boss battle at the game's midpoint.
This effort doesn't amount to a frivolous addition, though. You can play through the entire game as Richter by entering his name at the character registration screen. Nevertheless, the effort invested into the former hero's facelift works out to be one of those cases where it's hard to say which came about first. Did the designers give Prologue Richter a full array of skills because he's secretly playable, or did they make him playable because they'd already poured so much effort into a three-minute sequence? Is Prologue Richter the chicken here, or the egg?
There's more in this sequence, too: You can activate a hidden switch by whipping the entrance wall to Dracula's chamber, which lowers a ramp that leads to an attic where the vampire lord keeps the really good stuff. All of this is completely useless for Richter (who lacks access to an inventory system), but later in the game you can return to this area as Alucard and collect these bonuses to use properly.
Once the battle between Richter and Dracula commences, you can't actually lose. If you perform poorly, Richter's future sister-in-law Maria Renard — a young girl whose rescue presents an optional side objective in Rondo of Blood — will step in from off-stage and heal Richter. You don't want to have to lean on Maria for help though, and not out of any sort of stuffy masculine pride. It's just that performing capably as Richter sets Alucard off on stronger footing: The better and faster your initial victory against Dracula, the higher Alucard's starting stats will be. If Maria has to step in and save your Belmont bacon, you'll be stiffly penalized; beat down Dracula in less than a minute without taking any damage, Alucard gets a nice starting bonus to his health and strength.
Even beyond the introduction, Symphony's creators put a lot of thought into how Alucard and Richter's stories interweave. Richter's (apparent) role as instigator of the castle's return is the game's first big plot twist: Alucard encounters the Belmont, who seems to have gone mad with bloodlust, in the castle's Coliseum. This entire sequence is loaded down with Rondo references as a lead-in to the big revelation of Rondo's hero gone bad. The most obvious? The corpse of that massive Behemoth that dogged Richter throughout Rondo's second stage: Most of its remains can be found in the lowest level of the Coliseum near a butcher's block. This raises a lot of questions, such as "how does the meat stay fresh for five years?" or perhaps "is this meat in fact still fresh?" Maybe it's best not to think too hard about it.
Alucard doesn't fight Richter during their encounter in the Coliseum; instead, the Belmont summons a pair of bosses to tag in and take down Alucard. These foes, as it happens, are also drawn from Rondo: The Minotaur and the Werewolf. It's a great little touch that ties Symphony back to its predecessor, while at the same time demonstrating how much more capable a fighter Alucard is than Richter. After all, each of these enemies posed an enormous challenge on its own in the previous game, but Alucard can take on both at the same time.