Design in Action | Building a Masterpiece, One Detail at A Time

Design in Action | Building a Masterpiece, One Detail at A Time

We close out our in-depth look at Castlevania classic Symphony of the Night by exploring the cumulative power of its brilliant little details.

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In fact, Alucard's so powerful that he turns out to be one of his own worst foes. The first truly challenging battle Symphony has to offer is the face-off against Alucard's Doppelganger in the Outer Wall, a foe who moves and attacks just like the protagonist. In fact, the Doppelganger possesses skills the player hasn't yet acquired, like the ability to transform into a bat. Besides presenting a truly difficult encounter for novice players, the Doppelganger actually acts as the first proper callback to Alucard's own previous adventures in Castlevania III, where another Doppelganger (capable of mirroring all four of that game's protagonists) confronted players once they arrived at Dracula's Castle. Here the Doppelganger reappears late in the game as well, 30 experience levels higher than before and capable of wielding even more high-impact skills.

"Doppelganger" is German for "recycled sprites."

Of course, since Symphony concerns a solo journey, the Doppelganger in this game only mimics Dracula's surly son. Yet the designers made certain to include another callback to Castlevania III's memorable Doppelganger boss battle by setting players against zombie "fakes" of the other three heroes of that game — and all at once.

It's easy to affect cynicism and write off references like these as mere fan service, as an attempt to win players' affection by pandering to their sense of nostalgia. A great game, however, puts such touches to greater use. In Symphony, this callback to the NES classic Castlevania III works on multiple levels. Yes, it's a fun touch that ties back to Alucard's previous outing and shows off his former companions benefitting a skill upgrade similar to his own (for example, sluggish Sypha Belnades here can fly freely through the air blasting magic spell). At the same time, it demonstrates a certain sort of cruelty on behalf of Dracula (or Chaos, or whomever laid out the castle's traps), forcing Alucard to fight against companions he had already outlived thanks to his immortal blood.

Most importantly, though, it represents an escalation of gameplay. By the time you reach the fake Castlevania III trio, midway through the secret inverted castle, Alucard has already faced off against a lone Belmont — Richter. But now you have to take on another Belmont, who uses many of the same skills as Richter, along with two other zombies who attack in very different ways and create a dangerous distraction from the durable, powerful faux Trevor Belmont. While many people complain that the inverted castle lacks structure and cohesion — a not-unjustified criticism — battles like this demonstrate a clear desire to continue develop a curve of complexity, despite the difficulty of doing so for a fully empowered protagonist within a completely open setting.

Richter initially seems like the final boss, but he's actually just a warm-up.

Clues from, and subversions of, the past

Rondo and Dracula's Curse, of course, aren't the only classic Castlevanias to get a nod here. Again, the second half of the game involves fighting the five original Castlevania bosses in order to acquire the five relics of Dracula that appeared in Simon's Quest. This falls more along the "simple fanservice" line of game design, and it creates a small plot hole: If Alucard has to collect these tokens in order to revive and battle Dracula, why are the tokens are being guarded by Dracula's minions, and does this mean Alucard has been played for a sucker by doing those servants' hard work them? Even so, this romp through the past does have a point. It culminates in a face-off against Death, who had confronted Alucard at the outset of the game and promised an eventual reckoning (itself another parallel to Rondo of Blood).

The castle itself includes a few nods to Castlevanias past. Unsurprisingly, Alucard's adventure begins in a set of passages that repeat the design of the first stage of the original game: Long hallways patrolled by endless, mindless zombies, punctuated by a high stone structure beneath which Fishmen patrol. Every console Castlevania game to this point had included a recreation of that iconic sequence, so its inclusion came as no surprise.

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However, the Symphony team went to the trouble of reworking the introductory passage to better fit within the rules and workings of this particular game. For example, there are several places where you can break walls to reveal items, including the infamous hiding place for the original "wall meat." Here, though, breaking those walls doesn't reveal secret items until Alucard has acquired the Cube of Zoe, which allows him to acquire item drops from defeated enemies. It's a nice reinforcement of the difference between Alucard and the Belmonts: Where the latter's holy powers allow them to profit from destroying monsters and castle fixtures by nature, Alucard only gains this ability with the aid of a magical relic.

It also creates an interesting tension for observant players. Whipping the "wall meat" area in the opening sequence offers a benefit even before Alucard acquires the Cube of Zoe: Rather than spawning a health item, it opens a shortcut that allows players to bypass the lower Fishman-infested path. But destructible walls remain permanently open in Symphony, which means that if you break a wall before acquiring the Cube, you permanently lose out on the item hidden within. Eventually, players start to recognize the workings of these mechanics... which means they'll inevitably wonder about what was hidden in those early blocks they destroyed. The answer is "nothing much of value," but it encourages players to take a more cautious approach in future playthroughs to see what they can find by abstaining from smashing walls until they've collected the Cube.

And even then, the "wall meat" passage contains yet another secret: By passing through its boundaries in a certain order while shifted into specific alternate transformations, you can unlock a hidden door that contains a piece of equipment that's practically essential for taking on the optional super-boss Galamoth in the inverted castle. Such layers within layers — details that reinforce the narrative themes, secrets that demand careful exploration, and even the need for some good old-fashioned playground tip-trading — help create the added depth that elevates Symphony to a timeless, peerless work.


In fact, Symphony has so much to recommend it that I feel I've only brushed the tip of its proverbial iceberg. I had a lot more outlined to write about for this series, but we've run out of space and time and need to move along to a new and different game for next month's Design in Action columns. Look forward to February's feature title, The Last Guardian, which kicks off in one week. Meanwhile, maybe I'll keep writing about Symphony of the Night over at Anatomy of Games....

"On to February now, innit?"

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