Design in Action | Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the Story of the Ultimate Sequel

The first entry in a new weekly column kicks things off by exploring the inner workings of a video game classic.

Analysis by Jeremy Parish, .

Welcome to the first installment of Design in Action.

This weekly column will be my long-term project for USgamer once I step down at the end of the month, but we figured, "Why not kick it off now?" This series is loosely inspired by the old Anatomy of Games articles I used to publish in my free time. Each month, I'll take a look at a great game - some new, some classic - and pick it apart over the course of several weeks, looking at different aspects of that game's excellence and how all its pieces work together. This month, I'm celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite games, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for PlayStation.

Symphony of the Night, and the Secret of the Ultimate Sequel

With Symphony of the Night, Konami performed a rare sort of alchemy. The development team — initially led by Toru Hagihara, with Koji "IGA" Igarashi picking up the reins midway through — created a game that worked on multiple levels. It defiantly ran counter to the conventional game design thinking of the time, which flatly declared traditional bitmap sprites, hand-drawn backgrounds, and two-dimensional gameplay to be dead and buried. The Symphony team put together a game that embraced all of those things while at the same time incorporating cutting-edge effects that would have been impossible before the PlayStation; indeed, even the SEGA Saturn, 2D powerhouse that it was, struggled to replicate Symphony's subtle polygonal effects and features. Theirs was a brave statement in 1997: Not only is there still room for classic game forms, they said, but they have room to grow and evolve by incorporating next-generation technology.

The Symphony team could afford to be a little daring, because they had a great legacy behind them: The beloved Castlevania series. Creating a sequel has never guaranteed automatic success for a game, but it does provide something of a safety net. And Symphony wasn't simply "a sequel"; it was the sequel. Perhaps the greatest sequel ever created. One that simultaneously embraced its heritage while expanding on it in new and exciting ways, both conceptually and technically... and in a manner that united both the conceptual and the technical so that one fed into the other. Much like Super Mario 64, Symphony felt revelatory in a way that seems impossible for a modern game to achieve... though of course its revelations were completely different in nature than those of Mario's first 3D outing.

To my mind, Symphony works as a sequel on three different levels: Narratively, structurally, and mechanically. In each of these areas, the game builds on what had come before in a brilliant fashion, then puts its own spin on things. Castlevania would never have this kind of impact again... but then again, few games can compete with Symphony.

The inclusive narrative

The first problem the Symphony team had to overcome when planning their Castlevania sequel was the question of what, precisely, the phrase "Castlevania sequel" actually meant. Once the 8-bit NES Castlevania trilogy came to a close, the series had no unifying through line. Super Castlevania IV had gone for baroque, with its moody atmosphere and oversized character sprites, but it was followed by Rondo of Blood for PC Engine (which felt like something of a throwback to the NES games), Bloodlines for Genesis (which seemed even more of a throwback), and Dracula X for Super NES (which reworked Rondo into the biggest 8-bit throwback of all). Beyond the basic concept of 2D platform action starring a guy with a whip, usually, there was no real consistency in the nuts-and-bolts of Castlevania. Nor was there a real narrative framework for the games besides "a man kills Count Dracula."

The Symphony team included several people who had worked on Rondo of Blood, so it might seem logical for them to have looked to their previous work for inspiration. That wasn't originally the plan, though; before they began work on Symphony, they laid the groundwork for an unrelated Castlevania project tentatively called "The Bloodletting," which would have appeared on the SEGA 32X. When that platform bobbed belly-up to the surface almost immediately after its debut, however, the team started fresh with a proper Rondo follow-up.

The basic question that then arose was: "How do you make an interesting story out of a game with a definitive ending?" Rondo had featured far more dialogue and narrative than any Castlevania before it, with cutscenes and alternate endings, but it ended quite conclusively with Dracula being destroyed and the hero reunited with his beloved. The simple fact of the matter was, Richter Belmont's story had reached its natural conclusion and didn't really have much of anywhere to go beyond that.

This Week on Retronauts, We Ask: "What is A Man?"

We hope to find the answer in Castlevania's Dracula X duology, Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night. Are our words as empty as our souls?

The Symphony team's solution? Look beyond Richter. While the so-called "greatest Belmont" still had a part to play in the sequel to his earlier adventure, his part was no longer that of leading man. Instead, Symphony reached back into Castlevania's past to link Rondo to the NES Castlevania games. Rather than star a Belmont, Symphony instead placed the son of Dracula in the lead role.

Alucard — more properly known as Adrian Farenheit Tepes — had been one of three optional characters available to play in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse for NES, which had been set about 300 years before Rondo of Blood. As an immortal dhampir, it would make sense that Alucard would still be around in some capacity even all those years later. Yet his inclusion as Symphony's protagonist did more than simply offer a nod to an earlier Castlevania game (something the team had already demonstrated a predilection for by opening Rondo in the ruins of a town from Castlevania II); it also opened the door for a more comprehensive and consistent storyline for the Castlevania saga. By connecting Richter's quest to that of an ally of his many-times-great-grandfather Trevor, Symphony began to establish the rules under which the Castlevania universe would operate going forward.

Symphony locked into the concept of Dracula as a primal force destined to return to life (or un-life, as it were) once every century. It also justified the familiar but shifting tapestry that was Dracula's castle itself. Why does Castlevania always feature common elements between games — the zombie-haunted opening corridor, the clock tower, the march at an impossible angle to reach Dracula's chamber — yet never in the same configurations? Because it's "a creature of Chaos," as much a living entity of evil as Dracula himself. At the same time, Symphony also began to paint Dracula as something besides a ravenous destroyer, offering a glimpse into the circumstances that turned him into the monster he'd become. His relationship with Alucard, though filled with acrimony and resentment, allowed for a touch of subtlety impossible in the simple, direct hostility of his encounters with the Belmont warriors sworn simply to destroy him. Dracula's cruelty, and Alucard's hatred of his own father, stem from the same source: Lisa, Dracula's one love and Alucard's mother, a kind and caring human woman burned at the stake for the crime of consorting with a vampire.

Throughout Alucard's journey, small snippets of story emerge that tie everything together: The fallout from Richter's journey in Rondo of Blood, Alucard's alliance with Trevor Belmont in Castlevania III, and the genesis of the entire Castlevania saga beginning with the murder of Lisa countless years prior. Symphony certainly stands as a strong sequel to Rondo; over the course of the adventure, it comes to light that Richter has been ensorcelled by Dracula's evil priest Shaft, who had served as the vampire's right-hand man in the battle against Richter. Meanwhile, Alucard's greatest ally turns out to be Maria Renard, Richter's young sister-in-law, who had appeared as a bonus unlockable character in Rondo. But the game's greatest narrative strength, and its status as the Castlevania series' keystone, comes from the way it links obscure side-story Rondo to the overarching Castlevania narrative while establishing rules and systems for numerous games to come.

Next week, we'll look at the game's structure, and how Castlevania evolved by taking design lessons from one of Nintendo's biggest franchises. No, not the one you think. The other one.

Images courtesy of MrP's Castlevania Realm

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Comments 37

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  • Avatar for RunnersDialZero #1 RunnersDialZero A year ago
    As someone who has always been fascinated by Castlevania but hasn't been able to spend enough time with it, this is really pushing me over the edge to experiencing this game.
    @jeremy.parish Do you feel that the GBA and DS Castlevanias offer a better experience as they had the benefit of history and development expertise? I've played Aria of Sorrow for GBA and absolutely loved it. I want to dive deeper into the series, and I think I owe it to myself to experience SoTN.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #2 Mikki-Saturn A year ago
    Cool! I really enjoyed the Anatomy of a Game articles. I'm sure I'll enjoy this series.

    And Symphony is one of my favorite games too, so I'm definitely looking forward to reading the rest of these.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #3 cldmstrsn A year ago
    @RunnersDialZero Since Aria of Sorrow is basically the sequel to SoTN I can absolutely assure you that you really really need to play SoTN as soon as possible.
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #4 Mooglepies A year ago
    Nice start to this series. Looking forward to the rest. I remember reading about this game was that Sony/Konami had absolutely no belief in the game outside of Japan, in spite of all the previous evidence that the US and Europe still very much liked Castlevania from its days on the S/NES. Odd to think that now it has such acclaim.

    I'm not a huge fan of SotN (I much prefer classic Castlevania than modern from a game design perspective) but will happily agree that one of the things it does best is unify the story and provide an overarching timeline and consistent approach to character - people who are actually characters rather than a couple of lines of dialogue.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #5 chaoticBeat A year ago
    @Jeremy Great write up of one of the all time bests. I'm looking forward to the next.

    Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Order of Ecclesia? I want to love it but the last time I made a go of it was like throwing myself against a wall. Do you think it's worth it to be persistent?
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #6 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
    The week on the soundtrack will be exquisite.

    "Much like Super Mario 64, Symphony felt revelatory in a way that seems impossible for a modern game to achieve... though of course its revelations were completely different in nature than those of Mario's first 3D outing."

    Ah, the days where design and technological innovation were still neck-and-neck, barrelling forwards at a breathtaking pace.
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  • Avatar for brimleyIsTheThing #7 brimleyIsTheThing A year ago
    @jeremy.parish Fantastic, looking forward to more of this weekly column.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @chaoticBeat Ecclesia is the one I've never finished, because I have the same sensation of smashing my head against a wall.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #9 kidgorilla A year ago
    This is the perfect way to start a weekly column
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #10 mattcom26 A year ago
    I played through this for the first time this year, largely because commentaries on Retronauts made me feel I was truly missing out -- and yeah they were right. This game really lives up to its legacy and I can't wait to get my hands on Bloodstained.
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  • Avatar for Frosty840 #11 Frosty840 A year ago
    SotN was one of the last Metroidvanias I got round to playing and it's really surprising how well it stands up.
    Its biggest weakness is probably a lack of modern gameplay tutorials (I realise while writing this that I've actually never read the manual, which might very well contain the kind of information I feel the game fails to provide), but aside from that it certainly holds up as a very playable experience.
    Aside from that, it contains one of the hallmarks of truly innovative games, features which never made it into its sequels. It had so many good ideas that it had room for some less-great mechanics and gameplay elements that it also had some room for dead ends and purely decorative touches like the peanuts and the secret boots.

    A wonderfully memorable game.
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  • Avatar for Jericho-GM #12 Jericho-GM A year ago
    @RunnersDialZero If you loved Aria of Sorrow, you definitely do need to try SOTN. Befitting a game featuring Dracula, SOTN is one of those games that will never really die. It plays, looks, and sounds as good now as it was when it was released.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #13 riderkicker A year ago
    The Adventures of Lolo?!
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #14 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @Frosty840 I don't really consider a lack of tutorials a failing in any game, but especially not here. Symphony does a great job of drawing players in and revealing its true depth over its first couple of hours through diegetic design... which is, in fact, the topic of next week's column.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #15 hiptanaka A year ago
    @RunnersDialZero Aria is a great game and a very streamlined take on the concept, but SotN is simply unmatched in terms of scope and sense of discovery and attention to detail. It has some rough edges, but it's easily forgivable, and sometimes even to the game's advantage, as it adds to the sense of mystery. Definitely play it.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #16 Monkey-Tamer A year ago
    "Castlevania would never have this kind of impact again" sums up how I've felt about the series ever since. Castlevania 64 was a huge letdown. Lament of Innocence was playable, but not groundbreaking. The metroidvanias on the handhelds were decent but never hit the mark like Symphony. Now we've got two modern action Castlevania games that borrow heavily from other titles, but don't really manage to shine much on their own. Nothing will ever beat the voice actor for Richter. He was so damn bad it was good. Like an Evil Dead movie.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #17 yuberus A year ago
    For September and October, I played through basically all the 80s/90s Classicvania games I had access to (effectively all but Dracula X, Chronicles and Legends) leading up to my first replay of Symphony in probably a decade. Coming immediately off of all those to this game I was struck not by its resemblance to Metroid, but how it just felt like the natural next step for the series. You'd been "traveling" through the castle since the first game, but now you had the CD capabilities to wander throughout the whole structure. Enemies and easter eggs called back to the older games just like they called back to their own predecessors. The RPG elements are kind of their own thing, but even the tenuous link to Castlevania II's level up system made it seem right.

    I agree with the assertion that this is basically the ultimate sequel, and if they had never made another Castlevania title it would have been the perfect note (pun unintended) to go out on.
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  • Avatar for scotts #18 scotts A year ago
    @jeremy.parish @chaoticBeat Expectations may make a difference - I played it about five years after it came out, knowing that everyone said it was much harder and more frustrating that the other DS games. And it was! But not so much that I quit. I actually did modify strategies based on my failed attempts, and I was never stuck for too long. (And, compared to the effort I put into Bloodborne several years later, it doesn't compare. Bob, take a shot.)

    By the end, I found I liked it much more than Dawn of Sorrow. (The only other post-SotN side-scrolling Castlevania game I've played.) Dawn of Sorrow felt more like a re-tread of SotN; it was fun and engaging, but I felt like I had done it all before. Ecclesia felt fresher to me because it drew from the Castlevania II legacy just as much from SotN.Edited January 2017 by scotts
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  • Avatar for mobichan #19 mobichan A year ago
    While I loved SOTN when it was released on PS1, I think saying " Not only is there still room for classic game forms, they said, but they have room to grow and evolve by incorporating next-generation technology. " is a bit much. Honestly, adding a few polygon meshes and blended lighting effects is not much of an evolution. Unless you mean it evolved to include ugly transitional era artwork, unskippable dialogue that slows down the action and load times? And man was the PS1 controller a terrible mess when it came to trying to cast Alucard's spells.

    But I have been meaning to revisit the game in recent years. Can you recommend one platform to play it on (besides the PS1)?
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #20 NiceGuyNeon A year ago
    Arguably my favorite game of all time. I can't wait for next week's entry and the possible Zelda comparisons! Excellent piece and I'm eager for more.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #21 NiceGuyNeon A year ago
    Arguably my favorite game of all time. I can't wait for next week's entry and the possible Zelda comparisons! Excellent piece and I'm eager for more.
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #22 kevinbowyer34 A year ago
    Great article!
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  • Avatar for wegum #23 wegum A year ago
    This is great! I loved the Anatomy of a Game series (still need to get the last couple of books) and am really excited to see it continue in some form. I really enjoyed your analysis of the plot and how this game helped shape and solidify the Castlevania story for future games. Looking forward to subsequent articles.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #24 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @mobichan Symphony was able to throw around a ridiculous number of things without skipping a beat (outside of the way the Mist Form choked the console). No previous console could have pulled off things like the Beelzebub battle or Granfaloon, all while supporting Alucard's huge array of skills and weirdo special effects. But your cynicism underscores my point: All the things the game was doing felt so natural and subtle that it's easy to discount how much was really happening under the surface, and how heavily the devs leaned on the PS1's specific capabilities.
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #25 kevinbowyer34 A year ago
    @chaoticBeat Order of Eccelsia is my favorite, as Simon's Quest is my favorite of the original series and Eccelsia draws on it. I was very happy to see some real difficulty return to the series.
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  • Avatar for kevinbowyer34 #26 kevinbowyer34 A year ago
    @jeremy.parish It is a testament to the rest of the game that when I engaged the mist the slowdown came off to me as purposeful. Like the mist was heavy, that slow moving pea soup type stuff.
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  • Avatar for IPA #27 IPA A year ago
    A weekly column! Reason enough to keep me coming back to USG after your departure. Thanks for the great piece.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #28 kidgorilla A year ago
    @mobichan@jeremy.parish Digital Foundry did a great video on the differences between the Saturn and PS1 versions that help prove Jeremy's point on the reliance on specifics of Sony's hardware. It's pretty granular, but totally worth watching.

    Also, cut scenes are skippable with a cleared save on the file, which is how most speed runners go through the game
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  • Avatar for Frosty840 #29 Frosty840 A year ago
    @jeremy.parish Perhaps. I don't think I knew about spells or familiars until after I'd completed the game though. Some kind of "Hey, dude, look, MAGIC!" popup might've been nice.
    Again though, that might have been mentioned in the manual I would have read when the game came out, but I've since stopped thinking of game manuals as things that exist, so...
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  • Avatar for mobichan #30 mobichan A year ago
    @kidgorilla Thanks for that. Very interesting comparison. :)
    @jeremy.parish As someone who was more interested in the industry making things like SOTN instead of the move to 3D, I suppose I did actually just see the evolution SOTN presented as the status quo. Especially considering the state of 2D in the arcades, I just felt like SOTN wasn't pushing anything all that new, but I suppose I should consider it in its context: as the console not really build to improve the design of 2D games. Konami did an amazing job with what they had to work with. But I have to say all the flourish that the PS1 gave SOTN graphically were some of the trends I really didn't like in 2D from that point forward. Now, it is all too common to use blended effects to give things unnatural glow. Also, without proper texture anti-aliasing and perspective correction, the novelty of rotating objects was lost on me due to the way it detracted from the hand drawn art around it. The only saving grace was the natural blending a CRT gave the final image on screen.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #31 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @mobichan You can't really hold this game accountable for poor creative choices made by other developers years later.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #32 chaoticBeat A year ago
    @scotts@kevinbowyer34 Judging from both your comments, I need to give Ecclesia another shot. Scrounging around apartment for my copy before I have to fall back on amazon...
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  • Avatar for mobichan #33 mobichan A year ago
    @jeremy.parish I am not saying SOTN was the only example of this art direction. Lot of games did it in the 32 bit era. Capcom certainly did it a ton in their 2D/3D hybrid titles. it is just one of the higher profile 2D games that is still referenced by indie devs these days, so I think it holds some significance as an influence in the 2D we see now.
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  • Avatar for Fallout2 #34 Fallout2 A year ago
    @jeremy.parish@chaoticBeat One uncommon aspect of Order of Ecclesia is that you need to change your loadout (equipment/spells) for different enemies. Early in the game you learn the ability to swap loadouts, which makes it rather convenient. It's more of a throwback to earlier CVs, but a good game worth playing.
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  • Avatar for mganai #35 mganai A year ago
    @RunnersDialZero SotN definitely had more stuff to play around with (i. e. special moves and weapons), but Aria and Dawn flowed better IMO. Symphony had a little too much design cruft, even when I first played it. Not that I didn't love it still, it's just something that kept it from edging out Rondo.
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  • Avatar for RunnersDialZero #36 RunnersDialZero A year ago
    @mganai@hiptanaka@cldmstrsn@Jericho-GM Thanks for the feedback. A lot of suggestions to take in here, but it sounds like I need to boot up my 360 and finally take the plunge. I'm having this awesome period of rediscovery with older games lately. Between jumping in on this, buying the Mega Man Legacy Collection, and working my way through FF7 for the first time, there's still so much out there that I have yet to finish. This is why I love these retrospectives!
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #37 cldmstrsn A year ago
    @RunnersDialZero You have no idea how much I wish I were you right now. To play through some of my all time favorites for the first time again would be my definition of heaven.
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