Design in Action is a weekly column in which I take a look at a great game — whether new or classic — and pick it apart over the course of several weeks, looking at different aspects of that game's excellence and how all the 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.
Friends, we need to talk about a certain word. You know the one. Yeah, I'm talking about "metroidvania."
It's such a convenient little neologism! It combines the names of two classic video game franchises, "Metroid" and "Castlevania." That may not seem particularly descriptive on its face, but for anyone who recognizes the heritage those two series share in common, the word becomes more evocative. Most Metroid games, like a good half of the mainline Castlevania series, center around the concept of progressive exploration and discovery in carefully structured game worlds designed to unfold as the player acquires new skills and abilities — all seen from a side-on, 2D, platform action game perspective.
Contrary to internet rumor, I did not coin the word... though I've certainly helped it to propagate. I picked it up from my former 1UP.com coworker Scott Sharkey, who had simply used it to describe the handful of Castlevania games to that point which adopted a Metroid-like exploratory world view. Unlike him, I used the word frequently, loudly, and indiscriminately, all in an attempt to spread the good word of a game format that, in 2003 or so, seemed in danger of vanishing forever. (This was before the metroidvania-loving indie developer scene had exploded to turn this format into a commodity, you see.) Now people use "metroidvania" to describe basically any sort of structured action RPG with a heavy exploratory element, be it a 2D work directly inspired by Metroid (a la Axiom Verge or Chasm) or something considerably different (e.g. Dark Souls or Batman: Arkham Asylum).
But let's circle back to that early, embryonic meaning of the word: A Castlevania game designed in the pattern of a Metroid adventure. At the time "metroidvania" first emerged into the world, blinking and shivering as a newborn portmanteau, it described four games: The recent Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, its immediate predecessors Harmony of Dissonance and Circle of the Moon, and of course Symphony of the Night. It's not too difficult to see what inspired the word; not only did Symphony and its portable offspring bring a Metroid-like sensibility to the Castlevania franchise, they also included in-game auto-map overlays and subscreens that looked suspiciously like the one Nintendo introduced in Super Metroid.
I don't simply mean in terms of each series' respective auto-map's functions, either, because there's a certain level of basic functionality that comes hand in hand with auto-maps. But Symphony's map feature uses some of the same color elements as the one in Super Metroid, and it designates items of interest with similar iconography to that used by Nintendo. Between the overall exploratory design of Symphony's castle and the specific visual cues of its map system, most people (myself included) took it as Q.E.D. that the coolest Nintendo franchise had directly inspired the coolest Castlevania family branch.
So, imagine my shock when Symphony director Koji Igarashi dropped a devastating bombshell in an interview at Game Developers Conference 2014: Symphony was inspired by Zelda, not Metroid. "I suppose that when you turn Zelda into a 2D platformer, yes, it resembles Metroid," he mused, but as he's confirmed numerous times since then, his team took their inspiration from a completely different Nintendo franchise than the one we had all assumed for so long.
So how, then, should we look at Symphony as a latter-day Zelda disciple? Bear in mind that Symphony debuted in Japan in the middle of 1997 — more than a year before Ocarina of Time, back when all we really knew about that game was that Link would be super pointy and fight one-on-one with shiny knights. That means the most direct Zelda touchstone for the Symphony team would have been A Link to the Past for Super NES, though I suspect that wasn't the sole inspiration for this game.
Telling a story
I wrote about the importance of Symphony's plot to its design and position in the Castlevania legacy a few weeks ago, but it played another key role in helping to define the game: It causes the flow and motivation for the adventure to more closely resemble Zelda than Metroid. That may not be so true in the present day, since Metroid games dropped their stoicism with 2002's Metroid Fusion, but in 1997 it constituted an undeniable fact. Beginning with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Zelda games featured a strong narrative, with non-player characters offering background color while nudging Link (and players) toward their next objective. The closest Metroid had come to exposition came in the form of a plot dump at the start of Super Metroid, but literally every game in series had fastidiously shut up and let the action speak for itself beyond the title screen.
Symphony was more than happy to give players direct guidance. While its cast worked out to be far smaller than that of any Zelda adventure — outside of Alucard, it had speaking parts for a mere half-dozen characters — each one helped guide the story along, laying on a heavy dollop of mystery to the proceedings. Dracula's castle had returned to the realm of the living decades before its time, but why? And what part did Richter Belmont have to play? The more adventuresome Castlevania games always contained a modest amount of mid-game dialogue to advance the action, from the curt character intros in Castlevania III to the more rambling discourses that appeared toward the end of Rondo of Blood, but Symphony took the series in a decidedly RPG-like direction, complete with running dialogue throughout... not to mention other RPG elements like inventory mechanics, a shop, and an experience system.
Elements of an RPG
The RPG mechanics point perhaps most strongly to the Zelda/Castlevania connection... even though, yes, many people will rise up in anger if you even hint at referring to Zelda as an RPG. To get to the heart of this matter, it's worth looking back at both series' second entries. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest arrived about seven months apart in Japan back in 1987 — just far enough apart that the former very likely had some influence on the latter.
Zelda II remains the black sheep of the franchise family. On one hand, that's because it's unique among its siblings in the way it both looks and plays like a role-playing game in many respects; at the same time, it's also unique among Zelda games in playing like a 2D platformer. Zelda otherwise has been neither of these things, but this quirky one-off exception to the franchise's rules has borne an outsized influence on non-Zelda games throughout the years. 2D action RPGs typically look back to Zelda II for their basics: The integration of experience systems into an action-based format, the role of reflex-driven abilities in a narrative adventure, and the ways in which melee combat techniques serve a dual role in exploration outside of battle.
Castlevania II — whether by coincidence or not — carried forward many of these elements; its structure, design, and mechanics bore a remarkable resemblance to Zelda II's. The biggest difference between the two games ultimately boiled down to the way players navigated between the 2D platform-based towns and dungeons in each. Zelda II thrust them into a top-down format loosely resembling the original Zelda, or Dragon Quest; Castlevania II never broke from its side-scrolling design, turning the whole of Transylvania into a single contiguous space.
Like Zelda II, Castlevania II became something of a black sheep in its series. Symphony was the first Castlevania entry, a decade later, to put forward what appeared to be a sincere effort to find the diamond in the older game's ample rough. It gave Alucard an experience system that built on Simon Belmont's rudimentary stat-boosting, turned the series' iconic cash bag drops into functional currency, and conferred special powers onto the protagonist based on his equipment selections just as Dracula's relics had in Simon's Quest. In fact, Dracula's relics became a key component of Symphony's second half: Players had to battle the five bosses of the original Castlevania in order to acquire the five tokens of Dracula's power Simon had gathered in Castlevania II. More than mere fan service, this signaled a genuine connection to the past.
Crawling the dungeons
One of Zelda's most defining traits from the very beginning has been the series' emphasis on self-contained dungeons connected by an open overworld. This structure sets it apart from the Metroid games, which break the action into a handful of large regions whose objectives tend to blur and overlap rather than standing alone.
While Symphony may initially appear to duplicate Metroid's design, in practice the castle works a lot more like a Zelda world. The separate zones of the castle seemingly work as more free-roaming renditions of the individual stages seen in older Castlevanias, but generally speaking the separate sections of Dracula's realm tend to fall into one of two formats: Thoroughfare zones and objective zones. The areas in the center of the castle typically fall into the former category. There's little to be done in terms of plot or mission objectives in areas like the Outer Wall or Marble Gallery, and you pass back and forth through them multiple times en route to other objectives (even after you've unlocked the helpful warp zones to cut down transit time). Other areas, however, hold essential goals or power-ups; map regions like the Long Library or Lost Catacombs have only a single exit, and therefore become an end rather than a means to some other end.
You may visit these areas multiple times, but always in a puzzle-platformer sense rather than as a passage the way you do a multi-exit zone like the Alchemy Laboratory. For example, your first primary objective in Symphony should be to reach the Long Library to acquire the Jewel of Open. During that initial visit, though, you can't quite reach the upper levels of the library, which contains a crucial power-up; you first need to gain the ability to fly in order to reach those heights. In many ways, Symphony boils down to a complex nesting puzzle of interlocked objectives that has you crisscrossing the castle in order to acquire the tool you need to reach the next tool, with the ultimate goal (ostensibly) being to reach Dracula's tower high above the Castle Keep. And while the game doesn't designate any of the castle's regions as an explicit "dungeon" in the Zelda sense, each area works either as a holding place for an essential objective or as a passage to reach one of those goal zones — but rarely as both — echoing the overworld/underworld dichotomy of Zelda's lands.
I say the goal of Symphony is "ostensibly" to reach Dracula's keep, because trekking to his lonely tower will lead you to the game's final battle and its ending... or so it seems. In truth, the foe that awaits you on Dracula's throne is a mere puppet, and defeating him in combat leads to an unsatisfying "bad" ending in which Alucard muses that matters haven't truly been settled. It's up to players to deduce the means by which to uncover the truth of that final battle, which opens up one of the biggest plot twists in gaming: You're only at the journey's halfway point, and an entire second castle — the mirror inverse of the structure you've already explored — must be explored before you can solve Dracula's riddle.
More than perhaps any other element of Symphony, the Inverted Castle feels directly inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In that game, Link had to venture into a twisted version of the game world — literally called the Dark World — in order to complete his quest. That dual-reality concept has become fairly common in games these days, appearing in everything from Soul Reaver to, yes, Metroid (in Metroid Prime 2), and even in popular fiction (e.g. Stranger Things). At the time of Symphony's debut, however, it hadn't yet become a cliché. It doubled the length of the adventure for a minimal development cost, which made it pragmatically appealing... but it also had the punch of a brilliant, unexpected surprise.
Symphony's second castle isn't nearly the masterstroke that Zelda's Dark World was, though. It's a mere afterthought, whereas Link had to navigate a realm that had been carefully woven into the fabric of the overall adventure. Igarashi would attempt to integrate a parallel realm into his next metroidvania — or is that zeldavania? — but Harmony of Dissonance's dual castles turned out to be confusingly designed and turned the entire game into a slog. So maybe Castlevania can't be Zelda literally... but its influence helped Symphony achieve greatness.
Next time: We wrap this deep dive into Symphony of the Night by exploring the minor design details that add up to greatness.
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