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Castlevania Symphony of the Night: the real example of true developer freedom

Creativity can be good? No way!

You know what? I think it’s time to show people I can write positive things regarding video games. Not everything has to be a dark puddle made out of sorrow, so now I want to talk about my favourite game of all time and why people (not companies, those guys can go f*ck themselves for all I care) should understand that making a game with passion and freedom can make one of the best gaming experiences of all time. And trust me when I say that I love something because you know that doesn’t happen often these days.

Breaking the genre

If there’s something I really enjoy about old games is that devs were always eager to make something memorable and fun to play. You have examples such as Super Metroid, Super Mario 64 and so many others. But when it comes to sidescrollers, these games always followed the same style. Sure, you could choose which area would you like to go next, but it was something that felt like going from point A to point B on a straight line. While making The Bloodletting, a Castlevania title developed for the 32X, Konami wasn’t really happy with this Genesis add-on so they said: “f*ck it, let’s go to the PlayStation y’all”. Thus, the title found a new home and a new name; Symphony of the Night.

 


Feel free to check my Castlevania Requiem review:

Castlevania Requiem Review


 

Toru Hagihara (the same who directed and produced Rondo of Blood) was the one directing this title, having a young Igarashi as an assistant director when the game was almost finished. What these two wanted was changing the design of the linear Castlevania experience, as they were tired of watching Castlevania games laying on bargain bins of gaming stores in Japan. As Igarashi stated, he wanted to “create something that could be played for a long time“. Oh, and let’s not forget that this couldn’t have been done without the designs of Ayami Kojima, a great artist that wanted to strand the style of the characters from the classic “Buffed Boys With Skirts and Whips” to a more refined and androgynous appearance.

But I don’t want to talk about what everyone knows already by searching “Castlevania SotN” on Google. Now I want to talk about why this game cannot be replicated in 2018.

Price and quality all in the same package

You know what happens when you give power and freedom to developers? They care about what they are doing. You can tell this by just reading this developer interview from 1997. And this statement made by Igarashi made me think as a guy who writes and rants about games:

“We gave the player a lot of freedom because we wanted to lengthen the playtime for an action game, which is usually short. If people spend 5800 yen (approx $58) on a game, they should get 5800 yen worth of enjoyment from it.”

Read that. Let it sink into your brain. Some people might say “but games are longer now!”, but let me tell pick this second sentence:

If people spend 5800 yen (approx $58) on a game, they should get 5800 yen worth of enjoyment from it.

You know why this bunch of words that will sound like bullsh*t nowadays are so amazing to hear from the mouth of a developer? Because he wasn’t talking about making the game a grind fest, he was talking about making a game that was ENJOYABLE to play. In terms of games as products, this is the purest statement you’ll ever find. You pay $60 in 2018 and what do you get? More than 40 hours walking around, doing side quests, grinding as a way to painfully extend the length of the game and finally telling to yourself “Wow, now that this is over I don’t want to repeat this again for a while”. But Igarashi and his team didn’t want that! They wanted to offer something that felt unique and fun to play all the time, and they managed to do it. Which lead me to talk about the second most important thing of this Castlevania title: the enemies.

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Look, mom, I’m learning with ‘gamevids‘!

Mythology is something that I always loved as a kid. The ability to create imaginary creatures in order to tell stories or explain how something that seems out of this world works is fascinating to me. And when I saw the huge amount of myths from every single part of the world, I was crying tears of joy. You have everything here: your vampires, your spooky scary skeletons, you bats… And then you have more interesting things like the Diplocephalus (which comes from Greek mythology), Lossoths (from Tolkien’s mythology), and the list goes on and on, so I’ll leave you here the entire bestiary of the game if you are interested about the origins of all the creatures of this game (also see The Annotated Symphony of the Night for more interesting stuff, 100% worth it).

I don’t know about you, but to me, this enemy variety tickled my curiosity so much that I wanted to do some research about almost all the enemies of the game and, spoiler alert, all the myths and folklore regarding them are just great! I really encourage everyone reading this to take a look at the monsters in the Castlevania series, they are all worth your time. Huh, maybe I should write a book about them.

The most important thing about enemies on a video game is for them to be remarkable for the player. Sure, you can make less enemies in order to understand how a level is going to work like in The Messenger, but SotN manages to offer such a wide number of monsters to slay with unique death animations for ALL of them that you are just able to say “holy DAMN, this game got some love from the devs”. And that leaves me to the final part of this: the details. The dumb, tiny, amazing details of Symphony of the Night.

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Because we could

I could just end this with powerful words talking about how important is to add love in games in the shape of dumb tiny details, but then someone will just bring up Red Dead Redemption 2 and tell me to shut up. But I think there’s a difference between VISUAL details and MECHANICAL details. A Fistful of Press The Square Button 2 makes the world highly detailed but at the cost of making the gameplay really slow. On the other hand, Symphony is an action game that doesn’t ask the player “are you eager to sit down and look at how detailed we made everything for 40 hours or more?”, but instead they give you the disc and they tell you “bud, here’s the game so just play it and have a fun time, alright?” while making everything else look majestic.

We are talking about a 2D action open-exploration game where you have:

  • So many f*cking weapons you can play however you please
  • Sprite work so detailed they gave Alucard a gesture that only triggers when he eats a peanut (because you eat peanuts by throwing them in the air)
  • Plenty of 1-use items you’ll never use yet they all be there just in case you want to use them
  • The ability to sit down in almost every chair
  • A family of birds that you can see grow
  • Different weather only present on a single side of the castle
  • The chance to trigger a special sprite of Alucard when he turns into stone
  • Boots that make Alucard slightly higher. That’s it, they only do that.
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And many other things. And you want to know why they added all this stuff?

Sotn article opinion
JUST FOR FUN.

Just. For. F*cking. Fun. That vase behind Alucard was intended to have roses that came out of it for no reason at all! You have different small pictures when you are choosing a save slot because the team made almost 20 of them! And then you find out that the menu looks amateur because they left the same one they used for testing the game!

In any other game, adding these stupid things only adds small charm to it, but the people who made Symphony KNEW they had the talent and the ability to do whatever they wanted, and so they did. And now it’s time for the sad part that I have to add in every single article because I’m a bitter asshole.

A game like Symphony of the Night won’t happen ever again, and the reason why it’s simple: because Triple A titles don’t care about this. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a good example of highly detailed games, sure, but at what cost? As much as you love how beautiful everything looks, when developers have to add a “press me to stop playing the game and let it play itself” button you know something’s not right. And you know the funniest part of all? That Symphony was rushed at the end! The castle on the first cutscene where it’s presented is just a rough render of the castle without details! The menu is the debug one they used while testing! And they even wanted to add more details!

Game nowadays have to be lengthy just for the sake of feeling worth the price, yet they never end up feeling like that. And we can always find shelter behind Indies, but they can’t go crazy, otherwise, they might face fewer people playing their games. So next time you play a Triple A title and you hear the developers say “we hope players enjoy what we are making”, ask them:

Did you enjoy your time making it?