CSotN: The rest of the content

Having left the last post in a bit of a cliffhanger, it’s time for a big spoiler. What’s on the other side of the fake ending? The entire second half of the game, it turns out. There’s a teleporter to another castle. Or not quite another castle, because it’s exactly the same layout, the same furnishings and everything, although palette-swapped a bit in places. There are of course different monsters (including a completely new set of bosses, and also a few of the earlier bosses demoted to grunts) and different treasures (including all the items that were taken away from you in the intro, which are pretty much the best items other than rare random drops). Also, it’s all upside-down. The whole castle.

This inversion doesn’t affect the monsters. It does affect all stationary scenery elements, which includes any flames or bodies of water, as well as the sky and the ground, in those places where you can see outside. It has the effect of making you climb to reach the deepest caverns under the castle. It’s basically a lazy way to double the amount of terrain while still varying it in significant ways: a room with an arched ceiling becomes a room with a curved and sloping floor, a pool that was hard to avoid falling into becomes instead hard to reach.

Actually, water is one of the few things that can be hard to reach at this point. By the time you reach the inverted castle, you’ve necessarily gained the ability to turn into a bat. You can’t go through water in this form, but you can merrily fly over the heads of some of the toughest enemies who would otherwise block your way. In extreme cases, like when there’s an endless stream of flying medusa heads in your way, you can turn into mist, although this uses up mana a lot faster than bat-form. Still, the simple ability to skip combat whenever you feel like it is one of the factors that makes the second half go faster than the first. Another is the fact that you already have all the obstacle-circumvention powerups in the game. Another is that, because the second castle is identical in layout to the first (only upside-down), you already know the map, including the locations of secret passages and how to access them. (This cuts both ways: there was one secret passage that I found in the inverted castle first, because it had been on the ceiling before.)

The only real obstacle, then, is the boss fights, which get pretty tough. There are things on the scale of Shadow of the Colossus here; past a certain point, things that don’t fully fit on a single screen become the norm. And I have to take a moment now to remind myself to be impressed with that, that they could spare the resources, both in terms of system memory and development time. It’s easy to take for granted in the post-FMV age, but I can remember being impressed with lesser efforts at the arcade. And the most impressive part isn’t even just the big things: it’s that this game has a roster of enemies as large and diverse as a Final Fantasy of its era, only where FF was using static images for everything but the player characters, these monsters are fully animated. In some cases, particularly with armored foes, it looks like they might be saving some cels by building creatures out of rigid parts that can be rotated independently, now that they could target hardware with native support for bitmap rotation. But there are a lot of creatures that are just animated as full-body bitmaps, and I could be wrong about the game ever doing anything else.

(One trick I have to mention: there are a couple of types of ghostly sword-wielders that spend most of their time invisible. The swords of these beings are always visible, swinging and swashbuckling freely, but the body only appears in brief flashes. This means they can have an elaborate attack routine with only two or three frames of animation, and the poses you can see are carefully chosen to suggest more than they depict.)

Anyway, the second half goes fast enough that I’ve already finished it. This gives one the opportunity to start over in the role of Richter Belmont. I don’t consider this to be necessary for removing the game from the Stack, but I’ve played in Richter mode enough to be impressed with how different it is. It essentially turns the game back into a traditional Castlevania: there’s no inventory or equipment, no mobility upgrades, no leveling or XP. It’s just you, a sacred whip, and one special weapon at a time. Richter even moves with the blocky, shuffling gait of the original Castlevania on the NES, which looks downright silly after Alucard’s more detailed walk animation, with his hair and cloak all flowing and windswept. To compensate for his inability to turn into a bat, Richter gets a free pass on some things that Alucard needed upgrades for, such as opening enchanted doors. Come to that, Alucard needed upgrades just to use some of the basic features of the UI that Richter gets automatically, like having the amount of damage your blows are doing to the monsters displayed on the screen. That’s a kind of upgrade I’d normally expect only in satire.

One thing tempts me to keep on going with Richter, and that’s the thought that all that upside-down terrain would become more relevant with him. He’d have to navigate it all without flying, without even double-jumping. But I suppose he must have some secret hadouken-like combo that lets him clear the larger gaps in the game, or he’d never be able to reach the topmost tower. But I’ve never been much of a one for secret combos. Heck, I barely used the combos I was explicitly given for casting spells. (I’m told that playing through the game without using spells is a common voluntary conduct challenge for those who have mastered the game, and I came pretty close to doing it unintentionally.) What’s worse is that some of the special powers that Alucard can unlock are combos that the game doesn’t even tell you how to use. No, not even in the docs. For example, one grants you the ability to run fast while in wolf form. I have no idea how to trigger this. I managed it once, but only by accident. Apart from one place where you need to shift into wolf form to pass a narrow gap (because Alucard is apparently too proud to crawl), I basically didn’t use wolf form, except as a result of getting confused about which button does which transformation. Because wolf form is basically useless unless you can do the combos.

One combo I used a great deal: the one for the high-jump power, down-up-X. I didn’t figure this out on my own. I resorted to hints. Perhaps it would be more easily guessable by someone steeped in 1997 console-game lore. It certainly seems like the sort of action that would be used in multiple games. I recall that Half-Life did something similar for its long-jump action. The only other time I used hints was to open the rightmost passage in the clock tower, which is something of a riddle. The room is dominated by a working clock face, and there’s a passage on the left that opens and closes at intervals of a minute, so I thought that the passage on the right must have some similar time-based pattern, and spent some time waiting for it to open when the clock hands were reaching significant-looking points. But the trick turned out to be nothing like that, and I doubt I would have got it on my own.

That closed-off passage by the clock was the last of the obvious obstacles for me. There may well be more secret passages that I haven’t found, hidden behind crumbling walls and the like. I suppose I could do a sweep of the castle with the Faerie familiar equipped if I wanted to find them all: as the one familiar who doesn’t participate in combat, the Faerie helps you in other ways, like pointing out frangible walls and feeding you healing potions when you need them. But, having taken a longer glance at some FAQs and walkthroughs now, it seems like discovering absolutely everything is a goal for those more dedicated than me, people who like to play the same game over and over and master its every detail. The game indulges such players by giving them lots of obscure stuff to discover. The Shield Rod combos, for example. The Shield Rod is a bludgeoning weapon that I used for a while, then abandoned when I got a better weapon. Apparently if you use it at the same time as a shield, pressing the weapon and shield buttons simultaneously, it produces a magical effect determined by the type of shield. This is obscure enough that it would come off as an easter egg if it weren’t so elaborate, another of the game’s extravagances. It’s a short step from exploring this kind of content to discovering glitches and exploiting them to break sequence, get outside the castle walls, and similar activities. And there have been people so in love with the game that they put documents on the internet explaining how to do this.

For my part, I may eventully find enough motivation to finish with Richter, but am unlikely to take things farther than that. Life is too short, and the Stack too large.

CSotN: False Ending

Today, I beat Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. In a sense, anyway.

There was a boss fight against former hero Richter Belmont — I had been expecting Dracula, but when you think about it, Richter has already been established to be tougher than Dracula. The fight was kind of anticlimactic, over with disappointingly quickly. This is always a danger with RPG-like leveling systems that allow the player to keep on leveling beyond the point of challenge, but you’d think they could keep a bit of drama by making it a multi-stage boss. (It’s not like the notion was foreign to the designers. Dracula in the intro had two stages.) Victory was followed by an epilogue cutscene, and then the credits scrolled by, and ordinarily I’d consider that to be enough to get a game off the Stack. But, well, there were indications that I wasn’t actually finished with the game.

There were still passages I hadn’t yet found a way to get through, and even an optional miniboss that I hadn’t managed to beat. That in itself didn’t mean very much: there are a lot of blocked passages that just lead to a single room containing a piece of equipment or two, and in a lot of cases, I only found them after they had been rendered obsolete. But in the castle library, you can look at a sort of pokédex of all the monster types you’ve encountered, and something close to half the slots in the list were yet to be filled in. This made it seem like there had to be more than just a handful of isolated bonus rooms. The really convincing thing, though, was that the map showed a couple of small rooms on the opposite side of, and only accessible from, the room where the final boss fight took place. Which made them clearly impossible to get to, because you don’t get to leave that room: win or lose, the game ends there.

And so, jumping back to my last save before winning, I went to fight that one undefeated miniboss, a magician who summons swarms of bats and flying skulls. I had initially found this much harder than the fight against Richter, and I kind of wonder if this was deliberate, a way to encourage people to fight Richter first. But then, maybe not: after a little thought, I realized that there was a specific special weapon, a book that swirls around you in a defensive cloud, that would take down the swarms easily. Special weapons, the ones that use “hearts” for ammo, have the peculiar property that they don’t go into your inventory like most items, and you can only hold one at a time. It’s a weird mechanic for this game, but it’s one that Symphony of the Night inherited from the original Castlevania, which was just a platformer rather than a platformer/RPG(/adventure) hybrid and didn’t have an inventory. Anyway, it worked, and that led to an item that had obvious application to exploring another previously-unexplorable area, which turned out to hold another item that unlocked a different area, and so forth until I had a new way to handle the encounter with Richter, and, through it, access to those impossible rooms on the other side.

One of my vague wouldn’t-it-be-interesting game ideas that I’ll probably never actually implement is the idea of a game with a secret. You’d have a straightforward quest: rescue the princess, say. You could complete this quest by playing the game in the obvious way, and some people would do that and be satisfied. But other people would put together some details and realize that rescuing the princess isn’t what they should actually be doing: the royal family are all secretly alien shapeshifters, perhaps, and the player characters who win the straightforward way will wind up with their brains sucked out of their skulls while the credits are rolling. The people who discover this would have an opportunity to go off the obvious path and wind up playing a larger game, with different goals.

There are a few games that approach this to various degrees, but none I’m aware of quite reach it. Portal does the subversion, but forces the player into it. The Path lets you either pursue your stated goal the simple and direct way or wander the world around first, but doing the former is explicitly unsatisfactory. Gregory Weir’s The Day has two very different stories wrapped up into a single game, but it doesn’t make a secret of the fact.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night may be the closest thing to the concept I’ve seen. I really can imagine someone defeating Richter and putting the game away, satisfied that they’ve finished it. But I can’t, now that I know the fuller story, that Richter isn’t the bad guy after all, and now that I’ve seen what’s on the other side of that room. Which I will describe in my next post. All I’ll say for now is that I’m very glad that I didn’t accept the false ending. Pursuing the game further has replaced anticlimax and disappointment with open-mouthed delight.

CSotN: The Unexplained and Inexplicable

I have a vague memory of reading someone’s commentary on golden age Superman comics, in which much was made of a scene where Lex Luthor, in an laboratory under the ocean, suddenly remembers that he saw an enormous sea monster nearby recently and decides to use it to keep the approaching Superman at bay. That, to the commentator, summarized the old-school sensibility perfectly: suddenly pulling things like sea monsters out of nowhere. Mind you, he felt that the more modern approach, of giving the sea monster an elaborate backstory explained in its own miniseries, was even worse.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has a similar sensibility to golden-age comics. You’re exploring Castle Dracula and all of the sudden, apropos of nothing, you find yourself in a boss fight against a hippogriff. Why is there a hippogriff in Castle Dracula? I guess because the designers thought it would be cool. This isn’t a game that explains things particularly. It just throws visuals at you and lets you come to your own conclusions. The freakiest monster by far I’ve seen is essentially a huge floating ball of corpses, too big to fit on the screen all at once, that mainly attacks by shedding a rain of animated corpses down on you. Damage it enough, and you can knock sections off of its hull, revealing a starfish-like tentacle monster at its core. And now that I’ve said that much, you have as much idea as I do of what it was or what it was doing there.

It isn’t even just the creatures that come off as gratuitously inexplicable. It’s the architecture as well, which is more thematic than plausible. This is ostensibly a castle, and the outer sections tend to be surrounded by plausible castle exterior, but it contains a colosseum — not just a combat arena, but something specifically called a colosseum, with, furthermore, decaying posters plastered around its entrance, because apparently even colosseums built into inaccessible castles just kind of grow posters. There’s a section called “clock tower”, which does contain a room-filling clock at one point, but it’s in the middle of some longish rooms completely filled with grandfather clocks, their pendulums swinging in eerie unison. One imagines the architect (either in-game or out-) saying “Of course there are clocks. It’s a clock tower. What else do you expect to find in a clock tower but clocks?”

The thing is, I’m not really complaining. It’s clear that this castle is a magical place. One of the few drops of story we’re given is that the castle only appears once every hundred years. This game is supposed to be set in a break in the pattern when the castle appeared 96 years early, but still, the very nature of the place gives it an excuse to be dreamlike and phantasmagorical. Things that don’t quite make sense just enhance an appropriate sense of otherworldliness. Or so I’m willing to tell myself as I play.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as RPG

If I didn’t already have a notion of what genre Castlevania: Symphony of the Night belongs in, I’d probably invent the category “Platform RPG” for it. It’s simply got more RPG-genre signifiers than any other metroidvania I’ve played. It isn’t just that you earn experience and level up; there are a bunch of games go that far without seeming particularly RPG-like otherwise. (I think of Blood Omen 2 as a good example, although it probably only comes to mind right now because of its long-haired vampire protagonist.) It’s the little influences, like the choice of stats (which use stantard D&D abbreviations like STR and CON), as well as their initial values, which fall squarely into the middle of 3d6 range. And the whole layout of the status and inventory menus is not just RPG-like, it’s distinctly Final Fantasy-like.

The specific powers of the items you can equip include gimmicks of the sort I particularly associate with JRPGs. For example, there’s a suit of armor whose protective power increases with the amount of the castle you’ve explored. Several other items that provide substandard protection make up for it with other powers, such as recovering health, mana, or “hearts” (ammo for special weapons) faster than normal. That sort of thing has been rare so far, though. Most of the weapons, armor, and trinkets you find just increase your Attack and/or Defense ratings to various degrees, and possibly give a stat bonus. Special gimmick items seem like more of a late-game thing, something to give you options beyond maximizing numbers once you feel like you’ve got them maximized enough. (And that’s a phenomenon happening to me already, when I get a new exploration-enabler and go back through earlier sections to reach previously-inaccessible areas: suddenly I find that I’m killing everything in one hit and only taking one point of damage at a time, just like in the intro.)

So I spend enough time contemplating equipment for the game to feel very CRPG-ish, but every once in a while it goes and does something just flat-out old-style coin-op platformer. I thump a crumbly tile of wall with my thumping-stick and out pops a roast turkey: suddenly, I feel like I’m playing Black Tiger. It’s a peculiar mix.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

OK, so Yahtzee was talking about Castlevania: Symphony of the Night recently. And that led to some discussion with fellow gamers, which led to me purchasing a used copy on eBay 1I’m playing the original Playstation version, which I’m playing on my PS2, which is still the most recent console I own. And anyway, it seems like a good synthesis of the last two games I blogged about, Aquaria, a “metroidvania”-style 2D game with an emphasis on exploration, and Amnesia, a horror game set in a spooky castle. The fact that they all end in “-ia” seems to be coincidental, but maybe I should scour the Stack for other such games to see if there’s a pattern.

Not that Casltevania is a horror game exactly — it’s got a vampire antagonist and an over-the-top gothic style, but it’s more fantasy than anything else. In fact, this particular entry in the series has strong FRPG elements, which came as a surprise to me. My prior experience with the Castlevania series is slight, owing to growing up primarily a PC gamer. I recall watching a friend play one of the prior episodes when we were both in college, probably on the SNES, and I’ve played on an NES emulator the first few sections of the original — just enough for the first few segments of Symphony of the Night to be very familiar. Those experiences left me confused about the term “metroidvania”, which didn’t seem to describe the Castlevania I had seen at all. The reason, I now know, is that those weren’t the games that inspired the term. Symphony of the Night was, and that is the main reason I decided to play it.

So, to begin. This is a game where your ability to fight and survive is highly dependent on your equipment, and to emphasize this, it does something I’ve seen a few other games do: it starts you off in an extremely buff state, lets you play through an intro like that, and then takes it all away from you. In fact, it does this twice. The very opening of the game, before it plays the credits, is apparently the ending of the previous game, comprising a few stretches of corridor, a secret passage, and a boss fight against Dracula himself, in which he utters one of the most famous lines of awkward videogame dialogue to ever be loosely adapted from Japanese to English: “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets,” 2Yes, I realize he’s quoting Malraux. It hardly matters. which is right up there with “You spoony bard!” in my book. Throughout this section, the player controls Richter Belmont, vampire hunter and warrior supreme. But Richter goes missing during the opening credits, and for the rest of the game (as far as I’ve seen, anyway), you get a long-haired bishounen who looks like CLAMP drew him. Perhaps the success of this game is what inspired Hideo Kojima to attempt the same thing a few years later in Metal Gear Solid 2?

Well, maybe, maybe not. Regardless, it’s similar enough to make me wonder why the introduction of Raiden provoked so much fan outrage and the introduction of Alucard, Dracula’s half-vampire son, did not. It probably has something to do with the setting: Metal Gear ‘s military theming is a lot more macho than Castlevania‘s gothic, with its suggestion that immortality and super-powers are associated with aristocracy and poetic souls. But also, Alucard wastes no time in earning his badass cred. Where Raiden is presented at first as a newbie fresh out of the academy (his backstory later turns out to be a lie, but only after you’ve already formed a first impression of him) and spends his first few encounters hiding from guards, Alucard is out there taking out huge monsters with single blows of his terrible swift sword. Which, after a few rooms, is taken away from him, along with the rest of his stuff. But he still keeps his comet-trail of ghostly afterimages!

Anyway, I’m finding this game pretty compelling, and can see why people still like it despite the dated VGA-looking graphics and terrible, terrible dialogue. I’ll probably post again tomorrow.

1 I’m playing the original Playstation version, which I’m playing on my PS2, which is still the most recent console I own
2 Yes, I realize he’s quoting Malraux. It hardly matters.