The anatomy of Symphony of the Night's incidentals
On its 20th anniversary, a look at all the great little details that elevated a classic.
Back at the beginning of the year, I wrapped my tenure with USgamer by penning a multi-part series exploring the design of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The articles ended with part four, but I also had in mind a fifth entry that I never had the opportunity to write. With the 20th anniversary of the game's U.S. release falling this week, I figure now is as good a time as any to dust off my notes and give Symphony one last loving look. (Until the next time I write about it, that is.)
As I've mentioned before, Symphony of the Night holds the distinction of being the first game I ever imported from Japan. When it launched in Japan, I had just traded my Nintendo 64 for a PlayStation a few months earlier, and I'd read all the rumors about how Sony's American branch hated 2D games and refused to let them see release in the U.S. Although that clearly wasn't true — two of the first three PS1 games I purchased had been sprite-heavy Suikoden and the defiantly 2D Mega Man 8 — it caused me great concern that this utterly gorgeous new Castlevania game might never come to the U.S.
So I imported it, despite barely being able to read a character of Japanese at the time, and found myself entranced yet baffled. So I guess Symphony also has the distinction of being the first game I played through with the help of an online walkthrough; a GamePro contributor had played through the game and put together a helpful website for ignorant importers like me, which helped me sort through the game's more language-intensive secrets. Things like the two rings that tell you to equip them in the center of the castle. That kind of stuff.
I also had a little help from Terumi, a Japanese exchange student I hung out with a lot that summer. A mutual friend had tried to set us up on the premise that (1) I had taken an interest in anime and (2) the exchange student wanted to date an American guy. That's a pretty tenuous pretext for romance, and in fact there ended up being zero romantic chemistry between us. We simply became friends instead. Terumi perked up at the sight of me playing a game in her native language, but her own attempt to play Symphony (excuse me, I mean Gekka no Nocturne) got her as far as the battle against Slogra and Gaibon before she died quickly and gave up. She was content to watch me play further into the game and help me puzzle through some of the items I'd been collecting.
Weapons and curative items I could grasp, but what about some of the other stuff? Like, most food I understood, but there was one food item that didn't seem to do anything. I used it and it just vanished.
"Peanuts," she read for me. "It says these are difficult to eat." And sure enough. Symphony has a food-consumption mechanic I've never seen in any other game; food has healing properties, but you don't simply go to a menu and select a meal to apply instantly to your HP. Instead, all usable items have to be equipped in one of Alucard's hands, and that includes food. When you "use" a consumable, you do so by pressing the attack button for the hand holding that item. In the case of potions or subweapons, you fire them off immediately. Food, on the other hand, you actually drop to the ground and have to pick up again in order to absorb its effects. That's fine for a plate of beef roast or something, but peanuts are tiny — I think their sprites are about two pixels in size, barely visible on-screen. And Alucard turns out to be a horrible show-off who isn't simply content to eat a peanut; he has to flip them into the air one at a time. So in order to make use of a peanut's beneficial effects, you have to maneuver Alucard beneath the peanut before it drops to the ground, because once it hits it's gone forever.
The real kicker here is that peanuts restore a pitiful 5 points of health. (By the time you acquire peanuts, you're likely to have 150 HP or more.) In other words, the game's creators went to the trouble of creating a unique animation and mechanic for a single consumable that has almost zero value. Ridiculous.
Another mystery for Terumi: What about these boots I discovered in a cave behind the underground waterfall? It's a tough item to get ahold of (since you need to cling to the cliff face, and passing through the waterfall is likely to cause Alucard injury in your first trip through the caverns); surely such a deviously hidden prize has great combat value, right? But I couldn't determine any sort of benefit to the boots — no stat boosts, no obvious combat effects, no improved backdashing. Nothing.
She read the item description and giggled. "It says they make you look taller."
That can't be right, I thought. Maybe we're getting our wires crossed due to language issues? But no, her explanation was spot on. The Secret Boots, as they're called in the U.S. release, "discreetly increase height." That is, they make use of the PlayStation's tech to stretch Alucard's sprite slightly and make him a few pixels taller. They do nothing else.
In a game so packed with secrets, it makes sense that some of them serve no practical purpose. Symphony came into existence during a brief moment in video game history: Technological capabilities had begun to expand beyond the constraints of 8- and 16-bit games, and developers who continued working in the mode of older generations (as with Symphony and its 2D platforming action) suddenly found themselves with the power and capacity to goof around. As a result, we ended up with games loaded down with fun extra details that you rarely see in modern-day blockbuster titles. Adding something like Symphony's unique peanut-eating animation would be too complex, too bogged down by hierarchy to be feasible for a $200 million game whose staff roll scrolls for 20 minutes, whereas whoever added it to Symphony probably coded it for fun during a few minutes of downtime (or more likely slipped it into their busy schedule to relieve stress).
There were many other things that baffled me in the import version. Late in the game, I found all the equipment Alucard had stolen from him at the beginning of the adventure by Death. But, weirdly, it didn't make him as powerful as he had been at the outset of the game. But I could read enough Japanese at that point to see that it was indeed Alucard's equipment! What was the deal?
As it turns out, I simply wasn't paying attention. I had found the Alucart gear set, not the Alucard set. The two look almost identical in Japanese: Alucard is アルカード while Alucart is アルカート, the only difference being the two diacritic marks that indicate the T sound has been softened to a D. The ambiguity of those sounds and character markings is a popular gag in Japanese text, but it's a detail that can be easy for someone just figuring out the language to overlook.
A lot of the things that baffled me in my foreign-language playthrough of the game became much clearer several months later, when I got my hands on the American version. I felt a little frivolous putting a game I already owned on my Christmas wish list, but I couldn't shake the feeling that as much as I loved the import — which I'd already played through to full completion several times — I'd enjoy it in English even more. I was correct, and the fact that I ended up receiving it at the same time as a GXTV made revisiting the game in English even more satisfying. (The GXTV was the "gaming television" — a tiny 12" TV with mediocre video inputs… and some frankly fantastic built-in speakers that did proper justice to Symphony's incredible soundtrack.)
Of course, many of Symphony's hidden details didn't rely on language skills to uncover, since they were never indicated in the game text. At no point did the game explain that many swords had secondary actions. For example, the Jewel Sword caused enemies to drop higher-value loot… but if you performed a rolling forward "fireball" motion as you attacked, Alucard would fling money from the tip of the blade that you could collect. The same motion would cause other blades to cast projectiles or prompt Alucard to perform a dashing reverse attack.
Or consider the Shield Rod, whose description simply reads, "Extra effective with shield." OK!? But what does that actually mean? Well, performing a fireball motion with the rod equipped causes Alucard to generate a pair of spinning blue energy orbs that block projectiles (it's literally the Shield power-up from Gradius). But if you equip the Shield Rod and a shield in his hands and press both action buttons at once — again, Alucard has a separate button mapped to each hand — the Shield Rod will evoke a spirit from the current shield. The leather shield causes a cow to materialize and give Alucard a defensive boost, while the rare Medusa Shield summons Medusa herself to blast all enemies on the screen with a petrifying laser beam. This is, again, completely undocumented, and the prospects of you actually finding a Medusa shield are vanishingly tiny. But the feature exists, and if you luck into both the item and knowledge of the technique, it can be a total game-changer… yet the game is perfectly manageable and playable even if you never stumble upon that shield (or something like the mighty Crissaegrim sword) in the course of a playthrough.
You have to luck into these details on your own, or with a gentle nudge from someone else, because they're totally unmentioned in-game… but once you begin to discover that hidden layer of secrets in Symphony, you open up an enormous amount of replayability. Thanks to the random, unpredictable drop rates of many optional items with hidden effects, you're likely to lean on completely different tactics and options with every playthrough. Of course, some people prefer to stick to an optimized scheme, but the joy of Symphony comes in part from the fact that it offers so many weird and unexpected ways to switch things around.
Besides, it's not as if all of Symphony's best secrets and little nuances are hidden behind random drops. Many are right there for you to see, if you're paying attention. For example, one of the first Easter eggs you're likely to witness in the game often appears in the seemingly endless Marble Gallery hallway that cuts most of the way across the castle's length. If you happen to let one of the giant flowers there hit you with its bouncing rock projectiles, Alucard will be frozen into a statue of himself, forcing you to jam on the controller to break him free of petrifaction. Every once in a while, though, Alucard's petrified state will instead take the form of a massive gargoyle. And that's not merely cosmetic; his hit box grows to the same size as the stone gargoyle. In the Marble Gallery, that doesn't make much difference as there aren't many active threats in that zone. Later, however, you have to deal with the threat of petrifaction while ascending the Clock Tower amidst an endless stream of respawning Medusa heads. "Stone" status leaves Alucard vulnerable to additional damage, so being rendered a gargoyle while under assault by a hail of sine-wave heads can ruin your day.
On the other hand, many details can be a boon to the observant eye. Once you manage to survive the Clock Tower, you'll reach a room leading to the Inner Keep. It's a somewhat maze-like room full of haunted swords and a twisting path through crumbling pillars. It's also decorated with columns rendered to look like statues, many of which appear to be pointing in random directions. Turns out those directions aren't entirely random: Frequently, the statues are pointing at areas where the walls contain hidden goodies.
You don't need to rely on statues, though; several of the demonic familiars you can equip in the game will sometimes point to secrets. Familiars also have tons of undocumented effects, too. The faerie will light on Alucard's shoulder if he stands still long enough (in the Japanese version, she'd sing a ballad after landing). The sword will eventually level up and become an inventory item. And the bat will fall in love with Alucard whenever he shift into his bat transformation, proving that he's a beautiful boy in any form.
Also, while it's never explained or mentioned in-game, Alucard can sit in any chair he finds. Normally, this doesn't really do anything besides give you a moment of rest and a chance to see a sitting sprite the developers added for the heck of it. However, if you sit in the confessional booth in the cathedral, a spectral priest will appear on the other side of the booth. Sometimes the priest will simply genuflect for Alucard, while the dark-robed priests will snicker evilly and attempt to stab you through the wall. If you're really lucky, though, the priest will offer "communion": He'll leave you grapes to use as a consumable item.
The ability to sit has one other in-game effect. When you enter the lair of Olrox, a vampire designed in the style of Nosferatu, you encounter him at a banquet table. If you rush up to him, he'll stand and attack. But, alternately, you can sit opposite him and he'll remain neutral — which feels like a fun nod to the idea of "noble" enemies who meet on civil terms before coming to blows.
Outside of Olrox's lair, the water in the fountain in his courtyard transfigures into blood as you run past. A giant eyeball floats in the background peering at you through the windows of the Marble Gallery. You never fight the eyeball; it just wants to watch you, apparently. Mice scurry through the rafters of the outer wall, seemingly the only benign creatures unaffected by the magic of Dracula's castle. Meanwhile, the weather changes between rain and fog every time you return to the outer wall. And while every zone of the castle appears to be frozen at some different time of the night (at different times of the month, with the moon appearing in different phases depending on your current location), Alucard himself still seems tied to "real" time, with the game beginning at midnight and the duration of your current playthrough reflected in the clock at the castle's heart… which in turn affects time-based game elements like the Sunstone and Moonstone (which grant extra stat boosts based on time of day).
I could easily turn this article into a wiki-like list of Easter eggs, tricks, and references that scrolls as endlessly as that hallway in the Marble Gallery, but there's no need. Much of the fun of Symphony's secrets and references lies in the discovery… and while I've spoiled a few of them for anyone out there who somehow has missed out on this masterpiece over the past 20 years, I've really only scratched the surface. Symphony of the Night may not be a perfect game, but it's a brilliant game buoyed by the joy of the people who created it. They poured care and attention into every little space of the game in a way that speaks to their profound love of and pride in their work. It's a game that has the capacity to surprise me 20 years after my first playthrough, and I imagine I'll still be finding new things in it 20 years from now.