Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night and The Modern Gaming Industry
January 9, 2017
I don’t know about the rest of the social, responsible, or interesting world, but I spent a good 60% of my Winter break playing unhealthy amounts of video games. I dabbled in my usual escapes: World of Warcraft, Dark Souls, Metroid, and Super Smash Bros., but I also played two games that I had never even touched before, both of which are heralded as timeless classics. The two in question are Shadow Of The Colossus for the PS2 and Castlevania: Symphony of The Night for the original Playstation. Both are incredible, and I can’t recommend them enough to do them justice. However, as I traversed through the corridors of Dracula’s castle in Symphony, a light shed on the changes the video game industry has experienced with the last few console generations, and it made me really appreciate how older games treated the player compared to today.
Symphony has a simple concept that is appealing in and of itself. You play as Alucard, the son of the ancient vampire Dracula (Alucard is just Dracula spelled backwards; Konami (the game studio) seems to think that’s really clever), on his quest to angstily banish his dad and the accompanying castle of various evil things from Earth. The controls are tight, the 2D graphics have aged really well compared to the aberrations that emerged from the first attempts at rendering things in three dimensions that popped up around the same time, and the all-important exploration of Dracula’s castle is the driving force for the player to advance. The best part is easily exploring the castle and finding all the little secrets the game developers left to reward the player for their efforts hidden in illusory walls and breakable terrain; it’s a great feeling to be rewarded for exploring in a game which is, at its core, about exploring.
When I beat the final boss, though, something felt fishy. The game felt like it had ended very abruptly, and the ending was kind of lackluster. I smelled a hint of alternate endings in the air. I took to Google, and what I found astounded me. I had missed the whole second half of the game, and it was hardly a fault of my own, as said second half was hidden behind a ridiculously contrived series of hoops to jump through and well-hidden secrets required to even become aware of the second half of the game.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, there is an entire inverted castle above the normal castle, with a completely new cast of bosses to kill, items to find, and upgrades to unlock (not to mention actual good endings). In order to unlock this complete second half of the game, though, the player has to jump through so many ridiculous hoops that it’s hilarious to me. The game gives you absolutely no hints as to how to do this, or that the inverted castle even exists. And this is where my love for this game doubled.
Symphony’s inverted castle is possibly the largest example of something that simply could not exist in a modern-day AAA game. There is no way that a game would release today or even a decade ago with such a major chunk of content hidden away from the player like that. Ever since a little after the beginning of the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii era, the industry seemed to think that their target audience suddenly and completely lost all sense of exploration, wonder, and ability to think, as more and more games mindlessly held players’ hands through the entire lackluster single-player story mode.
I rarely find myself even moderately interested in nine out of ten AAA games that are released these days, as this trend has only worsened since the newest generation of consoles came into existence. It just feels insulting to your intelligence when games tell you extremely obvious things like, “run away from the people who are currently trying to kill you.” Like that wasn’t obvious.
Now, perhaps hiding 50% of your video game behind a series of insanely complicated secrets that would be nearly impossible to discover without a guide is a little extreme, but there’s a certain sense of wonder in even discovering that these things exist through a Google search. As a player, it feels like you’re actually exploring a vast, unknown world, rather than being carted along for a linear showcase of whatever new graphics engine is being used to render the 4K ultra HD chest-high walls and various iterations of gray-brown rubble. When I learned that Symphony was hiding half the game behind a series of illusory walls, I didn’t think “wow, that’s stupid,” I thought, “Seriously?! That’s so cool!” It felt like the game was actually trying to challenge me, something that also is too few and far between in modern releases. Symphony of the Night wasn’t trying to impress me; it could care less what I thought about it. It wanted me to impress it. I had to play by Symphony’s rules to get what I wanted, and that’s a feeling that I just never get anymore.
At the end of the day, modern game developers can really learn a lot by looking to the greats of the past. Heck, DOOM (2016) was heralded by many as one of the best games released last year, and I can tell you why: it looked at why old school shooters used to be fun, did that, then made it look pretty, and that’s it. The vast majority of the developers releasing games today, though, just seem to be content with gushing out an endless stream of monotony, and the audience seems to be content with simply wrapping their lips around the faucet and gulping away. Game developers need to look to the legacy that they seem to have forgotten and really incorporate the things that made games great before they were all pretty to look at. Series like Castlevania, Metroid, Mega Man, and DOOM laid down the foundation for games to evolve into something incredible, but the industry moved away from that foundation and instead chose to dig the hole in which it now resides, thus treating you as none the wiser.