Thursday, 6 October 2016

October Nightmares II #6: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997) - The Monster Mash

Some might contest the inclusion of Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on a list called October Nightmares. The PS1 classic is, after all, as scary as one of those cat cafés they have in Japan. But a good horror game need not be terrifying. It’s all about the aesthetic and little touches, and, in SOTN's case, effective use of horror tropes. And in this respect, Symphony of the Night is the perfect game for the Halloween season. A 2.5D homage to the 16-bit era, SOTN is the bastard offspring of those late night cable shows which showcased the cheesiest horror b-movies they could find. Unfortunately, there’s no large breasted Elvira-esque host. Unless you count the succubus. She had a cleavage resembling two melons caught in a fishing net.

Despite having a title which sounds like the name of a teenage Goth’s first band, Symphony of the Night is considered one of the best video games ever made. An accolade the game wholeheartedly earned. It brought the ‘metroidvania’ brand of action-RPG/platformer to a whole new generation of gamers after the Metroid franchise went into hibernation following Super Metroid. The Metroid series would later return in force like Odysseus returning to his incredibly faithful wife, with 2002’s Metroid Prime. But it was SOTN which took Metroid’s unique blend of explorative platforming and added progressive RPG elements, resulting in a game that required the player to take charge of their own progression. The main issue with this style of open-ended gameplay is that some aspects of the game require a kind of moon logic to decipher. You can miss the entire second half of the fucking game, for example, if you didn’t collect all the magic rings that open a specific spot which holds a pair of special sunglasses. I’m not even making that up, flippant as I am.

Symphony of the Night isn't too concerned with total immersion, however. It's the type of fantasy setting which has around sixty swords with names straight out of Tolkien, but is still light-hearted enough that you can repeatedly headbutt the librarian NPC up the arse to grind for rare items. You play as Alucard, a human-vampire hybrid son of Dracula who has apparently just discovered anagrams and now thinks he is cooler than a nineties kid in a flame shirt. Alucard, tired of his immortality and latent super-human abilities, decides it’s high time that he kills his father and end his reign of terror over humanity. A campaign of terror which includes regurgitating André Malraux quotes out of context. It’s like Star Wars, but with a ponce in a cape. Symphony of the Night’s story isn’t exactly Dune, but all you needed for a video game in the nineties was a few screens of exposition and a clear direction for the player to proceed. Hell, it worked for Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s careers. From its simple set-up SOTN becomes a ghost train style experience which utilises any stock horror and mythological characters the developers didn’t have to pay to use.

You’ll encounter all manner of creatures; from the humble skeleton and warg, to legendary figures such as Medusa and Frankenstein’s monster. Dracula’s castle must be as cramped as a European youth hostel; filled with everything from falconer soldiers to lizard men. It’s a surprise that The Bed That Eats doesn’t show up, though I suppose the demon IKEA furniture is close enough. I really can’t emphasise how much SOTN feels like a love letter to the b-movie. This Gothic castle is packed with alchemy labs, haunted libraries, torture chambers, alien environments, and you half expect Vincent Price to pop up at any moment. Even the dialogue sounds like something from a Larry Cohen movie. This isn’t to say that Symphony of the Night isn’t capable of being scary. A few memorable boss encounters come to mind when thinking of genuinely horrifying moments. There’s Granfalloon, an amorphous of writhing human misery who resembles an orgy by way of The 120 Days of Sodom. Or Beelzebub, a fifty-foot rotting corpse who’s swarming with flies like the smelly kid in class.

There’s a definite David Cronenberg vibe to some of the later enemies. One particularly gruesome enemy appears to have been inspired by the impaling scene in Cannibal Holocaust. As was the case with Forbidden Siren, SOTN has the invaluable ability to make you apprehensive - even at the end when you’re more overpowered than the Powerpuff Girls. Sure, you possess the magical ability to turn into poison fog, a bat, or turn water into…sparkling water; but the deeper you delve into Dracula’s creepy domicile, the more terrible it becomes. It's like the Targaryen family tree. No matter what level you are, those imps drive you insane as they perpetually stunlock you back out of the room you're trying to pass through. And SOTN’s second half, set in the Reverse Castle, possesses many genuinely horrifying locations. The path to the hardest boss, Galamoth, is a particular highlight; containing more stop motion skeletons than Ray Harryhausen’s career, twisted eldritch environments, and a terrifying soundtrack that sounds like a hamster chewing on a Stalaggh CD.

Dracula most definitely lifts