Summer Classes: “Castlevania Symphony of the Night”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we continue our exploration of  “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.”

I think there are few mediums that let people have a moment where everything suddenly clicks. Videogames are probably the best example of this phenomenon. There’s usually a moment, sometimes about halfway through the game where the style, control and challenges all begin to match up to the player’s expectations and abilities. The challenges no longer seem unbeatable, the avatar suddenly feels unstoppable and death seems unlikely.

As Alucard rushed through the catacombs of the castle, I finally came across a fire spewing priest. I summoned a holy symbol, equipped my best sword and repeatedly blocked his attacks, inching closer and closer to him so that I could land blow after blow. As he dropped, the priest changed into a huge green skeletal monster, towering over Alucard and shooting fire. I changed into a bat, set my familiar to give me potions every time my health dropped dangerously and began to heave battle-axes at my enemy. Whatever happened, I was going to walk away victorious. And I did.

Of course, it only took me a couple more hours to get here. After scouring the castle, finding only a few more items, I discovered Dracula’s room, found Richter, killed him and watched the credits roll. It was strange. I knew this couldn’t be the end of the game so I leapt back in, searching for anything that could possibly lead me to the true ending of the game.

It took me a whole two hours of aimless wandering through the castle to find anything. In an overlooked section of the waterlogged chasm, I discovered an artifact that let me swim. From there, I carefully began exploring every nook and cranny of the castle. If there was a tiny chimney, I was going to turn into a bat and fly up it. If there was an odd looking wall, I was going to smash it with my sword until I was sure that nothing was coming out. Wide open areas were scoured by me in both human and bat form, looking  for anything that could possibly lead to a new relic, a new weapon or a new area to explore.

The reward was these new areas. It was a chance to fight new enemies, find even more treasures, challenges and above all, boss fights. I adored finding more and more of these difficult encounters. After having played more and more of the game, I wasn’t being challenged in the moment to moment battles or platforming of the game. Everything was streamlined to encourage players to search every part of the game so the normal encounters were pretty easy. The only thing that could possibly be very difficult would be the parts that players wouldn’t play again, the boss fights.

This was something I’d forgotten I’d missed since the beginning of the modern age of gaming. In a world where everything is leaked online, every necessary area that needs to be explored is pointed to explicitly, where every enemy has a glowing weak spot, it can be hard to find this sense of exploration and discovery in a game world. I loved following these rabbit holes, even if it meant near endless grinding battles with unfathomably easy enemies.

That being said, eventually, I had done everything, found every item and bought up so many items from the Master Librarian that there were no excuses left. I equipped the Holy Glasses, ended Shaft’s spell and freed Richter, beginning the second half of the quest. Shit was suddenly very, very real.

In the inverted castle, the rooms had been flipped, forcing me to depend on the bat and mist form, engaging with much more powerful enemies and forced to duel with even more powerful bosses. This was the return of the challenge I faced when I began the game. Brutal difficulty marked every hallway as I slew minotaurs as I forced my way to every save point without much in the way of support items. If the platforming was any better, it would feel much more like the old Castlevania I knew and loved.

The things that felt frustrating no longer felt insurmountable. In especially straining fights. In the Inverted Coliseum, I turned to mist in a room that was filled with minotaurs and werewolves, I moved through the horde without taking a blow. Was it a slight cheat? Definitely, but a necessary one.

I ended my session with a battle with Beelzebub, the demonic lord of flies. I hurled axes at his legs, dodging poisonous maggots and cutting down giant evil bugs as I cut off chunks of the beast’s body. That being said, he repeatedly killed me. Instead of grinding through enemies, I reloaded and went back in every time, ready to kill my enemy with a brand new strategy. I didn’t need to get better. I needed to get even.

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