Castlevania: Symphony of the Night & the Importance of the Gothic Horror Genre

We take a look back at Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the importance of the gothic horror genre.

Castlevania fans received some pretty exciting news last week. Koji Igarashi, mastermind behind quite a few of our favorite Castlevania games, announced a brand new spiritual successor to the 2D platformer franchise over Kickstarter.

During the call to action, Igarashi cited a problem in today’s action-adventure games: a distinct absence of new entries in what he called the “gothic horror” genre. His new game, Igarashi explained, would prove that the genre is still relevant.

The new project, titled Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, was fully funded (and then some) within the very first day it was announced. It would seem Igarashi was right. Fans are definitely still fond of the gothic horror genre, even if publishers are afraid to back those types of games. What draws us back to the Dracula’s castle?

To answer that question, we must first delve into the heart and soul of the gothic horror genre: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a game that introduced us to Alucard, the son of Dracula, on a quest to destroy the evil castle once and for all. This installment introduced new ways to explore Dracula’s castle and defeat the evil creatures creeping in its halls. Most importantly, Symphony of the Night shaped this genre by combining the games of old and embracing its oddities.

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Genre Redefining Creates New Genres

While the gothic horror genre refers more to the tonal aspects of the game’s storytelling, characters, and setting, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is also a marvel of game design. Symphony of the Night was the first Castlevania game to blend RPG elements into the action arena that fans of the franchise already loved.

The game’s leveling schematic fit the franchise well, and the myriad of choices offered for weapons, transformations, and relics gave players a lot of ways to customize their game. This wide range of choices also made the game naturally replayable. Even after playing through the basic game a couple times, it’s easy to stumble upon an uncanny relic like the merman statue and wonder, “Wait, what’s this?”

Enjoyable combat is rather expected in an action game, of course, especially one where leaps, wall jumps, and double jumps are used strategically. Instead of designing a game with linear approach to combat, the producers of SotN created an open-ended, exploration-encouraged system of rooms that allowed players to “grind” while discovering new ways to defeat enemies, hidden weapons, and secret rooms you might have missed on your first hectic pass. It was a simple change, but one that would prove to be a prime factor in the game’s popularity. And it fit right in with the game’s RPG elements.

We can’t forget the fact that Symphony of the Night was the Castlevania title that inspired the term “Metroidvania,” which refers to any action-adventure game (typically a 2D side-scroller) that contains elements often found in Metroid games and post-SotN Castlevania games, such as the ability to explore an area freely, with access to new areas granted by either gaining new abilities or using inventory items. Metroidvania games tend to put action and exploration at the forefront of the game, rewarding players for going off the beaten path and experimenting, but not necessarily requiring those activities. Of course, backtracking is often necessary in these games to get 100% completion.

Metroidvania games lend themselves perfectly to the Gothic horror style. They feature design elements that largely contribute to the tone and atmosphere of these games: a resonating aura of trepidation, a fear of the unknown as you dive into the darkened hallways and through ominous doorways. As much as Metroidvania and Gothic horror are about slaying the ancient monsters that curse men, it’s also about unlocking cosmic secrets and inner demons. It’s no accident that the almighty Alucard, son of Dracula, is stripped of most of his abilities and weapons (convenient game design, as well) in the first few minutes of the game. Symphony of the Night‘s story is as much about Alucard facing his own mortality as he literally comes face to face with death.

Oddity Can Be Embraced

The gothic horror genre is inherently odd. This is true for any game/anime/TV show within the gothic setting, but it’s especially true for games in the Castlevania series. As we delved deeper into Symphony of the Night, the game got stranger.

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Enemies like Beezelbub and the Spittle Bone became more grotesque during a second playthrough. The rich sprite details stood out a bit more (ever noticed the intricately-designed paintings with tiny battlefields of skeletal destruction in the background?). Some enemies like the Ouija Table and the Schmoo took on an appearance that could only be described as humorous (especially once you realized that the game-breaking Crissaegrim dropped from Schmoos). It also doesn’t hurt that SotN is the most aesthetically-gorgeous of all the Castlevania games—especially for its time. The sheer amount of background, foreground, and sprite details (every single enemy has a unique death animation, even) are staggering. 

Igarashi raises a question regarding the inherent “oddity” of the gothic horror genre. He references the notion that publishers are no longer keen to back video games that are considered gothic horror. These days, horror seems to revolve around zombie bashing, psychological thrillers, and survival games. We’re certainly not seeing a lot of gothic horror.

Gothic horror isn’t an easy genre to produce. It’s essentially the love child of a monster-filled cosmic horror universe and a plush Victorian setting full of intricate paintings, crystal chandeliers, and unique storytelling. It’s an odd setting, certainly, but it’s also ripe for imaginative plot twists, detail-rich character art, and creations that you won’t see anywhere else. In no other genre can you find floating zombie parts, mannequins brought to life, fancy costuming, fluttery capes, and flying ghost skeletons.

It’s fun to explore games in which enemies surprise us with their grotesqueries and make us question our perception of reality. We must not forget the part of the game in which Dracula’s evil servant Shaft literally turns the castle upside down and forces you to travel through the much more cavernous halls.

Nostalgia Is Very Powerful

All it takes is a brief look at Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter page to realize that nostalgia speaks louder than money. When a game creator forms a team and announces he wants to make a spiritual successor to an awesome game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, gamers stand up and take notice. Nostalgia can be a powerful force for developers.

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We approach every game we play with nostalgia because it is always intertwined with our hopes and expectations. We judge what we play by what we’ve played in the past. 

But a great game can’t survive on nostalgia alone. Many of the later Castlevania games admittedly have a hard time accomplishing this, but that’s primarily because Symphony of the Night set the bar so high.

That brings us back to Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. All of the fans who’ve backed the project thus far hope that Koji Igarashi can succeed in creating a spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night that can stand on its own but illicit those same feelings of adrenaline and exploration that made us fall in love with the Castlevania series in the first place. Time will tell. Until then, there are always the halls of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to brave.