The long-neglected Ephemera series returns, and with a double-sized edition to boot. Please, hold your applause. The reason for this bumper installment is that it's all about the magnificent Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - a game so densely packed with aesthetic flourishes and easily-missable nuggets of whimsy that I could have happily written an article double the length of this one about its many quirks. I somehow managed to whittle my selection down to ten items, though, so here they are: ten little details from my favourite game about a rebellious child metaphorically shouting "screw you, dad!"
Konami's GargoylesLet's begin with one I think most people who've played Symphony of the Night might know about, even if they've never seen it themselves. Like all good RPGs, or in this case action games with a heavy coating of RPG poured on top, there are status effect that the hero Alucard can fall foul of. The usual infirmities; poisoned, cursed, turned to stone, that kind of thing.
Pictured above: Alucard after being turned to stone. Don't worry, it's more like a crispy stone coating and Alucard can break free after flexing for a couple of seconds because he's just that studly and buff. However, there's a small chance that when Alucard is hit by a petrifying attack, he doesn't just become a handsome and mysterious garden ornament.
Sometimes he turns into a huge demonic gargoyle thing. Why? Because it's cool, that's why, and the fact that it serves no purpose besides being cool is what makes it cool. If you really had to try to justify it, you could argue that the gargoyle represents the dark powers lurking in the heart of the half-vampire Alucard, but to me that seems like more of a stretch that Dhalsim's morning exercise routine.
Family PhotographsOne of the many consumable items that Alucard can use during his adventure is the Power of Sire, a picture of Dracula that works as a screen-clearing smart-bomb when activated.
Quite why Dracula's grim visage turns the screen into a bangin' rave in order to destroy the monsters is something of a mystery, but then you don't become an immortal agent of pure evil without having a few unexpected tricks up your sleeves.
The most interesting thing about the Power of Sire is that it displays a woodcut picture of Vlad the Impaler when used. This makes sense given that Vlad is supposedly the historical influence for Dracula, but as always when I see a real person depicted in a videogame I'm reminded that if I had a time machine I would forego assassinating Hitler or handing out water wings to people boarding the Titanic and instead show historical personages how they have been remembered by gaming. I can't decide whether I think Vlad would be pleased by the implication that his mere appearance is enough to smite his enemies, or that he'd be upset that history has remembered him as a blood-supping monster. Maybe impalement was all the rage at the time, and he'd find it unfair that only he is remembered as "the Impaler" when Terry down the street impaled twice the number of people that Vlad did.
Biological Field Notes of the Damned
As is customary amongst lords of the night, Dracula's castle is packed with a menagerie of monstrous creatures including, but not limited to: bats, larger bats, skeletons, larger skeletons, ninja skeletons, demonic puppets from Hell, Great Old Ones, angry tables and, in the Sega Saturn version, something called the Human Face Tree, which is even creepier than it sounds. Once you've killed a monster, its information is added to the game's bestiary for you to peruse at your leisure, and I suggest that you do so because Symphony of the Night's monster list is an absolute joy to read. If I could write another Ephemera article about SOTN's little moments, I could just as easily write one solely about the highlights of the monster list and maybe one day I will, but for now I've picked out one of my very favourite entries.
Just take a moment to bask in the glorious phrase "specially trained war-goose." Not one of your regular war geese, oh no, it's one that been specially trained. Nothing but the best for Dracula's castle. It makes sense that a goose would be chosen for this military role, because geese are the most naturally aggressive and remorseless birds on the Earth. That's why Geese Howard is called Geese: because the only thing more evil than a goose is more than one goose.
Truth in Advertising
One of the monsters (humanoid sub-genre, zombie sub-sub-genre) primed for a good stabbing is the Bloody Zombie, who looks like this.
Okay, so there's some blood on his sword and he's either walked in some blood or he's wearing a pair of Louboutins, but he's not all that much more bloody than any other monster in the castle. Unless he got his name because he's kind of annoying and people kept calling him "that bloody zombie," I don't really see why he's called Bloody Zombie and not just, I dunno, Zombie With Sword.
Oh. Ohhh. Well, it all makes sense now, doesn't it? Now that we've seen his torso erupt like Old Faithful. How delightful! I have to assume that Bloody Zombie only exists because one of the game's developers said "hey, what if one of the monster turned into a literal fountain of blood when you kill it?" That person deserves a raise, and should then put some of that extra money to one side for a therapist. Just in case.
Horrible, Horrible Freedom
Continuing the monster theme, one of the denizens of the castle's catacombs is the Bone Ark - a fire-breathing dragon skull held aloft by subservient skeleton priests who have the decency to hide their skeleton shame with fetching blue loincloths. You can kill the skeletons so they drop the Bone Ark, but it's much more fun to destroy the dragon skull first because then this happens.
There's just something inherently amusing about seeing skeletons, which you would tend to think of as (literally) mindless drones in Dracula's army, running away in terror with their arms flailing like Kermit the Frog, spurred on by a self-preservation instinct that has somehow overcome the barrier of them being dead. At least, I always used to see them as fleeing from Alucard's wrath, but on the Castlevania wiki they offer a different perspective: maybe the skeletons are running away in glee, overjoyed to finally be free of their nightmarish burden. I have since decided that this is the interpretation I'm going to stick with, mostly because now every time I see them I imagine the skeletons shouting "yaaaaay!" as they leg it.
One of the nice things about Symphony of the Night as opposed to other Castlevania games is that Alucard ends up becoming kind of a badass. The Belmonts are brave warriors and true, but their continued success against Dracula speaks more to a kind of lunkheaded persistence and Dracula's refusal to make life easier for himself - if he knocked out a few staircases and widened some bottomless pits, the Belmonts would never be able to reach him. Not so Alucard, who can turn into a bat or mist and has access to any number of ways of breaking the game over his knee, ending his adventure as a walking combine harvester fuelled by the blood of his enemies or gaining more defence simply by visiting more of the castle's rooms. However, it seems that might not be enough to boost Alucard's confidence, and he's a little self-conscious about his height, as well you might be when your dad and future murder target can transform into a giant demon. However, help is at hand - erm, at foot? - with the Secret Boots.
The Secret Boots discreetly increase you height. That's right, one of the equippable items in Symphony of the Night is a pair of shoes with lifts in them.
The effect is subtle, so here's Alucard without the boots (on the left) and with the boots (on the right). I added the red lines to make it easier to see the difference, Alucard isn't balancing them on his head as part of a deportment lesson or anything. There you go, then. The Secret Boots make Alucard's sprite a pixel or two taller. Do they do anything else? I imagine they give him a little more self-confidence, but "Self-Confidence" isn't actually a stat in the game so no, they do not. If you wanted to wear the boots you'd have to sacrifice an equipment slot and the associated stat boost for whatever you might have had equipped in there, making the Secret Boots so useless as to actually be detrimental to Alucard's mission, which is what makes their inclusion so wonderful.
One of the weapons Alucard can collect on his travels is the Shield Rod, and it's pretty great. Not only is it an effective tool for cracking open the skulls of those who oppose you, it also has a special power: it can be used to cast a magic spell that's based on whatever shield you currently have equipped. With the Knight Shield equipped, for example, using the Shield Rod's special move causes an armoured horse to appear and grant you an additional twenty points of attack for a while. There are also shield-spells to increase your other stats or attack the enemy, and if you've found the Alucard Shield using it with the Shield Rod amounts to you saying "bite me, game!" as it allows you to ram people with your shield for massive damage, extracting their souls to refill your health meter as it does so. It's what you might call "totally broken." Forget about that, though, because I'm here to show you my favourite Shield Rod spell, courtesy of the humble Leather Shield.
Yep, that's definitely a cow. A big old cow, and in SOTN's atmosphere of gothic horror it's a rather delightful thing to see. Even the world's ruminants are joining the fight against Dracula's dark crusade, granting increased defence to those who call on their aid. It does make you wonder where this cow came from, though. Is it the ghost of the cow whose leather was used to make the Leather Shield? If so, it's very big of the cow to overlook the use of its flayed skin. Or maybe it's a representation of the spirits of all cows, the very essence of cow-ness, and cows are a naturally good species that will always align themselves against the forces of darkness. Or maybe Alucard is tripping balls and simply hallucinating a floating cow appearing before him and granting him its divine protection. I mean, you can make Alucard eat sushi he carved from an "evil mutated octopus" during the game, and that's probably going to effect your brain chemistry. What do they call it? "Headcanon?" Yeah, that's my headcanon now.
Deep beneath Dracula's castle - or above it, once you reach the Inverted Castle - are the Underground Caverns: freezing cold caves populated by ice spirits and frogs, which is a surprising good metaphor for my love life. Anyway, all the dripping water leads to some pretty big puddles, and because it's so cold down there some of them are iced over.
Touching the thin crust of ice causes it to break off and sink, and it's a really lovely effect that was so unexpected the first time I played it that I spent the rest of the game carefully approaching every body of water I saw just so I could play around with breaking the ice. Like so many of the items in this article, the breakable ice serves no gameplay purpose but contributes to making SOTN that much more engaging than most other action-adventure-RPGs, and the fact it was made with such love and care shines through in every aspect of the game, not just magic height-increasing shoes or fleeing skeletons.
I Guess He's Not Scared of Crosses
You have to assume that Dracula either stole or inherited his castle, because a big chunk of it is a church and that's really not the kind of thing a vampire lord would have much call for. It's like a vegetarian converting their loft into an abattoir. Presumably he keeps it around as a show of power, emphasising just how little he fears the holy light of God, but for whatever reason he owns a church and hasn't converted it into expensive flats for rental. The upshot of this is that there's a confessional in the castle.
Alucard can sit in the confessional and have his sins listened to, although as he's in the middle of a mission to destroy the darkest of evil he's probably confident that he's not going to have to do much penance. Say a couple of Hail Marys for the sin of vanity (because of the Secret Boots) and be on your way. In fact, this priest in the blue robe is so impressed with Alucard that he leaves him a bottle of "grape juice" when he leaves.
You can even hop over to the other side of the booth and pretend to be a priest. Is pretending to be a priest a sin? Not to worry, there's a confessional right here! I like that Alucard clearly isn't taking his role as a spiritual guide seriously, slouching in his chair with his arms crossed. "Oh, you did a sin? How fascinating. Look, just say you're sorry and stop crying, I've got to go and kill my dad."
This lady also has some sins to confess. Very well, my child, I'm listening. Oh, you're pulling the curtain closed? Well, all right, if the extra privacy is important to you then tha...
Okay, that's just rude, and very much not in keeping with the spirit of forgiveness.
Making Work For Yourself
As well as various life-restoring potions and magic spells, Alucard can also find a wide variety of consumable food on his journey that can replace his lost health. Can he find a roasted joint of meat hidden in a wall? Of course he can, this is a Castlevania game and there are certain traditions to uphold. The most interesting food item - unless you're fascinated by how Alucard can carry ice cream around in his pocket without it melting - are the peanuts. Not so much for the peanuts themselves, but for how Alucard eats them, Here's what happens when you use a peanut.
Hmm. See, that's not very helpful, is it? Didn't your parents ever teach you that you shouldn't waste food? Never mind, scratch that, they probably did not.
To actually consume the peanut, you have to play into Alucard's attempt to look like a drunk guy at a bar who thinks he's cool by throwing the peanut, moving underneath it and holding up to catch it in your mouth. That is incredible. You couldn't just eat nuts like a normal person - by shovelling fistfuls of them into your greedy maw - could you, Alucard? You just had to show off. He even does a celebratory fist-pump if he manages to eat the peanut, proving that Alucard's decades of self-imposed isolation have begun to take a toll on his mental state. And to top it all off, this is the item description for the peanuts.
Yes, and whose bloody fault is that, Alucard?
There you have it, ten examples of the weird and wonderful touches from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that serve to elevate it to the position of one of my all-time favourite games. If you've never played it before, you should change that as soon as you can. If this isn't enough evidence to convince you, I would also point out that Symphony of the Night is one of the very few games in which you can beat Cthulu to death with your bare hands.