Imagining, designing, naming, and then animating a hundred or more enemies for a single game would be an extremely time-consuming task for the most experienced team of skilled artists, even if every single soul in the approval chain agreed they all came out perfect first time. If they decided to take the “easy” way out and make half of them palette swaps or stick a different head on a generic body that would still be an enormous amount of work to do when you take into consideration all of the technical limitations that might come into play or special requests for specific poses/alterations/more information from other parts of the development staff, budget/time restraints and so on. And this is part of the reason why many fantasy games choose to draw their inspiration from old myths and legends, or pick a name at random from a strange old book and attach it to some grisly fiend the art department came up with – “A zombie, but my kind of zombie” is a solid base and popular frame of reference to work with, and looking further afield nobody playing is really going to mind if someone mixes up seraphim with archangels, or which circle of Hell a particular demon’s supposed to come from – most monsters just need an impressive-sounding name to attach to their health bar and if there’s anything more to it than that then it’s just a nice little touch.
Symphony of the Night is famous for being a game all about those nice little touches and as such I thought it’d be fun to crudely mash together two of my favourite hobbies – videogames and weird old books – and cast a Spengler-like eye over some of Castlevania’s most horrifically beautiful pixelled beasts, evaluating them on their two most important attributes: How impressive they look in the game, and how closely these appearances stick to traditional sources.
…OK so I say “important” but what I really mean is “I get to play Symphony of the Night for a bit and then dive into my weirdy-nerdy mythology books before inflicting the following text on you.” – everyone’s a winner here, right? Unless you’re not me.
We’ll start with the one I didn’t really want to do but is far too important to Castlevania to ignore – Dracula. As if centuries of vampiric folklore wasn’t enough on its own the public perception of these blood-sucking entities has been firmly shaped in modern times by all sorts of books and movies of varying quality and underlying horniness – to try and isolate one single source as the sole truth (not that there ever was one, seeing as fear of the dead violently returning to life is as deeply ingrained a human terror as being left in the dark or forgetting about a cup of tea until it’s gone cold) would be like taking a cake crumb and trying to separate it back into eggs, flour, and sugar. Symphony’s Dracula does at least tick all the usual pop culture boxes: He’s got pointy teeth, a goblet filled with blood, more decorative castle spires than all the royalty of Medieval Europe combined, and he always dresses like a man who’s just left a very fine banquet and is now on his way to the opera. He’s also such a showstopper that not even turning up as the first boss in a recycled recap of the climax of the previous game can diminish his flappy cloaked presence, and his final appearance as a screen-spanning writhing mass of arms and heads is certainly memorable even if it’s strictly speaking less accurate than a Scooby-Doo villain wearing a pair of plastic fangs. Here’s a fun fact for you: In certain strands of folklore you don’t need to suck or be sucked to become a vampire – something as simple as a cat or dog jumping over your corpse, or a bird flying overhead, is all it takes to turn a dead person into a bloodthirsty fiend. So, er, the moral there is… don’t let extremely common animals walk on the ground? Hang dead people on the walls like paintings? EVERYONE’S A VAMPIRE IF YOU WAIT LONG ENOUGH? I don’t know.
We’ll move in a roundabout sort of way from Alucard’s dad to Alucard’s mum: As I’m sure you know there comes a point in the game where the prettiest anti-vampire hero of them all must rest in a glowing purple coffin, and from there he’s transported into a nightmare created by an attractive succubus pretending to be his crucified mum surrounded by an angry mob of villagers – therapist’s make a good living out of people having dreams like that. You might think not getting any horizontal wahoo time would stop her from being an authentic succubi, but looking at various examples of succubus legends “Being a woman at night who would like to have sex for her own personal pleasure” is the low, low, bar that needs to be cleared here so I’d say she still easily passes the test. There’s a tale of a gent being approached by a “demon” in the form of a beautiful woman while he was busy doing his blacksmith-y work late at night so… he threw a hot iron at her, and as a result the unknown lady immediately ran off (sorry – “Returned from whence she came, which was probably Hell”). That’s it, that’s the story. Now I would personally question… all of that tale. Because I’m sure there’s a good chance a completely standard person would naturally be attracted to a blacksmith, strong arms glistening with his sweat under the warm light of his forge, all alone in the night…
Anyway! Symphony’s succubus ticks all the boxes – she looks amazing as a boss, and as far as myths go she’d easily fit right in with the rest of them.
Here’s a personal favourite – ectoplasm. In Symphony of the Night this manifests as a slightly annoying floating blob to avoid in the library, a cursed essence composed entirely of screaming faces – that’s really quite special for something that’s otherwise a complete non-event of an enemy! As far as the occult’s concerned there are two main types of ectoplasm – the regular goopy stuff and the pink mood-sensitive psychomagnotheric sli-no wait sorry that’s Ghostbusters 2. Traditional ectoplasm is… whatever the performing spirit medium can whip up at the time for the entertainment of their paying guests, really – generally a stringy and sticky ooze. It’s supposed to be a physical manifestation of spiritual energy, the psychic and otherwise intangible made real, but as it seems to have come and gone with the “fashion” of holding seances in the previous century ectoplasm’s more easily dumped in the psychic bin than young children talking in detail about relatives who died before they were born or the Loch Ness monster. Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, that one) was a big believer in the stuff, but then again you could have daubed GOD WOZ ERE on a bar stool using whipped cream and the man would have spent the rest of the year giving lectures on the Almighty’s choice of public house and shown off a dozen blurry “spirit” photographs of the scene in question so I wouldn’t put too much faith in that little nugget of information.
Depending on who you ask the giant horror above is either an alternative name for Satan himself or a separate prince of demons – one below Lucifer, one above Astaroth. According to Histoire Véritable et Mémorable des Trois Possédees de Flandre he’s the father of the antichrist (something to watch out for, that) and according to everyone else he’s the Lord of the Flies, although nobody can really tell you why. Beelzebub famously has a devil put aside for me [For me. FOR MEEEEEEEEE] and if you feel the urge to bring this chap to the mortal realm you’ll need to, amongst other things, write out their demonic characters in either your own blood (the traditionalist’s choice) or that of a sea-tortoise – no, I don’t know what sea “tortoises” did to get singled out like that either. Should you run out of freshly-squeezed tortoise blood – hey, it happens to the best of us! – it’s apparently OK to engrave their symbols on an emerald or ruby instead, because they like that sort of thing.
As a Castlevania boss Beelzebub is an enormous segmented abomination gruesomely suspended on hooks that falls to bits as you attack them. This is deeply cool if you dress entirely in black with black accessories and are the lead guitarist in a band called something like ABYSS WIZARDS OF BAAL but for the rest of us he’s just so big and in a weirdly awkward position in the room meaning you spend most of your time slashing at rotten toes than anything else, which is frankly a huge waste of a demonic corpse.
I can’t help but notice that Konami’s Medusa has a shapely human bottom moulded into her snakey behind – I don’t think even mythical anatomy works like that. Apart from that odd detail she looks like she came straight off the side of a Greek urn – (so long as you forget Medusa’s supposed to have wings as well as serpent-hair) but on the whole we can probably forgive them for the scaly cheeks because she looks so darned good. Rather than being defeated with any reflective trickery as per the legend (she will however still stare you into stone with alarming frequency if you’re not careful) you instead whack her with whatever Alucard’s found lying around the castle along the way, or alternatively you can kick-jump her on the head to death like you’re Goth Mario – it’s not a dignified way for a Gorgon to go, but the option’s there if you want to go for it. There’s one inaccuracy we should all be very thankful they left out: In the original legend upon her decapitation Medusa gave birth to Pegasus, the winged horse, which is just the sort of thing nobody ever needs represented in visual form. Ever.
Just as Medusa above had a really quite lovely behind so too do this werewolf possess a rear so finely chiselled it’d make Solid Snake jealous. The one disadvantage to owning such a rock-hard bum seems to be it makes your wolf tail fall off – and who would want to choose between a firm furry behind and a fluffy tail? I’m not entirely sure where the ninja-like athleticism’s coming from – traditional werewolves are people who can turn into wolves with wolf-like levels athleticism (and a taste for delicious cattle, like a regular wolf), which as far as I know doesn’t include devastating aerial dash attacks. Deliberately choosing to become a werewolf can be done through a few methods, including drinking water out of a wolf’s footprint or eating their brains, which doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d do if you had any real solidarity with the animal you’re taking the form of. Satan was allegedly responsible for a few transformations too, because Satan get first dibs on all the evil-sounding occult stuff. Interestingly enough some saints are said to have forced a few people to spend several years as werewolves too, as punishment for whatever was deemed a sin at the time.
Malphas is the crow-iest of all crowlike bosses, shooting out black crow-y feathers as he flaps around and summoning small shadow crows for added crowness. There’s an obvious reason for that when you flip through a few old demonic handbooks: When summoned Malphas appear[eth] at first like a crow, but he will take on human form if you ask nicely (An awful lot of time in summoning invocations doesn’t involve dramatically shouting Latin phrases in a commanding tone during a thunderstorm but instead saying “Please don’t kill me or look scary or else I’ll set God on you” in a fancy kind of way). He can build houses and high towers if that’s something you need doing, as well as tell you what your enemies desire and think. If you feel the need to sacrifice something to Malphas he’ll receive your offering willingly but deceive whoever did it, which sounds like a crummy thing for someone to do until you remember he’s a demon from Hell that looks like a crow. Malphas commands forty legions in Hell, although we have to assume they were all on a tea break when Alucard turned up.
We’ll finish on a fun monster that’s neither a myth nor a legend but a lovely localisation choice that feels a little more refined to English ears than the original: In the Japanese version of the game the skeleton above is known as “Soccer Boy”, busy kicking his head around the inverted castle in the world’s loneliest game of football – a silly little bit of straightforward strangeness as you pass by. The English translation team gave him the name “Yorick”, AKA: “A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”, AKA: “That skull separated from his body in Hamlet“. The name change doesn’t make any significant difference to anything but a minor Shakespearean embellishment in a game like this is just a perfect little “chef kiss” moment and a nice reminder that, as with the monster designs themselves, absolute accuracy isn’t as important as a good idea done well.
Hang on a minute-
(Ha! Take that, me.)