This article contains major spoilers for Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3, The Mist, Carrie, Jacob’s Ladder, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway, as well as some disturbing images and themes.
In the late ’90s, survival horror was a burgeoning trend on home video game consoles. While there’d been numerous forays into horror gaming previously, it was the enormous success of Capcom’s Resident Evil that proved the genre could be commercially viable as well as critically lauded. The advent of the compact disc as the industry standard for storage had allowed developers to be more adventurous in their games, and Resident Evil, in particular, benefited from the boons of the medium. On a cartridge-based system the full motion video cut-scenes and hours of recorded dialogue would never have been an option, and while the dubious quality of the storytelling and voice acting in the game have been the subject of much ridicule in the years subsequent to its release, it was these cinematic qualities that helped Resident Evil stand out against mechanically similar titles like Alone In The Dark.
As is always the case in the wake of an unexpected bestseller, developers around the globe frantically raced to capitalize on the success of Resident Evil and the popularity of the newfangled buzz word, “survival horror.” The point and click adventure series, Clock Tower, was re-imagined as a third person horror game that retained an emphasis on puzzle solving rather than combat, while Squaresoft envisioned an amalgamation of the role playing titles that they were famous for and third person action-horror in 1998’s Parasite Eve. While the roots of most of these games laid firmly in schlocky B-movies and the George Romero zombie flicks of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when Konami decided to throw their hat into the proverbial survival horror ring with Silent Hill in 1999, they sought inspiration in some altogether less conventional places.
Relying more on the kind of slow-burning psychological terror famously employed by Japanese horror movies rather than the jump scares and gross-out moments typically found in American exploitation cinema, for all of the similarities that Silent Hill bore to Resident Evil in terms of combat mechanics and control schemes, the two games were tonally a gulf apart. Cheesy one-liners and zombie-dogs leaping through windows helped Resident Evil to successfully replicate the feeling of a straight-to-video popcorn shocker, but it was readily apparent almost immediately upon starting Silent Hill that rather than providing a steady supply of fleeting shocks, the game wanted to deeply unsettle the player over a longer period of time.
Perhaps the most ingenious tool used by the developers of Silent Hill in order to upset players was the static-emitting radio. After the radio is found by protagonist Harry Mason in the opening minutes of the game, it begins to crackle with white noise just as a winged creature bursts through the window and attacks him. After battling the monster in a confined diner and ultimately killing it, Harry realizes that the radio he’d picked up produces feedback whenever there are otherworldly creatures nearby; the louder it gets, the closer they are. In a town like Silent Hill, perpetually blanketed in a thick fog, the radio becomes both an ally and a source of torment to Harry and the player alike; whenever you hear the crackle of the radio you know that you need to be on guard because there could be enemies lurking in the shroud of the fog, but not knowing where the creatures are and whether or not they’ll even attack proved disturbing to many gamers.
While most people who have played or even heard of Silent Hill will be familiar with how the radio works, what’s less common knowledge is that the idea for this now iconic feature, present in most of the games in the series, was not conjured by the director, Keiichiro Toyama, or even the composer, Akira Yamaoka, but was lifted practically wholesale from the Stephen King novella, The Mist. In the story of the novel, a small town in Maine is covered in a thick fog which harbors a gaggle of abhorrent creatures, including a pterosaur-like flying monster of startling similarity to the one Harry fights in the opening minutes of Silent Hill. The creatures, like in Silent Hill, cause radio equipment in their vicinity to produce nothing but harsh static.
The similarities Silent Hill bares to The Mist don’t begin and end with a radio and a flying monster. Later in the novel, once it becomes apparent that the killer fog enveloping the town isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, different factions arise among the survivors with conflicting ideas on what the mist is and what should be done. One such group led by a fanatical religious woman believe that the hellish creatures that plague them are indicative of the end-times as per the description of Armageddon within the Holy Bible, and they start to believe that the only way to appease their new demonic overlords is through human sacrifice. Silent Hill, too, features a religious cult, and although the grisly fate of the town is actually a result of the machinations of said cult in the game’s story, the similarities are too stark to overlook.
In the story of Silent Hill, the disciples of the religious cult led by the dreadful Dahlia Gillespie have used her daughter as a vessel to birth the dark god Samael, an act which unfortunately requires a hellish amount of pain and turmoil. Never one to shy away from unimaginable suffering, even when it afflicts those with a familial connection, Dahlia has her own daughter set on fire in an act of sacrifice, and then uses an evil incantation to keep the poor girl alive and in a state of perennial agony under the supervision of the drug-addled nurse, Lisa Garland. The dreams Alessa has in her tormented state are the basis for the nightmarish Otherworld that Harry has to battle through while exploring Silent Hill; the physical manifestation of the harrowing thoughts of a young girl, victim to an unspeakable wrong enacted upon her by her own mother. Another of Stephen King’s works, Carrie, features psychic vengeance at the whim of a teenage girl, bullied by her peers and mistreated by her deeply religious mother.
The developers of Silent Hill have never been shy about their influences when creating the game, and then later the expanded series, including the allusions and homages to some of the writings of Stephen King. In addition to plot points and characters that seem to pay more than a passing nod to those in stories by the famous horror author, there are numerous references to other Stephen King works within the game. Posters can be seen for the movie adaptations of Pet Semetary and Carrie, while the pinball machine in the café was included as a nod to Children of the Corn. As if these weren’t enough, the street on which Harry awakens after crashing his car at the beginning of Silent Hill is named Bachman Road, which King fans amongst you will likely have realized is in reference to Stephen King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman.
The naming of Bachman Road is just one of many references to influential figures, as in each of the games in the Silent Hill series the various streets and locations that the player visits tend to be named in honor of people who were inspirational to the creative minds on the development team in some way. There’s nods to Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby, Mary Shelley who penned Frankenstein, and Michael Crichton who wrote the dinosaur-thriller, Jurassic Park, among other things. When Harry reaches Midwich Elementary School – itself named after a street in Village of the Damned – he can read a list of the names of the teachers who work at the school, which includes a Ranaldo, a Moore and a Gordon – the names of the three members of experimental rock band, Sonic Youth. There’s even a street named after the astrophysicist and celebrated author, Carl Sagan. Practically everything in Silent Hill is named in tribute to someone or something.
It’s not just the naming conventions that pay homage to novels, bands or movies, though. Some of the sights and sounds within the town of Silent Hill are themselves either references to, or directly taken from other properties. The aforementioned café that Harry Mason visits at the beginning of the first game is named “5 to 2” in reference to a similar diner in the Oliver Stone directed and Quentin Tarantino penned, Natural Born Killers. There’s a poster advertising an album by the British trip-hop band Portishead, who were undoubtedly an influence for series composer, Akira Yamaoka. Their modest 1994 hit, “Sour Times” in particular seems like it may have inspired the main theme of the first game in the Silent Hill series.
The Metropol Theatre is a direct reference to Dario Argento’s Demons, and there are posters featuring an image of the green-goo spewing monsters that appear in that movie just around the corner. A cinema in the town has some posters, too, for upcoming attractions that look remarkably similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard 2. The sepia photograph of Alessa Gillespie that Harry finds numerous times throughout his twisted journey shows her dressed in practically identical attire to Pamela Franklin in The Legend of Hell House, and down one of the dangerous alleys behind the café, he can see that somebody has scrawled “REDRUM” on a shutter door just like in The Shining – a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by, once again, Stephen King.
A horror game liberally borrowing from and paying homage to directors like Dario Argento, or writers like Stephen King isn’t all that surprising, but there are also numerous amusing references within the Silent Hill games that are somewhat less expected. Perhaps most out of left field is Midwich Elementary School in the first game, which is actually quite a faithful recreation of the school from the Arnold Schwarzenegger action-comedy, Kindergarten Cop. Everything from the outward appearance of the school to many of the recognizable features within it are directly lifted from the Arnie classic, leading to some tongue-in-cheek speculation online that the kids from the movie all died terribly, and Silent Hill is actually just a fantastically depressing sequel. Similarly, the characters of Laura and Mary in Silent Hill 2 are wearing outfits that are almost identical to ones worn by Nicholas Cage’s wife and daughter in the ridiculous ’90s action movie, Con Air, while the character of Maria wears an ensemble once worn by Christina Aguilera at an awards show. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Christina Aguilera’s middle name is Maria.
The protagonist of Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland, wears the same jacket that Tim Robbins wears in the 1990 psychological horror movie, Jacob’s Ladder, but there are more numerous, and more deeply ingrained similarities between the two properties beyond a worn military coat. The story of Jacob’s Ladder, ostensibly an abstruse testimony of the psychological collapse of its eponymous lead, ultimately reveals itself to be a fiction created by Jacob’s dying mind as a means to acquiesce to his own death in the Vietnam War. Each game in the Silent Hill series features multiple potential endings for the story, based on criteria that must be fulfilled but are generally hidden from the player. Perhaps the most dejecting potential conclusion to the original game appears to be in reference to Jacob’s Ladder, and sees Harry Mason dead in his car after the crash at the beginning of the game, with the varying grotesqueries he meets on his journey being little more than apparitions, the result of randomly firing synapses in his brain as his life ebbs away.
There are locations in Silent Hill that seem to have been directly inspired by some of the events of Jacob’s Ladder, most notably the hospital – various incarnations of which appear in almost every title to bear the Silent Hill name – and the Subway station from Silent Hill 3. Interestingly, the subway station prison from Jacob’s Ladder was itself inspired by a vivid nightmare experienced by the screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin. Many of the creature designs in the Silent Hill series are, too, similar to those seen in the movie, with the palpitating, paroxysmal movement of monsters like Silent Hill 2’s Pyramid Head and the third game’s Valtiel, the valet of Metatron, being reminiscent of the various monstrosities seen in Jacob’s visions.
The visual design of many of the hideous creatures that players will go up against in the various Silent Hill games have been inspired by numerous famous works of art. The bulbous, distended Insane Cancer that attacks Heather was inspired by some of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, while Francis Bacon’s famous triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was used as a starting point for the creatures, Mandarin, Closer and Flesh Lip in Silent Hill 2 and 3. Rembrandt was cited as an influence for much of the design of Silent Hill 2 by the game’s art director, Takayoshi Sato, as was Andrew Wyeth, whose painting “Christina’s World” was also used as inspiration for the outside of Dahlia Gillespie’s home in the first Silent Hill, while the interior of the abode was based on Norman Bate’s home in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Another locale, the squalid strip bar Heaven’s Night where Silent Hill 2‘s Maria works, is almost a brick for brick recreation of a similar establishment in David Lynch’s noir classic, Blue Velvet. In fact, comparisons between Silent Hill and the work of David Lynch are perhaps even more numerous, and of greater thematic significance than even the previously mentioned similarities to the writing of Stephen King, and the many elements the games borrow from Jacob’s Ladder.
Lost Highway is, in Lynch’s words, “a jealous man’s state of mind who has indeed committed, and then denies, murder, even to himself,” which for fans of the Silent Hill series should sound evocative of the basic narrative outline for Silent Hill 2, in which James Sunderland believes his deceased wife Mary is actually alive, despite having previously killed her himself. When James arrives in Silent Hill, he quickly meets Maria who is aesthetically identical to his dead spouse, but in stark contrast to his wife, displays an overt confidence as demonstrated by her choice of attire and her occupation as a stripper. When Maria is killed over and over again in increasingly brutal fashion by Pyramid Head, it becomes apparent that she is in fact merely a construct of James’ guilt-ridden mind, her extroversion a direct result of James’ repressed sexual desires during the later, illness stricken months of his dead wife’s life. Her murder, regardless of the ethical and moral case in favor of euthanasia in instances of prolonged suffering through illness, haunts James, and Pyramid Head exists as the physical manifestation of his guilt, murdering Maria time and time again in front of his traumatized eyes.
The use of doppelgangers in order to reflect a character’s guilt over the murder of a loved one is a significant thematic device in Lost Highway, but Lynch also uses doppelgangers in some of his other work, most notably his television show, Twin Peaks. In the show, when agent Dale Cooper is attempting to track down the murderer of Laura Palmer – who worked as a prostitute and was confirmed to have had sexual relationships with a number of major characters – her cousin Maddy comes to stay with the Palmer family, displaying practically identical looks (and portrayed by the same actress) but with an almost entirely opposite personality. Maddy is an introverted, reserved brunette to Laura’s confident, tearaway blonde, but ultimately, Maddy meets her end at the hands of the same person who murdered Laura, which is similar to the fates of both Mary and Maria in Silent Hill 2, killed by James and the product of his guilt, respectively.
Within the lore of Twin Peaks, there is a structure of supreme evil known as the Black Lodge, itself a counterpoint to an opposite construct of pure goodness known as the White Lodge, which bares some similarities with the Otherworld present in each Silent Hill game. In Twin Peaks, the lodges are home to numerous bizarre, backwards speaking entities of various moral persuasions, including helpful characters like the Giant, and nefarious, destructive ones like Bob. These realms exist on a separate plane of existence to the town of Twin Peaks, and can only be reached under specific circumstances. When asked about the Black Lodge, the Native American deputy, Hawk, tells a story from the perspective of his people:
“The legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self. My people call it ‘The Dweller on the Threshold’ … But it is said, if you confront the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, it will utterly annihilate your soul.”
In Silent Hill, the Otherworld is a nightmarish facsimile of the real world that periodically superimposes itself over the tourist town while an air raid siren sounds to trumpet the transformation. Brick and mortar are torn asunder and replaced by bloody, rusty, chain link fences, and the only illumination one can find amidst the perpetual night comes from a flashlight carried by the player. Monsters are numerous once the Otherworld takes over, and danger lurks around every corner. The origin of the Otherworld changes depending on the game, but in Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3, it’s the result of the demonic god buried within Alessa Gillespie’s womb, transforming her nightmares into reality. The Otherworld in Silent Hill 2 is different depending on which character is observing it, with Angela – a victim of sexual abuse – seeing walls covered in pulsating flesh and phallic pistons constantly pumping, while Eddie – who eventually snapped and murdered the bullies who had tormented him for years – sees constant reminders of the people he has killed. Regardless of its nature, there are scant references to Native Americans originally revering the town of Silent Hill as a holy place, perhaps because of its capacity as a portal to the Otherworld.
Another parallel between the Otherworld and the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks is found in its ability to conjure doppelgangers, known in Twin Peaks as tulpas. There are numerous tulpas in Twin Peaks, including one of agent Dale Cooper that he actually meets within the Red Room towards the end of Season 2, and who eventually goes on to replace him in the real world. Similarly, in the original Silent Hill, the nurse Lisa Garland is herself a fabrication, a tulpa of the real Lisa Garland who died before the events of the game, a fact that she remains tragically unaware of for most of the story. Lisa is only encountered by Harry when he’s traversing the Otherworld, and never within the real Silent Hill, existing only as a tribute to the real nurse Garland who was the only person who ever cared for Alessa during her years of torment, but wound up murdered by the very religious fanatics that had employed her to look after the poor girl. When Lisa realises that her true self was killed months ago, and she’s merely the dream of a tortured teenager, she has a psychological breakdown and begins to bleed profusely, not unlike what happens to doppelgangers in Twin Peaks who become aware of their origin.
Like Twin Peaks, and much of the work of David Lynch, little concrete information is ever given about many of the ideas and themes presented in the various Silent Hill games, with the story told in an almost dream-like fashion by a catalog of bizarre characters. Even in the real Silent Hill, many characters appear to be either oblivious to or unfazed by the strange creatures and occurrences within the town, implying that perhaps only the protagonist is experiencing the horror as the player sees it, much like Dale Cooper seeing visions of the Red Room and the Giant that don’t appear to anybody else. This is further insinuated in Silent Hill 3, when Vincent incredulously asks Heather about the creatures she’s been killing: “They look like monsters to you?”
It wasn’t laziness on the part of the developers leaving so many unanswered questions in Silent Hill. The director, Keiichiro Toyama, sought to create a “fear of the unknown” by deliberately not giving the player all of the information, and in some instances actually giving them contradictory versions of events in order to instil confusion, and generate speculation as to the true meaning of much of the story. Keiichiro Toyama wasn’t particularly familiar with the horror genre when he was put at the helm of Silent Hill, and instead used his interest in UFOs and David Lynch movies as inspiration. Eighteen years after the release of the original Silent Hill, there are still numerous fan-sites on the Internet, containing forums in which devotees of the horror series discuss the lore of the games, and offer different interpretations of the themes explored in each of them. One suspects, when it comes to unexplained phenomena, we’ll likely have answers regarding UFOs before we ever get concrete solutions to the secrets buried within David Lynch’s work, or indeed, the impenetrable darkness of Silent Hill.
But while the deeper meaning behind much of what happens in the hellish town of Silent Hill might forever remain a mystery, what inspired the developers at Konami when creating what is widely regarded as one of the greatest series’ of horror games ever made, is often beyond doubt. The creators of the Silent Hill games don’t hide their influences, but rather, they wear them like badges of honour, with part of the fun of each instalment being in spotting the nods and homages to various movies, books, and other art, as well as in seeing how the amalgamation of those influences has been used to create something new, exciting, and utterly horrifying.
‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day
Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later
Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!
What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.
What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.
But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.
It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.
The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!
– Ricky D
‘Aria of Sorrow’: The Symphony of the Night Sequel Castlevania Needed
Castlevania’s run from 1986 to 1997 is downright legendary. While there are a few duds sprinkled throughout the series’ first decade (Simon’s Quest, The Adventure, Dracula X), this is the same franchise that produced Super Castlevania IV, Rondo of Blood, and Bloodlines over the course of three years– three of the greatest action platformers of all time. 1997 saw Castlevania reach what was arguably its highest point when, unprompted and with no real need to do so, Symphony of the Night pulled off such an expert reinvention that it ended up creating a new genre altogether. With 11 years of goodwill to bank on, Castlevania’s future would never look as bright again– and unfortunately for good reason.
Following the revolutionary success of Symphony of the Night, Castlevania almost immediately fumbled as a franchise. 1997 closed out not with Symphony of the Night, but the ferociously underwhelming Legends, a Game Boy title that took a cleaver to the franchise’s lore and massacred it. The Nintendo 64 would see the release of Castlevania in 1999, arguably the worst transition from 2D to 3D on the N64, followed by a moderately improved but still mediocre re-release that same year, Legacy of Darkness. By 2000, Castlevania had entered the 21st Century at its lowest point, with Symphony of the Night silently in the background, untouched.
As if to signal a return to form, however, 2001 saw Konami release two fairly noteworthy titles: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance and Castlevania Chronicles for the PlayStation. Where the latter was a remake of the first game, Circle of the Moon marked the series’ first attempt at producing a mechanical sequel to Symphony of the Night. Utilizing the Metroidvania format SotN popularised, Circle of the Moon was met with near universal acclaim at release due to its difficulty curve, tight platforming, and a gameplay loop catered towards old school fans.
Which alone is enough to make Circle of the Moon less a Symphony sequel, and more a Castlevania stuck between the Classicvania and Metroidvania model. It’s a good title for what it is, but Circle of the Moon is so fundamentally different from Symphony of the Night that series producer Koji Igarashi overcorrected when re-taking the reins for 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance, a game that– while good– shamelessly apes everything it can from SotN in an attempt to win over audiences. Juste Belmont looks like Alucard, there’s a variation of the Inverted Castle twist, and the game was designed with the explicit purpose of capitalizing on Symphony of the Night.
To Konami’s credit, the series had regained its legitimacy between both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but neither game captured Symphony’s inventiveness. CotM deserves some slack for generally doing its own thing and remaining the most unique Metroidvania in the series to date, but Harmony of Dissonance plays itself too safe, ultimately just winding up a worse version of Symphony of the Night. Not just that, there was the matter of the series’ story. 19 games in and past the turn of the century, the story couldn’t stay in the background anymore. Legends, Legacy of Darkness, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all tried to tell a compelling story and they all faltered along the way.
Castlevania wasn’t in need of reinvention in 2003, but refinement. The series was good, not great, and every new release was only shining a spotlight on how good Symphony of the Night was, not on how its successors were following it up. It only makes sense, though. How is a franchise meant to follow-up a game like Symphony of the Night? How can Castlevania even be discussed anymore without mention of what is unquestionably one of the greatest video games of all time? It seemed as though the franchise was suffering for no reason at all, but there’s actually a fairly simple answer as to why the series struggled between 1997 and 2003: the lack of the dream team.
Castlevania often shuffled around its development teams, but Symphony of the Night managed to land a team that in retrospect is on-par with the likes of Chrono Trigger’s legendary development team. Alongside Koji Igarashi– who at the time was assistant director, a programmer, and the scenario writer– Michiru Yamane composed her second soundtrack for the series following Bloodlines, and Ayami Kojima made her debut as a character designer, solidifying the franchise’s gothic aesthetic for good. Unfortunately, the three wouldn’t all intersect again for some time, leaving the Castlevania games to come without the essential players who made Symphony of the Night what it was.
Igarashi and Kojima would work together again on both Chronicles & Harmony of Dissonance, but Yamane’s other work kept her from Castlevania between 1997 & 2003, and none of them would work on Legends, Legacy of Darkness, or Circle of the Moon. The nature of the industry meant there was no guarantee the three would work on the same project again, but now Castlevania’s lead producer, Koji Igarashi had pull to hire Yamane as the lead composer of his next Castlevania game. Ready to address Harmony of the Night’s criticisms, Koji Igarashi set the stage for the game that would breathe new life into Castlevania– Aria of Sorrow.
Instead of calling attention to itself as a successor to Symphony of the Night– something the game admittedly could’ve gotten away with given its production team– Aria of Sorrow does everything it can to assert its individuality asap. Soma Cruz has seemingly no connection to the Belmonts or Dracula, Dracula’s Castle is now inside of an eclipse, and the timeline is no longer rooted in history with the story set in 2035. This is all information conveyed in the opening title crawl, but less than a full minute into gameplay and audiences are already introduced to the Soul mechanic, a system which allows Soma to absorb enemy Souls in order to use their techniques. From there, it’s on the onus of the player to explore.
For such an all encompassing opening, Aria actually kicks off with little fanfare. Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all open with spectacle, but Aria of Sorrow keeps itself subdued, understanding that while Symphony’s spectacle was indeed an important part of its identity, it’s the gameplay that ultimately won audiences over. Aria of Sorrow wastes no time in presenting its defining Soul mechanic, making it the very first concept players will fully understand: kill enemies to get Souls, use Souls to kill enemies. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but it keeps Aria of Sorrow’s blood pumping long after the credits roll.
With Soul drops determined by RNG, no two playthroughs will be the same. Such an approach might bother those looking to 100% the game, but it’s exactly this reason why Aria of Sorrow remains so enjoyable to replay. With over 100 Souls available for use, Soma can accomplish far more than any other Castlevania protagonist. Soma can equip three Souls in total at any given moment: one Bullet Soul, Aria’s sub-weapons; one Guardian Soul, skills that can be triggered with R; and one Enchanted Soul, passive abilities that don’t need to be activated. Soma also has access to Ability Souls, inherent techniques that he can activate & deactivate ala Alucard’s skills from Symphony.
While the Soul system is more than enough to freshen up the series’ core combat, Aria of Sorrow ditches whips and goes back to the Alucard method of collecting multiple different weapons. Between Souls and Soma’s generous arsenal of weaponry, all play styles are accommodated. Normal Mode is also more forgiving than usual, with Hard Mode better designed for series veterans. This isn’t ideal since most will play Normal and miss out on Hard Mode altogether, but it’s an approach that– in theory– does accommodate fans old and new alike. Aria of Sorrow has an almost overwhelming amount of content, but that’s exactly why it’s so accessible. There’s a weapon, Soul, or difficulty for everyone.
Engaging combat mechanics mean very little without the proper level design, however. Where Harmony of Dissonance comfortably followed a “bigger is better” mentality to its castle’s design, Aria of Sorrow shows a considerable amount of restraint. There is no second castle to unlock– what you see is what you get. Areas are more interconnected than usual, ensuring that fewer areas end up in dead ends, and the castle’s settings are visually grounded for the most part. Aria indulges in chaotic visuals and level design for the final area, but the castle leading up to the finale is unusually comprehensible. As far as navigation goes, this is the best castle in the series.
Of course, the high quality castle only makes sense when one remembers that it’s Ayami Kojima’s art style that serves as Aria of Sorrow’s base. Moody and gothic, Kojima’s self-taught style has an earthy quality that easily tips into the fantastical, an aesthetic that fits Castlevania perfectly. Michiru Yamane’s score seemingly builds off of Kojima’s art, following the lead with less catchy and more atmospheric tracks on a whole. This doesn’t mean Aria of Sorrow isn’t bursting with amazing songs– one only needs to listen to Heart of Fire to understand that– rather, it’s Aria’s way of keeping a mature, sorrowful tone throughout.
And Aria of Sorrow is indeed more mature than previous Castlevania titles when it comes to story. Where both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance played their stories straight, Aria of Sorrow features a decent amount of subtext to bolster its already incredibly intriguing plot. Aria doesn’t just take place in the future, it takes place in a future where Dracula has been killed for good. No Dracula means that a new villain can rise up in the form of Graham Jones, and while he’s not that compelling, he ends up representing everything Dracula claims to despise in humanity. Graham is a hateful coward who thinks too highly of himself, and too little of others. A miserable little pile of secrets.
That said, while it’s always beneficial to keep characters who fill similar roles antithetical to one another, Graham’s personality is more layered than that. He may be the main antagonist, but he’s no Dracula. Literally. The main plot of Aria of Sorrow concerns itself with who Dracula has reincarnated into. It’s obviously Soma, a fact the series no longer tries to hide, but Aria of Sorrow very cleverly gets around this by doubling down on Graham’s evilness. He’s blatantly evil from his first interaction with Soma, but that’s exactly what keeps players from guessing the Dracula twist their first playthrough.
Soma being Dracula is the cherry on top of Aria of Sorrow, that last little detail that makes everything just right– not just in the game, but in the context of the series. Fast-forwarding far into the future, Aria of Sorrow establishes Dracula’s demise, a grand battle that took place in 1999, and the last Belmont– Julius– the man who killed Dracula for good, but lost his memory in the process. Aria doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to Soma either, making him succumb before the end of the game and even featuring an alternate ending where he embraces his demonic powers, leaving Julius to kill Dracula yet again.
Although Soma has a clear love interest in Mina Hakuba, it’s the relationship between Soma and Julius that ties the story together. Aria is just as much a character study of Dracula through Soma as it is a celebration of the ultimate struggle between the Belmont clan and the Count. The roles have been flipped this time around, with Julius serving as the penultimate battle in one of the best (& hardest) boss fights in the franchise. As he’s not the main character, Julius is also allowed greater depth than the average Belmont. When he appears, it’s because the story calls for it and his scenes are never wasted.
They’re always used as a means to either flesh out the game’s backstory, or build up to the confrontation between Soma and Julius. The two build a slight bond over the course of the game, one that turns into genuine respect by the time the two men are fighting to the death. It’s easy to overlook the substance in Julius’ interactions since he’s only in six scenes (including the bad ending), but they all slowly chip away at the man underneath– his history, his connection to Dracula, and what it means to be a Belmont. Which in itself is important, as it gives audiences an opportunity to see a Belmont in his element from not only an outsider’s perspective, but Dracula’s.
Soma’s relationship with Julius may be what best contextualizes Aria of Sorrow’s role in the franchise, but this isn’t to say that the supporting players don’t contribute. Hammer and Yoko Belnades are both on the flat side, but Mina and Genya Arikado do some heavy narrative lifting. Mina evokes images of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, who was first introduced in Symphony of the Night. Their dialogue shows how deeply they care for one another, and Soma’s Dracula-related insecurities end up tainting their dynamic at the end of the game, cutting Soma off from his only source of genuine affection and love. Not just that, Mina proves that Dracula could have adjusted to a normal life had mankind not killed Lisa.
Then there’s Genya Arikado, a man so blatantly Alucard that the word “Alucard” doesn’t need to appear in the script a single time for fans to make the connection– which it doesn’t. Aria of Sorrow features the main character from Symphony of the Night in an incredibly important and relevant capacity, and he neither looks like he did in Symphony of the Night or directly acknowledges his identity. Frankly, it’s the only tasteful way to use Alucard in a post-Symphony of the Night context. His character has evolved with time, and seeing him in a supportive capacity only makes sense given the events of his own game. His presence helps draw in a sense of finality alongside Mina and Julius.
These three characters thematically represent the main fixtures of Dracula’s life: Mina, the love that ties Dracula to humanity; Genya, the son who in spite of his father’s evil, loves him enough to ensure he can truly rest; and Julius, the final descendant of the Belmont clan and perhaps the strongest man alive. At the center of it all is Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow feels like the end of everything Castlevania represents. More games would follow, and Aria would even see a direct sequel in Dawn, but what makes Aria such a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night is that it wasn’t afraid to do something new and bold with Castlevania. Most of this boldness stems from the gameplay, but the story presents itself as a thematic end for Castlevania if nothing else. Dracula and the Belmonts may finally put their feud to rest.
Or not. As previously mentioned, Aria of Sorrow features an ending where Soma goes full-Dracula. It’s morbid and cuts off right before Julius begins his fight with the dark lord, but it only makes sense. Aria doesn’t shy away from Dracula’s nastier aspects, and that means allowing Soma to be corrupted. Castlevania was always about the eternal struggle between Dracula and the Belmonts, so it’s only fair an ending offer a scenario where the cycle simply repeats. Regardless of which ending players find most appropriate, Michiru Yamane’s use of Bloody Tears in the track Epilogue makes one thing clear: Aria marks a new chapter for Castlevania.
When all is said and done, Aria of Sorrow doesn’t even feel like a sequel to Symphony of the Night. Aria goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right. The end product is the end result of the series living in Symphony’s shadow for years. Koji Igarashi went beyond parroting himself, and instead entered production prepared to take Castlevania to the next level with a tried and true team. But even in sharing the same core members as Symphony, Aria never feels like anything but its own distinct game– a mature goodbye to Count Dracula, the Belmont legacy, and everything that happened inbetween. Aria of Sorrow might not have had the same cultural impact of Symphony of the Night, but it’s exemplary of Castlevania at its best.
Awesome Mixtape: Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019
Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5
It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.
Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune
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