Monday, December 27, 2010

Castlevania is the Platonic Dungeon

I’ve been thinking a lot about dungeons. You know, the second noun in the title of the two-noun-and-an-ampersand game we play? It’s funny how rarely I’ve ever really used either in a game.

Mmm... dungeony.
Dragons, eh. But dungeons - my lack of experience with dungeons is evidence of my youth - old school DnD is all about the dungeons (as a figure of speech: I know there’s more to the old-school ethos than that, so put away the flamethrowers). Still, I’ve thought about them a lot, and I’ve read plenty of dungeon modules from the TSR years.

They weren’t any good. Bits were good, but I’ve never encountered the Platonic Idea Dungeon.

Save one. It was a video game.

I submit Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (and the further 2D games that were rooted in it) as the Perfect Dungeon, the closest we may ever see to the Platonic conception of Pure Dungeoness.

It is non-linear - you can tackle areas in almost any order you care to. What you do in one area can affect another (powerups that allow you to reach areas you could not otherwise - not a perfect example but close). There are traps and tricks that make you start examining the pretty scenery closer. There’s a variety of monsters, of course. Lots of loot, much of it weird and special. There are secrets out the ass. But most importantly, the place feels like a place, not a bank in the ground custom built for the sole purpose of being robbed. It feels lived in... or unlived in or whatever.

Some examples of what’s so fucking great about SoTN:

  • The castle has art galleries, a library, a chapel, an indoor colosseum, a clock tower, catacombs, a mine and pretty much everything but a kitchen, all stocked with appropriate enemies (undead pit fighters in the colosseum, angel-like things in the chapel, books in the library). This gives you a sense that this really was a ruler’s castle before things changed. Living people went about their business here, once, long ago.
    WHAT is this asshole's deal, anyway?
  • In said chapel, there’s a confessional you can use. A ghost priest will come if you sit on one side, while the ghost of a woman will show up if you sit on his. They will either listen to you or confess to you, or try to stab you through the confessional grate. What an awesome trap.
  • Sometimes there’s just random weird shit, like a zombie kung-fu artist that attacks you in a room. There’s only one of him, he’s not a boss or anything... he’s just this unique single thing.
  • There’s more than one faction in the castle, sort of. The Librarian will sell you goods and info. There’s a ferryman that will take you across an underground lake. There are two other characters loose in the castle doing their own thing against Dracula, but not with you. One of them has been brainwashed by Drac’s minions. Beyond that, there’s a ton of bosses with hinted backgrounds and motives of their own.
    He's called Yorick in the English versions. I know. Sorry.
  • There are elements you can use against the inhabitants, like teleporters and elevators. Oh, lets count save spots, why not.
  • Did I mention secrets? SPOILER WARNING: 50% of the castle is only accessible if you wear a special item, don’t kill the person that looks like they’re responsible for things, and instead attack a magic ball. Do this and an entire, upside-down version of the place comes out of the sky, where the REAL bad guy is. This is all completely optional.

  • A giant floating ball of screaming corpses.

This image comes with a bonus asterisk! *
SoTN does something that is very hard for a video game - it makes you forget you are essentially on an obstacle course with someone waiting at the end for you to assassinate them. The thing is, this should be easy to do in an RPG. Just construct a dungeon with a sense of purpose beyond the PCs, be it "An evil monarch who would later become a vampire lived here" or "we buried an important person here and by the Gods we want them to stay there."

In short, publish a dungeon module that was more like Castlevania and less like “in the room, there is 50 gp and a ochre jelly” and I’m a customer. Since I’ve not seen one... I’ll just have to make it myself, won’t I?

* Disclaimer 1: This image is from a later game using the SoTN model, I just thought it was metal as fuck. Disclaimer 2: I am not metal and the above statement should in no way betaken as accurate. I'm not responsible if you call this metal and Eddie from the Megadeth covers kills you in your nightmares.


  1. Great write up Chris! I only ever played the game on the Apple ][ so I think I missed out on some of the later goodness. It's wild to see how incestuous P&P rpgs and video/computer games have become as the years have gone by.

  2. All I can say is "EXACTLY!"