The climactic sequence of the 1989 Batman film, directed by Tim Burton, features the Joker dragging Batman’s love interest, Vicki Vale, to the top of Gotham Cathedral. It’s not clear why the Joker decides to do this. Even the director wasn’t sure.
Burton hated the idea, having no clue how the scene would end: “Here were Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger walking up this cathedral, and halfway up Jack turns around and says, ‘Why am I walking up all these stairs? Where am I going?”’ “We’ll talk about it when you get to the top!” Burton called back.
Nicholson and Burton were arguing about narrative justification. The cinematic justification was obvious: Climbing tall towers makes for good spectacle.
This is the same reason that almost every game in the main Castlevania series features a clock tower. Yes, tradition may dictate that Count Dracula—your foe in all of these horror-themed platformers—resides in a vast manor. But a Big Ben-style clock tower seems excessive even for the Lord Of Darkness. The designers of Castlevania games take this license anyway because upward motion literally and figuratively escalates the action. Over the course of the series, developers have used this escalation as a baseline theme, composing increasingly complex harmonies of motion on top of it.
The clock tower makes its first appearance in the original NES Castlevania, released to American players in 1987. The tower isn’t much: A couple of rooms with winding staircases, the last small section before you face off against Dracula himself. The video above, made by a player who’s using modern-day software to record a perfect playthrough, doesn’t do justice to the difficulty of the section. But you can still see why it’s tricky. A big part of the challenge stems from the fact that in the 8-bit Castlevania games, you’re never more vulnerable than when you’re on a set of stairs. You’re locked into a single line of movement. You can’t jump, and your rate of ascent or descent is agonizingly slow.
The game contrasts this constrained vertical movement against the frenetic motion of your foes. Birds swoop in and drop Flea Men (little hunchback-looking miscreants), whose skips and jumps are notoriously unpredictable. Many a Castlevania player has been laid low by a flitting Flea Man. Then there are herky-jerky skeletons who dart along the strata of the tower as they toss bones—where the hell do they get all those bones?—in high, lazy arcs. In the winter, my brother used to play this trick where he’d throw a sky-high snowball in my general direction. As I tracked the flight of the first snowball, he’d quickly grab another snowball and nail me with a line drive right in the kisser. That is what the Castlevania skeletons are doing here.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest does not have a clock tower, but that’s the least of the quirks in that wonderfully odd game. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, shown in the video above, revives the tradition. The clock tower is the second stage, which by Castlevania standards is unusually early. This hampers the level design somewhat, because you can only make the second level of a game so hard, and the clock tower is best suited for moments of maximum tension and difficulty. So in Curse, you end up with rather tame stretches like a room where you hop across two swinging pendulums, with nothing to distract you or get in your way.
Still, Curse introduces new varieties of motion that make its tower a more sophisticated tableau of movement than the first game. First, there’s the rotation of the large clock gears, which you have to ride to ascend the tower. It’s a shaky ride, sort of like keeping your balance on a rolling log, as the gears’ unceasing turns threaten to throw you off. (Also, because the designers were pushing the bounds of NES technology, it’s hard to tell exactly where the “safe” area of a gear ends and where the “you will plummet to your death” area begins.)
The tower of Curse also incorporates the sinuous motion of the series’ iconic Medusa-head enemies. These foes glide across the screen in a sweeping sine wave, which proves hypnotic. Once they appear on screen, the Medusa heads’ motion is entirely predictable in theory, yet in practice, they come at you too quickly for novice players to get their bearings. The stage’s most elegantly difficult moments come when complementary motions converge, and players must manage both the perilous rotation of a gear and the waves of the Medusa heads at the same time.
The next game in the series, the 16-bit Super Castlevania IV, is an interesting case because, thanks to your practically magical bullwhip, you have much more mobility than in previous games. The designers use this to create a fun visual pun in the clock tower, when you use your whip to latch onto a moving gargoyle and become, in essence, a human pendulum.
But your broad range of motion creates problems, too, as the level design has to give you a wide berth to accommodate your acrobatics. The Medusa heads fly across the screen in taller arcs than before (or higher-amplitude sine waves, if you want to be precise), making them much less of a nuisance. Other foes are also rather polite compared to other clock-tower stages in the series. While the Super Castlevania IV tower is still plenty challenging, it doesn’t require you to manage harmonies of motion in the way that its predecessor did.
Conversely, the harmonies come together in Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night (appropriately enough), the PlayStation classic released in 1997. In this clock tower—three tall, hellish rooms—the tight quarters evoke the restricted mobility of the NES era, just as the unpredictable motion of the original game’s birds and Flea Men is echoed in the intermittent moves of flying harpies. The now-obligatory waves of Medusa heads are here, as are the maddening, ever-rotating clock gears. There’s practically no place in this clock tower where you can catch your breath and feel safe.
And that lack of respite is the essence of Symphony’s clock tower. By coalescing all the different patterns of movement from previous entries in the series, it creates a realm where you, too, have to remain in constant motion. Of all the towers in the first decade of Castlevania, this is the one that does justice to the setting. You are the central cog in an ever-changing clockworks. The worst thing you can do here is to stand still, such that the designers use it as punishment: The golden-colored Medusa heads temporarily petrify you if you touch them. This leaves you open to further attacks, or worse—your health might be drained as you stand helplessly in a pool of frigid water, or your stony likeness might plummet into a bed of spikes.
The long and short of it is that if you dare to pause, you’re ground up in the game’s machinery. You must maintain your part in this intricate kinetic harmony. “Why am I walking up all these stairs? Where am I going?” you might ask. Amid all the exploration and backtracking of Symphony, you might not even know the answer. But it’s the wrong question anyway. For you and the Joker alike, it’s not the destination that matters. It’s the movement.