So I've been continuing my exploration of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And you know what, I took down the boss and saw the credits roll. So that means I beat the game, right? Apparently not so much. I just experienced the premature "bad" ending. In reality I'm only halfway through the game.
Truth be told, if I were playing this game back in 1997 when it came out, I don't know if I'd have realized that I'd encountered a false ending. Yeah, it was kind of a crappy one, but there's a long history of unsatisfying endings in video games. This ending didn't resolve much of the story, but the story didn't make that much sense anyway and it's told with such horrific voice acting that there's a chance someone would have skipped it. Even so, nothing about what's said in the "bad" ending indicates that you did something wrong. You ascend the final staircase and beat down who you consider to be the mastermind of everything that's gone down. After that you're treated to some exposition and then some unskippable credits. How are you supposed to know that that wasn't the real deal?
You may be thinking that perhaps I rushed through the game and missed otherwise obvious details. But I'm pretty obsessive about exploring every last inch of these types of games, fighting every monster and getting all the loot. When I came across the final staircase I knew it for what it was and backed off to go scour the rest of the map for secrets. I've played enough games to know that once you've beaten a game the incentive to go after the little side objectives drops off dramatically. If I don't do it before the ending, chances are I'll never do it. I wanted to make sure I got everything possible out of this game, so I held off the final boss fight as long as possible. When I was satisfied that I had got as many secrets as I could figure out I went off and got my (apparently bad) ending.
What was I missing? As thorough as I was, I apparently missed not one, but two critical items. If you get these two rings, equip them, and go to the clock tower then a door opens up. You go down there, get a cutscene and another item. If you wear that during the "final" boss battle and attack this mysterious green orb instead of the boss you break the curse and continue on to the second half of the game and eventually the real final boss. Totally obvious.
Okay, one of the rings I missed just because I forgot to go back somewhere after I got the bat form. But nothing about that ring obviously indicates what you should do with it. The other ring was in a secret area I didn't figure out. It looked like a place you were supposed to bat and mist through, but you were actually supposed to equip this armor that lets you walk through spikes (which I hadn't realized you could do). That ring more obviously indicated that you should wear it in the clock tower, but it's also extraordinarily easy to miss. To get that spike armor you first have to figure out a whole sequence of other secrets.
If this were Metroid, it'd be the equivalent of having the game end after you fight Kraid just because you skipped picking up some hidden missile pack (no Mother Brain for you). Or like if Zelda if you never got to fight Ganon because you missed one of the heart containers. Why would someone intentionally obfuscate such a large chunk of the game? It's a terrible idea.
The only reason I knew to continue was that I had heard the term "inverted castle" thrown around in reference to this game and when I hit the ending I hadn't seen any inverted castles. I also had an inkling that there was more because I'd played the GBA and DS games, where they've for whatever reason continued this tradition of premature bad endings. Thankfully those ones were more obvious with their badness.
And that's the problem, isn't it? In order to have a false ending it needs to be sufficiently bad. Like you screw up and a nuclear bomb goes off in Manhattan. You know, obvious failure. You should be thinking "whoops, that probably wasn't supposed to happen." Not "good job me, now let's watch the credits." You essentially want something that dumps you at a clear "Game Over" screen (although not Symphony's, which has to be the cheesiest Game Over screen ever). It's okay to have a "what if" scenario, but not if the "if" is convincing enough that you're willing to accept it and unknowingly miss out on half the experience.