Being born in late 1994 and being initially intimidated by video games for reasons that would only be plausible to the mind of a timid little boy, I found myself not too enthralled by a large quantity of older titles. But if I were to make a top ten, or possibly even a top five list of my favorite games of all time, I would certainly place Symphony of the Night up there. With that in mind, asking why I would review a title such as this is a valid question, especially since I did back when I was figuring this reviewing doohickey out. Well, because I didn’t explain why I love it so much properly, which was also the reason for my second Saints Row 2 review. So let the praise flow super duper well without being unconditional!
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Review
Platforms: PSOne, PSN(Vita, Reviewed), XBLA, Sega Saturn
It’s well documented that Symphony of the Night was a group of creators’ attempt to reinvent and recreate the decade standing Castlevania brand, which primarily followed a descendent of the Belmont family going out to fight Dracula with a whip in hand and heart powered accessories in the other. All of which was structured in a series of literally laid out levels with challenge and mastery being the two main driving factors behind that. Symphony pretty much threw everything but Dracula and heart powered weapons out of the door by turning the main character into the smooth walking plat blonde bastard son of the big bad, Alucard, who decides to finally end his father’s reign as there isn’t a single Belmont showing up to do their job. With a sword in hand and exceptional equipment he is quickly stripped down to next to nothing and given just shy of two-thousand screens of the sprawling castle to explore. With the rest of the story being disposable and at the same time a charm that comes from a very quickly done voice acting job, and localization in general if the spelling errors are any indication. But I guess that comes more to preference than anything else.
However I am automatically coming into any conversation about this game with a proclaimed love for Metroidvania, a clunky term that likely should be revised along with half of gaming terminology, and Symphony is both the originator of the term and one of its best examples. With its massive and varied environments, brimming with detail given the grandiose scope and abundant quantity of equipment, upgrades, items, new abilities, stat boots, and just overall secrets makes the drive for exploration come across as seamless. Even when the game appears to be near over, it only happens to open up, flip the world map along a 45 degree angle, and give the player more freedom than they ever had previously. A move than not only keeps the game engaging despite using the same environmental assets, but also evokes a strange sense of both empowerment and short term nostalgia as you reexamine areas from earlier in the game.
Not that the game always lets you stew in your mighty juices, as the later half certainly does ramp up the difficulty by simply throwing a lot onto the player’s plate. Whether it be massive bosses a rooms crammed with uniquely designed enemies who require a certain level of finesse to move around, which the game certainly allows through Alucard’s invulnerable mist form, backdash, and downright excellent controls. From his well paced walk, the timing of his backdash, or swing of the multiple weapons that may be used, there’s something to Alucard’s character that controls if not perfectly, is very close to just that. Yet the rabbit hole of abilities and moves only grows deeper with intricate and difficult to cast spells and certain weapon specific attack that require experimentation to master their capabilities in the towers and catacombs filled with skelemen, imps, and levitating swords.
In fact, the sheer quantity of beautifully constructed pixelated enemies is impressive, as many exist only in one percent of the environment, and still do leave a mark and in most cases have a simple strategy to overcome. Yet even if one’s hand eye coordination is lacking or the player decided to take on the inverted clock tower first, the game is very reasonable with its save point quantities and locations, with the warps only making travel easier, even though the presence of a level system and random enemy drops only encourages exploration. Or if the area is flat and horizontal, Alucard can simply transform into a wolf and plow through the monsters at breakneck speeds. However, that is oddly the only purpose I found for the wolf transformation, with the other two being the aforementioned mist cloud of invincibility and the ability to turn into a bat to ascend to areas a double jump cannot.
Even the decision to include easily ignorable things such as Alucard’s familiars seem to be given much attention without much concern what would be useful and where. With the fairy in particular only seeming to exist as a healer of sorts for Alucard, when she simply uses items in his inventory. Accessing said items can be something of a chore, however, as Alucard would need to free one of his hands place an item there, and throw it on the ground before stepping on it to be used. Thankfully, I only saw fit to do this practice once, but that also meant I left a great majority of Alucard’s accumulated items untouched. Yet when you have a weapon that has a Strider-esc arc, hits four times, and can be used without stopping, you don’t need much else. Although, finding such an obscure item in 1997 would certainly warrant the decimation one would cause with such an asset.
Yet there is naturally a reason aside from engaging gameplay, tight controls, and generally blissful movement and a glad I can the ability to play it annually from now on, and that is how it is among the oldest games which I love to simply look at. The mix of the original system’s advanced capabilities and the accumulated skill of crafting pixels into world and characters has given Symphony what I find to be a timeless look. Well, excluding a few semi-clunky menus and a save animation originally made to capitalized on early 3D technologies. Still, it looked gorgeous even while stretched out on the Vita’s lovely screen and hearing the classic score lay its bombastic notes in through my headphones was enough to put a smile on my face through the great majority of the experience.
When you purchase a system and decide to have the first game you play be one you not only own and have beaten, but can play whenever you desire after getting the system out, the game must either be good or the purchases be foolish. I’d not deny the latter, but I can’t claim the former isn’t true. In my mind, Symphony of the Night is a pinnacle of sorts that only falls due to how it tries to cover so much ground and do so much. It is a title I want to always be a minute away from playing and explore from scratch as I let the delightful sense of growth settle on in. It is beautiful in its appearance, should be examined for its design, and is among my favorite games of all time.
Problems very much exist, it’s just that there are too many good things that lie in between them and the far, far larger creamy center for them to be anything but an occasional distraction.