#41: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
From “Classicvania” to cultural phenomenon
Initial release: 1997
And thus begins one of the most celebrated games ever made. If you’re over 20 and you’ve played just one Castlevania, it was probably this one. This is the landmark.
I can’t overstate how important this game was. sure, Metroid created the “metroidvania” genre, but Symphony of the Night was the game that proved the template could work for other themes, other styles. Hollow Knight? Cave Story? Hell, even Dark Souls? All bow at the altar of Symphony of the Night.
Symphony was a watershed moment, both for the franchise as well as gaming at large. It was proof, as 3D was getting into full swing with games like Quake and Mario 64, that 2D games could still be done and look great in the process… and a few 3D models can’t hurt, anyway.
It was also the franchise’s turning point from arcade-style platformer to a non-linear action RPG. Very few games in the “classic” style would come out after this: Castlevania Legends, Castlevania Chronicles (which is a port of an existing game for the X68000 anyway) and, much later, the remake of Castlevania: the Adventure. These were all rare exceptions in a franchise that would come to be defined by Symphony of the Night. Minus these exceptions, every Castlevania game since Symphony has either been a 3D game (with mixed results) or emulating Symphony’s gameplay style and structure. Under Koji Igarashi’s hand, the franchise was reborn from a solid, if somewhat stagnant, platformer series, into something new and lasting, and also driving a lot of Game Boy Advance and DS sales.
The overall presentation of Castlevania was changed as well. Just look at this box art: it’s gorgeous, and clearly inspired by Yoshitaka Amano, especially his cover art for the Vampire Hunter D books. While the US didn’t get nearly as cool a cover, the Japanese art would set the standard for the series’ aesthetic ever since.
But it wasn’t just the box art, Symphony also set a new standard for art design and sprite animation. Just look at Alucard’s walk cycle! Back in 1997 this kind of high-quality animation was almost unheard of outside of fighting games (not to mention more and more games were just going 3D.)
I can’t forget the sound design, either. The sound effects are all solid, and immediately recognizable; you can hear the effort Alucard makes as he swings his sword. And the music, my god, the music — Ssymphony is easily in the top 5 for best Playstation soundtracks.
Aside from Metroid, the game shares a bit in common with survival horror games like the previous year’s Resident Evil or Konami’s own later classic Silent Hill, still two years away when Symphony released. While the survivalist aspects aren’t as obvious, you still have a vast, isolated locale to explore, little by little unlocking new areas as you gain new abilities or equipment, with the story drip-fed to you via brief encounters with other characters. So right away the game already has more plot going on than even Rondo of Blood. Set five years after Rondo, Richter Belmont has disappeared, and Maria, all grown up, is searching for him. Alucard, who has been asleep since his dad’s war on the living was defeated three hundred years prior, is rudely awakened from his slumber and goes off to the castle to find out why.
In spite of the major gameplay changes, some things remain the same. The basic jump-and-attack gameplay has been maintained, though instead of a whip, you’ll be using swords with less of a delay. The subweapons are all here, too, including some new ones. You can summon familiars like a faerie who will help you out, by attacking or helping you with items. With Alucard being half-vampire, he can also transform into a bat, or wolf, or even mist. These skills as well as spells and weapon moves all cost mana, which is separate from hearts.
What really makes Symphony of the Night such a long-lasting title is the sense of mystery it fosters. Each new area is lovingly crafted with its own vibe and music; each new ability opens up more and more as you explore the castle. And there’s plenty of quirks and oddities. There’s plenty of enduring mysteries and unique rooms, and tons of little details, like the faerie familiar sitting on your shoulder when you’re idle long enough, falling off with a little “oof!” when you move. It almost makes up for the lack of info most of your weapons and items have in their descriptions.
If there’s a flaw to the game, it’s what happens after you avoid getting the worst ending. A whole, second castle appears out of the sky, and it’s a carbon copy of the original, just upside down. This serves as a “final dungeon” of sorts, full of difficult enemies. Let me be clear: I fucking hate the inverted castle. It’s a lazy way of padding out the game’s final hours; there’s absolutely no plot until the final boss. All you’re doing is running around looking for bosses to fight so you can collect Dracula’s body parts (yes, again.) With a very few exceptions, I really dislike this kind of “doubling” of environments. Making matters worse, it’s clear that the inverted castle was done late in development: most of the areas in the inverted castle share one music track or another, and a lot of the little bells and whistles have been stripped out. Most of the boss fights you have to tackle are rather underwhelming, too. They’re either piss-easy, as is the case with most of the Castlevania 1 alumni, or they’re stupid hard (like Galamoth, who seems to exist only because he was the final boss of Kid Dracula on Game Boy.)
But don’t let my complaints about the inverted castle and its boss fights give you the idea that there are no good boss fights in this game, as there are plenty of great ones. Two of them especially stick out: the first is Granfalloon, a huge floating mass of bodies otherwise known as Legion, which would go on to be a staple boss enemy in later games. It’s a weird and terrifying encounter at the bottom of the castle, with bodies falling to the floor and rising up to shuffle your way, while you’re trying desperately to dodge the weird lasers that the monstrous creature that serves as Granfalloon’s core emits once exposed.
Olrox is probably the clearest proof that the Orlok-style vampire as seen in the classic silent film Nosferatu exists in the Castlevania universe along with “standard” vampires like Dracula himself. His boss fight, in many ways, feels a bit like a callback to fights with Dracula in earlier games, complete with Olrox eventually turning into a huge monster in his final phase. Dracula clearly liked him enough to give him his own section in the castle, too, with one of the creepiest backing soundtracks in the whole score.
Symphony saw an early port to the Sega Saturn; this Japan-only edition boasts some new features like two new areas and the ability to play as Maria. Due to its Japan-exclusivity and new features, there’s been a mystique around it, but the new features don’t really make up for technical inferiority, and Igarashi has disavowed it.
A decade after Symphony’s release, Igarashi revisited the game as an unlockable in Dracula X Chronicles, the 2.5D remake of Rondo of Blood for Playstation Portable. He included some oft-requested features like a Maria mode and some bug fixes, and the English script was redone and re-recorded, with Alucard voiced by Yuri Lowenthal. Not everyone was happy with the new voice acting; the original VA, with that cheesy delivery and recorded-in-a-cardboard-box sound quality, is a defining part of the game for most English-speaking fans. In my view, both versions have their value, but pound for pound I think I prefer the newer version simply because if the better recording technology and the higher writing/translation standards had been there in 1997 we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
If you don’t have a PSP, luckily this updated version was in recent years re-released, bundled with the PSP version of Rondo of Blood (also an unlock in Dracula X Chronicles) in the so-far Playstation 4-exclusive Castlevania Requiem pack. These are barebones ports, nothing has been changed, but now you can scream at your TV instead of at your hands.
While I still maintain that not every design decision in this game was made wisely, this is still a solid game, easily one of the greatest games on the original Playstation, and still a solid play, every time.