There was a time in the mid to late 90’s that it was almost gaming law that classic video game franchises had to transition to 3D visuals, thanks to the introduction of the consoles of that generation, the Nintendo 64 and the Sony Playstation. Mario made the jump with the massively popular Super Mario 64, Final Fantasy jumped both consoles and dimensions with Final Fantasy 7, and even Castlevania made the jump, at least on the N64. Over on the Playstation a little gem known as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (henceforth shortened to SoTN) released in March of 1997. Not only did this game keep the classic 2D side-scrolling style of it’s predecessors, it also fundamentally changed the way the series would play, which along with Metroid created an entirely new genre of gaming known as the Metroidvania. Last time I looked at (the remake of) the game that started it all for the Metroid side, so this time I shall be looking at the game that started it all for the Castlevania side.
As I mentioned, SoTN is a 2D side-scroller, so naturally the game is 2D, using highly detailed sprites, though there are some areas that make use of 3D elements, in particular the save areas. These two elements blend fairly well together, making for an extremely detailed and beautiful game. With 3D in it’s early stages for the console market at the time, deciding to stick to the 2D sprite based style was a great move, as it serves to give the game a timeless feel, still looking great visually to this day. Every room has been painstakingly crafted, with various recognizable landmarks in many of them so you know where you are in the castle (why this is important will be covered later).
Of course, a game wouldn’t be a game without it’s music. Castlevania has always been a series known for it’s amazing music, and SoTN is no exception. Every area has it’s own unique music, providing a great backdrop for your adventure, and really sets the tone. Particular mention goes to the boss music in this game, an extremely fast paced and intense piece that does a great job at giving the player a sense of urgency in that moment. Another notable use of music in this game is the actual lack of music within the save rooms, a clever decision on the part of the game designers since these rooms are the only area in the game where you are truly safe, letting the player know that they can relax in these rooms.
SoTN is a side scrolling open-ended adventure game, more commonly referred to as a Metroidvania, named after the game-play of the Metroid series and pretty much every 2D Castlevania game starting from SoTN and continuing on to this day. During your exploration of the world, taking place in Dracula’s castle, you encounter many enemies intent on blocking your path. Many of these enemies will be familiar to those who have played past games in the series, with a few new enemies thrown in for good measure. Killing these enemies gives you experience, allowing you to level up and improve your stats. Leveling up doesn’t do a whole lot in this game, but the added stat bonuses are extremely helpful as you progress.
Of course, fighting the enemies isn’t the only thing to do with this game. True to it’s genre, exploration makes up a huge part of this game, and you are free to pretty much go anywhere you want at any time, barring a few areas that are blocked off in various ways. Thankfully, there are numerous power ups that you can find hidden throughout the castle, allowing you to bypass those obstacles that were previously in your way. The most useful power ups are the various forms that our game’s protagonist Alucard can take, being the forms of a wolf, a bat, and mist. These forms grant you new ways to travel, such as extra speed from the wolf, flight from the bat, and the ability to pass through certain walls in the mist form. You can also find various equipment, such as weapons, armour, and shields which all improve your fighting ability. Some of these items are exclusive to the single shop in the game, an old librarian found in the castle’s library, who will sell Alucard equipment, useful consumable items such as potions, the game’s magic spells which can be extremely useful in many situations, and finally a basic outline of the castle’s map, in order to help the player traverse it’s expansive hallways.
The map only shows you so much though, as there are many hidden pathways and rooms, many of which are hidden behind false walls. These hidden rooms often hold health power ups, as well as heart power ups, which are used with the many secondary weapons you can pick up as you play. Alucard will also come across various familiars throughout the game, small creatures that will follow you around in various ways. Some examples of these familiars are the fairy, who will heal Alucard with any potions and other consumables you have in your inventory, as well as point out any false walls you might miss, or the sword familiar, who once you level up enough can actually be equipped as your main weapon, and with enough leveling becomes one of the most powerful weapons in the game. There are five familiars in all that provide different abilities to assist your adventure, which one you use is entirely based on your personal preference (I spent most of the game using the fairy familiar myself).
[Be warned: This section will contain spoilers]
SoTN takes place shortly after the previous game in the series, Rondo of Blood, which didn’t see a North American release until much later. The game begins with the end of the previous game, where you play as Richter Belmont, picking up just as he is about to confront Dracula. You actually get to control Richter for this fight, and how well you perform in this fight will determine the starting stats for Alucard when you begin to control him. After you defeat Dracula, you are then treated to a brief exposition explaining that Richter has gone missing, and the mysterious castle of Dracula, normally only appearing once every 100 years, has unexpectedly reappeared five years later. This is where Alucard, the half-breed son of Dracula come into play, going to explore why the castle has reappeared.
One of the great things that this game does is within the first hour of the game. It starts you off at the end of the previous game, helping to frame the game in two simple ways. You know that a) Dracula is alive and b) Richter was the one that killed him. It also thrusts you into the main portion of the game with some of Alucard’s most powerful equipment in the game, giving you a sense of empowerment as you proceed through the first few rooms of the game. You then come across Death, a popular reoccurring boss of the Castlevania series known for his brutal difficulty. Here he is portrays as being a servant to Dracula, and begs Alucard to turn away and not to investigate any further. When Alucard refuses, he is promptly stripped of his gear, leaving him completely empty handed. This is a great way to start the game since it gives the player an idea of how they could be, giving them the motivation to play through the game in order to achieve those power levels again.
Once this happens, you continue through the castle, picking up items as you go and learning the secrets of the castle. As you progress you will come across Maria, a young woman who is in search of our missing Richter Belmont. You also meet with the aforementioned librarian, who assists Alucard items and equipment, and of course to no one’s surprise you will eventually find Richter himself, only this time he’s different. For initially unexplained reasons, Richter has become the lord of the castle, and appears to be attempting to resurrect Dracula. Upon this revelation, you set out to find a way to stop him, and he is portrayed as the (initial) final boss of the game.
Another milestone that this game set for the franchise was the existence of levels beyond the final boss, usually unlocked in very specific (and often convoluted) manners. In this case there are a pair of rings that you can find throughout the game, which if are worn at the same time in a specific room, unlocks a secret area where you will find Maria once again. Here it’s revealed that Richter is under some form of spell, and she gives you a pair of glasses to wear while facing him, revealing the mastermind behind the entire scenario, a dark priest named Shaft. Upon this revelation, we are introduced to the inverted castle, a second castle that is identical to the original in ever way, except this time everything is upside down. This falls more under game-play, but I feel like I need to take a moment here to appreciate the fact that the designers of this game were able to make a game that could not only be played normally, but also to be able to have everything be inverted and still have all the foot-holds and ledges needed in order to progress, though you will be finding yourself using the bat form quite a bit here.
You progress through the inverted castle, fighting re-imagined versions of the original Castlevania bosses, including finally being able to get your hands on Death in an extremely hard but satisfying battle. Each of these bosses will drop a piece of Dracula, necessary to be able to fight Shaft. Once you have all five, you will face off against the dark priest himself in an admittedly easy boss fight. However, it isn’t the final fight, as despite everything Dracula is successfully revived, and you have to face off against him once and for all in quite possibly the hardest fight in the game. The game ends with Alucard, along with a reunited Richter and Maria, watching the castle disappear. While not the most engaging plot in the world, it gives you just enough information to keep you engaged and wanting to progress further into the game, and I wouldn’t call the ending unsatisfying to say the least.
Overall Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is still a satisfying experience, and if nothing else the mark it made on the franchise is noteworthy. The decision to keep it 2D in an age where making everything 3D was the “in” thing to do has served it very well, and the game-play is satisfying and never feels overly repetitive. The original version of this game was for the Playstation 1, however it is available in a number of ways. It was given an expanded port on the Sega Saturn, though this version was plagued with loading issues. It is also available on both the Playstation Network and Xbox Live arcade, as well as being an unlockable bonus in Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, a remake of Rondo of Blood, and was given a brand new script and voice acting. If you are a fan of the newer Castlevania games found on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS and haven’t played this game for whatever reason, then it is definitely worth picking up and playing the game that started it all for the Metroidvania period of the Castlevania franchise.