Gaming has a rich history that spans multiple decades. To this end, The Last Word on Gaming Backlog is a series that looks back on titles across all generations. From the golden 8-bit era to the landscape-changing 64-bit scene and beyond, The LWOG Backlog’s aim is history. This weekend, we take a look at a title that helped define a genre – the gothic, action-oriented platformer, Castlevania – Symphony of the Night.
Symphony of the Night – What is a Man?
Castlevania – Symphony of the Night is one of the most important video games of the 1990s. Up until this point, the Castlevania series had a specific formula. It was a series of 2D platformers that made its way on to virtually every home and portable system in existence. However, with the advent of 3D gaming, it was apparent that the series needed a change in direction. The Castlevania games on the Nintendo 64 attempted to move the series into 3D, not unlike the titles in the Super Mario or Legend of Zelda series. Meanwhile, the entries on the original PlayStation evolved the established 2D formula.
This is where Castlevania – Symphony of the Night comes into play. At the time of its release, its success could be described as modest at best. However, time has been kind to Symphony of the Night. Not only has it become one of the best-reviewed games on the PS1, holding up better than most titles on the system, but it helped spawn a genre known by many as “Metroidvania,” which Super Metroid also had a hand at bringing to life. Ori and the Blind Forest, Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight – these are just a few examples of titles at least somewhat inspired by Symphony of the Night.
Furthermore, this Castlevania title made its way onto many platforms over the years, both standalone and via compilations. What makes Symphony of the Night as legendary as it is? Let’s take a deeper dive into this title that, over two decades later, many consider the best in its unique genre. Castlevania – Symphony of the Night was developed and published by Konami.
Castlevania – Symphony of the Night opens with the conclusion of Rondo of Blood, the former’s prequel game released roughly four years prior. In this segment, Richter Belmont battles and defeats Count Dracula. Fast forward four years later and it’s discovered that Richter has gone missing. More so, Dracula’s castle, which was thought to be a distant memory, mysteriously reappeared. Was Richter lost to the resurrected castle? Was the resurrection indicative of the return of an old threat?
This prompted the intervention of Alucard, the half-human half-vampire son of Dracula. Alucard’s goal was simple: to explore the castle and put an end to what he believed to be his father’s evil ways. As Alucard explores the castle, he will encounter a woman named Maria Renard, who once battled alongside Richter. Given the fact that Alucard once fought alongside Richter’s ancestor, Trevor Belmont, his investment in this quest became that much stronger.
Symphony of the Night features multiple cutscenes, some of which are stronger than others, but they never take away from the story. In fact, the story in question is told as Alucard explores Dracula’s castle. Each section has a purpose and every battle is integral to Alucard’s growth. Furthermore, with multiple endings, which we will discuss in detail later, Symphony of the Night’s story may have players coming back time and time again.
At its core, Symphony of the Night features Castlevania gameplay at its best. In a 2D environment, Alucard will battle his way throughout multiple rooms, taking on such monsters as Zombies, Axe Knights, Mermen, and other creatures one may associate with a gothic video game. Alucard will also find himself using multiple subweapons that have become Castlevania staples, including holy water and the cross. As fresh as Symphony of the Night is, these little touches make it feel familiar as well.
Where Symphony of the Night stands out is two-fold. First, the game features a progression system, allowing Alucard to level up as he gains more experience. The more experience he acquires, the stronger he becomes. This makes Symphony of the Night feel like a platformer-roleplaying game hybrid, which was a unique turn for the series at the time. Second, Symphony of the Night primarily takes place within Dracula’s castle, and to say that it’s expansive would be an understatement. Longtime fans may be saddened to know they won’t travel through forests and other locations. That said, the castle is so big that it doesn’t matter too much.
Symphony of the Night is a treasure from a gameplay standpoint, but if there’s one criticism that can be drawn, it’s that navigation can become confusing at times. Dracula’s castle is huge, perhaps to its detriment at times, which can make backtracking frustrating. Additionally, it can be difficult to determine where to go next, especially as more of the castle is explored. A first-time player may be compelled to look up a guide to find out where to go next. However, these blemishes are inconsequential in the grander scheme of Symphony of the Night.
Presentation (Graphics and Sound)
Castlevania – Symphony of the Night utilizes a 2D graphical style in addition to 3D models. At the time, this choice was criticized by certain outlets, especially when given the time period the game released in. As many games experimented with 3D graphics, Symphony of the Night felt stuck in the past. However, time has been kind to this game, becoming one of the best-aged titles during its generation. This was a smart choice, too, as it allowed the developers to fill the castle with a wide array of detailed enemies and models without sacrificing performance.
Sound is another area where Symphony of the Night shines. One of the first tracks the player hears, in the prologue between Richter and Dracula, is energizing. The same can be said for the main track of Dracula’s castle, a rocking melody that bolsters the game’s sense of adventure. These are just a few examples of the game’s solid audio direction. Symphony of the Night was composed by Michiru Yamane; she would go on to compose for future Castlevania titles, mainly portable entries such as Harmony of Dissonance, Dawn of Sorrow, and Portrait of Ruin.
As stated earlier, Symphony of the Night is one of the best-aged games of its generation. Despite what many considered to be limitations at the time, its graphical style is still highly detailed. It also features many of the most memorable songs in the Castlevania series. The one area many people criticized was voice acting, but despite its cheesiness, it’s now looked at with a sense of fondness. If nothing else, the voice acting in question has provided considerable meme material.
How likely it is that gamers will come back to Castlevania – Symphony of the Night? In one word, very. The core game is incredibly substantial, with the base story taking up to nine hours to complete. However, Symphony of the Night features multiple endings. Without diving into spoilers, the ending one receives will depend on different factors. These include the percentage of the game explored and items collected and used. As Alucard, the game features four different endings. Don’t expect to see Alucard’s campaign double in scope if the right ending is seen.
Additionally, once the game is completed as Alucard, the ability to play as Richter is unlocked. This provides a more traditional Castlevania experience, as Richter relies on his trusty Vampire Killer whip and various subweapons. Keep in mind that the RPG elements of Symphony of the Night aren’t present as Richter. This makes the game in question more challenging. For those that hunger for a classic, potentially unforgiving experience, this option is worth exploring.
Castlevania – Symphony of the Night was a landmark game in the franchise. As stated before, it helped initiate a new genre that inspired many titles to follow. Furthermore, as home console Castlevania games continued to experiment with 3D, handheld platforms built upon the foundation set by Symphony of the Night. The Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS featured many “Metroidvania” titles. These should help satiate the desire for more experiences similar to Symphony of the Night.
As far as Symphony of the Night itself is concerned, it remains a classic that has found its way onto multiple consoles over the years. In 1998, the Sega Saturn received a port of the game, complete with a unique mode that made Maria a playable character. It would also be released on modern platforms to follow, including the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 4. Mobile versions of the game exist as well, making Symphony of the Night one of the more easily accessible fifth-generation console games.
It’s easy to see that Symphony of the Night represented a change in gaming. It helped birth the “Metroidvania” genre, which future titles in other series would use as a template. Symphony of the Night was also effective at helping Castlevania evolve without deviating too far from its roots. There hasn’t been a true “Metroidvania” title in the Castlevania series since Order of Ecclesia, which came out on the DS in 2008. Whether the series will revisit this genre is unknown, but given the influence Symphony of the Night has had over the years, its importance can’t be understated.