There are several core genres of video games, but few games can actually be summed up as one genre. A game can be called a role-playing game, but there’s a big difference between Chrono Trigger and Baldur’s Gate. The same can be said for platform games, as few will confuse Super Mario Bros. with Ratchet and Clank.
The Castlevania series has long struggled with genres. The original game is often described as a hybrid action-adventure title. Famous for its great, but punishing, gameplay it’s no surprise it spawned several sequels. The first of which, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, was a radical departure. For that title, Konami decided to take the non-linear gameplay fans seemed to enjoy so much about the first game, and expand upon it by introducing many RPG elements. Simon’s Quest was an ambitious title, but probably one that had more failures than successes. As a result, Konami would simplify the many sequels and slowly work its way towards something more complex.
With new hardware and many more attempts are crafting quality Castlevania games, it was time for Konami to get bold once more. The arrival of the 32 bit era brought about realistic opportunities for 3D gameplay design. Not 3D as we know it today (the optical illusion), but 3D polygons instead of hand-drawn 2D sprites as a visual and gameplay style. If Konami was attempted to explore this style with Castlevania, it wisely held off and stuck with what worked. Symphony of the Night was born on the Playstation and unveiled to the world in 1997 in a very quiet manner. Because it was not 3D, and was up against the massive hype-machine known as Final Fantasy VII, it was overlooked initially. Review outlets were generally impressed by the title, though some would probably like a do-over as even many of those old reviews look like they were done as after-thoughts.
No matter, Symphony of the Night would receive its due eventually. SotN took Simon’s Quest and married it with Nintendo’s Super Metroid. This has lead some fans to affectionately refer to the title as “Metroidvania,” which should not be mistaken as an insult. SotN sees the player dropped into a familiar setting; Dracula’s Castle. Only this castle is different than before. The player can explore it at will as the game doesn’t merely force the player to go left to right. There are many ledges and secret rooms to find and explore and roadblocks, especially early in the game, are quite frequent forcing the player to back-track. This emphasis on exploration made the game more than just an action title and really put the focus on the adventure aspect.
In the starring role this time was a familiar, and yet unfamiliar, face. Alucard, son of Dracula, is the primary protagonist. The first scene of the game teases a starring role for Richter Belmont, but Alucard is the one who will receive the majority of the playing time. Alucard plays very differently from the other protagonists to appear in a Castlevania game before him. As a half-vampire, he’s far more powerful than any Belmont. He can dash, leap to impressive heights, and change his form. He has spells at his disposal, input like fighting game commands, and can be built up to god-like levels. As he kills enemies, Alucard gains experience and levels up. When the game first starts off he’s fairly weak and most of the player deaths experienced in the game will come in the first hour or so. As the player “level grinds” and explores more weapons and abilities will be found. Alucard does not use the traditional whip, but can use pretty much every other type of weapon one can think of. Most will include various swords and spears but tough guys can also roll with just their fists if they wish.
And since Alucard is the son of the game’s main antagonist, many storyline possibilities are opened up. While this game came before story became a major point of emphasis in video games, it manages to weave an interesting tale. SotN sets out to finally bring all of the previous games together under one massive narrative. Old questions are answered, and new ones born, and for longtime fans it’s a very satisfying experience. The only drawback is with the voice acting. Voice acting was ever growing in popularity at the time, but few did it well. SotN is no exception in that regard and the original release features some atrocious acting. It’s not used a lot, thankfully, but is pretty groan-inducing. Ports of the game have improved upon it, though I can’t say how much since I’ve never bothered to play them (I still have my PSX copy).
Visually, the game is a delight! Alucard’s sprite has smooth animation and nice effects to go with it. The game makes liberal use of all of the 2D tricks perfected in the 16 bit era and enhances them. There are some polygons in the game, but they’re mostly used to dress up the background. Because of this approach, the game holds up quite well to this day. Some of those old Playstation and Nintendo 64 games that were much heralded in their day cannot say the same thing. This is still a pretty game, by any standard. And since it’s a Castlevania title, the soundtrack must be mentioned. It contains many of the old tracks made famous by the series, but also has a ton of new compositions that all suit the game’s mood. The synth-metal approach to many of them is a great deal of fun to listen to and there are numerous elements of techno, classical, and other genres blended in. This is still my all-time favorite video game soundtrack.
The game controls tighter than any previous Castlevania title. Perhaps it’s because of Alucard’s inhuman nature, but he is much more nimble than any Belmont before him. This makes controlling him a more enjoyable experience, but also makes the game much easier. As I mentioned before, the early part of the game can be a challenge as Alucard is de-powered early on, but as you level up and find new weapons and spells the game becomes increasingly easier. There are a couple of items that practically break the game because of how over-powered they are. You can, of course, choose not to use them but it’s hard to resist. There are many boss battles though, and most are fun affairs and offer some of the game’s best challenges. There are also multiple endings as this is one of those games where just when you think you’ve finished, more is revealed. Get to 100% completion and the castle gets literally flipped upside down and the game practically starts over again! There’s also a code to play the entire game as Richter, and later ports include a third character as well; Maria Renard.
When I first set out to cover my favorite games I mentioned I was going to mostly stay away from the consensus classics. Symphony of the Night is probably one of those classics, but to me it has always felt overlooked which is why I chose to include it. It was largely ignored by audiences when it was first released but as time went on gamers went back to it. I was one such gamer who first ignored it. I don’t even remember there being much coverage for it at the time, but I eventually made the time for it and picked up a used copy. And even though I grabbed that used copy a couple years later, I was still ahead of a lot of people to even be able to find a used copy for cheap money! Now that black-label game is considered a collector’s item, and while it doesn’t go for huge money in the secondary market, it’s not likely to be found in a bargain bin.
Symphony of the Night, for me, represents Castlevania at its absolute best. Some long-time fans think it’s too easy to be the best of the best, and since the main gameplay does not feature a whip of any kind it can turn off some traditionalists. It’s still the most fun I’ve ever had with a Castlevania title and the one I remember most fondly. Several of the new handheld games have copied the style of SotN but I’m not sure any have truly improved upon it. Oh, those games are good, but the crown still belongs to the game almost no one played when it was first released nearly 15 years ago.