Although I love quality videogames regardless of their platform and have never been a biased fanboy, Sega and Sony have dominated the majority of my gaming experiences over the years, my list of owned consoles to date including Sega’s Master System, Mega Drive, Mega-CD and Dreamcast; and Sony’s first three generations of PlayStation. I’ve only briefly dabbled with PC gaming and I never actually owned a Nintendo console until my purchase of a Wii U last year – an admitted oversight for someone who has loved the medium literally for as long as I can remember. (Although I did spend far too large a percentage of my university years playing my housemate’s Nintendo 64, so there’s that).
Owning a Wii U got me thinking about some of the long-running and beloved Nintendo franchises which I’ve never properly experienced apart from a brief play here and there over the years, franchises such as The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong and Metroid. This brought me to Castlevania, and although I’m well aware that Castlevania is owned by Konami, despite the distance between them today, Castlevania will always retain a strong connection to Nintendo due to the many games in the series which have been released on Nintendo consoles over the years, beginning with the original Castlevania game on the Family Computer Disk System in 1986.
The only Castlevania games I’d briefly played in the past were Castlevania on the Nintendo 64 (I vaguely remember something about hedges – give me a break, I’ve drunk a lot since then) and the more recent Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on PlayStation 3, neither of which exhibited the classic 2D style found in the majority of games in the series and which I was looking to experience.
Enter Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, originally released on the PlayStation in 1997 and a game regarded by many as one of the best in the series. One of the reasons for this was the way in which the game expanded so well upon the original formula, not only introducing a number of RPG elements for added depth but also changing the traditional structure found in previous games (with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest being a notable exception) from a linear, level-by-level design to an open-ended one that offered the player much more freedom in terms of exploration and the order in which they tackled the game’s areas. This approach – which would later spawn the portmanteau “Metroidvania” – was more associated with Metroid and The Legend of Zelda rather than Castlevania, but for this and many other reasons, Symphony of the Night became a beloved title amongst many critics and gamers, even if its commercial success was more muted.
I recently bought the PS3 digital rerelease of Symphony of the Night (I didn’t fancy selling a kidney or three to be able to afford a physical PAL copy of the game) and played it through from start to finish. In short? It’s fantastic and certainly deserves all of the praise it has received over the years.
Although Symphony of the Night casts you as Alucard, a human / vampire hybrid whose father happens to be Dracula (and whose mother was unbelievably lazy in naming her son), the opening of the game is actually a brief playable scene mimicking the final battle of 1993’s Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, the game to which Symphony of the Night is a direct sequel. As such, when I began the game I found myself playing as Richter Belmont, the protagonist of Rondo of Blood, my immediate task being to defeat Dracula in his chambers at the top of his castle. After enduring some atrocious voice acting far more fiendish than anything else Dracula could throw at me, I defeated him, and his castle collapsed.
Skip ahead four years and suddenly I was Alucard, rushing through the front gate of Dracula’s castle, which had recently been resurrected along with its owner thanks to a dark priest named Shaft. (“Who’s the twisted, evil priest who brought back that vampiric beast?” “Shaft!” “Daaamn right.”). Richter had vanished and so Alucard had taken it upon himself to storm the castle and face off against his bloodsucking dad.
Right from the start, the game exuded a fitting atmosphere as I entered the castle, hacking up zombies and wargs as I went, lightning flashing and thunder booming, open doors slamming in the wind. But the game also impressed in other ways – the controls were tight and intuitive, the 2D graphics were detailed and colourful, and the music was a mixture of rock and “creepy gothic” that blended the two brilliantly.
The game’s inclusion of RPG elements was made immediately apparent when I opened the pause menu, which presented me with my inventory of weapons, armour and items as well as my current level, amount of experience points, health, and the following four attributes: strength, defence, intelligence, and luck.
Although whips are the weapon most associated with Castlevania, I began the game with a powerful sword and shield, the former killing enemies in one hit. This seemed too good to be true, and it was – that skeletal bastard Death swiftly showed up and stole all of my high-powered weapons and armour before running off. Determined to overcome adversity, I proceeded to beat a skeleton to death with my bare hands then stole his shortsword.
As I began exploring the rooms of Dracula’s castle, I wondered just how big it was, as the rooms that make up the map only appear when you actually enter them (apart from a few areas which can be added via a discoverable item) and there was a lot of map space left to cover. (The castle turns out to be huge but more on that later). The map also shows the exits a room has, which helped me keep track of routes I’d yet to take, a handy feature for a game with such an open structure.
The on-screen “digital manual” that came with my PSN version of Symphony of the Night told me precious little about the game’s systems and controls beyond the most basic details, and thus, although I knew enough about Castlevania games to be destroying the countless wall-mounted candle sconces, I didn’t know why the heart items they often dropped weren’t healing me. It took me a few minutes to realise that the hearts weren’t healing items at all but rather ammunition for my chosen sub-weapon. Because that makes much more sense, apparently. Curse you and your deceptive item design, Dracula!
The list of sub-weapons to be found throughout the game is fairly long, the majority being projectile weapons or ranged in at least some way: axes, daggers, crystals that ricochet off walls, glass vials that shatter and spill green fire, and several others. My personal favourite turned out to be the bibles that whirled around me, damaging any enemies they came into contact with. Because as we all know, a common weakness amongst the undead is paper-cuts.
As well as experimenting with sub-weapons, I also experimented with the large number of main weapons and pieces of armour to be found scattered around the castle. In terms of weapons there were a number of swords to choose from, a morning star, several magical rods, and more; while armour consisted of traditional items such as various cuirasses and cloaks alongside more incongruous wear such as the “cool-looking sunglasses” which somehow increased my defence (without actually appearing on Alucard’s sprite, sadly).
As I made my way deeper into Dracula’s castle, I encountered many inaccessible rooms and ledges, some tantalisingly close but just out of reach. My desire to explore and unearth the game’s secrets was fuelled by these glimpses as well as by the fact that in making the effort to explore, I was often rewarded with new weapons, armour, items that increased my maximum health, etc.
The ability to access these previously inaccessible areas is often granted by relics – particular objects which, once found, empower Alucard in different ways. While some show you the names of enemies or the amount of damage you inflict when you land an attack, others are often essential to exploration and progression, such as the relics that allow you to double-jump or shape-shift into a wolf, a bat or a cloud of mist. Adding even more depth, these alternate forms can be upgraded – the bat form learns to spit fireballs, for example – by the discovery of relevant relics.
Dracula’s castle extends across a huge number of rooms split into sections such as the Alchemy Laboratory, Outer Wall, Royal Chapel, Colosseum, Abandoned Mine and others, the majority of these sections being distinct enough that they helped add variety to the visual and architectural design of the sprawling castle.
In terms of game structure and design, I was extremely impressed at how I always felt like I was making progress whichever route I chose, and the discovery of a number of shortcuts – including several teleporters, each one in a different location but all connected – made traversal of the vast castle much more manageable. Another factor that often encouraged me to push further ahead between saves than I might otherwise have done was the fact that save rooms – specific rooms used to record your progress – were fairly frequent and also topped up my health.
Although frankly, the life-regenerating save points are also a contributing factor to one of the game’s few flaws, which is that on the whole, it’s too easy. Standard enemies are often very easy to defeat and they also respawn, so if you have the patience then it’s simple enough to farm them and raise your level as much as you want, while most bosses don’t offer much of a challenge either.
To make up for this, the combat is at least varied and entertaining, offering the player a host of options in terms of weapons and armour, and in offensive and defensive abilities and items. There are also familiars – creatures such as a bat or ghost which can float alongside you and help you in battle. The amount of consumable items in particular is very large, including potions that temporarily increase your attributes, vials that summon helpful monsters, and a range of healing items and single-use weapons. It’s just a shame that the game very rarely required me to utilise much of this stuff.
The same goes for the magic system. Although Alucard has a magic meter and can learn a number of spells, apart from trying a few of them out of curiosity I never had a real need to use them throughout the entirety of the game. In fact, the only time I needed to pay any attention to my magic meter was while in wolf, bat or mist form, as this used up magic power. One aspect of the magic system that I did find interesting, however, was the fact that spells are performed via fighting-game-style combinations of direction- and button-presses. Sadly, I couldn’t find the correct combo for a spinning piledriver.
Although on the whole they may not present much of a challenge, the enemies are at least a varied and interesting bunch: knights, skeletons, floating heads, bats, possessed books and furniture, monstrous plants, harpies, mer-men, zombies carrying their own heads, etc. While some of these enemies can inflict a negative status effect such as poison or curse upon you, once again this doesn’t come into play all that often and doesn’t add much to the challenge when it does.
The majority of enemy sprites look great, with many being large and detailed, and this is especially the case with a number of the game’s bosses. Although, as I mentioned earlier, the bosses were too easy – apart from a sudden and severe difficulty spike in the case of one later boss – a number of them at least boasted very cool and interesting designs. My two favourites were a levitating, tentacled beast at the centre of a huge mass of corpses, the beast hurling those corpses at me as I tried to attack the creature itself; and Beelzebub, a giant, rotting demon suspended from the ceiling by chains, who you have to take apart piece-by-piece.
I discovered a nice touch relating to the game’s enemies and bosses when I came across a librarian tucked away in – fittingly – the library, which takes up a whole section of the castle. (Dracula’s a big reader, apparently). As well as being a merchant with whom I could trade, the librarian also possessed a bestiary that allowed me to see information – names, weaknesses, item drops, etc. – on any enemies and bosses I had previously encountered.
This was yet another nice touch in a game filled with them: I blocked a leaking hole in a wall, leading to the room beyond filling up with water, drowning the knights within; I navigated a very dark, spike-filled passage in my bat form via the use of sonar; I battled a knight who fought alongside an owl and who went over to mourn his fallen comrade after I killed it; and many more.
These moments extended to the sense of mystery that the game so expertly exudes. As I navigated the castle, I encountered a number of strange things which helped to immerse me in the environments while also firing my imagination, causing me to wonder about what secrets Dracula’s castle might contain. What was the deal with the confessional booth and the various ghosts who visited when you sat in it? Who was it I could see out on a lake when I looked through a telescope? Did the nesting bird moving around outside the castle serve any purpose? Was Breaking Bad really the best television show of all time? (It wasn’t).
These elements of mystery and the excellent overall atmosphere helped keep me interested throughout the length of the game, and make no mistake, Symphony of the Night is a sizeable adventure, thanks in large part to the twist that occurs halfway through. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about a shocking “It was Earth all along!”-style narrative twist, but it’s still a development that I wasn’t sure about revealing in this article as personally I hate spoilers, and this twist will no doubt come as a surprise to anyone who plays the game without knowing anything about it beforehand.
Eventually I decided to keep it vague, so all I’ll say is that the twist hugely extends the length of the game and although at first glance part of me wondered if it was merely padding of the highest order, as I progressed I began to realise that the new enemies, items, upgrades, and bosses it introduced actually made it a valid and worthwhile extension of the game.
Anyway, in the end I completed the game and apart from some items, weapons, secret rooms, etc., I experienced the majority of what it had to offer. So what did I think of my first full Castlevania game? Well, you know how sometimes you’ll play a game and it’s so well-designed and well-crafted, with all (or at least the majority) of its fundamental elements working together in harmony, that it just clicks and it’s a genuine joy to play? For me, Symphony of the Night was one of those games.
No, it’s not perfect, but it’s a great action-RPG with excellent graphics and music, a large amount of depth and variety, rewarding and refined gameplay, and atmosphere in spades. If you have even a glimmer of interest in playing such a game, I strongly recommend you make the effort to pick up Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I’m certainly glad I did, and that I finally got to play through an entire Castlevania game with one of the most impressive entries in the series.
Now, I was thinking of ending this feature on some kind of awful vampire-related pun but I just didn’t have a stake in finding one with enough bite so I couldn’t be bloody bothered. Maybe necks time.
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and videogames. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while later this year will see the release of his graphic novel Dead Men from Markosia Enterprises. His upcoming videogame projects include action / strategy title Crystal Arena, visual novel Eternal Forest, and action-RPG Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. To enjoy more of his delicious, creamy word-fudge, find him on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy