Top 100 Retro Games: Castlevania Symphony of the Night

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Sony Playstation

I actually did not play Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night all that much when it first came out…I knew about the game, but was really busy with the beginning of college, so I put it off for a while. Finally, I did rent the game from the local Blockbuster, which by then was the last store standing in my area. It is now a Verizon store. I rented the game, only sort of understood what I was supposed to be doing, got lost, had a hard time finding save points, lost a lot of game play when I died, got frustrated, and took the game back to Blockbuster.

I did not get it. I do not think I understood how the save system worked and by then games were not really coming with instructions when you rented them. I could have looked it up online for sure, but I was so frustrated by the wasted time I gave up. Maybe I should not have, but I cannot go back and change that now.

I had not played much of Super Metroid and only had beaten Metroid once, but with significant assistance from a friend. It would be a very long time before I really understood what was going in what would eventually, for better or worse, be referred to as the MetroidVania genre.

I did not pick the game up again until the Dracula X Collection on the Vita, which has the game as an extra that can be unlocked if you beat Rondo of Blood. I played some of it again, but it still didn’t really click for me, so I put it down again, figuring this just was not the genre for me despite how many of my friends loved it and how many episodes of podcasts like Retronauts and Player One heaped tons of praise on it.

It finally clicked when I prepared to stream the game for Extra Life 2018. I did a test stream of the game on the PS3 to make sure everything worked. Getting games to stream on the PS3 can be a bit of an issue with only hit or miss results really, unfortunately. I played Symphony of the Night for about an hour and generally enjoyed it. The same thing happened when I played the 90 minute session for Extra Life.

When Castlevania Requiem came out, I first dove into Rondo of Blood before getting moving on to Symphony of the Night. I spent a decent chunk of last summer sitting down each afternoon and playing for a little while. I slowly made my way through the game and, this time at least, I got it.

So, the plot of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night goes something like this: Dracula is woken up by…someone, sees Richter Belmont, in a redo of the ending of Rondo of Blood, and then utters one of the greatest lines in video game history about Man being a miserable pile of secrets. Oh, yeah, and his son Alucard is working against him and there is a reverse castle and Richter Belmont thinks he is one of Dracula’s Minions. Oh, Maria is here too!

Coverage of this game was plentiful in video game magazines of the era. Game Pro gave it a perfect 5.0 rating. In the November 1997 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, John Ricciardi offered high praise for the game’s animation and detail. EGM also awarded it game of the year for 1997.

Numerous podcasts have heaped significant praise onto the game including the aforementioned ones and many others. At some point pretty much every retro gaming podcast gets to Symphony of the Night and we are certainly not an exception to that.

The cover for Symphony of the Night centers Alucard, holding a sword, with his father’s castle in the background. It is a nice cover for sure, but I do not think it is quite as iconic as previous games in the series were.

Symphony of the Night has been reissued a few times. There is a bad port of it to the Sega Saturn that DOES include Maria as a playable character, but has other problems. Jeremy Parish has done streams of it in the past.

The game has also been reissued on the XBOX 360. It is available as a PSOne Classic for the Playstation 3 and Vita. It also unlockable in the Dracula X Chronicles collection on the Vita.

The most accessible version of the game is on the PS4 where it is collected with Rondo of Blood in the Castlevania Requiem anthology.

There is some much to say about Symphony of the Night. This game really breaks with the traditions of the series regarding its use of the tropes of 1930s Universal movie monsters and various parodies of it. The tone is way different, much more serious, but never too serious, and absolutely reinvigorated the franchise. It is not that it had become stale or anything, really, but a new generation of consoles offered a great chance to try something different. And even, in some cases, return to some of the experimental aspects of Simon’s Quest.

The connection back to Rondo of Blood at the beginning is interesting, given the game was not originally released outside of America. This was a glimpse into that game to catch up the plot a little bit.

Of course there is the infamous “miserable pile of secrets” line that sounds like it came out of The Room or something like that. Dracula should have offered his son a 50% discount on a solar panel. Some years ago, Legends of Localization broke down the translation issues in that scene.

There is so much positive to say about this game. Being able to build your character up is a wonderful process. After the opening premise of losing all of your equipment, the first parts of the game are a bit difficult, but with some guile and, upon replay, knowledge of where to go to get the best stuff, you can fairly safely level up and turn Alucard into a formidable character. Simon’s Quest somewhat allowed for this, but Symphony of the Night fully dives into RPG style leveling in ways that Castlevania games had never done before.

One of my issues with various Castlevania games over the years is the “weight” of your character’s jumps. In the first two games, Simon’s jumps are a bit heavy, especially in the first game, and it makes the game more difficult. Trevor, in Castlevania III, and Simon, in Super Castlevania, are pretty good although Simon’s height in IV can be troublesome at some points in the game.

In Symphony of the Night, Alucard’s jumps are pitch perfect. Honestly, it is remarkable how smooth and light they are. It thoroughly changes how you play the game and makes maneuvering around the castle, fighting enemies, and exploring new paths to be a wonderful and vivid experience.

I had really understood properly how to truly experience a Metroidvania until the past five years or so. Retronauts is a podcast that does a great job of talking about their merits, which led me to reconsidering them along with the convenient release of the cheap “Requiem” collection.

Back tracking through this game is very fluid and seamless. I found that there was, mostly, a logic to it and only had to look up clues a few times, and every one of those things was what friends told me were worth double-checking to make sure I was doing them right. The game map is large, but never too large. Only a few times did I feel frustrated by the length of travel I had to do. This went away once I activated the warps around the map.

Saving now makes a ton of sense to me. As I went through the game, I really got to know where every room was, so I never trended too far away unless really required to be cautious. This worked out for me more or less, beyond a few unavoidable deaths. As the game goes on, you get powerful enough that only the biggest bosses can do a ton of harm, but, as we have discussed on a number of streams over the years, I am a dutiful game saver. I guess growing up in the era of failing battery backups will do that to you.

Another really neat aspect of Symphony Of The Night is the foleying work. Every step, weapon swing, and movement sounds fantastic. This is something I always notice having grown up with The Simpsons, a cartoon that had incredible foleying work during its good years. It is something that makes the game much more immersive, which is totally essential for a good Metroidvania style game. The map needs to feel lived in and not just like a bunch of assets, which is a problem for many indie takes on the genre. Not everyone has the backing of a huge company like Konami of course, but little things go a long way.

You really have to be patient with Symphony of the Night. This is a different kind of patience than the ones which have frustrated us about games like Phantasy Star III in regard to grinding or the lack of direction seen in Deadly Towers. This is earned patience from a game that is easy to handle and offers its secrets, mostly, without annoying cryptic distraction or brutal difficulty jumps. What frustrates me about this genre is that this game gets it so right and others are always missing some aspect of it that takes away from the gaming experience.

There are a few issues to note here. As Nadia Oxford notes in her 2016 essay about the game, Richter’s appearance in this game was rather imperfect to say the least. If you were not familiar with Rondo of Blood or Dracula X, his sudden appearance at the beginning of the game was a bit of a surprise to say the least.

Oxford argues in her essay that Richter is further hampered by the game’s weak English translation. While it is nice to see Richter again, his participation in this game as Dracula’s brainwashed thrall is….not great. I found it alarming that you can actually kill him!

Another character it is nice to see again is Maria, who returns and is now a bit older, more mature, and removed from the fairly campy and extremely cartoonish, literally, portrayal of her in Rondo of Blood. I think she is an excellent character, and I do wish she was playable in any version of the game besides the Japan only Sega Saturn one. As Parish notes during his stream, she plays more like a ninja style character and does not use the inventory system that Alucard does, which means you can, in theory, go directly to the end of the game.

This is also a beautiful game. In 1997 2d games were very much on the outs. The 3d revolution on the Playstation and N64 was well under way. It is weird though that 25 years later this game looks incredible still and those games, uh, do not. The colors in this game are breathtaking. Candles and lights look better in this game than they do in fancy 4k games I am supposed to be worried about if they are, or not, in 60 frames per second. For the record, I could care less and one of the big reasons why is games like Symphony Of The Night, which prove that you can have beautiful graphics in the old way.

Finally: It is important to throw some support to Simon’s Quest as an influence on this game, which has been confirmed by Igarashi. Simon’s Quest is a fairly confusing game, but the template is somewhat there. Pieces of it can also be seen in Dracula’s Curse too.

Symphony of the Night might be the best game of the nineties. I know people for whom it is their favorite game of all time! I have gone back and forth about it over the years.


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