Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1) Review

The Short


Pros

– Reinvented Castlevania by taking the aesthetic and mixing it with Metroid-style exploration

– Single-handedly invented the “Metroidvania” (or “Castletroid” if you’re a tool) genre

– RPG elements including leveling, gear, and currency all play a role in this new style

– Fantastic 2D art mixed with some 2D and 3D backdrops make the game look good

– Music is absolutely some of the best in the series with almost all new tracks

– Long adventure, with the “inverse castle” twist still crazy

– First game to introduce Ayami Kojima’s fantastic gothic artwork for the series

– Buttload of secrets, including fighting game-style magic combos

– Can be a genuine challenge if you play with the “max luck, low everything else” code, which makes the game as hard as the old-school Castlevanias (aka the best way to play SOTN)

– “WHAT IS A MAN?!”

Cons

– Game balance in terms of difficulty is all over the place.

– That being said, 99% of the game is pretty easy, the exception being a few bosses

– These said bosses you pretty much have to cheese using the broken and op items (the sword dropped in the inverse library or the Shield Rod + Alucard Shield combo)

– Recycles a lot of assets from Rondo of Blood from the CD Engine.

– Marked the official end of linear style Castlevania games, which is too bad

– Spawned roughly eight trillion modern day indie (and commercial) games that knocked off the game’s formula

– Inverse castle is basically just a hard-mode straight shot, without any story and just one song for the whole area (what is up with that?)

– PSP re-release re-dubbed and retranslated all the lines. They aren’t much better, but the corniness is gone, so that’s a con.

Dracula: Expert on men and what they are.

The Long

Symphony of the Night was NOT the first Metroidvania game I ever played. That reward goes to Circle of the Moon, though I beat Aria of Sorrow first. I just figured I’d toss that out there just so you know I play games in totally the wrong order, and that’s ok.

Anyway, everybody’s heard the story, whether or not it’s true. Koji Igarashi went to Sony to say that they wanted to make not a 3D, but a 2D Castlevania game on their new Playstation system. Sony told him to suck it up and make it 3D, because 3D was the future. Then Koji went to Konami, and Konami said “No 2D Castlevania, no Metal Gear Solid,” so Sony relented. Then the game actually sold pretty badly on release and only really picked up after gaining a cult following a few years down the road (enough to get it “Greatest Hits” status, at least).

I think this story is totally fake, but it does prove a point: game developers know what is good for their series. Most of the time. If you look at Symphony of the Night and compare it to the “modern” 3D Castlevania 64, it’s pretty clear that Sony got the way better deal out of this.

Nintendo really should have looked into that “Blast Processing” tech when it had the chance.

Anyway, the game is pretty much a legend at this point, because it spawned the genre that Castlevania stuck pretty rigidly too in regards to it’s handheld iterations for over a decade. It wasn’t until Lords of Shadow had to show up and ruin everything that our 2D Castlevanias were squarely in the “Metroidvania” category of game design.

But let’s say you know nothing about this nonsense I’m spouting, and need a full rundown. Is this game good? Has it aged well? Is it worth playing on it’s re-release on every gaming system ever? Well…probably. I guess. Here’s a review anyway.

That’s using your head.

Story-wise, it’s the same old nonsense, though it does present it in an interesting way. The game actually starts on the last level of Rondo of Blood (complete with it’s level intro graphic, though it calls the stage “Bloodlines,” which is in fact the first stage in Rondo of Blood. Come on, Konami, I’m just a huge nerd, I didn’t even design the game and I noticed this!), where you as Rictor Belmont bust into Dracula’s joint and whip him good. Following which you get a massive text crawl explaining Rictor is missing, and Dracula’s son Alucard (last seen in Castlevania III: True Blood) is off to punch him in the face and blow up his castle.

So you play as Alucard instead of a whipping Belmont. This isn’t the first time we’ve mixed it up (Bloodlines didn’t have a Belmont, and it had a dude with a whip and a dude with a spear), but the fact there are no whips at all until after you beat the game and enter an unlock to play as Rictor is pretty unique.

Anyway, the story’s simple. Rictor’s lost his marbles and thinks he’s the king of Castlevania, and his sister Maria (who has gone from being a tiny girl to an actual woman) wants Alucard to beat some sense into him. The game does have different endings (based on if you kill Rictor or bring him to his senses, which unlocks a buttload more game to play) which is neat, but the story is hardly worth mentioning.

Minus the atrocious script and god-awful voice acting. It’s so bad it’s downright lovely. Seriously, I really, really dig this game’s atrocious voice actors. They weren’t even trying.

You tell ’em, Rictor.

No, the biggest change is this is not a linear, straight shot Castlevania game. Instead, you as Alucard are tasked to explore the entirety of the castle, gaining power-ups and items that allow you to access further and deeper portions in your quest to find the princess. Wait, that’s Mario. Whatever.

If that sounds like Metroid, then you’re both right and have reading comprehension, because I only mentioned that like fifteen times already. The map screen? Ripped from Metroid. Power ups like double jump to get to new areas? Metroid. It does have a few super cool changes, like Alucard can change into a sprinting dog, form of mist to pass through grates and other small areas, and a bat that can fly, all of which unlock new areas to further your exploration. It’s cool, and you can see how they took the Metroid formula, flavored it up with some Castlevania style, and it ended up alright.

The main difference is this isn’t a game that you can speed run, nor one that is based on skill like Metroid or the earlier Castlevanias. While, yes, some skill is required for the bosses, the game actually has a level-up system, similar to Simon’s Quest. Sort of. Only not at all. I just thought I’d drop that comparison for some reason.

You get XP and level, learn spells by inputting fighting game-style combo moves, find new weapons and armor and equip them, all in a 2D platforming sense. This isn’t the first time this has been done (one could argue Zelda 2 did it a billion years before), but it actually feels…well, good. While skill can technically be replaced with level grinding and number crunching, it’s still very satisfying to get that 3D “Level Up!” text and have Alucard glow all crazy. Mixing RPG elements with Metroid exploration was, frankly, brilliant, and it shows because they kept using it for future games.

The combination of 2D and 3D in the backgrounds makes this game gorgeous.

All is not perfect in Symphony of the Night, however. While the equips and level up system are nice, they’re also a bit simple. In fact, the whole game feels a bit dumbed down. Focus isn’t really on the enemies or the challenge, the meticulous platforming and merciless bosses. Instead it’s about exploration and the adventure of finding every secret and digging into every nook and cranny the castle has to offer. Is this bad? No, not really. But it is quite different from other Castlevania games in nearly every regard. As well as much, much easier.

While one can argue the second or inverse castle offers the real challenge (and it does), the whole first half of the game is an absolute cakewalk. This is mostly because Alucard, unlike his Belmont buddies in earlier games, controls like a dream. He slides gracefully with way too many frames of animation across the screen, can change his direction mid-air, can easily morph into any animal or form he wants, and has a quick-dash to get him out of sticky situations (or just slide across the floor for fun in reverse). Much like Super Castlevania IV, the game didn’t really scale it’s difficulty for all these new abilities, meaning if you even have a basic grasp of how to play a 2D platformer you’ll stomp your way through this game in no time. Minus the few secret bosses that you have to cheese to beat with the absolutely broken “ultra” weapons. Balance is thrown out the window pretty quickly in, and it just keeps blasting out of control from there. You could be murdering things without even trying, take a wrong turn, and die in two hits. It’s a bit like a massive mixed bag of imbalance.

That looks like a good place to go.

What isn’t a giant mixed bag of imbalance is the graphics and music. I’ll say I think this is one of the best looking and sounding PS1 games out there, and certainly the best 2D one. The pixel art is phenomenal and gothic, with the backgrounds often hybridizing 2D and 3D elements to make it feel both modern and retro. As mentioned, Alucard has way too many frames of pixelated animation to be legal, and the enemies all look phenomenal, from the huge bosses to the tiny skeletons.

The music is also absolutely rocking, so much so I actually imported the soundtrack. The opening song (which I will embed below) is probably one of my favorite intro songs in a game to date, with all the rest being just as fantastic. I really only have two gripes: the absence of any “classic” Castlevania tunes (Bloody Tears, Vampire Hunter, etc.) and the fact that the inverted castle uses the same song for 90% of it. Seriously? And it isn’t even that great of a song compared to the rest. Come on, guys.

Now that’s rockin.’

Symphony of the Night is difficult to review, mostly because of my immense love for the linear Castlevania games. That being said, I absolutely fell in love with SOTN after I first played it, and even to this day I often revisit the game and rebeat it, both with Alucard and the unlocked Rictor. While it does have some serious balance problems, and most skill is easily replaced by grinding or just knowing where the broken items are, Symphony of the Night remains a complete and wholly decent adventure into Dracula’s lair. While I honestly wouldn’t rank it up as high on my favorites as the best 2D linear Castlevania games, I can say it is still one of my favorites in the series, and highly recommend you get the re-release on PSN or Xbox 360 if you haven’t already.

A new direction, a new style for Castlevania, and a hundred indie game creators rejoice. Finally, something they can overuse now that they’ve ground duel-stick shooters into the ground.

Four out of five stars. 

What is going on here I don’t even know.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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