Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's entry into the Sony PlayStation library was enough to leave Sega Saturn owners scratching their heads. By boasting a selection of games that included perfect arcade ports, like those from the Street Fighter 2 series, and other standouts like Metal Slug and Darkstalkers, it became common knowledge that the Saturn was the superior machine in terms of handling 2D. But by 1997, more than two years into its life-cycle, it was also clear that developers were continuing to distance themselves from Sega's hardware in favor of Sony's. However, in 1998, Konami threw Saturn owners in Japan one last bone by commissioning its KCEN division to port the Dracula X team's Symphony of the Night over to the Sega Saturn.
Unfortunately, the Saturn's slow demise in the United States prevented there from ever being a Symphony of the Night on the platform; instead, there was only Nocturne In the Moonlight, sold exclusively in Japan for Japanese audiences. Of course, no one over there was going to buy a simple port of a game that had already seen its success on another system without a promise of something more. What they would ultimately get is a slightly enhanced version of an already packed title, a larger version of what had already been deemed by many to be "the best Castlevania title" or "the best 2D adventure game ever made."
Now it's important to know that for all of its differences, Nocturne is still the experience you've come to expect if you own a PlayStation and have played Symphony of the Night. It employs all of the same gameplay mechanics, the same story elements, the same challenge-level, and therein the very same depth and atmosphere that made Symphony the peak of 2D gaming. KCEN, in lending this expansion, didn't try to pass it off as a wholly new game, like, say, Castlevania: Dracula X compared to Rondo of Blood--any additions, instead, are built around what already existed in an attempt to make a grand accomplishment ever grander. Did it work to that effect, or did it water down everything for which the original stood? Well, I can only give you my opinion on the matter, since I'm one of the few westerners fortunate enough to have played it.
The main lure of the repackaging is that you now have the option to play as one of three different characters from game's start: There's Alucard, the main storyline hero; Richter Belmont, who originally could be unlocked in the PlayStation version only after finishing it with Alucard; and Maria Renard, Nocturne's exclusive playable character. Richter and Maria's "missions," if you want to call them that, are inconsequential to the story; they exist for the sole purpose of providing to the series' fans classic no-nonsense Castlevania action compared to Alucard's longer story mission. Maria, as the exclusive character, is the main draw here: Konami crossed Maria as she played in Rondo with Richter as he controls here to envision a character that excels in platforming, the martial arts, and long-range offense using an array of projectiles and kicks that make it almost unfair for the enemy. She certainly didn't forget to bring along her animal friends, either--those that she can call upon to channel and execute some insane attacks. Before you think that this is all good news, you'll be frightened to know that this is what you can expect to face when you battle Maria during Alucard's mission. Yes--Maria is an exclusive boss, too, which doesn't change Alucard's story beyond having to fight for Maria's trust rather than just procuring it by being the apple of her eye.
The game's other selling point are two new areas that you couldn't find in the PlayStation version: The Cursed Prison, which has been sewn in between the Marble Gallery and the Underground Cavern, and the Underground Garden, which finally shows us what's beneath that entry hatch near the Castle Entrance's drawbridge. To make it all worthwhile, KCEN provides a whole new set of enemies--sixteen in all--to populate the regular and inverse versions of these two new areas. It's hit and miss when it comes to the two additional areas: The Cursed Prison, in both of its incarnations, is uninspired; it's simply two rooms of standard zigzagging platforming (all upward, around and around), which unintentionally provides the feel of an overly long shortcut (longcut?) rather than an area you should care to visit more than once. Its background detail tells the whole story: It's just the same thing over and over again.
The Underground Garden, however, is a nice little addition in both instances. The whole area is based around the theme that "this is where the castle's evil plant-life is festered," and its appearance screams "ill-intentioned greenhouse," what with its pipeline system that supplies the plantlife a diet of warm blood; it also offers appropriate enemies like the mean-looking gardeners, the fountain-inhabiting water leapers, and Jinnunja, the apple-growing tree. The normal version of the garden is even assigned its own exclusive boss. The reverse area will be the site of many intense battles with the nicely designed copper armor and guardian skeletons. I wouldn't call the whole area's presentation overly special, because it's obvious that they just threw it in there, but it works well for a the reason that the Cursed Prison doesn't: There's actually a reason to be here.
There's more exclusivity: Mainly, Nocturne features more in the way of weaponry; Alucard is sure to come across some equippable weapons that he didn't find in the PlayStation classic. Most notably, he'll uncover the Alucard Spear, a relic that will have one day found its way into the hands of Eric Lecarde. (It's always a nice bonus when they try to create a link between games.) Nocturne also features eight new musical scores, represented most strongly by remixed versions of Vampire Killer and Bloody Tears, each used as exclusive background themes for Richter and Maria when they travel through the Castle Entrance. The other tunes are reserved for the two new areas, their reverse cousins, and their one boss battle.
Beyond that, it's Symphony of the Night through and through, and it's all a matter of how well the original elements were retained.
The graphics, overall, are an enigma. Even though the average gamer would be hard-pressed to find any difference between the two versions, one who looks closely won't help but notice a certain "smudginess" to the castle's backgrounds, foregrounds and their defining textures. By simply glancing at Alucard's health meter, you'll get the sense that something's not translating well. This more than anything else looks to be more a problem of retaining resolution, which is a common problem with ports. Where Nocturne instead shows the Saturn's muscle is in the category of character animation: When they carry conversations, the characters accentuate their thoughts through increased jauntiness--they'll put their hands over their faces, shake their fists, laugh maniacally, and generally taunt and pout. Some of Nocturne's enemies even behave differently than the PlayStation selection due to this; there are those, like the marionettes and axe knights, that boast newer, better death animations. Nocturne also seems to be kinder when it comes to hit-detection: You're allowed to get really close to an enemy before damage is received (though, the enemies are afforded the same luxury), and this helps in the case of Maria and Richter, because they truly are wild in their attacks and leaps. You'll see, also, that the developers spinkled in some new effects and little details, like Alucard's glowing capes and the frosty water surfaces that crack upon his very presence. Regardless of the shortcomings brought upon by the game's porting, Konami has used the Saturn's 2D hardware prowess to breathe a new sense of life into these characters that in the PlayStation version didn't exist.
Where Nocturne takes its biggest hit is the area of loading times. In the PlayStation version, these existed only between castle sections (the "CD" rooms that connected one to another), with short pauses before and after boss battles. In this version, there are loading times for everything, it seems. When you enter a castle section, it loads, taking longer than ever; before and after boss battles, it loads; when you pause the game, look at the map, and leave the inventory screen, it loads. Sometimes what were once long rooms have been broken up into two smaller rooms so that information can be loaded when you pass between them (the Castle Keep is the main offender). This wouldn't be so bad if the loading times weren't so much longer overall than the PlayStation version's. Again--this seems to be a byproduct of the porting, which is why this method of game-making has become dreaded. Nocturne also suffers in the area of slowdown: The PlayStation version at all times moved at a fever pitch, but that proves not to be true here when many enemies are piled onto the screen. This is a problem because it will throw off your control-timing and cause you to fall prey to the skull lords and other large enemies that seem to ignite the slowdown. The engine takes a hit because it's more "break down the PlayStation version's engine" than a desired "rebuild the game from scratch with the Saturn's power in mind."
The music selection, sans the newly added tunes, has gone untouched. There's nothing to fear in this category--the wonderful soundtrack that you've come to know and love is as present as ever. Sound effects, especially, also retain their quality; some enemies have swapped voice samples for newer ones, yes, but it's all the same in the grand scheme. The only difference, naturally, is that the heroes and supporting cast members speak in their original Japanese voices, so we can now observe the characters as they were intended to be seen and heard. While you may not understand what's being said, it should in no way prevent you from enjoying the game or cause you to become lost.
The controls had to be changed to accommodate the Saturn controller, which has two less buttons than the PlayStation controller. The only hiccup this causes is that you now have to hit the "L" button while the game is paused to view the map. While this tends to slow things down due to more action required, not to mention the loading time, it's hardly that big a deal. It doesn't feel quite as natural as the PlayStation setup, which had the two attack buttons elevated over the jump button, but it's not like KCEN made the system and its controllers. The developers took what was given to them and made it work.
There's really nothing different to expect challenge-wise. It's still an only-slightly-above-average affair, in Alucard's case, due to the ability to gain levels plus the excess amount of save rooms and replenishment items; you'll also notice, more so in the latter part of the mission, that Alucard doesn't take as much damage as you'll remember from the PlayStation version--that is, except in the new areas, which are in this category completely unbalanced. You can have a lot of fun with Maria, especially against bosses, but she, too, can prove to be too powerful for the game's own good. The only real challenge lay with Richter, who seems human compared to the other two. Since Richter can't wow the player with double- and triple-jumps and almost endless stamina, enemies like jack-o'-bones, nova skeletons and guardians will actually present a threat to him en route to Shaft.
Considering how bad it could have turned out, I'm very pleased with this version of the game. Though there are flaws propagated as a result of the engine's direct port over to the Saturn's hardware, the root of the game is kept intact, with as little change as possible. I did get the feeling, as I ran through the Cursed Prison with Maria, that the new additions were a bit shallow in that they felt somewhat out of place among what already existed, as though KCEN's contributions were unnatural. (I did learn, later on, that there was some objection to the new additions from Koji Igarashi, the original game's assistant director, mostly in regard to Richter and Maria as playable characters from the start.)
But I think about it like this: These additions may seem shallow because Symphony of the Night is so ingrained in everyone's minds that it's hard to accept it existing in any other form. I'm sure, though, that if this were the version I had played first, I would never be able to have anything less. That's what this version of the game is all about--experiencing the action in ways you couldn't before. It's just a shame that most people won't come to know that experience. In the end, that's what makes it special; there's a certain charm to experiencing an alternate version of a game that's still out there just waiting to be discovered.
You get your fix of a classic game, and you get more--more characters, more areas, more weapons, more music, more animation and more time spent on what's still arguably the pinnacle of 2D adventure games. I'm sure that Medusa still agrees.
For the PlayStation version review, please click here.