Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
It's not always noted, but even the standard platforming Castlevanias started to dip in quality after Rondo of Blood. Lead by former programmer Koji Igarashi, with art by Ayami Kojima and a score by Castlevania: Bloodlines's Michiru Yamane, the sequel to that spark of vampire-slaying brilliance came in 1997 - though it was completely beyond what anyone could expect. Albeit preceded by the early series titles Vampire Killer for the MSX and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest for the NES, the Metroid-inspired gameplay herein is more thoroughly-developed than in these, and moreso than it even needs to be due to its unnecessarily intricate RPG system. Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo and all hands involved hit the stake on the head when they made Castlevania: Symphony of the Night; unfortunately, that left room for years' worth of attempts to top it or at the very least recreate its glory, to mixed results.
The game marks a shift in the series in which the stories become more involved. The current heir to the Belmont destiny, Richter, has gone missing, and with Castle Dracula standing high against the Wallachian skyline, a hero not of the Belmont clan is forced to take up the battle. Waking from his three-hundred year slumber, before which he had aided Richter's ancestor Trevor Belmont in defeating the Dark Lord, Alucard rises this time to take down Count Dracula - his father - all on his own. The dialogue can be melodramatic - the voice acting not always helping - but this is truly an emotionally-charged tale about a father and son who took different paths away from the same tragic experience. It also introduces the formula that would persist through its spiritual successors: a wayward ally becomes the enemy, though later on it becomes clear that he is merely a pawn in a larger scheme to resurrect Dracula. Initially this plot structure would be recreated without much change to the recipe, but later on Koji Igarashi would start varying it up.
Alucard's controls mark a sharp turn in the way Castlevania characters would handle. The relegation of 'X' to jump, 'O' and 'Square' to operate what's held in either hand (most likely a sword in one, a shield in the other), 'Up' plus one of these buttons to attack with a sub-weapon, 'Triangle' to slide back quickly, the L1, R1, and R2 buttons to transform (into a Fog, Bat, and Wolf, respectively), the ability to use most weapons to attack diagonally-downward while crouching or jumping by pressing 'Left' or 'Right' and 'Down', and the option to use spells with longer button combos, is pretty convenient considering the complexity of Alucard's moveset. Still, it's in the simple way the character moves, jumps, and attacks that makes him feel so much lighter than the Belmonts have traditionally. For those craving such an experience, Richter Belmont still plays, with a vaster moveset, as he did in Rondo of Blood.
The traditional sub-weapons return: the Dagger, which is a lightning quick, straight shot at the enemy; Holy Water, which is thrown on the ground where it burns briefly; Cross, which in this case works as a heart-draining crash that encompasses the entire screen (for Alucard at least); the Axe, which is tossed, spinning, diagonally-upward before falling diagonally-downward; and the Stopwatch, which briefly stops time to catch minor enemies totally off-guard. Carried over from Rondo of Blood is the Holy Bible, which when used encircles the main character, hurting enemies that come too near. New here are: the Rebound Stone, which works like the Dagger until it hits a surface, at which point it ricochets off until it hits an enemy or flies off the screen; the Aguen, which smites an enemy with lightning upon contact, this being prolonged by continuing to press the attack button; and the Bibuti, sacred ashes which fall on the ground and hurt wicked passers-by. Some of the extra sub-weapons introduced in this game aren't altogether necessary, but this presents a big aspect to the game: how there's more depth than there necessarily needs to be.
This is no more apparent than in the general RPG system and all the alternate attacks and abilities. Like in Simon's Quest, Alucard can improve his stats to overcome enemies once too powerful to touch. ATT, or Attack, determines how much damage Dracula's only son can do, with his STR, or Strength, accounted in this calculation; DEF, or Defense, decides how much damage Alucard can take, with his CON, or Constitution, taken into consideration; INT, or Intelligence, affects how powerful sub-weapons and magic are against enemies; and LCK, or Luck, increases Kid Dracula's critical hit rate and likelihood of enemies leaving behind rare items. Too, he can make use of a variety of weapons, shields, and stat-altering items in his Left and Right hands and alter his stats - and, in the case of the cloaks, appearance - with Head, Body, Cloak, and two Other equip outlets. There are a number of Spells that Alucard can buy and learn, activated via button combos - usually a number of D-Pad presses with a shape button at the end. Familiars, enabled one at a time by turning on a corresponding Relic, follow the half-man/half-vampire around and attack enemies in their own unique styles, getting stronger and bringing in extra effects as they grow up in level. The baby of the beast can have general abilities added to his roster by way of other Relics - namely: transformations into a Wolf, Bat, and Mist (a la Bram Stoker's essential work) and power-ups to these alternate forms; jump abilities; the ability to see enemy damage and enemy names; and general stat upgrades. Of course, much of this is entirely unnecessary, as the game isn't challenging by any means if the player levels up consistently and uses the right weapons and armor. Familiars and Spells are fun, but aren't a huge help as the player won't be pushed very hard to use them.
Experience is gained rather naturally until about level 60 or so, when most enemies only give the virtuous vampire 1 EXP. The shop in the Long Library allows Alucard to purchase items like potions and armor and receive boss advice from the Librarian, and unless one abuses the system there should be more than enough money to go around. Taking immense inspiration from the Metroid series, the map is non-linear with many branching paths as well as a definite interconnectedness, though like with any game in the style most areas will be blocked off until the necessary power-ups are collected and bosses defeated. However, with all that Symphony provides, it absolutely cannot be written off as an empty, verbatim Super Metroid clone. For instance, at the end of Alucard's trek through Castle Dracula, fighting the boss correctly will allow the player access to an Inverted Castle, a decidedly more free-roaming version of the main castle which is the same structurally but reversed up-and-down and left-and-right and with stronger enemies and different collectibles. Depending on how much of the two castles one explores - the intended max being 200.00% - different endings will play at the end of the final fight with Dracula. All things considered, the game is a whole lot larger than Super Metroid, with an extra map, deep role-playing elements, and more variety in the enemies and levels.
As far as the presentation goes, the goal was clearly to show a more suave and sophisticated side of Castle Dracula without forsaking the grit and edge so apart of its core. This was achieved. The castle is dark and yet has a definite class to it, with areas such as the Marble Gallery, Long Library, and Royal Chapel being prime examples of the classier parts, while even the dingier dust buckets like the Castle Entrance, Castle Keep, and Colosseum have a certain fashionability to them. The sprites, too, are stellar. Alucard's is the main item here, and it's a far cry from how he looked in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. He has flowing silver-white hair, a cape that sweeps elegantly as he walks, and an after-image that accentuates his movement; not to mention, his walk is lighter and less rigid than that of the typical Belmont. Richter returns from Rondo of Blood, too, albeit with no changes beyond the extra poses necessary to animate his new abilities. Maria, finally, is completely redone as the older, more physically mature Belmont in-law that is much more suitable as a love interest for Alucard. Several enemy sprites make returns - mostly from Rondo of Blood - including minor enemies and bosses alike. There are a number of vibrant new characters to go along with, though, so the game has the extra variety of an already-created cast without depending solely on those pre-made. The success of this is all thanks, of course, in no small part to Ayami Kojima's official artwork for the game. The box art for previous series games had been impressive, and Kojima honors this tradition while applying her own flavor to the mix. The heroes are more feminine, with long hair and aristocratic clothing, yet still cool and to be taken seriously. When this style was pushed aside in favor of an anime aesthetic when the Nintendo DS Castlevanias came along, it was to massive dismay.
The score by Michiru Yamane is nothing short of all-time classic orchestration. Where with Castlevania: Bloodlines she opted for an old-school sound due to the hardware limitations, Symphony's music is her completely breaking free of such inhibitions, producing masterfully perfect music rivaling the very best of any series. There are: especially epic and grand pieces such as 'Dance of Illusions', 'Tower of Mist', 'The Tragic Prince', and 'Finale Toccata'; tracks which set the player on edge; namely, 'Door of Holy Spirits', 'Curse Zone', 'Enchanted Banquet', 'Door to the Abyss', and 'Death Ballad'; some hard rock tracks like 'Prologue' and 'Festival of Servants'; generally gothic beauties; for example, the Gregorian chant 'Prayer' along with 'Dracula's Castle'; songs which reflect the class and propriety of Castle Dracula, including, 'Dance of Gold' and 'Wood Carving Partitia; the necessary more subtle and less overwhelming themes; for instance, 'Requiem for the Gods', 'Crystal Teardrop', 'Abandoned Pit', 'Lost Painting', 'Dance of Pales'; just as well as the upbeat and high-energy ones, which include ''Marble Gallery', 'Rainbow Cemetery', 'Wandering Ghosts', 'Heavenly Doorway', and 'Blood Relations'; along with the generally dark, sombre, and brooding themes, such as 'Metamorphosis Am 1', '2', and '3' and 'Moonlight Nocturne'. There are too many standouts across the whole album to name just a few, and every track serves its purpose of supporting the gothic yet eloquent atmosphere that is so decidedly different from previous series entries. The only drawback to the music is the end credits theme, 'I Am the Wind' by Cynthia Harrell, which is a nice soft and sweet pop ballad on its own, but is very inappropriate for the end of this particular game.
Though notable for championing 2D gameplay in a gaming world rapidly vacillating toward 3D, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would be the end of the tradition of having two-dimensional console entries. Instead, the series would fumble over the N64's Castlevania and its revamping, and the 2D games - now exclusively "Metroidvania", as it was quickly called - would be relegated to Nintendo handhelds.