By 1997, it was apparent that the Sony PlayStation was the video game industry's best-selling hardware. In the preceding years, Konami, within its divisions, had bounced around the Castlevania franchise from being a Nintendo mainstay over to the PC-Engine to the X68000 to the Sega Genesis and back to SNES until it found what it had been looking for--"best-selling" hardware for which to provide its top trademarks. However, it was still a surprise that the PlayStation, and not any of Nintendo or Sega's platforms, got what is perhaps the pinnacle of the series. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out of nowhere and with its sheer amount of depth carved its place into the hearts of the multitudes of the series' fans.
When I came into the picture around 1998, I had never heard of the game. In the following two years, I repeatedly read about how great it was until I became so sick of seeing its name that I just had to know what the fuss was all about. So, in 1999, for the first time, I bought a new system for only one game: The PlayStation and with it Symphony of the Night. For however crazy I thought I was, I'd be lying if I said that it didn't blow away any expectations I might have had going in. Along came a team of talented developers that took a franchise that was dying before and even after Castlevania: Dracula X and utilized the formulas of another of my favorites series, Metroid, to breathe new life into Castlevania and its universe.
Symphony of the Night excels because it takes chances and shows no shame in borrowing ideas (like Super Metroid's map structure) and expanding upon them. To start, our main character is Alucard, the estranged and forgotten son of Dracula, and not any of the Belmont warriors to which we're accustomed. Instead, Richter Belmont, our hero from the two Dracula X titles, is a supporting cast member to our story. It seems that Richter has mysteriously disappeared, and in her best efforts, Maria Renard, his sister-in-law, has failed to track him down. An evil plan is in motion, but no one realizes what's coming. Thus, because the balance between good and evil is threatened in Richter's absence, powerful forces awaken the soul of Alucard, who must rise up to solve the mystery and destroy whomever is behind this. Though Alucard will receive storyline assistance from Maria, he'll mostly go at it alone.
First, we find out how we got here: When you begin a new mission, you'll start on the "Final Stage" in control of Richter Belmont, a scene that takes us back four years, to the castle keep where Richter battled Dracula. Since Rondo of Blood, Symphony's prequel, never reached the U.S., they included this battle scenario to explain to us part of the story that Castlevania: Dracula X missed. Except for the powered-up Richter, this is mostly the same battle you may or may not have experienced in Rondo, and it'll do more than just set up the story--your performance here dictates how much of a boost, however limited, Alucard's stats will receive when the real mission begins. The better you perform against the Dracula in this battle, the better position Alucard will be in to start.
Symphony's biggest difference in comparison to its predecessors is that it's a platform-adventure fueled by an RPG system, a premise similar to what you've seen in Simon's Quest only taken to a level far beyond. The Konami team provides to you an open-ended experience, a nonlinear quest where you can travel about the huge castle at your own convenience. But as per its nature, certain goals will have to be met if you hope to reach new destinations; even then, it's up to you to decide how powerful you want to become en route to the final challenges. The RPG system will allow you to gain levels by defeating enemies to earn experience points, and the system can be manipulated otherwise by equipping Alucard with the weapons and armor that affect several categories--his attack, defense, strength, luck and intelligence, for instance. Plus you'll be able to further bolster his HPs, MPs, and heart-total by finding max-up symbols. Gamers who aren't fans of RPGs shouldn't be intimidated--it's easy to jump right in and learn your way around the system because it's done in such a convenient way.
Quite simply, this affords Alucard a huge inventory of weapons and armor to collect and master. Alucard, at his most basic, fights with his fists and comes equipped with very little in the way of armor. You can power him up by assigning him swords, clubs, bombs, capes, rings, masks and hundreds of other accessories; at any time, he can be holding two types of weapons--a sword and shield, two swords, two shields, and double-handed swords, for example. Many of these weapons come with assigned special moves if you're willing to experiment with button combinations. Alucard will also collect many types of potions and other power-up items that can be used to refill his meters, to initiate special sequences, or to bring forth other magical effects, like the vials that summon skeletons or fishmen to fight for him.
As far as movement, at his base, Alucard has strong jumping ability and a back dash move to that allows him to slide out of the way of danger. He'll have a lot more than that later on: Mainly, he can locate special relics that can be switched on and off, and these come in four categories: (1) Those that offer him special moves like the double jump, super jump and jump kick that he can use for more potent offense and for increased castle accessibility. (2) The magic-draining ability to alter his shape into that of a bat, to fly around obstacles; a wolf, for a more aggressive approach; and mist, to expertly avoid danger and travel through grates and other solid objects. (3) The power to summon helpers ("familiars") who will assist him in different ways. And (4) miscellaneous relics that have minor effects like the power to see enemy names when you strike them. Additionally, Alucard can also learn spells by, again, experimenting with complex button combinations. Magic-draining spells supply him the ability to heal himself, to mimic his father's three-directional fireball trick, to execute special attacks while in bat and wolf form, and a whole lot more.
Finally, Alucard will put to use the magical items and sub-weapons found by striking and clearing away candelabras, furniture, and sometimes enemies. He'll collect big and small hearts and the nine sub-weapons in which they power: Seven of them are right out of the the classic Belmont arsenal--the axe, the dagger, holy water, the cross, the stopwatch, the holy book and the rebound stone (formerly the "diamond")--and two others that are unique to him: The lightning-expelling aguen and the ash-throwing, enemy-engulfing bibuti. As it was in the previous Dracula X titles, he won't lose a sub-weapon if he collects another; he'll instead simply drop the current weapon so that he can pick it up again. Otherwise, he'll collect money bags and coins that increase his gold stock, which he can use to buy from the merchant-like Master Librarian new weapons and armor and tips on how to defeat certain bosses (this is similar to what you could do in Rondo by collecting the purple money bags). The Librarian also holds records of all of the game's enemies and their descriptions, weaknesses, and item-dropping potential.
Symphony is like a more action-packed version of Super Metroid. The huge castle features thirteen sections that you can explore via "rooms," which the game defines as the areas that make up each section. Each room contains different dangers that you must negotiate, whether they be swarms of randomly paired enemies, spikey corridors that can only be negotiated in bat form, the gear-filled chambers of clock towers, collapsing bridges, water-filled caverns, and many other battle scenarios and dilemmas. Also, each section has several "save rooms," where you can save your progress after battles or when you want to quit playing plus portal rooms that allow you to transport to different castle sections without having to travel long distances. The biggest obstacles to your continued accessibility are the (sometimes) multiple bosses that are assigned to each section--these battles come without warning and lock you in a duel for which you may or may not be ready. You never know what lurks in the most baron areas of the castle. While you don't have to go everywhere, you'll want to explore the castle far and wide if you hope to find some of the better weaponry, magical items, relics, map-filling secret rooms, and whatever else they've crammed in there.
The team wasn't done there: To supply more adventure, and thus pad the game's length, you'll find that you're only half finished when you've discovered what has happened to Richter. Assuming you've met certain goals, the mission will continue as you explore a second castle, which is an upside-down version of the one you've just been through! At this point, the challenge really pick ups, and you'll have to call upon every ability you've earned if you hope to survive the madness. While the structure of this castle is the same, only upside-down, it's now flooded with the game's toughest minor enemies and bosses, and the challenge of the platforming goes up three notches because you're on your own--if you hope to find your way through, you'll need your super jump and bat abilities to be front and center. Note that if you don't meet certain conditions, you'll attain a bad ending and remain oblivious to the reverse castle's existence--you'll have to explore as much as you can and pay attention to what Maria tells you if you don't want this to happen.
The only thing I can call its graphical presentation is "topnotch," easily the most impressive-looking 2D game of the series and one of the best in general. I don't find it surprising that critics hammered the game for daring not to be 3D, but I do find it odd how they've undercut what's there. The talented artists put a lot of time and effort into distinguishing the castle areas from each other with vibrant and extremely detailed background and foreground layers that feature multiple layers of action each with its own surprises and animation sequences (look for a large floating eye following your progress in the Marble Gallery, for instance). With all of this going on, the game simply never slows down. Furthermore, they masterfully captured that classic Castlevania feel by cleverly blending together familiar landscapes with newer ones while never settling--your main halls, clock tower and castle keep are all represented, and, in a Belmont-less mission, they help to keep the classic feel alive while it blossoms into a whole new experience. Symphony is really cognizant of its ancestors and their importance, so it constantly makes reference to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Super Castlevania IV and the rest to both define its story further and give you that sense of nostalgia--like what Super Metroid did so well in its early minutes.
Alucard is perhaps the smoothest-moving and most-well-animated character in 2D video games. He runs crisply and jumps about, using many frames, aided at all times by a tailing transparency effect that has no real use but adds a sense of style to how he moves. Symphony cheats a little bit: A lot of its sprites, especially enemies, are borrowed from the Dracula X titles, Akumajo Dracula X68000 and Super Castlevania IV. I don't find fault in this at all--I like that they've done this because it adds a further nostalgic touch in linking the games. All of your favorite monsters appear how you remember them. Even then, there are still dozens of newly created, unique foes, all of which are as amazingly detailed and animated as Alucard; creatures old and new alike will make you feel right at home, and you'll find that every series' title is represented here in one way or another in what turns out to be the game's most important yet most overlooked attribute.
If there is a single negative, it's the loading times. You'll find these many dead spots when you travel between section, enter into and leave boss rooms, move between castles, and transport via the portals. It's a necessary evil, of course, but it still slows things down, especially when you just want to get somewhere and there are no portal rooms around. The only real frustration therein is when you die, since rather than being asked if you want to return to the last save room, you have to watch a death sequence, wait for the title screen to pop up, and then reload your mission.
And then there's perhaps Symphony's greatest triumph--its soundtrack, created by the talented Michiru Yamane and powered by the PlayStation's powerful 3D hardware. Michiru easily tops her selection from Rondo of Blood. The track features one outstanding piece after another, exuding over all of the game's menus, the castle's many sections and throughout boss confrontations. Almost every form of music, from Gregorian chant to classical to hard rock, is showcased here, and tones vary from upbeat to haunting to downright evil. If standout themes like Dracula's Castle and The Tragic Prince don't pull you even deeper into the game and keep your adrenaline up, there are a dozen more that will.
Its sound effects are also superb. Every character and environment comes with its own sound selection and sound samples: Alucard attacks with vociferousness; the enemies scream, crack, rattle, explode and burn into oblivion; wind howls, rain pours down, lightning strikes, water drips, and giant bells gong--the castle is alive with sights and sounds. Symphony even features live voice-acting for when the characters converse in the cut-scenes, and, while often silly, it better introduces us into the characters' worlds (I like the demon familiar, a little chap whose nasally voice always manages to crack me up). In gauging the aural presentation of this world, we find a category that is taken beyond a level of depth that makes you realize just how gargantuan an effort this really was.
Symphony's control scheme is also impressive. Alucard moves and attacks quickly and can be controlled to a tee while he flies through the air. Sub-weapons and stairs? Problem solved--stairs are now part of the environment, so they're simply traveled upon like regular surfaces, thus there's no confliction to be found while throwing your axes, daggers and what have you. The two attack buttons (square and circle) are elevated over the jump button (X), which is very convenient, and the dash button (triangle) is on top where not to confuse it for an attack. "Start" brings up your inventory, and "select" shows the map, how much of it is completed, and your current location. Three of the four "L" and "R" buttons are used to transform Alucard into the bat, mist and wolf and smoothly transition between them. What may take getting used to are the button combinations used specifically for some advanced fighting moves, spells and weapon incantations; you'll most likely need to call upon these abilities when things get hectic, and the result may not always be what you intended. Because none of these moves is ever necessary, there's no pressure to ever learn them. This is where fans of fighting games like Street Fighter 2 will have an advantage--the depth is there for those who seek it.
I'm not sure how to categorize its challenge-level. I've been witness to those who go around calling it "easy," but they're of course full of it. The problem is that the RPG system, the spells, and some of the advanced weapons allow you to become as powerful as you wish, which can and will make certain challenges and bosses, including Dracula, a pushover. The fact that you'll be collecting countless energy-replenishment items between your travels to and from the endless number of save rooms doesn't bode well for the game's balance, either. In theory, you could just avoid gaining levels and collecting powerful items, which will make it more fair for the enemies. It would have made more sense, though, for Konami to put a limit on just how powerful Alucard could become. So if you find this game to be "too easy," it's because they've made it that way. This is all nitpicking, anyway, and the game is too huge and too good to be passed up for something you probably wouldn't notice until probably your third or fourth play-through. If you want more of a challenge, there's always the secret character.
And that would be Richter Belmont. If all of this weren't enough, this is just one of the extras of which you can take advantage: After completing the game, you can play as Richter in classic no-nonsense Castlevania-style of play. He controls similarly to his Dracula X counterparts, but he adds the abilities to run, to brandish the whip similarly to Super Castlevania IV's Simon, to slide-kick, to air dash and to super jump. He'll use the sub-weapons in a more conventional way, which includes for each the all-powerful item-crashes. He'll need to take advantage of these new powers because the original Richter wasn't really made with this type of castle structure in mind. There's more: After completing the game, you can access a sound test in the Master Librarian's chamber. Want to play as an axe knight? Really? Well, you can do that, too.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is just an all-around masterpiece. Everything here is done to the highest of levels, and it's difficult to imagine the painstaking measures that were taken in its production. Combine factors like the extras, the capacity to explore 200%-plus worth of castle, and an insane amount of depth that can be uncovered even years later, and you'll surely want to play it over and over again. I don't even think they know how well they succeeded in creating what many consider the series' highest point.
For what it is, an unabashed exercise in shattering expectations and limitations, it's an easy perfect five, but I fear we may never see anything like it again.
For the Saturn version review, please click here.