Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Almost Twenty Years of Pixelated Terror
In September of 1995, the first generation of the Sony PlayStation was released, and with it came a great sonic boom in games that pushed the boundaries of graphics and storytelling. Games like Tomb Raider aimed to up the ante considerably with a beautiful new 3-Dimensional format, making it possible for developers to create games that were bigger, better, and innovative in almost every sense. Two years later, the newest entry in the notoriously difficult Castlevania made its way onto the next generation of console gaming and decided to stick to what it was good at: being a ridiculously hard 2D sidescroller. Konami’s Symphony of the Night almost completely disregarded the new graphics capabilities of the new consoles and instead, pushed their already tried and true format to a new level of…well, just plain awesomeness. What? You were expecting something more poetic? Sorry. I couldn’t think of anything good.
In Symphony of the Night, the player controls the son of Dracula – cleverly named Alucard – on a quest to bring the demise of his castle, the not-so-cleverly-named Castlevania. The introductory sequence shows the events of a man named Richter Belmont, who defeats Dracula, and then mysteriously disappears. In the beginning of the game, Alucard faces off against one of Dracula’s servants, named Death, and is warned to stop in his quest; when Alucard defies the servant, he is stripped of almost all of his power and weapons. It is up to you, the player, to regain Alucard’s strength and navigate through Castlevania until you come face to face with Belmont…but that’s only half of the story.
For the uninformed, defeating Richter Belmont linearly is a complete death knell for the entire story. Instead, the player must attempt to explore the entirety of the castle and find out more of what’s actually going on before facing him; through this exploration and backtracking, ala The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, you find out that Richter is actually under a powerful spell. Break the spell, and Richter will be set free, allowing you to not only fight Dracula but to explore the incredibly strange Inverted Castle. Once Belmont is defeated in the proper way, a cutscene is shown of another castle coming out of the sky and landing on top of Castlevania. This is where the game truly begins; the Inverted Castle makes everything that you’ve done thus far seems like child’s play. The hordes of enemies are considerably larger and more powerful, and the weapons and armor that you are able to find are much more powerful as well.
The game, though a side-scroller at heart, has a lot of elements of an RPG. You are able to improve upon Alucard’s ability, gaining more and more vampire powers and weapons along the way, making your HP raise as well as your hearts…which, is an extremely confusing yet quirky aspect of the game. The hearts in the game are actually more like stamina points, making it possible for you to perform secondary moves, such as throwing an ax or stopping time. I know, I don’t get it either…but it adds an insane amount of charm to the game.
Speaking of quirkiness, the dialogue is insanely corny and pretty laughable for the most part, but this is not to say that it makes for a bad game. The American voice dubs are funny, but they’re simply entertaining in their own way. They’re not awful, they’re just…quirky.
But enough about silliness; the gameplay in this game is anything but. In fact, it’s damn-near punishing at times, making the game an incredible challenge to play through all the way, even with so-called “game breakers” such as the Walk Armor and the insanely powerful sword called Crissaegrim. For those who are not familiar with the term, it’s basically saying that these items will make this game a walk in the park…but, despite the power of these items, many players (including myself) have found the game to still be quite a challenge. There are tons of different swords you can wield in this game, which deviates from the standard Castlevania weapon, being the whip, and many of them have very interesting properties that the player can use to their advantage. However, no matter what weapon you choose, it takes time and practice to perfect any Castlevania game, and Symphony of the Night is certainly no exception. Those who are able to complete the game over %197 (out of 200) have truly mastered the game and should be proud of themselves; the challenge here is very real.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Symphony of the Night is the awesome atmosphere. It’s got some really cool level designs, and the creatures that you will find here are extremely interesting as well. Despite your frustration from being defeated time and time again by them, you’ve got to take some time to admire the way they look. There’s almost everything here: vampires, skeletons, werewolves, ghosts, floating medusa heads, and even a Chtulhu lookalike. These dark designs are complimented by the wonderful, if not extremely dated soundtrack, interrupted by an insanely corny (yet still great) metal theme song whenever the player squares off against a boss. Once the electric guitar starts squealing and the drums start pummeling, you know you’re in for a big battle.
For anyone who missed out on the game during its original PlayStation run, fear not: it’s available for download on the Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360, which, hopefully, many of you still have so you can play Skyrim. Not much is lost in this newer port of the game, outside of a few cutscenes and sound effects, but it’s nothing that you couldn’t live without. The developers have also done a great job at enhancing the graphics and smoothing out the pixels a bit, but let’s be real – pixels just look so much better in this case. Thankfully, you can choose for it to retain its pixelation in the settings.
Although Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is nearly twenty years old and never really broke any new ground in terms of innovation, it remains one of the best games of all time for one simple reason: it’s fun as all hell. And really, what more could you ask for in a video game? That was rhetorical. Don’t answer.