1997's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is part of the PSOne's "Greatest Hits" collection. The garish green label was reserved for million-sellers that received a re-release at a discounted price. Unofficial numbers from third-party tracking sites peg Symphony of the Night at 1.27 million copies sold worldwide, with at least 500,000 of those copies coming from North America alone. Keep in mind those numbers don't include digital sales of the game.
Symphony of the Night's North American success is a small miracle, and a triumph of word-of-mouth marketing before the age of social media, or even widespread Internet use. Its rich 2D sprites made an impression in a time when Sony of America was hostile towards 2D games. People picked it up off the shelves despite the fact it sports the most generic jewel case art ever thrown together in Photoshop 4.0 (ever notice the featured castle doesn't even bear the iconic shape of the titular Castlevania?). Its opening moments, which revisit the climax of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine, are supremely confusing, even to Western Castlevania fans: Most of us had never even heard of Rondo of Blood and naming the prologue after the rare Sega Genesis Castlevania game—"Bloodlines"—muddied things further.
And then there's, ahem, the game's still-infamous localization and voice acting. Like the undead that tirelessly fling themselves at Alucard, the salvo of quips and accusations Richter Belmont and Dracula exchange before their scripted stand-off refuse to die. If you cry out "Die, monster, you don't belong in this world" in savvy company, you're practically guaranteed to have "It was not by my hand that I am once again given flesh" volleyed back at you. Inevitably, the conversation terminates with "Have at you!" It's like the gamer version of "Marco Polo."
When I interviewed Symphony of the Night's director, Koji Igarashi, at PAX West last week, he admitted Symphony of the Night's Western success took him by surprise given the game's poor localization. That said, he's thankful (a tad regretfully) the awfulness of Richter's opening lines keeps Symphony of the Night alive in our memories.
"We were never expecting [Symphony of the Night to be a hit in the West]," Igarashi told me via a translator. "This was our first time having a game localized for the Western market; we didn't have a lot of experience publishing games in English. So, the English localization is not what we were expecting."
Igarashi pointed out the actors for the English script had no experience voicing games (though Richter's voice actor, credited as Scott McCulloch, voiced a few games before Symphony of the Night before becoming a popular DJ in Japan. Sadly, he passed away in 2000). Plus, the quality of the voice recordings themselves is poor; McCullouch indeed sounds like he's recording Richter's lines in an open room. Given the campy and confusing first impression Symphony of the Night offered Westerners, Igarashi was "extremely surprised" it was so well-received by us.
I asked Igarashi if he's aware Symphony of the Night's English dialogue is inscribed in legend. He smiled ruefully and confirmed he's aware.
"It's interesting, because if ['Die, monster!'] had been a cooler line, maybe it wouldn't have been as well-received," he said. "Personally, I wanted [Richter] to say something really cool. It's an ongoing joke about his lines being weirdly phrased, but I guess that's the reason it had a lot of impact on players. In a way, that's good."
I also had a chance to talk to Igarashi about the surprising influence Castlevania II: Simon's Quest had on the development of Symphony of the Night.