What is a man? Well, he's a Castlevania fan, if that man knows what's good for him. And so why not join us as we play perhaps the finest chapter of the Castlevania series, Symphony of the Night?
Originally released in 1997 for the PlayStation, Symphony was treated as a sort of side diversion for the franchise, which would soon see its "real" sequel on Nintendo 64. As such, the game's creators — led by Toru Hagihara and later Koji Igarashi — pretty much went hog wild and literally threw in elements from pretty much every Castlevania game to date. You have the RPG free-roaming elements (and the scattered Dracula bits) of Castlevania II, the cast of Castlevania III, the bosses from the original Castlevania, massive continuity nods to Rondo of Blood, cameos by Super Castlevania IV bosses… but it's not just some nostalgic romp. It's a massive game full of original ideas and crazy, screen-filling graphics. They said the PlayStation couldn't do 2D graphics. They said 2D platformers were dead. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night proved them wrong, and we're going to celebrate by playing it together as a community. This week, we follow the quest up to the Colosseum and the first encounter with the game's "boss."
The trouble with reviewing so many games over the last 30 years is that sometimes you forget what you've played and what you haven't. Case in point, Castlevania Symphony of the Night, which I've been looking forward to checking out ever since the team collectively mooted it as the subject of our next USgamer club.
While downloading it to my Vita, I thought I'd peruse its Wikipedia page to get a general gist of the game. Which is when I discovered that the page references an IGN review I wrote back in October 2, 1997.
Only back then it was a network of disparate sites owned by Imagine Media that I'd just joined as Editorial Director. It wouldn't become IGN until we relaunched it about a year or so later.
At some point during my first week there, I reviewed Symphony of the Night for PSXpower.com — which I totally forgot about, because everything at that point was just a blur of new-job-new-city-new-house. But according to the words I don't remember writing, I liked it enough to give it a 9/10 and called it "one of the finest 2D platforms game yet seen." I also said, "games don't look much more retro than this," which tickles me, considering this was 1997, and Symphony's 16-bit look came from games that predated it by… ooo… a couple of years.
Anyway, needless to say, by the time the game downloaded, I really couldn't wait to play it again.
On the other hand, I totally remember playing Symphony of the Night, Jaz. I looked to your review to validate my own feelings about the game. Symphony was the first Japanese release I ever imported. I paid something like $200 to have my PlayStation modded and a copy of the game, and I struggled through it despite not knowing the first thing about reading Japanese. I didn't regret it in the least. What a phenomenal game — worth every penny, especially since the Japanese version came with a music CD and a gorgeous art book.
And it's funny, because you laugh about how you called the game "retro," but there really was this terrible stigma around games that were (gasp) 2D at that time. I credit Symphony of the Night in large part for being the golden, shining proof that a 2D game could feel breathtakingly inventive and cutting-edge even in a world in which it was jockeying head-to-head with Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII. And more than 15 years later, which of those games has the visuals that hold up best? Yeah, that's right. Symphony of the Night.
It's been since since I last played Symphony — this is definitely my first time through the game since I started replaying classics with a critical eye for their design — and I have to say I'm more impressed than ever with what Konami did here. I know the second half of the game doesn't hold up quite so well as the first, but man, there's some great stuff in Symphony. I love that they dared make it a solo adventure for Alucard, who had a significant role in the series' heritage but only as supporting cast, and used the move away from a Belmont protagonist as an excuse to change up the way the game played. I also love that they slowly add in core mechanics, and that Alucard (unlike a Belmont) doesn't have the ability to gain power-ups from candles and the like until he collects the Cube of Zoe. It lends a sense of change to the series, and it totally justifies the transition to the action-RPG style.
As for this playthrough, I decided to play with the luck code that reduces all of Alucard's stats to 1 at the beginning of the game — all of his stats except Luck, which gets a boost to 99 (plus an additional 20 from the Lapis Lazuli he wears). This makes the early going insanely difficult, but it's worth it for how it opens up the gameplay later on — enemies drop all kinds of crazy rare goods, some of which have amazing effects, so it allows you to customize your play style however you like. My most prized possession this time around (so far) is the Were Bane, a sword dropped by the invisible Hunting Girls in the cathedral towers. It grants damage perks versus werebeasts, and I've never seen it before despite having played through this game a dozen times or more. I equipped it for the Colosseum fight, and it was awesome.
You're so right about the "retro" thing. There was definitely a period when it seemed that the 3D capabilities of PSX, N64 and Saturn had consigned 2D platformers and the like to the annals of has-been history. I felt I had to sell Symphony really hard for people to even consider taking a look - and no wonder Konami only brought in piddly amounts of units. Symphony of the Night was a perfect reminder that 2D was well and truly alive, and could seriously kick ass.
As I started playing the game last weekend, some of it started to come back to me, but not so much that I wasn't continually surprised by its immense depth and exquisite design. The artful progression. The superbly laid out environment. The canny RPG trappings. I don't use the word "masterpiece" very often, but bloody hell. This really is one.
By the way, not long after I put the joypad down after my first main session, I started thinking about where the series is now. The developers really need to sit down and play this. Starting over from here might be a good thing.
Maybe, but you know, part of what makes Symphony so great is that it really was a product of its time. It worked because it was slapping together things that no one had ever combined before, all in the service of the series' history. And it did it so well that it has cast this inescapable shadow; Castlevania games since Symphony have either been an attempt to shrug off its influence and prove the series can work in other formats (with uneven results at best) or else a deliberate attempt to recapture this game's magic.
Symphony was great — is great! — because it bucked the rules. It owed nearly as much to Super Metroid as to Castlevania. It did away with the whip as the series' standard weapon. It threw in a crazy game-lengthening secret that we'll talk about in our third entry for the game. I really think what made Symphony truly great instead of merely really good (like a lot of the portable entries produced by Koji Igarashi) was that it was something truly fresh and different. It wasn't bound by any particular rules. Honestly, I'd say the only attempt Konami has ever truly made to replicate that sense of "anything goes" was Lords of Shadow, which was fine. But unlike Symphony, no one on the Lords team had any real experience with Castlevania — Symphony worked because the people who made it weren't making a slavish Castlevania sequel, but they still knew through intimate experience what the series should be about. How it should work, even with a different hero wielding an unconventional weapon.
Symphony of the Night is easily the most successful effort to reboot Castlevania, which is funny because I don't think anyone really noticed it at the time. I expect most people took one look at the sprites, many of which came directly from the PC Engine's Rondo of Blood, and wrote it off as just another 2D Castlevania. It wasn't until a few years later that people really seemed to appreciate Symphony of the Night for what it had accomplished.
A few things jump out at me on this playthrough. First, I love that it opens with a flashback to Rondo of Blood, which did not receive a proper U.S. release until the 2.5D remake hit the PSP in the late 2000s. Aside from the fact that it offers much-needed context for new players unfamiliar with Richter Belmont's adventures on the PC Engine, it's an interesting stylistic choice. How often do you see playable flashbacks to previous entries in a video game franchise? I can't think of very many at all. But it does a fantastic job of setting the scene, establishing Richter and Maria's important to the story, and amplifying the shock when he laters appears in the Coliseum and identities himself as the lord of the castle.
Another thing that I like is the subtlety with which the soundtrack differentiates Alucard and Richter. As Alucard strode into the darkened castle for the first time, I found myself waiting for a remixed version of the familiar Castlevania theme to kick in once the lights went up. Instead, I heard the excellent "Dracula's Castle", which is bolder and more confident than the more traditional "Vampire Killer". It's a stylistic difference that does much to set the mood for Symphony of the Night, which is ostensibly about Alucard defying his father and destroying him for the last time (of course we all know how that works out in the end).
In some ways, I find Symphony of the Night to be rough, especially when compared to its direct inspiration Super Metroid. In the early going, it was difficult to get my bearings in the sprawling castle, especially without the aid of a map. And I probably never would have never known that I needed to double jump past the statue in the room where Maria first appears without the help of a guide. For all its rough edges though, I really like how Symphony of the Night weaves RPG elements into its structure, dramatically expanding the classic Metroid formula. No one really knew it back in 1997, but Symphony of the Night is a hell of an ambitious overhaul of Castlevania.
What gets me about Symphony of the Night is how I pick up on new details every time I play. Here are a few I noticed this time around:
- The boomerang-tossing skeletons cower when you get too close.
- When Alucard meets Maria and they discuss Richter, each character has a thought bubble next to their heads with a different image of the guy. Seeing as Maria's last game was Rondo of Blood, Richter is depicted in full 16-bit glory. Alucard hasn't seen the light of day since the NES' Castlevania III, so his Belmont memories are distinctly 8-bit.
- Those tables with the smashable astrolabes have a three-pixel-wide vial of green goop that spills down the side when you attack them.
- I always assumed the Spittle Bone was a bird skeleton, but apparently its Japanese name (Artibatirae) references a type of fictional humanoid who crawls around on all fours. It's a tiny skeleton man!
- The late Konami Man makes an appearance as a save icon! (Though he looks more like a drum major than a superhero.)
...And those are just the ones I wrote down. Even though the developers never intended for this game to be played in HD, the format really shows off just how meticulously Konami crafted all of these sprites. It's definitely a level of 2D detail that few games have the luxury of pulling off these days—you probably noticed that whenever anyone goes for a "retro" aesthetic these days, it's usually 8-bit. The tides of nostalgia dictate that we should have gone beyond NES tributes at this point, but something on par with Symphony of the Night would take an enormous amount of work. Even its many sequels pulled back on the graphics, despite all of the reused sprites in play. Symphony of the Night really makes me wistful when developers were really sending off 2D with a bang, back when they presumed their audience would never want to see sprites again.
I've played through Symphony around three times at this point, so, with this attempt, I've been experimenting and not necessarily outfitting Alucard with the most powerful gear, mainly because he's going to become overpowered regardless. That said, I've stuck with the relatively weak Baselard so far, and it's served me well. Though it's relatively weak, the fast swing animation really lets you get in there and rapid-fire enemies to death. And I can't quite remember what sub-weapon I relied on the last time I played the game, but this time around, the ashes—which I just found out are called "Vibhuti"—have been my go-to. So I guess you can call me a hypocrite, because those things are completely unbalanced: They're just like the holy water, expect with greater spread, and a smaller cost to Alucard's MP. And, just like with the holy water, it's incredibly satisfying to see a succession of numbers flying off of enemies who stumble into these ash piles.
One last thing: I forgot how relatively insignificant the first few relics are. Where Super Metroid makes each upgrade worthwhile, the initial ones you find in Symphony basically add features to the UI. They still make it feel like you've accomplished something, but Alucard's rise to power comes in the tiniest of baby steps. I think we'd laugh at a modern game if one of its power-ups let us see the names of enemies—something that's never necessary—but in Castlevania, it's kind of charming. Just don't ask me how the Cube of Zoe is supposed to work.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was the game that brought me into the series. When I was younger, I could never get too far into the first Castlevania, Simon's Quest seemed pretty obtuse without a guide, and I enjoy Castlevania III with its character-switching fun, but I wouldn't say it was one of my favorite NES games. Add in Castlevania: The Adventure, another painfully hard original Game Boy game, and you can see why I skipped the series early on.
From the first time I put Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in my PlayStation, I was hooked. That Dracula X opening with Richter Belmont, Dracula's familiar opening lines, and that amazing Michiru Yamane hard rock riff. I daresay that the soundtrack carried me through the early, muddy part of the game. It still remains one of the best Castlevania soundtracks to this day, possibly even one of my favorite soundtracks period.
One thing that really helped me out in this USgamer Club playthrough is the fact that you can play the PSN version of Symphony of the Night on PlayStation 3, PSP, or PlayStation Vita. I had to review another Vita game this weekend, so being able to switch between the two titles was a godsend. The Vita's custom screen resolution tool needs some work - resizing the viewing window via analog stick instead of the sensitive touchscreen would've been appreciated - but for the most part, the Vita continues to be a great way to play old games and indie titles.
Like Bob, I did notice something new this time around: Alucard's movement speed. When you're not using one of Alucard's animal abilities, he has this weird saunter. When I originally played the game, it never occurred to me how odd this was. After playing something like Guacamelee with fast, precise movement, Alucard's weird gait adds a leisurely feel to the entire game. There's even short increase in momentum when you move from a complete stop. I don't remember any of this at all, but it made playing Symphony of the Night more relaxing that any other Metroidvania I'd played recently.
There's also the wonderful leveling and item system, which takes some of the sting out of encounter that would be more difficult in another Castlevania game. Being able to grind your way out of tough situations is much appreciated and once you have the right weapons, you really feel like you're playing "your" Alucard. I'm still killing Schmoo's to get my lovely Crissaegrim, which is bar-none the best goddamn sword in the game, but otherwise, I've fallen into the same rhythms that categorized my first six or seven runs at Dracula's Castle in Symphony.
Something I've really noticed and appreciated this time around is just how thoughtfully so much of the game design plays out. It really feels like the Symphony team looked closely at the flaws of Castlevania II and said, "Right, let's not do that." The game does a pretty good job of leading you forward — sure, there are some parts that can require a little exploration (such as the aforementioned clock sequence), but I feel like Symphony strikes an amazing balance between linear progression and do-it-yourself wandering. You have plenty of opportunities in the first half of the game, before you unlock all your skills, to take a totally wrong turn and end up somewhere optional or out-of-sequence.
Once you reach the Marble Gallery, for example, you can take the lower path that winds all the way back around to the Alchemy Lab… but the going is pretty rough, because that route is populated by a couple of extremely powerful monsters that can seriously mess you up. Likewise, once you acquire the Jewel of Open and hit the switch to open the floors in the Marble Gallery, the entire subterranean catacombs open up. You don't have to go that way, and in fact that most direct route forward is on the opposite side of the castle, but you can explore freely down there and find lots of cool gear as a result.
When something turns out to be required, Symphony is pretty good about making its necessity and role obvious. This update ends in the Colosseum, where you acquire the Form of Mist — a shiny bauble that appears when you first enter the area, but on the opposite side of a barred path. "Mist could pass," it says when you draw near… so when you beat the area boss and acquire the ability to turn into mist, you get to take a shortcut back to the rest of the castle right away through the wall that formerly blocked your way. Likewise, the Leap Stone in the Castle Keep that enables the all-important double jump skills demands your attention when you enter the area, but it's out of reach. And once you figure out how to snag that enticing collectible, a small prize sits just above it, something you can only now reach that you can leap in mid-air.
I also really appreciate the fact that the game features some absolutely glorious animation, yet it nevertheless prioritizes mechanics over animation. Like when you have a shield in your off hand and raise it to block; even though Alucard appears to bring the shield up somewhat slowly, it functionally blocks almost immediately. Likewise when you turn around with the shield raised: Even though you cycle through the turn animation, the shield blocks in the direction you're pressing. It looks great and plays great. That's just… great.
Can I just point out how funny the wolf relic is? I was pretty excited to find that orb; but when I transformed for the first time, I suddenly remembered that the wolf is almost totally useless! I assume his low profile makes it easy to crawl through spaces where Alucard won't fit, but I haven't found any yet. Otherwise, the wolf jumps awkwardly and moves very, very slowly. It would be nice if the wolf could at least tear some enemy's throat; but no, all it can do is bark. It's such a strange item to put out there ahead of the relics that grant double-jump and the like. Is there something I'm missing?
Mike: The Wolf has a charge ability that makes him run super-fast. Worth it for getting through certain horizontal areas pretty quickly. I think the relic is called Power of Wolf? Either way, yes, the Wolf is pretty useless without the extra Wolf relics.
The wolf form can swim, which is something Alucard doesn't do so well (in fact, initially, he loses health in water). It's pretty handy if you're going for total map completion — some of the nooks underwater can be hard to reach without it. But mostly, I think the wolf form is just there to tie the series back to Bram Stoker's Dracula for fun; after all, Dracula took the forms of mist, a wolf, and a bat, and Alucard inherited those skills from dad. There's not much use for them outside of specific areas, but it's fun that they added the detail for the heck of it.
That's really a big part of what makes the game so great: It's full of detail that was added for the heck of it. I can't wait to find the boots whose only purpose is to make Alucard's sprite one pixel taller… maybe for next week.
Zut alors! A Belmont is the lord of Castlevania!? What madness is this? Join us next week as we all play through to the final battle with Richter and learn just what's up with his foul misdeeds. See you in seven!