I’ve always been enamoured with the Castlevania franchise. For a variety of reasons (mostly involving my love of horror and video games), it’s tough to nail down why I enjoy the series. One of my absolute favourite entries in the series, however, is Symphony of the Night. Released on this date in Japan back in 1997, the game is considered by many to be one of the best games ever. The problem, however, with many games being labelled “the best ever” is that they’re often viewed through those damned nostalgia goggles. Shortcomings in things like the graphics, sound and gameplay are often obscured because of that, making a look back rather difficult. The real test is how they hold up all these years later. Fortunately, apart from some existing flaws, and even 20 years after its release, Symphony of the Night still remains excellent.
Probably one of the most fun aspects of SOTN is its open-world exploration and action, colloquially known by fans as “Metroidvania”. This style of gameplay deviated from the mainly left-to-right progression style of the previous games, and was so successful that it influenced the rest of the series. Part of that style includes RPG elements that require you to power up Alucard by defeating enemies for experience in order to survive long into the game, creating an addictive challenge. And yes, it’s still as fun then as it is now! As for the layout of the game, the entire map is built as if it were a castle, with sections of the map devoted to specific areas in a logical sense. All areas are interconnected with each other, though there are a handful of Warp Rooms for faster travel. Despite the presence of these Warp Rooms, the inevitable backtracking is still tiresome when you’re simply trying to make your way to a specific part of the map not found near a Warp Room.
As for controlling Alucard, the game’s control is still smooth and responsive. In comparison with the previous games with their stiff movement and limited jumping control, Alucard is quick and elegant. The player can easily perform one attack, quickly dash backwards out of the reach of an enemy’s response, then quickly move in for a counterattack or defend. Alucard also has several abilities (once you’ve unlocked them), such as a double-jump, as well as bat, wolf and mist forms. Alucard can also learn spells that can be used to attack or regain health, though it takes strategy when to use them appropriately.
Graphically, at a time when the focus was on 3D graphics, Symphony‘s use of 2D was considered a bit of an odd step. Ironically, the art and level of detail in SOTN still hold up from 1997 today better than some of those 3d-based games. Alucard’s animation is detailed and smooth. His walk cycle has him appear determined yet graceful, with his cape billowing behind him. All of his sword slashes have a wonderful flow and follow-through. Likewise, enemy sprites are also detailed, with far more frames of animation than in previous games. Larger bosses that fill the screen do get chunkier in their appearance, but are still impressive. Also impressive are the backgrounds, which make use of highly detailed sprites and parallax scrolling. The game also uses several 3D effects, which despite the limited number of polygons available, were used wisely to great effect.
Of course, one of the big attractions of the series is its music. Forgoing the use of familiar tunes, the soundtrack is a mix of varying styles. Each piece accentuates and brings out the appropriate emotion of each area perfectly. As soon as the castle gates close, and “Dracula’s Castle” begins, the music immerses the player in the game, and compliments every level. From the classically-tinged “Wood Carving Partita” in the Library, to “Festival of Servants” and its metal guitars during a boss fight, it’s a delightful sonic onslaught. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous voicework for the game, which is as memorable as it is cheesy. Some players nowadays might not enjoy the kitsch, but you get used to it.
Apart from the backtracking and cheesy dialogue, the biggest shortcoming of SOTN would be the later part of the game. By this point, Alucard is so well-equipped and powered up that almost nothing stands in your way, muddying the once-challenging game. You can plow through the later bosses with ease if you manage to grab a weapon like the Crissaegrim, which is found so late in the game and is so overpowered, it feels even more out of place.
In spite of the flaws, Symphony of the Night is still one of the best games on the original Playstation, and is still rightfully one of the best games ever. The venture into new territory in terms of revised gameplay paid off, as did showcasing wonderfully detailed and animated 2D graphics that rival many 2D games today. Coupled with a memorable soundtrack that works to enhance the mood and emotions of the game, it’s truly no wonder that the game still holds its value at used game stores and on eBay. If games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 are your niche, and you haven’t played Symphony of the Night, you owe it to yourself to experience Konami’s classic.
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