Castlevania: Symphony of the Night from 1997 is a game that almost needs no introduction. There’s not a lot that I can say that hasn’t been oft repeated over years about what many believe to be the best Castlevania ever made, including me, but it’s also one of those games that’s still as fresh as the day it was released.
So let’s take a trip back to 1997. It’s been two years since Sony’s Playstation hit North America (it came out in December of ’93 in Japan, a few months later in ’94 for the West). During the eighties and into the early 90s, the video game market was locked in mortal combat between Nintendo and Sega who briefly surpassed the Mario Machine with the Sega Genesis. Though others attempted to carve away pieces of the 8 and 16-bit pie for themselves such as NEC (with its PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16) to Atari (with the Jaguar), they fell by the wayside while the two titans slugged it out over features and games.
Sony was a complete unknown. I remember when we first heard that Sony would be rolling out a CD console, there was a fair bit of curiosity on whether they would be another company getting into a fight without knowing what it meant. They knew TVs and music devices, but what did they know about games?
Nintendo and Sega both had years of experience and tons of third-party licenses to back them up. What did Sony have? The answer, as we all found out, was a massive war chest that would deluge customers with a ton of games — good, bad, and everything else in between. Sony knew software sold hardware and they turned out to be incredibly aggressive in proving the point.
They also capitalized on the weaknesses of their rivals. The CD format of the Playstation meant that programmers had more to work with to realize bigger multimedia productions taking advantage of the medium. The Nintendo 64, on the other hand, stuck with cartridges which were increasingly being seen as the equivalent of cassette tapes in a world growing more enamored with the CD-ROM format. Most famously, Squaresoft (a longtime Nintendo licensee and today known as Square Enix) ultimately decided to develop Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation because of that reason (and whose PR took out ads poking fun at cartridges). The Sega Saturn, which arrived in ’95 for Western audiences, was notoriously difficult to work with. In contrast, the Playstation didn’t have to deal with those problems as it focused on the more adult demographic.
While the Playstation’s library would largely be seen later as a case of quantity over quality, the quality titles were often exceptional, dazzling crowds with 3D polys, effects, rich musical scores, and even FMV. And one of those shining stars was Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Symphony is actually the sequel to a Castlevania that never came out in the West — Rondo of Blood — which was for the Japan-only PC Engine (which became the TurboGrafx-16 in North America) in 1993. It came out for the SNES later in ’95 for the West called Castlevania: Dracula X which, unfortunately, was seen as an inferior port to an otherwise outstanding game. Not only that, but it paled in comparison to Super Castlevania IV which had come out four years earlier in late ’91. But Symphony’s story would work off from elements found in Rondo of Blood/Dracula X, so for fans that braved the SNES incarnation, the story wouldn’t seem quite as confusing.
A video cinematic kicks things off in 1792, Transylvania, where Dracula has risen once again. Players then take control of Richter Belmont, the hero of Rondo of Blood/Dracula X, in his final fight against the evil Count which bears a very close resemblance to Simon Belmont’s fight in the first Castlevania adding to the confusion. This was a stroke of great creativity as a technique used to set the stage and get the player involved at an early point in the game. Players really can’t lose this fight, either, as young Maria (also from Rondo of Blood/Dracula X) will race in and turn the player invincible if they actually run out of life in fighting Dracula.
As the video explains, four years after his victory, Richter mysteriously disappears. Maria Renard, now grown up, goes on a search for him when Castlevania reappears early instead of in another 100 years. She heads in while elsewhere, Alucard, the son of Dracula, awakens after a long sleep. Though he is a vampire like his father, he has chosen instead to seal himself away from the world after befriending humans to put an end to the darkness as players saw in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse for the NES. Now evil has returned and Alucard is determined to put an end to it once and for all.
The real game finally begins when Alucard races into Castlevania and players take control of a character that is essentially twinked with the best equipment in the game. He tears through everything in his way, giving players a taste of his super powered self, even though he starts as a first level peon as enemies flailing at him doing only one miserable point of damage per hit. Enjoy it while it lasts, though. Once he meets up with Death who mocks him for entering the castle, the dastardly spirit steals away all of Alucard’s gear leaving him only his fists which I used to pound a skeleton down to get his short sword. How the mighty have fallen, but what fun it is to get back what he had lost!
This Castlevania was a radical departure from the typical formula. It was like an amalgamation of all of the experimental things that Konami’s teams had dabbled in over the years such as Castlevania II‘s open world and light RPG elements. But it also took full advantage of the Playstation’s hardware making use of 3D graphics where needed touching things up with a host of special effects surrounding the massive bosses to enemies exploding in blood.
Michiru Yamane’s score would also sing on the Playstation which, in a way, made perfect sense for a machine made by the company that invented the Walkman. Symphony of the Night’s soundtrack mixes together electric guitars and classical sounds into some of the series’ most memorable set of tracks. It really grabs you fight from the start as Alucard rushes into the castle on a mission of vengeance and never really lets your ears go. One or two pieces have also been resurrected here from Rondo of Blood.
Koji Igarashi, assistant director and credited as the father of the “metroidvania” approach with Symphony, had actually felt that the earlier Castlevania games’ difficulty levels were a bit too harsh thus paving the way for the RPG system used. As players beat enemies and found items (or bought and sold them once they found the Librarian), they would gain in power and be able to challenge the more difficult areas of the castle later. This was a game that could go on for ten or even twenty or so hours depending how much you wanted to explore, grind up experience, or just romp around a giant castle as a vampiric juggernaut.
Spells could even be learned by Alucard and special relics gave him new abilities such as turning into a bat to fly into hard to reach areas of the castle. Subweapons return with familiar favorites such as the flying axe and Holy Water while others, such as a book that flies around Alucard while dealing damage to anything that comes too close.
That magic book, along with a few other features, was also in the then Japan-only release of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood having been slightly tweaked here in Symphony. In another nod to Rondo of Blood, picking up one of these doesn’t mean having to give up your previous subweapon, either — it drops to the ground allowing players that have second thoughts to grab it again.
The game was also packed with a huge variety of monsters that often died in spectacular ways. There’s even a monster (called Malachi in the English version, simply “Evil” in the Japanese one) that looks a lot like Cthulhu and is also a pretty brutal encounter if you’re not leveled and equipped to handle him. Symphony’s bosses also reveled in the Playstation’s power to be bigger, badder, and a lot gorier than players had ever seen them. For example, there’s Beelzebub which is a giant corpse with pieces chained by huge meat hooks that you have to dismember with your attacks.
With save points that restored health (even though pork chops could still be found hidden within walls), Castlevania was a lot more forgiving — but there was also a lot more castle to explore filled with many secrets and tough monsters. Instead of a linear trek through a variety of levels, Symphony of the Night’s castle was meant to be explored in the long term with a character that could grow with their experience as they challenged its dangers. It was a compelling combination that made it a fantastic game for old and new fans and an amazing 2D/3D action RPG for any system. And the twist of flipping the castle into a vertical reflection of itself for even more monster slaying was fantastic. Top it off with a climactic fight and a song at the end (I Am the Wind) sung by Cynthia Harrell over the credits, and Symphony was a the series’ multimedia tour de force.
The game was a first in many ways, one of which was Ayami Kojima’s debut as the illustrator responsible for the look of the characters in the manual, the in-game portraits, and their general appearance. Today, her art style has come to define the look of the series since then on covers and in the games themselves. The game’s “metroidvania” style, an open world players needed to explore in order to discover and collect the gear they needed to push even further, would also come to define a number of future Castlevania’s while subtle changes made to their action and game systems offered new challenges.
Since then, the game was ported to a number of other outlets including the Sega Saturn in ’98 with a few changes such as allowing Maria Renard to be a playable character along with Richter Belmont. Technically, however, it suffered from poor graphics and lengthy load times. It also arrived in 2007 on the Xbox Live Arcade though without the video sequences to cut down on the download size (the game was already exceeding Microsoft’s 50 MB limit on downloadable games on their service). It also appeared on the PSP as an unlockable extra with Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.
The impact that Symphony of the Night had on the series and games in general was huge. It was not only a successful re-invention of Konami’s vampire killing formula, but it also demonstrated that you didn’t have to have a Belmont as a lead character to have a good time. It’s mix of 2D action and using 3D as window dressing instead had also demonstrated that even on a console that wanted to model everything in polygons, 2D still had a lot to offer — a lesson that many games today continue to amply demonstrate.
Symphony of the Night was an incredible game, even though it didn’t initially sell very well which is surprising in hindsight. Today, it’s held up as one of the series’ very best by both fans and critics, if not the best, Castlevania that Konami has produced. The balanced blend of RPG elements, action, and fighting a menagerie of twisted horrors as Dracula’s son is an epic fight worth replaying every now and then — if only to sharpen your fangs in anticipation of the next encounter.