Castlevania Symphony of the Night

   Like the song says, "Changes aren't permanent, but change is." This is certainly the case in the gaming industry, where the promise of new and better things sells the latest systems, hypes the prettiest games and dictates sales results as much (if not more than) gameplay itself. Great games have too often slipped through the cracks because they failed to conform to the latest media-approved buzzwords. And of all the games in recent memory, perhaps it is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night which best exemplifies this unfortunate phenomenon.

If only they'd hired Richard Roundtree as Shaft...
The pen is deadlier than the whip - make the hurting stop

   SotN, known by the remarkably cumbersome name "Evil Demon Castle Dracula-X: Nocturne in the Moonlight" in Japan, was the first appearance of Konami's classic Castlevania series in the 32/64-bit era - and, many would argue, the best game ever to bear the Castlevania name. Unfortunately, SotN featured no real gameplay or graphical innovations to speak of. It also made the fatal error of being a 2D platformer at a time when Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII were fresh in the collective gaming conscience and the popularity of two-dimensional gaming was at a low ebb. Despite critical raves and praise from gamers who played it, SotN's sales were mediocre at best as most shoppers passed it up for titles whose features made for more compelling box copy and demo teasers.

   Which is a terrible shame, because Symphony of the Night - while lacking in innovation - is one of the most tightly-tuned and best-designed platform adventures ever. It's often compared in quality to Super Metroid; which is fitting, as it borrows a number of Super Metroid's gameplay features. In fact, the game could best be described as a mixture of Super Metroid, Dracula-X: Rondo of Blood and Castlevania II, with a dash of Ninja Gaiden thrown in for good measure.

   The traditional linear action-oriented gameplay of the Castlevania series takes a back seat to exploration and statistic-building here. This is the result of the game's hero being Adrian Ferenheit Tepes (also known as Alucard, the half-human son of Dracula who previously appeared as one of the selectable "helper" characters in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse) rather than a member of the vampire-slaying Belmont clan. Though Alucard had sealed himself away into an eternal sleep after his previous encounter with his father, Dracula's latest cyclical reincarnation wakes Alucard from his self-imposed slumber. Stirred to action by foreboding premonitions, he sets out for the resurrected Castlevania, unaware that the demon castle has returned 95 years too soon and that the current head of the Belmont family, Richter, has vanished without a trace.

It's-a me, Maria!
She's just a little girl with powers inside

   The plot builds on events seen in the previous game, Dracula-X: Rondo of Blood. Unfortunately, that particular game only appeared in Japan on the PC Engine Duo and in a sadly stripped-down form on the American Super Nintendo. Fortunately, the important details are recapped thoughtfully in a playable prologue which recounts the final battle of the prior game: Richter's fateful encounter with Dracula five years before the beginning of SotN. The storyline resurfaces throughout the game in the form of encounters with Maria Renard (Richter's sister-in-law, who was a child in Rondo of Blood and now is a vampire hunter in her own right) and inevitably Richter, Death, Dracula, and the vampire's dark priest Shaft - can you dig it? Events transpire with the aid of voice acting... classy in the original Japanese, laughably bad in English. The story is certainly nothing to compete with the best RPGs, but is precisely enough to keep the non-linear gameplay going (and it adeptly sets into motion one of the coolest game-enhancing story twists ever).

Alucard Tepes, aka Jumpman
SotN even draws inspiration from Donkey Kong

   The hero himself is a beautifully animated example of the archetypal "bishounen" pretty-boy butt-kicker - an effeminate-looking man in ruffled clothing who happens to be an incredible warrior. Alucard's vampiric nature allows both cool visual tricks (such as a trailing shadow effect when he runs) and gameplay techniques (later in the game, Alucard must learn to overcome obstacles by metamorphosing into a wolf, a bat or even mist, all straight from Bram Stoker's canon). Unlike the Belmonts, Alucard doesn't mess with the leather-and-chain-whips routine, choosing instead to place his trust in swords, rods, tonfas and brass knuckles. Of course, he also has his fair share of magical powers, including his fireball attack from Dracula's Curse and the ability to regain strength from the spilled blood of slain enemies. He may fight on the side of angels, but his skills seem to come from a different source altogether. Combined with his arsenal of magical weapons, items and accessories, Alucard's skills allow him to become an almost unstoppable force.

   Not that Dracula's forces are a complete pushover - Castlevania is teeming with monsters: from feeble, mindless zombies to devastating bosses scattered throughout the castle's interior. Alucard will need to scour every inch of the evil fortress to find the abilities and items he needs to track down the force behind Dracula's premature revival and put a stop to it. He makes a few allies along the way, including Maria, the old Librarian (whose love of money persuades him to sell items to Alucard despite the possibility of incurring Dracula's wrath) and a really creepy boatman who lives in the catacombs beneath the castle. Additionally, Alucard can enlist the aid of magical familiars who level-up along with their master and gain a variety of helpful skills as they earn experience. These range from the simple attacks of a sword to the life-giving assistance of a faerie to a ghost which can possess and destroy an enemy from the inside out - and one familiar is even necessary to uncover a subplot that further develops Alucard's character and casts new light on what caused Dracula to become the terrifying, unholy force he is.

   While the action is limited to the interior of the castle, the game itself is hardly small. Furthermore, there are often multiple ways to progress, and just like in Super Metroid, certain areas will be impassible until various conditions are met. Need to get through a grate? Alucard must learn to become mist. Need to pass a room full of spikes? That's what the "Spikebuster" armor is for. While the game can be beaten fairly easily and without too much exploration, finding the true ending - as well as the entire second half of the game - requires thorough exploration and a bit of detective work... not to mention a touch of sexual tension with Maria. Yeah, so it doesn't come across in the English voice acting, but it's there. Really.

Nintendo is rolling in its grave
Alucard redefines the term lady-killer

   Happily, searching high and low for hidden passages and secret items is hardly a boring task, because Castlevania is rendered with breathtaking detail and variety. Though some of the returning enemies suffer from having the exact same graphics and animation as their 16-bit Rondo of Blood versions, there are some truly impressive creatures to behold and defeat. Furthermore, each section of the castle has its own visual motif and musical theme - and if there's one truly flawless aspect of this game, it's the soundtrack. Featuring an incredible mix of baroque themes, hard rock and classic orchestration, it's easy to understand where the name "Symphony of the Night" came from.

   But what really elevates this game to the plateau it occupies are the myriad details which make the castle come to life. Ancient candelabras crumble into dust when smashed; tiny mice run through the rafters; a priest in the chapel takes your confession and offers you life-restoring communion items; you can take a seat opposite the vampire Olrox at his banquet table before engaging him in combat; enemies drop rare items that can totally shift your play style. Even better are the countless nods to previous Castlevania games, tiny little things that make long-time fans of the series smile in recognition. Alucard fights evil duplicates of his mortal allies from Dracula's Curse, traverses the gears of a clock tower as he ascends to Dracula's chamber, and collects the five key parts of Dracula's body (repeating Simon Belmont's Castlevania II quest) while battling the five major bosses from the game which started the entire series. Everything about SotN suggests it was a labor of love by creators whose affection for Castlevania matches that of their fans, making it one of the most satisfying sequels ever.

Would you like a doggy bag for those meat bits, sir?
It's like Simon's Quest, except without Simon

   And once the game is cleared (all 200.6% of it), the true enemy is defeated and all the endings are uncovered, there are other secrets to be found. Entering your name as RICHTER will allow you to play as Richter Belmont, whose quest through the castle is far more linear and action-oriented than Alucard's, and much more challenging as well. There's also a secret code that makes Alucard weak as a kitten but boosts his luck ratings to astronomical levels - the rare items he finds as a result makes him as overpowering by game's end as he was underpowered at the beginning. Additionally, a slightly enhanced version of the game was released for the Sega Saturn in Japan; a definite must-have for big SotN fans. Though it was inexplicably uglier than the original Playstation version (in stark defiance of the rule that 2D games always look better on Saturn), it featured more music, a sound test on the title screen, extra areas and weapons and, perhaps most significantly, the ability to play as either Alucard, Richter or Maria from the very beginning.

   Symphony of the Night is a stunning experience which demonstrates that gaming excellence is possible without the latest technology or innovations. Though video games rarely manage to blend so many borrowed and proven elements and yet create something wholly unique and playable, SotN pulls it off with finesse, visual grace and a hero so cool that even dopey voice acting can't tarnish his style. This game is a crowning achievement on the Playstation which has earned a small but adamantly loyal following who hope and pray that future Castlevania titles will look to SotN for inspiration.

Retrospective by J. Parish, GIA.
Castlevania Symphony of the Night
Developer KCET
Publisher Konami
Genre Adventure
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Released  10.02.97
286 screenshots, 8 Saturn edition mp3s
30 character and manga designs
U.S., Japanese and OST packaging