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On the twentieth of March 1997 Konami released Castlevania Symphony of the Night for the Sony Playstation. It received critical acclaim and after a rocky start went on to do solid business across the world. As well as providing the second half of the “Metroidvania” moniker given to a specific brand of exploration-heavy games popular to this day, it’s a title fondly cooed over by gamers of a certain age across the globe.
As someone who never played it at release, the question I ask is-does it still hold up? Is its unchallenged status as one of the all-time greatest games simply a product of fervent nostalgia or does it still have something to offer gamers seventeen years later?
It would seem (to the delight of “retro gamers” everywhere) that the answer is an emphatic and enthusiastic yes.
The setup is all pretty simple and despite this being the twelfth entry (yes really) in the original Castlevania series it can be easily picked up and understood by total newcomers, due to the use of a new player character and a dramatic revamp of the core gameplay systems. It’s a reboot without axing what came before, instead retooling and retelling the central story for audiences old and new.
So, cliff notes time: Dracula’s evil castle-the titular Castlevania-has appeared as it does every century or so Brigadoon-style. Normally old fang-face is dealt with by resident hero and wall-puncher Simon Belmont, however this time around Vlad’s half-human son Alucard (yes, yes I know, I know) has decided to pull up his flamboyant britches and sort out his daddy issues once and for all, marching into the place with the singular goal of engaging in some very hands-on father/son conflict resolution.
This simple framework does an admirable job of establishing the context of the game as well as allowing what could have been a continuity-heavy entry retain it’s accessibility for fresh faces.
Spending scant minutes with the game reveals an experience shot through with a glorious sense of Hammer Horror camp, matching the finest and most enjoyable of Pinewood Studios’ output. It infects every aspect of the game’s presentation, from the gleefully melodramatic dialogue to the way that Alucard’s cape flutters behind him as he flounces around each corridor.
SotN is a game with a twinkle in its eye and tongue firmly in its cheek and this sly playfulness prevents it from falling prey to the problems that hamper many older titles when their taking-themselves-far-too-seriously tone doesn’t jibe well with modern audiences. By contrast the sheer unbridled flamboyance of SotN makes it absolutely timeless.
The game’s visuals are another point in its favour. Ignoring the allure of the then cutting-edge 3d polygons SotN instead remains true to the series’ 2d pixel foundations using the expanded memory of CD-Rom technology to go to town with the game world.
Environments are expansive and detailed, with each one having a distinctive flavour and tone. From crumbling battlements to deep and dank caverns SotN’s level design has personality in spades.
Enemies are many and varied-each room and pathway throwing up new and unique beasties seemingly put in as a massive middle finger to the standard palette-swapping tactics of its contemporaries.
This effort also extends to Alucard himself. Put simply his animation is fantastic; he glides around the place with grace and élan. His every movement is silky smooth, from his billowing cape to his flowing silvery locks. SotN has not aged a day here and could still teach plenty of newer titles a thing or two about presentation, with only a few minor niggles appearing in the form of flickering sprites and the glow that sometimes surrounds Alucard which can be off-putting when first encountered and make him difficult to see clearly on HD televisions.
Gameplay is the real proof of a game’s longevity though and thankfully SotN clears this particular hurdle with confidence.
Exploration is the core mechanic, constantly roaming from room to room in order to complete the next objective, filling in the map of the castle as you go. Your progress is hampered only by the appearance of bosses and the need to collect various power ups to clear doors, grates and other various roadblocks.
It works well, as the game constantly feels like it is rewarding you for progress, with the ever increasing map screen gives your efforts instant positive feedback. Alongside this the game is liberal with its use of hidden areas and secrets making reaching the elusive 100% rating even more fulfilling and the varying locations mean that even if you can’t quite remember the route you’ll always know where you are.
Sadly this does throw up one of the game’s failings. Back-tracking is a crucial part of the game, requiring you to criss-cross the castle over and over to unlock and discover the various methods needed to progress. This can lead to frustration as you attempt to keep track of where every previously inaccessible door is and the lack of any clear objective can be trying when some of the more convoluted and arbitrary puzzles rear their head.
Don’t be ashamed if you have to resort to Googling some of the answers as SotN gives players absolutely zero clue as to how to progress in some instances. Indeed, the most egregious example of this means that many an unsuspecting player will hit the end credits having only played through half of the game. Yes it’s delightful not for the game to hold the player’s hand but the occasional hint or pointer wouldn’t go amiss.
The remainder of gameplay comes through the combat and light RPG elements. Basically as you slaughter monsters you gain experience points, increasing your level and stats which can be further augmented by the equipping of various weapons and armour obtained during the course of your adventure. It’s all pretty staid, but it gives a great sense of improvement-particularly satisfying is returning to an area where enemies previously gave you hassle and delivering unto them a resounding slap in the gob. It’s fun and fast-paced if a little lacking in depth.
When playing what really came to mind was Dark Souls. The same sense of exploration and not-knowing-what-will-come-next-and-looking-forward-to-smashing-it-in-the-face-with-an-axe-before-it-kills-you is found throughout. Many fans of the latter would describe it as the best 3d Castlevania ever made and I can see why. Though they may be decades apart the same core sensibilities are found in both which goes to show just how little SotN has aged.
Overall Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is considered a classic for good reason. Simple and engaging gameplay that feels as fresh today as it did on the day it launched. It spawned an entire genre of imitators and sequels thanks to its sheer quality, delivering an experience rich in fun and well worth your time.
If anything the only problem SotN suffers from is that it was the first game to do what it does, as such it often lacks some of the depth or nuance of games that expanded upon its influence enjoy. It doesn’t do anything badly it just doesn’t do as much as later games did.
So there you have it, this review started by telling you that Castlevania Symphony of the Night is considered a classic and it ends much the same way. Energetic, engaging and exuberant Castlevania Symphony of the Night is a gem of a game that, despite some minor rough edges, deserves to grace the collections of anyone who enjoys its successors or just enjoys good videogames in general. Despite its years this is one vampire story that never feels long in the tooth.