Remember Konami back before it was always spelled with a “Fuc” in front of it? Those were the days. As storied gaming franchises go, it’s hard to top Castelvania for sheer nostalgic value. I have endless memories of being a young horror geek wasting away my weekend afternoons hunting for Universal monster movies on the television and then assaulting Dracula’s castle on my NES with Simon Belmont as my avatar. I feel bad for people who never discovered the joy of demolishing a giant bat with throwing axes.
Castlevania and Metroid have two major things in common: both franchises have been practically abandoned in the modern era, and both remain extremely popular amongst older gamers. They also can be combined to form an entire genre: Metroidvania, which survives and thrives in the indie scene even today with titles like the lovable Shantae series leading the charge. Other than being 2D and awesome, Metroid and Castlevania didn’t have much in common gameplaywise, but they still get lumped in together for some reason. And that reason is 1997’s Symphony of the Night in which the series, and perhaps 2D gaming itself, reached its zenith. It’s been nearly twenty years since then, and with Netflix nearly ready to unleash a Castlevania animated series, I’d say it’s time for a look back at a truly enduring classic.
Building off of elements introduced in the spectacularly underrated Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Symphony expanded the series in new and exciting ways and lived up to its musical title by introducing several new and adventurous elements to create something truly harmonious. Classic Castlevania gameplay typically involved linear level progression, and deviation from that was often met with resistance (like with Simon’s Quest). But when PlayStation released this, there was no denying it. The story begins at the usual ending, the by-then predictable Dracula boss fight, and then goes where no Belmont had gone before by continuing on as the vampire lord’s son, Alucard, on a mission to indulge his Oedipus complex.
While taking the gameplay elements exactly as they were, right down to hitting candles for hearts -which is a dated element if anything is- it did away with linear levels in favor of an explorable castle with a floorplan that required you to gather and utilize a large number of powers, abilities, and items to progress, like in Metroid. Hence, Metroidvania. Adding in RPG-style experience gains and progression, a large number of weapons and items, charming familiars to accompany your quest, and a vampiric protagonist able to shapeshift into various forms and you were looking at an immensely deep game with huge replayability.
But what really sets this Castlevania game apart for hardcore gamers was the insane amount of secrets. In fact, you can’t even properly beat the game without discovering some seriously esoteric and hard to find places. The ending you will likely get without using an internet walkthrough is really just a preamble; an accumulation of skills. A story misdirection, even. And even if this is all you experienced of it, you will still have played a fantastic game. But the real test came after you uncovered the true plot through a series of hidden areas, secret items, and events leading to the castle you just explored in its entirety being flipped upside down and filled with new, much more challenging horrors where you need to use all of your accumulated skills to survive.
The massive and varied arsenal (chakrams and holy water ftw), the classical feel, the incredible music, the constant nag of which of the five familiars to use (fairy is adorable and gives hints, but bat means double chiropteran fireballs!), and multiple endings all add up to a game with a genuinely timeless appeal. The endless options and combinations of equipment and abilities make even returning to the same rooms over and over again a joy. And Alucard being able to pull off his father’s classic move of teleporting and then opening his cape to unleash a trio of fireballs? Mwah!
“What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets.” states Dracula in the game’s opening scene. Symphony of the Night seems to willfully spend the entire rest of the game showing the immortal lord of the undead that a pile of secrets can be anything but miserable. A challenge for sure, but extremely rewarding as well. To think that a game like this came out when the internet was still in its toddler stage and not every game had walkthroughs and Let’s Plays on tap is mind-boggling. It’s no wonder it was less appreciated in its time than it is now.
In retrospect, Symphony is possibly one of the most important and well put together games ever to grace our consoles. Even today it feels familiar and nostalgic (as it did then), but still completely fresh and with a depth that even modern games struggle to match. It was Dark Souls before Dark Souls was Dark Souls, and even that series doesn’t let you play it as a wolf with a floating sword for a companion or force you to find its most eldritch secrets just to get to the second half of the game. Yet.
A lot of games are either very focused on leading you around by the nose explaining exactly what’s expected of you, or on throwing so much crap to do at you that you can’t even keep it straight without a bunch of waypoints and journals. Not progressing almost feels like a waste of time because there’s just so much to go and so many places to go that the fun can get drained right out of it at times. Symphony was and is just a joy to play, even when you have no idea what to do next. Even when aimlessly wandering through the same rooms killing the same enemies again and again hoping some inspiration strikes you and you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for, there is always a new way to approach everything to keep it interesting. Maybe try dashing through multiple rooms as a wolf, try out that cool looking floating skull familiar, trade in your sword and shield combo for a double-handed weapon, or practice your Street Fighter-esque spell inputs (which can be a bit challenging on a gamepad). There’s always something else to try and master.
While it didn’t exactly set the world on fire in its day, over the years the legend of Symphony of the Night has grown and endured far beyond most of its PlayStation contemporaries. Going back to play the likes of Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII can often be an underwhelming experience for modern players with gaming having come so far since then and old control schemes, basic writing, and certain graphical styles not feeling or looking as good as they used to. But this is a game as timeless as its immortal protagonist.
While the above are being remastered, remade, and ported forward with fresh coats of paint, the only remake Symphony is likely to get is in Plinko machine form. Thanks, (fuc)Konami! But the game’s designer, Koji Igarashi is hard at work on a spiritual successor called Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night that set records with its Kickstarter and made ten times its goal, so clearly the legacy of Castlevania’s finest moment is not lost. And long may gamers continue going out for pleasure because even after two decades, this Night is still young .