Twenty years Later, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is Still Young

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 .

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Six Nintendo Sequels that were Radical Departures from the Originals

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Back in the day when the Nintendo Entertainment System almost single-handedly rebuilt the video game industry after Atari shovelware nearly buried it, carbon copy sequels were not the norm. In fact, very few games ever got sequels at all and many of the ones that did saw the follow-up completely break away from most of the factors that made the original such a sensation.

To contrast, we’ve see nearly 15 variations of Call of Duty in the past decade and eight Assassin’s Creed games in seven years, almost all of which are variations on the same basic gameplay. But it was Nintendo that really perfected the art of the sequel, and sometimes they were just plain unwilling to stick with the winning formula. The results were some really classic NES sequels that some people didn’t appreciate until their respective franchises were forced to revert to same ol’ same ol’ and one sorely underrated DS RPG, which I’ve compiled for you here. Let’s take a look.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

No matter what generation gamer you are, you can hum the theme to The Legend of Zelda. Youzelda 2 know why “it’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” And you know what “this” is. The original game was a sensation and represents a lot of gamers’ fondest childhood memories. You’d think a sequel would do its best to recapture that amazing feat of digital entertainment.

You’d be wrong. The classic top-down view was relegated only to a map where you chose which level to travel to, similar to old-school RPGs. When you encountered an enemy or entered a town or dungeon, the game went sideways. Literally. The Adventure of Link was a side scroller. A side-scroller that featured a really excellent combat, experience, upgrades, and magic. It may actually be the only game I’ve ever played where you could control your shield (blocking high and low) and duel enemies with similar capabilities. In addition to the new action-based approach and RPG leveling, the game featured NPC’s to converse with as well.

While a lot of gamers expressed disappointment at the abandonment of the previous game’s style, Zelda II sold massively and maintains a cult following to this day as there have been few game that are anything like it. I didn’t complain when A Link to the Past returned the series back to its roots as that was one of the best games ever made, but I’m still a little disappointed that Nintendo hasn’t chosen to bring back Zelda II’s style.

Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters

godzilla 2 nesGodzilla’s first foray into video games, Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, was a side-scrolling action game where you played as the titular radioactive dinosaur and Mothra on a mission to destroy alien bad guys and their stable of monsters. Being a massive kaiju nerd, I played this game longer than any other NES title I can think of. What kid could ask for more than to control Godzilla?

The sequel was a different story. Not only did you now play as the military tasked with defending the world from the titular kaiju menace, his gargantuan buddies, and alien invaders but it was a turn-based strategy game to boot. This marked my introduction to that particular genre (which I still favor to this day) and it was a memorable one.

Each level was an increasingly large map where you had to locate resources and defend your cities from the encroaching monsters who would appear at different times and places. Mothra was an important part of your defenses, but you had to scour the map to find her egg before she’d appear, and your most powerful weapon, the Super X, is split into different components which must be transported and assembled. That’s just poor military planning.

The strategy game concept was an extremely creative and rewarding one, but it didn’t exactly pay off. I never saw the game on store shelves and had to settle for rentals in order to play it. I’’d venture to say most people didn’t even know it existed, which is a shame because I’d love to see something like it again.

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume

The original Valkyrie Profile was instantly one of my favorite role playing games of all time when I played it on the valkyrie profile covenant plumeoriginal PlayStation. Maybe someday I’ll expand on that little factoid because God knows it deserves its own article, but today we focus on its DS sequel. The first sequel, Silmeria, remains mournfully unplayed by me (help me, PSN, you’re my only hope…) but I eagerly snapped up the portable sequel and what I found was nothing like the original, but was actually a pretty amazing game in its own right.

You may notice that this is the only game on this list from beyond the 8-bit era. Pretty crazy, right? If nothing else, it shows that in the post-NES world, game developers have almost never deviated radically from their successes without making a full spin-off series ala Dead or Alive Xtreme. There are exceptions in the Final Fantasy series, but for the most part, this is the only modern game I could find. It’s also the only third game. The other games on this list will surely pick on it.

Valkyrie Profile was so original it’s hard to describe in this space so I’ll just say that the combat in Covenant of the Plume was more top-down tactics-style whereas the original was the classic side-view, both with a real-time combo twist. In the original game, you play as Lenneth, the titular Valkyrie who searches for valiant deceased souls to add to Asgard’s army. In the DS sequel, you play as a boy consumed with vengeance and Lenneth is the target of that bloodlust. Your mission is to murder the title character.

While the original story focused on the stories of the dead warriors you search for and recruit, your protagonist in Plume gathers allies to hunt Lenneth down and the choices you make in-game influence the route you take, the people you meet, the faction you join, and the battles you face. This varied, branching, morose storyline about vengeance from a reversed point of view is what really sets it apart. I wish more games would take these kinds of chances.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

castlevania 2 simons questWhile not as big a departure as Zelda II was, Simon’s Quest was an immensely different animal from its classic predecessor in spite of sharing the same basic gameplay style. Castlevania was another defining game of the era, although a simpler one than Zelda. You side-scrolled, platformed, picked up the power-ups, and killed the beasties what need killin’. But for Castlevania II, Nintendo stalwarts Konami decided to try their hand at some real world-building, adding towns, shops, day and night cycles, and other RPG elements. Having bought it blind, it took me quite a while to figure out what the hell I was even doing since the original game was just linear levels and this one was about exploration.

What I really loved was the day/night feature. When you walked through a town during the day there were people to talk to and shops open, but at night villagers shut themselves away and ghouls roamed the streets. Very atmospheric. Also, in another bit of trope reversal, Simon’s actual quest is not to take Dracula down, but to bring him back. Sure, you’re bringing him back to take him down due to some curse on your line, but I liked that you were searching for parts of your foes body to bring him back to life. It was an interesting twist.

Simon’s Quest baffled gamers at the time, not only because it was way different from the first title, but because it was crazy hard. Not in the Mega Man 2/Battletoads sense, but because the game made it pretty tough just to figure out where the hell to go or what the hell to do next. In theory, you were supposed to get clues from villagers, but they weren’t always very helpful. “Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole”, anyone? Yeah, in the 1980’s Japanese to English translations weren’t exactly awesome. What it wanted you to do was take a red crystal and duck in a specific spot for several seconds until a tornado took you away. I can’t for the life of me remember how I ever figured this out. I should probably thank Nintendo Power.

Plus I recall a villager telling me that the ferryman who gave you a life across a lake loves garlic (which function like awesome land mines for monsters in the game). I spent waaaaay too long throwing garlic cloves at him and waiting for him to do something. What the hell, bro? It’s not a surprise that by the third game, the old Castlevania format was back, but like Zelda II, this one is remembered very fondly as being way ahead of its time.

Double Dragon II: The Revenge

This one is actually very similar to its predecessor in premise. Bad guys commit violent act double dragon 2against woman. Good guys beat the shit out of every last one of them. Even the women. In the arcade version, what threw me for a loop was the radical change in the control scheme. The original Double Dragon had a button to punch, a button to kick, and a button to jump. Simple. Classic. But for The Revenge, they switched it up so that you still had a jump button, but you now had front and back attack buttons. This threw me for a loop because you could only kick backwards and this was at odds with every video game ever. Muh combos!

For the NES versions, the divide was much bigger, but that’s because the original Double Dragon was a shameful shadow of the arcade classic that spawned it. It was single-player (although there was a pretty cool versus mode tacked on) and required the player to earn experience to unlock new moves. The sequel brought co-op play to the table along with 2D platforming elements. It was easy for me to forgive the weird control scheme when I got to finally play Double Dragon at home with a friend.

Double Dragon II was probably one of my most-played NES games due to the co-op feature, but fans kind of cooled towards the series afterwards. Maybe it was the massive glut of beat ‘em ups that followed that saw the series’ star fade, or maybe people were really that salty about the control scheme change. Who knows.

Super Mario Bros. 2

super mario 2And here we are at the franchise that put Nintendo on the map as the one gaming company to rule them all, and is credited with saving the industry. The original Super Mario Bros. set the standard for platformers that continues on to this day. It was fun, simple, loaded with secrets, and featured one of the most iconic scores in entertainment history. It was a very rare instance of a video game that was literally perfect. Why mess with perfection? Because you can.

Actually, the original Japanese sequel was apparently pretty similar to the original. Too similar, if you ask the North American branch. And too hard as well. So they reworked an entirely different game named Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic into the Western sequel with pretty great results.

Super Mario Bros. 2’s best feature was four playable characters with differing skillsets. Mario was your all around guy, Luigi had a crazy vertical leap, Princess Toadstool could float for long distances, and Toad was really fast. Instead of jumping on enemies and bashing bricks, the main combat mechanic was picking up and throwing objects, including enemies. The levels were lush and varied and there were no recurring enemies from the first game. There was, however, a minus world equivalent known as sub-space. But otherwise, this was pretty much an entirely different game with Mario skins on the playable characters.

The original is obviously a timeless classic that set the standard for 8-bit gaming, but the sequel has aa special place in a lot of Western gamers hearts too and I can’t help but notice that Super Mario 3D World has the same four playable characters with the same skillsets. So although most aspects of Super Mario 2 have not been carried over as others have, it’s still left its mark on the series.