When the current consoles of the day were the original Playstation, the Sega Saturn, and the N64, I was pretty much exclusively playing on PC. Overall I would not complain about this, as this was the time I discovered some of my favorite games of all time. However, it did mean I missed a classic here or there that was exclusive to one console or another. And while I thought nothing of it at the time, this would be one of those games. Years later, I found myself adoring the newer Castlevania titles on the Gameboy Advance and DS as great exploratory games, so I also found myself wanting to play the first one to do just that. Now as I put my controller down, I’m glad to finally play this amazing entry in the franchise.
Story: It has been 4 years since Richter Belmont defeated Count Dracula and banished his castle from existence for the time being. 4 years of peace which were halted suddenly when the vampire slayer vanished without a trace. His sister-in-law Maria Renard immediately began to search for him, but had nowhere to begin looking, until the castle reappeared well before the century it should have taken for this to occur. With no idea where else to look, but having a good idea this god-forsaken place would be involved, she entered Castlevania.
Meanwhile, the castle’s sudden appearance awoke another presence… one much more power then the mortal woman, for he himself carries the blood of the master of this castle in his veins. Having put himself into an eternal slumber after helping the Belmont family banish his bloodline centuries ago, this unscheduled appearance disturbed him to action. Knowing he would be needed to keep the evil of his father from darkening his homeland once more, Alucard made his way to Castlevania as well.
And this is where the game starts you. You will play as Alucard in the events that follow, exploring the castle to find why it appeared in the first non-linear title of the franchise. Beginning with an encounter with Death who disarms the half-vampire just inside the gate, you will cause the story to evolve as you explore and find certain rooms, encounter Maria and others to interact and progress the story further.
However, if you are looking for any real depth in plot, you are probably looking in the wrong place. The setup is rather intricate, especially for the time, but as the game progresses, the story really doesn’t get very deep. You will have a handful of cutscenes that will explain why Maria is in the castle if you didn’t read it in the manual and why the castle is there at all, but nothing is ever explained in depth so much as gives you a blunt direct and brief reason. Also there is only one really good twist in the entire plot, provided you can find it, but it has become a rather infamous feature of the game and something we will talk about more during the gameplay section of this review.
Graphics: Symphony of the Night is a 32-bit sprite based 2D game with the full space of a CD-ROM to back it from the days of the the original Playstation. As such you can expect it to be low-resolution by today’s standard, but despite that look nothing but gorgeous. The mazes that make up Castlevania are incredibly varied, ranging from libraries to marble hallways, to courtyards and even sewers and a gladiator arena, all lovingly detailed, colorful and full of character. And, that’s before you get to the sprites that will populate this world.
Varied, detailed, colorful, and outright gorgeous, the characters in this game will always look great, fitting right in with any part of the castle they are placed in. But the real standout point here is the animation. With the amount of space allowed by the medium the game was recorded in and more power then previous systems the franchise had been on, most of what you see has been modeled with parts that could be spun at will as well as fully animated pieces to go with the framerate the game was built for, resulting in one of the most fluid experiences with a side-scrolling game I have personally ever seen, from the first time you see Alucard running to the castle right down to the last boss fights.
Combine it all and you have an amazing looking game that clearly pushed everything it had and still holds up to this day as drop-dead-gorgeous.
Sound: Much like the graphical side of this game, the music it will present for most of the time playing is candy for your ears, meshing some classic tunes of the franchise with entire new ones, all fully orchestrated to have a gothic feel to them. The only limitation is that it is blatantly midi based, but that could also easily be a limitation based on the hardware it was made for (the original playstation only has 3MB of RAM, 1 of which is dedicated to video).
Sound effects, also sound good. Swords swing, axes fly, and everything sound about like you should expect, but the interesting detail is that the monsters actually sound vary quite a bit, so your ears should not get board while playing this.
Sadly, we do have to end the sound conversation with a real downside, because the voice acting, what little there actually is, is pretty terrible. Seriously, I have rarely heard such stilted performances, even in the short bursts that it exists here. With these parts being fairly rare in the title, this will not ruin the mood, but might make you smirk in that “so bad it’s good” territory.
Gameplay: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a huge step for the entire franchise. Before this title, the games mostly played as side-scrolling platformers with linear levels that would end with a boss fight against a classic monster before repeating the process with the next level. I’m not saying this is a bad thing (the entire series is regarded as a classic one for a reason), nor am I saying all the titles before this one were like this (in fact the 2nd game on the NES was one of the first platformer-adventure games released for the system), but they were usually very formulaic in nature. This was the game where that formula was thrown out the window and the reason the gametype is called “MetroidVania” and not “Metroid clone.”
Starting just inside the castle itself, it will be up to you to explore the maze of platforming maps that make up the inner workings of Castlevania. In doing so, you will find at first that a lot of it is simply not available to you, but that will change as you also gain access to new powers, weapons, armor, and items that will increase your power and maneuverability so you can be up to these challenges. In addition, however, it will also bring you face to face with boss battles that litter the castle, some of which could overwhelm you easily the first time you see it. And if skill doesn’t carry you (which can happen) this game also introduces RPG elements to the formula, including leveling up to slowly increase your stats and maximum health. There is no challenge in this game that will remain too difficult for the player, provided they have the patients or other things to explore so that they can gain a few levels before coming back to try again.
But sadly, it is these bosses that will both prove the game’s greatest strength and weakness. They are a strength in the bosses themselves as most of them are large, impressive, and a good solid challenge (and those that fail this are usually over so quickly you don’t care for very long). But on the other hand, the hit mechanics can make some of them (as well as some normal monsters for that matter) a real pain artificially.
Alucard is a fairly floaty character to control, which overall plays smooth as butter, keeping the controls feeling absolutely perfect both when on the ground and in the air, even giving you a lot of control over how you move while in the air. However this comes at the cost of being a little bit of double-edged sword, for when you take a hit, you go flying, and the instant you land, you can be hit again. This is not a huge deal, as for the most part the game is balanced to give you a chance to regroup and try again, but those few times you don't get this chance (like the very first boss who likes to machinegun it’s fireball attacks) you might as well put down the controller and wait if you get hit in the first place by it.
The only other issue I have with this game is the “last” boss, and this needs to be placed in quotes for that infamous reason I mentioned in the story section. You see, unless you have a very specific item equipped while fighting this boss, finishing the fight will finish the game. But if you have this specific item you will have the chance to play an extended part of the game. This may sound like a great idea, and indeed, later titles in the franchise will continue this tradition. But the later games will hide maybe a few rooms, an extra boss, and a better ending. This game, however, hides about half the content of the game this way in the form of the upside down castle.
And this could be considered a relatively minor issue if the item you need to do this was something you would run into just playing and you just needed to either by chance or by knowing in advance have it equipped (like many later games in this franchise do) or at worst something you can get if you spend time to explore the castle and find it. But no, in order to access half of the damn game you need to collect two rings, one of which in order to get it requires you to get an armor locked behind an action that NO GAMER is going to do without knowing in advance. To be specific, there is a bridge you need to break by luring a skeleton with an explosive barrel over to it so when they toss it at you, it hits the bridge. Between going against EVERYTHING the game teaches you (kill all the monsters to get experience points and levels) and the fact that NO OTHER EXPLOSIVE WORKS ON THIS BRIDGE (I tried TNT a few times myself) you basically need to be exceptionally lucky and mess up just right or look it up online to find this.
And do not get me wrong, the game plays well enough that if the whole game was only that first half, it would still be a great game, but you can’t expect people to not feel a little bit screwed if you for the most part can not play half the game without first asking someone else how to find it.
Bugs: While I could not find any bugs in this game, I do need to note that while the game is actually a PSX game, this is one of those titles I would recommend NOT playing on a PSP. The reason for this is that it’s a title that makes heavy use of the R2/L2 buttons on your controller, which requires you to flick the motion nub while hitting L or R on the PSP to emulate. It will just be a bad fit to play on the portable.
Overall: Castlevania: Symphony of the night is simply an amazing game that held up exceptionally well through the ages. If you enjoy the modern 2D exploration/adventure titles you will feel right at home playing this one. If you enjoy the later 2D Castlevania games, it is definitely worth your time and money to see the first of this breed in the franchise. It is not perfect, and you will see changes made since that needed to happen, but despite that this is a game that lives up to it’s legacy and should be played by anyone who enjoys 2D or retro gaming.
Source: Playstation Store