It had taken almost no time at all. The line between muscle memory and conscious effort had blurred. With my eyes fixed on the screen-filling horror and my attack patterns memorized, the game plan fell unconsciously into place. It’s these breathless and frenetic moments that make the experience come alive; it’s the moments between, wondering through the lavish halls, peppered as they are with all manner of ghoul, that cement the game in your memory. It’s difficult not to fall in love.
I tried not to. In fact I went in worried, with marked skepticism. How could it hold up? I resigned myself after about ten minutes to the fact that I was utterly won over – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is just bloody brilliant. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start going on about how the graphics are more charming and full of character than most of what get released now (I mean they absolutely are those things); I’m going to tell you how, as someone who has never played it, I was won over, why the game holds up, and what’s wrong with it.
The arrival of Koji Igarashi is cause for celebration. Transforming a puzzle-solving hack-and-slash platformer into a new and more elegant beast is one thing; bringing in RPG elements and cementing a new sub-genre is another entirely. The gameplay pops with juicy animations, silky smooth backgrounds that whirl by in slick parallax, and a character that feels empowered not only by his, well, powers, but also by a brand new system put in place to support him. Indeed, the first level in Castlevanaia: Symphony of the Night feels as though Igarashi is warmly looking back and poking fun of the series’ prior games: you play as the protagonist from the last game, complete with limited move set and stiff, unaltered sprites. You get a feel for how far we’ve come, especially in the very next scene as Alucard sprints into view in one of the best and simplest intros to a game and character, ever.
Igarashi clearly had the right talent around him as well: Ayami Kojima’s art breathes new life into the series, and an expressive quality that it sorely lacked. Prior to Symphony of the Night, the heroes in Castlevania were a mash-up of He-Man and Conan the Barbarian; they were generic and devoid of real character. Here they are flamboyant, colourful, and expressive – a celebration of effeminate anime boys clad to the hilt in black and frills. There’s a really camp and brilliantly naff Gothic cheer that runs through SOTN. It’s the sort of thing that isn’t remotely scary, but joyously declares itself and revels in its own over-the-top aesthetic, like an un-ironic Goth teenager from the early 90’s.
Playing Symphony of the Night in 2016 is humbling. It reminds you that if a studio hits the fundamentals, if they execute everything properly, then a game will retain its merit as time ticks on. It’s like good writing in a television show: it doesn’t matter how bad the special effects are, or how hammy the acting, if a good story is being told then we’ll sit and watch – it’s the reason The Original Series still holds up. Here there are solid principles of game design abound: the Metroidvania formula is still sublime; you still have to prioritize your defense over your offence and master your timing, and the level-up system is satisfying and simple. It’s a kind of humbling that makes you want to take your hat off, bow, and salute Igarashi – with a gleeful smirk on your face.
Garlic and Crosses
There are some aspects to Symphony of the Night that either haven’t held up as well, or perhaps nobody noticed them back in 1997 – too busy drooling like me, maybe. These things take a little while to surface, but they’re undeniably daft. For one thing, the RPG touches get caught in the crossfire with a design closer to Super Metroid, and it doesn’t escape without a few bullet holes. There’s a fence running through the game, and it’s up to you which side you come down on. On the one hand, you can become stronger in an organic way: by finding pickups that give you powers, by leveling up Alucard through combat, and of course getting better as a player. On the other hand, you can try and engage with the RPG elements, but the two seem to be at odds with one another. As an example, you can explore and find a potion that buffs your defense against, say, fire. Going down this route is troubling because SOTN is an action game; you’re supposed to jump over the fireball and carry on swinging! Or maybe you go the other way: maybe you buff your fire defense for a specific corridor and just walk through your flaming adversaries taking the damage, but to do this you have to ignore the fact that you’re playing an action game. Instead of combining meaningfully with the series’ existing elements, the RPG elements are a little dissonant with the series’ core play.
Look at The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, for instance. The game allows you to up the difficulty in a cohesive way: the higher difficulties mean you actually have to take into account the game’s vast scope for RPG possibilities. It can make the brewing of potions vital to the killing of monsters; it can make decoctions something that you should really invest time in knowing about, and it can punish you for not having the best armor for that particular situation. This doesn’t run contrary to the game’s design; it doesn’t mean you have to ignore the combat – it means you have to take all the elements into account in order to win. Symphony of the Night presents you with an array of options and then underpins them all with the ultimate option – maybe the compulsion – to just ignore them. Perhaps the strength of all this is choice – sweet, sweet choice. I may be talking out of my rear end, and there may be folks that combine their elemental defense with their leaping skills and dexterity and have a blast. It’s just, I didn’t do that; I didn’t need to do it, and I had a blast all the same. So then, of what value is all the clutter?
Your inventory is going to become overcrowded with things that you don’t need. Symphony of the Night was built with completionists in mind (the hilarious 200.6% possible completion mark will attest to that) – the kind of guys that would get to school the next day bragging about some little curio they’d picked up. It isn’t about the tactical advantage of finding these items – there rarely is one; it’s about the act of finding, the boasting, and the satisfaction of the hunt. The challenge of beating a boss is the reward in itself, so I can hardly complain that the token gesture sword I picked up wasn’t as good as the one I already had; the flash of light and the pleasing noise of the gigantic bastard dying was enough gratification. Most of what you hoard in your inventory is throwaway, then, only you can’t actually throw it away, or sell it. These aren’t really big complaints, it’s just that a better approach would be to have these item pick-ups mean something every time. Super Metroid would make its most inconsequential of pick-ups at least increase your maximum health. Not so in SOTN; often they would be completely useless.
I should be clear: Despite these flaws, I still prefer Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to Super Metroid. It is full of charm and attitude; Its flamboyant characters, sprites of gushing blood, Gothic horror tones, and the fact that I can transform into a bat, all converge to make me smile. The game was an anachronism: it was released at a time when the PlayStation was championing 3D gaming and showing people the polygonal light; no one saw a Castlevania game crashing the party and daring to be this good. People just weren’t ready for it. It’s a success story for good game design. It doesn’t matter what way the industry is moving, or what’s en vogue; if you make a great game, it will pass the test of time. Nineteen years later, playing this game for the first time I’m left with an overriding feeling: pride. I’m proud of how far we’ve come, and I’m proud of where we once were.