Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Five years after Rondo of Blood, Richter Belmont has gpone missing. Worse, Dracula's castle has reappeared (in its usual location). Maria Renard, co-hero of the previous game, expects the two events are connected (smart of her, although anyone playing along at home already knows the two events are probably connected). Maria realizes someone has to go through Dracula's castle, and if Richter isn't around to do it, it'll have to be her.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the lands of Romania, an elder force has awoken. Alucard, son of Dracula (and one of the heroes in Castlevania III) has crawled out of his grave. Having detected a rise in Dracula's dark power without a corresponding balance from the forces of good (namely, the Belmonts), Alcard returns to his father's castle to stop whatever evil has emerged. Dracula's power is true evil, and no matter what, Alucard has vowed to rid the world of it.
Will Alucard be able to stop Dracula's return? Can Maria find Richter? Is Richter behind Dracula's resurrection, and can he be saved?
When Symphony of the Night came out it was unlike any Castlevania game that had been released. The closest Castlevania game stylistically to Symphony in America would be Castlevania II. In Japan, another title, Vampire Killer, also shared elements of gameplay with the later entry. All of that is to say that Symphony is a game that focuses heavily on exploration. The classic side-scrolling of Castlevania is still there, but with a emphasis on a Metroid-style gameplay.
Alucard, our hero, is able to explore the whole of the castle, looking for new powers and new ways to get through the various sections of the demon fortress. Since Alucard starts the castle without any powers or real weaponry, he has fight his way through, gaining back his spells, bat powers, wolf powers, and everything else a son of Dracula would need to be the biggest, baddest vamp in the land.
Along with collecting powers and items to aid in his exploration, Alucard will also be collecting new weapons, armor, food, and more. Enemies will drop items, and others are hidden in the various nooks and crannies of the castle. Depending on how you prefer to fight, there are swords, staves, daggers, thrown objects, power fists... a full, long, complex assortment for Alucard's armory. Just about any player will find a weapon type they'll prefer and want to use on a regular basis.
Adding to the depth is also an RPG system. As Alucard fights his way through the castle, killing enemies, he'll gain levels which will increase his health, strength, magic, luck, and all the other stats you'd expect from an RPG. The RPG system adds just enough of a twist to the standard Metroid formula to make the game interesting on its own merits.
Unfortunately, the RPG system does prove to be a double-edged sword, as while it gives the game additional depth, it also proves to unbalance the later portions of the game. Alucard becomes so god-like that the game becomes a cake walk for nearly the entire last half of the game. I've actually been able to beat the end boss in 10 seconds before just because of how broken the end-game is.
That said, once the game is beaten, players can unlock Richter Belmont for a second play through the castle. Richter is much more limited than Alucard, being unable to collect new equipment -- instead being limited to his whip, his wits, and whatever sub-weapons he finds throughout the game. Playing as Richter is substantially harder, and for those looking for a bit of a challenge, Richter can provide that little kick.
Late-game play issues aside, there's a lot to love about Symphony. Along with a great game that you can sink hours into (on one playthrough), the presentation of the game is top notch. As with Rondo of Blood, the CD-format benefits the music of Symphony. The game sports a lovely, symphonic production. Honestly, it's one of the prettiest soundtracks for a Castlevania game, before or since. This is aided by several stand-out tracks that help to drive the suite: "Dracula's Castle", "Requiem of the Gods", "The Tragic Prince", and "Lost Painting". As a Castlevania, I have a lot of the series music on my computer. Symphony is the first soundtrack I felt the need to buy.
The game is also a sight to behold. The expanded capabilities of the PlayStation allowed the game to really push what sprites could do. Just the simple effects, like when Alucard walks, and after-images of him fade out behind him. Large-scale bosses that fill the screen in rich details (and often, like with Beezelbub, to gross effect). This is a game that proved sprites are a viable format, and it's hard to think of another game, 2D or 3D that's quite as pretty to look at (part of the blame for that may rest with Konami who seem content to rip portions of Symphony of the Night out of the game, like all the monsters, for use in other games and then not always giving the rest of those sequels the polish they deserve).
In many ways Symphony of the Night was hailed as the greatest Castlevania game, and at the time, rightly so. Sadly, a series of Symphony-clones came out in the wake, dilluting the uniqueness of the game, to the effect that even Symphony of the Night suffered from all the samey games to come later (much as has happened time and again with the Mega Man series -- the "Capcom Effect"). Regardless of later entries, Symphony of the Night is an amazing game every gamer -- not just every Castlevania fan -- should own.
Symphony was made available on the XBox 360 Live Arcade. Aside from a couple of additional menus at the start of the game (for the location of save files and options for online leaderboards) this is an emulation-perfect port of the original version of the game. In fact, speedruners have been known to run this version of the game simply because it's so exact (and finding a working 360 is easier than finding a working original Playstation). It's functionally the same game, so if you're not missing anything if you play this version.
In Japan, Symphony of the Night recieved a Sega Saturn port. Referred to in the States as Castlevania: Nocturne in the Moonlight (although Nocturne in the Moonlight was the name for the original game in Japan as well), the game featured two new areas, and a playable quest for adult Maria. Sadly, in just about every respect the game is a compromised mess. Completists will want to take a look, but casual fans are better off avoiding this version of the game.
Also worth noting is the fact that Symphony was included as a bonus unlockable in Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles. As with the Saturn port, Maria is included as a playable character (although she plays differently than her Saturn version -- more like her appearance in Rondo). The new areas from Nocturne were not included, but they weren't much to speak of, so their loss doesn't amount to much. As a proper port, Chronicles Symphony has none of the gameplay issues of the Saturn re-release. Totally worth playing, once you're done with Dracula X Chronicles.
It's a toss up, though, for the weirdest remake of Symphony. On the one hand there's the Tiger Handheld version of the game, a stripped down, bare-bones, monochrome edition of the game (like the 1988 Tiger Castlevania II). Considering how lush and detailed the original version was, it's hard to think why anyone would want to buy the Tiger edition (which, as per all Tiger releases, was the opposite of lush and detailed -- at least the version that saw release). It has competition, though, on the oddity scale as, 10 years later, a "remake" of Symphony was released for Apple systems. Titled Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night, the game as a one-on-one block puzzler that also was a retelling of Symphony.
If and when we can get either the Tiger and/or Puzzle editions of the game, we will review them.