Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1)

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Console: Sony Playstation (also released on Sega Saturn in Japan only)
Released: 1997
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Japan? Yes (as Akumajo Dracula X: Gekka no Yasokyoku  Translation: Devil’s Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight)
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? No
Value: $22.87 (used) $64.45 (new) (pricecharting.com) – NOTE: There are two versions: original and greatest hits. Original is much more rare and expensive, so adjust your buying habits appropriately.
Price: $15-25 (used GH) $35-$60 (used original) $90-$130 (new GH) $400 (new original) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – released as PSOne title on PS3/PSP and on XBLA – $10.00 for all versions. Also available with Rondo of Blood in the Dracula X Collection for PSP – $15 digital, varies on UMD.

***We also did a podcast on this and other Castlevania titles like it here.***

While Rondo of Blood may be the hidden gem of the Castlevania series, Symphony of the Night is anything but.  There wasn’t a Playstation gamer around that didn’t see this release back in 1997, bringing a much-needed change to the traditional formula.  Every Castlevania game that released on consoles seemed to push the hardware to do things it was never intended to do and usually had amazing results, so it was interesting that in a world consumed by 3D polygonal graphics Symphony of the Night was a 2D side scroller.  In Japan, the series has a much easier way to identify the games that go together – main campaign titles often wore Akumajo in the title and in this case Dracula X – but in America we had not received (and most of us had not played) Rondo of Blood.  The game starts out with you climbing the stairs to Dracula’s chamber at the end of Rondo and you re-create the final fight with Dracula (of which you cannot die).  Then a long bit of lore scrolls the screen and next thing you know you’re playing as Alucard, Dracula’s son, and you’re rushing to Castlevania to rescue Richter from its curse.  It was like being dropped into the middle of an epic you had not previously learned the story of.  Frankly, it didn’t matter, and even today playing Rondo of Blood only assists in giving you background detail because like all other Castlevania games it’s the gameplay and level design that keeps you hooked.

In theory the games were always to be about the adventures of the Belmont family as they repeatedly stormed Dracula’s castle and defeat the infamous vampire, but due to technical limitations and design structure the games always remained linear experiences.  As the series continued we begin to see little tidbits of a bigger picture – from branching pathways to hidden areas within levels – until finally pulling it off in Symphony of the Night.  You’ll find upon beginning the game that there are immediately multiple paths to venture to with no indication of where to go or what your path is.  As you continue to explore, dead ends will quickly force you into a pseudo-linear pathway, but this only holds up for a short while in the beginning.  By the time you’ve defeated a few bosses and conquered some wings of the castle it becomes clear that there is a pre-set layout and you are free (and somewhat required) to explore all of it.  This was a level design choice most notably found prior to Symphony in the Metroid series, where a map would slowly be created as you explored areas and you were only limited by your ability to reach certain areas.  This is why Castlevania titles that had you exploring a new castle were nicknamed “MetroidVania” titles from here on out, even if that name makes you cringe with distaste (I never really cared either way).  Conceptually it was quite an arduous task to make everything available from the beginning and to only limit the player enough to not wonder around for hours from the beginning to find the early basic items and powers.

Series writer and later producer of titles of this style, Koji Igarashi, said he came up with the concept after noticing how most Castlevania titles in Japan ended up in bargain bins due to their lack of replay value.  I assure you that there’s nothing of the sort in Symphony of the Night, especially when there are multiple endings and to get the good ending requires you to discover the upside down castle that literally doubles the game’s size.  Role playing elements were integrated with Alucard equipping weapons, armor, and special items along his quest and a traditional hit point system for fighting enemies.  You could also get familiars, or creatures that would assist your character, and completing the game unlocks the ability to play as a powered up or powered down Alucard or even as Richter Belmont (use “Richter” as your player name).  It really is a game that you have to experience to appreciate, but I warn you that you’ll be hooked if you can get past the early blockades all around you.  The video below gives you the opening sequence to help set up the style of gameplay.

Symphony of the Night was only released on Playstation in the US, but Japan also received a port on the Sega Saturn, which was a much larger commercial success in that country.  This version had few differences to the PS1 version, although it does allow you to also play as Maria Renard, the unlockable character from Rondo that is my personal favorite to use.  I have heard horror stories about this version and in a recent purchase of a Saturn import lot of games, I can say that it’s not quite as bad as everyone’s claiming.  Apparently due to poor coding and the fact that the Saturn team attempted a direct PS1 port, the Saturn version suffers from bad slowdown, long load times, and glitchy effects – this is considered odd because Saturn was a much better 2D system than 3D system and often outperformed the PS1 in such titles.  I have heard that the problems are the result of using all 3 save slots, a commonality for most RPG titles and this is no exception and I had little issues using only two despite a clear performance drag on loading times.  Once I filled that third slot, however, the game came to a messy crawl, dropping framerate consistently and for no apparent reason at all.  If you can avoid this version, the much easier (and in English) US PS1 version is probably preferred.  Also interesting is a misprint in the US game that claims the battle at the beginning is from Castlevania: Bloodlines, which most likely comes from a misunderstanding that Symphony of the Night began its life as a Sega 32x game, Castlevania: The Bloodletting, and we never saw Rondo of Blood in the US.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 1, 2012 at 4:53 pm

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