Guest Post: Hax Monster reviews Konami classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: , ,

Endlessly repeating the same thing in any art form rarely works. I doubt that J.K. Rowling would have gotten many readers if at the end of The Philosopher’s Stone Harry would not have passed his year at Hogwarts and would have to do everything over again the next year. In the digital department of entertainment Call of Duty constantly, with good reason, earns mockery for repeating the same tried-and-tested formula year after year after year, but still there are a few franchises who should most definitively not change themselves. Those franchises have a trusted formula that only works in one way and trying to fiddle with something like that usually ends the same as trying to improve an excellent wine by, just for the sake of variety, adding a load of cold piss. Guitar Hero springs to mind, as it’s upcoming instalment, Guitar Hero Live, seems to be completely hell-bent on throwing away all the joys of the previous games since you don’t even have to move your hand up and down the fret board during an intense tapping solo. Personally I’m also quite peeved about how all the practice I’ve needed to do Hot for Teacher on expert is as useful while playing Guitar Hero Live as a few hundred hours practice at making metaphors for reviews. Today’s metaphor-studded review, however, doesn’t concern Guitar Hero in any of it’s many appearances, but the very best of a series that also doesn’t need any change: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

If you’re new to Castlevania, the games are almost always about walking into the castle of Dracula, fighting your way through a fairly open 2D-environment, killing a few colourful bosses and finally confronting the big man himself. Symphony of the Night fits this bill almost perfectly, the ‘almost’ being the fact that you usually play as a member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan while in SOTN you play as Dracula’s son, Alucard. The reason why I believe Castlevania games don’t need any change or massive innovation is that going through the entire routine from entering the castle to defeating Count Dracula feels like a pleasant ritual, like reading the paper during breakfast, and as the main storyline and structure remains the same it is all the more interesting to see how the developers fill that structure in.

Symphony of the Night was launched in 1997 for the Playstation 1, developed by Konami. It has a low-res 2D colourful artstyle and can best be classified as an RPG. You can move freely through the world, which mostly feels like a bunch of pathways that occasionally cross, and the entire place is divided up in themed areas with different creatures. Almost every room is filled with a variety of enemies. The number of foes you fight does not differ much, usually ten per room or so, but the sheer colourfulness of enemies ensures that combat is never boring. Environment design is quite empty but every part of the map feels distinguishable because of that the layout differs a lot. And fortunately, the game honoured its namesake with the very best soundtrack I’ve ever heard. Although 1997 is just before the time when sound in games became so good that you never noticed it’s deficiencies anymore, this symphony of game sound is very varied and clearly has a lot of effort put into it. Considering that the visuals make the game look like a nineteenth-century painting and that the songs sound like classic symphonies, the soundtrack fits in the game seamlessly. Other sounds than music are really well executed as well. Every weapon has a sound that gives it a nice punch and if you’re hitting things all day, you at the very least want to feel like you’re actually doing some damage.

What is quite interesting about Symphony’s structure is how you work towards your goal. The game world is technically open like a sandbox but doesn’t feel like one at all. Your final goal is to get to Dracula and you know that at the start, but the game just tosses you in the world without any instructions on how to get to the sharp-toothed bastard. There aren’t any missions or hints. You just have to explore everything to find your way and this openness is an enormous plus for the game, because if you don’t feel like fighting through way too strong enemies you can just go somewhere else and try over there. The only real kind of progress is made by finding certain objects that let you overcome all barriers of a certain kind. For instance, a magic amulet lets you unlock all magically sealed doors. Therefore, you have to find the magic amulet first and then you have to explore the newly unlocked areas behind the opened doors for a new item to unlock a new obstacle. Plot events only occur if you just so happen to be in the right place for them. What’s even more striking is that, and I’m dumping a few big spoilers here, if you haven’t reached those plot events in the game world before reaching the end of the castle the game stops entirely even though you still have half the game to go. In this second half you go through what you could see as a stupidly contrived effort to lengthen the runtime or a really original change of gameplay and setting: you go through the same map upside down. A second castle appears above the first one, completely inverted, and you fight to the centre of it this time. Level design is obviously weaker in the second half because of that moving through the rooms is not quite that streamlined as the entire place wasn’t designed for this.

As easy as the general combat is, that harsh is the game in its mentality with its lack of explanation and the difficulty you’ll have with finding new door-opening items in the world. However, the fact that so many important items are hidden so well makes you all the more satisfied when you finally do get your hands on them. Just remember to stay in the 90’s mindset and pretend the internet doesn’t exist, because if you look up the locations of everything you are actively undermining so much of what makes this game great. Patience is a must for this game, but that said I think that this Castlevania can be enjoyed by anyone willing to put time and effort into it. There is no big, discouraging, overcomplicated story or game mechanics that require you to follow an IT-course before playing, just you, some weapons and some monsters.

Pretty well-designed monsters, mind you. Enemies have all the colours of the rainbow and differ from flying swords to jumping little leprechauns. Surprisingly, with all the variation in the game, not one creature really seems out of place, except for one monkey skeleton that throws barrels as a reference to Donkey Kong. Konami too seem to recognize how well they did with the monster design, because many enemies from symphony of the Night make another appearance in Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia for the Nintendo DS. Boss battles are just amazing. Every monster looks vastly different from the previous one and gameplay-wise, defeating them is different every time. I don’t want to spoil any of their appearances to you but a few of them made me swear out loud of surprise when I first saw them.

Symphony of the Night is now considered a classic and is my favourite Castlevania of all time. It’s problems are very few, considering that it holds a very tight formula with little errors. Since that’s the point of a review, I’ll list all my little niggles here. As original as most of them are, some boss monsters could have been a bit more imaginative. One or two of them are just very standard monsters with nothing memorable about them. Also, the voice-acting on all characters, except perhaps for Alucard and Dracula, wouldn’t even suffice for a low-budget soap series. Then there’s the issue that backdashing continuously is faster than walking, which means that no-one will move the way they are supposed to. The backdash should have a cooldown of a second or so. I would also have liked it if I had to do more dodging, moving or blocking in combat with regular enemies, because as it is you just mostly have to mow foes down by only mashing the attack button which feels a bit too simple. A good example of how it should be done are the little leprechaun fellows, because the difficulty with fighting them is not hitting them fast enough before they can attack you, but managing to hit the little hopping buggers. The fact that simply mashing attack before an enemy to kill them isn’t that fun also has to do with the little variety in weapons. Every melee weapon practically feels like the same one-handed sword and there are too little spells. Spells in general can’t really be used as main weapons in combat since they serve just to give you a little bonus every now and then. Its limited use makes the entire magic system a bit redundant. Then there is one boss right before the end that is so difficult that he alone messes up the entire difficulty curve as the actual final bossfight after that is way easier. Luckily, and this is a big plus in a metroidvania game like this, you can skip that fight if you don’t feel like doing it.

If all of these problems sound petty, that’s because they are petty. What you should take away from this review is that Symphony of the Night is a wonderfully varied and original must-play that could have been launched today. It hasn’t aged in the slightest and with the lack of handholding it makes for a really satisfying experience if you succeed at it. So just go and buy it now! Or, to speak with the words of Dracula himself: ‘Enough talk, have at you!’.

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