Castlevania: Symphony of the Night arrived in March, 1997, just as I was landing in San Francisco. Even if I had moved with all my game consoles (which I didn’t, most were sold off before then), I had never owned the first Playstation. And Castlevania was a long passed memory, having last played Super Castlevania IV in 1991. The series is much beloved for all the right reasons, even with the klunkers and inevitable leap to 3D. Castlevania I and II for the NES were defining moments in the early console gaming days, and set the tone for what I expected from side scrolling adventure games.
Returning to the series over the last couple years, first with the Game Boy (Castlevania: The Adventure was far too slow, but that music!), and then on to Bloodlines for the Genesis and Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine, I finally end up on the PS1. Viewed on a 55″ plasma screen, even at 4:3 one would think a mid-generation PS1 game would look blown-up, but it’s aged beautifully, with rich colors, deep blacks and crisp edges. Using Sony’s component cables siphoned through an XRGB-mini likely helped maintain SOTN‘s original glory. The sound effects are equally satisfying and of the period, with a haunting score that’s perhaps not quite as memorable as previous installments. The bad voice acting for the English dubs are often brought up, and they are bad, but not enough to really take it off course. I would’ve been happy to hear the original Japanese voices though.
Directed by Toru Hagihara and Koji Igarashi, SOTN was a conscious departure for the series, with noted non-linear gameplay and RPG elements, while retaining an appreciation for 2D sprites and effects. When asked if 2D translates well to 3D, Igarashi gives the direct response, “No, it’s basically impossible to communicate the same experience. 2D gameplay is precise – it can come down to one pixel of accuracy for attacking, defending, jumping, any sort of platforming element. In the 3D gaming environment, appreciation of distance is much more subtle, and control has to be looser.” SOTN plays with those two dimensions very comfortably, a combination of reliable platforming mechanics with almost arcade style visual flourishes, from leveling up and character transitions to enemy and boss deaths, to water, fog and fire transparency. It’s classic Castlevania informed by a decade of development experience.
While SOTN employs role-playing essentials — experience points, weapon and item collecting and stats, tallies and maps — even for someone like me who doesn’t play RPGs, it adds a compelling and pleasurable layer of detail. Backtracking may be an unavoidable part of non-linear play, but the game offers enough warps and hidden surprises to reward your efforts. As the first half of the game closes with Richter’s fall, SOTN effectively double the terrain by famously inverting the castle, which I initially found gimmicky. Fortunately my much more patient (and actual gamer) husband pushed me to keep at it, putting my final completion to just under 200% (but not 200.6%). And while I found the second half of the game much more challenging, it’s rarely frustrating thanks to the ample save points (many directly outside of boss rooms) and character form shifting. Transitioning into mist and a bat was necessary at later points in the game, in one case being the only sane method in defeating a boss.
I fear this could be the last really good Castlevania I’ll play, save for rounding out the Game Boy editions, and there are many. Reading Hardcord Gaming’s book on the series has excited me to check out a few more odds and ends like Chronicles, The Adventure Rebirth, and Harmony of Despair (which I’ve tried to like a couple times now). And finding Kid Dracula for about half of what it goes for would be a bonus.
If SOTN is any indication of what the PS1 can do, I’m looking forward to playing more of it. Currently I only own about nine games, with a lengthy wishlist which perhaps includes too many shmups and not enough sprawling adventures.