Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
On March 20, 1997, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released on the PlayStation, radically altering the Castlevania formula from an arcade-style action platformer to an exploration-based action rpg, a change which won over the masses in droves, got Symphony hailed as one of the greatest games ever made, made it one half of the namesake of its own genre, and spawned six handheld sequels and an online multiplayer game, all spearheaded by its creator: Koji Igarashi. It forsook the then-recent craze in 3D graphics that hadn't nearly reached the “this will age well” milestone, and instead focused on using its then-current-generation console power to host 2D sprite graphics so beautiful and timeless that its sequels were shamelessly and yet seamlessly recycling them more than a decade later.
It was gorgeous. It was revolutionary. It was one of the two grandfathers of an entire genre that still has games produced in it to this day, from indie to AAA. And there's a very frequent, very large problem that games in that revolutionary situation face when looked back on years down the line:
They tend to suck.
You see, there's a trend in media that TV Tropes likes to refer to as “Seinfeld is Unfunny”, but which I prefer to call “The Innovator's Curse”, largely since that's more noun-y of a term to use. But whatever you call it, it refers to something that was so innovative and revolutionary, and influenced so many games that came after it, that virtually everything good about it was copied by its successors until it became industry standard, and what that often means for the original product is that the only things that set it apart from its successors are the mistakes that its successors learned from.
Symphony of the Night... does not have that problem. I expected it to, given its age and the insane lens I've put every other game in the series under, a lens which has caused me to be disappointed with at least two games I remembered adoring. It certainly does have those mistakes. In fact it has a mind-boggling amount of them. But thankfully it has one major, major difference between it and the sequels that is way more noticeable and plays by far the biggest role in keeping it relevant in a modern Igavania discussion.
The thing about Symphony that I slowly realized while going through the first hour or so of the game was that the Igavanias that came after it didn't exactly copy the entire formula. Symphony of the Night is a fundamentally different beast than the games that came after it and, for better or worse, offers an experience that they cannot and do not provide. An experience that made me realize things about the previous games on this list that I hadn't even noticed before. And I think it is that, more than anything else, that guarantees its relevance and appeal. No matter where I wind up putting this game on that list, there isn't a single game on the list that can satisfyingly replace the experience of playing it.
It also means that one thought kept running through my head, and getting louder and louder the more I explored the various nooks and crannies of Dracula's castle:
“Christ, this is going to be a hard game to rank.”
And so it was. But let's stop beating around the bush and get to that big difference, shall we?
You see, the big thing about Symphony of the Night that sets it apart from its successors, the big part of the formula that the games to come after it didn't copy, is that it's an extremely open-world game. In the case of nearly all of the other games on this list, while the map is vast and interconnected, Symphony of the Night made me realize their formula is a lot more linear than it feels. In nearly every case, you start out with access to one area, fight your way to the boss, gain access to a second area, fight the second boss, and so on and so forth, unlocking access to one area at a time until you've gained access to them all by the time you face the final boss. While the areas are large enough that there's still plenty of exploration to be had, and plenty of reason to venture back into old areas once you have new power-ups, I can't deny that playing Symphony of the Night has made most of the previous games on this list feel a lot less open in hindsight.
I didn't immediately realize what was going on while traveling through the castle. But eventually it occurred to me around the time I had wound my way around and through the castle and reached the library and its librarian: I had gone through no fewer than five different areas of the castle without acquiring, or needing, a single exploration power-up. Instead of being split into 7 or so different stages of castle access (such as Aria of Sorrow's base, hover jump, double jump, slide kick, water walk, swimming and flight), Symphony of the Night has something more like four very, very large and difficult to define stages of access.
The first one begins when you enter the castle at the beginning of the game. You have access to the entrance, alchemy laboratory, marble gallery, outer wall, and long library. There you talk to the librarian and can buy the Jewel of Open, which opens a very small number of magically locked doors in the game, and this is where things start getting crazy. Because up to this point, while you had access to a lot of areas, you were mostly traveling in a single, continuous winding path through the castle, from the entrance to your first warp point (which sends you back to the alchemy laboratory). Once you get the jewel of open, you gain access to the castle's underground, but only superficially at first. There's a power-up that lets you move through water, but it's basically entirely self-contained and only relevant for exploring that area. More importantly, you get access to the finale of phase 1: the climb up the royal chapel to the lower half of the castle keep, where you finally, at long last, find the ability to double jump.
This brings us to the second phase of the game, which consists of all the areas that possessing the double jump now grants you access to. You can climb to the top of the outer wall, activate the elevator and get the wolf form (which doesn't expand your area access really, but more on that later), and then you can scale the clock tower all the way to the broken staircase of the castle keep where you'll eventually confront the castle's master. You can explore a little more of the library, but that won't be too important in this phase. There's also countless assorted hidden items you can now grab with a combination of double jumping and strategic dive kick bouncing, because in this game that move is so floaty it lets you get to even harder to reach locations if you know how to exploit the enemies in the area. More of note, however, it grants you access to the rest of the castle's vast underground. You can finish your exploration of the watery underground cavern, figure out how to gain access to the abandoned mine, and then the catacombs, until eventually, if you search long enough, you'll exhaust every area within it but a strange dark room you can't do anything with at the moment.
Eventually, however, you'll discover that the double jump also grants you access to two of the upper tunnels in the big clock room where you first met Maria, and through one of them you'll find a bit of Olrox's quarters that leads to the main mandatory area of this phase, the one where the plot happens: the colosseum. Fight your way through that and you'll reach the key to phase 3: the form of mist. This lets you pass through grates, one of which is all that's in the way of you getting the bat form. Which is all that's in the way of getting you the high jump power and the ability to do hypersonic dash attacks as the wolf. If you've explored phase 2 thoroughly enough and know all the places you previously couldn't reach in phase 2, within a short time you'll have gone from having one mobility power up to having basically all of them. You now have full access to the entire castle, and that's where phase 3 begins.
Now, at this point you already have what it takes to confront the castle's master, defeat him, and get the fake ending. But if you want the real ending, you're going to have to explore every nook and cranny of the castle until you've gotten several more items, beaten a few more bosses, and finally gained access to the castle's very core, where you gain the tool you need to figure out what's really going on and beat the castle's master the right way.
And... that's where phase four comes in. Yes, after you get past the bad ending and beat the castle's master properly, you rush into a back room past Dracula's throne, and...
...go into a second goddamned castle that spontaneously manifested, upside down, in the sky.
And here, you have a whole second, inverted castle to explore, with no more mobility upgrades to acquire. Absolutely nothing is off limits, except for the main core, the location of the final boss, which requires you to first hunt down the five relics of Dracula. Which are scattered as the spoils of boss battles all over the castle. So there you are. That's your mission. Otherwise, go nuts.
It should be pretty obvious by this point what I'm talking about when I say Symphony of the Night can't properly be compared to any of its successors. It's an entirely different experience, a game with a much more open and freeform progression, where you're likely to fight bosses in different orders, explore whole areas in different orders, and do a hell of a lot of other stuff you can't do in the more structured frameworks the sequels provide. And so we come down to the fundamental thing I have to ask myself when ranking this game:
“Which style is better?”
This seems on the face of it like a stupid question. Of course the open-world style is better, right? Exploration of a vast, interconnected world is part of the entire point and charm of the metroidvania genre. In fact, realizing just how far away from that model the rest of the Igavania games strayed should, in theory, be a damning mark against them, make them feel less complete in hindsight, and send this skyrocketing to near the top of the list, whatever its flaws. Why on earth would I think otherwise?
Alas, it's not that simple, and as games like Breath of the Wild have thoroughly taught me, there's a big danger and disadvantage to going open world as opposed to linear. And while that danger can be faced head-on and dealt with, if Breath of the Wild has taught me anything, it's that sometimes even the best of the best game designers either can't, or don't care to, deal with it.
One of the biggest criticisms I've seen thrown at Symphony of the Night is that it's the easiest game in the series. This is more or less correct, though there is a caveat to me saying that that I will discuss later. But for now, I'd like to focus on why this is mostly correct: the game doesn't start easy. It becomes easy. And that is the big danger of designing an open-world game that it's very tricky to make a solution for: if you design a bunch of areas to be equally explorable in any order, and then you add in some equipment or power-up mechanic by which the character gets stronger the more they explore, then naturally each subsequent area will get easier rather than harder, because your character is getting stronger, but their obstacles are not. And if there's a leveling system, where the mere act of playing the game and traveling across the map will slowly make you stronger, then this only gets more and more drastic, until eventually the last area of that “tier” will most likely be a cakewalk you curb-stomp with game-breaking weaponry and powers.
This is why Symphony of the Night is the easiest game in the series: because it's the only one without a difficulty curve. A tight, challenging experience was not the main priority. This was supposed to be a game about exploring and adventuring through a vast world of diverse locales with tons of secrets to find, where the world is their oyster and they get to decide what to do first. In all the other games, at least in theory, the developer has a good idea of what power level the player will be at upon exploring each area, because that's the only order they're allowed to do them in. And the challenge will thus scale accordingly with the player's progress.
You see the problem here. Unless you come up with some mechanism to counteract this (and Symphony, much like Breath of the Wild, decidedly does not), open worlds and difficulty are pretty much mutually exclusive concepts. Pick one or the other. You can't have both. And Symphony obviously picked to have an open world.
And make no mistake, it is a hell of an open world to explore. Remember all those complaints I had about games making it confusing to remember where to backtrack to? Symphony broke those rules repeatedly, but the places and surroundings were so striking and unique that I easily remembered damn near every single location of every single obstruction I could now get through. The castle is gorgeous and memorable, the background tracks for each area are true beauty in audio form, and if that's how I'm reacting to it now, dear god I can't even fathom how people reacted to it then. Hell, I realize the voice acting is pure Saturday morning cartoon cheese, but you know what else I noticed during that opening scene? They actually gave Richter animations for gesturing in time with his voiced dialogue. The attention to detail when it comes to the presentation is absolutely ludicrous. I have absolutely no trouble understanding why people reacted so favorably to this game when it came out.
...the actual gameplay is kind of shit.
Okay, first, lemme explain where I'm coming from. I said before that I had a caveat to calling Symphony of the Night easy. What I meant by that was that Symphony of the Night is easy in the same way that Circle of the Moon is, and to a greater extent. It is statistically easy, but technically a meat grinder. Despite how easy this game is, a 0 damage run of this game, or even just a few of its bosses, is absolutely herculean task requiring intricate knowledge of the game's systems and exploits, and not because of good game design. Enemy attack patterns can be flat-out unfair, some enemies have ridiculously long reaches or swift attacks, bosses frequently resemble bullet hells with flashing lights and crazy visuals making it damn near impossible to tell what's going on, your weapons' hitboxes are so narrow that they had to program in two separate styles of crouch attacks to be able to hit some small enemies in this game, the snipers of goth will randomly fly faster than usual without a moment's notice, spontaneously rushing to the opposite side of you with no real feasible means to dodge besides keeping fog ready (and to make matters worse they appear in massive packs), and azaghals are absolutely ridiculous, with their hurtbox that only encompasses their sword's hilt, and their wildly swift and unpredictable attacks where they'll often fly offscreen, and if you try to find them while not in fog, they will frequently cross the gap from offscreen to your character in a single swing attack.
But the thing is that none of that matters. Because with the exception of the really strong ones, by the end of the game you'll take so little damage from all of these enemies that their ridiculously hard to dodge attack patterns are a nuisance, not a menace. By the time I reached the inverted castle, I had the same thoughts about his game that I did about Circle of the Moon. The game felt like it was humiliating and then patronizing me, with enemies knocking me around like a ragdoll while I could do nothing but try blindly to inflict enough damage on them that they'd go away, and then when they eventually did, I stood there feeling not triumphant, but empty, like I was somehow cheating, but not even sure I wanted to do it legitimately, or if that was even possible. In short, every fight felt like a re-enactment of Tenya Iida vs Mei Hatsume from My Hero Academia. The bosses knocked me around for a few minutes, humiliating me with their attack patterns, and then they surrendered. And this was pretty much every boss in the game after Gaibon and Slogra.
I don't sense the same sort of smart level design I know from other games in the series, where it'd take skill, but you can still conceive of the idea that a skilled player could get through it unscathed without looking it up. I don't see that here. I see an entire room infested by at least 30 evil squids nearly coating the floor. I see a 7-square-high room full of imps with no platforms to jump up, so you have to cheese it with your mist if you managed to find the powerup that lets you use it to fly, or else get knocked out of the air near the top if you try to high jump or bat morph your way up, because you can't properly attack imps in the air without platforms to jump from and you need to let them knock you out of the air before they'll come down to the floor where you can fight them. I see rooms full of lesser demons (who used to be a boss) that summon more lesser demons while a cthulhu flies towards you a couple of feet off the ground in a game that doesn't have a slide kick attack for you to use to pass under enemies that do that like in every other Igavania. While I know that the human condition almost guarantees it's been done, and sure enough a quick google search sent me to a youtube video of somebody doing a perfect run of every boss, the strategies are ridiculous and involve pinpoint, lightning-fast reflexes and knowing what the enemy will do next, and before I saw that video I couldn't even imagine a way for anyone to successfully and swiftly kill these enemies without getting hurt. And you know what? I don't think the developers did either.
In short, this action RPG has action so intense yet awkward that it flips back around and basically becomes irrelevant, and it's pretty much just a straight up RPG in an action RPG's clothing, where in most cases it's just about tanking hits long enough to hit your opponent until it breaks. And I honestly get the feeling in a great many parts of this game that that was almost the point. That they didn't much care about having compelling action so much as the illusion of it, propped up by stats, while the core focus was the sheer joy of exploring the world. There are so many issues with this game's design that I can barely count them, but nearly all of them would have become obvious if they tackled this game with the same design philosophy with which they tackled the games that came after, or even the games that came before. This isn't really a game that was intended to be played. It was a game that was intended to be experienced.
...But unfortunately, by the time I got to the inverted castle, the experience stopped being enough for me. The inverted castle is a pain to navigate, because surprise surprise, the castle wasn't built to be navigated upside-down. An infuriatingly high percentage of ledges are a hair's breadth away from being accessible by double jump. That is, naturally, why they don't let you go there until you have between one and three different ways of flying through the air, but the problem is that all of them are slow and awkward. Bat and the upgraded fog form are about as fast as each other, which isn't very fast at all. Flying as a bat honestly felt slower than it did in the DS games. And while fog is invincible, bat form is pretty much defenseless, and the attack upgrade you get for it has such a big delay on it that you can't hit anything you'd need to fight instead of flying away from. The high jump requires a finicky fighting-game d-pad input that makes it nearly impossible to aim at an angle, and not only does it cost MP and not refresh your double jump, but you can't even use it in mid-air until you've exhausted said double jump. And while there were a few cool enemy designs taking advantage of the inverted scenery, like an archer who rides a gear mounted platform that uses the stairs as tracks, for the most part you were just exploring all of the same places again, except this time it was more annoying to get around.
...And that largely gets into my major complaints with the game. Unfortunately I'm forced to conclude that the biggest thing that makes it unique is also part of its greatest weakness from a gameplay perspective, exacerbated by a design philosophy that did the exact opposite of trying to compensate for it. But the positive thing I have to say about all of this is that by the time we got to Aria of Sorrow, the people working on these games had figured out how much of this didn't really work. Iga and company have come a long, long way since the creation of this game, and have learned a lot, and while it seems patronizing for a fan to even say this, I'm genuinely proud of them for all the progress they made fixing what didn't work about this landmark concept.
Beyond that, I had a large number of assorted good and bad things to say about the game that I noted down throughout my playthrough:
Once again, I just wanna re-emphasize how good this game looks. I realize it's still a 16 bit game, but do keep in mind that I counted only about five enemies in the entire game that the three DS games hadn't reused, more than a decade later. And again, sprite cutscene posing.
I like the decision to make Alucard come out of his coffin when you resume a file. Nice graphical touch.
The first boss fight against Gaibon and Slogra was pretty good at least.
I love that capes change the appearance of the cape on Alucard's sprite, and that his second-to-best one can be whatever combination of colors you like, with an in-depth rgb customization screen made specifically for customizing it.
Alucard has the coolest double jump animation in the series, because his cape temporarily turns into wings to flap you upward. Super cool touch, definitely my favorite, with Charlotte's spontaneous broomstick summoning coming in second.
Whether you get money or hearts is completely independent of your heart supply. I like that. It doesn't indirectly discourage subweapon use by only letting you get candle money if you don't use them.
Though Order of Ecclesia may turn out to also apply, so far this is the only game in the series that actually did the shop right. You get a decent amount of money that, again, you get whether you use subweapons or not, and they give you valuable stuff that's specifically intended for selling, and they give it to you for exploring instead of for grinding item drops (though they give it to you for that too). Plus the prices aren't ludicrously crazy. I never saw anything in the hundred thousand range. The biggest thing I wanted was the amazing technicolor cloak, and I got that for 30,000, which was easily achieved just by exploring, and I had it before phase 3.
While a bit tricky to work out, the fighting-game style spells were easier to pull off than I remember them being on the PSP.
As awkward as the method of using healing items is (you have to equip the item to your left or right hand and then use it, and for food that means throwing it on the floor and then picking it up again), I like that in this game that isn't something spontaneous you can just do instantly from the menu. It almost made me reconsider my “no mid-battle healing” rule to try it out. Almost. But then I found out about the fairy familiar who uses healing items for you automatically, and I thought better of that rule, and also switched to the devil familiar for the rest of the game.
I had fun figuring out about the leap of faith chain of candlestick-bouncing dive kicks from the clock tower balcony that gets you the grand cross subweapon.
I liked that they let you buy videos that teach you how to dodge some bosses' attacks. Even if a lot of them, such as the Richter one, were decidedly incomplete and unhelpful, given how nuts their variety of attacks can be and how they don't show all of them in the video. Even considering that, I like it as a concept.
I enjoyed having three accessory slots, even if one of them was constantly occupied by the cape.
What the fuck is the corny-as-shit ending theme!? It's complete and utter garbage and I want to kiss it.
Alucard being able to us the legendary Belmont subweapons feels... wrong to me. Not just because I don't like their classic find-in-candles implementation being applied to the Igavania format. No, mostly because I just don't think it makes sense for Alucard to be able to use them, and I'd have liked a new ability type mapped to the subweapon system's controls. Also, the fact that there is no cross boomerang, just a ludicrously expensive grand cross item crash, is really annoying, especially since the cross boomerang is my favorite one.
The default controls seem pretty awkward. I wound up remapping the off hand from circle to one of the shoulder buttons because I can press that without taking my finger off the jump button.
Boss rooms don't have any warning that they're boss rooms from the outside, and often don't even have save points nearby. Dick move.
There's an elevator you run into in the alchemy laboratory, and it's kind of pointlessly slow.
I don't get Alucard's “ready to use a subweapon” animation. Especially since the one he does on stairs where he draws his cape around him is much, much cooler.
It felt alarmingly early in the game to be throwing an evil twin fight at me as the second boss.
I definitely preferred the voice acting of the PSP version.
Those single-use attack items feel pointless, especially as exploration rewards. What am I supposed to do with a single-use magic bow that I have to go to the menu screen to equip, use once or twice, and then return to the menu to re-equip something else? This feels like a waste of an animation budget that could have gone into more dark magic spells for Alucard.
Malphas, or whatever his name is in SotN, was a joke. I could just stunlock him with jump attacks.
Wolf form is super lame and basically worthless until you get the ability to dash-attack.
Putting subweapon candles right over pits where your old one will automatically fall irretrievably into the void is a psychotically dickish move, and this game does it multiple times.
I can't decide if it's cute or dumb that the "holy symbol" that protects Alucard from water damage looks like a snorkel.
Why do the frogs have pizza? Does Dracula have time travel powers? Why is he using them to order pizza, and why is he then just giving it to the frogs?
For that matter, why was the thing that got Lisa burned as a witch the fact that she was suspiciously good at curing illnesses? Were the villagers seriously completely fine with her getting plowed by the lord of darkness for more than a decade?
There are a few pits, like with the giant waterfall in the underground, where if you fall down, the only way back up is to go the long way around, which is often a long walk even after warping.
You can't swim in this game. You still only have your standard jump and double jump when underwater, they're just all low-gravity moon physics.
Locking story content behind that confusing as fuck clock was a colossal dick move. I assumed since it was so obtuse that it would be bonus content and ignored it until there was literally nothing left to explore with the double jump. Then I looked up online that it opens and closes every other minute, and I'm like “how was I supposed to figure that out?"
Waaaaaay too much knockback and hitstun, even when taking almost no damage. Some enemies can come very close to stunlocking you.
It baffles me that they made a relic out of seeing the damage you do, given that seeing those numbers at the beginning of the game would have made having and losing the Alucard gear far more impactful.
As far as I can tell, there's no in-game explanation for what the button combination is for doing the high jump.
The long hall of spikes that makes you think you need the bat form for it when at the end it reveals that you just flat-out need immunity to spikes, but by that point the fog gate means it's impossible to backtrack without getting repeatedly impaled by the spikes since you can't go straight from mist to bat at that point... come the fuck on.
The process of getting the glasses you need to bypass the bad ending is an annoying sidequest back and forth across the castle, collecting multiple power ups that seem to serve literally no other purpose than the single task they let you complete to reach the next item.
I was not expecting Maria in the secret box room in the core of Dracula's castle, and it makes no sense. Why would she hide in there rather than give Alucard the item to save her friend directly? The PSP version added in a boss fight here, which I remember justifying this weird plot point more.
The orange balloon plant enemies are utterly pointless, just a time sink to get past and wait for the spores to clear.
I'm not sure how the hell you're supposed to dodge the Gorgon's petrify attack. All I know is that looking away from it didn't work, but constantly spamming the button combination for summon spirit did. Somehow.
...Well... with all of this in mind... where do I put it on the list?
1: Aria of Sorrow
2: Portrait of Ruin
3: Dawn of Sorrow
4: Symphony of the Night
5: Circle of the Moon
6: Harmony of Dissonance
I knew for a long time that it was going to be a question of whether Dawn of Sorrow or Symphony of the Night was better. And for a while I was leaning heavily towards Symphony for the sheer value of the unique experience it offered compared to Dawn of Sorrow being more inoffensive. But the inverted castle drained away whatever goodwill I had towards the value of the game's experience. This was another game where by the end of it I was glad it was over. That experience still puts it well above Circle of the Moon, though.
I really, reeeeaaaaaallly didn't want to give such a negative review to the Castlevania series' equivalent to Ocarina of Time, but I just had to. I wasn't having fun, for a good portion of it, for reasons that were obvious to me.
...Well, on the bright side, we end this marathon with a bang. Tune in next time as I give my thoughts on the third game in the DS Trilogy, and the game I remember being my personal favorite: Order of Ecclesia.