Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

The Castlevania series has been such a prominent staple of gaming, and especially Symphony in particular. SInce it’s been reviewed time after time for so long, I’m going to just explain my personal experiences and thoughts about the game.

Castlevania has always eluded me, even as a kid. I was never really into Dracula, and the movies like Interview with a Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula were never something I was allowed to see as a kid. A Friday night trip to Blockbuster always consisted of me looking through games and seeing Castlevania, but never having the nerve to rent it instead of something newer, or even something that was just a bit lighter in context.

Once Symphony of the Night came out, that is when I remember hearing the love for the series go into overdrive. Everyone was talking about how good this game was. Once I actually saw the game in motion…. I was extremely underwhelmed and put off by the weird trails that the main character had. I asked if they could be turned off and everyone stared at me like I was taking crazy pills. This effect, used in games like Metal Gear Solid or Grand Theft Auto 3/Vice City just made me feel like the game was bad.

Since then I’ve briefly tried to go back to the game to give it a fair shot. Back when PS1 emulation was getting off the ground and testing it out on countless modded Xboxes that I was making for friends and clients. Or when it came to Xbox 360 Live Arcade and was an easy way to play a game that became infamous as one of the more expensive Playstation games to collect. While playing the beginning part of the game over and over again throughout the years, it never really interested me enough to stick with it.

The “Vainia” in MetroidVania is really first introduced In Symphony. Which is why it put me off so much over the years. Knowing I would have to backtrack through the game so much and even do the whole game with the Castle being inverted instantly killed any excitement I had over the game.

For whatever reason, I haven’t really been able to get into any new games for the last few weeks. Dabbling in a few remasters of games I’ve already beaten (Like Borderlands 1) or just being bored with nothing big and new, I turned to older games. Scrolling through the list of thousands of games at my disposal, I landed on Symphony… Why? I’m not exactly sure, but something about it called to me. The thought of finally playing this game all the way to completion, and being able to hold my own when the discussion of this game pops up seemed like the perfect thing to get me out of my gaming funk of the last couple weeks.

After getting through the beginning part that I’ve played countless times, I was able to sink a decent amount of time into it during a weekend alone at home. This allowed me to really dive into the lore, the setting and the characters that this game has to offer.

Even with the voice acting being absolutely atrocious, and the written lines of dialog either ultra cheesy or something being lost in translation, Symphony gave me an experience that really hasn’t been shown to me from it before. The game recapping the tail end of Rondo Of Blood, like a Rocky movie is a great way to start off a game with a long and storied series of games. Once the game opens up a bit and you find out who Alucard is and why he is trying to kill Dracula you are left with a game that sets out to do something unique, which is the perfect word to describe Symphony. It’s unique, it does things that are familiar, but does them in a way that just is a bit of a different take on the norm. Allowing for customization of the menu color for example… Why would that be an option? I don’t know, but I love it!

Giving you a solid platforming experience is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Symphony. Being able to randomly figure out a spell that you can cast, just by messing around with the inputs, and doing things like the fireball motion and seeing something unexpected happen is such a cool moment. The spells often went unused for me as with 98% of all the pickups in the game. Allucard mainly battles with two hands that can equip a bunch of different weapons. These weapons can be things like different swords, shields, small knives, or even nunchucks. The issue that I ran into was most powerful weapons were two handed, meaning you can only equip that single weapon and it occupies both hand slots, or when swinging it, it was just way too slow to really be of any use.

I mainly stuck with some of the beginning weapons and only equipped the more powerful weapon if it sung just as fast as the starter weapons. Being able to spam the attack button as fast as possible is key into killing the many enemies that Dracula has employed in his castle. One swing from a large sword might wield a 24 damage to the baddie, but at the same time you can stab with a knife 4 or 5 times with a damage of 12 with each hit resulting in much more damage in a shorter amount of time.

The pickup and items just seemed like a waste of time mostly too, which was a bit disappointing. I was originally put off by the RPG aspect or going into menus and equipping new weapons and armor to certain slots, but it wasn’t that bad honestly. It was more the fact that it halted all progression and you fumble through poorly designed menus with no alphabetizing and just sitting there for minutes just to equip something you just picked up. Sadly all weapons and pickups just seemed worthless. I never used a potion or health item, they just sat in my inventory taking up space.

Which brings me to another point. The game was just too easy for the most part. After the first 45 mins or so, you become pretty powerful and are able to defeat most enemies before they even have the chance to attack you. Which just leaves you to explore the castle and uncover the map. Exploring the castle and seeing all the different rooms and environments was my favorite part of the game. So many diverse and interesting places. Either something like the catacombs, or the clock rooms or even the upper towers. The game is just dripping with atmosphere, and the music just improves the overall sense of being in a haunted castle of the famous Dracula.

What killed the enthusiasm for me though was the endless backtracking going between the same rooms over and over and over and over again. Especially when trying to uncover the entire map. It just became way too tedious and I would discourage anyone from doing it that way in their first playthrough. You just burn out on the game with way too much filler. Especially since the game really isn’t “over” because you have to go through the infamous “Upside Down Castle” as well to actually beat the game for real.

I was bummed since I beat Richter and got the credits the first time through. I thought it was odd that I didn’t actually fight Dracula as Alucard, but I didn’t think about it and moved on. Then I found out you have to get a special item, and equip it during the fight to see an invisible floating ball and hit that instead, breaking the spell over Richter and unlocking the Inverted Castle. Once in the Inverted Castle, you go through the whole game again, just this time the level is flipped upside down! So now you have to do the same thing again for a second time, and go through the same rooms a dozen times in some cases.

There are warp rooms that will transport you across the map, but there are like 5 of them and they are way too spaced out. It becomes a chore to even get to them. What I did like was in the inverted castle, Konami didn’t cheap out and just put all the same bad guys in there, they actually have all new bad guys in their places, which did breathe some new life into the levels.

These new bad guys also ramped up the difficulty a lot as well. Dealing with new enemies with new attack patterns and dealing much more damage really did make the game feel fresh and new…. Until I found the weapon combo that broke the game.

One you find and equip both the Shield Rod and Alucard shield and do the shield powerup, you become invincible. Literally invincible. Just tapping the shield button will bring out the shield and allow you to walk into an enemy and deal max damage. The game becomes a cakewalk and all difficulty and challenge basically gets thrown out the window. It’s in the game, so it isn’t cheating, but it felt super cheap. There are various rooms, like the clock gear tower where it's so unbelievably cheap with enemies and knock back and medusa heads that turn you into stone it's just a chore to get through, but all bosses and normal enemies can be killed within a split second. Which bummed me out. Dracula should be a hard boss. Someone who should take multiple times to defeat. But with the Shield, it took around 3 seconds of holding the shield button and just standing in place.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a great game. It has some glaring issues, but it is a game I am glad I finally played and know about. Seeing the origins of  “MetroidVania '' and what games like that really are does help me in my understanding of the genre a bit more. My advice for someone coming to the game for the first time would be to not try and uncover the map fully and do a full 100% completionist run of it. You will burn yourself out mindlessly exploring most of the castle, revisiting rooms countless times. I’d suggest trying to play at your own pace and not worry about every single item or powerup. If you see the credits, any way you choose, you have beaten the game. If you want to go above and beyond that, save it for another time. Come back to it weeks or months later so you don’t feel burned out on the castle and it feels a bit more fresh.