Level Up: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
If I’ve learned anything from my days in Last Chance to Reason it’s that gamers and metalheads run in the same pack. Between Smash Bros-centered after-parties, Skyrim-obsessed tour mates, and our own video game/music experiments, the connection is clear. Young, black t-shirt-wearing males like their Mass Effect with a dash of Megadeth. So when MetalSucks said they were after someone to add a video games column to the site, I jump at the opportunity like a plumber on a mushroom.
In this column I’ll be highlighting the games of yesteryear and what makes them innovative, influential, or otherwise superior to the sixty-dollar tech-demos that get passed-off as video games today. In this first blog, I’m tackling 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Playstation.
Now considered a classic, SOTN was largely overlooked on release. Sony had just made their foray into gaming with the Playstation, and their agenda was to make their system “cool.” Out with cartoon mascots and in with… polygonal dominatrixes? Sony took care to support 3D games, but side-scrollers, being perceived as archaic, fell by the wayside. You needed polygons to jive with Sony’s awkward attempts to make gaming “mature.”
Although Castlevania had success on 8 and 16-bit systems, the 2D nature of SOTN means that it was screwed from the get-go. It gained critical acclaim in Japan but received little funding for its U.S. release. Ignored upon launch, it only gained a cult following over time. So how did this game become a favorite to so many gamers?
SOTN diverges from the series past. Gone are the slow, bulky, whip-wielding vampire hunters of the Belmont clan and the linear stages with clear boundaries. Players now take control of the nimble son of Dracula (aptly named Alucard) and explore an open castle. SOTN lifts its map system straight from Super Metroid; instead of clear-cut stages, it’s one massive castle which is tackled from a variety of angles. When running into a dead end, a door sealed by magic or a ledge too high to reach, you can rest assured that the obstacle will soon be cleared with the help of power-ups.
The variety of ways to make Alucard a badass is mind-boggling. There’s a vast array of armor, swords and magic spells, each with their own specific stats and special characteristics. Like getting XP and gaining levels? That’s in there too. You can even transform into a purple wolf. I’ve put an embarrassing amount of time into this game over the years, but each play-through surprises me with an item I’ve never seen before.
The most legendary secret of SOTN is the inverted castle. You can blow through the shortest route of the game in a few hours, but you’ll get a crappy/confusing ending. However, if the player explores every nook and cranny they’re rewarded with the coveted “holy glasses.” Shades with the power of the Lord! These allow you to see that the warlock, Shaft (yes, Shaft) is trying to resurrect Dracula and opens an inverted castle full of unseen enemies, bosses, weapons and powers. This surprise is comparable to the second quest in the original Legend of Zelda. Effectively, it doubles the length of the game.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night proves that gaming trends come and go, but a great game ultimately shines through. Released at a time when 2D games were a faux pas, it gained a cult following and holds up to this day. SOTN didn’t just redefine Castlevania, it helped to establish a full-fledged genre. “Metroidvanias,” as they’ve been dubbed, have never been more popular. Games like Outland, Shadow Complex, and Cave Story carry the flag with pride.
If you’ve never played SOTN you have plenty of options now. Tracking down a copy on eBay is easy and it’s also available for download on both PSN and Xbox Live arcade.