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Revisiting Konami's Goth-Horror Classic
BILL WOOD | JANUARY 6, 2022
March 2022 will mark the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest video games of all-time. And while the term “greatest” is usually subjective, it is by a wide consensus that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night actually earns its distinction. Originally released in the early era of 32-bit gaming by Konami Entertainment for the PlayStation and Saturn consoles, the game was lauded by critics but sold poorly. The 16-bit pixel aesthetic and 2-D side-scrolling mechanics — both of which have since garnered respect and admiration — made the title feel like a relic for gamers, many of whom were mesmerized by the shiny three-dimensional luster of Ridge Racer and Tekken. Since that time, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has received its just rewards, going on to sell millions of copies on nearly every platform available for gaming, including PC, console and mobile. Along with Nintendo’s brilliant Super Metroid, it is responsible for coining the term “Metroidvania,” which describes the influential and distinct style of game design. Symphony has inspired dozens of similar titles such as Guacamelee, Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge, and it goes without saying that no "Best Ever" video game list is complete without it.
You can find any number of articles praising Symphony through a journalist's retrospective lens, but this is not such an article. Instead, this is one gamer's reflection on this landmark title when it was originally released way back in 1997. Even then, Symphony felt like something special, definitely out of the norm. Hopefully I can adequately convey the excitement around the game near its original release date, what it meant to me and what it has meant for video games since.
My personal experience with importing video games started in 1990 with the occult pinball title Devil's Crush on the Sega Genesis. I distinctly remember clipping the ends off of the Japanese cartridge to get it to fit into the cartridge slot! Soon after came the runaway success of Street Fighter II and the influx of Japanese fighting games on the Super Nintendo. I bought my share of import fighters as well. By 1997, I was totally absorbed with the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation import scene, as well as Japanese pop culture in general. Anime and manga were becoming increasingly mainstream, and therefore more accessible to American fans. Magazines such as Diehard Gamefan provided extensive reviews for overseas games, even though it seemed as though we'd never get the chance to play many of them here in the States. Gaming consoles of that era were territory-locked, meaning that popping that fresh King of Fighters import into your PlayStation would yield nothing but an error screen. Fortunately, savvy gamers figured out how to hotwire their 32-bit consoles with a mod chip that bypassed the territorial lockout. As a result, hundreds of cutting-edge Japanese titles instantly became available to hardcore enthusiasts. (Coincidentally, this same mod chip resulted in unprecedented levels of game piracy as it bypassed Sony’s software authentication protocols altogether.)
A friend at the local mom n’pop game store (Hi-Tech Game Center!) modded my console and hooked me up with a boatload of stellar Japanese bootlegs, including an innovative Squaresoft/Akira Toriyama fighter called Tobal 2 and an early import copy of the latest Castlevania game, Akumajo Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight (original Japanese title, translated to Symphony of the Night in the States), which was released roughly seven months before its American counterpart. Truth be told, I was really looking forward to Tobal 2, which never did make it Stateside due to poor sales of the original, but later flourished on the ROM scene with added English fan translations. My game store friend said Symphony was an “old-looking game” but it was heavily praised by Japanese fans and critics. I actually wasn't too hyped about a new Castlevania, but I figured it was probably worth the $25 he was asking. That disc now rests eternally in my garage.
As with most imports of the time, Symphony had no option for English text, but in this case it wasn't really necessary. The Internet was growing in popularity, and fan-based translations and walkthroughs for popular import games were beginning to surface online. All one needed was a decent search engine and a lot of copier paper. I was already familiar with the Castlevania series, having played through Simon’s Quest on the NES and Super Castlevania IV on the SNES. Those games were brilliant, but they were also products of an earlier generation, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to relive the Castlevania experience when Tomb Raider and Resident Evil were knocking at the door! After popping this newest disc into my console, I quickly changed my perspective and understood what all of the fuss was about.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the 16-bit approach, Symphony looked stunning. It definitely had a last-gen look and feel, but the 32-bit power of the PlayStation produced a quality that was simply not possible on the SNES and Genesis; bigger sprites, intricately-detailed animations, deeper, richer textures, transparency (along with some unfortunate loading times, which did not exist in the cartridge era). Seeing the main character Alucard in his classic running animation for the very first time was truly awesome! The compact disc format allowed for more data storage, therefore a bigger game. Alucard's journey through Castle Dracula took him through magnificent porticos, massive libraries and spiraling clock towers, discovering dark secrets and untold horrors hidden deep within the castle walls along the way. The CD also meant that audio artists were no longer confined to compressing chiptunes onto a printed circuit board. As a result, Michuru Yamane's lush soundtrack—a near-perfect hybrid of classical, metal and techno—exploded from the television speaker. To this day, Symphony features one of the best game soundtracks ever recorded.
[PROTIP: The "CD" emblems that adorn the hallways have a double meaning. The first meaning is "Count Dracula," as it is the Count's castle you are traversing (trespassing?). The second meaning is "compact disc," referring to the fact that the game is accessing data from the game CD. Well, at least it was before compact discs became a relic of the past!]
Earlier Castlevania titles could be merciless and unforgiving in their difficulty, but Symphony was different. Whereas previous games rewarded skill and dexterity, Symphony rewarded patience and exploration. By infusing classic RPG elements into the classic side-scroller, Konami gave players the option of making the game easier by leveling up Alucard. As a result, it was one of the earliest games where grinding for stats was actually a rewarding experience! Taking a page directly from the Super Metroid notebook, certain areas of the castle were locked away until Alucard obtained certain abilities; his bat form flew to previously unreachable heights, his mist form drifted through unforgiving metal bars. As a result, revisiting an area that was previously off-limits and opening up a whole new portion of the map proved immensely gratifying.
By 1997, many gamers had retired their SNES and Genesis consoles to attics and second-hand stores in favor of the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. Old-school pixel-platformers were no longer en vogue, but Symphony was an anomaly. It was a 32-bit game that looked and played like the best 16-bit game ever made, with an amazing orchestral soundtrack that could never have been produced on a cartridge. Like many RPGs of its time, the game featured a European classical-gothic visual style with distinctly Japanese overtones. The leveling system was that of a traditional role-playing game, but the gameplay was action-packed. The whole package was stylish and super-cool, as if (producer) Togu Hagihara had decided to ignore the boundaries and preconceptions connected to modern gaming in favor of cranking out the very best title he could possibly create. Around the same time Roger Ebert was making claims that video games couldn't be considered art, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night emerged as a Picasso in its own right.
So how has the game aged after 25 years? Surprisingly well. Various iterations exist nowadays with various translation and presentation options, but they are all essentially the same exact game that was released in 1997. Let's compare Symphony with its PS1 contemporaries. Resident Evil has been remade and remastered several times over to suit modern gaming conventions, but the original feels dated and clunky. Same goes for Final Fantasy VII. Metal Gear Solid is a landmark title without question, but it hasn't aged particularly well. And the less said about the original Tomb Raider, the better. Meanwhile, there are scores of games released every year which proudly boast the Metroidvania style of gameplay. Symphony put the -vania in that description. And just when you think you have the game beaten... well, I won't spoil anything and turn your whole world upside-down.
If you’ve ever had an interest in video games and/or gaming history and haven’t checked out Symphony yet (it is possible, I suppose!), you really owe it to yourself to do so. You can purchase the title on any variety of PC, console, or mobile platforms. Also check out assistant director Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Conceived as a spiritual successor to Symphony, Bloodstained does its vampiric ancestry proud. - BW