Iain Plays
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Review: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Historic Schooling #

The year was 1998 and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN) was my first Castlevania and Metroid-like experience. It came to me unprompted. A school-friend ponied it up after his kid-sister scratched up another PlayStation game I had loaned him. (I cannot for the life of me remember now the game I loaned him.)

At school, there were three-inch by three-inch square posts embedded into the wood-working class tables. With your hand, you could push them up from underneath for comedic effect. This school friend was quite cherubic and kind-hearted, the son of two accountants. He was however so named by these aspirational parents, that I made the connection with his double-barrelled name and the rising table wood. In a stroke of pubescent wit, he was for a week or so after known to me as “Erec-tion”.

SOTN came into my life shortly after I lost my Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) virginity to Final Fantasy VII (what a good year). I was straying down the cherry-blossomed path to Weebdom, concreted with the concepts of hit points; magic points; levelling up to increase your vital statistics; finding and equipping stronger weapons, armour and accessories.

What are you looking at? #

As an aesthete, I appreciated the beautiful artwork on the double-decker jewel CD case. Painted in the classical style I am now familiar with across the Final Fantasy titles. Within the casing, the game CD and instruction book lay at the front section, and a separate audio CD and artbook in the back section. I could barely hide my enthusiasm upon receiving this boon.

On booting up, I poured over the gothic lettering and haunting choir background music. First impressions were sky-high. Excuse me if the sequencing that follows is incorrect, but I recall the era-appropriate voice-acting (quite awful) and rolling text intro beginning the game, punctuated by a chunk of full-motion video, including an only partially textured castle (thankfully, the attention to detail in the actual game was not subject to such sacrifice).

Fight Evil #

Now we dive into the player’s avatar, Richter Belmont, with a whip/mace weapon. Up some stairs, some corny but now memorable lines etched into my memory between the vampire Dracula and Richter the vampire killer, escalating to a broken wine glass then a fight with Dracula. Defeated, he morphs into a horrible beast about three times our height. We beat this form and then it’s game over?

No, it’s a prologue; and interestingly also a straight rip of the last level of the previous Castlevania title which wasn’t readily available to the majority of the great unwashed, Rondo of Blood.

Actually, it Begins Here #

Cut to a fast-panning forest with parallax swooshing layers, and the fast and svelte, pallid, cape-wearing Alucard, weightlessly marching at the speed of a cheetah, hopping over the castle drawbridge and into the grounds, slashing away zombies and elephant-sized wolf creatures with one slice each.

Within minutes, we encounter Death personified, “Death”, who chastises us for coming after the new incarnation of Dracula and strips of us all our incredibly powerful equipment, leaving us with our weak and short-reaching fists to battle the hordes of evil with.

Still with graceful motion and gravity-resisting jumps, we ascend a castle turret in a series of diagonal jumps and encounter our first hench-creature in our bare state. This skeleton drops a rusty short sword which we equip for a slightly better attack reach, but still most enemies will take many hits and dodges to extinguish.

Embodiment of Grace and Splendour #

It’s hard for me to stress just how perfect the movement feels. The connection between player, controller and character in this game is ethereal. In marching, attacking, jumping, and dashing backwards to avoid a skeleton’s swipe or the lunging thrust from a hulking armoured guard, it is an immense and tireless pleasure to glide through.

Accompanying the core mechanics of elegant physicality and JRPG progression is a huge, loot-filled castle to explore, with some areas inaccessible until we’ve picked up the various orbs that allow transformation into bat, wolf or mist. For example, an early purchase from the librarian [game shop and monster index] unlocks sealed blue doors.

The sprite art and animations are masterful and cohesive with the backgrounds. Monsters feel like they have mass appropriate to their size and speed, with predictable attack animations to learn and conquer. There is such a variety of unique foes throughout the game, with each of the many castle areas having a unique cast or theme.

How to Achieve Ecstasy #

Adding to the visual and mechanical feast of exploration is a soundtrack that is so good, at times the hairs on the back of your neck will tingle in ecstasy. Memorable phrases and melodies are enhanced by orchestral scoring, guitars and brass, with excellent atmospheric synthesisers in glorious abundance.

Pleasantly, there are very few cutscenes throughout the whole game, and they’re all in-engine and lasting a minute or less. These come at key points, e.g., Death stripping away our weapons, or Maria alluding to the possibility of different endings, gently enticing us to explore every nook and cranny of the castle and its dungeons. I like that there is very little lore and story, as I feel these would prove an unnecessary distraction to the environments and exploration.

You Are so Lucky #

I envy anyone who has yet to play this game as it excels as one of the best examples of interactive art and design ever produced, and as a game, it will remain a timeless classic forever more.

I hope this has whetted your appetite or sparked some nostalgic nerve cords. For further consumption, here’s a link to a two hour long playthrough (not complete of course) of the game with it’s now legendary designer Koji Igarashi, which is filled with wonderful behind the scenes commentary.

Let us go out this evening for pleasure. The night is still young.