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16 May 2016 @ 06:35 pm
Game Review: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night  
What does one write about perfection?

Symphony of the Night is the game I've beaten the second-most times, just behind Chrono Trigger (which I'm sure I'll get around to writing about one of these days). I still remember the first time I beat it, in uriany's basement as we boggled at the choice of I Am the Wind as an ending theme. The gameplay leading up to it, I remember mostly in snatches. Farming for a Crissaegrim in the inverted library. Discovering that some weapons had special abilities you could activate using fighting-game-style button inputs. The way I was better at casting Soul Steal when it counted. Trying to do the tricks we had heard were possible--skipping Death at the beginning and keeping your equipment or dashing right at the beginning to end up outside the castle. They're both possible, but we never managed to do either of them.

Symphony of the Night is my favorite platformer ever. It doesn't have the purity of Super Metroid, and definitely not that of Super Mario Brothers, but it has plenty of madcap possibilities and it's those that make me love it. It's relatively easy to shatter the game's balance completely and end up either invincible or the next best thing, but that's the price of freedom.


man /man/ noun 1. A miserable little pile of secrets.

It's kind of amazing that Symphony of the Night--悪魔城ドラキュラX 月下の夜想曲, "Demon Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight" in Japanese, which I actually like better as a title--ever got made in the first place. During the time of the playstation, 3D graphics became all the rage and the market was flooded with banal trash with a 10 meter draw distance, a color palette drawn from the pavement outside the studio office, and character models that looked like a bag of doritos was dumped out into a pot of glue and the resulting mixture imported into the game. Here's a good example, courtesy of Continue?. A 2D game like Symphony of the Night was a hard sell to the suits, gorgeous pixel art or not, and even if most of it was reused from Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.

Speaking of which, the game itself lies to you. The intro sequence says it's from Castlevania: Bloodlines, because Rondo of Blood didn't come out in the West until Dracula X Chronicles in 2007. Anyone who had played Bloodlines would have known that Symphony of the Night had no connection to it, but we hadn't played Bloodlines. Before I played Symphony of the Night, the only Castlevania games I had ever played were Dracula's Curse and Simon's Quest. And, uh, those are still the only Castlevania games I've played. I never owned a GameBoy and our DS games are mostly Square RPGs.


Alucard versus the Jewish angel thing

The metroidvania gameplay of Symphony of the Night is amazing by itself, but the reason I like it better than Super Metroid is the sheer amount of care the design team obviously put into it. There are enemies that appear only a few times and have some of the most interesting items, like the single dodo bird that drops the Rune Sword that spells out VERBOTEN when you throw it, or the Paranthropoi that drop the Ring of Varda. There's an enormous amount of food, almost all of which is made obsolete by the Faerie familiar and the Soul Steal spell, and the way that peanuts are labeled "difficult to eat" and Alucard has to catch them in his mouth to restore his health with them. The Power of Sire flashes the most famous portrait of Vlad Țepeș on the screen briefly when you use it. The enormous variety of death animations--enemies burst into flames, vanish into the void, explode in gouts of blood, fall apart into piles of bones, spew sparkles everywhere...nothing has a mundane death. The holy symbol that prevents Alucard from taking damage underwater is clearly a snorkel. If you wait long enough, the Faerie familiar will fall asleep on Alucard's shoulder. Boomerang skeletons cower in fear if Alucard gets close enough, something I just discovered this playthrough. Even playing this game a dozen times, I'm still finding new things.

You can see a list of some of the best inclusions here.

When I was younger, I wondered at all the random Tolkien references scattered through Symphony of the Night that have somehow survived it being reissued multiple times. It turns out that most of them were just added in translation--the above-mentioned Ring of Varda is the "Skull Ring" in Japanese--but not all of them. The Dark Blade is called "Glamdring" in Japanese, and the Crissaegrim, one of the strangest Tolkien references (to the ring of mountains around Gondolin), shows that the Japanese designers knew what they were doing. In Japanese, it's called the Valmanway, which supposedly means "Blessed Wind." And that's not inaccurate--the name comes from the Quenya Val Manwë, "Power of Manwë," the Vala Lord of the Air and patron of the eagles. Who said reading The Silmarillion was a waste of time?


I was so happy the first time I saw this.

I guess I should address the story.

I kind of wish I had come to the game alone, because I suspect that if I had, discovering the inverted castle would have ranked up there with finding out that the Floating Continent wasn't the end of Final Fantasy VI or that you are Revan in Knights of the Old Republic. You can find Richter and kill him in a couple hours, but that's the bad ending. If I had done that, then more diligently explored and gotten that cutscene of the castle in the clouds...well. Playstation CGI or not, I would have been amazed.

The actual plot is pretty basic, with only the way that Richter Belmont seems to running things as the twist. Otherwise, it's just Dracula rising again and needing to be put down. Despite that, I love all the fanservice put in for people who played previous games, too. At one point, you fight clones of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades, and Grant Danasty. The items you need to open the way to Dracula are the body parts from Simon's Quest. And the plot is directly continued from Rondo of Blood, which I haven't played before, but I really should.

I've said before that voice acting ruined RPGs, but despite having RPG elements, Symphony of the Night isn't an RPG. And while the voice acting is pretty awful, the original inspiration for Castlevania was Universal horror movies. The voice actor playing Dracula seems to be having a great time, and the voice actress for Maria pronounces Richter with a bit of Germanic fricative, so I give them points for that. Even if Alucard seems to be sleepwalking through the game--not helped by his unexpressive portrait--and most of the bit characters are of the "someone from accounting" school of voice acting.

Though I do have to admit that hearing the line "I am the dark priest called Shaft" coming from the television marks one of the greatest moments in my entire history of playing video games.


In the name of the moon!

As I mentioned above, the sheer number of possibilities means that it's pretty easy to break the game and it stops being challenging maybe a third of the way through. After an initial hurdle when Death steals Alucard's equipment, gaining a few levels puts Alucard at least on the level with most of the monsters he fights. There are enough save points that death nevers set you too far back as long as you're willing to duck into them when you find them, and once Alcuard gets 50 MP and Soul Steal is unlocked you can heal whenever you want. Some of the guaranteed items like the holy rod and the moon rod have fantastic special attacks that will carry you through most of the game. The inverted castle starts off harder again, but there's so much overpowered gear, especially with a couple lucky drops, that pretty soon almost all the enemies there are doing single-digit damage and Alucard is ripping them to shreds. Especially if you find a Crissaegrim. Or even better: dual Crissaegrims.

The other problem is that Symphony of the Night hurls an enormous variety of consumables at you, but it's just stingy enough and they're just underpowered enough that the vast majority of them are useless. In the time it takes to open the inventory, unequip one of Alucard's hands, put a bomb or a magic missile or something else there, close the inventory, use the item, open the inventory, select a new item, oops, in that time I've already cast Soul Steal twice and done more damage to everything on the screen that healed me. Unless it's food, in which case Alucard throws it on the ground, then walks over it, and heals maybe 20 HP. That's not bad in the first hour of the game and totally worthless afterward.

So what I'm saying is that Soul Steal bends everything else around it and probably shouldn't be in the game.


Your sins are great, my son.

Symphony of the Night barely has any balance worthy of the name. This playthrough I used the luck code, which starts Alucard off with 99 luck and lowered other stats. It made the beginning of the game harder and the end of the game about the same, and while I might have gotten a few more consumables here and there, I never use consumables anyway so it didn't matter. I didn't bother farming for anything this playthrough, actually, other than taking five minutes to kill the single dodo bird for two Rune Swords. The vast majority of my inventory sat there unused.

But none of that matters, because the game is a blast to play. After I was finished with Mass Effect III, I told myself that I wanted a game where every moment was a joy to play, and Symphony of the Night is absolutely that game. Whether uncovering the map with bat or mist form, using Castlevania's subweapons to kill bosses in a shower of holy water, ↓↘→+X on a sword to use its special attack and see what it did, listening to the amazing soundtrack, or literally any other part of the game, I don't think there was ever a time when it wasn't fun. The fact that it's badly balanced, easily broken, has a bad difficulty curve, and is mechnically all over the place doesn't matter. It's always sheer joy to play, all the time.

Even in the past when uriany and I ground for hours for rare items, none of it was necessary. We just did it to beat Dracula in increasingly silly and esoteric ways. We killed him with the Red Rust, the worst weapon in the game. We punched him to death. We killed him entirely with the Agunea lightning-blast subweapon. We hung around in mist form and let the sword familiar kill him. We made our own fun after beating the game repeatedly, but this time I just went straight through the game, went to Dracula almost as soon as I could, and won. The basic gameplay is amazing and there is nothing you need to do that takes away from that.


Zap.

One of my favorite Retronauts quotes ever is when they were talking about Lords of Shadow II, and one of them said, "I liked Castlevania when it was pretty anime boys fighting laser skeletons." That's just about the only Castlevania I've played, but I agree with their sentiment. This is the best that Castlevania has ever been, and considering what Konami is doing with Castlevania now, probably the best it will ever be. The sheer variety of enemies, items, character abilities, environments music...it's a masterpiece in every respect, and pretty much every time I play a Metroidvania, Symphony of the Night is what I compare it to. They always come away wanting.

But I keep looking at new Metroidvanias because I'm hoping something can live up to the magic. Axiom Verge. Chasm. Heart Forth, Alicia. Odallus: the Dark Call. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. Hell, even Super Metroid. The closest game I've found that combines fun abilities, interesting enemies, beautiful art, and a fantastic soundtrack is probably Aquaria (and I really need to replay that and write a review so I can tell you all how amazing it is), but it still can't quite unseat the Symphony of the Night in my heart. I'm not sure anything ever will.
 
 
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Ben: stagdrydem on May 17th, 2016 12:09 am (UTC)
Did you ever get the Duplicator and play around with all the weird consumable weapons?
dorchadasdorchadas on May 19th, 2016 03:14 pm (UTC)
I feel like we eventually did, but that we came to the same conclusion I did above--most of the consumables just aren't worth using even if you do have an infinite number of them because Soul Steal is so good.