Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was originally released in 1997 for the PlayStation. It is not the first Castlevania with exploration and RPG elements, but it is the one for which the term “Metroidvania” was coined for. The game uses the Castlevania lore and characters, but is structured more like Super Metroid than the previous games. It has a huge interconnected world, a very Super Metroid-like map, save rooms, and abilities that help you reach new areas. It incorporates Zelda-like environmental puzzles, and it has RPG elements, like leveling, stats, and loot. It was a pretty big departure from the action platforming gameplay the series was known for, and even from what Castlevania II: Simon's Quest did on the NES.
Regardless of what the opening sequence suggests, SOTN is not a sequel to Castlevania: Bloodlines. SOTN is a direct sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, and takes place about 4 years after it. Following the final battle with Dracula, Richter was left weakened and was inflicted with Shaft’s curse. Over those 4 years, the curse allowed Shaft to take control of Richter, and bring him to the castle. After Richter went missing, his sister in-law, Maria Renard, goes looking for him in the castle. Alucard then awakens from the supposedly eternal slumber he went into after the events of Castlevania III, and storms his father's castle to stop Shaft from resurrecting Dracula once again.
Having played Rondo of Blood a few months ago, the first thing that struck me about SOTN was how different Alucard feels from Richter. The Belmont's always walked slowly, and had weighty jumps with very little air control. Alucard almost glides across the floor, and can even turn and change directions in mid-air. And while the Belmonts used the Vampire Killer whip, Alucard uses a large arsenal of swords, staves, and shields, which he can swing much faster than any Belmont could whip. He can also equip capes, armor, and trinkets, which give him different stats and special effects, like faster regenerating MP. Overall, Alucard is a lot easier, more responsive, and more intuitive to control than the Belmonts.
While in the Metroid games Samus had a large assortment of bombs, missiles, and abilities that opened doors, or allowed her to reach new areas, Alucard uses key items and 4 main abilities to get around. One of these abilities is the double jump. Alucard can also take the form of a bat, wolf, or mist. The mist allows you to pass through gates, the bat allows you to fly wherever you want, and the wolf allows you to dash and jump farther than you can as Alucard. Eventually, you get so many upgrades for these forms that you can get away with only using the mist, because it can fly anywhere, and even damages enemies. I actually didn’t even use the wolf form during this playthrough, since I got the double jump before I got a chance to.
SOTN also has Zelda-like environmental puzzles and obstacles. There’s some box and switch pushing, and some more clever ones, like one that requires you to lure an enemy across the zone, so that it can break something blocking your way. They’re just cool little obstacles that make sense within the world and logic of Castlevania.
Even though this version of the castle is mostly new, it is full of familiar places from previous games. The entrance, Clocktower, and Dracula’s throne room are almost exactly the same as they were in Rondo of Blood. You can even match some of it up with how the NES Castlevania’s stages are ordered. The actual design of the castle is still one of the best out of all the Castlevanias in this style. It feels like a real place, because the layout makes sense. It’s not just copying the way Metroid does it.
One of my favorite things SOTN introduced is the familiars. Familiars are small AI controlled pets that follow you around. There’s a ghost, sword, bat, fairy, and a demon. These familiars will level up from the experience you gain, and can use some familiar only weapons. The bat will follow you around and attack. It will also call another bat when you turn into a bat, for a sort of gothic homage to Gradius. The fairy will replenish some of your HP, heal your status effects, and even revive you when you die sometimes. This is one idea I always wanted Metroid to steal. We’ve seen a little bit of it, but I want it to be a main part of Samus’ character. It would make perfect sense for Samus to have a Metroid familiar in Metroid 5.
Most classic special weapons, like the axe, holy water, and knife are back. Some with new effects, like the cross, which has the item crash effect from Rondo of Blood, but doesn’t have the boomerang attack anymore. There’s also a few new ones, like the Vibhuti, which works like caltrops. In addition to the special weapons, you’ll also find a bunch of one use special items. You can equip these items like you would a weapon or a shield, and attack enemies similarly to how you use the special weapons. Since these weapons are gone after one use, and you have to go into the inventory screen to equip them, they’re really not very useful. The health recovery items are even more convenient to use, since you have to equip them, and then you throw them on the ground when you press the button, and have to walk over them to get the benefit.
I played the PS Classics version on a PS3 for this review, and while I can appreciate the 2D art, it was made at a very low resolution, and doesn’t look great on a big HD TV. This was the best looking Castlevania at the time, though. The backgrounds are all unique to each area, and are full of little details. You can actually sit in every chair in the background. Why? Because it’s cool! The game is full of little things that don’t affect the gameplay in any way, but add a lot to the atmosphere. There’s a ton of enemies, every boss from the first Castlevania is redone, and every item has a sprite for it. They could have just made a wall turkey sprite and called it a day, but no! Every mushroom, ramen, and pot roast has a unique sprite.
This game has my favorite Castlevania soundtrack of all time. It is one of the best soundtracks of all time period. It has an amazing new remix of “Vampire Killer”, awesome heavy metal tracks, like ”Prologue”, and tons of moody, and haunting tunes, like “Lost Paintings”. My favorite is the rock flamenco tune that plays in the colosseum, “Wandering Ghosts”.
Symphony of the Night is a true classic, and probably more influential than people give it credit for. Metroid usually gets all the glory. It marked the end of the Classicvania era, and the beginning of the Igavania era. It has a good story, great level design, one of the best soundtracks of all time, and some of the best graphics in the series. I wish it would get some kind of remaster or remake, because it deserves better than to be stuck on old systems.