Lead artwork and all screenshots courtesy of Konami/Sony.
In March 1997, video games were already offering three-dimensional experiences. On the shelves were Tomb Raider, WipeOut, Super Mario 64, Resident Evil, Crash Bandicoot, Bubsy 3D and more—some certifiable classics, others significantly less so. So when Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night debuted that month in Japan, as a pixel-art side-scrolling platform adventure, it looked a little, well, old. At least to the eyes of babes.
And, also, the eyes of those distracted, magpie-like, by shiny new things. It was too easy to be wowed by polygons, before game developers were truly making them sing. Too easy to want to only run into the environment rather than along an edge of it, to struggle with camera angles because this, this was the future. And, sure, it was—and remains so. Tomb Raider changed so much about how we viewed our in-game selves. But there was still beauty in pixels, and Symphony of the Night's embracing of that, looking at it from the perspective of 20 years later? Woof. Hubba. And so on. This was, and remains, one good-looking game.
Not that I played it, back then. Or at all, until this very month, when Symphony of the Night celebrates its 20 th anniversary. More, fool, me, as it's excellent—as I soon enough discovered. But I wasn't alone, it turned out—Steve Burns, former deputy editor at Videogamer.com and these days making video content as part of Special Gun (and a previous podcast guest), had also never dipped a bloody toe into this more than highly regarded adventure.
So, we both did, after I asked him nicely, and compared notes over email.
First things first: Why haven't you played Symphony of the Night, before now? I'm going to guess you had the means to, around its original 1997 release. What put you off?
Me, I never had an original PlayStation, and by the time I had a backwards-compatible PS2, the game was already commanding some seriously eye-watering second-hand prices. It'd grown into that "classic" status that it has today, and the cost of entry reflected that.
But last year, around Halloween, I saw it on PSN for, I think, £1.99. A spooky promotion, no doubt. So I bought it, and waited. And waited. And forgot all about it. Until now! Better late than never, as it turns out, as I'm really enjoying it.
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I never played SotN at the time of its release because, well, it looked naff. (We used "naff" then, honest.) It doesn't now, of course. With the benefit of not being 13 years old, as I was in 1997, it's become clear that this is a beautiful-looking game.
But it's important to remember that, at that time, we were living through perhaps the most marked shift in video game graphics seen before, or since.
The jump to 3D—even though a fair number of those early games look utterly shite these days—was both revolutionary and intoxicating. We were obsessed with what it promised: Bigger, deeper, more graphically rich and complex worlds. SotN represented the old. The apex of the old, certainly, but old all the same.
The irony, of course, is that a lot of 3D games were puddle-deep. I got Lone Soldier with my PlayStation, for example, which was a crime against both nature and humanity so grave that I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the Yesterday channel after, or perhaps even during, The World At War. SotN, on the other hand, is not.
But it never occurred to me, before now, before you asked me, to actually play it. I'd not paid too much attention to Castlevania in general before, and SotN was interesting to me more for what it represented, than what it actually was. It was one of the first big games to get a real, proper reevaluation of its merits, once 3D mania had subsided—which was great given this is an industry that often can't wait to forget its past.
But I still felt I'd had my fill of SotN, in a way, even without playing it. It was a curio, albeit a supposedly magnificent one, like the last great silent film released just as the talkies were taking over. Or something like that.
I can relate to that feeling of, "I've done this already". I'd seen Super Metroid, as my brothers had a SNES, and I'd played older Castlevania games way back when. The idea of returning to an ancient-in-gaming-years so-called "metroidvania" wasn't doing much for me.
But then, SotN isn't quite that simple. It's not especially Metroid-ish. There's backtracking, I suppose, when you want it; but it doesn't feel like an ingrained aspect of the game's design, which prioritizes forward momentum.
There are all of its RPG elements to consider, too. All the gear to switch in and out; the stats that rise and fall, and can be altered by your performance in the game's can't-fail prologue. And then there's the fact that the game simply doesn't explain itself like modern ones tend to—there is so, so little in the way of hand-holding. You rarely know what the effect of an item, a switch, a weapon will be until you use it—and that can be both with fantastic results, and terrible ones.
The time-poor me hates the game's devilish nonchalance with opening itself up. How there's no prompts to do, well, anything. The first couple of times I started it, I never realized what room was a save point, because there's no pop-up, no command window that says: here you can save your game, and you do it like this. I just ended up pressing all the buttons until something clicked, and the coffin appeared.
But this also is wonderful, in the sense that the game's designers, Koji Igarsahi and Toru Hagihara, aren't taking its players for fools. You work this out. You have the tools; now find the right way to use them. Granted, back in the day you'd have had a manual to refer to—but as someone raised on "cracked" Amiga games, working out the controls for myself has been quite the nostalgic process.
How are you finding the game, anyway? I've found it tough in places, but fairly so. I leveled myself, Alucard, up a little at the start by smashing a bunch of mermen up—the internet told me that was a good way to get my stats up, before Death arrives and strips you of all your cool gear. I've beaten a few bosses. But almost every enemy you meet has the potential to do you some real damage, even those small, hopping hunchback things that look like nothing but uh stop knocking me backwards. But each one is in the same place every time, on every respawn, and follows distinct patterns, making even the biggest beatable. Eventually.
I really like the controls, too—the basics, the jump and the slide backwards, the dodge I guess, just feel so good (I'm playing on Vita, so others' mileage may differ). There's a believable weight to Alucard, to how he runs, lurches, ducks; even though he's a (quasi?) supernatural being. Nothing feels exaggerated, which is quite something given the themes of the game.
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Checking out a proclaimed work of any form is always fraught with problems, especially if you've already heard or read so much about it. If the work itself is massively influential, which we're told SotN is, it risks becoming almost a parody of itself. Its great ideas have been nicked and bettered elsewhere; it's been robbed of the perceptual advantages of its own release.
But SotN neatly sidesteps all of this, most comparisons to what's come out in its wake of a similar aesthetic, by being absolutely fucking wonderful to play.
The precision of movement and action is in evidence from the first second, and Alucard's shadow-backstep—such a simple thing in theory—is a joy throughout. I've been playing on Vita too, for what it's worth. I've not found it particularly difficult, or unfair: I've stumbled into boss areas and been killed, but that's on me I reckon.
As for the game's general obfuscation of its mechanics, systems, controls, I merely take that as a sign of the times.
One of my favorite things about SotN is its opening, where you play the (slightly altered) last moments of its predecessor, Rondo of Blood. It's a delightful touch: in such a heavily sequelized industry, it establishes a tiny bit of context and continuity for those fresh to it. These days there would be a four-hour tutorial telling players how to jump, so I'm fine with SotN being a little difficult to read.
Has playing SotN changed how you think about Castlevania's own switch to 3D, at all? I mean, I liked Lords of Shadow a whole bunch but, something just feels right about this being a 2D experience, doesn't it? I don't know. That's possibly old-man nostalgia talking.
I do feel more likely to check out Igarashi's, I suppose, spiritual successor to SotN, now. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night made $5.5 million on Kickstarter, and having spent a few hours with SotN (my castle is still "the right way" up), I can understand why people have been so keen to throw their money at him for more of this, but made with modern hardware.
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When I think about 3D 'Vanias, the first one my mind runs to is, of course, Castlevania 64. (Remember that? I know you do, you're old, like me.) There was a significant amount of hype around it, given that it was an N64 exclusive with polygons and all that. What could be better than Castlevania? A Castlevania where you run into the screen, baby. And then it came out and it was either OK or terrible, depending on who you're asking.
The irony is that by that game's release, in 1999, it had become apparent that not everything was best served by the brave new world of 3D. I would argue that there's probably a fair group of people that looked back at SotN through the prism of Castlevania 64, and its own prequel-orientated expansion Legacy of Darkness and, perspectives adjusted, realized what an achievement the 1997 game was. Especially if you compared the box art. My word.
I know what you mean about the series feeling "right" in 2D: whenever I think Castlevania, invariably it's one of the side-on titles that pops into my head. I only played a limited amount of the first Lords of Shadow, but I reviewed the second and thought it was all over the place. As for Bloodstained: sure, why not? You'll have to send me a Switch, though.
Oh, one more thing: the music in SotN is so good that I reckon Konami could have promoted the game better by just giving everyone interested in it a copy of the soundtrack rather than sending out screenshots to magazines.
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